Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Les Débâcles, first

Les Deacutebacirccles first

Claude Monet, Le Débâcle, 1880, Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille


débâcle: the violent flood that follows when the river ice melts in spring


In the winter of 1879-1880 the weather was unusually stormy and cold.  All along the Seine there were record quantities of snow and ice.  That winter, Claude Monet was at Vétheuil, a village near Argenteuil and to the northwest of Paris.  Monet was living in straitened circumstances with his children; his beloved wife Camille had died earlier that year, in September.  The remaining Monets were sharing a household with Alice Hoschedé and her children.  The winter was so fierce that even at Christmas it was impossible for them to be joined by Alice Hoschedé’s husband, Ernest, who had been one of Monet’s important supporters and collectors.  Ernest Hoschedé was suffering through his own difficult period; he had gone bankrupt two years before, and his entire Impressionist collection had been sold at disastrously low prices.  It is not entirely clear how the merging and transformation of the Hoschedé and Monet households took place, but this grim winter was to prove a turning point both in Monet’s life and in his work as a painter.

I have been reading about that winter, and the paintings Monet made then, for nearly a year.  Reading very slowly, chiefly in one catalogue called Monet at Vétheuil: The Turning Point.  The catalogue caught my attention in a used bookstore here in Cambridge, in part because the show that occasioned it was held at the University of Michigan Art Museum in Ann Arbor, where I am from, and in part because the subject of the paintings is winter.  My father died in Ann Arbor in early February of 2013, during a bitterly snowy fortnight.  This February, two years later, I am again confronted by mourning and by snow. Although I have been thinking about these confluences for many months, I am not making any progress on drawing them together as an essay. So I have decided to try writing a series of broken pieces instead.

During the winter of 1879-1880, Monet painted a series of canvases of the snowbound river and of the eventual catastrophic breakup of the ice.  The series of paintings, called Les Débâcles, take their name from the river floods that followed the thaw in early January of that year.  Until this point, much of Monet’s work had been of urban landscapes. There had also been portraits and still lifes; the work depicted or implied the presence of people.  But this winter, he painted landscape alone, deliberately removing the boats and industry which photographs from the time show to have been part of the landscape at Vétheuil.  Instead, the viewer of the painting is alone in nature; the subject of the pictures is the terrible majesty of winter and its devastations.    


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Monet, Le Débacle, 1880, University of Michigan Art Museum

Second Gorky

Second Gorky

Arshile Gorky, Summation, 1947, iphone detail

“There is my world.” – Arshile Gorky on Summation

What would it be to begin without a location in time?  A letter or an email always begins with a date, even the hour; when I begin these entries my first instinct is always to situate in time – last Wednesday, after studying Ernst’s collages.  But I think part of the strangeness of Arshile Gorky’s Summation is that it avoids a location in time.  The experience is of many, local, whirring events or personages.  Maybe as the mind feels on waking in the night, though with more tranquility than that, as, on a quiet day, taking a thankful walk.  The mind casts about, and, although it dreams and wonders about the unknown and recollects and watches the known, this is not really felt as looking forward and backward but as looking around.

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Why is it only now, many months after I saw and struggled with Summation, that this seems evidently its mode and quality?  I remember that when I went to see it I was in a hurry to get home to the baby and had been unable to find a taxi, and that there were only a few minutes before closing.  I remember that I hoped to find something to help me think about my father.  Perhaps, fixed on locating the sequence of events in the months before he died, turning from this to picture hurrying to the immediate needs of next days, I was too oriented toward calendar time to see the Gorky.  [Here it is, whole, though too small to feel at wall's expanse.]

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In my mind now it seems well-distributed, elegant and coherent. It would be very difficult to say where it starts, even where one’s eye lights first or in what order it observes.  A summation bears a different relationship to time, or happens in another realm of time – a repetitive, cyclical, associative time – not approachable in a sequence of minutes, but felt in the round of years.  Part of the fear of death must be that, as the minutes are torn from us one by one, we will not be able to hold, and hold to, the beautiful spaciousness of rounding in time.  

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Degas Trio

Degas Trio

Three portraits by Degas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the MFA right now, a trio of Degas portraits are not to be missed.  They can be stumbled upon in a narrow blue-green corridor on the second floor, next to the sealed off construction zone that is normally Impressionism.  It is as if three of the finest musicians – one at the beginning of his career, one at the end – happened to all be passing through a town on the same night and to have the idea of playing some chamber music – and you happened to be staying at the hotel and to walk by the room they’d found for their rehearsal.    

One of the portraits actually is of musicians – of a guitarist and of Degas’ father, listening.  

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Then in the middle hangs the famous double portrait of Degas’ sister and her to my mind supercilious husband.  

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On the right, the formidable Duchessa di Montejasi and her two wavery daughters.  

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Of course they are famous pictures, but hung together in this order the experience is extraordinary.  


Things noticeable: a significant progression in Degas’ style – from the middle couple painted in 1865,

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to the portrait of his father and Lawrence Pagans dated 1869-72, through to the later piece in 1876.  

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Then there are the family relationships – the father, a little weary but firmly engaged with the music, seems almost to see his outward-gazing daughter as he looks toward the middle portrait – the mother and her two daughters on the right suggest a different balance between the generations.  

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The heights of the paintings, the textures, and palettes, go beautifully together. And then formal resonances: from far apart, the musician and the pair of daughters face each other, while the Duchessa and the married couple have the prominence of facing the viewer squarely, even demandingly.  

And who would have thought the cramped hallway, 253, with its poor lighting and difficult bluish-green paint would make such an astonishing space for them. You have just enough room, by dint of backing and turning, to see all three at once and it is good to look from the long angles the hallway affords and to be brought into such direct confrontation with the pictures.

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Degas’ beautiful-ugly palette is perfect against the wall color, which flattens out most paintings, but seems to make these only more astringent and demanding.  

It is all the strictest happenstance – because the museum is renovating its main Impressionist gallery, where two of these portraits often hang, but in no clear relation to one another; because the renovation has been made the occasion of the “Boston Loves Impressionism” show; because when offered the choice of fifty great Impressionist works the public voting online chose thirty pictures and not one of these Degas portraits; because the curators, possibly a bit frustrated with the limits of curating by public taste saw an opportunity; because the cramped and difficult space is actually better for seeing these paintings then the larger halls in which they more often hang, because of all of this, a rare chance…

Do go.  A little further along the hallway, you will also get to see what is possibly Cézanne’s last self-portrait, hung immediately next to his wonderful “Woman in a Red Armchair,” (moved since I last wrote about it here).  This, too, is a powerful juxtaposition, strong in the tight hallway, not before displayed in like fashion.  The shadow show, the Impressionism Boston does not love, is as revelatory a sequence of paintings as the seven works in the Frick’s Piero show were last year.    

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Snow

Snow

Camille Pissarro,
Pontoise, the Road to Gisors in Winter,
1873, iphone detail


*


At this time last year, in the days when my father was dying, it snowed and snowed.   From the hospital windows, it had its beauty.  The hallway near the elevators had windows that looked down on to a sort of large courtyard, not rustic, but still made precise by the snow. People crossed and you would see dark footprints.  These would then be covered.  The footprints and their being covered, traces of particular steps and shoes, then again white -- the tiny brevity of each passing figure, of the length of time in which the marks each made were visible, and then the snow.  


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The Impressionists painted snow -- in cities, in villages, over fields -- and snow itself seems their subject.  The Dutch painters made snowy landscapes for tiny figures to skate in, but the Impressionists gave the element pride of place. They must have loved snow, which is, itself, painting. (In the time I've been writing this the pine tree outside my window has got light traces of white on every outside branch.)  And it is painting as the Impressionists thought of it -- stroke after stroke, strokes themselves visible, paint as paint, so that you watch the illusion accumulate and marvel.  And the snow's relations with light -- at once so wide and so complex -- to absorb, dampen, reflect, sometimes seemingly to generate.  Outside my window it gets whiter and whiter, and the dark of the looming sky finds its balance in the intensification of white on the ground.  

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Time is slower in the snow. You can see it passing before your eyes.  Discrete white that you can follow just long enough to feel that you were following it before it was lost, but over and over so that the seconds fill, and the minutes.  


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A man in a blue hat, walking vigorously -- I can see his head and shoulders beyond the fence with its white lines, through the scrim of white air -- passes the stop sign, makes his way along the road, goes behind the pine tree now more white than green, leaves the visual field.    



An Early Interview

An Early Interview

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1933



In college (when I was an ardent feminist, and also somewhat uncomfortable about bodies),  it seemed hard to like, or even to tolerate, the works of Max Ernst.  I’m not even sure I knew which paintings were his.  Now I am surprised that I seem not to have encountered even the most famous instances of his ravaging vision, like the Ange du Foyeur,

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let alone the collages of Une Semaine de Bonté that have absorbed my attention in recent years.    

The first time I remember suddenly seeing Ernst, what he could do as a painter, how ferocious and intelligent and clear he was, was at the Menil Museum in Houston.  I had gone down there to interview Walter Hopps, one of the 20th century’s master curators, first to show Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp in California, he who brought discernment and force to the display of California artists, who worked with Kienholz and Warhol and Jay DeFeo, who had a perfect touch for Donald Judds, and did the great Oldenburg show at the Guggenheim.

We had an odd interview. I was just starting out as a writer, and had never conducted an interview before.  I had been asked to write something for Modern Painters, and I don’t remember now why I came up with the idea of Hopps, perhaps it was meant to be a piece about a curator, and I had been writing about Joseph Cornell and thought that early show might be something to find out about.  I remember standing in the kitchen of my parents' house, telling them that the magazine had said I could do this interview, and I remember my father saying encouragingly that this was an opportunity. My parents gave me some frequent flyer miles, and I bought a tape recorder that I was none too sure about, and flew down to Houston, and was picked up by Hopps’s very kind wife, Caroline Huber.

I had read quite a lot about Hopps and his exhibitions. I had various ways of trying to imagine his working life, could see the light in which he had worked – my parents had grown up in the southern California of the 50s and 60s where his was a radical and celebratory presence. Nevertheless,  when I found myself across a table from him in his acrid office across the street from what he wryly called “the museum as office park,” designed by Renzo Piano, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing.  Of course Hopps must have realized this, too, but his attitude seemed to be one of grimly marching forward. He talked of artists and artworks I knew a little something about as if he were involved in a strong colloquy with himself that I and the tape recorded merely attended. There were glimmers of dark humor in his speech, and I tried to bring these out in the piece I wrote. I couldn’t then articulate what subsequent events made me realize, namely, that he was already ill and facing down the question of what what he had done had meant.

I felt the edge of it. His wife anxiously told him not to smoke during the interview and I had wondered about that and then been surprised when he immediately lit up and smoked – smoked not like a chimney, more like a furnace, like he was eating the cigarettes – while on the desk in front of him he set going an odd little gnashing machine that I think was a sort of ashtray but was also in a way meant to consume the smoke, to draw it down and keep it from filling the room.  My remaining impression is of the jaws of this machine clanking away at their ineffectual labor while the room became thick, hazy, a pall of smoke.  I believe I was enjoined not to tell his kind and worried wife, though of course she would immediately smell what had happened when he was picked up afterwards.

Perhaps not so many still came to talk to him about paintings.  He could have used a more knowledgeable and forceful interlocutor, but perhaps it was still a welcome occasion to get out to the office – he was now an emeritus curator – and to speak of these things.

When he had done, I shook myself from the smoky listening stupor and he said we would walk through some of the rooms he had done.  There were the Judds, clean-tempered force fields that Hopps had installed with autistic clarity and there, to my surprise, lining the walls of a small room, were what I remember as four Max Ernsts that I surprisingly loved.

Hopps believed in hanging paintings to be ready for a fist-fight with the viewer, much lower than the height dictated by blockbuster shows where crowds need to see over one another’s shoulders.  He believed the viewer and the painting should be body to body and sometimes quoted another Menil curator, Jermayne McAgy saying that they should “hit the tits.” This seemed to be just the kind of context Ernst needed because the paintings were suddenly so alive, so arresting in their life that I was shaken and drawn and a little disoriented.  It was at least another five years before I had a similar experience of La Semaine de Bonté and I didn’t look at Ernst in the meantime, but you don’t forget raw force like that, and from then I knew it was there.

Walter Hopps died not long after my small article was published. I know that he and his wife had liked the draft I checked with them; that was the end of our contact. I thought I should try to reach her and to see if she would like the tapes of his muffled clenched voice with the grinding cigarette machine drawing him out. I had the instinct that it would be right to send them, and at the same time could not quite feel that any record really existed, or was mine to send. I felt that I had watched him as he barricaded himself behind something, and had emerged from the room as if from a dream.

This all came back to me on Tuesday, out walking in the snow, S. asleep in the stroller.  We had returned to Cambridge after being home at my mother’s, S. and I.  Sunday was the anniversary of my father’s death.  He did not smoke, but he died of cancer in his lungs, and toward the end I sat by him, amid the oxygen machines.  He talked, and I listened with a sharp, painful attention.

For years I have been trying to write about Max Ernst, and this year I have had a puzzling feeling that there would be something to say about Ernst’s work and my father’s death together.  

Something – etched and strange – in this configuration. A man who can feel in his lungs that the end is coming; two hopeless, helpful machines – the little cigarette jaws, the little tape-recorder – trying desperately to fight back to life, to hang on to its meaning; a young incomprehending woman sitting by, catching at the edges of this parade of figures for whom life has been violent and radiant.  And then: a momentary experience of razor-sharp clarity about deeply mysterious objects that have the hybridity and continuity of dreams. This followed by fumbling efforts to ascertain in language what might have been there. None of this is foreign to the capacious and impossible work of Max Ernst.      



Open to the Public

Open to the Public

Sargent, I Gesuati, about 1909, iphone detail

Last Friday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum I had a notion of looking for her Sargents, to keep company with the sense of the artist developing in my mind because of the watercolor show at the MFA.  On entering the Gardner I must have half-noticed a small poster with a Venetian-looking Sargent on it, but this didn’t entirely register. I went first to the new wing to look at the Sophie Calle show Last Seen, about the great theft of pictures from the Gardner in 1990.  

This show I liked very much.  Simple, a photograph of a person standing in front of an empty frame, next to it, in the same size and shape as the frame, a series of short quotations from different people about the missing work. Some from interviews done at the time of the theft, a more recent group done now, about the empty spaces twenty-three years on. The show had a kind of intimacy with the paintings, especially in those quotations about the missing pictures that clearly came from the guards. One, speaking of a little Rembrandt self-portrait etching, a piece that had been stolen before, said that she (or he) always felt a little extra protective of that one, “I would just give it a little look as I went by.”  

I went down the bright Renzo Piano stairs and into the dim museum Gardner designed herself to look for the Sargents.  In the first of the small dark rooms containing the flotsam and jetsam of sketches done by Gardner’s acquaintances lowers one great brooding Manet of his mother. In the second little room, there should have been the Sargent watercolor of Gardner wrapped in white, the last portrait of her before she died.  

I asked the guard about the sketch’s whereabouts.  He was large, friendly, Russian, too friendly, he had already accosted me about a daub with orange flowers, and made me guess who had drawn an awkward sketch of a dancer.  I said had the portrait gone to the MFA show, though I knew that was unlikely since the Gardner cannot lend or borrow. No, he said grandly, “it is in our show.” A little group, in the space beyond Mme Manet.  

Eight, and the four on the left wall of Venice, and each of those four as good as the best on display across the Fens. Brilliant, improvisatory, dedicated, and, as I looked, a sudden lift, each one in turn seemed to give the air and moisture of Venice, I was in the city, felt it.  

I had been careful at the MFA, but it was always so crowded in the first room of the watercolors of Venice that in the end I hadn’t needed the protection. They were just beautiful quick images, I didn’t have to think of our trip to Venice earlier this year and of scattering my father’s ashes there as he had asked. At the MFA I had noticed, admired, walked on.    

But here at the Gardner, suddenly, taken by surprise, there is was, Venice.  And then I longed to be there, and to think of my Dad. I would try to take down what Sargent had done to transport in this way.  No photographs in the Gardner, of course, so I thought I would sketch his sketches.  

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I had just done the first, boats riding at anchor with the great church behind when another guard interrupted me. “I’m sorry, miss, no pen is allowed,” and he proffered a dull pencil, bitten or broken in half.  “I forgot,” I said pleasantly, and, still determined, set to work to do the others in pencil. Of course it was much less fluid, and without ink couldn’t approximate the vivid feeling of looking, but I got some of the shadows. Another guard had come in and begun to talk in a loud voice to the one who had given me the pencil.  I was midway through the third image, of a low bridge over the water, when it became impossible to pretend that my concentration had not been destroyed by his insistent story, about a man who had deliberately put his face too near the crotch of a boy, and the boy’s reaction. I glared to little effect, finished my sketches for form’s sake, and tried to return the pencil on departing, “you may keep it,” the guard said magnanimously….

I went up to the top floor, to see Sargent’s full-length oil portrait of Mrs. Gardner. It was her fault, anyway, all of these ridiculous regulations, no photos, no pen, even sketching made almost impossible, these hovering, intrusive guards. I’ve liked the stories of the early days of her museum, how shocked she was by souvenir hunters (and it’s true one lady did take our her scissors and try to take home a swatch of tapestry) and by teachers lecturing students, and by, worst of all, reporters, and how difficult she made it for the public to attend the museum that she intended to offer to that same public. So difficult that in the end she was charged all the back taxes she had avoided by claiming that her art imports were for the public good. This was all amusing enough, I thought to myself, mounting the staircases, but even a century later the place was still uncertain about just how open to the public it intended to be.  

She presides in Sargent’s portrait, and there is a glad welcome in the figure – “you’ve come, you’ve come all the way up,” she says, and is pleased. What if they’d taken that picture? I thought I would go down again, and try to see the Venice my Dad loved and had left himself to.  

There was no one in the little alcove when I entered.  I had stood for a few seconds, thought I detected the first slight trembling, and through the door barreled the large Russian guard, waving his arms.  As he came up to me, much too close, I said, frigidly, “I really would like to look at these pictures by myself, please.”  He sealed up his mouth but waved energetically behind me.  Yes, I said, I had seen the one of Mrs. Gardner.  He nodded and walked away. Of course that finished it. Had I been rude, probably I had been rude. The openness I had to the pictures was gone. I went and found the man, thanked him again for his help; he hardly nodded.  

I left the Gardner.  

And went across to the MFA, and went down to see the Sargents.  No one advised me, no one interrupted me, no one cared how I looked at the watercolors. One of which was almost an identical view of I Gesuati that had seemed so evanescent at Mrs. Gardner’s.  I can reproduce it here:  

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The pale yellow wash of the façade, the beautiful dark blue and gray details. But the one at Mrs. Gardner’s, without passersby, with a more steep angle of the water and stone wall, was undeniably more dramatic, more empty. I had thought of my father, walking there.  

How do the dead come and go in the places to which they have left themselves?  

Sophie Calle had asked a medium to come and look at the empty frames in the Gardner.  The medium had felt joy, felt that the spirit of the paintings was now diffused through the whole museum, and that the frames were open to possibility as they hadn’t been when they contained the paintings themselves.  

I do not know how long it takes to come to the point where we do not wish our dead back on the actual earth with the air playing over their living faces, but I am not there yet. I want the paintings back.              

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Surrealism and Form

Surrealism and Form

Arshile Gorky, Summation, 1947, iphone detail



There are other feelings for form, of course, but that doesn’t mean the Surrealists didn’t have formal feelings.  Form is often described in spatial terms, as arrangements of objects, as landscapes with prominent and receding features.  Perhaps the Surrealist feeling for form could be evoked by inversion: one could speak of a disarray of objects, or of interior landscapes in which prominence is, like that in dreams, more a matter of excitation and disturbance.

This is not to say that when you look at, say, a Max Ernst collage, your eye is not still balancing the long pointed beak of the rooster against the long line of the legs of the naked woman he has turned over his knee, but that your awareness of the beak and the body, as a beak and a body, are affecting your seeing as loci of attention in a way that is not mostly about parallel lines but about balancing visceral experiences and grappling with perceived and imagined relations between them.

The thought I’ve been trying to get articulated for a few days, since seeing Arshile Gorky’s Summation, is that these turbid experiences of suggested meaning might still in some way be understood as formal.

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I rushed into the MoMA last Saturday at 5:00 (the museums closes at 5:30).  I didn’t plan to go, had been in New York for five days without setting foot in a museum, had given up on the possibility of going, all of us, the baby, too, were sick, we were leaving early the next morning.  After a meeting, I had been unable to get a cab for fifteen blocks and realized I was within blocks, decided to chance it…
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I knew that if I had to check my backpack I would be left with ten minutes at most.  I discussed this with a sympathetic man at the information booth who, blessings on him, comped me; the much less sympathetic man at the entrance did make me go check the bag.  I couldn’t remember where things were; I’ve never spent time at the new MoMA the way I used to at the old MoMA; on the narrow escalators I was trapped behind someone who preferred to stand.

These are all aspects of seeing art in New York, but I’m not sure which should be brought out and which let drop.  I was hoping to hit Abstract Expressionism.  My father loved Rothko and I thought maybe if I got one of those I could use my ten minutes for missing him, but the one I saw through a doorway opening had a kind of bright lime green edge that I recoiled from and before I quite realized what was happening I saw a Gorky and thought I’ve been meaning to think about Gorky and stopped.

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In the wall text next to Summation, Gorky is quoted as saying, “There is my world.”  I could see from the dates that he had died the next year, and remembered dimly that there was something untimely and terrible about his death.  [I looked it up later.  He killed himself the following year, at the age of forty-four, after a gruesome two years, in which his studio burned down, a car accident left him with a broken neck and a temporarily paralyzed painting arm, and his wife left him, and took their two children.]  What had stayed in my mind was the sense that he had been an extremely important link from the Surrealists to the Abstract Expressionists – and that his loss had been bitterly mourned by both André Breton and Willem De Kooning.

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The significance of Gorky’s influence was pointed out both in the Whitney drawing retrospective (winter 2003-2004), a show I thought was very profound, and in “Abstract Expressionist New York,” at the MoMA three years ago.  Although people do talk about it, I still think it is easy to overlook how totemic and dream-oriented the Abstract Expressionists were in their early days.  Frank O’Hara’s great essay on Jackson Pollock has a long useful section on Surrealism.

Another approach in the direction of my hoped-for thought might be: if one thinks of the forms discovered by the Surrealists as being in some way taken in and then diffused throughout the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists then one could in a way actually be a witness to this in looking at the works of Gorky.      


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Une Semaine de Bonté

Une Semaine de Bonteacute

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1934


Some weeks after my father’s death I thought that I might at last begin my piece on Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, but I didn’t.  I did spend some hours studying the images in the catalog of the complete collages, a massive black-spined book with thick cardboard covers that seem the gates to an inaccessible realm.  And it was a right time to be in contact with the images again, and to begin a small private inquiry into Ernst and Surrealism, but I couldn’t really write then, and I didn’t.

The show, at the Musée d’Orsay in the summer of 2009, affected me powerfully, the feeling while there an odd combination of extreme clarity and something like vertigo.  Afterwards I felt a great need to be sure that I could go through the images again, more slowly.  I coveted the forceful catalog and when at the gift shop they said there would be no American show and that they did not ship internationally, I bought it.  I carted it then from Paris to Switzerland, strong help was necessary to get it up and down the peaceable heights, and it had weighed down my luggage to New York and later been moved with my library to Cambridge.

The catalog has become one of the books that’s most important to me to see on my shelves.  Although it is not terribly frequently that I take it down to look through the pages, its presence is a strong clean line, like the novels and notebooks of Dostoevsky, or The Interpretation of Dreams.  “It’s all been squarely faced there,” is how the feeling might be named, “it’s all there, he wasn’t afraid.”  


Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Robbed at the Arena Chapel

Giotto, The Expulsion of the Money-Changers, Arena Chapel, Padua


What was stolen were my minutes, fifteen of them. I’d been under the mistaken impression that for my twenty-seven euros – thirteen each for me and for M., one for the baby – we were to be vouchsafed half an hour in the presence of one of the greatest fresco sequences in the western world. I knew that we were to spend fifteen minutes cooling down in an air-conditioned portal prior to being allowed entry to the sacred place, but I counted on half an hour to try to snatch a few glimpses of Giotto’s eternal understanding. The bell, though, rang after fifteen minutes.

The whole thing of course is absurd – each panel, and there are dozens, ranks among the greatest paintings we have – any one could be profitably studied for many half-hours. For how long is it right to contemplate Giacchino asleep with the angel curving down his vision and the shepherds, still and aware? Five minutes tracing the steady tender robes of the figures presenting the baby Christ at the temple would not be wasted. Nevertheless, there would be a settled internal logic to spending fifteen minutes in general awe and survey and a further quarter of an hour in contemplation of a few moments. Robbed of this latter experience I could hardly feel that I had seen the paintings at all.

“Cynical,” M. said after we had left; they had simply given up on whether their visitors would have a real experience of the paintings and focused on how to get a maximum of funds in short increments of time.

But then again, in another way, one does apprehend the greatness of Giotto almost instantly. What Giotto founded for the next eight hundred years of art to struggle with was the sense that his figures existed, feet on the ground in front of us, in time. He was the master of significant form. As Bernard Berenson rightly pointed out, Giotto’s genius was for significance, for what would read immediately:

With the simplest means, with almost rudimentary light and shade, and functional line, he contrives to render, out of all the possible outlines, out of all the possible variations of light and shade that a given figure may have, only those that we must isolate for special attention when we are actually realizing it. This determines his types, his schemes of colour, even his compositions.… Obliged to get the utmost out of his rudimentary light and shade, he makes his scheme of colour of the lightest that his contrasts may be of the strongest. In his compositions he aims at clearness of grouping… Note in the [picture] we have been looking at, how the shadows compel us to realize every concavity, and the lights every convexity, and how, with the play of the two, under the guidance of line, we realize the significant parts of each figure, whether draped or undraped… Above all, every line is functional; that is to say, charged with purpose… Follow any line here, say in the figure… kneeling to the left, and see how it outlines and models, how it enables you to realize the head, the torso, the hips, the legs the feet, and how its direction, its tension, is always determined by the action.  {Berenson, Bernard, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, vol. II, New York: Phaidon, 1968, 6-7.}

Rendering his figures in time, Giotto gives the wondering viewer the sense of freshness, of “just now.”

On the way art has for many centuries mediated relationships between time and money there is of course much to say. (I tried to say something about this in a piece for The Believer, at http://www.believermag.com/issues/201211/?read=article_cohen). A few things, though, come directly to mind. The Arena Chapel, famously, was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni, who was known to practice usury, which was at that time prohibited by the Catholic Church. When Giotto undertook the commission, around 1300, it was understood that the family chapel was to be a sort of lavish expiation. Giotto’s friend Dante, who admired the chapel greatly (and who, one feels sure, spent more than fifteen minutes engrossed there) mentioned Giotto in the Divine Comedy and also had Enrico’s father, Reginaldo, as the head of the usurers in the seventh circle of hell. On the chapel’s great fresco of judgment toward the bottom the figure of Enrico Scrovegni offers up a painted maquette of the chapel in which the viewer is standing.

There is an alchemical irony in the fact that Giotto’s act transmuted Scrovegni’s gold into something as nearly eternal as the individual human being can manage and that that divinity is now changed back, by latter-day Scrovegnis, into gold. I wrote, in “Gold, Golden, Gilded, Glittering,” of how, just around 1300, time began to be measured incrementally, of how this was part of the understanding of purgatory, only incorporated into church doctrine in the 13th century, and then given masterful form by Dante. Purgatory creates a passageway between heaven and hell through which you can move step by step in both time and money. And the incrementalization and measurability of time was also very useful in building the practice of usury – which calculates how money will grow, from itself, over time.

All this, which I spent years studying, was in the background of my aggravation when the bell rang at the Arena Chapel. But what’s really caught my mind in the days since is the relationship between my feeling about time and my feeling about money – captured, I think, in that complex word, “to spend.”

“To spend,” derives from the Latin expendere, “to weigh out money, to pay down.” (The tangibility is interesting in the old word, from a time when money had a specific gravity.) Expendere was generally borrowed by all the Germanic tongues and became in Old English spendan (with forspenden meaning “to use up.”) As explained by etymonline, “In reference to labor, thoughts, time, etc. attested from c.1300.”

It is interesting that, in one of those cosmic shifts of understanding that periodically encompass the globe, at precisely the moment Giotto was painting the ground on the Arena Chapel, in English people began to spend time. But, at least in my ears and usage, in the phrases “I spend time,” and “I spend money,” the “spend” is not congruent. The difference becomes more evident as quantities and further objects are adjoined. “I spent a lot of time with the painting.” “I spent a lot of money on the painting.” It is absolutely clear that in the first case the net result is an augmentation and in the second a depletion. Time is not money. Time spent is something gained. Even wasting time has more so to speak profit in it than wasting money.

In some profound sense, one understood, I feel sure, by every figure in the Arena Chapel, my time is not my own. And not just because it is borrowed from some person or deity to whom it really does belong but because it is that in which we all live and move. It is the awareness of the movement of time that makes significant form possible. Lines and significance are drawn out, corporeal existence has its structured purposes, in time. And, even though the time in which we move cannot be ours, ironically I think it is only when time bears this relationship to significance that we can feel that time has been stolen from us. If I look at a carved wooden Madonna from 1100, my heart full of rebellious fury at how my father, dead at sixty-seven, was robbed of his time, that Madonna looks on incomprehendingly. But all the people in Giotto – the sleeping guards, the Madonnas with their hands outstretched, the Judas and the woman who look on – all of them, they know.


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Giotto, Noli me tangere, Arena Chapel, Padua


Reading Toward Renoir

Reading Toward Renoir

Monet Painting in his Garden at Argenteuil, 1873, Wadsworth Atheneum


Renoir to me has always been the outlier – the one among the Impressionists without austerity enough to make room for me.  Too sweet, too voluptuous.  All skin, no air. But loved by Leo Stein, Gertrude’s brother, who understood Cézanne’s apples right away. When he and Gertrude split up the household they had for decades shared, both wanted the apples, but were content for her to keep the Picassos, him to take the Renoirs.

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Stein was a man for whom sensuality was difficult and I’ve wondered if Renoir seemed to offer in an uncomplicated way, enjoyment.  It sounds from the memoir written by the son, Jean Renoir, as if the painter was a rare person, fundamentally tolerant of himself and of other people.  It’s true that his paintings show people taking pleasure in life. Who else does that?  Perhaps some Dutch painters, though there is often a suspicion that Frans Hals is laughing at his revelers.  In Renoir they take a quiet pleasure.  Jean Renoir says the sitters have “serenity.”  They are settled, but they are still full of the activity of being themselves; they look out on their surroundings and see much to interest them.  

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When the son spoke to the father of different women he had admired and painted, a great variety of women, society ladies and street walkers, the painter was full of appreciation, his greatest commendation, “she posed like an angel.”  In the portraits, the sitter and the painter seem to share a lively and devoted understanding.

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There is a Renoir of Monet in a garden painting. I wondered when I saw the reproduction recently if it were a Renoir or a Monet. The flowers have a lot of whites reaching upward in a way that I thought might be Monet, but when I checked the back flap I was not really surprised to see that it was a Renoir. The way to tell would have been to look at the figure, the painter in his hat, all his energy turned toward his craft.  Features, soft, almost indistinct, but the impression of the face is of concentration and happiness.  He could be humming.  

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Apparently Renoir loved all craftsmanship.  He had himself begun by painting porcelain and then window shades.  His father was a very good tailor.  Renoir used to lament the passing of know-how and the replacement of hand industries by machines.  He had felt grateful to grow up in the old Tuileries neighborhood before it was torn down – all the stairways and niches and small corner carvings of the buildings bespoke the loving care of craftspeople.  Women, he told his son, at their daily tasks, know how to live.  “Around them I feel happy.”  

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In a state of happy engagement people are very close to the surface, much closer then we usually are able to be even with close friends, whose faces barricade them in reserve. Perhaps what I have taken for too much luster, too much skin, is really more unsettling, the close presence of people in a state to which we are no longer accustomed, as we may find the unsanitized smells from earlier eras – a barnyard, a field of clover, dried lavender in sheets – overwhelmingly, almost intolerably, sweet.  

Thin Air


We are in the air. The baby and I. She sleeps in my right arm; I type with my left thumb. Clouds below discrete cotton floaters, at our level cirrus band and behind that at sky's horizon higher piled.  Despite glimpsed majesty, in airplane capsule thoughts inward, my mother, her grief, my father's study, which I cleaned while home, naturally, as if straightening a desk nearly my own, books and notes, small discoveries, the text by Confucius, a picture of my sister her head thrown back in happiness.

I forget that I am often in the sky. The way clouds look from above doesn't occur to me; I have to force myself to think of it. They're cut out of life, these air interludes.  But I notice the baby thinks of the sky as a place one can go. When the elephant jumps the fence or the bear sneezes and the animals go flying she holds the book up in the air as she does her tiny wooden plane when we talk of flying. This week she missed her Dad intensely and it seemed she had the idea that he had gone, not to a conference in Greece, but to the moon. 'Moon,' she said when we spoke of him, and once late, unable to fall asleep, she insisted we go out and look for the moon in the night sky.

She has a book in which a little girl asks for the moon and her father climbs a long ladder and brings it down for her. I had forgotten the book earlier this week, the night of the rare equinoctic moon, apparently larger and closer than in decades, which I wanted badly to get up at four in the morning to see, but instead dreamt of getting up to see and in the dream caught only the last sight, huge, pale orange and planetary, with rings like Saturn, slipping over the horizon. In the dream I told my mother and sister how beautiful it had been. I did then wake up and go out to look but it was already gone. The next day I told them of the dream and felt my father, planetary, hovering. But not to be reached by the baby and me, so far from these clouds even as we descend through them, much farther I think than Confucius was from his skies or I would not have written this into my cell phone as we fly.