Robert Walser, Looking at Pictures (New Directions, 2015)
by Tess Edmonson
Much has been made of the negligence afforded to early 20th-century Swiss writer Robert Walser’s contribution to modernist literature, both during his lifetime and in its legacy. While authoring seven novels – Jakob von Gunten (1909) most famous among them – as well as thousands of short stories, Walser supported himself in a variety of itinerant, low-paying occupations: bank clerk, copyist, butler. At 50, he checked into the Waldau Sanatorium, where he would remain the rest of his life.
Looking at Pictures, New Directions’ eighth book of Walser’s work, is among a number of 21st-century correctives in English translation. The collection consists of short pieces of prose – stories, scripts and critical writing – about art and its makers. Some of these were originally published in German-language journals and newspapers in the ’20s and ’30s, while others survive only in microscript form: an idiosyncratic shorthand Walser executed in pathologically small print on scraps and fragments of paper, an archive of which was thought to be inscrutable for decades after his death.
Among those microscripts reproduced here is “Diaz’s Forest,” written in 1924. Describing an 1875 canvas by Narcisse Diaz de la Peña, the text exemplifies Walser’s interest in ekphrasis over its conventions. As in a number of the texts in Looking at Pictures, he begins by setting the painting’s subjects into narrative, activating them with a contextual fiction. In the forest, Walser writes, are “a little motherkin and her child”; the mother reprimands her child for its dependence. “I swear to you,” she tells it, “as truthfully as I am standing here with you in this forest painted by Diaz, you must earn your livelihood with bitter toil so that you will not go inwardly” (86). This is the first diegetic break, as the subject acknowledges her painter. The second comes as the painting’s leaves “murmur” about “[w]hat has been written in this brief essay” – the subjects acknowledge the critic. The effect is that of making indistinct what, in criticism, one takes for granted to be distinct: the artist, the subject, the writer, the reader.
A similar loosening occurs in “An Exhibition of Belgian Art,” whose title might mislead us to expect an exhibition review; its text, however, abruptly does away with the standard methodologies of art criticism, or rather with art altogether. Walser first tells us of the location of the exhibition; then of a coffee he drinks, a dream he remembers. In a conversational tone and with a structural non-sequitur, he asks if we’ve heard of the artist Niklaus Manuel, a 16th-century Swiss artist and dramaturge. He lets us know that Manuel was also a provincial governor in the town of Erlach, where Walser completed part of his military service during World War I. Walser’s cursory descriptions of the works on view –“now a vernal landscape, now a snowy one, now a flower painting, now a picture of a lady” (66) – make it clear that assessing their formal qualities is not the task at hand; this work will inevitably be performed by those whom it interests. “Everything I have neglected to say,” he writes, “can be given voice by others” (70). Rather, it is Walser’s peregrinations around the exhibition proper, the literary digressions that looking at pictures makes possible, that become central to art’s meaning-making.
Similarly circuitous is “Apollo and Diana.” In it, Walser considers Lucas Cranach the Elder’s c. 1530 painting of the twin gods of sun and moon, a photograph of which hangs in the rented room of the story’s narrator. His landlady, unimpressed by the display of nude figures, removes the picture from its place on the wall, leaving it face-down on a table. He reproaches her for this act of “falsely construed morality” (42), insists on hanging the image; she acquiesces, and even offers to mend his pants. The seeming nowhereness of this story– its lack of insight or allegory – points again to Walser’s privileging of the incidental over the willful, the anecdotal over the schematic. And as in “An Exhibition of Belgian Art,” these misdirections give evidence – managing both sentimentality and sarcasm – of the social life of the artwork.
Material considerations are also taken up in “Scene from the Life of the Painter Karl Stauffer-Bern,” which consists of a fictional dialogue between real historical figures: the painter of its title and his patron and mistress, Lydia Welti-Escher, a 19th-century Zurich heiress. In love, they escaped from Welti-Escher’s husband to Rome where, exercising his considerable political influence, the husband has Stauffer-Bern arrested. Both heiress and painter spent time committed to mental institutions; both exited and committed suicide shortly thereafter, within months of each other. In Walser’s script, they appear negotiating the matrices of art and power in which their love is bound up (“It offends and infuriates me to be financially dependent on you,” says Stauffer-Bern).
Walser’s historical fabrications extend equally to the biographies of Watteau (“As I attempt now to sketch his portrait, he seems to me like a wish, a longing” ); of Van Gogh, whom he concludes must have painted L’Arlésienne: Madame Joseph-Michel Ginoux (1888–89) out of love and not for money; and of Aubrey Beardsley, whose life he envisions in detail: “If I am imagining him accurately, he would often lie all day with a graceful and very exact indolence in his luxuriously outfitted bed” (111– 112). But these are fictions that ring true, making possible unconventional modes of engaging with and writing about art. The pages of Looking at Pictures give breadth to the ludic and the miniature, including insights both exceptional and mundane. One hundred years after their composition, released into contemporary art publishing’s thinkpiece economy, the texts’ purposefully limited scope gives way to a kind of linguistic play that has little currency in today’s writing about art. Of Beardsley, he writes: “Among other pages, there exists one by him depicting a burning candle. It may be that never before has an illustrator reproduced the flickering of a candle in so candle-like a manner, so flickery” (112).