Imaginative responses to art can be scarce during bleak times. Unmediated responses are even less likely, thanks to the internet. A lot of contemporary discourse hinges on art-market trends, (e.g. Zombie Formalism), cultural analysis, and too little of the imaginative attention that can make talking about and looking at art more enjoyable. This aspect of enjoyability is what charms me about Swiss-born writer Robert Walser’s art writings, collected in a new book titled Looking at Pictures. The book was translated by the redoubtable Susan Bernofsky along with Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton. Walser’s art writings are playfully subjective, absurd, and they reveal a writer more engaged with pictures than artists and their educations or backgrounds. These musings, often not “about” the paintings, render art historical genre distinctions useless — at least while in the whimsical nowhereland of Walser’s vernacular.
Marcel Duchamp said “there are two kinds of artists: the artist who deals with society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has nothing to do with it.” The latter is how I’d characterize Robert Walser. But unlike the dadaists, he celebrates aesthetic values, with a distinctive rigor of discernment and impassioned description, in place of frigid academicism or conventions engaged to meet expectations. Walser’s work is on his terms, ones that in contemporaneous eyes seem childish and strange. It’s a strangeness not for the sake of cuteness, but to point out the strangeness already built into things and situations.
In 1910, Walser wrote that the “imagination that counts is not the external sort, it’s an inward one.” This is a good way into his art writings, done from 1902 till the end of his career in 1930, a few of which were never published. In Looking at Pictures, context can be tenuous, but that’s OK: we don’t come to this kind of book for news or intellectual rightness, much less the truth. I don’t recommend a total lack of critical context, art historical or otherwise. Rather, I find that certain of our earlier belletrists remind us how to look in new ways. Like Giorgio Vasari’s writings about the artists of his times, Walser’s characterizations of people and the art of the past show a depth of feeling and a surprising poetic consciousness.
His takes on paintings by Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Éduoard Manet, and his brother Karl Walser, among others, are often entirely irrelative to an art historical canon and can seem critically nascent; as Bernofsky and Christine Burgin point out, in Walser’s review titled “The Van Gogh Picture,” his intentions to compose a clear review are dashed by his having realized “that art criticism is not possible.” Walser goes on to add that “Not only is it impossible to say anything about the work — it is impossible even to begin to ’see’ it.”
One of my favorite parts of Looking at Pictures that had me doubled over, crying with laughter is Walser’s take on a tragicomedy, “The Brueghel Picture.” There’s nothing all that funny about Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Parable of the Blind (1616) — six blind men in a line stumble over one another — but Walser’s turn of phrase, his oblique point of view and illogical descriptive methodology relative to the painting’s subject, make seeing it now a different experience — as if the painting has transmogrified. Suddenly, each man in procession appears to be simultaneously guiding and jostling one another into his demise. The pit into which the men fall is now inevitable, irresistible, spellbinding each of these nincompoops: “Blind men are quarreling … people blindly hacking away at each other’s worthy, respect-worthy heads.” Walser adds, quite dumbly, that, “in a certain sense, all of us are blind, even though we have eyes to see.”
Elsewhere, Walser makes imaginary tableaus. His “analysis” of Rembrandt’s Saul and David (II) (1655–60) begins with a critique of power, a send-up of the contradictory state of a man having everything but “assailed by melancholia.” Walser leaps into a two-page fantastical scene wherein David’s harp plays a quoteworthy, aphoristic spectacle. One statement that “anger lacks greatness” is followed by the observation that “those in power must not forget that they are powerless, because they’re human. A thousand times more beautiful than living life is living for others.” These are worthy of the timeless wisdom of someone like Japanese haiku master Matsuo Bashō. “When we all have made peace with ourselves, no one will be left with an adversary,” Walser writes, presumably still gazing back at Saul and David.
Walser is at his best when he writes about the paintings of his brother Karl, as in his review of Portrait of a Lady (1902), a painting of a young woman reading in a park: “The green of the meadow is rich and warm, and speaks a romantic and adventurous language, and the whole cloudless picture inspires observant, quiet contemplation.” This gives insight into why, given his wont for flights of fancy in other of his prose forms, writing about art finds Walser at home. He ends with the assertion that “every living thing in the world should be happy,” and in case he hadn’t been clear enough, he punctuates it: “No one should be unhappy.”
A proletariat, son of a shopkeeper, Walser spent his later years in a mental institution (willful to the vicissitudes of modern society; no doctor was able to diagnose Walser as having any illness). He’d vow never to write again, resolved to live out the rest of his days so-called “mad,” obstinate to the end. “Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice by others” he wrote in 1926. 30 years later, some kids found Walser frozen dead on Christmas Day; he’d escaped from the hospital to wander. It’s not hard to imagine Walser looking at his world, then Switzerland, sufficed to take it in and appreciate it without having to describe it. Just like an artist, “He feels it, that’s all,” as Walser wrote in 1921, “and that’s how he finds it.”
Walser, Robert. Looking at Pictures. Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton (trans.) (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2015). ISBN: 9780811224246. 128 pages. $24.95print