Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: Antoine's Alphabet

This review was originally an assignment for my class on Watteau last semester. For those of you (like my family) who might not typically read this kind of post, I encourage you to do so, because toward the end you'll discover that my experience with this book and Watteau took a personal turn that was rather unexpected and ultimately quite fulfilling.

Jed Perl, Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World (pbk. ed., New York: Vintage, 2009)

"I was mesmerized by painting’s dreams—and by all the dreamworlds and real worlds that painting could reveal. And this is where I have remained ever since, much like the men and women in Watteau’s Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, unsure as to whether I am coming or going, but always convinced that the journey matters, that love and friendship and beauty and pleasure can be found amid the darkening groves, if only I am willing to grasp that hand or look into that face or talk to that person, and let the possibilities unfurl beneath the cloud-scattered skies" (202-203).
This quote by Jed Perl makes up the last two sentences of his essay “Zeuxis” in Antoine’s Alphabet, an essay in which he discusses the legacy of wall painting. Perl intends to show the continuum of Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) to the history of art, connecting backward to ancient Greek painting and forward to unknown decorative artists of the twentieth century. However, the essay in fact is more about Perl, specifically his emotional response to painting from when he was a child in his grandparents’ Brooklyn home staring at the garden scene painted on the wall above their couch. Perl sees himself as one of many artists and art lovers who are heirs to Watteau’s legacy. He includes in Antoine’s Alphabet discussions of artists and writers such as Picasso and Beckett, who were as much inspired by Watteau as Perl himself is to this day.

In his Prologue, Perl shows a reproduction of Mezzetin (right) and proceeds to look very closely at the figure. He considers the garden, the statue, his clothes, his fingers on the guitar, and so on, all in an attempt to prove his great statement that Watteau is, without hesitation, his favorite artist. Perl notes that this surprises people. Art lovers are supposed to prefer the grandeur of Rembrandt or the psychological torment of Goya, because their meanings can be easily appreciated and understood. But Perl identifies himself as a lover of the complexities of feelings, and he notes that if one is uncomfortable with “silken surfaces and elusive emotions” then Watteau is not for that person. Those who love Watteau do so because “the audacity with which he insists on hiding or veiling or theatricalizing strong feelings becomes a way of revealing the complexity of those feelings" (5). In short, Watteau is a master artist because he paints emotions with all their erratic eccentricities, and according to Perl only those who can appreciate the luxury of emotions can truly appreciate Watteau.

By page 5, then, I was suspicious of Perl’s intent. For whom was this book intended? Only those whose taste leaned toward the painterly and romantic? If so, why was he ignoring those of us who prefer academic art in its traditional modes of representation? Should this not be an opportunity for Perl to teach us about Watteau? Or was that risk so great that the experiment would fail and we would see him for being the painter of frivolity that we already suspected (or that Perl suspected of us)? By asking these questions of Perl, I knew I was bringing to the text my own biases, first about Watteau, and now about Perl. After all, while the post-postmodernist in me refuses to reinforce a canon of great European artists, my personal taste leans away from the Rococo and Watteau.

I don’t dislike Watteau. I think he was an amazing draftsman and that some of his paintings like The Pilgrimage to Cythera (the second version, above) are highly skilled works of art. My reading of literature on Watteau has made me more aware of his modernism from a socio-cultural perspective, and this is something which I admire as well. But, to be frank, looking at Watteau’s paintings requires a lot of time and energy. There are so many things going on that it is nearly impossible to take all of it in, and so I find myself wanting to turn away. Furthermore (and at the great risk of shocking my reader), these scenes of silliness, lovemaking, and theatricality are too busy and crowded, and I find myself drawn more toward works like the stark dominant message inherent in Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii and the blatant sensuality in Anne-Louis Girodet’s Endymion (although I admit it’s not exactly fair to compare them to Watteau since they are so different). I try to have an open mind, however, and so as I finished the Prologue, I challenged Perl to convince me that I was missing something, that by reading his book I would discover what I was misunderstanding about Watteau’s pictures, for surely if he was as great of an artist as people believe, then I am missing something. Perl would need to give me the answer.

Arranged letter-by-letter, Antoine’s Alphabet is structured like a children’s book, meant to educate the reader by providing examples of words or phrases that exemplify both the letter and the theme of the book. Each letter is represented with at least one essay, some short, some long, leaving the reader with a total of 62 essays associated in some way with Watteau. I have grouped them into five general types: Watteau’s life and work (6 essays, such as “Ornament” and “Gersaint’s Shopsign”); elements in Watteau’s work (12 essays, such as “Fans” and “Soldiers”); ideas about Watteau’s work (21 essays, such as “London” and “White”); others inspired by Watteau (13 essays, such as “Flaubert” and “Verlaine”); and Perl’s association with Watteau (10 essays, such as “Party” and the above-described “Zeuxis”).

The most successful of the individual essays are those relating to concrete elements in Watteau’s work. Here we see Perl’s talent as an art historian come to the foreground. His essay on “Backs,” for instance, addresses the enigmatic presence in Watteau’s pictures of figures who stand with their backs to the viewer, such as the woman in the foreground of Gersaint’s Shopsign or Pierrot in The Foursome (left/above). According to Perl, backs signify rejection, or they suggest the anticipation of the person turning to greet you. The back of a person is an alternate face, one which can suggest recognition for viewers and thus allow them an opportunity decide how they will respond when the figure turns around. Watteau’s experience with the theater allowed him to understand the important role that backs could play on stage, both as a device to shift attention to another character speaking, but also to suggest a hidden emotional response on this character’s part, a feeling that the audience could empathize with or even question, more so than if they could see it full-face. Watteau’s backs are masks and no masks at all. They reflect the ambiguity of emotion in all of Watteau’s works.

The essay “London” is one in which Perl sees the idea of Watteau’s works as a product of cultural significance. Here he discusses how in 1938 Neville Chamberlain spoke to the English people about the ridiculous need for the British to be wearing gas masks because Germany was about to annex Sudetenland. Around the same time, Virginia Woolf wrote to her sister about wearing a gas mask on her way to the National Gallery, noting that while there she overheard a lecture given by a docent on Watteau’s pictures, writing to her sister “I suppose they were all having a last look” (111). This short essay beautifully suggests how during a time of war Watteau could be looked at as a last vestige of emotional satisfaction, an innocent time before gas masks and Hitler. The people gazing at the Watteau would have seen happiness and innocence in the figures frolicking in the park, or perhaps note even their sadness in understanding that their time in the Garden of Love was but a fleeting moment in time. What Perl misses out on, however, is the opportunity to educate the reader about Watteau’s historical legacy in London, how he lived there for a year toward the end of his short life and painted important works such as Italian Comedians while there. He also could have suggested that the annexation of Sudetenland echoed Louis XIV’s takeover of Valenciennes, Watteau’s hometown, showing how his paintings reflect escapism in a world dominated by war and tyranny.

Perl’s interest in the legacy of Watteau is most interesting in longer essays like “Cézanne,” in which he creatively recounts the artist’s frustration with drawings he had done of his son Paul dressed as Harlequin, and how he subsequently created a new subject out of this work by pairing him with the boy’s friend Louis dressed as Pierrot. Inspired by these Commedia dell’Arte figures in Watteau, Cézanne reinvigorates them as modern subjects. The costumed boys become the guise of youth. For the artist, they represent “the optimism of young people who were setting out into the world of love and illusions,” while reflecting simultaneously “the evening clarity of a man who had left behind … those excitements and torments” (39). But as the boys model and the painting comes along, the artist sees they are also actors on stage about to take their bow. Sometimes the picture is about two boys playing dress-up, carefreely putting on and removing their costumes. There is a suggestion that the boys even generate for Cézanne heightened sensuality, verging on homoeroticism. Other times the picture becomes merely fictional: Harlequin and Pierrot performing at the theater. Nearing completion, Cézanne comes to the ultimate realization, that the picture is all of these things, “a single, monumental uncertainty” (43). This is Perl’s point about Watteau: that ultimately their meaning is a jumble of possibilities, and that more important than subject is sensation, for the artist and the viewer.

The essays in Perl’s book continue in this way, reflecting the author’s take on aspects of Watteau’s works, elements, career, admirers, and so on. But the book, in truth, teaches us less about Watteau than it does about Perl. For the lay person unfamiliar with Watteau, this book does not educate him or her fully about Watteau’s life or subject matter. His one teacher Claude III Audran makes one appearance in the book, but another, Claude Gillot, makes no appearance at all. Despite an attempt to explore the meaning of important pictures like The Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, Perl does little to explain the importance of the fête galant in art history (which would have made an impressive essay for the letter F between “Fans” and “Flirtations”). Thus, two-thirds through the book, I was disappointed that Perl had failed me. I had factual data and Perl’s take on the artist, but I still could not understand why I should like Watteau. And then, something extraordinary happened.

Reclining on my sofa, I had finished reading the letter P (“Party” to “Postcard”) and was about to embark on Q (“Qualities”), when I fell asleep. Almost immediately I began to dream. I entered a dark portico with large classical columns and a marble tiled floor. My footsteps echoed as I looked around and saw shadowy figures hovering around me in canvases on the walls (I realized later I was in Gersaint’s shop). I walked through the doorway. I was then in a house, and as I moved from room to room, I felt a foreboding ache in my heart. I finally reached the kitchen, where my mother (now deceased for more than three years) was working hard stirring a concoction in a bowl that I knew was for me. She looked up at me, tilted her head, stopped stirring, and contorted her face into something monkey-like, and then shouted out in her make-believe Chinese language which, from the time I was child, used to make me roar with laughter (it sounded something like “Ching-Chang-Chong!”).

Suddenly I was following her in a garden filled with Italian cypresses and white floral beds. Her back was to me, and she moved further away with each step. She was dressed in outrageously colored silk finery, a bare-shouldered gown, her red hair piled high on her head so that a few loose tendrils spilled down her neck. I heard a yipping sound nearby, and I could see a toy poodle, whom I recognized from my own past, dancing on its hind legs. A monkey nearby clapped his hands. Music echoed throughout the garden, but I couldn’t see any musicians. There were people everywhere in motley silks and satins. Even I was dressed in a costume pinky-peach in color. And I was smiling. I could feel my happiness. I watched and listened to the party around me, people chattering in unison about so many things, laughing and hollering, singing off-key to invisible music from trees that swayed on their own accord, and in the midst of this cacophony birds twittered, little dogs danced, and monkeys clapped.

I realized this was the cacophony of own life, all the boisterous, exciting gatherings with extended family I had experienced throughout my childhood. It was blissful. But then I saw the cleft between the shrubs, and I knew I had to leave. I could feel my heart ache with each step. I looked around, but everyone seemed happy in their own insanity. They had no cares or worries. They were ignorant of their own fleeting happiness. I could no longer see my mother, but I knew somehow she was there and always would be. I was sad, but I was also at peace. When I awoke, I felt depressed, and yet there was a grin on my face, because I remembered my mother’s silly antics, the dancing dogs and monkeys, and the joyful surroundings of the garden. I knew where I had been, and I realized that this excitement of being so alive in those moments was perpetually entangled with the awareness of being so dead.

This then was Watteau’s garden. I realized that in order to appreciate Watteau, you need to give up understanding him at all. You feel Watteau, you do not understand him. And it is this little lesson, in a dream inspired partly by Perl and partly by my own suppressed emotions, that makes me now reevaluate Watteau’s paintings, and my own life as well. Art history makes us think so clinically about art that we often forget we entered the profession because of how art once made us feel. This is why we go to Watteau. He is a reminder that art is first and foremost about feelings.

Image sources: Barnes & Noble, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wikimedia, and the Web Gallery of Art.


Sherman Clarke said...

Oh, now, I'm really excited. The cover design caught my eye too. And it has just come out in paperback. No more excuses. Your words on the book are drawing me in.

paulran said...

Nice review. Next up, Tiepolo Pink...would love to hear your thoughts...