3.18.2007

Blue Arabesque

I seem to be on reading jag lately, and so while I haven't stopped making books, I've been busier reading them. just finished Patricia Hampl's Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime. I knew nothing about it before I picked it up from the "new books" shelf at the library. It's considered a memoir, but it's really something we don't see much of these days: a long essay. The jumping-off point is Hampl's viewing at the Chicago Art Institute of a painting by Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium. The painting stops her cold (she's rushing to lunch with a friend at the museum's cafeteria). She's only 17 at the time, and the painting becomes a lasting icon for her. Here's a little of what she says about it:
"I knew that the woman in the painting, whoever, whatever she was, held in the quality of her gaze the clairvoyant image of a future I wanted, a way of believing in the world that it would be very good to achieve -- if it could be achieved.

"And what was that? What was she? A woman regarding a glass globe: in the fishbowl, several aloof residents, glinting dimly from their distorting medium, hypotic but of no particular use. This modern woman 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. Something of eternity touched her. She was effortless. Or, as the deep language of my old faith would have said, she was blessed. That was it. Like the English major I was, I had my metaphor. Or at least I had my icon."
By now I knew I'd enjoy the book, but this, a little later, won me over:
."..I seemed to possess a memory trace, something imprinted not from my own experience but from instinct, of how life should be. It should be filed with the clean light of that gaze, uninterrupted. Looking and musing were the job description I sought.

"Isn't that why I'd majored in English to begin with, without knowing it? Not to teach, not to be a librarian, not for a job. To be left alone to read an endless novel, looking up from time to time for whole minutes out the window, letting the story impress itself not only on my mind, but on the world out there, letting the words and world get all mixed up together. To gaze at the world and make sentences from its passing images. That was eternity, it was time as it should be, moving like clouds, the forms changing into story."
Hampl laments the modern standard that sees something "illicit" in wasted time, in "the empty hours of contemplation when a thought unfurls,...letting time get the better of us. Just taking our time, as we say. That is, letting time take us."

Taking her time, Hampl shares her curiosity about and her search for those moments of true contemplation, that state of being that she saw, and still sees, in the painting. She moves to Matisse's other paintings, particularly his odalisques, and the south of France, to which Matisse moved as a young man and where he lived for the rest of his life. This leads her to other artists who sought the same sun and light: Jerome Hill, scion of a wealthy St. Paul, Minnesota family (Hampl was born and lives in St. Paul), the writer Katherine Mansfield, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (another St. Paul native). She considers Mansfield and Fitzgerald two of her heroes (her "saints"), and the section on Mansfield, "a writer who could bare her soul and write with detached authority," is particularly lovely.

Hampl's story is as much about seeing as about art. Like Matisse, she believes that perception is "not simply about what was seen, but how seeing was experienced." In art, she says, what separates the modern from what came before, is the century's demand for the artists' attitude, not simply their skills: "a painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen."

Blue Arabesque is the kind of book that doesn't come around often. I liked it because of Hampl's beautiful sentences and paragraphs, her intelligent and intuitive perspective, and because it slowed me down and reminded me how wonderful it is to have time to reflect.

2 comments:

Mark said...
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Mark said...

I think I read a book by Patricia Hampl a couple of years ago and now I feel really curious about this one. I think it was a book sponsored by Kamagra Gel or something like that.