Month: February 2010

Open Your Eyes! It’s Proust on Art…

The Silver Goblet
Musee du Louvre, Paris

I’m in the midst of one of Alain de Botton’s erudite and vastly introspective essays on life — this one’s titled “How Proust Can Change Your Life“. In this barely 200-page book, de Botton relays a Proustian essay that details how Proust set out to “restore a smile on the face of a gloomy… young man”. This young man was lamenting how ugly and banal his surroundings were: the mundane scene of his mother doing her knitting, a cat curled up in the windowsill, unfolded laundry in a basket. The young man longed to visit the Louvre, where he could “feast his eyes” on gilded paintings and magnanimous sculptures to take away his gloom.

But Proust had plans for this young man.

Instead of writing into the plot that the young man finds happiness meandering through the great halls of the Louvre in the halls of richly ornamented works, Proust surrounded the young man in a tiny room with the  simple works of Jean Baptiste-Chardin.

Jean Baptiste-Chardin didn’t paint queens or palaces or riches. He painted ordinary things: milk jugs, bowls of fruit, coffeepots, loaves of bread. But, the outcome — however simplistic the subject — was extraordinary.

Chardin’s paintings succeeded in being extraordinarily beguiling and evocative. A peach by him was as pink and chubby as a cherubim; a plate of oysters or a slice of lemon were tempting symbols of gluttony and sensuality… There was a harmony, too, between objects: in one canvas, almost a friendship between the reddish colors of a hearthrug, a needle box, and a skein of wool.

With subdued colors and mellow lighting, Chardin’s work celebrates the beauty of commonplace subjects, with intimacy and domesticity.

Take that, young man! Look around you. The world is rich, wondrous, beautiful. Just open your eyes.


The Giacometti Effect

Have we just reached a turning point from financial Armageddon? An anonymous art enthusiast just paid a record $104.3 million for “Walking Man I,” a 1960 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti! Someone willing to pay that much must mean we’re out of the financial crisis. Well, what a recent New York Times article proposes is that this may mean the wealthy are over it. But will the purchase of this Giacometti by one wealthy collector signal confidence in the rest of the market (i.e., for the middle class)? In other words, a Giacometti effect? $104.3 is a lot of cash and all income brackets are familiar with widely renowned artist Giacometti.

So could art save the day?

The article discusses the Veblen appeal of art, which posits that for some commodities, appeal grows as their prices rise. I see it. It’s Exhibit A at any auction house. To get the economy going again, people must have confidence in their buying power. If they see this the art market thriving — i.e., people throwing wild amounts of money at art (which is not exactly an essential good, like bread or water), they may figure ALL must be well. Perhaps a bit of trickeration would do us all good to kick-start the economy.

However, one outcome might be that the middle class would be offended by this buying spree, considering that the article claims that “art is a social marker with which the powerful signal their power and set themselves apart from other, inferior groups. Anybody can buy stocks. Hedge fund managers can buy pickled sharks by Damien Hirst.”

So there we are. I was impressed by the Giacometti purchase, buoyed by it for a few minutes, but then realized that it’s not going to make me go out and buy another Giacometti, a new car, or even a new wardrobe. Well, maybe a new pair of tennis shoes. I’ve really been needing a pair, since I just joined the gym.

The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!

Matisse & A.S. Byatt: On Art In Literature


Woman With a Hat, Henri Matisse (1905)
San Francisco Museum of Art

So many works of fiction either focus centrally on art (think A.S. Byatt’s “The Matisse Stories”) and others weave it into the plot in nuanced ways (Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover”). The Matisse Stories is a compilation of three stories, and in each a woman’s life is touched by the paintings of Henri Matisse. It’s been referred to as a “still life” of ordinary women: a teacher who must psycho-analyze her self-absorbed hairdresser while staring at a Matisse on the wall in his salon, a housekeeper with a passion for knitting (right under the nose of two arrogant artist employers), and a professor discussing his affair with an art student.

Byatt doesn’t overly describe the Matisse paintings that were the inspirations for these stories. In fact, she provides little description of them, which propels the reader to look up the works, to study them independently, wonder why she chose these particular paintings as the stories’ muses. And then, once the reader has done that, the story seems to go on and on and on, as the reader compares and contrasts the art to the plot points, the characters, the setting. It, therefore, makes these short stories seem like long, delicious novels.

The stories, at points, feel light and airy, and then deep and intricate. Characters evolve. Plots take a turn.

Grabbing snippets of Matisse’s “world views” here and there throughout the stories, you start to wonder about his character, how his ideas and views fit into all of this, how they inspired it. How, as an ordinary woman — like the women in these stories — would he influence my life? What about his infatuation with color? With his supposed repression of women? You ask him to pull up a chair and discuss.

We can only imagine.