Not many artists, art critics or even writers in our society are familiar with Robert Walser, the Swiss author (1878-156) who wrote novels and short stories in German language. Admired by Franz Kafka and several others, he was recognized for his original approach and vivid imagination.
Following the tradition of many European and American writers, Walser also wrote on paintings and artists, thus joined by Baudelaire, Apollinaire, John Updike, Julian Barnes and Siri Hustvedt, who along with their fiction and poetry penned on art extensively. In all these writings one can sense a fresh and unexpected approach towards visual arts, different from the way art historians and art critics discuss or dissect works. As Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin comment upon Walser: “When critics write about art, it is often with the intention of helping others to appreciate a work. They describe a painting, discuss its context, and evaluate its importance. Yet Walser’s way of seeing is eminently his own. Something special happens when he is contemplating art.”
That special thing is witnessed in the recently published ‘Looking at Pictures’, a collection of art writings of Robert Walser. A total of 25 texts are included, which reflect Walser’s deep interest in art, who (according to Introduction) “grew up alongside an artist who exerted a powerful influence on him in his early years: his brother Karl, one year his senior who became the most celebrated stage set-designer in Berlin in the nineteen-oughts”.
The first text in the book is a long reflective piece titled A Painter, in which the writer recreated thoughts, character and surroundings of a painter, but more than anything else it is the air of doubt that surrounds and occupies a creative personality, found in the text, something that is essential to understand artists as creative individuals and art as a form of private and personal phenomenon. Observations such as “Painting is the coldest art, it is an art of the intellect, of observation, of contemplation, of the most severely dissected feelings” help in comprehending the creative process.
Walser continues with this aspect in another text, The Artist, when he talks about the inner conflicts and contradictions, which are encountered by an artist, or for that matter by every creative individual. The swing between achievement and failure, the mood changing from unhappiness about his work, to a sense of pride was found in the way Walser explains the state of an artist (which was also illustrated in an anecdote of Sadequain who said that the reason he paints next picture is that he senses the person who has seen or got his last work is not completely happy or satisfied!), while examining artist Walser reflects: “Does anyone know more vividly than he what it means to be utterly satisfied with oneself while at the same time being filled with numerous dissatisfactions? Both feelings lead him ever further on his path”.
Perhaps the most vivid example in this case of belief and doubt regarding one’s self and capabilities, was of Paul Cezanne. Picasso once expressed that what interested him was not the art of Cezanne, but Cezanne’s doubt. Robert Walser in his wonderful piece ‘Thoughts on Cezanne’ writes about the painter’s ability to infuse life in his subject, mostly the still life. “Even his tablecloth has its own peculiar soul, so he wished to imagine, and every related wish came true, at once. Pale, white, enigmatically pure, it lay there: he walked up to it, rumpled it. Amazing how it let itself be grasped, exactly as the person touching it had desired. It may be that he spoke to it: ‘Come to life!’”.
What Walser describes about Cezanne and his subject (or objects, to be more precise) takes place in his writing too. Texts on paintings of Rembrandt, Brueghel, Watteau, Fragonard, Manet and Van Gogh make these works alive and speaking to a viewer (reader). The tone of Walser is without any constraints of proving a point or matching facts from history; instead it is of an eager person who is communicating with those canvases in a language that is personal, passionate and powerful. Eloquence of his thoughts (in brilliant translations) offers a new dimension to approach works of art: that interacting with art which, despite the seriousness of subject matter, inclusion of painful theme, can generate a sense of sublime. Same pleasure that a painter experiences when he composes and completes his work. So, like reading his words, looking at pictures can also transmit happiness as he says while commenting upon Portrait of a Lady, painted by his brother Karl Walser: “Every creature and every living thing in the world should be happy. No one should be unhappy”.