Blue Arabesque opens with Patricia Hampl’s discovery in the Chicago Art Institute of a painting by Henri Matisse, Woman Before an Aquarium. She was a recent college graduate writing fiction and poetry, but Hampl 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, but it spoke to Hampl: “Looking and musing were the job description I sought.”
Who was 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 that Matisse brought back from North Africa. Of equal import, Who was the bookish girl transfixed by the gazing woman? We’ll learn more of her, in time, and of her deep affinity for Matisse’s “decorative instinct.”
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.