Monday, March 8, 2010

Last Week in French Painting

Last Thursday at work read a very small but brilliant part of Les Misérables including this from the trip to the country: "...those adorations which burst forth in the manner of pronouncing a syllable, those cherries torn from one mouth by another...celestial glories." Friday had no time to read any at all before "getting out early" so I wandered uptown to the Met's French painting galleries. Ended up on a bench in a room full of Corots, facing half a wall hung with late views of a pond glimpsed through trees, all silvery leaves and silvery waters; the first green past black for the lower foliage; off across the water in the sun, a sandstone wall. The physical beauty of France as eternal verity, as creed, envelops; it swaddles and comforts even as it stirs. It's safe to be stirred by it: teapot tourists click contours in a crowded gallery, their tempests welling, almost spilling...

Into a room of Monets, what a great painter, grabs the visual world by the beard and shakes it: lilacs in bright sunlight! Done! Manet, even greater, the greatest, his paint synaesthetic feels sounds looks tastes smells like thick icing and long, soft kisses, all surfeit with no sickliness. And then Pissarro: he seems the most industrious of them all and the most honest in his belief that this matters enough to refrain from being flashy, this enterprise of painting the view, for instance, of the new boulevards from your room at the Hôtel de Russie, in all weathers; in all places, painting the views from the points where they come into balance, just as they are. Oh Pissarro, I don't know, they're awfully pretty; but after awhile the whole occupation starts to seem trivial. The pitfall of naturalism: Why bother? if nature is enough. Only when what is seen is understood to have been broken in the seeing and reassembled in the spirit (see Cezanne, also van Gogh; also Les Misérables) can this problem be conquered; meanwhile the victories of flash are provisional, but in consequence they can be very poignant.

(And God knows what to say about Renoir--who may well have been God, come down to play papa with an easel at the best of all times for it; master of another Eden: French painting!)

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