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I recently finished a book by Michel Butor called Histoire Extraordinaire; an essay on a dream of Baudelaire. It begins with a dream that Baudelaire recorded at five o’clock in the morning, when it was nice and warm, for his friend Charles Asselineau. (I love the idea of calling a dream nice and warm; it makes me think of a croissant in the morning.) Butor then takes up threads of the dream and with them illuminates much of Baudelaire’s writing, including the translations he did of Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Stories.

While reading the book I was reminded of one of my favorite prose poems by Baudelaire, called Crowds. Baudelaire is surely one of the first, if not the first, to write of the essentially modern, urban experience of solitude in crowds. What struck me this time when I reread the poem was that it echoes the comments of people I’ve interviewed when they have talked about portraits. Here is paragraph three of Crowds:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or some one else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go by looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s character. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The whole idea has a vampire quality to it: I love the image of people, wandering souls, walking past portraits in a museum, only to stop in front of one and feel as if they are entering into the life, if only for a moment, of someone else. I recall Erin’s comment when she was in front of the Mona Lisa: she felt as if she had reached across time and experienced someone else’s life.

Doesn’t this mean that we are all become poets in a certain sense when we enter a museum? Or, do we become image-gobbling vampires? Maybe we become both, for the act of observing a painting is one, an act of consumption and two, an act of creation; we create our own experience with a painting. John Dewey, an experience-vampire if there ever was one, speaks of this moment (act) in these terms:

The esthetic or undergoing phase of experience is receptive. It involves surrender. […] Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have to first plunge into it.

After we plunge into the painting (or suck out its blood), we digest it and this digestion constitutes the creation of a unique experience for every person, poet, or vampire.

Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Here’s paragraph three in the original: Le poëte jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant; et si de certaines places paraissent lui être fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.

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A few months ago, I interviewed a person who touched this painting. That’s right. He put his finger right on it in order to point something out to me. More about this transgressive act later.

Today I watched as the painting handlers (those hardy young men who drill holes in museum walls, pick up paintings worth millions of dollars, and hang them) took down a painting by Bazille and replaced it with one by Monet. If it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this happen numerous times this year I would still believe that fairies hang paintings at night, but the fact is that real people wearing (real) blue gloves take down and put up real paintings, almost in the same way that you did in your college dorm with your poster of Gene Simmons and Kiss (except you probably weren’t wearing blue gloves). Previously, I fantasized about having an Art Institute badge to hang around my neck so I could go in and out of the doors in certain galleries; doors so discreet that one is sometimes startled when they open and someone walks out, but now if I win the Art Institute’s Be Whoever You Want to Be For a Day prize I think I’ll choose paint handler.

What is it about seeing a person handle a painting that causes visitors in a museum to drop what they’re doing and gather around the roped-off area to watch? The most obvious reason could be called the thrill of the touch: we see someone doing what we aren’t allowed to do. The paint handlers are like priests, touching sacred relics in a holy spectacle that we must be contented simply to watch. Or, is it that by coming off the wall and being handled the painting is in fact desacralized for a moment? Physically, a painting is not dissimilar from a piece of furniture or a lamp that can be moved around from one spot to another. A painting is an object that has been touched by various people (first and foremost by the artist), has been in studios and homes, has changed places many times, and has most likely traveled long distances. I think that this is why we are so intrigued when a work comes off the wall: we are breathless by its objectness, something that only minutes earlier seemed intangible and eternal is part of the space that we occupy everyday.

Now I would like to come back to Amare, a recent immigrant, whom I interviewed a few months ago. Amare was studying economics in Ethiopia when he learned that he won a green card in the United States Green Card Lottery (which differs from the 1948 classic that we all read in public schools where the winner is stoned to death by the community). Amare now lives in a Chicago suburb where he is a dental assistant. He had taken the train in to spend the entire day at the Art Institute.

After our interview, Amare wanted to show me some of the paintings he had particularly liked. We started downstairs in the African collection where he showed me the Miracles of Mary, a beautiful 158 page bound manuscript from 17th century Ethiopia. Next, we looked at Francisco de Zurbaràn’s The Crucifixion. Amare pointed out how Zurbaràn had painted Christ’s feet resting on a slight ledge, a small detail that he thought added a degree of realism to the painting.

The Amare Tour ended in the Dutch room, gallery 213, in front of Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (pictured above). I have admired this painting many times before: it is an uncanny coup of verisimilitude, the blue satin curtain is so lifelike that one is tempted to try and pull it to the side to see more of the painting. Then, it happened. Amare, wanting to point out a detail, touched the painting with his finger. I was so shocked, so taken aback, that before I knew it the most absurd utterance came out of my mouth (it was like a sneeze, totally involuntary): “Don’t do that! They might arrest you!” What (other than the fact that George Bush was still president) would have made me say such a thing? And who was “they”? The guards? James Cuno, the museum director, and his administrative assistant? Amare looked at me, his brown, soulful eyes full of terror, and I immediately realized the profound stupidity of what I had said. I quickly corrected myself: “I mean, you aren’t supposed to touch paintings in a museum; you’ll get yelled at.” There. That made more sense. Luckily for Amare the guard hadn’t seen him (though she would probably have been calmer and less hyperbolic than I). Besides, it is hard to imagine a section in the Cook County Jail for painting touchers (and if there were one, those poor guys wouldn’t get much respect).

Amare and I parted ways in gallery 213. Later on, I got to thinking about my reaction and realized that mixed up in it was a  teeny, tiny bit of envy, even of awe (like what I felt when Tod called our English teacher an asshole, for he truly was one, though I would never, ever have said it). Amare had touched a 17th century Dutch painting, something I would never do. His finger had met the surface where the painter, some three hundred years ago, had applied the paint. The closest I’ll ever get is perhaps, one day, hoisting a gilded frame to its place, and that only if I plan my strategy carefully. I’m thinking of the fourteen year old boy who recently dressed up as a Chicago policemen and spent a giddy six hours riding around in a police car before getting busted. I know where to buy blue gloves, but I wonder where I can get one of those blue work jackets with my name embroidered on it?

Addendum: while writing, I googled “penitentiary, Cook County” to find out its exact name and read this most unusual statement on the homepage: “Going to jail can be a scary experience. However, with the right information, you can feel better prepared for the day to day experiences of jail. CookCoJail.com provides you with information from actual ex-inmates. […] While we can’t promise jail won’t still be hard, we can hope that the information you find here will help you make the transition as easy as possible.” It doesn’t sound much different than going off to college, does it?

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This morning I listened to Terry Gross’ interviews with John Updike and since I’ve been mulling over the nature of portraits and what draws us to them, I was struck by this comment he made about faces:

“The whole idea of a face is slightly funny, isn’t it? If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment these faces we carry around with the holes in them, the shiny holes and the dark holes and the one which shows a lot of teeth, it’s all odd beyond belief, really.”

This quote, which is so on the mark, makes me think of what happens when you look at a face upside down for awhile, how it begins to look creepy because it is at the same time so familiar and yet so different from what you’re used to: the holes are all there, but they are in the wrong places. If you haven’t experienced this (a sad comment on your childhood) you should try it: have someone lay down on their back with their head hanging over the edge, then stare at it and enjoy!

There’s no question about it – I’m a “people person”. How else could I spend my days in a museum approaching total strangers and engaging them in conversation? So, when I walk through a gallery I’m most often struck by paintings that look back at me, that is to say, by portraits.

What makes a portrait a portrait? This sounds like a “duh” question, I know, and the “duh” answer would be “a painting where a person is the focus,” right? What happens, then, when the person has their back turned to us? Is this still a portrait? The luminous painting Betty by Gerhard Richter poses this question. In the same way, how do we categorize a painting where the person is facing the viewer, but is blindfolded? Isn’t that what is so unsettling about certain paintings by Magritte (I’m thinking of The Lovers and the iconic Son of Man)? By covering the face in the first painting and by simply occluding the eyes in the second, Magritte challenges the very notion of portraiture.

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To my view, there are two basic elements essential to the portrait. One, the subject faces us (not necessarily straight-on, but the face must be visible). Two, we must be able to see the gaze (or lack thereof; a portrait of a blind person is still a portrait). One could go so far as to say that since the act of consuming a painting or of consummating its existence is effectuated through the eyes, through vision, that portraits are a modis operandi for the visitor, a sort of visual demonstration of what one should do while at the museum.

It turns out that I’m not alone in my predilection for portraits: roughly sixty percent of the people I’ve interviewed at the Art Institute say they prefer them. Why? Erin from Ohio said that portraits make her feel as if she could “reach across time and experience someone else’s life”. Robert from Minnesota is drawn to portraits for the same reasons that he prefers reading biographies: he likes to “connect with people and understand what their life is like”. Brooke, a student from Northern Illinois University, put into words a simple and altogether naïve experience that I also have in front of portraits (but am too embarrassed or snobbish to say it): she looks at the painting and sees at the same time its subject and a person who really existed; someone who might have been a friend. Indeed, every time I walk by Charles-Antione Coypel’s Portrait of Philippe Coypel and His Wife I feel as if they are beckoning me inside their 18th century apartment to talk about liberty, equality, and fraternity (over a glass of Veuve Cliquot, bien sûr).

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This brings us to perhaps the most compelling of all reasons for the power of portraits: as much as we would like to share some bubbly with the Coypels, they are long gone. Indeed, in portraits we stare at our own mortality: the paintings are there, immortal and static and we are outside of them, human and dynamic. This is why Rembrandt’s self-portraits are so moving: the process of changing, of aging, and of anticipating death finds itself depicted in painting; the permanence of the person is challenged before our eyes; Rembrandt crosses over to our side of time.

Additional thoughts:

When looking at Betty, think about Watteau and his profils perdus

The Fayum portraits also mix up questions of temporality and immortality: painted while the person was living, their sole use was for burial (we were not meant to see them). Surely the fact that one’s likeness will remain after death has crossed the minds of many people who have sat for portraits, but these people were actually preparing for their death by posing.

Finally (hang in there, dear reader), I wonder if our predisposition for searching out a face sometimes leads us to find them in unpredictable places. For instance, the Boo Radley type standing behind Gabrielle in Rêverie or Portrait of Gabrielle, the eye (some see a face) staring out from a bush in Gauguin’s Arlésiennes, and the faces in some of Courbet’s landscapes, usually in rock formations, which gives the Latin word for face, facies, even more of a punch when one considers that in geology a facies is a part of the rock that stands out, that looks different, from the rest.

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Two days ago at a press conference in Millennium Park, Mayor Daley warned residents about this week’s dangerously cold temperatures while at the same time announcing a new campaign to attract tourists from around the world to Chicago in the winter. In his cavalier way, Mayor Daley mocked the media for sounding the alarm every time it snowed: “We’ve had snow, I mean, we’ve always had ice.” (click here to hear it with the Chicago accent) Yes, we’ve always had it, I tolerate it (badly), but if he thinks a gaggle of Australians are going to leave their summer behind to experience mounds of snow, sheets of ice falling from buildings, temperatures below zero, and, when it all starts to melt, slush and muck so deep you could lose a baby in it, well, I think he is in for a bit of a disappointment.

I’m already sick of winter and it has only just begun. I’m tired of the cold, fed up with the snow, and sick of well-meaning people telling me “how pretty it is”. Aesthetically speaking, I’m sick of the color white. On sunless days white has a hegemonic dominance over the landscape. Looking at the cottony blur in the morning makes me feel as if I’m in a continual process of coming out of anaesthesia, clarity always a bit beyond my reach. Besides, isn’t it unsettling, almost unnatural, when the bottom of the landscape matches the top? Just ask any sailor.

White might symbolize innocence and purity for some, but in India women wear white saris when their husbands die. White doesn’t fare much better in Moby Dick. In the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale Melville writes, “…it is, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that ere is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” For Melville, white is absence (“dumb blankness”) and it is precisely this which makes it so full of meaning: it is the ultimate fear, the fear of nothingness; it is the great, white leviathan that drags the crew into the vortex of non-being.

In his short essay Black or White, American abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell doesn’t go into the symbolic powers of white (though he does mention Melville), but he’s pretty blunt about the chemical properties of the respective pigments black and white. Black, he writes, being made of soot, is “light and fluffy” whereas whites are either “cold” and “slimy” (zinc oxide) or “extremely poisonous on contact of the body” (lead). ‘Nuf said.

White is also a real stickler for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: at least half his comments in Remarks on Color focus on white as a problematic concept. The crux of the conundrum is that white is the only color that doesn’t have an opaque and transparent version. Think about it: grass is opaque green, old Coke bottles are transparent green. An apple is opaque red, a red piece of stained glass is transparent. One can even imagine transparent black, though when a sheet of white paper is put behind it, it appears dark grey (which poses yet another problem according to Wittgenstein, for white dilutes other colors but cannot itself be diluted). All this brings Wittgenstein to postulate: if milk is opaque white then doesn’t it follow that water is transparent white?

Chicagoans know all too well what happens when our white, opaque stuff begins to turn into (white) transparent stuff: first it gets speckled with exhaust, then the large, grey mounds melt, which produces a flow (not very transparent) of water, dirt, spit, and grease, all of which ends up in a water treatment facility somewhere. Which brings me, oddly, to the beautiful painting on this post by Gerhard Richter called Ice 1, which will soon resurface in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute. Richter takes on the colors of our cold, drab winter and turns them into three amazing paintings of ice; ice out of which seeps infinite and at times almost imperceptible variations of color and texture. Imagine one of our whitish-grey mounds of plowed snow lit up from the inside and embedded within it tiny particles of color: at first glance it looks like ice, upon closer inspection the whole thing is pulsating with color. Now that might (just might) bring the tourists here in January.

Remarks on Colour, Ludwig Wittgenstein, University of California Press

The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, University of California Press

The Daily Practice of Painting, Gerhard Richter, The MIT Pres
Gerhard Richter’s notes are so honest, deep, and poetic that I have an inkling to do a “best of” post with some of his quotes and paintings. Read this book!

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«Le temps est abominable ici. Chaque matin quand je me réveille, je regarde par les vitres le temps qu’il fait : il pleut ou il neige ou, pour varier, il neige ou il pleut ou bien, chose plus amusante, il a neigé. Alors il y a sur ma fenêtre, qui est horizontale, un ou deux pouces de neige, voile très bien qui met mon atelier dans un clair-obscur charmant mais où l’on ne peut travailler. Alors je monte sur mon toit avec des baquets d’eau et je fais dissoudre tout cela fort bien.» Lettre de Courbet à son père, Paris, début 1845.

“The weather is horrible here. Every morning when I wake up I look out the window to see the weather: it is raining or snowing or, for a little variety, it is snowing or raining, or something even funnier, it is snowing. On the ledge of my window, the one or two inches of snow make a veil that gives my studio a charming chiaroscuro effect but makes it impossible to work. So I get up on the roof with buckets of water and I wash all of it away.” Letter from Courbet to his father, Paris, the beginning of 1845.

Tomorrow I continue my reflections on the weather by addressing the problem of the color white. Oh yes. It is a problem.

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Okay, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and would like your indulgence: I’m going to journal. I won’t burden you with what I’m eating or knitting or wearing, but I will tell you all about my day at the ‘stute because it was uplifting, stimulating, and just plain ol’ fun.

It started in the recently re-opened Impressionist galleries. They are laid out well, a lot more spacious than before, but benches are sorely needed. It’s interesting how familiar paintings, like Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, command renewed attention just because they have been moved somewhere else (a bit like changing the furniture around in your apartment – it’s all the same stuff and yet it looks fresh and new).

What made today the best day ever was the number of encounters I had with people who love art. First, I spoke with an adorable young man (I say this in a maternal way, not in a creepy way) with a full mouth, dimples, and beautiful eyes (again, all this in a maternal way) who is studying French and linguistics in college – get this – because he likes it (what kind of goofy idea is that?). We were both mesmerized by an incredible pastel that I had never seen before: Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Germaine at her Toilette.

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The girl is a street urchin, a gamine, who at best will end up working in a shop (or as a model, for that matter) and will most likely have to turn some tricks as a grisette to make ends meet. There is a sense of defeat on the young girl’s face and in the slackness of her body while at the same time there is a certain dose of defiance and self-assurance. Her drab clothes and the dirty walls contrast with the bright red shawl fringed with white lace; the white lace is so tactile, the artist’s own hand holding the pastel so seemingly present, that I wanted to reach out and trace its trail with my own finger.

My next stop was to check out the three Cezanne still lifes. There I observed an older man, still in his overcoat, totally absorbed by Cezanne’s Vase of Tulips. After about five minutes he sighed rather loudly with unrestrained pleasure (not at all in a paternal way). I thought it best not to talk to him, some moments are better if undisturbed, although I would have given him a cigarette if the museum rules allowed such a thing.

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Finally, Brooke and Dorota from Rockford, Illinois. Best friends since grade school, they were still on break from college and drove to Chicago to spend the day at the museum. Brooke is studying art and Dorota studies English (don’t tell me – I bet they choose what they’re studying because they like it). We spent nearly forty minutes talking about painting, movies by Kieslowski, and even touched on Kevin Barnes, the lead singer for Of Montreal, because Brooke, in addition to being fascinated by Medieval and Renaissance painting also likes snazzy face make-up, so I suggested she google Mr. Barnes. These women were bursting with intelligence, curiosity, and graciousness. When we got to the question about what they had enjoyed that day at the museum Dorota told me that she really liked a painting of a head from Dante’s Inferno. When I found it (Head of a Damned Soul from Dante’s Inferno by Henry Fuseli) I couldn’t believe that another one of his paintings was one that I had read about that very day in Jean Starobinski’s book 1789: The Emblems of Reason. If you’ve seen any movies by Kieslowski, you know that this is a Kieslowski moment: strangers who meet in chance circumstances encounter some sort of weird coincidence that later becomes ripe with meaning. Needless to say, I started running around the museum to find the Rockford girls, but to no avail. I hope they read this post.

Back to today’s title: the best day ever. Perhaps you guessed it? It comes from a Sponge Bob song. Sponge Bob is a hero of mine, although I guess he is more of an anti-hero (which makes him, of course, even more of a hero). Bob, the Sponge, has a grouchy squid of a neighbor whose nose looks like a penis, his best friend is a loyal but helplessly stupid starfish named Patrick, and his only pet is a snail that leaves a trail of mucousy slime behind him as he slides around Bob’s pineapple-under-the-sea. What makes Sponge Bob an existentialist hero is that despite all odds he makes every day the best day ever; he is Sisyphus with a smile. He is like Doctor Rieux in Camus’ The Plague (okay, I know I’m getting carried away here, but I’m having so much fun!) who is surrounded by people like the poor schmuk writing a novel who can’t get past the first sentence and yet faces every day with an amazing attitude, except that the doctor is battling a disease that causes people to be covered with supperating pustules while Sponge Bob just has to deal every now and then with pesky jelly fish.

Tomorrow I think I’ll head back to the Art Institute – I bet it will be my best day ever.

P.S. One of the details that fascinated me in Germaine and her Toilette was the sponge next to the wash bowl. Wow. Writing is certainly an interesting process (I just thought of the sponge/Sponge Bob thing now) and because of all this sponginess I’ll leave you with my favorite literary sponge moment. It is out of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant.

“I have known a man who loved sponges. I am not in the habit of using this verb in the weak sense. I repeat, this man loved sponges. He possessed specimens of every conceivable shape and size. Pink ones, saffron ones, purplish ones. He took on their tinge. And some were so soft and tender that he could not resist hitting them. Sometimes in his frenzy he tore the most beautiful ones apart, and cried real tears over their scattered splendours. Certain ones he licked. Others he would never have dared touch, for they were queens, truly regal personalities. Others again he simply threaded on a string. And I have a friend who made love to sponges in his dreams. But to consummate this passion he merely cupped them in his palms and squeezed them: you see how easy it is.”

Click here to listen to the Sponge Bob tune and have a great day!

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I’m slowly coming out of my holiday coma of sleep, food, and liquor and would like to extend an apology to all those who wanted to read something new during the holidays, only to see Méry Laurent’s (Olympia’s) blasé countenance challenging them to a staring match each time they logged on. I just read in a back copy of Oeil that Olympia’s bracelet belonged to Manet and contained a lock of his baby hair. Make of it what you will…

In the meantime, tell me dear reader: did you go to a museum during the holidays? where? what did you see?

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…”arguably the least love-struck woman in all Western painting.” – Michael Fried

In his book Pictures and Tears James Elkins explores the act of crying in front of painting, an act that if one is to believe him (and I do) strikes most academics to be as shameful as farting during an inopportune moment at the opera. Before writing, Elkins wrote to colleagues, friends who love art, and also posted inquiries in newspapers and journals. Everyone was asked the same, basic question: have you ever cried in front of a painting and if so, please share your story. His book is divided into “crying categories”: one chapter is about the weepy reactions in 18th century France to the paintings of Greuze, one chapter is based on the experience of an art historian in front of a series of Rothko paintings, and one marvelously zany chapter is about “the Stendhal syndrome,” named after the writer Stendhal who lost his marbles for a short time during his first visit to Italy, so moved was he by the painting he saw.

Elkins comes to the conclusion that historical knowledge and emotion make for very strange bedfellows: “In most cases, history kills. Luckily it kills slowly, over many years. During the long interval between the first poison pill and the death of all feeling, history can give a great deal of pleasure. […] Art history continues to deepen my experience of images, and I keep buying, reading, and writing books of art history, even though I know I am slowly corroding my ability to address paintings with full emotions and an open heart.” In short, knowing kills our ability to feel; there is no emotion where there is knowledge. Darn. I learned a lot over the course of reading this book. James, what are you doing trafficking the pills of detached wisdom? Thanks a lot!

Despite the trenchant thesis, Mr. Elkins knows that measuring tears is not a clear-cut science and says as much: “Learning did kill emotion for me, but I also have letters from people who know a great deal about paintings and still cry.” Second, one would be hard put to argue that an un-wet yet jarring experience in front of a painting is somehow qualitatively less “emotional” than a similiar experience with tears. Finally, one’s own affective experience with art can differ from day to day: looking at something after personal tragedy is different from looking at something after a day at the office is different from looking at something after you’ve been dropped by your boyfriend, etc. and this instability constitutes one of the miracles of art: each act of beholding is a unique creation in time, a singular creation between the viewer and object.

It turns out that I am a happy exception to Elkin’s conclusion: I’ve read loads of serious art history, the kind that revels in words like “ontological, teleological, metonymy” and have come out unscathed. I do occasionally cry in front of paintings (I also tear up while reading, the last time was in the bathtub while reading Rimbaud’s correspondence). In fact, my crying episodes in front of paintings have always been thanks to what I know, not the contrary. The last time I cried was in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Edouard Manet’s Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase. At first I was simply entranced by the painting, by the brush strokes and colors. I looked at the painting for a few minutes, kind of “sinking into it” so that I was no longer looking at flowers or a vase per se but rather seeing how the shapes and colors echoed back and forth, as if calling each other into existence. Next, I pulled myself out and looked at the painting again as a compositional whole. Then my learning took hold: I remembered that many of Manet’s still lives (like this one) were painted at the end of his life when he was seriously ill and unable to work on large canvases. Méry Laurent, a good friend and former model (perhaps former lover too) would buy outrageous bouquets and take them to Manet when she visited him. I thought about how Manet had married his plain, portly wife Susanne out of a sense of duty, had agreed to pretend his son was his brother out of his mother’s bourgeois priggishness (so that no one would know Manet had had a child out of wedlock), and all of a sudden the painting, bearing no trace of self-pity or pain, serenely beautiful, seemed itself like an outrageous gift from the painter to me. My eyes welled up with tears.

Last week I met another weepy scholar, a former art student named Casey. Casey told me about her experience in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Manet’s Olympia. She had spent years studying 19th century French painting and Manet was a personal favorite. Yet, when she finally had a chance to see the painting in Paris it wasn’t just an academic pleasure: “I felt tears in my eyes, had chills, and somehow felt the painting all over my body.” The connection was at the same time so intellectual and physical that she had a hard time leaving the room.

I was happy to have found another educated crier and I asked her if she had ever seen Fantin-Latour’s painting of Manet in the Art Institute (for, I have to admit that in addition to knowing a fair amount about Manet and loving his painting, I also happen to think that he was quite a stud and this painting does my opinion justice). We got up from the bench, in my excitement I may have taken her by the arm (I don’t remember), led her to the painting, and then left her alone there, so that she could have a quiet moment with Ed.


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Last night I had my first museum dream! I was a giant, dark red protean-like blob hovering in the sky, much like the castles do in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (the dark red was the same color as the beads worn by the Young Woman at an Open Half Door). Thousands of black ropes hung down from my outer edges, similar to those that moor ships. I was floating over a museum, trying to land on it, but each time I tried to get in the correct landing position my shape would change, making me off target: I was stuck in an eternal holding position in the sky.

Hmm…what to make of this? It occurred to me that Miyazaki’s original title was Laputa: Castle in the Sky which he changed due to the meaning of puta in Spanish and that I had recently found out that Gabrielle’s mom was a bit of a strumpet. On the other hand, I’ve spent four months on my butt writing and have gained about five pounds – do I fear becoming a giant mass, rising from the bench on the Grand Staircase in the Art Institute (this is where I poach interviewees) with the aid of a thick cane à la Marlon Brando? Or, can my desire to land on a museum mean that I want to devour it, to possess it? I think I need to take a few days off (and go to the gym)…