Book Review: Looking at Pictures by Robert Walser

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Oh, the temptation.

It’s tempting when, faced with a distinctive work, to mimic or parody it, cast a little humor either kindly or maliciously. My pastiche would have been kind, but I resist the urge. Robert Walser’s (1878-1956) collection of art-related essays, Looking at Pictures, deserves a serious review.

The antithesis of Walser’s book is summed up in the title of a Wallace Stevens poem: “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.” (I won’t link to the poem, as it is unrelated to the topic.) Walser’s book is entirely about ideas about things, and only minimally about the things themselves. No surprise: much art criticism does that. It takes a writer of genius – usually, as here, with the term “eccentric” predicated – to let what might otherwise be considered digressions stand as the center of the work. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is analogous, in that both follow bypaths around but not quite away from their topics. The difference is that Tristram Shandy is one long joke, a digression that barely returns to its point and never brings it to completion, while Walser, though humorous in his own way, is in earnest, and writes more succinctly.

I am indebted to Walser – or more exactly to his translators, Susan Bernofksy, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton, for presenting Walser’s prose in such a clear, precise manner. Digressions about art can too easily devolve into mental masturbation – fun for the person doing it, but not much use to anyone else – or the polysyllabic morass of much art theory. I am grateful particularly to Mr. Middleton for his translation of A Note on Van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne (pp. 48-49), for providing a particularly good summation of Van Gogh’s work: “…the mysterious, powerful stroke and flourish of the brush are altogether so leonine that one cannot help but feel – before something so titanic – defenseless.” I’ve never seen “leonine” used regarding Van Gogh’s brushwork, but it seems one of the best choices ever.

You can argue about Walser’s opinions – he thinks Mme. Ginoux, subject of L’Arlesienne, is hard and unattractive – but he states what is in his heart and mind with little if any editing. It helps that he lived in a time when resources for study were more rare; today, a half-dozen Google searches and at least as many scholarly art books are the minimum. Walser was alone with his thoughts. For good or ill, the modern world does not allow for such isolation. Also a questionable decision by modern standards is when Walser writes about works by his brother Karl, which would raise any editor’s eyebrows today.

The peril of reading Walser is that everything you write afterward seems prolix. To me this little review is sprawling, a three-volume novel of an essay, when in fact I have barely scratched the surface. And, in Walser’s case, the surface is not overly relevant to the subject. The crowning achievement (if that’s the right word) comes in Walser’s essay Watercolors (pp. 57-59) which is a dialogue between two (at least) unidentified voices about the joy of watercolors. No artists or specific works are cited, only vague allusions to mountains and roads, yet there is the definite feeling that he has specifics in mind. It is an overheard conversation, ending on a grand note: “The artist’s dream is so difficult, so rich. Civilizations sing, and humankind in all its childish glory leaps high up into the air heaving a great sigh.”

And what are we to make, for instance, of Apollo and Diana (pp. 41-42), a vignette not at all about Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting, but instead is about Walser, his landlady, and their reactions to the painting? It is a story of censorship and varied responses a painting can produce, but on such a private scale that I’d expect it to be dismissed as trivial. Government censorship, yes, but the reaction of an unnamed woman who doesn’t even appear in person in the essay? Even translator Susan Bernosky and editor Christine Burgin, in their introduction, fall back on summarizing several essays to show how “[I]n these stories and essays (yes, stories – the book contains both fact and fiction – SP), art is a tool for learning how to see without art. (pp. 6-7)”

Walser’s main theme is the subjectivity of our responses to art, however small. Introspection is a theme in his work; his best-known novel, Jakob von Gunten (1909), details the experiences of a young man who decides to become a servant, and the eccentric school he applies to in order to learn. It is based on incidents from Walser’s own life, and deals much with little, misunderstood things. Besides its admirers in written form, film-makers Stephen and Timothy Quay adapted it into their first feature film, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995).

Walser spend much of the last three decades of his life in psychiatric institutions, even after his symptoms had abated, writing nothing for the last 20 years. A small coterie of admirers kept his work alive, and his cult status is only appropriate today. At 141 pages, Looking at Pictures has neither too much nor too little; it is a glimpse into Walser’s mind, one I would recommend even to those who are not interested in his fiction.

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