An esthetic sense set free by Matisse

Review Art

November 12, 2006|By Bernard Cooper | Bernard Cooper,Los Angeles Times

Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime

Patricia Hampl

Harcourt / 216 pages / $22

In 1972, while rushing through the Art Institute of Chicago to meet a friend in the cafeteria, Patricia Hampl was stopped in her tracks by Henri Matisse's Femme et poissons rouges (or, as it's known in English, Woman Before an Aquarium). Until then, the young literature student considered herself singularly unqualified to make or even look at paintings. Her early attempts at drawing were so abysmal that her elementary school nuns gave her lettering assignments during art period. She'd never taken an art history class. Unable to "lure images from eye to hand to paper," she'd grown up thinking that her skills and sensitivities were exclusively verbal, the world of visual art beyond her grasp.

Woman Before an Aquarium is a comparatively murky painting - especially for an artist distinguished by his use of buoyant shapes and sherbet-sweet colors - yet "the entire wordless logic of Matisse's deftly composed rectangle" exerted enough radiance to instantly wrest Hampl's attention, and it has served as one of her esthetic touchstones ever since. "[F]or once," she writes, "I wasn't thinking in words; I was hammered by the image. I couldn't explain what the picture expressed, what I intuited from it. But that it spoke, I had no doubt."

Hampl's new book, Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, is not only an anecdotal history of this painting and its famous maker; it is also the history of one woman's relationship to the act of seeing. In fact, a woman seeing is the subject of the painting. With her bobbed hair and wide, fish-shaped eyes, she leans across a table and rests her head on folded arms, staring into a bowl of goldfish whose scales refract light onto her slightly pensive face. Blue under-painting gives the whole scene a subaquatic cast; the woman is as deep in thought as the fish are in water. Beside her on the table is a blank writing tablet.

What Hampl saw was a homage to concentration in the form of this modern woman, who "looks, unblinking, at the impersonal floating world. Detached, private, her integrity steeped not in declarative authority but in an ancient lyric relation to the world. ... Who she was and what she regarded existed in the same transcendent realm." Here, Hampl had found a metaphor for her future, as over the ensuing decades she became a writer with precisely this same kind of integrity. Among her six books are Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life, about her visits to Catholic pilgrimage sites, and the essay collection I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, which contains a revelatory piece on the craft of memoir, "Memory and Imagination." Now, in Blue Arabesque, she has the distinctly memoiristic privilege of returning to a pivotal moment in time, slowing it down and mining it for hidden veins of meaning.

Among the many repercussions of Hampl's encounter with Matisse is her eventual realization that memoirists, like painters, work largely through associative images rather than structured narrative, and this perfectly describes the digressive nature of her book. For Hampl, the word "essay" is a verb, meaning to investigate, to attempt. If you're expecting a tidy art-history lesson, look elsewhere. What's most inspired about Blue Arabesque is that its form echoes, with apparent effortlessness, the "impersonal floating world" of Matisse's painting, and in reading it, one sees the intricate, omnidirectional workings of the writer's mind. Her ruminations are always selective, streamlined for the sake of greater immediacy, and this authorial control makes them seem all the more spontaneous.

Hampl uses each of the painting's compositional elements as a springboard for exploration, weaving together autobiography and art history. She traces the decorative screen that dominates the painting's background to its origins in Morocco, where Matisse, like many painters before him, went to find what Eugene Delacroix unapologetically called the "picturesque" and the "sublime" in exotic subject matter. Matisse brought the screen back across the Mediterranean to his studio in France, setting it in the sumptuous tableaux he constructed for his models to create a domesticated version of the Turkish seraglio, where screens served as a visual barrier that offered the sultan's concubines a corner of tantalizing privacy in which to dress and undress, to reveal and hide themselves.

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