- Just Looking: Essays on Art by John Updike
Deutsch, 210 pp, £19.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 223 98390 X
As a title for this gathering of essays, Just looking is as engagingly unpretentious as its contents, and yet misleading. Lavishly illustrated, sometimes with pictures that aren’t actually discussed (by Hopkins, Poe and Oscar Wilde), apparently effortless, occasional, these pieces are freighted with the chronic preoccupations evident since the beginning of this intelligent writer’s long career. They are not the innocent reports they seem to be. Witness Updike’s comment that Sargent derives from ‘the darting, flippant brushwork of Frans Hals’. On the other hand, neither are they as knowledgeable as, as in their casual way, they half take for granted. Sometimes, too, they are not even the accurate reports one might expect from this vigilant novelist. Discussing Jean Ipousteguy’s sculpture La Naissance, Updike finds it ‘as polished and iconic as one of Brancusi’s “eggs” and yet as anatomical as a medical book’. Since he was born in 1932, Updike quite possibly belongs to that generation of fathers banned from the delivery suite. This would account for his failure to perceive the discrepancy between Ipousteguy’s mislocated vulva and placid anus and the tormented bloodiness of childbirth in the flesh, as opposed to the marble and bronze. Occasionally, Updike’s description is inspired, as when he hits off a tight grouping of figures in Degas’s Semiramis Building Babylon as ‘people in a transparent elevator’, or when he flippantly notes that Degas’s young spartans ‘crouch and stretch purely for the benefit of the artist’. Such moments are surprisingly rare. More often one finds oneself in niggling disagreement.
For instance, at the apex of Juan Gris’s collage, Breakfast (1914), he discovers ‘a packet of mail’ where I see a wrapped brie or camembert with the maker’s name, Eugene Martin, prominently displayed. It may be a parcel, of course. Without looking at the original, it is impossible to be certain, though even in reproduction the label looks printed rather than hand-printed like an address. At any rate, a parcel wouldn’t make quite the Cubist point that Gris is angling for – the imposition of the square on the circle, the subdued natural curve of the cheese. Be that as it may, it is revealing that Updike once preferred Gris to Picasso, the processed cheese to the reeking original: ‘Picasso seemed a bit too noisy, too bustling and carnal for my hagiography.’ This preference points to a generally apparent weakness in Updike’s artistic taste and disposition: he is impatient to be pleased, made irritable by difficulty and uneasy by art that is chary of the beautiful. In this frame of mind, he can be pettish and imperious: of a Degas exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he complains that the visitor ‘will have a long slog before he comes to something easy to love’. Updike knows what he likes.
And yet he is sophisticated enough to mistrust his undisclosed demands when they are gratified too easily. He is irked by Renoir’s prettiness, though not by Matisse’s equally determined charm. In this, he is like many ‘sophisticated’ art lovers for whom grace and lucidity are disqualifications. Dufy has few defenders in this ‘sophisticated’ class – reminding one of Nabokov’s sharp observation that ‘people who denounce the sentimental are generally unaware of what sentiment is’. The paintings of Fairfield Porter, traditional, carried out in the teeth of Abstract Expressionism, are subjected to a stern interrogation, during which any number of flaws are stigmatised (like Porter’s difficulty with faces) before Updike can allow himself the ludicrously indulgent comparison of Interior with a Dress Pattern to ‘the sumptuous calm of Matisse’s Red Studio and Piero della Francesca’s stately explorations of perspective’.
Similarly, faced with Andrew Wyeth’s frequently nude sequence of Helga Testorf, Updike resists his inclination to the obvious. He notes Wyeth’s ‘glamorising touch’ and his bogus claims to be an abstractionist, then he caves in. But before he is prepared to admit that he prefers the nudes, he goes out of his way to claim ‘an expressionistic strangeness’ for Wyeth’s Farm Road, a picture in which Wyeth practises an ordinance of self-denial – and is followed by Updike. In Farm Road, the fully clothed Helga is a different kind of bust, a head and shoulders seen from behind. Her plaited and parted hair is echoed by a clump of trees on the top of a steep hill. Her coat and the hill are the colour of burnt caramel. The expressionist element is created by the steep pitch of the hill, whose alarming gradient almost reads as flatness, as sheerness – so that Helga might have her face pressed against a canvas and not merely turned towards a hill. It is an interesting painting, but one feels the strain of Updike’s admiration here – as one doesn’t feel it in his final paragraph which arrives like a long-deferred orgasm. ‘The nudes are what make the show sensational, and also what make it worthwhile.’ Here we have the Updike taste – relaxed, unbuttoned, satisfied.
But the tussle is typical. In Updike’s work, wonder is always dogged by disillusionment and guilt. Discussing a double portrait of Adam and Eve by Cranach the elder, he concludes with two sentences drenched in his characteristic rueful eloquence: ‘Lost Eden still hangs above their heads; the stony earth of the future lies at their feet. Between, the naked present shines.’ This is the Updike vision – far removed from the innocent pastime of ‘just looking’. No one is fooled by the formula, ‘I’m just looking.’ In Updike’s world there is always a price to be paid. Like the nameless speaker of Browning’s ‘Pictor Ignotus’, Updike knows that perfection can never be perfect, that there is a question which must be answered: ‘Tastes sweet the water with such specks of earth?’ In Of the Farm, for instance, Joey identifies his new wife with the field he is mowing, and thus with the farm he has always loved. The idea of husbandry is implicit in Updike’s conceit, which, though initially implausible, is brought to a successful, hazy yet blunt erotic conclusion:
Black-eyed susans, daisy fleabane, chicory, goldenrod, butter-and-eggs each flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together, scudded past the tractor wheels. Stretched scatterings of flowers moved in a piece, like the heavens, constellated by my wheels’ revolution, on my right; and lay as drying fodder on my left. Midges existed in stationary clouds that, though agitated by my interruption, did not follow me, but resumed their self-encircling conversation. Crickets sprang away, crackling, from the wheels; butterflies loped through their tumbling universe and bobbed above the flattened grass as the hands of a mute concubine would examine, flutteringly, the corpse of her giant lover. The sun grew higher. The metal hood acquired a nimbus of heat waves that visually warped each stalk. The tractor body was fleeced with foam and I, rocked back and forth on the iron seat shaped like a woman’s hips, alone in nature, as hidden under the glaring sky as at midnight, excited by destruction, weightless, discovered in myself a swelling which I idly permitted to stand, thinking of Peggy. My wife is a field.
The equation is achieved – despite that lurch in the prose at ‘mute concubine’ when Updike modulates from the literal to the figurative; despite, too, the ominous sexual undertow present in the phrase ‘excited by destruction’. Yet this desired and desirable identification is set about with qualifications. The beloved farm gives Joey hay fever. On either side of this fusion of woman and landscape there are examples of poor husbandry: Joey’s ‘weak response’ to his mother’s verdict on the second wife’s intellectual shortcomings; her further pronouncement, ‘You’ve taken a vulgar woman to be your wife.’ Tastes sweet the water with such specks of earth?
For Updike, the Museum of Modern Art in New York once acted as a ‘steepleless cathedral of artistic faith’, the church of another religion. But on visits there now, he finds money-changers in the temple: ‘it has opted, instead, for a greedy open-endedness and a bigger souvenir shop; it has led the transformation of museums into gorgeous tourist traps.’ Anyone a modicum more robust might ignore the postcard counter and the vending area and pass on to the pictures, old favourites if necessary, without offence.
Updike is a connoisseur of disappointment. The early story ‘You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you’ is closely modelled on Joyce’s ‘Araby’: in both, the early romantic impulse is disappointed by the tawdry reality of the bazaar and carnival. Joyce ends: ‘Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.’ The young Updike mimics this absurdly rhetorical interior monologue: ‘Thus the world, like a bitter coquette, spurns our attempts to give ourselves to her wholly.’ Two other early stories, ‘Wife-Wooing’ and the one and a half page masterpiece ‘Archangel’ return to this theme of the spurned romantic impulse. In ‘Wife-Wooing’, the egoist husband (surely not unrelated to Gabriel Conroy in ‘The Dead’) fails to bring his erotic impulse to fruition and his delight in his wife’s Joycean ‘smackwarm’ thighs has faded by morning to its opposite, disgust at her ‘sallow décolletage’. Not only the use of Homeric parallels in The Centaur, or the presence of Leopold Bloom, advertisement canvasser, standing father to Harry Angstrom and his Toyota concession, persuade one that Joyce is a crucial, parental novelist for Updike. The very givens of Updike’s romantic-realist axis are provided by Joyce: ‘Wife-Wooing’ would not be possible without the enabling example of Joyce’s even-handed balance of ‘fishgluey slime’ with ‘yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life.’ Updike’s version is, of course, less bustling, less noisy, less carnal. And mostly, beside Joyce, he looks somewhat processed and homogenised. ‘Archangel’ is an exception, and it signifies the point at which Updike’s way of seeing diverges from that of Joyce.
‘Archangel’ is a list of things which Updike loves – including three items he writes about in Just looking, namely ‘the Brancusi room, silent; Pines and Rocks, by Cézanne; and The Lace-Maker in the Louvre hardly bigger than your spread hand’. When the enumeration is complete, the wooing is seen to fail:
My arms are heaped with apples and ancient books; there is no harm in me; no. Stay. Praise me. Your praise of me is praise of yourself; wait. Listen. I will begin again.
Whereas Joyce is content to accept a radically unstable reality, oscillating between the woman and the world as ‘mountain flower’ and ‘armpits’ oniony sweat’, Updike is bent on retrieval and redemption: ‘Listen. I will begin again.’ This is not a Poundian case of ‘error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence that faltered.’ When Updike writes of the superrealist Richard Estes, he might be speaking of the redeemer in himself: ‘Nobody loves our hideous city streets as Richard Estes does.’ There is in him a strenuous determination to reclaim the merely factual and mundane, as he does brilliantly in ‘Plumbing’, an early story (I’d guess) which has fetched up somewhat inappropriately in the Maple saga of coupling and uncoupling, Your lover just called. What Estes does for public phone-booths, Updike does for the plumber’s ‘magnificent, ironical bills’ in which ‘1 1¼ × 1’ ’ galv bushing’ costs 58 cents, as against $550 for labour. Threaded in this notation is a meditation on memory and death.
Temperamentally inclined to the humble as he is, you might expect Updike to warm rather more than he does to Degas, the Muybridge of dancers, laundresses and bathing women. Of course, he admires Degas, but there is a detectable prickliness, all the same. It may derive from Updike’s own experience as a practitioner. He studied at the Ruskin in Oxford and is therefore expert enough to set down a splendidly thorough account of artistic ineptitude: ‘As those who have both drawn and written know, the problems of definition differ radically. A table or a person becomes in graphic representation a maze of angles, of half-hidden bulges, of second and third and fourth looks adding up to an illusion of thereness. When colour is added to line, the decisions and discriminations freighted into each square inch approach the infinite; one’s eyes begin to hurt, to water, and colours on the palette converge towards gray mud.’
This insider’s knowledge, tainted with mediocrity, makes Updike more than charitable to third-rate illustrators and commercial artists of any stripe, yet less than generous to the great, to whom he brings some of the pernickety professional standards of the rank amateur. Eliot’s preface to an unwritten book, Four Elizabethan Dramatists, contains a passage germane here: ‘A play of Shakespeare’s and a play of Henry Arthur Jones’s are essentially of the same type, the difference being that Shakespeare is very much greater and Mr Jones very much more skilful.’ This explains a lot when Updike criticises Degas’s ‘unevenness of rendering’: the woman’s dress in Woman leaning near a vase of flowers is less finished than the flowers; Giulia Belleli’s face ‘exists on a much ghostlier plane than Giovanna’. Updike puts it all down to Degas’s tendency to improvise with his materials, to be a handyman, a bricoleur. I can’t help wondering what Updike made of the more extreme technical violations in, say, Degas’s portrait Mary Cassat with Small Dog (1890), or his 1861 portrait of Princesse Pauline de Metternich, which was done from a still extant photograph. The photograph shows a woman not unlike the late Marghanita Laski, with full lips gathered over a generous helping of teeth. Degas’s portrait, on the other hand, gives us a smudged face, as if a tremor is passing through the picture as we watch. It is difficult to describe the effect on the viewer of such a picture without sounding like Pater on La Giaconda, when one would prefer to sound like Henry James on Milly Theale and the Bronzino in The Wings of the Dove. Nevertheless, one has to be open to the picture’s suggestion. We see it, so to speak, through a veil of tears – hers and our own. The physical movement, the smear, the smudge, translates until it is emotional and we are moved ourselves. It is more interesting than the photograph and Degas has accomplished his transfiguration by an amateur’s trick which an amateur would never stoop to. Amateurs conceal their mistakes by smudging. Professionals get it right and do not resort to deception – unless they happen to be Degas, a genius who can see that the correct can be improved, given greater suggestiveness, by a trick employed only by the incompetent. Great artists never care about whom they learn from. And, of course, even great artists make mistakes, genuine mistakes, where we would think them least capable of blundering: Degas is a great anatomist, but he is not a perfect anatomist. Woman drying her neck and Woman resting her leg (1898 and 1880-85 respectively) can now be seen in the Musée d’Orsay, where particular attention should be paid to the extraordinary shoulder-blades of the former and the astonishing upper arm of the latter. Given his gullibility with Ipousteguy’s La Naissance, I wouldn’t expect Updike to notice, though he can see the anatomical improbability of Modigliani’s Reclining Nude in MOMA.
Increasingly, I came to feel that, as a writer on art, Updike simply does not know enough. Little though I know myself, I found myself finding mistakes you might not expect. In the piece on Fairfield Porter, Updike epitomises Porter’s art as ‘a colour-drunk hymn to (in his phrase) “things as they are” ’. But the phrase is from Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’: ‘They said, “You have a blue guitar,/You do not play things as they are.” ’ Updike might have guessed as much from the recognisable, if blurred cover of the Collected Poems in the foreground of Porter’s Lizzie at the Table (1958). After Ian Dunlop’s study, it is strange to find Updike still describing Degas as an Impressionist. The first Impressionist exhibition was actually called the Société Anonyme des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. Degas was out of sympathy with the artistic ideas of Monet and Pissaro, but he felt the need for an alternative to the official Salon – a place where the realist school to which he felt he belonged might exhibit.
Discussing Monet’s La Japonaise, Updike notes that the head seems to come from Renoir, the ‘studio-lit staginess from Manet’, and the general atmosphere from Whistler. He prefaces the catalogue of debt with this testimonial: ‘Monet, who imitated almost no one but Nature herself ...’ In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to the right of Monet’s The Green Wave ’65 is a note which states that ‘even before painting the Green Wave Monet had made two seascapes so dependent on the style of Manet that the older artist had complained of plagiarism.’ My memory, which may be faulty, is that Manet actually threatened to sue. Updike’s analysis of the picture isn’t his happiest essay either. He seems to have missed a great deal. The painting shows Madame Monet in a long Japanese robe, with a samurai drawing his sword on the back. He isn’t, therefore, ‘poised to kill’, as Updike maintains. He really represents a technical challenge to Monet: the samurai is grotesque, but the distortion is magnified by the fall of the garment. How do you paint the distorted distortion without its looking like a mistake? Monet emerges with full marks. Updike doesn’t even see the difficulty which has been surmounted. Neither does he ask the obvious and pressing question about Monet’s background – an haphazard arrangement of fans on the wall, of which two have fallen at her feet. Why the uprush and clutter of fans? Wind is the answer, I would hazard – because her Japanese gown is waisted not at the waist but just above the knee, so that it forms a twister or a tornado, wide at the hem in the foreground. Madame Monet holds a fan in her hand to symbolise the turbulence which the passage of her beauty makes. The artistic vision here is shrewd and cunning and carefully calculated – calculated, too, to make nonsense out of Updike’s pious concluding sentence: ‘Monet’s work continuously celebrates the innocence of vision.’ Just looking. I prefer Degas’s cynical aphorism: ‘a picture is something which calls for as much cunning, trickery and vice as the perpetration of a crime.’