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Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Acquisition and Time

Acquisition and Time
Working on a talk to be given at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – about the collection of Italian pictures that Gardner acquired with significant help from Bernard Berenson – has been the occasion for thinking again about the collector’s passion.  When one stands in a gallery in front of a picture one is not only affected by the passions of the painter, or made aware of the forces of history, one is directly confronted with provenance, namely, by what combination of human passions did this object come to be here?  

Isabella Gardner’s letters to Berenson came dashing across the Atlantic, mixed with a flurry of cables – “Of course I want the Giotto—” “if our stupid and impossible Art Museum does not get the Giorgione (the Christ head, you know) please get it for me…. They won’t move quickly enough to get it I fear.”  I’ve been struck again by the strange urgency collectors feel seemingly as part of their decision to buy a painting.  Before the painting presents itself, it is an ordinary day – one will play with the dog, read the papers – and then the opportunity arrives, an offering letter, cable, call, a dealer at a gallery makes a discreet suggestion – and suddenly there is frenzy, haste, all the wonderful uncertainty of romance, will they call, is one making a fool of oneself, to what lengths is one willing to go.

I think I can guess something of the feeling from my own experience of buying concert tickets, or books I want very badly.  Every aspect of the transaction seems fraught and significant – I can hardly believe the chance will not be snatched away for me, even when the white envelope with the tickets arrives in the mail, I feel certain I’ll lose them.  I always have a great stab of anxiety as I walk up to the usher to present these pieces of paper, my claim.

There is something fundamentally strange about acquisition.  One lives in a household of objects, in a soul full of experiences, a few precious, many not, and one feels these things as one’s familiars – books have a known heft, trousers carry the spot from a sandwich, a memory of a particular quartet arises unbidden and is pleasurable again.  Very mysteriously, one can promise something that one already feels a little uncertain is actually a possession, a portion of a number in an account, to some institution in another part of town or on another continent, and this can result in an experience or an object leaving the wide world and crossing over into one’s narrower private realm, to sit by the bed and be mulled over in the night.

Of course this has to do with the strangeness of money itself.  Something that can render dental services and turpentine and a Rembrandt into commensurate terms must occupy an oddly-shaped conceptual space. But what’s interesting to me at the moment is how much the anxiety of acquisition seems to affect and be affected by one’s sense of time.  The most important gambit for the salesman is that ‘time is running out.’  “If you don’t take it,” Berenson wrote to Gardner, “the Paris Rothschilds almost certainly will.” But this urgency only intensifies as one begins to take hold.  My feeling in acquisition at least is a desperate desire to get across the field of empty time and to the safety of possession.  I will decide to buy in part to ward off the sensation that to pause is fatal, and, once I have decided, it will feel that the time left to wait is unbearable.

It may be that these two fears are one fear, and that every negotiation to acquire is really a small negotiation with one’s own mortality. This whole train of thought would then just be another way of arriving at a thought that already feels familiar and likely: the great desire and anxiety unleashed in us by wanting to possess art is bound up with the sense that time is running out for me.      


At Nadar's (but he was already gone)

At Nadar039s but he was already gone

Monet, Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (painted from Nadar's studio), 1873


Possibly it was somewhere in two decades of reading and rereading Susan Sontag’s On Photography that I absorbed a small but suggestive misimpression.  In the midst of a passage on the relationship between photography and painting, she devotes a long footnote to Impressionism.  This footnote begins, unexceptionably, “the large influence that photography exercised upon the Impressionists is a commonplace of art history.”[i]

Rereading the rest of the footnote I see, as is often the case with Sontag, that I have been thinking about what it contains for a long time without even remembering that she wrote it, and that I will probably now spend many more years arguing with myself about the details she’s included in what is for her a brief excursus.

Here is her summary of what the Impressionists found in photography: “The camera’s translation of reality into highly polarized areas of light and dark, the free or arbitrary cropping of the image in photographs, the indifference of photographers to making space, particularly background space, intelligible…”  This was the “inspiration for the Impressionist painters’ professions of scientific interest in the properties of light, for their experiments in flattened perspective and unfamiliar angles and decentralized forms that are sliced off by the picture’s edge.”  Sontag, magpie, quotationalist, admirer of Benjamin, points out that Stieglitz said of the Impressionists, “they depict life in scraps and fragments.”

And here is what led me astray, though, as I work this through, I’m beginning to think that the clarification of her small error of suggestion might actually affirm the rest of what she’s said.  The footnote comes to the following too-irresistible conclusion: “A historical detail: the very first Impressionist exhibition, in April 1874, was held in Nadar’s photography studio on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.”  

This information, too, is a commonplace of art history, and if I first saw it in Sontag I’ve since seen it referred to often enough that when I began to think of keeping this notebook I pictured an essay depicting the scene. It was to be an exciting set piece: one after another the soon-to-be-famous painters would enter the studio, so full of potential. There they are, gathering around the far-seeing Nadar, who loves their work, and says 'you must have the show here,' generously taking down his photographs.  They hammer, they arrange curtains, they call out to one another.  I knew that the name of the movement came from this first exhibition.  Perhaps Nadar himself, watching them at work, had said something that suggested the name...

Not so, not quite so, at any rate, and in a way that matters.  A recent, thorough biography of Nadar by the French writer Stéphanie de Saint Marc makes almost no mention of the Impressionists in general.  The only one that Nadar really knew was Manet.  The biographer says Manet inspired Nadar as a model.  She has a heavy description of the famous photograph: Manet’s fine features and “romantically undulating chevelure” made a “counterpoint” with the hand “robust, almost peasantlike” seen in the picture’s foreground, on the back of a chair.[ii]

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Nadar, Édouard Manet, 1863

This friendship, though, doesn’t account for the presence of the Impressionists at Nadar’s studio because, as is well known, Manet resolutely did not show with his friends in the 1874 exhibition; he was still fighting it out with the official salon.  (I’ve often taken a kind of, probably unfair, satisfaction in Manet’s absence from the show. His works seem to be obdurate where those of the other painters are fluid, though I do recognize that this is yet another of my difficulties with seeing Impressionism, as somehow what they saw in him led to what I see in them.)

In any case, I now hurried to John Rewald’s History of Impressionism to read the chapter on the April 1874 show.  The painters formed themselves into a group, not at all impromptu, carefully thought out and argued over, with the financial structure of a joint-stock company (Pissarro’s idea,) and a deliberately un-school-like name: Société anonyme des artistes peintres, sculpteurs, graveurs, etc. (Renoir’s idea.)  Though the name Impressionism did arise from the show, it did so in a roundabout, emergent way, not because of a stroke of impressarial brilliance on the part of Nadar.

The name came about through an odd mixture of the offhand, the laudatory, and the vituperative.  The catalog of the exhibition was edited by Renoir's brother, Edmond Renoir. Edmond Renoir remembered, in his unpublished recollections, that when he came to the group of pictures Monet had sent he was irritated by, "the monotony of his titles: Entrance of a Village, Leaving the Village, Morning in a Village...."  Edmond Renoir objected and "the painter calmly told him: 'Why don't you just put Impression!'"[iii] A painting of Le Havre was called Impression, Sunrise, and critics, both the rare ones who liked the show, and the much more common ones who vied to outdo one another in piling up ridicule, seized the name “Impressionists,” which the painters themselves accepted as close enough.

They weren’t hanging around Nadar and excitedly studying his photographs; they simply needed a space. According to Rewald: “This presented itself in the form of the studios vacated by Nadar, who, according to Monet, lent them the premises without fee.”[iv] Nadar’s biographer confirms that at this period, though he no longer maintained a studio there, Nadar still sometimes sublet the premises.  He was fairly friendly with the group of painters, whom he saw now and again at the café Guerbois, but, she says, he stayed “hermétique” with regard to their innovations.  He was a fervent admirer of Daumier and Guys – both dear to Baudelaire – but never collected the painters who were to become even more fully the "painters of modern life," as Baudelaire had described Guys in the long essay in which he envisioned a kind of painting.

Baudelaire did write perceptively and admiringly about Manet, a figure with one foot in that earlier generation, and one reluctant foot in the Impressionist camp. But this earlier generation hardly threw themselves into promoting the new way of seeing made explicit in the pictures of Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne. Nadar may have known that the artists were penniless – if he lent them the studio for no charge that was a helpful generosity in a time when few were helpful to them. What the gesture meant, though, wasn’t that the buoyant, insightful, commercially adept, scientifically inquisitive Nadar saw the future and passed the mantle on to his comrades. The show was in a place left empty by a great, declining photographer of the previous generation.

What I’ve been thinking about today is that it may be that the complicated relationship between Manet and the younger Impressionists, which has a strong bearing on the relationship between the movement of Impressionism and photography, could be expressed by these two now slightly refined facts: Manet was the friend of Nadar’s; the others got themselves named when they had a show in Nadar’s empty studio without Manet.      


[i] All Susan Sontag quotes from On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, paperback 1989, p92.
[ii] Stéphanie de Saint Marc, Nadar, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2010, p203.
[iii] John Rewald, The History of French Impressionism, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1973. Rewald is here paraphrasing and citing the unpublished recollections of Edmond Renoir, p318.
[iv] Rewald, p313.

On Photography II

On Photography II

Pissarro, A Cowherd at Valhermeil, 1874, iphone photo.

[This is the second installment of visual notes on this Pissarro, documented by iphone.]

Stretch of cultivated field down to earth:

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Shape of path as it curves back:

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Shape of hill crest, cypressed, below sky:

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Step back to look at whole again:

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Dark paint, just dashed on, group of trees:

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Really dark, low dark hole, yellow grass across lower right corner:

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Look again at dark paint just dashed on of upper tree:

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Once having looked at these two dark areas, upper tree, lower hole, the whole right side of the picture has beautiful depth:

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Now the interior looks quite different, rougher paint:

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What would Pissarro have made of this fragmentary way of writing down the seeing of his picture?  Would he know right away that, as happened in his own time, our new tools have changed the experience of sight?  He was the great theoretician among the Impressionists, the one who articulated what they were after.  But in all the letters to his son Lucien that are such a full statement of his thought I cannot find a single mention of photography.

He does, though, indicate how important the idea of the series was to his way of thinking.  In a letter from the summer of 1895, he writes that he is sorry that Lucien has been delayed in getting to Paris for now he will miss seeing "the Monets.  This is a great pity, for the Cathedrals are being much talked of, and highly praised, too, by Degas, Renoir, myself and others.  I would have so liked you to see the whole series in a group, for I find in it the superb unity which I have been seeking for a long time."   [June 1, 1895]


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.