Robert Walser: looking at pictures and the soft, cold, lethargic sun

Engaged with art writing as I am, it is with some nervous reluctance that I ask myself, what is it? What is it that art criticism, art writing is supposed to do? Does it provide a context, a set in which a single work, a body of work, a painting or a series can reside and be read or seen and understood? Is it an explanation, a school of thought or theory that tells us what the artist meant, whether by intention or as the inadvertent inhabiter of an epoch or culture that coloured their apprehension and their subsequent outcome in print?

Transcription from the viewer’s eye to notes on paper: this painting is this, or we should be moved to action because the work before us calls on us to do so, or the artist’s skill and craft are clearly virtuosic, or the artist appears through these many bodies of work to be joyful, optimistic, instructive, informed, shrill, facile, serious, committed, ambitious, opportunistic, a true voice of the period or in the avant-garde, only one in an already crowded milieu, or profoundly unique. In any of these designations, descriptions or implied criticisms can we find what painting is, or what art is?

The eye as mechanical device and the head or heart and gut as receiver, and the quickening pulse, the excited mind and the prickling skin as measure come closer to the sensual transport and miraculous engagement that is Robert Walser’s writing on art. In Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures (Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2015), he isn’t hastening to attribute a painting to a particular school or searching and rooting for cultural or political histories to explain what he sees—and also smells what he sees. For him the analytical drive is in finding commensurate parallels to elaborate the colour of the sun which should be “cold as possible: soft, lethargic but cold.”

In the essay “A Painter,” first published in 1902, Walser, the writer, writes in the first person as a painter, and in his anticipation of beginning a challenging portrait of a woman gives us a definition of painting, full of sensation: “Here is the indifferent, immobile object (whether it be Nature, a person or something imaginary), there the jumble of paints, and between these two the trembling, grasping, ungraspable hand, and the desirous eye struggling to master itself, to rein itself in: this is the ever recurring fate of the painter.” All the elements are there, and so are we—heart pounding, stomach anxious with doubt, damp with effort, desire, pridefulness and urgency, knees bloodied in anticipation of the fall. And then the achievement.

In the essay “Watercolors,” brief but always, like all his writing, sufficiently full, he talks about the measure of an artist’s success. If we are convinced about the artist’s credibility—if we would deposit our children in his or her care, let them select the ring for the engagement, rely on them to turn off the gas before locking the door, trust them to select the right scarf in which to wrap your neck when meeting your lover after a dif¬ficult absence, or the four books to accompany you on a long trip to an isolated retreat—that kind of trust and credibility is what Walser means—then the artist is successful. He writes about certain watercolours, and you imagine them as small, loose, individual sheets because he refers to them as worklets and they speak to him. Here’s the credibility and the thoroughness of the accomplishment. “Now he shows me, for example, a country road whose countryroadishness I instantly believe in…. His bouquets of flowers possess flower-bouquetishness, and his domiciles domesticity. His roof-tops, balconies, poles, etc., are all as they should be, they lead their own existence, we believe them.” This ability of painted objects to indicate their veracity is more than just the measure of adeptness.

In his introduction to Walser’s novel/family memoir, The Tanners (New Directions, 2009), WG Sebald noted Walser’s emotional remoteness, the depersonalization which served his desire to pull away from his past, calling too on Walter Benjamin, who wrote that the ideal state for Walser would be pure amnesia and commenting further that in his elusive, impossible-to-describe style it was Walser’s intention that each sentence would have the reader forget the one that preceded it. It’s a difficult task to achieve writerly erasure—footprints at the edge of the sea—giving readers the sense of the concealed emotions, occasionally or briefly revealed through his thin-glass, transparent writing, that certain particular light, after rain.

Walser’s essay “The Van Gogh Picture” is profound, with the unusual resonating timbre that much of his writing produces. It holds everything you ask yourself quietly about a painting. The piece is a response to Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux, 1888–89. He approaches it, at first almost affronted by the seeming unattractiveness of the subject. Who would paint such a plain and ordinary woman of no stature and obviously no longer young? He concludes that since no one would want such a picture, it wasn’t a commissioned work and was therefore the artist’s self-assignment. Then he begins to look and comments on the colour, the brushwork, composition, the intelligent addition of the block of red in the foreground, but for all of this he recognizes that its beauty or accomplishment resides beyond, behind, under the surface. Since it’s not traditionally beautiful, it is necessary, as a viewer, to look more carefully, to work more assiduously in order to truly apprehend what the artist has made. Engaging with the ineluctable enhances its worth, and Walser comes to feel gratitude to the artist for drawing him near, to be instructed in feeling empathy for the subject.

Walser enters though the painting, which is now an aperture into the life of the subject and her life unfolds in his mind—a conjectured but also felt, full existence. About the artist and his subject, and his own remarking as a viewer, he writes, “He paints her just as she is, plain and true. Without much intention, how¬ever, something great and noble enters into the simple picture, a solemnity of the soul it is impossible to overlook.” Walser wrote an additional short piece, “A Note on Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne,” continuing to think about it, noting its religiosity, as though done, he said, by a primitive Christian master. He concluded, “Also, I’ve heard people say that he painted her several times.”

Rainer Maria Rilke and Robert Walser should have known each other. I’ve seen no mention that their paths crossed. Rainer Maria Rilke: December 4, 1875 to December 29, 1926. Robert Walser: April 15, 1878 to December 25, 1956. Had they met, each might have recognized a colleague in the other because further to the question about why look at art, about what art writing is, Rilke had much to contribute. From The Inner Sky poems, notes, dreams by Rainer Maria Rilke, selected and translated by Damian Searls (David R Godine, 2010) here is a section from “The Lady and the Unicorn,” 1906. Rilke was referring to the magnificent Belgian tapestries, “La Dame à la licorne,” woven early in the 15th century. “There are lots of young girls in the museums, who have come forth here and there from the houses that no longer contain anything. They find themselves in front of these tapestries and forget themselves a little. They have always felt that this existed, a quiet life like this, of slow, never quite explained gestures, and they darkly remember that they in fact thought, for a long while, that this would be their own lives. But then they quickly pull out a notebook and begin to sketch, it doesn’t matter what, one of the flowers or a small contented animal. It wouldn’t make any difference whether or not someone had told them what exactly it is. And in truth it doesn’t make any difference. The main thing is that a drawing be made, for that is why they came forth one day, with a certain violence.” The at once ineffability and concreteness of art. The girls sensed what art might tell them, and understood or not, they were provoked to draw—something—and feel an urgency.

Like Walser, Rilke both smells art and sees it. That is, it has a scent. Viewing the portrait gallery in an impressive country chateau, Rilke noted that in many of the portraits of women from the 17th and 18th centuries, the subject would be holding a lemon. He wonders why and leaves it a mystery—no need for answers, and then he muses on the necessary scent of lemons, how he keeps a bowl of them in his room for their essence, which represents for him breadth and openness. “How I experienced it at the time, this odor of lemons. God knows how much I owe to it….” A poem of four lines opens, “There is total silence. Upright in overgrown / paths stands the scent of bygone color.” Walser too. “Fir trees stand so firmly in my memory, so firmly in my soul. Often I wish (and this desire is nearly pathological) that I could paint their scent.”

They also share a conviction that grey is not just a shade on the chromatic scale and is more flag or pennant than colour, a heraldry of emotional meaning. Walser wrote, “Gray has always been one of my favorite colors, one of the most refined and sweetest, and to my delight it is everywhere in these mountains. Even green looks gray here: the fir trees!…And then the fog!” For Rilke, viewing the landscape he overlooks, “An olive tree, its leaves turned by the wind, extends the tonal scale into a more mobile gray than has ever been used anywhere before, and a little bird brings its patch of rare, precious red into all that, a tiny dot whose quick contrast is enough to awaken the eye even more to the thousand vicissitudes of gray.”

Walser, who was reclusive, who shied from emotional entanglements and wrote eloquently and with great pathos about the loveliness of wood ash, a needle, a pencil—undervalued, overlooked objects of no apparent appeal—was also an astute and generous reader of the character and sensibility of others. What he didn’t know first-hand he imagined, and from the tracks made by the work his selected characters produced, the tales and traces and records that existed, he extrapolated a full biographical portrait. “Beardsley” is one, the short essay accompanied in the book by the hand-tipped Self-Portrait Beardsley drew in 1892. Walser describes him through, among a few other details, remembering a drawing Beardsley had done of a pair of scissors, noting that he probably drew before all else and that he “drew like the springtime, so tender and dreamy.” He died young, perhaps from a surfeit of sensitivity, Walser suggests; his spring-like drawings were indeed delicate. He was, however, Walser wanted us to know, not lacking in solidity, nor was he imprecise, and through this brief sketch we have an entirely likeable and admirable man who was an artist and of whom Walser took note. As the piece comes to a close, Walser sends a message to today’s frantic, striving, trend-driven art world. From 1926, when the Beardsley sketch was first published, to 2015, when this lovely little book was issued, here it is: “It is pleasant,” he says about Beardsley, “to talk about someone who does not form the conversation of the day.”

In writing about Cézanne, Walser is precise, missing nothing in leading us to an understanding of the nature of the work and the artist’s intention and labour. You need only recollect Cézanne’s still-life paintings with apples and oranges to know exactly what Walser meant when he wrote in his short essay, “Thoughts on Cézanne,” “The man I’m now speaking of gazed, for instance, at these fruits, which are as ordinary as they are remarkable, for a long time, he pondered their look, the skin stretched taut around them, the strange repose of their being, their laughing, glowing, good-humoured appearance.” The painting he chose as the subject of the essay was Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, ca. 1890, but he does point out that still life or Madame Cézanne and the other subjects he selected over again are treated by the artist in the same manner. Cézanne saw in one way and was true to his sight. Walser speaks about the object and the outline and about Madame appearing as a mute unopened flower. No discontent is implied on her part, which makes her perhaps as wondrous as his painted fruit, and essential. As Walser continues, the solidity and weight of the writing builds and becomes stacked, commensurate with his work which, if you had to choose one, is more volume than light. This is writing as equivalence without our sensing its effort. This is writing to match, or redraw the subject. This flat canvas (oranges ripe to bursting), text on paper, both volumetric. Walser writes about the thoroughgoing quality of the artist’s work and life and does very much with little. The summary line, and only the first part of a longer sentence, “All the things he grasped became intermarried,” is loaded, words chosen with discernment. Grasped, intermarried—is a portrait implied here? “As time went by, a secret watchfulness settled in his eyes from so much precise circling of contours that became for him the edges of a mystery.”

In Walser’s writing a mystery is also a palpable thing, a fine anomaly. And what is it we want art writing to be? Not answers, I suggest. But the open-ended possible.