Saturday, October 11, 2008

Full story

We are living in a time of diminishment. Everywhere we look, resources are shrinking, from common sense to financial liquidity to forests, ocean life, you name it. Part of the fall into extinction is the squeezing and dumbing down of newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, which, until a week ago, continued to publish a genuine book section, one of only 4 in the entire country, even though it exiled books to Saturday, the day with the lowest readership. I have had the privilege and the deep pleasure of writing for the Chicago Tribune for years and years, and I'm immensely grateful to everyone I've worked with there and continue to work with, especially books editor Elizabeth Taylor. But now, in spite of Taylor's valiant efforts--and Elizabeth Taylor is a true champion of literature, writers, and readers--the Tribune has not only combined book reviews with other cultural coverage, which certainly can create a positive synergy, it has reduced book reviews to a length far too brief for any real discussion of the book at hand.

Certainly short reviews have their place and their delights. But we need both concise and full reviews. Short takes to pique interest, sustained immersions to illuminate all that writers achieve. I've written a couple of the new, tight reviews, and seen them cut down even more. And so, in the interest of full disclosure, and out of the passion to share my joy in books and my full response to this particular book, a brilliant and beautiful creation, here is the original, more detailed version of the review that appears in today's paper.

Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World
By Jed Perl
Knopf, $25, 224 pages

Review by Donna Seaman

Writers are often seized by works of art, their imaginations ignited by communion with a sculpture, painting, or object. Think of Keats and his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” By responding in words to form, line, and color, a writer taps into the artist’s creative energy and transmits flashes of insight at once radiant and penetrating. Art critic Jed Perl takes a unique approach to this exalted literary tradition in an elegant tribute to an enigmatic, misunderstood painter.

Anyone familiar with Perl’s essays in the New Republic or his last book, New Art City (2005), a capacious history of the daring art movements that made twentieth-century New York the capital of the art world, knows that Perl writes with precision and a driving narrative force and takes as his mission the rescue of underappreciated artists. Even so, his new book is full of surprises, beginning with his declaration that Antoine Watteau is his favorite artist. Surely not this early eighteenth-century French painter so often dismissed as a frivolous aggrandizer of high-society frolics? Perl anticipates, relishes, and eradicates our skepticism, and not only by virtue of his knowledgeable and supple argument. The very fact that Watteau inspires Perl to write such sparkling, whiplash sentences is proof positive of the subtle power of the painter’s technically superb and brilliantly nuanced work.

In his decisive prologue, Perl characterizes Watteau’s masterpieces as embodying “a mingling of velvetiness and steeliness that constitute one of the miracles of art.” He goes on to explicate Watteau’s “delicious artifice” in which his “hiding or veiling or theatricalizing strong feelings becomes a way of revealing the complexities of those feelings,” as well as “the gathering contradictions of his world.” Perl then avers that Watteau’s paintings and drawings of fashionable young men and women of leisure are about nothing less than the evolution of the self. How do scenes set in nearly wild, certainly secretive gardens in which elaborately attired lovers flirt and dream illuminate the inner worlds of people living in a volatile time? Perl could easily articulate his striking interpretation of the true meaning of Watteau’s work in a straight-forward mix of biography and art history. Instead he invents his own artifice and makes extraordinary use of the simple, playful structure of an alphabet book.

Just as Watteau improvised on stylized tableau to create a clever visual lexicon based on the motifs of the commedia dell’arte, Perl anchors his lively essays to the homey letters of the alphabet, allowing for unexpected and marvelously revealing juxtapositions and jump cuts. This gathering of glimpses, this assemblage of impressions, reflections, and portraits of people influenced by Watteau, from Walter Pater to Samuel Beckett to Picasso, is perfectly suited to Watteau, a “mystery man” even to his friends; an artist who declined to talk about his work right up to his death from tuberculosis at 36 in 1721.

A is for actor, but Perl decides that while “the life of the theater” shapes Watteau’s paintings, his true subject is the elusiveness of identity and self-understanding. B is for backs, and how superb Perl is in his analysis of the “extraordinary psychological power” of this large part of our anatomy and Watteau’s passion for depicting it. D is for Deburau, as in Jean-Baptiste and Charles, the famous father-and-son mimes who launch Perl’s electrifying appreciation of the film Children of Paradise, first screened in Paris in 1945. And W is for women, and how Watteau adored them. Perl sees Katherine Hepburn as a modern “Watteau woman, a woman who is gorgeous and funny and sexy and independent.” Watteau’s charming and irreverent women, Perl riffs joyously, are “goddesses on the lam.”

What a perfect match between writer and subject. What panache, expertise, and sensitivity Perl displays. This refined yet ebullient book, this pearlescent ABC, offers an invaluable key to a great artist of profound pleasures and disclosures, and a scintillating primer in the fine art of seeing.

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