Self-portrait by James Tissot, 1865, collection of the Fine Arts Museums
of San Francisco
of San Francisco
From a letter to Rondré and MBR dated 21 February 14...
The self-portrait hangs in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I was there yesterday, I had gone to the Legion to see the 'Matisse at SFMOMA' exhibit, a good reason, there are many to go, no reason to be there is really needed however. The Legion, a jewel box filled with precious gems, is reason enough. I was there often in the 70s. Once or twice with R&D&K, maybe MRB. There are photos. I hadn't been to the Legion since 2005. It is my favorite museum in the world.
The Matisse show was good. It could have included the 1905 'La femme au chapeau' which hangs in the de Young just across the city, and the painting by which Louis Vauxcelles coined the term Fauve. There were some great paintings regardless of the omission. I was taken by two scenes of the sea, both full of color and flavor, and three natures mortes, two of vased flowers in high contrast, anenomies and chrysanthemums, the secondary colors brightly opposed, and a very fine single coffee cup on a table, the cup so well done that were a spoon painted swirling inside the rim, the music of silver and porcelain could've been heard. A preliminary sketch for 'Bonheur de vivre' was included in the show. Two figures walking the beachy foreground were beautifully drawn in the sketch, but otherwise the painting was interesting only for its historical importance. There were other paintings of figures, a portrait or two, a woman in Morocco, nothing so exceptional as 'The Dance', or 'Music'. There were about 20 paintings, one or two drawings, the work dated from 1896 to 1909. I spent some time looking.
I ate lunch outside in the sculpture garden. A good quiche, a carroty salad, bread and butter, still water in a French snap-cap bottle. A very nice clear water glass, good white plates and perfectly weighted Scandinavian cutlery. The ubiquitous recycled brown paper napkins. A man and a woman, grayed, tweedy, comfortable, in their late 50s, a family with loud children, and two tattooed men of indeterminate age sat on the terrace around me in the sun. I watched them while I ate, listened to bites of conversation, went back inside and walked through the rest of the museum.
I saw things I'd forgotten were there, marvelous things, and things I knew were there but didn't remember who had made them. Photos are no longer allowed, I should have taken a note book, I've forgotten all but the images now.
I saw the Tissot self-portrait and smiled at it. I have always liked it. I walked on, I would come back to it.
I saw the very large Dutch seascape of an estuary in flood, a small harbor and farmland to one side, trees and windmill wings bent to the wind, a castle ruin and the open sea to the other, with a close skiff, smaller boats in the distance, all in heavy weather, the waves agitated in formula, bell shaped mounds of froth topped water running out to the North Sea, all under a cataclysmic sky, every thing in gray, green and brown, creamy shafts of light, with a lightening bolt streaked across the clouds, and a halyard line flying loose from the skiff repeating the lightening bolt in symmetric reverse, single strokes that must have terrified the artist until his courage stilled his hand and he made them and was delighted with the nerve of their completion.
I saw El Greco's long tall Saint Francis, one of many he must have painted, the saint on his knees, cloaked in coldest gray, his skeletal hands folded across his chest adoring a miniature Christ nailed to the cross, the cross balanced on a skull, the skull on a rock, the dead body of Jesus more alive than the saint, pink, blue, fleshy, blood in his veins, and on Francis's Joseph Fiennes profile the right eye was flecked at the edge of the iris and the cornea with perfect sparkle, lit with two perfect strokes, strokes made with the smallest brush, a brush that must have also painted each phalanx and cuticle of the Savior's hands.
I tried to read the inscription in a note held in the hand of a painting by Titian, a portrait of his unnamed friend. A portrait by Goya portrait caught my eye. Pierrot and Ariechinno flirt with two girls in a small Watteau, a Fragonard of great intensity showed a boy teased by a woman who wears a sheet made of sigmoid curves. The boy's dog hides under the sheet.
I saw a serene landscape by Frederic, Lord Leighton. A seascape, hot light on a bay, a band of lowlands, sky, everything horizontal, earthly, quiet, all of it tonal and soft until a closer look, a step to the painting with eye-glasses raised on the nose revealed the unstoppable movement of dappled light on impasto waves, all yellowy and white.
Two paintings by Corot caught my eye. I studied one of Monet's water lilies and thought of oncle Claude's sly self-portrait in the lilies at l'Orangerie. I imagined a halberd tearing a 14th century Flemish tapestry and got lost counting the stitches of the repair. I wondered what the broken and lost ivory arm of Jesus had held in a late medieval statue...a lamb? a dove? Was he just waving as he sat on Mary's knee? Why was Mary looking back at me so pleadingly as I looked at her?
I looked at every painting in the Legion. I started to feel the exhaustion common after a certain time looking at art. I felt as much drained as I felt filled with images, with skin and rock and cloth and the glint on gold and silver, the dew on a painted rose, with eyes looking back at me. It was time to leave.
But I looked at the Tissot self-portrait again. It have always liked it. The face is handsome, the expression intriguing. I really have no idea what he might be thinking. He is composed, but he's somewhat questioning. He looks right at you. The configuration of the fingers on the hand held to the head gives him a certain defensive posture. He is protecting himself, holding his head, is he hiding his face, protecting his thoughts? He assumes to appear relaxed, he appears self-assured, maybe bemused, at least in one eye. In the other, his left eye... Do I detect a note of concern? Of fear? And I wonder...is he sure of the viewer, of me? Is he sure of what I am seeing, of what my honest reaction to his face, this painting of him truly is? Is he going to ask me something? He seems to be asking me to look at him, hoping for approval, and...to give him time, as if...as if by doing so I would, the viewer would... give him life.
And I suddenly wondered at the longevity of certain pieces of art. Wondered why one image, one painting lasts for centuries, gets looked at by millions while others are never looked at again once they leave the artist's easel. And I came to the conclusion, I have a theory, undeveloped, probably specious, that every painting, whatever its genre, from the moment it is left finished or unfinished pleads to be seen, can't exist without being looked at, and, to the degree of the paintings success as art, sucks life and energy from the soul of the viewer through the dust and the varnish down into the layers of paint, that the amount of time a painting is seen is commensurate with the life of the painting, that being looked at, gazed upon, lets the painting live, carries the work of art on. This was what Tissot's self-portrait was asking of me, what his expression meant, what the painting asks of all...to be seen. Tissot's self-portrait gives it all away. It shows the painting asking for life. The man in the Tissot self-portrait shows the moment just before the asking, just before the pleading. It reveals it all. Give me life! Look at me! Every painting hanging on the wall of a museum gallery does this, every painting is an example. The Mona Lisa is the obvious example. Paintings are vampires for attention. They would not exist were they not looked at.
(Three months later, in a studio still new to me, in preparation for the visit of the director of the Museum of Monterey to discuss the possibilities of an interview about my experiences with Marcel Proust, I opened the wooden paint box in which I have kept the portraits of Marcel's characters since removing them a year and a half ago from the wall above my bed in Redondo.
The force with which they screamed! In the racket of French Pandora would have understood, I heard Albertine ask from the bottom of the box in a voice without recrimination for the darkness she had endured, in a voice 'as soothing as that of a garden still silent before the break of day'... "My darling, où avez-vous été?")