Sunday, 23 May 2021

Robert Walser, Looking at Pictures

Robert Walser looks at pictures the way he looks at the immediate world he inhabits. His gaze is curiously low and even. Here he is on a walk, a little ramble, through the mountains.

I encountered a few carts, otherwise nothing, and I had seen some children on the highway. We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see too much.

Pictures are soft and permeable, like the land he walks through, open to his modest, quiet, attention. He confers on what he sees the same unassuming manner he confers on himself. He encounters a picture as he encounters a few carts along a road, or some children.

A landlady takes down a picture because she finds nudity shameful. (Lucas Cranach, Apollo and Diana, 1530) He was working at a brewery in Thun at the time. He drank a great deal of beer, he says, 'and went for dips in the swift currents of the Aare'. He rented a room 
'in a beautiful roomy old house' whose landlady took down the picture every time she cleaned. He humbly requests that she leave the picture on the wall and simply doesn't look at it if she finds it offensive. They reach an agreement; and from then on the landlady is sweet to him, even offering to mend his torn trousers. 

His account of a painting by Ferdinand Hodler, The Beech Forest, begins: 'This morning I breakfasted sumptuously and with delight.' After breakfast he goes out and walks about town, past a public sculpture to which he offers respect, and then chuckles over recent critiques unloaded onto it. Then in the window of a bookshop he sees a reproduction of The Beech Forest.
And I thought how I'd seen the original in a maid's room. Well, pictures have to get hung somewhere. The house was chock-full of choice masterpieces, and the woman who called these works her own presented herself as a sort of figurine, and in this figurine's company I took tea, and the flawlessness of my conduct was indeed spectacular.

You can't put on airs with this little beech forest, he says.

Portrait of a Lady is by Walser's brother Karl. The foreground is clear on the smallest reproduction. A woman pauses in her reading. She is being painted, after all, she is being watched. Behind her is a meadow, smaller and more remote in the reproduction. Some of what Walser describes we cannot see at all in a book (or on a phone).
In painting the portrait of the young lady, (Karl Walser) is also painting her amiable secret reveries, her thoughts and daydreams, her lovely happy imagination, since, directly above the reader's head, or brain, in a softer, more delicate distance, as thought it were the construction of a fantasy, he has painted a green meadow surrounded by a ring of sumptuous chestnut trees and on this meadow, in a sweet, sunlit peace, a shepherd lies sprawled, he too appearing to read a book since he has nothing else to do. 

The account of the second painting by his brother Karl, The Dream, begins:
I dreamed I was a tiny, innocent, young boy, more delicate and young than a human being has ever been before, as one can be only in dark, deep, beautiful dreams. Neither father nor mother did I have, neither a paternal home nor a fatherland, neither a right nor a happiness, neither a hope nor even the faintest inkling of one. I was neither a man who had ever longed for a woman, nor a person who had ever felt himself to be a human among humans. I was like a scent or a feeling: I was like a feeling in the heart of the lady who was thinking of me. I had no friend, nor did I wish for one, enjoyed no respect and wished for none, possessed nothing and felt not the slightest desire to own anything at all. 

He looks at the painting, and writes with the voice of the small Pierrot figure who is standing on a bridge leaning into the folds of a large, pink-draped woman. The entire piece of writing inhabits the painting, speaks from within the painting. There is no comment on it, no distance from it. A painting is a place to exercise your own life, an exercise yard for the unconscious. 

All we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what we've never been. I was less a phenomenon than a longing, only in my longing did I live, and all that I was was nothing more than longing.

In the classroom when I was at school there was a reproduction of Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergères. I sat staring at her boredom for many hours. The picture was only a few feet in front of me. That was where I went during the classes that didn't interest me. I didn't know it was by Manet, didn't know who Manet was. I knew who the barmaid was. I knew the flat expanse of her waiting.

What we each have to say about what we see, is ours, part of our own lives, part of the circumstance of our seeing. A picture can be momentarily wonderful because the sun suddenly floods the room or the gallery; or because no one else is there. We may not notice the name of the artist, just as we may not know the name of the plant we enjoy as we walk round a garden. There is a democratic immediacy to our response to an over-full world. As Walser says in A Little Ramble, 'We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary, we already see so much.'

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