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Posts Tagged ‘Caillebotte’

Earlier this week, National Public Radio ran a show on the new exhibit of paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The artist whose works they are exhibiting is one of the French Impressionists, but not a household name like Renoir and Monet, with their reproductions hanging in dentist’s offices and motel rooms around the country. Gustave Caillibotte hardly ranks with their fame, but he is, in my estimation and apparently the curators of this show, their equal in talent. I saw Caillibotte’s paintings at a heady time for me. It was San Francisco in the late 1980s, and I had recently finished a novel, now tucked away in a drawer, that an agent was shopping around to the publishing houses whose names were on the spines of my favorite books. I felt ready to leap into a new world in a city that seemed forever fascinating. Because my novel was about an unknown impressionist painter in the late 19th century, I felt a compulsion to visit the big Impressionist show that had come to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The other paintings at the show melt away in memory, but the painting called The Floor Scrappers and the one of the rooftops of snow covered houses viewed from the artist’s Paris studio are still vivid. The Floor Scrapers is roughly 6 ft. by 5 ft., filled with a golden light. It does not have the kind of hazy brush strokes of typical Impressionist art, but it does have the light. The story goes that this was a new studio his wealthy father was remodeling for his young artist son. The three men refinishing the floor have removed their shirts in the heat and they are immersed in their work. The artist appears to admire their skill as they strain against the plank floors. I was so moved by the paintings that I went home that day and wrote a poem about View of Rooftops. I tried to put myself into his thoughts as he painted, staring out the window at the white roofs in the gray winter light. It reminded me of the scene in Hemingway’s memoir of Paris called A Moveable Feast where he describes the cold room that he rented in order to write and how he carefully shaved the tips of his writing pencils and put a few pieces of coal on the stove to cut the chill. Caillebotte’s most famous, almost iconic, painting is called Paris Street, Rainy Day. The beautiful wide street of the new Paris, the triangular building in the distance, and everyone strolling along in the misty rain under their identical gray umbrellas – you are there in the moment, although the year is 1877. That is what I hoped to convey in my own writing – that sense of being there in a particular moment in time and the way it felt. I don’t know if I ever found that, but it always seemed the most important thing in writing or in painting. I think we will be able to go to this exhibit next month when we head south to visit my family in South Carolina. I think it will bring back memories of that summer in 1988, when my wife and I, newly married, saw the Impressionists in Golden Gate Park.

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That was the first day of spring last week, at least the first day that smelled like spring out here in the valley. It was rainy in the morning, but by afternoon the sun had come out and was blowing the dark funk of winter away in a blessed burst of vitamin D. Sunlight on bare skin for 15 minutes delivers something like 10,000 units of vitamin D. A day like that wakes you up.

Now I remember that’s why I love the changing of the seasons. For a little while at least, everything is a surprise. You walk out to get the paper and the crocuses have suddenly appeared in what was until recently a bank of snow. The air does that funny thing where one breeze is warm and the next one from another direction is cold. You put on a jacket and the next minute you have to take it off. It’s like splashing cold water on your face. Oh yes, you say, now I’m awake.

I don’t know why we fall into this trap of sleepwalking through our days, like some kind of sleep apnea of the spirit. We doze off and don’t even know it until something startles us awake. Last Saturday morning it was a song on the radio that woke me.

It had been snowing during the night and the roads were not good. One part of my mind was hyper alert, feeling the tires slipping on patches of ice, watching the sparse early morning traffic coming toward me, while another part of my mind distractedly carried on a conversation with my daughter in the back seat, who was going to meet her science group for a trip.

After I dropped her off, I sat in the parking lot for a moment listening to the Folk Show on the radio. A song came on I’d never heard. I still don’t know the name, but it was something about all the reasons why the songwriter would never get into heaven. I can take or leave country music, but this song sounded like the real thing, like one of those old Hank Williams tunes where you catch a glimpse of the untold back story – a life of tough breaks and wrong decisions. It was like an Edward Hopper painting of lonely people in a midnight café. I was awake as I listened, surprised by reality.

I don’t know what else art really does besides plunge us deeper into the real. At least that’s what I look for in a painting or a book, a piece of music or a song. I don’t often find it. But I did come across it in a museum in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco twenty years ago. It was a traveling exhibit of paintings from the nineteenth century by French Impressionist painters. One of the painters, Gustave Caillebotte, just blew away all of the others. The other paintings sat on the wall, but Caillebotte’s were like windows into the real world. You could feel yourself there in his studio looking out on a view of Parisian rooftops or in the room where a couple of sweating workmen were stripping the wax from a floor in summer heat. It was real, more real than the crowd of people around me shuffling through a crowded museum on a Sunday afternoon.

I found it in the opening pages of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream and in A Farewell to Arms and most of his short stories. Those scenes are realer than life, like a good Impressionist painting that captures the moment and suspends it in a special light, and you wake up to the realization that everything is bright and three dimensional when you thought it was flat and dull.

It is so hard to stay awake, to pay attention. It was easier in childhood, when everything was new and seen for the first time. Now we see the world through a veil of habit. But the smell of spring, or a memory floating back from childhood, or sometimes a song, can open our eyes again and we see the world in all its reality and depth, if only for that moment.

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