Rachel Cohen


Passages: Pissarro

Passages Pissarro

Pissarro, Pontoise, Road to Gisors in Winter, 1873, MFA.

Camille Pissarro, theorist and mentor of the Impressionist movement, was known for giving sound advice.  Here are some of his thoughts as later recollected by the painter Louis Le Bail (in Rewald, The History of Impressionism).  They’re in the order that Le Bail wrote them down in, but I’ve broken them into territories, and set them to some iphone details I took of the last Pissarro I looked at, Pontoise, the Road to Gisors in Winter, 1873, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston:

Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament.  

The motif should be observed more for shape and color than for drawing.  There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that.  Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole, it destroys all sensations.  Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brush stroke of the right value and color which should produce the drawing.  

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In a mass, the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within. Paint the essential character of things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever, without bothering about technique.  

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When painting, make a choice of subject, see what is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously.  Don’t work bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brush strokes of the right color and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brush strokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately.  

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The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colors produce on their surroundings.  Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it.  Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add.

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Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky, of foliage.  

Don’t be afraid of putting on color, refine the work little by little.  

Don’t proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel.

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Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.  

Don’t be timid in front of nature: one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes.  

One must have only one master – nature; she is the one always to be consulted.

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In the far reaches: Calvino

In the far reaches Calvino

Italo Calvino

Posted here and at the 92nd Street Y as part of their 75th Anniversary celebration: http://92yondemand.org/Topic/75-at-75/

If I were trying to explain to someone what happens when you are reading Calvino and then sit down to write and find that, somehow inevitably, a strange derivation of Calvino has pervaded your own style, I would say that, first of all, you notice that your adjectives are different. Their purpose now is to distinguish types, genres, members of phyla, not to describe a person you would know on the street. Choosing names for characters you find that the names suggest ideas about people, not actual people. Dialogue evaporates, what little there is is estranged, lines are spoken as if and often sound like an imitation of speaking or as though a figure in a myth were speaking. The writing is cool, a little distant, textureless. Even after all these adjustments, however, the lines still probably fail to achieve what Calvino’s writing does, which is to live permanently in the imagination of its readers as depictions of kinds of experiences. Fragment by fragment, he is constructing a great classificatory scheme of experiences.

Reading Calvino has always made me feel at once delighted admiration for the majesty and delicacy of his structures and within that a smaller yearning for a different Calvino, one who would now and again leave a physical trace. I started reading Calvino in 1993, about eight years after his death and some ten years after the reading he gave on March 31, 1983, at the 92nd Street Y. I have, in the twenty years I’ve been on the lookout for Calvino, met a few people who knew him or were related to him, and this has given me ways of guessing something about his presence and manner. Memories of these encounters are important to me. At the same time, I am dubious about them. What they hold is not Calvino as he wrote and chose to present himself, but Calvino constrained by the laws of the planet to leave impressions of his existence. I am not sure if these faint lines constitute the Calvino I am looking for.  

I approached listening to the recording of the reading he gave at the Y with some trepidation, a combination of hope that I would at last encounter a further Calvino and fear that I wouldn’t like him, not as much as I like the ever-elusive Linnaeus of urban life, finding his way through a labyrinth that is also northern Italy and Paris from the 1940s through the 70s. I delayed listening for a long time and, when I finally began, played only a few seconds here and there, forming the mistaken impression that he read chiefly from Mr. Palomar. As this was a book of his I hadn’t read, I thought I’d better order it and read it before listening to the recording. In this matter, too, it was possible to introduce a series of delays.

When at last I forced myself to sit down and begin, I kept my pen ready to hand, although whether my notes would track him or defend my idea of him I didn’t yet know. He began by reading a series of selections from Invisible Cities in English and Italian. The audience laughed at the end of these sections. A slight change in tone—the entrance not quite of warmth but of discernible shared amusement—would come into his voice after this laughter. He had clearly intended to offer a joke just where, on the page, I had felt something more like the writer turning away.

At least two Calvinos could be discovered in the readings of these fragments. The one who read in careful, hesitating English the translations of his own work by William Weaver seemed tactful toward others but awkward. The other spoke in sure, rapid Italian, offhand in its exactitude and as if giving directions, which, especially in the stories of Invisible Cities (a sort of travel-guide to the effortfully-inhabited world), Calvino is. Neither man would be particularly easy to approach, but two routes in make a citadel more accessible than one.

In his design of the program—of course there was a design, and an elaborate one—these few pieces were to be understood as introductory. For now—gently, mildly, as personally as it is possible to speak while giving nothing away—he turned to the body of his intended reading and explained to his audience that he worked by writing many related stories over long periods of time. These, he continued, “I classify in series.” Once filed, they “become my books.” At later moments in the recording, he introduced examples: amorous tales came under the rubric “Casanova’s Memories”; another set concerned “everyday objects as a means of communication between human beings.” The process had just the same sort of structures as the work. I was pleased, relieved, disappointed.

As the reading went on, I noted its progression of elements: 3 stories from Invisible Cities, followed by 2 from Mr. Palomar, then 1 of the everyday objects that mediate between people: “ice.”  Then he said he would read from “Casanova’s Memories,” a series, he pointed out, parallel to Invisible Cities. He read three from this series, and in my notes I marked 3, 2, 1, 3.

In one of my favorite Mr. Palomar stories (in the book it is number 1.3.3., “The Contemplation of the Stars,” in the section “Mr. Palomar Looks at the Sky,” in the group “Mr. Palomar’s Vacation”), Mr. Palomar goes to the beach at nighttime to attempt to look at the stars. He is frustrated by his inability to hold on to the names and locations of the stars, by his slipping glasses and obscure astronomical charts. He has what seem to me very human hopes: to know something thoroughly, to find himself by losing himself in vastness, to be part of the movements of the universe’s time.

Perhaps I particularly like this story because my most cherished report of Calvino also came to me on a beach, though under a warm late September sun. I was staying on an island off the coast of Sicily and had gone down to the rocks to swim. I had gone together with an older woman, L., who had seemed very sympathetic when I first met her, at the one village bar, with some friends. She had heavy glasses and wore a long muumuu over her bathing suit, and, despite trouble with her hip, she climbed resolutely up and down the sandy path that led to the rocks. We sat in the sun watching the sea, and she must have asked what Italian writers I read. When I mentioned Calvino, she said that she had known him when they had both worked at Einaudi. A very precise man, she said, reserved, unto himself, and she made a gesture as if to settle a cravat by pulling it back toward the breastplate while drawing her torso up and back. I try to think of this gesture, of her body physically replaying his body—a gesture I have attempted myself the few times I have told the story—as a little double-humped bridge, an aerie crossing from the island of Calvino to the island of  L. to me.    

In the scene where Mr. Palomar sits on the beach, searching for the stars as he struggles with his chart, chair, and glasses, he is, unbeknownst to him, gradually surrounded by other nighttime beach-goers. “Mr. Palomar hears a whispering. He looks around: a few paces from him a little crowd has gathered, observing his movements like the convulsions of a madman.”

Perhaps a public reading, even one for an adulatory crowd, held for Calvino some element of this scene, the faint ridiculousness of the preoccupied intellectual on display. His crowd at the Y, though, is enthusiastic, applauding vigorously as the third of the romantic interludes, “Irma,” draws to a close. “You want more,” he says, teasing a little. I imagine him raising an eyebrow.

And then he reads another one, an encore, though it must have been planned. It is a long piece, involving the themes of all the other pieces, and it is another “everyday object,” matching the previous one, so that the overall pattern is now 3, 2, 1, 3, 1. This one is on the subject of telephones and is called “Before you say hello.” It is my favorite, one I imagine going back to listen to a long time from now. Some alienated, sleepless night, I will search through my iTunes folder for “19830331-00000-Calvino,” slide the time marker to 21:55 from the end and find some consolation in hearing this again. The first time I hear it, it inverts the reading and my experience of listening to it.

Is it strange or isn’t it that the finale of that evening’s efforts, the longest piece he reads, should be on the topic of estrangement, a meticulous analysis of how it feels to be a business traveler calling one’s lover from a foreign city and failing to get through. The focus of interest is neither of the two characters, but the experience of the telephone. Enumerated are the sequence of specific sensations and emotions wrapped up with pressing the pad of one’s finger into the rotating dial, the despair one feels as one hears by the tones that one has failed to get out of the national network and into the great global one, and, especially, the peculiar desire and frustration that come with knowing that, should the lover in fact answer, there is really nothing to say.

Technologically all of this is obsolete, although it did evoke within me the long-unthought-of physical sensation of the rotary phone. But it is obvious that the experience as a whole—the attempt to reach the loved one through a complex ethereal network whose portal of entry into the physical world is a small imperfect unreliable device to which one hangs on by one’s fingertips—has become so much more the way life feels that I feel, listening to him, that he is only incidentally reading for the people that night, sitting in their chairs and rearranging their sweaters, and really he is reading for me, hunched at my computer, straining to catch in the sound of his voice and careful pronunciations the message he bears for a latter-day civilization now completely encompassed by the paradox of technological ever-presence and alienation in precisely the way his story would seem to predict.

The Calvino gesture that I learned from L. on the rocks on the island off the coast of Sicily, the most familiar thing I have of Calvino, is a gesture of his withdrawal. The paradox of this is too obvious to relish.  But it sits well next to this experience of hearing him read “Before you say hello,” which, in saying so precisely how things are, does, as dark humor will, comfort a little. The exact name for the vast reaches of remoteness has, when it is pronounced, a kind of tender proximity. Perhaps in another forty years Calvino will seem much closer to the readers and listeners of that era than he does to us. No doubt they will reside in still another galaxy of technological experience. Perhaps there will be no writer for whom they feel more affection, or who gives them a like sense of speaking kindly to them from an all-seeing past. On this evening at the Y, after a brief preamble, the first line of his own that he reads is from Invisible Cities: “If you choose to believe me, good.”    

Watercolor: Translucence and Resolution

Watercolor Translucence and Resolution

Sargent, "Lights and Shadows," 1909, iphone detail.

On Tuesday the baby and I saw the John Singer Sargent watercolors now up at the MFA.  The baby saw much to please her.  In addition to the particularly nice low cushioned gray benches, she liked best the room labeled “watercraft,” and in particular this image of boats, also my favorite:

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We seemed both drawn to it simultaneously, though how much each might have anticipated the other’s preference is hard to determine.  She could see immediately that it was boats and then called out the colors – first, her favorite, “orange!” and then, another color she particularly likes, and one pronounced in the picture, “green.”

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In the last six months or so, watching the baby learn to name her surroundings, I’ve found again and differently how much of the pleasure of looking is naming.  To know what a thing is called is to see it with a distinctness that, nameless, it lacks.  One pleasure of Impressionism is of making out what’s there – that is a face, a hat, a shadow, a boat upon the water, a reflection.  The Impressionist styles of painting slow down the eye’s recognition enough that you can feel, again, the early pleasure of coming-to-know-what’s-there.  

This is also a pleasure of Sargent’s work. Though he was not an Impressionist, he developed just a little later and responded to some of the same influences.  Many of the watercolors that are part of the exhibition are from the latter half of his career.  Watercolor is a great late medium: translucent, indelible, it requires judgment and assurance from its maker.  

A mature form for artists, it is also a late form for lookers – requiring subtleties of discernment and resolution.  The more experience you’ve had looking at the world, the more astonished you feel to recognize the effects of diaphanous atmosphere in the watercolor.  (Translucent is even one of the names for the kind of paint, the exhibition’s wall text lists both translucent and opaque watercolor.)      

I had no idea if the baby would be able to see things in this medium – they require much more advanced powers of resolution than what she grasped a couple of months ago when we last went to look together.  But, in the last room, labeled, I think, “light on stone,” when I said I wanted to look at this white house, she seemed pleased

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and when I carried her over to it, she said, of her own accord, “clouds!”  That’s right, I said.  I took out the phone and she wanted to look at the picture of herself with a cat that she knows is on it, but when I said that I wanted to take a picture of the green door she approved and her tone suggested to me that she saw both the object and the way that taking a picture of it was like naming it, an act of recognition: “Door!”  

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[First two images iphone details of "Portuguese Boats," 1903, last four images iphone details of "Lights and Shadows," 1909.]

On Photography I

On Photography I

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone.

After years of scorning people who come to museums and take pictures – souvenir-hunters! they don’t even look at the paintings! – on Tuesday I found myself in the Impressionist rooms at the Met zealously photographing details with my iphone held up in front of the canvases.  I had two impulses, or justifications: it seemed expedient – I was in New York for a day only, had a mere hour with the pictures – this was a way to take notes.  And at the same time, or even before the thought of expediency occurred to me, I also knew that having details of paintings is very helpful if you are going to post about them.  Already the fact of keeping this notebook is changing the way I go to museums.

The second picture I took showed me that the modest magnification of the iphone makes an enormous difference in what you can see.  I started with some little Boudin figures at the beach:

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I have always felt that if you wait long enough and give yourself patiently to the act of looking your eye will learn to see at this level of detail.  But here, presto, the machine could do it instantly – and then looking at the painting with the naked eye I could see it all myself, trained, in a second, by the clarification of the machine.

As I went on, taking pictures of Constables and Daubignys, and made my way to the Pissarro room, I began to experience some of the pitfalls of the new method.  The iphone camera overclarifies.  It sharpens contrasts, defines edges where the paint is deliberately ambiguous.  So that I was in fact learning to see a painting that wasn’t the painting I was looking at.  I had to try to compensate in the other direction, photographing so quickly that the camera had not yet quite had time to resolve the image, and this seemed to more clearly approximate the paint as it was actually there.

Still, the exciting thing was that I could actually keep track of the sequence of my observations.  For example, I saw this beautiful Pissarro from 1874, the year of the first great Impressionist exhibition, painted at Pontoise, one of Pissarro’s favorite places to paint.

I saw the picture whole:

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Then my eye went to this passage of paint in the foreground:

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Then to the cowherd of the picture’s title:

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A cart further along:

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Paint to right foreground, the yellow, blues and lavendars:

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Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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[ Technology suggests and constrains.  I find I am limited in the number of images I can post.  Just at this moment of drama, when we are about to see further into the picture, I will have to ask my reader to wait.  The rest of the sequence will be found under Pissarro, On Photography II ]