A memoir of leisure, looking, and artistic expression.
Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime by Patricia Hampl. Harcourt, 215 pp.
Blue Arabesque opens with Patricia Hampl’s discovery in the Chicago Art Institute of a painting by Henri Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium. Hampl was a recent college graduate writing fiction and poetry, but she knew little about art when the painting transfixed her as she rushed to meet a friend in the museum’s cafeteria. Her friend told her it was a lesser painting. Yet it spoke to Hampl: “Looking and musing were the job description I sought.”
Who is the mysterious woman in Woman Before an Aquarium and what does she mean? She with her almond eyes mirroring the goldfish? Hampl figures she’s a writer—see the notebook—and she’s posed before a Moroccan screen, which “hints at a mysterious aqua beyond,” that Matisse fetched back from North Africa. Of equal import, Who is the bookish girl captivated by the gazing woman? We’ll learn more of her, in time, and of her deep, defiant affinity for Matisse’s “decorative instinct.”
Her now-lengthy inquiry yields this core insight about the relationship among art, craft, and self:
A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen. Even if that object represents an entire exotic world, it must pass through the veil of the self to be realized—to be art. For it is the artist’s fully engaged sensibility—mind/heart/soul—that is really at stake for modernity. For all the critical complaint about the narcissism of modern artists, the twentieth century demanded self-absorption of its great ones: Don’t give us your skills, give us your attitude.
Hampl’s narrative, moving chronologically through her life of consuming art, is diffuse. This risks losing readers, but you come to see and to savor her journey. And to appreciate the slow, indirect, and subtle self-portrait that emerges. Classed by its publisher as a memoir, it isn’t exactly. More like a book-length essay (nicely divided into seven chapters) that’s deeply and intrinsically personal and obliquely memoiristic. A meditation on the arts, on looking, and on the “leisure of great private endeavor” needed to make art, Blue Arabesque moves from story to story—about paintings and their creators, especially Matisse, but also Hampl’s “pagan saint,” writer Katherine Mansfield, and an obscure filmmaker from Hampl’s hometown.Motifs in Blue Arabesque include North Africa—whose mythical odalisques (concubines) captivated Matisse and some fellow painters and sent them across the Mediterranean to see—and the French Riviera, where Matisse and other aficionados of languid women did much of their work. It’s where the odd filmmaker moved from frigid St. Paul, where Mansfield wrote some of her most famous stories. And where Hampl, having paid a call in Turkey two chapters before, visits to write in middle age. Wrapping up the book, she’s as well a humble, foot-sore, loafing tourist. She pays a call to Matisse’s late creation, a chapel near Cassis, where she meets his last muse, now elderly and a nun.
Not everyone is a reader or a simple looker and “it’s been smashed—the long reign of slowness.” But if you’re too busy to consume art, might you miss life itself? Or is ample loafing and looking enough? As for those who labor to make, Hampl makes clear it’s idle travel that undergirds “the hunting-and-gathering civilization that is artistic endeavor.”
She writes late in the book:
I’ve been here off season, which makes Cassis and all the towns I’ve visited along the Riviera these past months seem old fashioned because empty, the social world slow enough for conversation, for banter, for the sitting-and-staring that is the core of living: the just looking of the artist life. . . .
Sitting here, a person without any employment except to look. I have an uncanny sense that all things here in this light, the world itself and all its haphazard parts, have a way of coming together to form something—the sun, the lick of the morning air off the sea, shopkeepers leaning on big brooms, gulls sweeping the sky, the ruined medieval chateau on the crown of the bluff across the harbor almost effaced in the light, insubstantial but enduring like the past as it recedes and enriches itself in the mind.
That lovely final sentence of 82 words shows as well as anything how rich Blue Arabesque is in implication. Which lends it a painterly quality, this unified work of art about one writer’s love of artistic expression. With a deft touch, Hampl has created a book as beautiful as its title.
[Kathryn Harrison reviewed Blue Arabesque in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Anne Lamott has a new essay at Sunset about making time to dwell in beauty, arguing that today’s manic forms of connectivity are hostile to this, saying “creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.”]