When I was an undergraduate I found Wallace Stevens’s poem “The House was Quiet and the World Was Calm.” I didn’t know it then, but the sort of tranquility it points to would be something I would keep looking for, with increasing earnestness, for years to come. On first looking at Zsofia Schweger’s paintings, at Sapar Contemporary, I’m pulled back into the atmosphere of this lyric: “The house was quiet and the world was calm / The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book. / The house was quiet and the world was calm.”
Stevens’s poem is a paean to the scholarly pursuit of knowledge. It gets at that silence that one needs to think deeply about complex issues — and gets at the silence that embeds itself in me when taking on a text that requires my attention. It’s the silence one has when, in a conversation, you let the other say all of what they need to say, and then assay an answer.
I’m told by the gallery’s project coordinator that Schweger modeled these paintings on the libraries at the University College London, which were just up the road from me when I was in London working on my dissertation at Birkbeck College, daily burying myself in the lonely and ascetic warrens of Senate House Library. What I remember of Senate House’s rooms resemble Schweger’s paintings: rows of books that in the distance tend to be differentiated by height, thickness, and color, and up close become entire worlds of information to explore. Seeing these paintings, like “Library 3” (2017), I hear Stevens: “Except that the reader leaned above the page, / Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be / The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom / The summer night is like a perfection of thought. / The house was quiet because it had to be.”
The house needed to be quiet because all its inhabitants were delving deeply into the depths of each tome, interpreting its signs, taking the gifts it left for its reader, and cultivating that quiet. In a similar way, I was so hushed before Schweger’s paintings, I could hear my own breathing.
As in the poem, the architectural space of Schweger’s paintings mirrors the intellectual space. But Schweger leaves out the reader, the person who might sit in the chair, gaze out her window, and open one of the books. The possibility is held in abeyance: to access these preserves of learning, ordered and structured for a reader who is always on the horizon. Schweger depicts this patient cultivation of thought, makes it a lyrical sweep of simple objects that are only signs and doorways, gateways into a kind of truth.
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