Apr/May 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime

Review by Colleen Mondor

Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime.
Patricia Hampl.
Harcourt. 2006. 208 pp.
ISBN 0151015066.

Over 30 years ago while meeting a friend at the Chicago Art Institute, writer Patricia Hampl became transfixed by the Henri Matisse painting, Woman Before an Aquarium. In her recent book, Blue Arabesque she makes it clear that she was not a student of art history and was in fact basically a neophyte on the subject. The allure of Matisse's painting was completely removed from his fame; it was a gut, emotional response to a picture that appealed directly and personally to something deep within her. She bought a postcard copy of the painting that day and kept it close by. Then slowly, over the months and years that followed, she set out on a path of contemplation and wonderment, not only for the works of Matisse, but for the larger genre of lounging women found modeling in many famous paintings. She found herself transfixed by the oddest sort of question, the sort of personal query that perhaps only a former student specifically like Hampl would consider worthy of research.

"Isn't that why I became an English-major to begin with, without knowing it?" she writes. "Not to teach, not to be a librarian, not for a job. To be left alone to read an endless novel, looking up from time to time for whole minutes out the window, letting the story impress itself not only on my mind, but on the world out there, letting the words and world get all mixed up together. To gaze at the world and make sentences from its passing images. That was eternity, it was time as it should be, moving like clouds, the forms changing into story."

This dream life Hampl once imagined does not exist, however, other than in scenes she seeks out like the one in Matisse's painting. In her pursuit of these artistic paeans to relaxation, she begins to consider what such a life might have been like for the men and women who enjoyed it and why it has been left behind in the modern aesthetic of busyness.

Matisse found his peace on the Mediterranean and so Hampl looks to that location and the lives of others, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Katherine Mansfield, who found their way there. They sought, she writes, "nothing less than civilization, the human impulse that organizes itself to express what it means to exist, face touched by the sun, ear filled with the rhythms of the waves, eye gorging on the gallons of light that gush over the lavender fields of Provence." It was in Nice that Matisse framed the stage sets of draped and lounging exotic women—his odalisques which have fueled questions about his motivation and their appeal ever since he first started selling them. Were they just male fantasies of supposed harem women or did they suggest something more, hint at something more? Hampl went on the hunt for them from one gallery to another, hoping to learn more about what she saw so differently—paintings that appealed directly to her as "the life of the mind." To Hampl they were more than stark sensuality, they represented "...the act of perception, the self meeting the world—looking at it, as the world looks back from the vast neutrality of its material wealth."

It is the sort of contemplation and curiosity about art that one would think more artists would long to inspire, but Hampl finds herself largely alone in her opinion about the odalisques. Is it "silly foolishness" she wonders, to be caught up in such wandering and deep thought over women lying back and posing in languor for the painters' pleasure? Hampl collects postcards one after another, spreading them out on her desk, seeing them differently each time. "Collecting is not a simple matter of possessing," she writes, comforting her doubt. "It's a way of looking; a looking that is itself a kind of craving. To look this way is to be possessed, lost."

Hampl cannot leave the paintings alone, or her interest in Matisse. She tracks his life, weaving a fascinating minibiography into her text, and then departs on her own journey to the East, in search of the sights and sounds that inspired so many artists and writers in the early twentieth century. She finds herself on a dreaded group tour through Israel and Jordan, bouncing from one guided site to the next until she finally has a moment in a market that simultaneously shows her the harshness and beauty of pure and direct experience. Here she sees the risk necessary to possess authenticity—to capture, on film in her instance, the truth of another culture or life. Was this what Matisse was looking for as well—leaving Paris behind and seeking to create exotic beauty in his pictures? Why did he think something beautiful could be important—nay, worthy of his time and talent? He saw something more in those reclining women, foreign in dress and appearance, believes Hampl. "Only one who had seen the unforgiving circumstance of industrial labor could understand that the odalisque does not loll on her divan as an erotic opportunity but is even more deeply sensual, an image of pure leisure, that commodity most cruelly denied the poor of the earth."

So in his paintings Hampl sees not only a way for westerners to envision the east but also a social statement for those trapped in poverty. She sees more than model and background; she sees where Matisse came from, and how far he traveled to capture his lounging women. She sees him in a whole new way, as she shuffles her postcard collection; she sees him as a man after her own heart.

There is much more in Blue Arabesque than just a rapt study of Henri Mattise, however. Hampl fairly staggers the reader with her impressive way of linking the painter to so many moments of contemplation in her own life as well as the works of so many others. Mansfield in particular has a part to play in this memoir/art history lesson/literary criticism, and it is through her tale of her life as a literary stalker of that particular writer that Hampl endears herself most to the reader. "When I found in Frieda Lawrence's memoir that, during the period when they lived next door in Cornwall, Mansfield had introduced her to Cuticura soap," Hampl writes, "I was off to Walgreens, thrilled to find that in 1968 it was still possible to buy the assertive clove-scented bar. A Relic."

It is this deep affection for creators such as Mansfield ("my pagan saint"), Matisse and others that makes Hampl more appealing than the average critic. She makes it clear she is one of us—one of those fans of art or literature (or film or music) who cannot leave their points of interest behind; who are compelled to ask questions, seek out shared experiences with their subjects and even, yes certainly, collect postcards as talismans. What a beautiful thing it would be if we all saw a painting of a woman and an aquarium and then took the time to wonder about it; to deeply and sincerely wonder about the motivations of artist and model, truth seeker and silent witness. Blue Arabesque is exactly the sort of book that a Matisse painting should inspire. I would love to know if the Chicago Art Institute is shelving it now, near the postcard rack, so that new visitors can benefit from all of Hampl's quiet contemplation. The painting is truly gorgeous, but so are the thoughts it inspired from this writer.


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