Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cheever's Uncle George

A few weeks ago I went looking for a funny quote I remembered from many years ago in The Stories of John Cheever. It was something about nude statues in Italy. I wasn’t sure if it was in the stories or in the journals. Anyway, I tried the Stories first. It’s a fat 819-page book, so I checked the contents for a likely-looking title, and found The Bella Lingua round about the middle of the book. Sure enough this was the right story and I soon had the quote I was looking for. However, on reaching the end of The Bella Lingua, I turned the page and went on to the next story, and then I kept on reading all the way to the end of the book, over many evenings. And after that I went back to the beginning and read the first half. How I enjoyed those stories! Some were tragic or horrifying but there was lots of humour too. I found pleasure on every page with unexpected and vivid descriptions, perceptions that are still fresh, and an absence of clichés. A surprising plus for me was that Cheever’s imagery reminded me very much of painting – not the images per se, but the kinds of details he chooses to reveal some sort of significance. The common ground between writing and painting became more clear.

I felt sad coming to the end of the book, or rather arriving back at the middle where I’d begun. But luckily I have Cheever’s Journal as well, so I’m reading that now.

As for the quote, the context is as follows: Uncle George is an American tourist in Italy. His purpose is to bring his widowed niece and her son back to America and to have his first vacation in over forty years. He’s something of a stereotype, saying loudly to the Italian waiter who brings him his continental breakfast, “You gotta no hamma? ... You gotta no eggsa?” He then goes on a sightseeing tour and gets conned by the guide. The guide lures him into a trap with a promise of seeing a special place:

“Very special,” the guide said. “For men only. Only for strong men. Such pictures. Very old.”

Uncle George takes the bait and gets mugged and robbed of four hundred dollars.

Later on while he’s having dinner with Kate, his niece, the story continues:

“It’s an immoral country,” Uncle George said, sitting down in one of the golden chairs. “First they rob me of four hundred dollars, and then, walking around the streets here, all I see is statues of men without any clothes on. Nothing.”

Kate rang for Assunta, and when the maid came in she ordered whiskey and ice, in very rapid Italian. “It’s just another way of looking at things, Uncle George,” she said.

“No, it isn’t,” Uncle George said. “It isn’t natural. Not even in locker rooms. There’s very few men who’d choose to parade around a locker room stark naked if a towel was handy. It’s not natural. Everywhere you look. Up on the roofs. At the main traffic intersections. When I was coming over here, I passed through a little garden -- playground, I guess you’d say -- and right in the middle of it, right in the middle of all these little children, is one of these men without anything on.”

“Will you have some whiskey?”

By John Cheever, from The Stories of John Cheever, Ballantyne Books, New York.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Steinberg on Rauschenberg

Yesterday I went to one of my favourite places, the Port of Spain Public Library. I hadn't been for over a year, and was surprised at the changes -- for one, the shelves are much better stocked than before. The librarians have been doing a terrific job.

My card had expired and the machine for making new ones was down so they extended my old card for a month. I had only a few minutes to spare so I dashed back up the stairs and grabbed a book about Robert Rauschenberg who I've recently begun to like a lot. Here is a a quote from its author, Leo Steinberg:

"In an interview with Barbara Rose (1987), Rauschenberg said [...] that in his early years he "loved to draw". It now occurs to me -- looking over Rauschenberg's work after 1953 -- that he hardly draws anymore. Even his brushwork, when he spreads paint on a surface, is never an Abstract Expressionist stroke, which usually forms a trajectory. Rauschenberg's laid-back pigments are the cool substance of paint, never describe anything, refuse to transfigure. In a word, no draftsmanship. And even in 1953, he sensed where he was heading -- toward a visual art that had no further use for the genius of drawing."

By Leo Steinberg, from Encounters with Rauschenberg, published jointly by The Menil Collection, Houston, and the University of Chicago Press, in 2000.

The book is not a monograph exactly. It's the text of a lecture Steinberg gave at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1997, and again at the Menil Collection in Houston in 1998, for a Rauschenberg retrospective. It's a pleasant and informative read and is well illustrated.)

Below is a self-portrait of me reading the book, to celebrate going back to Mac.

Robert Rauschenberg

Here are some notes about Rauschenberg I made a few months back:

Robert Rauschenberg, b. 1925

I love these works and have no idea why. What was Rauschenberg’s intention in doing them? I'd like to know more. His composition is unusual and distinctive, and his colour too.

I'd like especially to know more about his process because several of these are quite big, as in 6’ x 4’ or bigger. The titles are mysterious but descriptive and might be helpful. But I’m thinking I’ll need a good monograph.

I like the informality, the way big blocks are slightly off the vertical or horizontal, plus the mix of drips, photo-type images, gestural brushmarks, hard and soft edges, and the subtle but exciting colour. All in all some of them are a formal feast for the eye, with no obvious antecedents that come to mind -- = original work. The juxtapositions don’t seem peculiar in the way that surrealist juxtapositions are peculiar. They’re puzzling but give a sense of some sort of link or logic.

His composition leans towards loosely geometrical division of the canvas, sometimes into thirds horizontally. The colour is usually muted with liberal use of chromatic greys. Some are more successful than others. The overall impression in those I like best is seductive and gorgeous.

(Some pictures at Wikipedia --