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Rachel Cohen

Boudin

Garden Windows

Garden Windows

Édouard Vuillard, Foliage--Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, Art Institute of Chicago, detail




I was standing in our kitchen this afternoon, and the light from the garden was coming through the windows, garden light, unlike any other, and I started to think of painted gardens.  How it is that sometimes the paint itself is even more beautiful than the real light.


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Yesterday and today the air is full of light, sixty-four degrees, sixty-seven degrees, days like April.  The trees are rushing to throw off their silver February garb.  Green shoots are already up in the garden, although next week it is to freeze.


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A friend of my friend’s has died.  We are in different cities and cannot take a walk together.  He wrote that it would be nice to go to a museum.  


The last time we were in the same city – he was here, in Chicago – we went to the Art Institute, and looked at this and that, and what we were taken by was Vuillard. In one room, there are two beautiful earth-banners.  Landscape: Window Overlooking the Woods, 1899, is twelve feet long, eight feet high.  


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The other, Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, 1918, is a little over nine feet across, some six feet high.  You could go every day to look at them.  


I had just seen them for the first time a few days before my friend’s visit, so we could begin together.  There is a woman on the left side, with a child, there, back in the leaves, that is the fruit seller.


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In making Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller, Vuillard used the medium of distemper, in which paint pigments are bound with melted glue.  You have to paint quickly, it dries very fast.  The wall text also points to the “closely ranged tones of the palette.”  Sage against olive against forest.  In life, friends are like this, right up next to each other, in contrast and bound in their shared medium.


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The abstraction of paint, that it may represent both the thing and the light, both the evanescent and the enduring, that would be a comfort, if we could go and look at it today.


Catalog of Time: Time and Tide

Catalog of Time Time and Tide

Eugène Boudin, Low Tide at Deauville, MFA, Boston, iphone detail


Suspension, one of the time-qualities a painter may achieve, is particularly pronounced in Boudin’s Low Tide at Deauville.  Sky over the land, figures near and in the water, boats awaiting the wind.  Just at low tide there is a pause, the water holds steady, and then it’s as if the whole scene takes a next breath, and everything begins to flow the other way.

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Time and tide, I find, are not the distinct words I always took them for.  Time and tide wait for no man.  Those two great forces, I always thought, time and the sea, the hours of the sun, the pull of the moon, the ineluctable powers of the heavens drawing movement from the earth.  But no, tide in old English was time, with no thought of the sea.  The expression began as a repetition of synonyms, two words for time, it tarrieth, they used to say, for no man.  We have this older sense, the tidings of season and time, in yuletide, noontide.  Tide came to take a sea sense probably in the 14th century, time was still its primary valence, the time of the waters.  To me the earlier version of the expression almost seems to herald the coming differentiation – it is only when ‘tide’ has a sea meaning that the expression has its great breadth and completeness, its sense of mortality.

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Boudin painted this picture in 1897, the year before he died.  Looking at the details I am struck again by the way the figures, especially the one who bends to look at the water, seem to dissolve into the air.        

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A little further with Degas

A little further with Degas

Edgar Degas, Before the Race, The Clark Museum, c.1882

Many of Degas’ paintings and drawings of racehorses have titles that name the same moment.  The one at the Clark Museum is called “Before the Race.”  Degas, we are often told, wanted to capture the feeling of motion in painting.  The moments before a horserace are astonishingly dense with motion, not the wild free motion of the race, but the expectation of it.  I think people who love races love the combination – before and during – the anticipatory pausing steps, a taut potential that then gallops free. Great paintings work continually along the tense edge between stillness and motion, and painting seems well-suited to giving the hesitating about-to-be-motion that comes before.

At the Clark, “Before the Race” caught all of our attention.  Little S., two, likes animals in pictures.  M. and I also found ourselves momentarily absorbed in the little picture, the elegant animals, the bright-silked riders. We never know how long we have in a gallery and I hurried to document what my eye seemed to be noticing.  Here are my six details, in the order taken:

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It was only in looking at the pictures afterward that I noticed that I had been repeatedly drawn to what I can now see is the fulcrum of the painting: the horse’s head almost awkwardly outstretched, the red and yellow jockey pulled forward in his saddle.

In his essay on Degas, Paul Valéry points out that Degas was one of the first to study the equine photographs of Major Muybridge, which gave the painter the chance to see “the real positions of the noble animal in movement.” (Valéry, Degas Manet Morisot, Bollingen Series XLV 12, p40, translated by David Paul)  Before these photographs, as Valéry says, we thought we knew what we were seeing, but, although “it seemed possible to picture the positions of a bird in flight, or a horse galloping…these interpolated pauses are imaginary.” (p41)

The way our family saw “Before the Race” is twice related to this observation of Valéry’s. At the age of two, the world is motion, wild and free, with pauses, such as the one we take before this picture.  And in this little interpolated pause, I hurriedly take a few photographs that will allow me to decipher what was inside the continuous impression my eye took.

Before I saw my photographs, I knew that the painting conveyed to me a sense of excitement at once elegant and awkward, but I would not have been able to point to instances.  Afterward it seemed important that the first time I photographed the horse’s head I left it in isolation, and the second time I included the beautiful patch of lavender paint to the right of the horse’s muzzle, which shows that the horse is reaching toward.

The first photograph was taken at 12:18.25,

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three seconds later I took this image:

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and four seconds after that:        

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In that seven seconds, and, more importantly, in looking at the negative space among the horses’ legs, which gave me the sense of the ground – the ground of the picture, and the fundamentals of this world – I got hold of something about the relation between the stretching horse and his universe, and when I photographed the horse's head again I framed the shot to include the clues Degas had left. Between the horse’s nose and the patch of purple is lure and distance to be overcome, something, nostrils quivering, to reach toward and something that will receive the hooves in motion.

Degas, Valéry says, “is one of the rare painters who gave due emphasis to the ground.”  (p42)  It is in the way a painter does the ground, he says, that one can see color “no longer as a local quality acting in isolation… but as a local result of all the different sheddings and reflections of light in space, passing and repassing between all the bodies contained in it.” The ground gives a unity, one that is “quite distinct from [the unity] of composition.” Working in this way alters the painter’s “idea of form.” (p43)  

Although Valéry doesn’t put it in these words, I think you could say that when the picture is united by these “sheddings and reflections of light in space, passing and repassing between all the bodies contained in it,” then new possibilities for achieving a sense of movement are conveyed to the looker.  These passings and repassings are what we feel as we follow a tripping small girl into the next gallery, and what she herself is exhilarated by as she learns to understand her own movement in space.  In painting so conceived, as in the moment before the races, the potential of movement is in every trembling shadow and patch of ground.   “Pushed to its limit,” Valéry concludes, “this method amounts to impressionism.”  (p43)

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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Tiepolo's Time

Tiepolo039s Time

Tiepolo, The Chariot of Aurora, 1760s



Reading Roberto Calasso’s Tiepolo Pink persuaded me to look carefully, for the first time, at the Tiepolo oil sketches that fill almost a room at the Metropolitan Museum. As ever, I had less time than I would have liked. Was astonished by their upwardness. Sense of being drawn up into the sky – the whole company, nymphs and swans and chariots upward, upward, into the vast swirl of the heavens.


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Calasso’s book in a revelatory sense about time.  Father Time a recurring figure in Tiepolo’s oeuvre – and shown here.  I believe the older man in blue between cherub and swans.  (The hours are with Aurora in her chariot.)


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The sensation of time in looking at these oil sketches was very peculiar.  In the heavens, the time is divine time, the time of myths and disporting, and this time is circular, though not without sequence. Particular moments have been shown, dramatic moments, but the whole story, known to the gods, if not to us, is implicit there.    

This is part of the feeling of mystery, the story is known, but it is not clear that it will be known to us, as we might like to believe, “in the fullness of time.”  Can’t escape the feeling that these powerful inscrutable faces, intent on the project of carrying forward day and light, are in an intractable relationship with the narrative flow of their story in a way that does not even resemble the way we recount the incidents of our days to one another.


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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.      


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