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Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin


Yesterday I returned to the Musée d’Orsay.  The first thing I did was to take the five floors up to the Post-Impressionist collection to Douanier Rousseau’s painting War.  Last year I regretted not having taken a picture of it to use in the classes I teach at the Lab School because there is no reproduction available (don’t get me started about the glut of Mona Lisa postcards, posters, puzzles, coasters, clocks and the comparative dearth of other works of art:  this is a whole other issue that deserves to be treated at length).

Anywho.  I was framing the picture in the viewer of my discrete digital camera and a little, tiny corner of an old leather jacket was in the picture.  I waited a minute or so and then politely asked the man wearing the leather jacket if he could move over for a second while I snapped a photo.  Well.  He looked at me (down at me – I’m a mere five foot tall), his face of an equine sort, his bad teeth showing as his mouth dropped open, and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.  I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my request, so I repeated myself, this time in English.  That’s when I got the snub of a lifetime (in a British accent, no less):  “I come to museums to look at paintings, not to take pictures.  What do you come here for?”  Well, the Goddess of Repartee was with me that day (normally good comebacks materialize a few days later while I’m knitting or sitting on the pot):  “I come to museums to take pictures, but I like to buy stuff too.”  He snorted at me, spun on his heels, and trotted off.

This brings me to a subject that I’ve been pondering all year while visiting museums:  to shoot or not to shoot.  Susan Sontag in her book On Photography discusses the role it plays in tourism and vacations:  people in today’s mundus imaginum (I did that just to sound impressive – it simply means world of images) have come to depend on photos to validate experience.  A young woman I interviewed from Berck-sur-Mer told me a joke the other day that I’m sure Sontag would have enjoyed:  a friend asks a friend how his trip was, to which he replies:  “I don’t know, I haven’t developed the pictures yet.”

Those who take pictures in museums often do it for just this reason:  to prove that they saw the painting (this is especially true when the person poses with the painting as they would with a friend or family member).  Taking a photo of the painting, “shooting” it (Sontag discusses the semantic reverberations of “to take” and “to shoot” in her book) means to capture it, to consume it; the photo serves as a talisman representing the visitor’s taste and his journey through the museum.

Taking pictures of paintings can also reduce one’s own experience with painting.  The camera is the thing looking at the painting, not the person.  The person focuses on mechanical issues:  framing, turning off the flash (if he follows the rules), and holding his hand still, so that the camera makes a good reproduction of what is right in front of him.  It is as if I were to take a friend to a restaurant, watch him eat a good meal, and then ask, How was it?

For to experience a painting is different from looking at its reproduction.  Walter Benjamin speaks of the real deal as having an aura:  just as radium emits radiation, a painting emanates the effort and presence of the painter which comes out of the painting to greet us as we stand before it.  Taking a picture of an image is a one-sided experience.  Looking at a painting without the mediation of the camera is a two-sided one; we enter into a dialogue with it.  In his book The Open Image French art critic and historian George Didi-Huberman speaks of images as if they were organic objects:  “Images embrace us:  they open up to us and close themselves to us in so far as they conjure up in us something that we could call an interior experience.”  If we open up to the image, without protection or the desire to possess it, the image will reciprocally open itself up to us.

I sound as if I agree with Mr. Horse Snob (Equi-Snobus), don’t I?   Well, that’s just it.  I did agree with him at the start of the year, but after spending time talking to people in museums about why they take pictures of paintings I have come to realize that there are some excellent reasons.  It’s easy to go to museums with preconceived notions about how people really don’t take the time to look at paintings (such notions flatter one’s own sense of cultural superiority); it’s much more interesting to talk to people and learn that museums are in fact filled with people for whom art resonates quietly (or loudly) in their lives and that taking a picture of a painting doesn’t necessarily mean that a museum experience is qualitatively any less for them than it is for someone who shuns the camera.

Here are some interesting examples I’ve encountered this year about how the camera aids people’s experience at museums:  Kamilah from California keeps a portfolio of paintings on her computer that have moved her and writes about her experiences,  a man I spoke to takes a picture of a painting only when he finds one that particularly speaks to him and doesn’t know the painter well; he takes a picture of the painting along with the identification plate so he can further research the artist and the painting later.  At the Louvre a few days ago a young Russian pianist living in Paris and I talked at length about Watteau’s painting Pierrot, dit autrefois Gilles. She was so thrilled to have discussed the painting with someone that she wanted me to take her picture with the painting as a visual memory of our encounter (besides, her red hair matched the wall behind the painting to a tee).  Finally, I’ve come up with my own use of photographed paintings in museums:  as desktop pictures.  I take just part of the painting (for instance, an up-close Courbet’s signature from L’Hallili du cerf or part of the allegorical painting The Funeral of Love by Antoine Caron where one of the cupids looks at the observer – he alone does this – as if to say can you believe this painting?!).  My favorite (and the one currently on my computer) is an up-close of Gilles, slightly off-center:  his face, quiet and almost blank, reveals a different emotion, whispers a different story, every time I turn on my machine.

I would like to thank Michel Colson, a museum man if there ever was one, for allowing me to use his wonderful drawing La foule et la Joconde at the beginning of this post.  Michel spends three or four days at the Louvre, drawing his observations, copying works, and talking to people.  We spent nearly two hours together as he led me through the museum, sharing with me his favorite paintings.

Referenced works:  On Photography by Susan Sontag and L’image ouverte by George Didi-Huberman (not yet translated, the quote in the post is my translation).  If you are interested in Watteau I highly recommend Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France by Julie Anne Plax.  Being a 19th century specialist, I knew que dalle (damn near nothing) about 18th century art and this book helped me to delight in the world of Watteau while in Paris.



This is what we know about her: she lived in Egypt, probably in the Fayoum region, though she may have lived in Antinooupolis, Memphis, or Thebes. She spoke Egyptian and possibly Greek as a second language. She was alive in the second century of the Common Era. Apart from her beauty and apparent wealth (the earrings, the necklace), we know nothing else about her except that when she posed for this portrait she did so knowing that it would one day serve as her passport to the afterlife.

Fayoum portraits, named after the Fayoum region in Egypt, are the oldest known portraits. They are a curious hybrid: the portrait, which represents the individuality of the sitter, is anchored in the Greco-Roman tradition. This frontal, realistic portrait (as opposed to the profile view of older Egyptian portraits) was then bandaged onto the head of the mummy as its face, a bit like a Greco-Roman postage stamp on an Egyptian body being sent on its way. As both John Berger and Jean-Christophe Bailly have pointed out, the fact that these portraits were destined for the afterlife imparts to them a certain poignancy: they look at us and at the same time they face their own mortality. They look into the face of death head on.

Gazing at the young woman in our Fayoum portrait gives me an irrepressible urge to sit down with her, have a cup of tea, or maybe invite her for dinner. This drive some of us have to discover and reach out to the other makes me think of a neighbor who invites foreign university students to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. At first it is a very solemn affair: they sit down with their different faces, languages, and customs to eat this strange, large bird on a platter. They are:  Yemenis, Bosnians, Italians, Indonesians; it changes every year. Gradually there is some pointing and gesticulating, then come the strange faces as the gamey taste of turkey is experienced, and eventually stories are told; there is laughter, there are smiles.

In much the same way that my neighbor brings together for an evening meal disparate parts of the world, painters through portraiture have invited the faces of the past to our table; their existence in our world defies the sitter’s own historicity; they are with us. In On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress Walter Benjamin describes this about the work of the historian:

At any given time, the living see themselves in the midday of history. They are obliged to prepare a banquet for the past. The historian is the herald who invites the dead to the table.

And the painter?


I am indebted to Jean-Christophe Bailly’s incisive book on the Fayoum portraits: L’Apostrophe Muette (unfortunately not translated into English). The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Fayoum portraits; it is possible that there are some nice publications available there. I am planning on going there in May to see them.

Walter Benjamin is quoted from the work called The Arcade Project, posthumously published by the Harvard University Press. The book is divided into what Benjamin called convolutes and On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress is convolute N.


I’ve been on sabbatical from teaching Middle School for six months now. I’ve done a lot of reading, quite a bit of writing, I’ve come up with a plan for my book and…my middle has expanded considerably. Teachers! You don’t realize how many calories you burn in a single day running down the hallway after little ones, taking Middle School girls to the nurse, or going to the special hiding place (every high school has one) to find so-and-so who is skipping class (or maybe necking as we called it in my days).

I’m sitting on my butt and yes, the middle is spreading. Yesterday, to console myself, I went to a mirror, took off my clothes and put myself in the position of Victorine Meurent in this painting of Manet. You know the argument: fuller figures were sexier back then! To my dismay, my gut was just as big, but my boobs were saggier and smaller, so even that didn’t make me feel better.

Following Obama’s adage that tough times call for tough measures I am going on a diet. You see, I’m going to France (the land of Carla Bruni, waxed legs, and petite women eating Brie) in only two months and I can’t bear (bare! ha!) the idea of going there with five extra kilos (kilos! I’m SO European!) around my midriff. To assuage my pain I’ve decided to detour my favorite foods from my mouth into my writing. Here goes:

Cauliflower au gratin: a simply, hearty dish. The low-calorie vegetable is first smothered in a rich Béchamel sauce and then covered in Gruyère cheese. It comes out of the oven golden and bubbling like a comestible puddle of lava. A crusty bread is recommended so that you can sop up the sauce.

Fish tagine with chermoula: fish, potatoes, and peppers layered and covered generously with chermoula, a mixture of garlic, parsley, cilantro, paprika, ground cumin, harissa, lemon juice, and olive oil. Chermoula is the Moroccan answer to pesto. This is all slow-baked (that is what the word tagine really means). When it comes out all the parts have miraculously fused into a taste too delicious to describe. I had this in a palace in Fez and mine is better. That is how good I am.

Profiteroles: OMG. Profiteroles bring together in one bite: crunchy, creamy, hot, cold, bitter, and sweet. It is mouth-ecstasy as only the French can do it. Into an airy puff of pastry insert high-quality vanilla ice-cream (no guar gum, please!) and cover with a hot dark chocolate sauce. I make these too, but my pastry succeeds only every other time, so you would have to come over on the right day. A photo of a young women with a profiterole in her mouth, chocolate and vanilla ice-cream dripping out of the corners, would surely be banned on Google in many countries.

Cheeses: unpasteurized so that they can walk up to your plate by themselves.

Roast chicken stuffed with rice and fresh figs: First of all, let’s talk about the perfect roast chicken. The skin has cooked so that when you bite into it it has a satisfying crackle. The breast meat is juicy with a hint of salt and barnyard fun: yes! the free-range bird’s flesh has an indelible taste of I’ve lived well and now give myself up to you. Into its cavern is stuffed a luxurious mix of cooked rice, onions sauteed in olive oil, and small, purple fresh figs. Don’t mix too much! It will become a purple haze. Restraint is of the essence.

Fresh figs brings me to my favorite piece of food porn writing by Walter Benjamin. In his essay simply called Food we can imagine what Julia Child would have written like if she had smoked a joint now and then. Enjoy:

No one who has never eaten a food to excess has ever really experienced it, or fully exposed himself to it. Unless you do this, you at best enjoy it, but never come to lust after it, or make the acquaintance of that diversion from the straight and narrow road of the appetite which leads to the primeval forest of greed. For in gluttony two things coincide: the boundelessness of desire and the uniformity of the food that sates it. Gourmandizing means above all else to devour one thing to the last crumb. There is no doubt that it enters more deeply into what you eat than mere enjoyment. For example, when you bite into mortadella as if it were bread, or bury your face in a melon as if it were a pillow, or gorge yourself on caviar out of crackling paper, or when confronted with the sight of a round Edam cheese, find that the existence of every other food simply vanishes from your mind. -How did I learn all this? It happened just before I had to make a very difficult decision. A letter had to be posted or torn up. I had carried it around in my pocket for two days, but had not given it a thought for some hours. I then took the noisy narrow-gauge railway up to Secondigliano through the sun-parched landscape. The village lay in still solemnity in the weekday peace and quiet. The only traces of the excitement of the previous Sunday were the poles on which Catherine wheels and rockets had been ignited. Now they stood there bare. Some of them still displayed a sign halfway up with the figure of a saint from Naples or an animal. Women sat in the open barns husking corn. I was walking along in a daze, when I noticed a cart with figs standing in the shade. It was sheer idleness that made me go up to them, sheer extravagance that I bought half a pound for a few soldi. The woman gave me a generous measure. But when the black, blue, bright green, violet, and brown fruit lay in the bowl of the scales, it turned out that she had no paper to wrap them in. The housewives of Secondigliano bring their baskets with them, and she was unprepared for globetrotters. For my part, I was ashamed to abandon the fruit. So I left her with figs stuffed in my trouser pockets and in my jacket, figs in both of my outstretched hands, and figs in my mouth. I couldn’t stop eating them and was forced to get rid of the mass of plump fruits as quickly as possible. But that could not be described as eating; it was more like a bath, so powerful was the smell of resin that it penetrated all my belongings, clung to my hands and impregnated the air through which I carried my burden. And then, after satiety and revulsion – the final bends in the path – had been surmounted, came the ultimate peak of taste. A vista over an unsuspected landscape of the palate spread out before my eyes – an insipid, undifferentiated, greenish flood of greed that could distinguish nothing but the stringy, fibrous waves of the flesh of the open fruit, the utter transformation of enjoyment into habit, of habit into vice. A hatred of those figs welled up inside me; I was desperate to finish with them, to liberate myself, to rid myself of all this overripe, bursting fruit. I ate to destroy it. Biting had rediscovered its most ancient purpose. When I pulled the last fig from the depths of my pocket, the letter was stuck to it. Its fate was sealed, ; it, too, had to succumb to the great purification. I took it and tore it into a thousand pieces.

Have you written any food porn? Feel like trying your hand at it? Send it my way.


In the spring, my 6th graders and I study surrealism.  Nothing could be more logical for eleven-year-olds to study surrealism, whose credo is bringing objects together that normally don’t go together, a concept derived from the famous line The Chants de Maldadorthe chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, for theirs is a surreal world too, a world where a the girl is five foot seven, the boy is four foot ten, and they are on a dance floor in an awkward embrace, a world where moms empty lunch pails and find half-eaten sandwiches, incomplete, crumpled homework assignments, and

Every year we begin our unit by watching the beginning scene of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic An Andulusian Dog. The chain of associative events starts with a man sharpening a razor (the same kind of blade they later learn Van Gogh used to slice off part of his ear; decidedly the study of French art is not for sissies).  The camera then cuts (no pun intended) to a woman’s head, her eye being held open by the man’s hand, then to a perfectly gobular moon past which a thin, linear cloud passes, and finally back to the eye which is sliced open transversally by the razor (Buñuel used a cow’s eye).   You would think that given all the violent movies and videogames parents and educators constantly rail about that it would be hard to gross them out.  Wrong.  They are sickened to their core and a minute later experience a collective adrenaline at which point they decide that surrealism is the coolest art movement ever.  I must admit,  I’ve seen the scene at least thirty times and, despite the obvious fakery, despite being filmed in 1926,  it still makes me feel queasy too.

What provokes this unbearable uneasiness?  I think that it has to do with the eye.  If the wrist had been slit, if the finger had been chopped off, our reaction would not not have been the same.  Our innate urge to protect our eyes, what I call the protective eye syndrome, is as ancient as Greek mythology when our Western ancestors squirmed in the amphitheater watching Oedipus gouging his eyes out after learning that he killed his father and slept with his mother (way worse than not finishing your sandwich or your homework).

Fast forward to the 19th century, the beginning for all practical purposes of the modern era. In the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin reports the observation of a sociologist who writes the following in 1911:

“Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of visual activity over aural activity. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in situations where they had to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.”

This comment led Benjamin to posit that the eye of the city dweller had developed “protective functions.” In other words:  we have learned how not to see, all the while keeping our eyes open.  Of course, this is an indispensable skill: it keeps us from appearing impolite, perverted, or even psychopathic.  Last year an Italian man was fined forty euros for staring too long at a women across from him in a train. However, does “protective eye syndrome” sometimes leak its fluid into purposeful viewing?   Does it increase the likelihood that we spend some (even a lot) of our time looking but not really seeing?

I sometimes wonder about this when I watch people walking past paintings as if they were walking down a grocery aisle.    Would it not be marvelous (a favorite surrealist word*) to have a procedure done at the entrance of museums to unprotect the eyes?  A gloved employee peels away an outer layer of the cornea, drops it into a petri dish with some formaldehyde, and gives the visitor a claim ticket (to be stored in a very safe place).  Then, Eureka!  The visitor has a freshness of vision hitherto inexperienced, just like Monet claims to have undergone after cataract surgery when he was able to see certain colors for the first time in years.  Painting after painting stuns the unprotected eye, the visitor apprenhends truths, harmonies, discord, and beauty at an almost delirious level.  After two hours of intense viewing, the soul being elated, the visitor turns in the claim check, gets the protective film reapplied onto his eyeball, and walks out of the museum, stepping onto a big dog turd.  Whoops.  I guess he wasn’t looking!

Well, it’s a great fantasy, but it does not help us with protective eye syndrome.  Aside from peyote and other vision-transfiguring drugs, what can we do (that is legal) to help us unprotect our eyes?  In his book The Open Image, Georges Didi-Humberman speaks of the desire to see and I think that this is a good place to start.  One of the examples he gives is of pilgrams looking at the Shroud of Turin, where the following process of vision is time and again reported:  at first one sees nothing, then almost nothing, then little by little the eyes fall on the outline of something.  The catalyst for this movement from nothing to almost nothing to something is, in Didi-Humberman’s opinion, about the desire to see.  He goes on:  “for, the desire to see is an incredibly refined modality.  The “little by little” of this “discovery” (refering to the Shroud of Turin) is a vertiginous and spiraling movement:  precise, like a dialectic; blinding like a baptismal of the eyes.”  …but appreciating a painting by Mark Rothko, for example, does demand the same desire, effort, and ultimately, belief.

*Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful. anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.  – André Breton, 1924, The Surrealist Manifesto

A less invasive method: stop in front of a painting that speaks to you and stay there for at least five minutes staring, really staring. Let your unprotected eyes scrutinize the surface and the depth of the painting, follow the brush strokes (the physical traces of the artist present in the painting – think about it!), and allow yourself to be taken in by it, disarmed by it.

Museums offer us memorable, deep encounters with painting. Don’t try to see everything! But do try and really see something.

“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4.

“One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe.” – Wittenstein, Remarks on Coulour, •326.