“We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” Robert Walser, “A Little Ramble.” 1914. Translation by Tom Whalen. Included in Girlfriends, Ghosts, And Other Stories, New York Review Books, New York
I’ve written about Robert Walser before (read it here). His writing, with its leisurely, yet finely observed, viewpoint, and his eccentric discursiveness, fascinates me. The above quote, included in a new collection of Walser’s short pieces, got me thinking. Good thing, too – I have a blog to maintain.
I chose the Kandinsky above as a good example of what Walser is writing about, although I think he would disagree with me. So many of Walser’s pieces are about moments, seemingly unimportant ones that are elevated by his close perceptions and deep feelings. If his writing is any indication, he lived a life of intense emotional awareness, a rare privilege. At first you might think Kandinsky an odd choice to go with such a quote. I could have used a Pollock or Joan Mitchell, or any of a thousand others. They are not at odds with Walser at all.
The key here is the word “ordinary.” What does that mean? Kandinsky struggled with letting go of representation – one of the reasons he is so valuable to art history. You can see the progression as his work breaks free. But in doing so he freed the component elements of nature – line, color, contrast – and allowed them freer play. No longer was the artists limited by the shapes and colors of pre-existing objects. (This didn’t begin with Kandinsky, obviously.) You could interpret Walser’s statement to refer to ordinary objects, but what could be more ordinary than the colors and shapes and contrasts that make up our perception of these objects? For the painter, that is the palette, the repertoire that makes up the ordinary.
To Walser, I would say that “[w]e don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary” is, for artists, an impossibility. We see the ordinary as extraordinary, just as you did. The components of the world are extraordinary enough, even when we do not make them into mundane objects – if there are such things.