Daily Book Review: ‘Looking at Pictures’

Thursday, March 24, 2016 - 6:00pm

Trying to analyze, quantify or critique visual art poses a number of challenges. One must somehow write compellingly about both technical aspects of the work and the emotional context of the creation, all while conscientiously navigating around the shoal of hyper-technicality and the biography bog. All of these challenges almost inevitably result in writing that is, distressingly, often dry, dense and ponderous. It was quite a relief then, after having agreed to the writing of this review, to discover that Robert Walser’s “Looking at Pictures” — a book putatively about art — is really far more about people than what they paint.

Walser was an Almanophone [1] writer born in 1878, near the language boundary with the Francophone cantons of Switzerland. He has been described by some as a predecessor to Kafka (his similarities to Kafka’s humor and wit certainly suggest this) [2], and wrote in mediums ranging from novels to poems to short fiction. He enjoyed some popularity during his lifetime — he influenced Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Hermann Hesse et al. — but was unable to financially support himself through his writings and therefore worked at odd jobs. Around the age of 50 Walser suffered a mental breakdown, and spent the remainder of his life in a sanitarium, scribbling away in a cipher comprised of letters a single millimeter high. [3]

All of which is very interesting, but still leads to the question of why an author most active a century ago is being reviewed in today’s issue of The Michigan Daily. The answer is that he has been brought back into the public eye due to the work of a translator — namely, one Susan Bernofsky (yes, that Bernofsky: see footnote 3), director of the Literary Translation program at Columbia University, who — along with a handful of collaborators — is responsible for the English version of “Looking At Pictures.” It is largely due the efforts of Bernofsky’s predecessors in the last few decades that a newly translated Walser has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity among anglophone readers, and Bernofsky has continued this fruitful line of work over the past few years. It is thus that “Looking at Pictures” was published only a few months ago, rendered for the first time into language understandable to those of us (including this reviewer) who haven’t yet gotten around to becoming fluent in German.

“Pictures” is a collection of 25 extremely short vignette-like writings, of which almost all have a beautifully colored, miniaturized artwork (the inspiration) residing on the page opposite. A brief digression: this seems an appropriate place to mention the extra-orthographical aesthetics of the book. Everything about “Pictures” is small: the physical dimensions are compact (I carried it around in my coat pocket for several days, reading the odd section on the bus, before class, etc.). It’s about 140 pages in length and tiny pieces of artwork the size of large postage stamps (I exaggerate) are printed throughout and each section consists of a few pages at most.

Each of the book’s sections is one ekphrastic [4] prose piece, inspired by works of art ranging from the Renaissance to Walser’s lifetime and exploring material ranging from fictional dialogues to the melodramatics of a painter. Walser’s elder brother Karl was an artist and set designer of some renown, and Robert thus had a resilient interest in painting, returning to write about the art form throughout his life. Walser composed the works in “Pictures” across the span of several decades of his life, without apparent intention of publishing them together, but they are gathered here in an effective manner, grouped with one another due to their common artistic genesis.

Throughout the collection Walser is alternatively witty and touching, offering both humorous observations about humankind and serious proposals about art. While a few of the writings are meticulous observations about the artwork, much of the time Walser approaches the paintings less as a critic of art than as a critic of humanity. One of Walser’s most striking characteristics is his ability to deftly blend the solemn exposition of ideas with gentle mockery. For instance, in “A Painter” — the first and longest writing in “Pictures” — Walser pretends to present a painter’s diary he has discovered, à la Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, the writing is all Walser’s own, and through the work he both explores his ideas about art and presents an artistic character who is so excessively melodramatic as to be genuinely hilarious. An example: “I cannot endure peace, nor above all happiness. It offends my pride to see myself so miserably, cowardly happy. I don’t want happiness, I want oblivion.” By including such a statement, Walser is able to simultaneously reference the kind of heart-wrenchingly sad temperament associated with so many artists[5] and poke fun at its choleric/melancholic excesses.

Each of the writings in the collection is unique, many being quite distinct in style and temperament. In “A Tiny Little Bit of Watteau” Walser gives us a mini-script with a dramatis personae of “the Indifferent Man, the Deceiver, the Man of Feeling, the Harlequin.” In “Portrait of a Lady” he uses a painting by his brother Karl as a springboard into his musings on the thoughts and feelings of the woman depicted, wherein he injects his own commentary sporadically, ultimately asking “Will the girl … be happy? She certainly would deserve to be. Every creature and every living thing in the world should be happy. No one should be unhappy.”[6] These are just a few examples of the various types of compositions included in Pictures, all of which are rendered in elegant, flowing English prose reminiscent of a Victorian writer.[7]

What is perhaps most rewarding about Walser’s book is that it can be almost anything you wish it to be. It can be light reading, interspersed over a long period of time; it can be an immersive artistic experience, a window through which you may view the world from a radically different perspective; it can be sardonic and funny, or it can be profound and insightful, or it can be all at the same time. The experience one gets out of “Pictures” is highly dependent upon the mindset with which one goes into it, and upon which of the multiplicitous meanings one chooses to focus. But what Walser really does that is so valuable is remind us — as consumers of art — that art first and foremost concerns people. It is created by people, about people and for people. Too often, staring at paintings by “great masters” in an art gallery, we forget that the people behind the brush strokes are individuals, with thoughts, feelings, phobias and failings. And when we forget the particular inherent humanness of art, we forget also why art is ultimately so worthwhile.