Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

Antonie’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World by Jed Perl

Antonie’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World by Jed Perl
Reviewed by David Carrier

Antoine Watteau, [detail] The Embarkation for Cythera, 1717. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Antoine Watteau, [detail] The Embarkation for Cythera, 1717. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Jed Perl’s subject is less the art of Antoine Watteau, as it really is, than associations inspired by Watteau’s pictures. In short chapters in alphabetic order, from Actors to Zeuxis, he discusses his artist’s inherently unstable sense of self; Balzac and Henry James; Diaghilev and Heinrich von Kleist; masculinity in the Cedar Bar; Samuel Beckett; Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell Sitwell; Katharine Hepburn’s Bringing Up Baby, and much much more. I enjoyed every word of this beautifully composed book, a virtuoso performance by a writer at the top of his form, who almost never fails to be totally engaging. Because Watteau is Perl’s favorite painter, he inspires lovingly obsessive, oddly uncritical analysis. Perl reports with a straight face a conversation with a friend who was reminded by Watteau’s backs “of Moses’s encounter with God, whom he could only see from behind” (p. 153). He writes as if the entire history of our culture can be discerned in his Watteauesque arabesque, in which his painter’s love of transient fashion provides a deeply serious critical perspective on our contemporary culture.

Nowadays there is a tendency for art writers to respond to pictures in highly personal terms. To cite another marvelous book, by Perl’s political opposite, Tim Clark’s recent book on Poussin associates the woman in Landscape with Man Killed by a Snake, with his own mother. The meaning of art, many writers believe, is what it means to us personally. Although I myself find Perl’s and Clark’s books engaging, I doubt that such determinedly subjective commentary provides the best way to understand historically distant artists. When Perl discusses Walter Pater’s self-consciously fictional essay “A Price of Court Painters” (1885), he seeks a precedent for his own analysis. But where Pater uses fantasy to reveal the visual qualities of Watteau’s art, Perl in effect treats these images as mirrors in which he finds reflected his life and intellectual interests. The most revealing commentary on Antonie’s Alphabet appears in a book Perl doesn’t mention, Norman Bryson’s Word and Image (1981). Reverie, Bryson writes, “is the typical form of the Watteau literature.” But where Bryson offers a plausible explanation of why these pictures inspire reverie, Perl engages freely in Watteauesque fantasy, as if he had entered the world of the art he loves. When at the end of the book, he associates Watteau’s art with his first experience of painting, the woodwork in his grandparents’ Brooklyn house, unable to envisage this “down-market Cythera” (p. 202), at this point I knew that I had lost him.

Jed Perl Antonie’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 207pp. $25 (cloth) (ISBN 978-0-307-2662-0)