gall and gumption

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Went to see the Morandi show at the Phillips Collection two Sundays ago and plan to see it again at least one more time. I think this is the same show that had been at the Met in NY last year. So then first of all somehow I missed the signposts and actually went through the show in reverse, that is, starting with the late paintings and then ending up at the early ones. But that turned out not to be bad--it's not like there's a surprise ending to spoil. The only surprise, and it wasn't a happy one, was that there were no watercolors. And the watercolors are what I like best.

You know that thing Pascal said? It is quoted to death, so my apologies: "All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room." Well, I'm reading Montaigne again. In fact, on my way to the show, on the Metro, I was reading his essay "On Solitude," which is about learning how to sit still in a room and like it.

A man must doe as some wilde beasts, which at the entrance of their caves will have no manner of footing seene. You must no longer seeke what the world saith of you, but how you must speake unto your selfe: withdraw your selfe into your selfe; but first prepare your selfe to receive your selfe: it were folly to trust to your selfe if you cannot governe your selfe.

(Quotes are from the Florio translation of the Essays, the first one into English, published in 1603. It's online here.)

But those late paintings of Morandi sure make it easier for me to sit still in a room. I mean, if they happen to be in the room. It's impossible to look at them and not believe there's something rich and interesting to be had from solitude. Like, the complete opposite of the idea that the point is to become a sort of celebrity. I mean, just by contrast, doesn't it seem like Georgia O'Keefe was always sort of expecting someone with a camera to show up? She always seemed so ready for that eventuality, out there in her own private New Mexico. I mean, some people's egos are so big they can barely contain themselves in a couple of hundred acres of desert.

I also remember this event in Sonoma County in the fall where artists living all over the county open up their studios and show off their art. It lasts a long weekend and I went a couple of times. Well, sometimes it was an actual studio, and sometimes a few people just had paintings up in their living rooms, but some of the studios and work spaces were sensational. I remember this place on a mountaintop just outside the town of Occidental, just a little hamlet in the redwoods, and this hell of house up above it looking west and south down a great dizzying sweep of grassy slopes and coastal scrub, dropping away at last to the ocean and not another house to be seen in between. Some wise older person--I wish I could remember who it was--observed to me that there was a huge disproportion between the lavishness of the studio spaces and the art that was produced in them. Alas, true.

I was there during the peak of the real estate boom, when the small local paper I worked for was enjoying a rich diet of wine country real estate ads, where the four of us in the newsroom would snicker over the sort of ad copy that showed up, big on "pairing" the "wine country lifestyle" with inevitably "this magnificent property," and inevitably, "tradition" lurking about somewhere. Here and there around the city of Santa Rosa you might have found a dark, poky 1970s vintage 3-bedroom ranch in a subdivision that had not acquired any charm with age, and maybe pay about $400,000 for it, if you were lucky. And then there were the shacks along the river, at least along that part of the river that was almost certain to flood every year. The odd bargain might have been found there. So the first thing that you had to consider about almost all of these artists is that they were loaded. They were spouses of someone with lots of dough, or they were trust fundies, or they were riding the real-estate rollercoaster to the top, or they just lucked out in the sweepstakes of life in some other way. No artist who had to navigate the choice between making art and making a living ever ends up in one of these fabulous canyon-overhanging, beach-viewing studios. Poverty is not a precondition of authenticity, to be fair, and heck, if you can really sit alone and work in your special architect-designed north-lighted cathedral-ceilinged custom-furnished loft-style addition to your vineyard house and can actually amuse yourself in there without going stark raving bonkers, more power to you. Knock thyself out, with thy paintings of windswept coasts and red barns and storm-blasted trees, of thy birdbaths and grandchildren and abstractions that look like ameobas; knock thyself out with thy impressionist palette and thy mysteriously lumpy handwoven fabric creations and thy brightly colored glass bubbles and thy still lifes of precious Japanese objets d'art; I'm the last person to begrudge anyone a harmless pleasure.

Oh gosh and now I remember going with the Ex to a talk by his meditation teacher, the one who was teaching him about self-awareness and compassion, and the teacher had a Q&A after his talk which was vaguely about painfully achieving self-awareness, finding spiritual connectedness etc., for personal growth, nothing strikingly new to a fan of Montaigne. A woman raised her hand and said that now that she had a nice property with a house on a creek in the woods she was sure she was going to be able to be closer to God. And the woman who, having seen a documentary film that mentioned the possibility of some sort of Star-Trek-like travel, wondered what sort of spiritual impact it might have. Truly, the lame and the halt are all around us and need our understanding. I do not think it possible to become that shallow without some sort of trauma--spiritual or moral trauma, that is. They had to get away from something, or perhaps get away to something from nothing and nowhere. They think they left their real selves safely and secretly buried in an unmarked grave at the side of the road between Buttcrack, Middle America and the California coast, and now they seek authenticity, having acquired the means to purchase it. I have, after years, learned compassion for these people, but I'd just as soon practice it from a distance. That kind of egotism will bite your leg clean off as soon as look at you, if it happens to find your leg standing between it and something it thinks it needs.

The great breakthrough for me was being able to write anywhere. It's like that's what I secretly always wanted.

And yet, for as long as I can remember I've been sensitive to architecture and landscapes. I can remember being struck dumb by places I'd see in Jamaica -- the Junction Road always did that to me, and the orange groves in back of the farm my grandparents owned when I was about seven. When I was in Jamaica my idea of heaven was staying in Newcastle, up in the cool, lush hills above Kingston, at the army training base there that had all these lovely old Victorian houses for the junior officers, that if you had a connection in the Defense Force, you could rent. I spent blissful weeks up there on these big jolly family trips, hiking, looking for wildflowers, and daydreaming alone for hours at a time. Where I live just outside DC it's very wooded and old and the streets are lined with fine old Victorian houses. One reason why I like DC is because of the old residential streets, as you may recall. I can get happy just walking among them, and yeah, I do fantasize about houses, about having things like a front porch and a garden and even more space, and I look at these lovely places and feel a mild pang of coveting, of "Gee what I'd do with all that beautiful space."

For most of my adult life I haven't had much choice of space. I've lucked out a few times and felt the difference it made to be in the good spaces, but at the same time I also learned that right space or wrong space, I still had to get something done somehow. My current apartment is almost embarrassingly large, and it has a spare bedroom that I use as a work space. I actually work there too. I am living, in effect, in luxury. I'm really trying to make the best use of the space and the solitude, and the fact that I like the apartment and the neighborhood.

In short, I am sensitive to space, can imagine how nice it would be to have a nice space, but don't feel that I must have a certain kind of space to work. All it needs to be is space. Everything after that is luxury, nice life but not necessarily work life. I don't envy it.

But with Morandi's paintings I do feel something like envy, a longing to have what he had, not the space but the sense of space. The interesting truth is he didn't have much space. Often the people toward whom I feel the strongest feeling like envy are the ones who make the best use of the worst space. Then I think they are so deep in what they do that the activity shapes the space to suit its needs. And there's a kind of integrity and purposefulness in that that I do envy, or wish I could emulate.

Morandi lived in the same apartment in Bologna for his entire life, with his three unmarried sisters and (while she was alive) his mother; his sisters all outlived him. His studio was a small room that he had to pass through his sisters' bedroom to get to. It was crowded with the bottles and bowls and objects that he used in his still lifes, and over everything there was a decades-long accumulation of dust. And yet his paintings have all this richly empty space in them.

There's a pursuit in his paintings. He's after things that you can only access by turning inward and probably spending a lot of time alone--if not physically alone at least with a certain amount of mental solitude and quiet. And it just amazes me that he can do this with just a few bottles and bowls and tea canisters. He used the same almost featureless objects over and over, but somehow each new arrangement of them matters, its uniqueness matters. It's like you look at the space between a bottle and a bowl in one of his watercolors and you're looking at infinite possibility as the fruit of attention and concentration. This concentration--on a few objects like what you'd pick up at a yard sale and the space around them (a very small space in reality in that small studio)--feels to me like a heightened state of being; it suggests all this rich potential in the mere act of seeing. For the sake of it, Morandi demanded little more out of life than the tiny studio, order and the time he needed, and not to be bothered.

More Montaigne:

Together with other concupiscences, shake off that which commeth from the approbation of others. And touching your knowledge and sufficiencie, take you no care of them, they will lose no whit of their effect; if your selfe be anything the better for them. Remember but him, who being demanded to what purpose he toyled so much about an art, which could by no meanes come to the knowledge of many: 'Few are enow for me; one will suffice, yea, lesse than one will content me,' answered he. He said true: you and another are a sufficient theatre one for another; or you to your selfe alone.


At 4:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I envy you your visit to the Morandi show. And thanks for reminding me of Montaigne's essay. My family-sister, brother-in-law, niece and her new, wonderful husband- has just departed and so solitude seems pretty good to me now. Morandi, in that crammed apartment, must have longed for it.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

Nice essay, the one above as well.

I agree with you 99.99 percent that the quality of art produced is usually in inverse proportion to the quality of the studio and the view, but there are exceptions. If you're ever in Catskill, check out the Thomas Cole house. But perhaps you don't like the Hudson River school? Regardless, I think you'd enjoy that trip.


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