Rachel Cohen

Amélie Rorty In Memoriam

Ameacutelie Rorty In Memoriam

Carlo Crivelli, The Virgin Annunciate, 15th century, Staedel Museum, all detail photos Rachel Cohen

In Cambridge, we had a lovely friend, the philosopher Amélie Rorty. About five years ago, not too long before we left Cambridge, I went with Amélie to see this very beautiful show of the work of Carlo Crivelli (the 15th century Italian artist) at the Gardner Museum. We walked through the show gently, looking at each painting carefully and talking them over as she and I both loved to do. Amélie died last week, at the age of eighty-eight and, in my sorrow, I would like to write a small remembrance.

Amélie was a person of wide culture, a person of eagerness and curiosity, delightable, but with a clear-eyed sense of human failings and frailty. She loved a good sharp conversation and when people really got talking with vigor about matters intellectual, artistic, or political, her eyes would get full of light, and she would seem in her element, like an otter in a river. I sometimes would take a walk with her along the Charles River, and once or twice I went to eat at her apartment, which looked out over that river. We shared an interest in Jane Austen’s work, and I enjoyed testing out my latest thoughts against her quick, receptive, thorough-going knowledge and ready opinions. She was already in her eighties, but she walked steadily and intentionally; she held herself to a high standard.

**

Once she gave us an old-fashioned lamp that burned lamp oil; once a small red vase, of an unusual glaze with some brown in it – it sits in a nice place on a high shelf in our kitchen. These things are like her – illuminating, self-certain, hopeful but aware of darkness.

At the Crivelli show at the Gardner, we lingered in front of many paintings – it was very beautiful there, dark, and the paintings especially luminous. I thought I had taken pictures of many of the paintings, for I had come to have a great admiration for the graceful and powerful Crivelli of St. George and the Dragon in the Gardner’s collection, and this was a rare chance to see many together. But I also remember that I was trying to really concentrate and see with Amelie, and that photographing would have been a distraction. I seem only to have photographed two small panels, The Angel of the Annunciation and The Virgin Annunciate, both had originally been part of the same altarpiece and both belong to the collection of the Staedel Museum in Germany. I remember that Amélie and I both had an uplifted and gratified feeling about the exceptional perfection of Crivelli’s architectural sense.

Carlo Crivelli, The Angel of the Annunciation, 15th Century, Staedel Museum, all detail photos Rachel Cohen

**

Amélie was born Amélie Oksenberg, in Belgium, in 1932, the daughter of Polish Jews Klara and Israel Oksenberg; they emigrated to Virginia, where she grew up on a farm until she went to the University of Chicago, when she was, I think, about sixteen. Her recollections of the University of Chicago circa 1950 were very vivid – she was pleased by the fact that we came to teach here, and delighted and proud to let me know that her granddaughter now attends the University of Chicago. I had the impression in her recollections of a place of great intellectual ferment, formative for who she went on to be and what she went on to write about. There is a picture online of her sitting with a colleague, a young professor talking to another, together they look at a book by John Dewey, each holding it with one hand.

She got her graduate degrees in philosophy from Yale, and another master’s in anthropology from Princeton, she taught for twenty-six years at Rutgers, and those were very good years in her teaching life and she referred to them with great affection. During that time she was married to Richard Rorty and divorced from him – I never heard about him. Her kitchen was decorated with drawings her grandchildren had made. Once, when my husband and I, then childless, said something about our collective political and environmental life, which was then already worrying, though not yet as worrying as it has become, she said, I cannot be sanguine, I have hostages to the future.

I think the formation of the Depression and World War II never left her; she was a child of the 1930s and she thought hard about self-deception, ambivalence, and the erosion of moral conviction, but in surprising ways, not to cast blame, or to offer quick solutions, but as things to wonder over. Literature was very alive to her, and she found ideas about character, personhood, and presence in the Greek tragedians and in Dostoevsky. I often felt that I had a very incomplete grasp of her work and ideas and, searching around on the internet since I learned of her death, I find aspects of her thoughts that influenced others, and can feel how her thinking helped them on with own. Along with her own books, she was a great editor of volumes, and contributed several important collections where she brought together disparate voices on topics in moral philosophy and ethics.

I would not especially have associated her with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but I will remember that they died on the same day, on September 18th of 2020, Rosh Hashanah, these two Jewish women who had lived through the same history – Ruth Bader Ginsburg was 87, Amélie Rorty was 88. A friend of mine sent around a note about Ginsburg that there is a belief among some Jews that people who were meant to die at some point during the previous year, if they are especially needed, will be held to die on Rosh Hashanah, the last possible day of that year.

**

After we moved away to Chicago, Amélie now and again sent me something Austen-related that she had come across and the last note I had from her, in July, was a message of congratulation about the publication of my book Austen Years. I wrote back, a good note, thank goodness, but I wish I had told her that she is thanked in its acknowledgements, which perhaps she didn’t know.

When I began keeping an art notebook online, in Cambridge, in about 2013, Amélie was one of the people who would regularly stop by and have a look around. Now and again she left a comment, and I am very glad that there are traces of her on these pages. Here is one she left after I had written about a few paintings by Cézanne and Degas that some inspired curators had temporarily hung together at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In her words you can see, I think, how she thought about her own work as an editor in relation to that of curators, and you can see the way she thought about the sky that she spent a lot of time studying from the windows of her high apartment, and the way she thought about the people moving along on earth:

     Thanks for these notes.

     How much sky-blue there is in these paintings...Of course in Mme. Cezanne’s blouse, but also in the wall behind the Duchessa and in Degas's sister's blouse, her supercilious husband's tie... In a way, that blue is the hidden leit motif of these paintings, different as they are. The curators caught it, understood it, linked the paintings by painting the walls just that shade of blue...

     Amélie

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)

Ornament and Negative Space

Ornament and Negative Space

Degas, Edmondo and Therese Morbilli, about 1865, MFA, iphone detail


The trio of Degas portraits currently at the MFA (written about here two weeks ago) has drawn my attention back to Degas.  In half an hour with the Degas at the Metropolitan Museum, and on a quick return visit to those at the MFA, I found myself concentrating on the negative spaces, what happens beyond the edges of the figures, and on the things between things. I looked closely at Edmondo and Therese Mobilli, the portrait Degas made of his sister and her husband about 1865, and at Duchessa di Montejasi, with her daughters Elena and Camilla, from about 1876.  

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And then at home, I went back to some passages of Degas’ notebooks, and was struck by one I had marked before:

"Draw a lot.  Oh, beautiful drawing! – Ornament is the intelligence connecting one thing and another or [one] overcomes this gap by a connection between the two things and
that’s the source of ornament…." {from Sources & Documents: Impression and Post-Impression, 1874-1904, compiled Linda Nochlin, notebook of 1869, quoted on p62.}


It’s this sentence: “Ornament is the intelligence connecting one thing and another,” or the effort of overcoming the gap between two things is the “source of ornament.”  Here is an evidently ornamented passage in the portrait Degas made of his sister and her husband:

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The idea of connectivity seems naturally connected to hands – with what else do we stretch across to “another thing.”

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A further sense of how these connections might be discovered to the viewer comes from a later notebook passage with more instructions the painter made to himself:

"Do every kind of worn object placed, accompanied in such a way that they have the life of the man or the woman; corsets which have just been taken off, for example – and which keep the form of the body, etc. etc."   {see source above, p63.}


Of course one thinks immediately of Degas’ bathers, his dancers.  But even when his people are still wearing their clothes, the clothes follow their forms in such a way that one can almost see a kind of trailing off of the form as one comes to the spaces between the figures.


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I think part of the beauty of this so-beautiful space between the Duchessa and her daughter is that it still somehow has the residue of their two forms.  The painter has found a way to overcome an obviously formidable distance between them.



Degas Portrait Trio

Degas Portrait 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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