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Rachel Cohen

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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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