Teju Cole – Open City, 2012

j brewster jr Francis O watts- Teju cole
John Brewster, Jr. 1766-1854. Francis O. Watts with Bird, 1805. Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York

The cluster of taxis at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South broke the illusion. After I had walked another quarter hour, by then thouroughly drenched. I stood under the eaves of a building on Fifty-third Street. When I turned around I saw that I was at the entryway of the American Folk Art Museum. Never having visited before, I went in.

The artifacts on display, most from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—weather vanes, ornaments, quilts, paintings—evoked the agrarian life of the new American country as well as the half-remembered traditions of the old European ones. It was the art of a country that had an aristocracy but did not have the patronage of courts: a simple open-faced, and awkward art. At the landing of the first flight of stairs, I saw an oll portrait of a young girl in a starchy red dress holding a white cat. A dog peeked out from under her chair. The detials were saccherine, but they could not obscure the force and beauty of the painting.

The artists featured in the museum were, in almost every case, working outside the elite tradition. They lacked formal training, but their work had soul. The sense of having wandered into the past was complete once I reached the third floor of the museum. The gallery had a row of slender white columns running through its middle, and the floors were polished cherrywood. These two elements echoed the colonial architecture of the New England and Middle Colonies.

That floor, as well as the one just below it, was given over to a special exhibition of the paintings of John Brewster. Brewster, the son of a New England doctor of the same name, had modest facility, but the scale of the exhibition made it clear that he had been much in demand as an artist. The gallery was quiet and calm and, save for the guard who stood in a corner, I was the only person there. This heightened the feeling of quietness I got from almost all the portraits. The stillness of the people depicted was certainly part of it, as was the sober colour palette of each panel, but there was something more, something harder to define: an air of hermeticism. Each of the portraits was a sealed-away world, visible from without, but impossible to enter. This was truest of Brewster’s many portraits of children, all of them self-possessed in their infantile bodies, and often with whimsical elements in their outfits, but with the faces, without exception, serious, more serious even than those of the adults, a gravity all out of keeping with their tender ages. Each child stood in a doll-like pose, and was brought to life by an incisive gaze. The effect was unsettling. The key, as I found out, was that John Brewster was profoundly deaf, and the same was true of many of the children he portrayed. Some of them were pupils at the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, which had been founded in 1817 as the country’s first school for the deaf. Brewster was enrolled for three years there as an adult student, and it was while he was there that what later became known as American Sign Language was developed.

As I contemplated the silent world before me, I thought of the many romantic ideas attached to blindness. Ideas of unusual sensitivity and genius were evoked by the names of Milton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Borges, Ray Charles; to lose physical sight, it is thought, is to gain second sight. One door closes and another, greater one, opens. Homer’s blindness, many believe, is a kind of spiritual channel, a shortcut to the gifts of memory and of prophecy. When I was a child in Lagos, there was a blind, wandering bard, a man who was held in the greatest awe for his spiritual gifts. When he sang his songs, he left each person with the feeling that, in hearing him, they had somehow touched the numinous, or been touched by it. Once, in a crowded market at Ojuelegba, sometime in the early eighties, I saw him. It was from quite a distance, but I remember (or imagine that I remember) his large yellow eyes, calcified to a grey colour at the pupils, his frightening mien, and the big, dirty mantle he wore. He sang in a plaintive and high-pitched voice, in a deep, proverbial Yoruba that was impossible for me to follow. Afterward, I imagined that I had seen something like an aura around him, a spiritual apartness that moved all his hearers to reach into their purses and put something in the bowl his assistant boy carried around.

Such is the narrative around blindness. Not so with deafness, which, as in the case of one of my many great-uncles, was often seen as merely unfortunate. Many deaf people, it occurred to me just then, were treated as if they were mentally retarded; even the expression “deaf and dumb,” far from being a simple description of a physiological condition, had a pejororative sense.

Standing before Brewster’s portraits, my mind quiet, I saw the paintings as records of a silent transaction between artist and subject. A laden brush, in depositing paint on the panel or canvas, hardly registers a sound, and how great is the peace palpable in those great artists of stillness: Vermeer, Chardin, Hammershǿi. The silence was even more profound, I thought, as I stood alone in that gallery, when the private world of the artist was total in its quietness. Unlike those other painters, Brewster hadn’t resorted to indirect gazes or chiaroscuro to communicate the silence of his world. The faces were well lit and frontal, and yet they were quiet.

I stood at the window on the third floor and looked outside. The air had shifted from grey to dark blue, and afternoon had become late afternoon. One image drew me back in, a painting of a child holding a bird on a blue thread. The palette, as was usual for Brewster, was dominated by muted colours; the two exceptions were the electric blue of the thread, which coursed across the face of the painting like a bolt of electricity, and the child’s black shoes, which were deeper and blacker than almost anything else in the gallery. The bird represented the child’s soul, as it had in Goya’s portrait of the ill-fated three-year-old Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga. The child in the Brewster painting looked out with a serene and ethereal expression from the year 1805. He, unlike many of the others painted by Brewster, had his hearing intact. Was this portrait a talisman against death? One child in three at the time died before the age of twenty. Was it a magical wish that the child would hold on to life, as he held on to the string? Francis O. Watts, the subject of the painting, did live. He entered Harvard at fifteen and became a lawyer, married Caroline Goddard, who was from his hometown of Kennebunkport, Maine, and went on to become president of The Young Men’s Christian Association. He eventually died in 1860, fifty-five years after the portrait was made. But for the moment of the painting, and therefore, for all time, he is a little boy holding a bird by a blue string, clad in a white chemise with a carefully observed lace frill.

Brewster, born some ten years before the Declaration of Independence, lived his life as an itinerant artist, working all his way from Maine to his native Connecticut and to Eastern New York. He was almost ninety when he died. The elite Federalist milieu of his background had given him access to wealthy, serious-minded patrons (his own ancestors had been on the Mayflower in 1620) but his deafness made him an outsider, and his images were imbued with what that long silence had taught him: concentration, the suspension of time, an unobstrusive wit. In a painting titled One Shoe Off, which held me transfixed the moment I came before it, the neatly tied bow of a shoe on a little girl’s right foot echoed the asterisks of the floor pattern. The other shoe was in her hand, and red pentimenti were visible around the heel and the toes of the now unshod left foot. The child, as secure within her own being as were all of Brewster’s children, had an expression that dared the observer to be amused.

I lost all track of time before these images, fell deep into their world, as if all the time between them and me had somehow vanished, so that when the guard came up to me to say the museum was closing, I forgot how to speak and simply looked at him. When I eventually walked down the stairs and out of the museum, it was with the feeling of someone who had returned to the earth from a great distance.

J Brester jr one shoe off - teju cole
John Brewster, Jr. 1766-1854.One Shoe Off, 1807. Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York

Teju Cole,1975. Open City, 2012. Chapter 3. Published by Random House, January 17, 2012

Teju Cole, born 1975, is an American writer, photographer, and art historian. Open City is a documentary novel that explores layers of urban history and migrant experience set in post 9/11 New York. The narrative is seen through eyes of Julius, a young Nigerian-German psychiatrist who, in solitary walks, traverses and discovers New York. With the heightened sensitivity of the lone observer he muses on the people and random details of the city. He describes his experiences and encounters in a series of internalised contemplative and reflective emotional states that connect the transient thoughts and physical moments with his own life, and ideas of time and memory. The metaphorical associations of art, music and literature are integral to Julius’ fine-tuned stories of city life as he visits an exhibition of paintings by John Brewster, Jr. 1766-1854, at the American Folk Art Museum, and an exhibition of photographs by Martin Munkácsi, 1896-1963, at the International Center of Photography, and makes references to Jan Van Eyck, Paul Claudel, Diego Velázquez in the text.

Images: John Brewster, Jr. 1766-1854.  Francis O. Watts with Bird, 1805. Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York

John Brewster, Jr. 1766-1854. One Shoe Off, 1807. Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York


Karl Ove Knausgaard – Min Kamp 2, 2009 / A Man in Love. My Struggle: Book 2


Anselm Kiefer. Varus,1976. KO Knausgaard-A Man in Love,My Struggle 2
Anselm Kiefer. Varus,1976

“Have you seen that picture by Anselm Kiefer? It’s of a forest. All you can see is trees and snow, with red stains in places, and then there are some names of German poets written in white. Hölderlin, Rilke, Fichte, Kleist. It’s the greatest work of art since the war, perhaps in the whole of the previous century. What does it depict? A forest. What’s it about? Well, Auschwitz of course. Where’s the connection? It’s not about ideas, it reaches right down into the depths of culture, and it can’t be expressed in ideas.”

“Have you had a chance to see Shoah?


“Forest, forest and more forest. And faces. Forest and gas and faces.”

“The picture’s called Varus. As far as I remember, he was a Roman army commander who lost a decisive battle in Germany. The line goes right back from the 70s to Tacitus. Schama traces it in Landscape and Memory. We could have added Odin, who hangs himself from a tree. Perhaps he does, I don’t remember. But it’s forest.”

“I can see where you’re going.”

“When I read Lucretius it’s all about the magnificence of the world. And that, the magnificence of the world, is of course a Baroque concept. It dies with the Baroque age. It’s about things. The physicality of things. Animals. Trees. Fish. If you’re sorry that action has disappeared, I’m sorry the world has disappeared. The physicality of it. We only have pictures of it. That’s what we relate to. But the apocalypse, what is it now? Trees disappearing in South America? Ice melting, the waters rising. If you write to recapture your gravity, I write to recapture the world. Yes, not the world I’m in. Definitely not the social world. The wonder-rooms of the Baroque age. The curiosity cabinets. And the world in Kiefer’s trees. That’s art. Nothing else.”

“A picture?”

“You’ve got me there. Yes a picture?”

“When I was outdoors, walking, like now, what I saw gave me nothing. Snow was snow, trees were trees. It was only when I saw a picture of snow or of trees that they were endowed with meaning. Monet had an exceptional eye for light on snow, which Thaulow, perhaps technically the most gifted Norwegian painter ever, also had. It was a feast for the eyes, the closeness of the moment was so great that the value of what gave rise to it increased exponentially, an old tumbledown cabin by a river or a pier at a holiday resort suddenly became priceless, the paintings were charged with the feeling that they were here at the same time as us, in this intense here and now, and that we would soon be gone from them, but with regard to the snow, it was as if the other side of this cultivation of the moment became visible, the animation of this and its light so obviously ignored something, namely the lifelessness, the emptiness, the non-charged and the neutral, which were the first features to strike you when you entered a forest in winter, and in the picture, which was connected with perpetuity and death, the moment was unable to hold its ground.”

Karl Ove Knausgaard, born 1968.  Min Kamp 2, 2009 /  A Man in Love. My Struggle: 2

Publisher: Forlaget Oktober AS, 563pp, 2009. Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Translation edition (June 3, 2014) 608pp. Archipelago Books (US) and Harvill Secker (UK). 

Translator: Don Bartlett

Image: Anselm Kiefer, born 1945.  Varus,1976

Image, Fritz Thaulow, 1847-1906 Winter on the Isle of Stord, 1889

Image: Claude Monet, 1840-1926 The Entrance to Giverny under the Snow, 1885

Karl Ove Knausgård is a Norwegian author, known for a series of six autobiographical novels, titled Min Kamp (My Struggle) published between 2009-2011. The series was titled in Britain as: A Death in the Family, A Man in Love, Boyhood Island, Dancing in the Dark, Some Rain Must Fall, and The Fruits of My Labour. These describe his domestic life and literary, artistic, and philosophical musings and has been compared to Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time. The confessional narrative format of his struggles, with the association of the title to Mein Kampf, involving open and psychological descriptions of relationships with family friends, caused some controversy with Norwegian readers who traditionally internalise their thoughts and emotions.

In the texts, the speaker is the autobiographical narrator, conversing with his friend Geir, based on the author Geir Angell Øygarden. They are discussing the meaning of land, wilderness and place; and the social and physical world and the idea of “vitality”.  The first text discusses the painting Varus, 1976, by Anselm Kiefer; the second text concerns Claude Monet, and the Norwegian Impressionist painter Fritz Thaulow,

Art cannot be experienced collectively, nothing can, art is something you are alone with. You meet its gaze alone.” ― Karl Ove Knausgård, Min Kamp 2 / A Man in Love

Jean-Francois de Bastide – La Petite Maison, 1758

———————————————————————————————–Art in Fiction

J Bastide-reader- 1.jpg

Mélite, struck by this coup d’oeil, began to praise attentively and lost the desire to tease Trémicour. As she had lived without coquetry and without lovers, she had applied herself to self-instruction, whereas other women learned to love and to deceive, and she really had taste and acquaintances; she appreciated at a glance the talent of the most famous artists, who themselves owed to her esteem for masterpieces that immortality which so many women often prevent them from deserving by their love for trifles.

She praised the lightness of the chisel of the ingenious Pineau [3], who had presided over the sculpture; she admired the talents of Dandrillon [4], who had employed all his industry to preserve the most imperceptible delicacy of carpentry and sculpture; but above all, losing sight of the importunities to which she exposed herself to Trémicour by raising his vanity, she lavished upon him the praises which he deserved by his taste and choice.

“That pleases me”, she said; that is how I like to employ the advantages of fortune. It is no longer a small house: it is the temple of genius and taste …

– That is how the asylum of love must be”, he said tenderly. Without knowing that this god, who would have created other miracles for you, you feel that, to inspire, we must at least appear inspired by him …

– I think as you do, ‘she said; but why then, as I have heard, do so many petites maisons display bad taste?

– It is because those who possess them have desire without love”, he replied; “It is because love had not stopped that you would one day come to them.”

Mélite listened, and still would have listened further, but a kiss pressed to her hand told her that Trémicour had come there to pay homage to all the agreeable things he would find occasion to tell her about. She rose to see other rooms. The Marquis, who had observed her so touched by the beauty of the salon, and who had better things to show, hoped that more tender objects would touch her more, and was careful to keep her from running to her destiny. He gave her his hand, and they went right into a bedroom.

This room is square and panelled; a bed of daffodil coloured Péquin cloth trimmed with the most beautiful colours is enclosed in a niche placed in front of one of the windows that overlook the garden. It has not forgotten to place mirrors in the four corners. This room, moreover, ended in vault that contains in a circular frame a painting where Peter [5] has painted with all his art Hercules in the arms of Morpheus, awakened by Love. All the panels are finished in a soft sulphur colour; the marquetry in the parquet floor is of amaranth and cedar woods, the marbles are turquoise blue. Delightful bronzes and porcelain are placed, with choice and without confusion, on marble console tables distributed under the four mirrors; And, lastly, beautiful furniture of various shapes and forms that relate to the ideas everywhere expressed in this house, obliging the most frigid minds to feel a little of the voluptuousness which they suggest.

Mélite dare not praise anything; she even began to fear her feelings. She said only a few words, and Trémicour might have complained of it; but he understood, and he had good eyes; he would even have thanked her for his silence if he had not perceived that marks of gratitude are a mockery as long as a woman can disavow the ideas which we thank her. She entered the next room, and found another unexpected. This room is a boudoir, a place that it is unnecessary to name to the one who enters there, for the mind and the heart divine the situation at the same time. All the walls are covered with mirrors, with their borders masked by artificial tree trunks and carved foliage arranged with admirable skill. These trees are disposed in such a way that they appear to form an ordered arrangement; they are strewn with flowers and laden with candelabra whose wax candles provide a soft light in the mirrors, by the care we took in the end of the room, to spread light fabrics more or less over these transparent bodies, magic that accords so well with the optical effect that one can believe that you are in a natural grove illuminated with the aassisatnce of art. The niche in which the Ottoman is placed, a style of bed sitting on a rosewood parquet floor, is enriched with gold fringes mixed with green, and furnished with cushions of different textures. The entire perimeter and ceiling of this niche are also covered with mirors; Finally, carpentry and sculpture are painted in a colour matching the different objects they represent, and this colour has been applied by Dandrillon [6] so that it radiates violet, jasmine and rose. All this decoration is placed on a partition wall that is not very thick, and around which there is a fairly spacious corridor in which the Marquis had placed musicians.

Melita was in an ecstasy of delight. For more than a quarter of an hour when passing this boudoir, her tongue was muted, but her heart is not silent: He murmured secretly against men that engage all the talents to express a feeling of which they are so little capable. She made the wisest reflections on this; but they were, so to speak, secrets that the mind deposited in the depths of the heart, and who were soon to lose themselves there. Trémicour would seek them there with his piercing gaze, and the dstroy them by his breaths. He was no longer the man to whom she believed she could reproach for this monstrous contrast; she had changed it, and she had done more than Love. He did not speak, but his eyes were oaths. Mélite doubted his sincerity, but she saw that he could at least pretend well, and she was sensible that this dangerous art exhibits everything in a charming location. To distract herself from this idea, she moved away from him a little, and approached one of the mirrors, pretending to put a pin in her coiffure. Trémicour stood before the mirror vis-à-vis, and by this artifice, being able to regard her fondly without her being obliged to look away, he found that it was a snare that she had made around herself. She also had this thought, and wishing to destroy the cause, ontemplating her power, she thought she succeeded in making jokes at Trémicour.

“Well ! said she, will you stop staring at me? In the end, it irritates me. “

He flew toward her.

“So you have much hatred for me? He replied. Ah! Marquise, a little less injustice for a man who does not need to displease you to be convinced of his misfortune …

– See how modest he is! she cried.

– Yes, modest and unhappy, he continued; What I feel tells me to fear, what I fear tells me to fear yet. I adore you and am no more reassured. “

Mélite joked again; but with what evil skill she disguised the motive that wore it! Trémicour had taken her hand, and she did not think to remove it. He thought he could squeeze a little; she complained and asked if he would maim her.

“Ah! Madame ! he said, feigning despair, I beg of you a thousand pardons; I did not believe one could be so easily crippled. “

The air he had just taken disarmed her; he saw that the moment was decisive: he gave a signal, and at that instant the musicians placed in the corridor made a charming concert. This concert disconcerted her; she listened only for a moment, and, wanting to get away from a place that had become become difficult, she walked and entered a new room more delicious than anything she had seen before. Trémicour could have taken advantage of her ecstasy and close the door without her perceiving it to force her to listen; but he wished to owe the progress of victory to the progress of pleasure.

This new room is a bathroom suite. Marble, porcelain, muslins, nothing was spared; the panelling is heavy with arabesques executed by Perot [7] on the designs of Gilot [8], and contained in compartments distributed with great taste. Maritime plants mounted in bronze by Cafieri [9], pagodas, crystals and shells, interspersed with intelligence, decorate this room, in which are placed two niches, one of which is occupied by a bathtub, the other by a muslin embroidered Indian bed, adorned with chains of tassels. Beside it is a dressing room with panelling painted by Huet [10], depicting fruit, flowers and foreign birds, interwoven with garlands and medallions in which Boucher [11] painted medallions of small galant subjects as well above the doors. One has not forgotten a silver toilette by Germain [12]; Natural flowers fill the big blue porcelain bowls embellished with gold. Furniture lined with fabrics of the same colour fabric, the wood has Aventurine quartz design by Martin [13], to make this apartment worthy of enchanting the fairies. The upper part of the room has an elegantly profiled cornice, topped by a golden bell-shaped campane sculpture that serves as border with the underside containing a mosaic of gold interspersed with flowers painted by Bachelier. [14]

Mélite was overwhelmed by so many wonders; she felt as it were suffocated, and was obliged to sit down.

“I cannot stand any more, she said; this is too beautiful. There is nothing comparable on earth … “

The sound of her voice revealed a secret disorder. Trémicour felt that she was deeply moved; but as an adroit man, he had resolved not to appear to speak seriously. He contented himselfwith playing with a heart that could still renege.

“You do not believe it, he said, and this is how we feel that one must not swear by anything. I knew very well that alll this would charm you, but women still want to doubt.

– Oh ! I doubt not, ‘she said; I confess that this is divine and enchants me. “

Jean-Francois de Bastide, 1724-1798. La Petite Maison, 1758, revised 1763

Publisher: 1758 in the second volume of Le nouveau spectateur, Amsterdam and Paris, pp. 2: 361-412;

An allegory of the sensuous fascination of art to overcome the heart. A libertine, the Marquis de Trémicour, determinedly sets out to seduce an art student, Mélite, in his Petite Maison – a maison de plaisance, or house of pleasure in the suburbs of Paris designed for assignations. In a miniature Musée des Arts Décoratifs the rooms provide pictorial foreplay as Mélite admires the erotic paintings and etchings, with the artists identified for the reader in footnotes in the text. She loses her wager that she will not give in to him and is seduced in a reverie of aesthetic ecstasy as she is she overcome with sensation on the final page.

Compare to: Robert Bage 1730-1801 Hermsprong: or, Man As He Is Not, 1796 https://artinfiction.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/robert-bage-1730-1801-hermsprong-or-man-as-he-is-not-1796/

Notes on the artists.

3. Pineau. A sculptor famous for the ornaments, and the greater part of the sculptures of the apartments of our hotels are the work.

4. Dandrillon. Painter who found the secret of painting the wainscot without odour, and apply the gold on the sculpture without white primer.

5. Pierre. One of our famous painters, who by the force of his colour deserved a distinguished rank in the French school.

6. Dandrillon. It is still to this artist that we owe the discovery not only of having destroyed the bad odour of the impression which was previously given to the panelling, but of having found the secret of mixing in its ingredients An odour that is considered appropriate, an odour that persists for several years in succession, as many have already experienced.

7. Perot. Artist skilled in the genre of which we speak, and who painted at Choisi the prettiest things in this taste.

8. Gilot. The greatest draftsman of his time for arabesques, flowers, fruits, and animals, and who surpassed in this genre Perin, Audran, & c.

9. Cafieri. Founder and chiseler esteemed for the bronzes of which all the apartments of our beautiful houses of Paris and the surroundings are adorned.

10. Huet. Other famous painter of arabesques, and especially for animals.

11. Boucher. The painter of the Graces and the most ingenious artist of our century.

12. Germain. Famous goldsmith and son of the greatest artist that Europe possessed in this genre.

13. Martin. Famous varnisher known to everyone.

14. Bachelier. One of the most excellent painters of the present day, of whom he has lately left to become the rival of Desportes and Oudry, and perhaps surpass them.


Gabriel Josipovici – The Big Glass,1991


All those people wear me out. Nothing but running around and organizing. Organizing, he wrote. When the history of our times comes to be written, They Organized Themselves to Death will be the only possible epitaph. No doubt they mean well where the arts are concerned, he wrote, but for that reason they are the biggest menace. No doubt thay think they have the interests of the artist at heart, he wrote, but for that reason they must be avoided like the plague. No doubt they see themselves as devoted middlewomen, bringing the truly important work of the time to the avid masses, but all they are really doing, wrote Harsnet (typed Goldberg) is fucking up the lives of both sets of people. They bring time into what is essentially timeless, he wote. They bring anxiety about venues and dates into what is essentially a calm and anxiety-free activity. They try to ram down the throat of the public what the public quite rightly does not want. The Arts Council should be abolished, he wrote. And the Royal Arts Fund. And the Royal Literary Society. And the Royal Ballet. And the Royal Academy. Especially the Royal Academy, he wrote, with its Presidents and its Private Views and its Signed Goblets and its Concerts of Spanish music to go with the Murillo exhibition and its Concerts of Russian music to go with its Tatlin exhibition and its Concerts of Dutch music to go with its De Hooch exhibition, and its Silk-screened Scarves and its Special Offers and its Jigsaws of the Raft of the Medusa and La Grande Jatte and its Good Taste and its Tondo and its Education Department and its Restaurant with its Tasty Snacks and its Cold Buffet and its Glass of Wine and its Napkins Designed by a Living Artist, and its Proximity to Cork Street, with its Galleries and their Private Views and their Favoured Clients and their Phone Calls to New York and their Summer Shows and their Autumn Shows and their Winter Shows and their Embossed Invitations and their Highly Polished Floors. There is no end to it all, wrote Harsnet (typed Goldberg). When you begin to think about it you grow dizzy, your stomach turns over, not just at the commercialism of it all, but at the aestheticism of it all, not just at the chequebooks but at the Intellligent Conversations, not just at the fifty percent but at the Sensitive Responses, not just at the winks and nods but at the Hushed Silence in the Presence of Art. Our civilization will be destroyed, he wrote, not by the Bomb but by its reverence for the Creative Spirit. Better never enter a church, he wrote, than enter in a spirit of false awe. Churches and art galleries, he wrote. That funereal atmosphere. False awe in the face of death, he wrote. No one knowing how to react, all speaking in low tones with solemn faces. It is the same with art, he wrote. Now even artists work with awed expressions, he wrote. Talk in whispers. Ape the critics. Ape the dealers. Ape the organizers. True art as a release from Art, he wrote. The glass as freedom, not constraint. As a mirror of reality, not Monument to Creativity.

Gabriel Josipovici, born 1940. The Big Glass,1991. pp 92-93

Publisher: Carcanet Press Ltd, 1991, 119pp

Image: Marcel Duchamp, 1887-1968, La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même, 1915–23 (The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even) also known as La Grand Verre (The Large Glass), 1915-1923; oil, varnish, lead foil, lead wire, and dust on two glass panels; 277.5 x 175.9 cm (109.25 x 69.25 inches). Collection: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

Image: Man Ray,1890-1976. Dust Breeding,1920, Gelatin silver Print, 23.9 x 30.4 cm (9 7/16 x 12 inches), Collection: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Large Glass, and the accompanying notes, The Green Box, are an iconic work of Modern Art and contemporary art theory. Duchamp’s art presents enigmatic interpretations on the meaning and interpretation of an art object creating an ambiguous abstract narrative and proposing conceptual ideas of time, delay, and action in a work that questions the values of traditional retinal painting. Josipovicis text is a continuous, paragraphless meditation on art and its creation, in the form of a series of notes by the artist Harsnet on the making of Big Glass, based on Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass and its accompanying notes. Harsnet is a wit and a prankster, and his notes record much of his life at the time in the form of a continuous stream of information and reflection that indiscriminately incorporates shopping lists and other mundane details of his life. The reader sees part of the plot through the marginal notations and explanatory writings of a former fellow artist, Goldberg, now turned critic and teacher, who is transcribing the notes.” The characters, Harsnet and Golding, suggest the artist Richard Hamilton, 1922-2011, who reconstructed the Large Glass in 1965-66, now at Tate, London, and John Golding, 1929-2012, artist and critic, who published a monograph, Duchamp – The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, 1973. Josipovici acknowledges Octavio Paz’s Marcel Duchamp or the Castle of Purity as a source of inspiration.

Gabriel Josipovici has published more than a dozen novels, three volumes of short stories, several books of criticism, and plays. He is Research Professor in the Graduate School of Humanities, University of Sussex and an admired thinker and writer on the subject of modernism.

V.S. Naipaul – The Enigma of Arrival,1987

the-enigma-of-the-arrival-and-the-afternoon-1912PART TWO. THE JOURNEY

TO WRITE ABOUT JACK and his cottage and his garden it was necessary for me to have lived a second life in the valley and to have had a second awakening to the natural world there. But a version of that story — a version — came to me just days after I came to the valley, to the cottage in the manor grounds.

The cottage at that time still had the books and some of the furniture of the people who had been there before. Among the books was one that was very small, a paperback booklet, smaller in format than the average small paperback and with only a few pages. The booklet, from a series called ‘The Little Library of Art’, was about the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. There were about a dozen reproductions of his early surrealist paintings. Technically, in these very small reproductions, the paintings did not seem interesting; they seemed flat, facile. And their content was not profound either: arbitrary assemblages, in semi-classical, semi-modern settings, of unrelated motifs — aqueducts, trains, arcades, gloves, fruit, statues — with an occasional applied touch of easy mystery: in one painting, for instance, an over-large shadow of a hidden figure approaching from round a corner.

But among these paintings there was one which, perhaps because of its title, caught my attention: ‘The Enigma of Arrival’. I felt that in an indirect, poetical way the title referred to something in my own experience; and later I was to learn that the titles of these surrealist paintings of Chirico’s hadn’t been given by the painter, but by the poet Apollinaire, who died young in 1918, from influenza following a war wound, to the great grief of Picasso and others.

What was interesting about the painting itself, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, was that — again perhaps because of the title — it changed in my memory. The original (or the reproduction in the ‘Little Library of Art’ booklet) was always a surprise. A classical scene, Mediterranean, ancient-Roman — or so I saw it. A wharf; in the background, beyond walls and gateways (like cut-outs), there is the top of the mast of an antique vessel; on an otherwise deserted street in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery: it speaks of the mystery of arrival. It spoke to me of that, as it had spoken to Apollinaire.

And in the winter gray of the manor grounds in Wiltshire, in those first four days of mist and rain, when so little was clear to me, an idea — floating lightly above the book I was working on — came to me of a story I might one day write about that scene in the Chirico picture.

My story was to be set in classical times, in the Mediterranean. My narrator would write plainly, without any attempt at period style or historical explanation of his period. He would arrive — for a reason I had yet to work out — at that classical port with the walls and gateways like cut-outs. He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city (I imagined something like an Indian bazaar scene). The mission he had come on — family business, study, religious initiation — would give him encounters and adventures. He would enter interiors, of houses and temples. Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere; he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how. I imagined some religious ritual in which, led on by kindly people, he would unwittingly take part and find himself the intended victim. At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship has gone. The traveller has lived out his life.

V.S. Naipaul, born 1932. The Enigma of Arrival,1987. Publisher: Penguin Books,1987 

Image: Giorgio de Chirico, 1888-1978. el enigma de la llegada y la tarde, 1912 The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon. Oil on canvas 70 x 86cm, private collection.

Richard Aldington – Death of a Hero,1929

Guild of Handicraft

“The Simple-Lifers? Oh, yes, I remember. Well, there was a set of people down there, who had fled from the horrors of the mechanical age—you know, the usual art-y sort, Ruskin-cum-William Morris . . .“

“Handlooms, vegetable diet, long embroidered frocks, with home-spun tweed trousers from the Hebrides? I know them. ‘News from Nowhere’ people. What a gospel to lead nowhither!”

“Yes. Well they were to lead the simple life, work with their hands part of the time, and do arts and craft and write the rest of the time. They were also to show the world an example of perfect community life. They used to make the farm-girls dance round a Maypole—the boys wouldn’t come, they stood in the lane and jeered.”

“And what happened?”

“Well, those who hadn’t private incomes got very hard up, and were always borrowing money off the two or three members who had money. The arts and crafts didn’t sell, and the toiling on the land had very meagre results. Then they got themselves somehow into two or three cliques, talking scandal about them, and saying they were ruining everything by their selfish behaviour. Then the wife of one of the rich members ran away with one of the men, and the other rich members were so scandalised that they went away too, and the whole community broke up. The village was very glad when they went. The farmers and gentry were furious because they talked Socialism and the ideal State to the labourers. And all the labourers’ wives were furious because the Simple-Life women tried to brighten up their lives and make them furnish their cottages ‘artistically’ . . .”

Richard Aldington, 1892-1962. Death of a Hero, 1929

Fiona MacCarthy described the Simple Life as “a rethinking of aesthetics. ‘the absence of things’…”. Utopian artistic communities developed globally in the 19th century as an alternative to the industrialisation of society and the mass production of art and design. Aldington here satirises the radical beliefs and activities of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the individual artist-craftworkers who adopted the rural life and revived old craft techniques. The Simple Lifers were a British community of artists and craftsmen and women who: “In the spring of 1902, when the back-to-the-land movement was at its height, an exodus began to Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. East End London workmen – jewellers, silversmiths, enamellers, cavers, modellers, blacksmiths, cabinet-makers, book-binders and printers – fled from the rushed and crowded life of the big city to a rural idyll of craftsmanship and husbandry which was, at the time, all good socialists’ dream. This extraordinary idealistic movement was to have a lasting impact not only on the lives of the 150 London immigrants and their leader, the architect, Charles Robert Ashbee, but also on the nature of the little town they occupied. The Guild of Handicraft had been formed in Whitechapel in 1888. It blended an attitude to art, design and manufacture with a view of how society might be changed for the better. This book traces its fortunes and misfortunes, hilarious and grave, and the many eccentrics, idealists and men of letters and the arts who were involved, including William Morris, Roger Fry, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Edward Carpenter, Holman Hunt, Frank Lloyd Wright, Lowes Dickinson and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Set in the heart of the Cotswolds, Fiona MacCarthy’s account of this attempt to resolve the dilemma faced by artists and craftsmen working in a mass-produced society, documents one delightful and intriguing experiment in utopian social history. Fiona MacCarthy – The Simple Life: C. R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds, Faber and Faber, 2011

Image: Guild of Handicraft, Chipping Campden, 1902-1908

See Also:



Gertrude Stein – The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933

Ambroise_Vollard,_standing_in_front_of_Picasso's_Evocación._El_entierro_de_CasagemasChapter 3 – GERTRUDE STEIN IN PARIS


During Gertrude Stein’s last two years at the Medical Schools Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, 1900-1903, her brother was living in Florence. There he heard of a painter named Cézanne and saw paintings by him owned by Charles Loeser. When he and his sister made their home in Paris the following year they went to Vollard’s the only picture dealer who had Cézannes for sale, to look at them.

Vollard was a huge dark man who lisped a little. His shop was on the rue Laffitte not far from the boulevard. Further along this short street was Durand-Ruel and still further on almost at the church of the Martyrs was Sagot the ex-clown. Higher up in Montmartre on the rue Victor-Masse was Mademoiselle Weill who sold a mixture of pictures, books and bric-a-brac and in entirely another part of Paris on the rue Faubourg-Saint-Honore was the ex-café keeper and photographer Druet. Also on the rue Laffitte was the confectioner Fouquet where one could console oneself with delicious honey cakes and nut candies and once in a while instead of a picture buy oneself strawberry jam in a glass bowl.

The first visit to Vollard has left an indelible impression on Gertrude Stein. It was an incredible place. It did not look like a picture gallery. Inside there were a couple of canvases turned to the wall, in one corner was a small pile of big and little canvases thrown pell mell on top of one another, in the centre of the room stood a huge dark man glooming. This was Vollard cheerful. When he was really cheerless he put his huge frame against the glass door that led to the street, his arms above his head, his hands on each upper corner of the portal and gloomed darkly into the street. Nobody thought then of trying to come in.

They asked to see Cézannes. He looked less gloomy and became quite polite. As they found out afterward Cézanne was the great romance of Vollard’s life. The name Cézanne was to him a magic word. He had first learned about Cézanne from Pissarro the painter. Pissarro indeed was the man from whom all the early Cézanne lovers heard about Cézanne. Cézanne at that time was living gloomy and embittered at Aix-en-Provence. Pissarro told Vollard about him, told Fabry, a Florentine, who told Loeser, told Picabia, in fact told everybody who knew about Cézanne at that time.

There were Cézannes to be seen at Vollard’s. Later on Gertrude Stein wrote a poem called Vollard and Cézanne, and Henry McBride printed it in the New York Sun. This was the first fugitive piece of Gertrude Stein’s to be so printed and it gave both her and Vollard a great deal of pleasure. Later on when Vollard wrote his book about Cézanne, Vollard at Gertrude Stein’s suggestion sent a copy of the book to Henry McBride. She told Vollard that a whole page of one of New York’s big daily papers would be devoted to his book. He did not believe it possible, nothing like that had ever happened to anybody in Paris. It did happen and he was deeply moved and unspeakably content. But to return to that first visit.

They told Monsieur Vollard they wanted to see some Cézanne landscapes, they had been sent to him by Mr. Loeser of Florence. Oh yes, said Vollard looking quite cheerful and he began moving about the room, finally he disappeared behind a partition in the back and was heard heavily mounting the steps. After a quite long wait he came down again and had in his hand a tiny picture of an apple with most of the canvas unpainted. They all looked at this thoroughly, then they said, yes but you see what we wanted to see was a landscape. Ah yes, sighed Vollard and he looked even more cheerful, after a moment he again disappeared and this time came back with a painting of a back, it was a beautiful painting there is no doubt about that but the brother and sister were not yet up to a full appreciation of Cézanne nudes and so they returned to the attack. They wanted to see a landscape. This time after even a longer wait he came back with a very large canvas and a very little fragment of a landscape painted on it. Yes that was it, they said, a landscape but what they wanted was a smaller canvas but one all covered. They said, they thought they would like to see one like that. By this time the early winter evening of Paris was closing in and just at this moment a very aged charwoman came down the same back stairs, mumbled, boa soir monsieur et madame, and quietly went out of the door, after a moment another old charwoman came down the same stairs, murmured, bon soir messieurs et mesdames and went quietly out of the door. Gertrude Stein began to laugh and said to her brother, it is all nonsense, there is no Cézanne. Vollard goes upstairs and tells these old women what to paint and he does not understand us and they do not understand him and they paint something and he brings it down and it is a Cézanne. They both began to laugh uncontrollably. Then they recovered and once more explained about the landscape. They said what they wanted was one of those marvellously yellow sunny Aix landscapes of which Loeser had several examples. Once more Vollard Went off and this time he came back with a wonderful small green landscape. It was lovely, it covered all the canvas, it did not cost much and they bought it. Later on Vollard explained to every one that he had been visited by two crazy americans and they laughed and he had been much annoyed but gradually he found out that when they laughed most they usually bought something so of course he waited for them to laugh.

From that time on they went to Vollard’s all the time. They had soon the privilege of upsetting his piles of canvases and finding what they liked in the heap. They bought a tiny little Daumier, head of an old woman. They began to take an interest in Cézanne nudes and they finally bought two tiny canvases of nude groups. They found a very very small Manet painted in black and white with Forain in the foreground and bought it, they found two tiny little Renoirs. They frequently bought in twos because one of them usually liked one more than the other one did, and so the year wore on. In the spring Vollard announced a show of Gauguin and they for the first time saw some Gauguins. They were rather awful but they finally liked them, and bought two Gauguins. Gertrude Stein liked his sun-flowers but not his figures and her brother preferred the figures. It sounds like a great deal now but in those days these things did not cost much. And so the winter went on.

Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933

Published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1933.

image: Paul Cézanne, 1898–1900, Bathers, 1898-1900; Oil On Canvas; 10 5/8 x 18 1/8. Baltimore Museum of Art

image: Ambroise Vollard, 1866-1939. Standing in front of Picasso, Evocación. El entierro de Casagema (Funeral at Casegamas), 1901.

Editor’s Note: Although described as a novel, it is an autobiography of Gertrude Stein’s life narrated through the external voice of her companion Alice B.Toklas. It is, however, a personal eye-witness account of people she met while in Paris between 1903-1907. This relates meetings with artists, including Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire, and the purchase of paintings by Paul Cézanne from the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Virgil Thompson, who wrote music to Stein’s lyrics considered the book “in every way except actual authorship Alice Toklas’s book; it reflects her mind, her language, her private view of Gertrude, also her unique narrative powers. Every story in it is told as Alice herself had always told it…. Every story that ever came into the house eventually got told in Alice’s way, and this was its definitive version.” Leo Stein described it as a farrago of lies”.