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#226:  RESPONDING TO PAINTINGS.  Most books of art criticism keep up at least some mask of objectivity, and try to keep the personal anecdotes to a careful minimum: many, many pages about technique, period influence, artist’s biography and psychology (sneaky, that last).  Michael White’s book Travels in Vermeer (Persea Books, 2015) is an instructive and touching exception.   The book stems from a dual event: his divorce, both unexpected and unwanted, and his discovery, unexpected and ecstatic, of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer.  In recovery from the first, his  second is a three months’ bout of travel, during which he will visit twenty-three  paintings by Vermeer in public collections in the Netherlands, Washington D.C., New York, and London.  Spliced into his reactions to Vermeer—which are always sharp-eyed and intelligent—are accounts of his failed marriage and attempts at other relationships.  In contrast to the urbane or informative tone of most art books, White’s book is redolent of a man hoping to clamber out of the misery of rejection.  It’s about art not as entertainment or pastime but as a way to escape drowning..

     The choice of Vermeer was obviously not voluntary: his first sight of The Milkmaid in the Rijksmuseum is a coup de foudre, casting “a spell so powerful it’s difficult to move, to breathe.”  Not all the paintings strike him with so much force: even in his first encounter, he skips past The Love Letter, but is immediately captured by The Little Street; later, in London at Kenwood House, he finds The Guitar Player disconcerting (I know what he means).  Seeing The View of Delft, he understands and conveys its intensely local particularity: “a serene, unrepeatable vision of our place, our existence on earth.”  A Dutch scholar says to him: “Look at it: it is sixty per cent sky. Our clouds. Our reflections.” 

      Yet with so many of the other works cited, we are in an enclosed world, the famous, left-lit, variously decorated Vermeer studio, to become familiar over the range of his paintings.  It’s inside this world that we understand the claim that Vermeer laid on White, and the intuitive wisdom that prompted his itinerary.  Perhaps no other painter has exactly Vermeer’s allure, his capturing of a moment entirely specific, loosed from narrative.  Of The Girl With the Pearl Earring, White writes, “She is, if any painting ever can be, a breathtaking encounter.”  Other artists may stop us in our tracks: but Vermeer, in that little, so precisely rendered room, gives us a space for stillness and contemplation, a lingering Proustian state away from our small concerns.  Escape, or escapism, is often a despising word in art criticism, but White, pursued by loss, is in a place no one would want to be.  In Travels in Vermeer, White writes about these paintings not as aesthetics or amusement but as works that just might save a life.




     Speaking of people drowning, Julian Barnes’s collection of art essays, Keeping an Eye Open, begins with a little masterpiece:  “Gericault: Catastrophe into Art,” a wonderful and informative piece on The Raft of the Medusa.  I’d seen this big fella several times in the Louvre, stopped, noted its enormity, the French Romantic manner, those ghastly flesh tones of the nearly drowned, and had one of those, “Huh. Yep, there it is,” reactions that you have to things you’ve seen in art books.  Checked it off the list, so to speak.  But Barnes’s essay closes the distance between us and that moment in the nineteenth century when the wreckage of the Meduse was a fresh horror in people’s minds, when its political content still had some fairly sharp teeth, and when the paint was still wet on the canvas.  As much as the historical background, he nicely articulates the artistic choices that went into Gericault’s rendering, making the painting no longer familiar, inevitable, but giving it back its ability to make us feel pity and shock.  There are many ways to restore a painting, it turns out.

        The rest of the book, after Gericault knocks the wind out of you, moves through nineteenth and early twentieth century painting, mostly French, and into the moderns and near-contemporaries (Oldenburg, Freud, Hodgkin).  It’s terrific: one civilized, delightful piece after another, often getting into painters I hadn’t expected: Fantin-Latour, Bonnard, Vuillard, Braque, Magritte, Valloton—this last a painter about which I knew almost nothing, but who had my affection for his apt and astringent illustrations to Jules Renard’s novel Poil de Carotte.  Barnes’s effort is always to return us to the paintings, not to contain them with either jargon or theory.  His respect for what painting alone can do is patent: of David Sylvester’s writings about Magritte, he remarks on Sylvester’s caution in comment, prefacing many statements with “perhaps.”  “Sylvester showed the merit—too rare in art criticism—of perhapsiness.”

       Like Sylvester, Barnes is wary of biography invading our sense of the paintings, but admits—in the case of Lucien Freud, for instance, reporting Freud’s priapic infidelities—that biographical knowledge can inform and explain as well as confuse.  And he is cheerfully willing to tell stories to an artist’s credit: he reports on Braque’s bravery and restraint during the World Wars, and the artist’s long, happy fidelity to his wife of fifty years; Barnes’s long friendship with Howard Hodgkin is the basis for the final, pleasing piece, which has such wise things to say about the intersection of writing and painting.  He darts around, with an essay on the nineteenth century craft (art?) of life-casting, and a lovely paragraph (on his way to Lucien Freud) on Rembrandt’s Painter in his Studio, long a favorite of mine.  Time after time he gets it right, time after time his sentences are as fine as a master’s brushstrokes, time after time he makes you want to get out of your chair and out to a gallery.  It’s a generous and exciting collection, and a wonderful discovery.



      Perhaps the strangest painted image I’ve ever seen is a detail from the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Temptation of Saint Anthony”: above a tower and a lake, a potbellied gentleman and a lady in gown and wimple float gently through a pale blue sky, the lady’s scarf trailing in the wind, a long pole slung casually over the man’s shoulder with a sort of basket or lantern hanging off the end of it.  They are riding on a fish—some kind of a trout, maybe? The fish’s manner of locomotion is not even hinted at; he’s just up there in the sky, with the two humans piggybacking.  In the rest of the painting all sorts of irreality are breaking out—bizarre and unnamable creatures, humans in various forms of torture and damnation, infernal fires ravaging the countryside—but the gentleman and the lady waft calmly above it, as if they’d caught a taxi and are in plenty of time to get to the airport.  Like so much of Bosch, the image is a mixture of the unflapped, the ordinary, and the wildly alarming.

       This image and many others are beautifully reproduced in Stefan Fischer’s book Hieronymus Bosch: The Complete Works, published with their usual care by Taschen Books.  When I picked it up, I knew almost nothing of Bosch’s life or his artistic practice: that he hailed, for instance, from a long line, almost a local dynasty, of painters, or that he had his own workshop that produced these mad visions to order; no idea of his clientele.  I had not realized the degree to which his extraordinary flora and fauna were a tradition in Flemish art; in English we call them drolleries, though I find them about as droll as a fire alarm at midnight.  And Fischer is tremendously helpful in detailing how many of Bosch’s seemingly inexplicable details had a context in his day: that the lady with a candlestick and jug would be recognized as a prostitute, for instance, or the lady with a book on her head would be seen as having an obsession with learning.  Bosch’s association with the monastic and learned groups of his day would, among other benefits, have given him access to a reference library where such symbolic touches and their meanings would be catalogued.  At some level, Bosch is more explicable than I’d suspected.

       What Fischer’s text also makes more graspable is some of the proportions of Bosch’s imagery: why there’s all that weirdness and such a wee corner of the heavenly and salvific.  It reflects quite simply the theology of the day, as in Matthew’s statement, “Many are called but few are chosen.”  Stated bluntly, it was an awful lot easier to go to hell than it was to get to heaven; the odds were not stacked in your favor. That man praying devoutly before a crucifix in the “Temptation” is a very small detail in the midst of a whole lot of uproar and mayhem.

       So, in a way, the book very much changed my conception of Bosch: he’s a different kind of artist than I had understood.  But in some ways it didn’t change my reaction to the paintings much at all.  For someone who doesn’t accept the cosmology of Bosch’s time and faith, all these explanations may indeed place him historically and intellectually; but the understanding they give us is incomplete to our experience of the works. Standing in the Prado before “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the details—that vegetal architecture, the flowers with translucent blooms, the mixture of those arrested greens and blues and the damnedest eye-popping pinks you’ve ever seen in your life, the mobbed landscape of barbed and chimerical creatures and those obscenely pale humans, all engaged in grotesque and curious acts—are strange beyond the demands of any symbolic or theological program.  You don’t file through a remembered catalogue of typologies or coin any kind of interpretation: you just stare at them until you’re in danger of eyeburn.  The images are then with you for life, beyond all explaining or the bemused safety of rational comprehending.  Your first reaction to Bosch was right: weird he was, simply—weirder than anyone you’ve ever seen—and weird he remains. I love him.




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