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When I was a child, I made obsessive drawings of schoolgirls and created elaborate personal stories for each of my characters. Imbuing my silent drawings with narrative was a form of entertainment, and is, for me at least, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing about visual art. After reading his book Looking at Pictures, I think the Swiss author Robert Walser would agree. In this collection of essays on art, released this month by New Directions, the author best known for his fiction and literary prose will often choose to focus on one artwork at a time — even if he’s writing about an entire exhibition — imagining situations that tend to stray from what’s concretely depicted, where leaves “murmur” and figures in paintings converse. In van Gogh’s “L’Arlésienne,” for instance, Walser contemplates the sitter’s hands and imagines how they “must have opened a window, or pressed shut a door,” and describes her as “defenseless” when painted, not unlike when Walser creates the fates of the works he describes.
“Certainly I use my imagination when I am trying to see: it’s my eyes that are imagining,” says the artist narrator of the longest essay in the collection, titled “The Painter,” a meditation on art-making. The statement reminds me of what John Berger writes in his essay “Drawn to that Moment”: “A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree-being-looked-at.” “The Painter” will often discuss the artist in relation to the writer, who is deemed inferior (“Colors and lines have a sweeter way of telling their stories. No words ring out in them, just scents and sounds”), but just as an artist doesn’t paint what’s in plain sight, the writer here doesn’t solely impart what lies before his eyes either.
To each artwork, Walser brings his state of mind, and his humanity. In “An Exhibition on Belgian Art,” he begins by going to the museum’s café and observing the hats and garments hanging on a coat-rack: “This sight raised my spirits … with the result that — after having devoted a few hasty thoughts to my beloved, as well as to a dream in which a woman with a sharp, angular face asked me to give her a mirror … — I proceeded to enter the exhibition.” Many of Walser’s essays purposefully digress; whether at a museum or at home writing, he never fails to acknowledge a whole other world out there, where men go to barbershops and beautiful women walk on the streets.
“Great art resides in great goings-astray,” Walser once wrote. The essays are conversational in tone, and their shape can be awkward and note-like. He will often begin them mid-thought — “For all that, in other words: by the way …” — and without context, “He feels it, that’s all, and that’s how he finds it.” He is also very funny: “But let me return to that unfortunate man of mine, who has been standing here stark naked,” he says, after straying from the subject of his essay, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s “The Parable of the Blind.” The meandering manner with which Walser moves through artworks is like the aimless promenade he takes around town in his prose piece The Walk, stopping when a sight delights or intrigues him. He moves through details with a sense of discovery, mesmerized by the tablecloth in a Cézanne painting that “is virtually smiling, beaming.”
Beneath each of the essays in Looking at Pictures is a longing to express the feeling that drives art: the very joys and reasons for living. In imagining the trajectory of Jean-Antoine Watteau — an exercise he practices frequently with artists — Walser writes, “he cultivated in himself a love of life” and “relatively soon found himself compelled to feel.” Watteau would begin “a life devoted to gaiety, that is to art, in other words to a certain delight in one’s own person.” Throughout the book is the theme of the artist cultivating his private world — for it is always a male’s world — where an obsession with and idolization of beauty can today seem narrow, idealistic, and sometimes sexist. For there is also the self-centered and generally morose artist who comes into play in those essays that explore the relationship between the rich, female patron and the resentful artist. “It offends and infuriates me to be financially dependent on you,” Walser imagines the artist Karl Stauffer-Bern to have said to his patron, Lydia Welti-Escher, with whom he had an affair and is portrayed as too stupid for his art (both would eventually commit suicide). Another (fictional) painter tries to reciprocate his patron’s love but concludes, “I cannot endure love, I am destined for a more savage, cold life.” The intense, higher state of being that the artist is presumed to embody often toes the line between the pure and the preposterous. “He tore his hair out like a revolutionary,” Walser writes of a troubled artist. Similarly, he uses a self-mocking tone to describe his own pursuits as a writer: “I propped my head for quite some time, pensive as can be, in my ‘sensitive’ hand, finding myself beautiful and almost grand.” Reading about one male after another’s “battle with Art” can get a little tiresome.
His essays are most insightful when he turns his eye from the artist to the art. In Watteau’s “Italian Comedians” (1720), Walser produces a monologue for each of the main figures — The Indifferent Man, The Man of Feeling, The Deceiver, and The Harlequin — that lists their positive and negative character traits. In the end, the four of them conclude:
We are more similar to one another than you might think, differentiated and separated only by nuance. All colors, sounds, words and characters are related. As we are alive, we resemble one another in every detail, it’s just that each of us presents himself differently and so is perceived differently as well.
Walser could be talking about the paintings he has observed (for they are mainly paintings) — all of which are of the world or the people living in it — for while each varies in palette and form, they are all profound reflections on human nature. His essays are not traditional works of art criticism but are treated like daily observations or journal entries. These essays are not especially useful in grounding art in history, but, he argues, we don’t need to look to him for the findable facts — “Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice to by others.”