Dec 29, 2010

We went to the de Young Museum today to see, "Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Beyond." The show was jammed, and with overcoated people. The whole place was black and blue with overcoats.

As for the paintings, they were among those familiar canvasses that arrive every year or two with great fanfare. The images are always stunning, and comforting in their way. I have no argument, although I'm becoming more drawn to the abstract, literally and figuratively. I'm less drawn to depictions of life than interpretations.

"What an idiot you are," an educated critic would say, "You don't know anything. What are you talking about? Many of these paintings, even the lesser ones, are filled with abstractions. You just can't see them...."

What I was going to say, before I so rudely interrupted myself, was that I have less interest in Impressionism, had less interest until I rounded a corner at this exhibit and there was Vilhelm Hammershøi's 1905 painting, Rest.

This is the small painting of a young woman sitting in a chair, facing the wall. We see only her back.

Here is part of a description of the painting from the Musee D'Orsay

A descendent of Vermeer or a forerunner of Hopper? Hammershøi, a Danish painter who made his reputation in the 1880s, is without doubt neither. The minimalist intimisme of his interiors and the disturbing atmosphere that emanates from his apparently rigorous approach are sufficient proof of that.

Hammershøi most probably invented the back portrait, as opposed to the existing full-face or side portraits. This seated woman—we cannot tell whether she is a maid or a member of the bourgeoisie, or even guess what she is doing—is intriguing because of her displyed indifference to the spectator. The silent figure has been brushed in a refined range of greys and browns, showing the artist's deep sensitivity to indoor atmospheres.

The composition is a series of right angles: the lines of the chair, the skirting board and the sideboard divide this eulogy of absence into squares with a sort of Protestant rigour. But it would be an error to jump to the conclusion that the painting is an allegory of solitude or human tragedy. Because the real subject is perhaps the nape of the neck, the most indecent part of the body to oriental minds. Just as the few unruly wisps of hair, the opening of the blouse which gives a glimpse of white skin, in counterpoint to the flower-shaped bowl laid on the sideboard, are radical antidotes to the temptation of a purely puritanical interpretation.

I would never have thought of this as an allegory of solitude or human tragedy and I don't agree with this idea of her 'displayed indifference'. I have the sense that the woman has been asked to sit just this way, and that she's well aware of her sensuality. She could as well have just come from the arms of her lover.

She may be at rest, but from what? If she is exhausted, it is not a sign of weakness.

Perhaps she's angry, or just petulant. The way her right arm hangs on the chair suggests to me a woman unsettled. There's an emotion in that arm and the way her blouse catches on the chair.

I find her irresistably sexy and very powerful — on her own, regardless of her status in society. Above all there is the desire to see her, to confront her or reassure her, or else kiss the back of her neck....

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