Friday, June 10, 2011

Meditating on Matisse (Books - Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl)

I've been wending my way through another of Patricia Hampl's books, following her lovely and insightful I Could Tell You Stories and, although there are stops along the journey where I enjoy the view, I'm much less taken with Blue Arabesque. I Could Tell You Stories was a perfect marriage of form and content. While it was a book about art, specifically the autobiographical form, it was itself a memoir, whereas Blue Arabesque, while also about art, and also a memoir, is about painting. Its subject is Henri Matisse's odalisques, and as in her previous book, Hampl builds outward from the quiet and thorough contemplation of a single subject. The difference here is a lack of expertise. While Hampl is a writer and an autobiographer, she is not a painter, and her observations, though often beautifully written and intelligent, feel touristic.
A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen. Even if that object represents an entire exotic world, it must pass through the veil of the self to be realized - to be art. For it is the artist's fully engaged sensibility - mind/heart/soul - that is really at stake for modernity. For all the critical complaint about the narcissism of modern artists, the twentieth century demanded self-absorption of its great ones: Don't give us your skills, give us your attitude. We have wanted to look not at the thing but at the mind beholding and rendering itself in the act of attention.
This self-absorption, or self-refection - to be more friendly about it, is what I had liked in Hampl's first book, but somehow I feel here like there is too little of her here. I'm just being lectured about art. In this case, it's art Hampl doesn't know all that much about (although she does not pretend otherwise). The literature and episodes from her own life Hampl does include feel less integrated into the work as a whole. Perhaps I should have allowed more time between her books so that my expectations of the second wasn't quite so primed by my experience of reading the first. Hampl remains a talented writer, so I may yet give her another try.

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