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.


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.

Art Triumphs over Philosophy… as a Hedgehog?

Does art do a better job of conveying the human condition than studying philosophy?

I’m in the midst of reading Muriel Barbery’s incredible novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I admit, I just finished another book that is in my top-ten all-time delicious books, The Matchmaker of Perigord, by  Julia Stuart, and so I am less over-the-moon about Hedgehog (how relative life is!). Barbery writes

One wonders why universities persist in teaching narrative principles on the basis of Propp, Greimas or other such punishing curricula, instead of investing in a projection room. Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers.

While I wouldn’t argue that Sean Connery is “everyday” or Hollywood either, I think what Renee, one of the oxymoron protagonists in the story (smart but unschooled, has read Kant and Marx, appreciates Mozart and Vermeer, yet a concierge in an apartment building in France) learns is that life is best learned by living it; it’s found in both the glaring and nuanced realities of life. We just have to learn how to observe it. And who are better observors but artists?

Can’t Escape Gauguin…

Breton Girls Dancing, Pont-Aven

I felt very cultural this weekend: on Sunday I went to see the symphony AND spent time at the Gauguin exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. And I put the finishing touches on my rockin’ gingerbread house entry for the Cleveland Botanical Garden’s annual gingerbread show (which is actually a fantastical Museum of Contemporary Art made out of gingerbread). Whew!

This was my second trip to see the Gauguin show (first take I wrote about here), and I’m sure I’ll go back several more times before it leaves in January. But my impressions (Take II) were more complex (delightedly!) than the first round.

I’m not sure what other artists are so “self reflecting” — that is, in newer paintings, they physically paint in/allude to previous works — but Gauguin surely is a master. His motifs are bathers, pitchers, the color yellow, the white Brittany hats. I mentioned this in my previous blog, but it was even more apparent to me at Take II.

Gaugin’s use of yellow, particularly in his later years in Tahiti, is prolific. Perhaps it started in Arles with his Yellow House days with van Gogh and transcended time. The show’s catalog states that at first Gauguin claimed credit for van Gogh’s adoption of yellow as a favorite color. But ultimately the opposite was true: Gauguin embraced yellow after being impressed by van Gogh’s yellow-on-yellow paintings of sunflowers. And Gauguin used canary yellow paper for a series of zincographs (medium where an artist draws directly on a metal plate with a black crayon) that chronicled Gauguin’s early career and travels to Martinique, Brittany, and Arles and reiterated his motifs. (Interestingly, the CMA owns a complete set of the zincographs, which is rare, because Gauguin only made an edition of 30.) The zincographs were a watershed in Gaugin’s work: the motifs are resemblant of Claude Monet’s grainstacks and Jasper Johns’ stenciled number paintings.

I also noticed that Gaugin has a tendency to paint mid-pose — he captures a boy fixing his shoe, and blossoms just beggining to bud (rather than in full glory). I was struck by his interest in the non-interesting stages of hum drum daily life. But capturing these humdrum moments makes the viewer stop, go back, and look again. It’s inspiring that the humdrum can, in fact, be interesting.

And he disdained pointilism!


Gauguin’s Gals

Joys of BrittanyThe Cleveland Museum of Art is hosting “Gauguin: Paris 1889”, featuring a recreation of the “radical independent exhibition that Gauguin organized (and shamelessly self-promoted) on the grounds of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris”.

It was unbelievable.

The exhibition is only exhibiting in two places — Cleveland and Amsterdam — hence the CMA’s insanely awesome marketing: “The man shunned civilization. (So it’s only appropriate that he’s making just one US stop.)”.

What struck me about this exhibit is Gauguin’s sensitivity to the people he saw and painted, much moreso than Van Gogh (and they lived in Arles together, painting for several months). Although I think that Van Gogh’s portraits and subjects are richer, more intense, electrifying, I think that Gauguin had a better way conveying people and their moods, and well, the reality of their lives. In this exhibition, the innocense and movement in his subjects (specifically his primary subject matters in this exhibition, which were the Breton girls dancing and the woman with red hair in the waves) is arresting, and I have thought about these anonymous people over and over again since I saw the exhibit last weekend. And so they are striking in a different way than Van Gogh’s studies.

In this exhibit, Gauguin’s oils, chalks, sculptures, and wood carvings all run central to two themes: his life in Brittany and life in Tahiti. And he keeps dabbing a brilliant red/orange to make a tiny splash on each composition (a single carnation on each of the Brittony girls ‘dresses; the vibrant red hair on the girl in the waves). We walk through daily life in Brittany — largely seen through children’s eyes, and the series aptly named “Voipini Suite: Joys of Brittany” — but we also see very deep, intellectual themes running through, particularly with the violent green waves and the woman thrust in them. Her body takes up the entire picture, so that the viewer feels almost caught up in the waves with her. In the end, when he was in Tahiti, he created a self-portrait with his face very dark (disturbance, insecurity), and in far in the background, off to the sides, are a small white cloth (indicating the white Brittany hats of the women and children there) and a red swath of paint (indicating the woman’s vibrant red hair). In this exhibition, Gauguin came full circle with his themes and his work.

In the waves

Van Gogh’s Letters: He Didn’t Always ‘Burst Forth’ With Emotion

Ahh. Starry Night will always be my favorite. And maybe the Yellow House too — both the painting and the book. If you haven’t read “The Yellow House” which is about Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s nine months in Arles together, it’s an easy read and a gem!

But the “breaking” news is that Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is out with a compendium of Van Gogh’s letters. Chock full of illuminating thoughts on his life, the letters are surely to entice Hollywood into a movie, right?

Shedding new light on the Arles painter:

In Lust for Life, Van Gogh is presented as writing his letters as a highly-strung personality, slapping his words onto paper in great emotion. This did happen, but only occasionally, usually when it involved a family row. In contrast, reading through the 2,180 pages of the new edition of the letters shows that the artist was highly focused. True, he was an obsessive in one sense, in his dedication to developing as an artist, but the letters are usually carefully (and sometimes beautifully) written, normally with a clear purpose in mind. 

The Letters also reminds us that Van Gogh approached his painting in a similar fashion. He did not throw his paint on the canvas in a burst of emotion, but considered carefully the effects he was striving to achieve. This comes through clearly in the stream of comments that he made to his brother Theo and his artist friends, in describing the pictures he was completing.

Embassy Tour of Art

Private residence on the DC Embassy Tour

Private residence on the DC Embassy Tour



On Sunday I walked around upper northwest DC along Massachusetts Avenue and around the Kalorama area which borders Dupont Circle to the west to trot through some pretty amazing ambassadorial residences and  embassies. Each year different countries are featured. This year we saw the French Ambassador’s Residence (1910, beaux-arts mansion), Residence of the Ambassador of the Netherlands (old master paintings, tapestries), Embassy of Portugal, Residence of the Ambassador of Venezuela (classicist and abstract paintings), and the home of the Ethiopian ambassador.

I ogled at a Bonard in the French Embassy (what I would do to throw a party on the sweeping back terrace overlooking a leafy forest in the heart of DC). The Venezuelan residence had an impressive collection as well of contemporary Venezuelan artists. The Ethiopian ambassador had probably the most unique conversation piece I’ve seen – a gigantic  hollowed-out jug (size of a small cow) that stored wine. The wine is served using a ladle. Very cool presentation, though there’s no way to temperature control the liquid. (But that’s just a small detail at happy hour anyway.)

But most fascinating, I’ll have to admit, were the two private, non-ambassadorial residences on the tour. One was the home of a former State Department curator; the other was the home of a graphic designer.

Perhaps the ultimate job would be state department curator – jetting all over the world to place art in the U.S. embassies. What a unique foreign collection you could amass. And that she did. Ranging from Turkish tapestries to a sarcophagus of an Egyptian king, her treasures were spread all over the first floor of the massive rowhouse.

The graphic designer’s rowhouse was equally impressive, with a Buddha wading pool that he installed on his small terrace complete with silk waterlilies the color of the rainbow, to a genuine Miro in his bedroom (yep, he allowed all of DC to traipse through his entire home), to two huge pink poodles flanking the living room fireplace.

Next year, I think I’m going to be equally excited to see the bling in the private homes of “average” Americans.