Reading the new collection of Robert Walser’s essays and stories, Looking at Pictures (Christine Burgin/New Directions) is to walk backward in time, or perhaps into a slower, more peculiar world entirely. Walser wrote in the early decades of the 20th century, before the internet, before art criticism and journalism crystallized – that is to say, hardened in both positive and negative senses – into the industries they are today. His fragile psychological condition – he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1929 – caused him to give up writing before Modernism had really caught hold. He saw with fresh eyes, eyes uniquely his own. The closest analog might be the more personal and introspective type of blog.
Consider his piece on Saul and David by Rembrandt (pp. 79-83; translated by Susan Bernofsky). Walser wrote:
“The unearthly way the two are set side by side, each fixing the other with a piercing gaze, has been splendidly portrayed by Rembrandt.”
“One one side we see a spear being clutched in a clenched fist; on the other, a harp.”
The essay as a whole is evocative, and classically Walser in his attention to small details and the emotions they inspire. However, the reproduction included in the book, of Rembrandt’s Saul and David (1660) in the collection of the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, shows both quotes to be incorrect: the two men are not looking at each other; the spear is loosely held in Saul’s hand. David bends to his harp; Saul gazes into the distance with that introspective expression Rembrandt did so well, an expression not in keeping with Walser’s commentary on Saul’s mood. You can see that gaze in Bathsheba at her Bath (1654, Louvre) and his Portrait of an Old Man (1632, Fogg Museum, Harvard). Was there ever an artist before Rembrandt who so regularly captured the look of thought? The sense of menace Walser writes of (“He’d like to tear them [the people] limb from limb, because he knows they fear him.”) seems more from Walser’s imagination than Rembrandt’s.
Perhaps not. There is another Rembrandt painting of this scene, entitled David playing the Harp before Saul (1630), in the collection of the Staedel Museum, in Frankfurt, which more closely matches Walser’s vision. Saul grips a (seemingly headless) spear and sits upright in a stern attitude; David is wrapped up in his music as before. There is an undeniable tension between their contrasting postures. Neither work quite captures the scene Walser described, but the Staedel work is closer. Could the confusion have been compounded by the publisher?
The two paintings show how Rembrandt matured. Saul is dominant in both, while David is low, befitting a subject, and around them that indefinite physical space, deep brown and black shadows that allow the figures to emerge in their own spotlights. Rembrandt uses space subjectively – that “unearthly way” – his shadows hiding spaces that would detract from or clutter the composition. Surroundings, like memory, can be reconstructed again and again. They need not make sense. Saul on his throne in the Staedel’s painting is hard to perceive as a whole; his robes and frontal pose render his body amorphous, head and hands stuck on layers of cloth that obscure the contours beneath, while David has his back to us. In the Mauritshuis version, Saul is turned to the side, emphasizing his pensive posture, while David is turned so that his face is visible. In every way, the later painting is superior.
But what to make of text that describes something other than what the illustration shows? Is it a case of creative misreading, not an either/or question, but an amalgam, an acceptable discontinuity like Rembrandt’s shadowy, unreadable spaces? I have yet to see the German magazine wherein Saul and David first appeared, Die Weißen Blätter, March 1919, to see if the article was illustrated. Regardless, Walser’s description makes definitive identification of the correct work difficult. Unless the writer has a reproduction before him, or writes in the gallery, memory is all that’s left to rely on. Looking at Pictures is a ramble through a gallery out of Borges or Calvino, filled with the art one remembers rather than that which actually exists. It’s a wing of the memory palace, ready to be wandered through like the Hermitage in the movie Russian Ark (2002). Like that film, Walser does not walk with an overarching purpose for long, but lets his eye and his mind travel where they will, confident or hopeful that there is something to be gained, some conclusion to be reached. At times it is hard to discern which pieces in the book are fiction and which are reportage; perhaps it doesn’t matter.
I decided to ask Robert Walser about the paintings. That he is long dead is irrelevant. His answers are as I remember them.
PERSING: Rembrandt painted these two men in a silent, indirect interaction. You portrayed it as more direct, more personal.
WALSER: I question your use of the word “silent,” not only because of the harp, which David is obviously playing, but because a painting need not show figures open-mouthed or gesturing to each other to show that they are communicating. Saul is pondering without words what David says without words. We cannot see the music David is playing; perhaps he is improvising. But we know the music is there in David’s mind and the impression of it is in Saul’s, especially if, as is likely, David is playing a favorite melody of Saul’s to soothe the angry King. Paintings contain sound as much as they contain silence.
PERSING: So memory becomes a collaborator with the painting, with its own quirks and failings. From a neurological standpoint, memories are stored in pieces. Remembering is a matter of calling up those pieces and re-assembling them. Discontinuities, such as Rembrandt’s equivocal spaces, are to be expected. Rather like the creation of a painting, memory is a chemical process.
WALSER: The effects an artist must command to capture the subtleties of the natural world, whether dappled sunlight by day or long shadows at evening, are all subsets of chemistry. When the painting is finished and, it is hoped, shown in a salon or gallery, chemical reactions are set in motion in the hearts and minds of viewers.
Art is not solely a chemical process. That would be a foolish assumption, an attempt to limit the range of human experience solely to our imperfect understanding. I see a painting; I observe it and take in its effect as much as I am able within the distractions of the moment. From there the process continues, although the artist and the work no longer have any part. What I see from then on is produced within me, and has a legitimacy of its own. I am a creator of memories, and spend my life interpreting and re-interpreting those memories. Each alteration becomes a new work. The Louvre does not and cannot contain as much art as my mind does.
PERSING: There are advantages to seeing art in memory, or, to express that in an absurdist fashion, to look at art with one’s eyes closed. Which of these Rembrandts were you writing about?
WALSER: If I write about a painting, it is not in front of me, but in front of my mind’s eye, even when I am in the same room with it. On every occasion, that mental image is the one I write about. If the memory differs from the object in the gallery, that is rarely if ever of any importance. The object has no emotion in it; the artist works to suggest emotion, through composition, color, emphasis, on which depends much of the painting’s success or failure. A successful painting might inspire emotions in me similar to those the artist intended, but there is no guarantee of that. A walk in the woods on a cold Spring day, with the last crumbs of snow melting on brown mats of last year’s leaves, is just as likely to produce an effect in me. I am moved to tears because of what my mind makes of the images I see, not because of the images themselves.
PERSING: The Mauritshuis recently completed a study of Saul and David, after questions were raised about its authenticity. They have proudly declared it to be genuine, and provided a wealth of detail about its history. The painting was originally larger than it is now. The original canvas was cut up some time between 1830 and 1869 and reassembled with canvas from other sources attached to fill in losses. 15 different pieces of canvas make up the (patch)work today.
WALSER: Which provides me with just the evidence to support my arguments. Should Rembrandt return to life and be presented with this painting, would be remember what it had been like when he created it? Pigments decay; canvas wears and falls apart. Every painting should have its attribution challenged, if for no other reason than to explore what time has done to it. Rembrandt might say, “I could have sworn I painted his eyes looking this way and not that. The varnish has darkened and obscured some of the detail.” And so on.
The art memory recalls is not the art the eyes see. If we were speaking of law or science, this would not be a problematic statement, and it should be the same with art. Rembrandt chose a contemplative moment, as he often did, to encapsulate the vignette, rendering it, as the English phrase is, “a brown study,” both physically and emotionally. I doubt he would have cared if we remembered the exact details in precise order. Sometimes, rarely, you can choose the beautiful over the true without consequences, and such choices are vital to artists and writers alike. Such moments should not be overlooked, but cherished, because in them is a reminder of our own humanity.
PERSING: Picasso said “Everything you can imagine is real.”
WALSER: And memory is, like art, intimately bound up with imagination. The Rembrandt painting I wrote about is as real as the two you have mentioned.
I find it interesting that you are concerned with the physical information rather than the emotional. My impressions of van Gogh’s L’Arlesienne or Breughel the Younger’s Parable of the Blind, to cite two examples, are related to my emotional responses to the subjects. I wrote more about what David and Saul are thinking, which is in part, at least, from my imagination, than I wrote about the painting itself. Others are free to challenge, affirm, or dismiss those impressions. I myself can have second thoughts. Each time an idea is passed on or revisited it is changed; reiteration is transformation.
PERSING: And translation?
WALSER: The thought outlives the thinker, but it is never the same after the thinker has expressed it. A good translator is always aware of this, with pleasure and with sorrow, as it is his duty to carry a thought with as little change as possible within the limits of the languages involved. A writer might express thoughts to which he does not agree when the characters or situations require it. This is mostly true of writers of fiction, though I cannot help but wonder if journalists do it also. Artists, unless they are painting or sculpting to the wants and whims of wealthy patrons, are not confined by this choice. In the past most artists were dependent upon patronage, but now that relationship has changed, and honesty has become the focus of an artist’s sense of self. Art that does not say “This I am” is deservedly mistrusted, as when art is used for the purposes of propaganda.
PERSING: We mistrust propaganda because it is art telling someone else’s feelings or opinions.
WALSER: Precisely, and usually the contradiction between the artist and the opinions being expressed is so clear as to poison the work. But to return to Rembrandt: he and I expressed what we saw in our mind’s eye, and did so without compromise. Rembrandt did not know Saul or David, and so his work is fiction based upon an ancient story, and as likely to be accurate as mine. In one painting he chose to have Saul wipe his eye with the curtain, and to place that detail in the very center of the composition; the other is more about Saul’s anger. I add my fiction to his, omitting or adding detail in the process. My versions, as I wrote about the story of Saul and David more than once, are as genuine as his, though mine will never be as well-known. We are both telling slightly different moments in the same tale. If you want absolutes, you should talk to God.