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Postcard Picasso

ISSUE:  Winter 2002
at the small end of an illness
there was a picture
probably Japanese
which fitted my eye
an idiotic picture
except it was all I recognized
the wall lived for me in that picture
I clung to it as a fly

—William Carlos Williams

I used to have a reproduction of John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo hanging on my wall. Its colors weren’t as vivid as those of the original. The dramatic lighting effects created on the canvas by Sargent were largely absent from the repro. And, of course, the size was considerably smaller: the real one is eight feet high by 11 feet wide; mine fit on the wall above my dining room hutch. Still, I could always depend on it to deliver a blast from the open door of its furnace that was more than sufficient for viewing at an ordinary mealtime.

Before I got my repro, I had seen the original only once. If you have ever been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you cannot have missed it. It’s right near the entrance in a Spanish grotto-like setting that exactly suits its subject: a flamenco dancer and her musicians. Dressed in a tidal wave of a long silvery-white ruffled skirt, she is in the middle of executing a move across a footlighted stage, her hips leading, her arms outstretched like swan’s necks (or white serpent’s bodies, depending upon your mood), while a line of rapturous guitarists plays, one of them with his head thrown back, his mouth open, his throat exposed. I once saw Alvin Alley’s Revelations, as a college student in the early 1970’s. His principal dancer, Judith Jamison, in her own white ruffles, exuded the same sensual power as Sargent’s dancer does, and celebrated the same ecstatic freedom, artistic and otherwise. I felt it even from the uppermost part of the auditorium, where I had climbed to sit on the steps during intermission; unable to afford a ticket, I had sneaked in at halftime with the paying crowd. Years later, when I saw a video of Revelations, I was thankful I had already seen it onstage, since the version in the box in my living room reminded me of Harry Hope’s complaint in The Iceman Cometh: “Bejees, what did you do to the booze, Hickey? There’s no damn life left in it.” Revelations on screen was no more capable of electrifying me than a lightning bug is, and the genuine little jolt I did feel was the result of remembering the real thing. I realized then that I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out of my El Jaleo if I hadn’t first seen Mrs. Gardner’s.

Still, I have a confession to make, if a confession is due: I feel indebted to reproductions. I consider them to be a significant chapter in my personal history of art. I have certainly spent more time with them than I have with original paintings in museums, where, say studies, 30 seconds is the average time a museum-goer spends looking at one piece before moving on to the next. Quantity versus quality is the obvious counterargument, but to leave it at that is to be guilty of simplism.

Some will think me guilty of blasphemy if I don’t quickly say that I am not defending first-class misrepresentations. I saw one recently, in a seafood restaurant in Rockport, Massachusetts. A reproduction of The Fog Warning by Homer is what it was purported to be. In fact, it was the Musak version, which managed to reduce the image of the lone fisherman in danger of foundering on choppy gray seas to a snapshot of a sportsman out for a row on a hazy blue-green greeting-card afternoon. I make no apologies for travesties like that one. But a confession though this essay may be, I’ll make no apologies for myself. I learned long ago to take my aesthetic nourishment wherever I can get it; and that’s what I continue to do, without remorse.

It’s not just a question of substituting margarine for butter. I believe that objects like my El Jaleo have charms and assets of their own.

I bought El Jaleo at a yard sale on Cape Cod. Driving along Route 6A, my husband and I spied it leaning against a tree on somebody’s front lawn. We braked, tendered the asking price—$5, and smiled broadly all the way home to Lawrence, Massachusetts, the old textile mill city where we lived for a decade.

Serendipity is often credited by yard-sale shoppers for their successes; Bob and I credited it doubly in the case of El Jaleo. We had never seen a framed reproduction of it before, and haven’t seen one since, not even in the museum shop of the Gardner. Bob would call our purchase preordained. I would say that numerous other reproductions seem to have entered our household—and psyches— fortuitously.

I am thinking, for example, of all those that tumble through our mail slot. These are the museum-shop postcards sent to us by friends. In my correspondence files I keep the bulk of them—a whole collection of artists who, one might well conclude, were all miniaturists with an unvarying preference for exactly four and one-eighth inches by five and seven-eighths. I also have a few holding my place for me in half-read books. But the ones I like best I tack up around the windows in the kitchen, and when I cook or do the dishes I can’t help but study them. As time passes, I may forget the name of the artist but rarely the person who sent it to me: the postcard’s provenance. In my imagination, it’s as if we are looking at the painting together. The image of the painting and the image of the friend are fused. Walter Benjamin, in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” noted that the crucial element that the reproduction lacks and the original possesses is “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” I agree with a lot of what Benjamin had to say, but I disagree with him on that point. The postcard—a particular postcard—also occupies its own time and space, has its own history, including, as Benjamin wrote regarding original works, “changes of ownership.”

Picasso’s The Lovers came unbidden just the other day. It wasn’t the first time that painting had insinuated itself into our lives. This time, it was on a piece of stationery more expensive than a postcard—a notecard from a boxed set. In 1973, a framed facsimile of it was left behind in Bob’s Washington, D.C., apartment by the previous tenant, along with his large folk-song record collection, Peace Corps slides from Malawi, an old-fashioned ice cream stool, and numerous other, less intriguing items. The tenant, whose name was Steve, said he had decided to forsake all material possessions, and Bob was to be the recipient of the windfall, whether he liked it or not. By the time Bob and I decided to get married a few months later, The Lovers had inured itself to us, and we selected that image, of a couple with their arms around each other in a dual struggle-and-embrace, for our postcard wedding invitations. We bought a stack of them at the National Gallery of Art, where the original resides. Several years later, we ran into Steve at a party. He had changed his name to Simon, and was trucking with the material world once again, so we arranged to return his Malawi slides, which, alone of all the things he had left behind, he had missed. The Lovers, need I say, wasn’t mentioned. His earlier rejection of materialism had coincided with his breakup with a girlfriend, and I can imagine that both he and she, even to this day, may cringe slightly upon chance sigh tings of the piece.

Yet I also feel a kind of kinship with Steve/Simon and his former mate. I feel we four comprise a quirky club. I would even extend its membership to anybody else who has happened to live with a reproduction of The Lovers. Is it really so very strange of me to feel this way? To admit that I like the idea of repros engendering these little groups?

Sometimes such “little groups” are actually quite large. Not long ago, I noticed a photo of a familiar painting in a weekly arts-and-antiques newspaper, and learned that I am part of a clan that is, in fact, too large to suit me. It is made up of people who have lived with reproductions of Emile Renouf s 1881 genere painting Un Coup de Main (A Helping Hand). In my case, it used to hang in the living room of my childhood home. Its subject is a little blonde girl and a whiskered old man who are using one enormous oar to row an old wooden boat together. The girl is wearing a bonnet and pinafore; the man is in fisherman’s garb. The look on the girl’s face can only be described as “determined,” and the look on the man’s only as “bemused.” Renouf wanted you to believe, in other words, that if you have enough gumption, and a kindly and patient enough teacher, you could accomplish anything in this world.

The picture was being featured in the news for having just been sold at Sotheby’s to an anonymous buyer for $1.1 million. “School-children’s Icon,” the headline called it, because it had become “famous across America following the widespread distribution of engravings and the hanging of reproductions in classrooms across the country.” I’d had no idea. I had thought it was a picture of my own secret longings.

Both the girl and the man are wearing wooden clogs, so even as a child I knew that they were “foreign.” But that was part of the painting’s appeal. My grandfathers were “foreign,” too—I always imagined the two in the boat to be a granddaughter-grandfather team—and it made me want to be in a rowboat with one of the elders of my own family. The trouble was that my father’s father had died 16 years before I was born, and my mother’s, who died when I was four, was an invalid for the last few years of his life. Lying on his couch, he would ask me to add sums in my head (and I would hide behind an armchair in order to count on my fingers). Before his funeral, my grandmother sat on that same couch, crying loudly into her hands. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life was not a dream; at least, it wasn’t on my side of the picture, and I wondered how I might break through to the other side.

Now, all these years later, seeing the news article makes me feel foolish—hoodwinked by mass-marketing. That’s the trouble with images that are reproduced too much. They lose their ability to convince us they have entered our lives for a purpose.

My parents bought their Renouf at an early-day tag sale in the late 1950’s, in Greenwich, Connecticut, my hometown, tag sales being distinct from yard sales or garage sales, originally at least, because they were held indoors. Everything was simply tagged in situ, and customers freely roamed the premises, picking out their purchases. We often went to these sales not only to buy things cheaply but also to sneak a look inside the kind of upper-middle-class home in which we ourselves would never live. These weren’t the glitzy houses that are synonymous with Greenwich today. It was real money back then, too, but people weren’t so eager to flaunt it. Suffice it to say, there was a different way of being rich in Greenwich before the glitz moved in.

We bought other repros at these old-fashioned tag sales, including a set of four that used to hang in a line in our family’s breakfast nook. (It was also the lunch and dinner nook: nobody in our neighborhood had a dining room until all the additions got built in the 1960’s, including our own.) One of the pictures showed an outdoor cafe scene under a night-blue sky that was studded with huge swirling stars; another was a close-up of a crowded dance floor, with bobbing heads and hairdos; a third was a portrait of a man whom I took to be a cowboy, because he wore a broad-brimmed hat; the fourth was a floral still-life of bending sunflowers in a vase on the side of which the artist had signed his name, chummily, VINCENT.

Arthur C. Danto, art critic for The Nation, has written that just as Nietzsche is the philosopher of those who do not read philosophy, van Gogh is the artist whose reproductions are “the standard decorative touch” in middle-class homes throughout our culture— homes, he says, of those who know little of art. I would add, in working-class homes like mine merely striving to be middle-class.

“Philistines” is the term that the discreet Danto did not use to describe people like my parents, but plenty of others wouldn’t hesitate. What would those same labelers say about me and my own current class status if they knew that the one framed picture I hung in my classroom at the prep school where I once taught was a repro of the irises that van Gogh painted in the gardens at Saint-Rémy? I suppose some of them would give me a point or two for having bought it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art after seeing the 1987 blockbuster, “Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers,” although others would probably find that all the more appalling, being mindful of the irony that museums, our designated keepers of high culture, are the major source of these wall decorations that are so disdained, so déclassé.

I also have in my possession some ersatz Homers. There are six of them—likenesses of the watercolors that he painted in the 1880’s on winter trips to the tropics. They came to me from my parents (yes, more tagsale booty), who had bought them for their bedroom, having been attracted as much to the images as to the frames, which matched their “antique” blue nightstands and dressers. When I was growing up, the master bedroom (as it was never called) was a private place; my sister and I didn’t often get invited into it. The most I could expect was being allowed to take a nap in there, after a day at the beach, because I had used their bathroom to shower off the sand instead of tracking it upstairs to my own bathroom—whereupon I promptly fell asleep. So I didn’t get a good look at them while I was living at home. In our house in Lawrence, they were in the guest room, so there wasn’t much viewing time for them in that case, either.

Then, four years ago, when we moved to this house in Andover, Massachusetts, I put them in the bathroom, because, like my parents before me, I am boorish, and wanted to match them to a color scheme (my bathroom is green). If only I had known what pleasures they would bring, I would have moved them much sooner to a place where I could truly see them. Scenes of palm fronds bending in the hurricane winds in a little village in Nassau; fishing boats bobbing in the warm waters off Key West; a house and garden in bright Bermuda sunlight—they are ringing my old-fashioned tub, eye-level to someone (myself) soaking in it. During my tub time, I have been transported to that little Nassau village; I have sunned myself on one of those bobbing fishing boats; I have entered into the hurricane. If all the boors and philistines are enjoying similar imaginings, I’m happy to be counted among them.

In 1996, when the Museum of Fine Arts hosted the huge Homer exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, Bob and I drove to Boston one morning to see the show. My reproductions had made me eager to see their actual counterparts. When we got there, however, we discovered that the MFA parking lot was already full, and the streets around the building were being blocked by numerous busloads of disembarking school children and senior citizens. We couldn’t even find a place to park on a street an unreasonable walking distance away. Finally, damning the whole blockbuster mentality for the crush, we gave up, and paid a visit instead to the Gardner, since our search had taken us into that adjacent neighborhood anyway. Our old friend El Jaleo greeted us near the door, and were we both amazed by it all over again.

For a couple of years, we hadn’t seen Mrs. Gardner’s, or anybody’s, El Jaleo, including our own. When we’d moved, we’d been forced to take ours to a consignment shop (where it was, presumably, passed along to a new member of our club), since the Andover house is much smaller than the Lawrence one and we’d lost not only wall space but storage space as well. And you may think it fortunate that we didn’t have to return home that day to face our bleached and puny rendition of a great painting. I’ll admit as much. But I also believe it was precisely because of our prolonged exposure to the foolhardy imitation that the real El Jaleo seemed to us all the more dazzling.

Bob remembers a similar enhancement effect the day he happened upon the source of a reproduction that hung in his childhood home, just up the street from where we live today. He had never known the name of the painting, or its maker’s. It was on the wall by the grand piano in his family’s family room, and Bob spent a lot of time there, because he had started playing piano at age six. Every child in that household was required to take up a musical instrument; but unlike his three older siblings, Bob had genuine ability, so his parents required him to study well beyond the beginner level. Eventually they ferried him into Boston on Saturdays to study with more advanced teachers than those who were available in the suburbs. He hated it. And the gloomy picture on the wall, of a house as seen through a murky strand of trees in cloudy weather, didn’t help the situation.

When he turned 15, he was finally allowed to abandon his piano studies—he would never be a concert pianist, his parents reluctantly had to concede. A couple of years later, on a visit to the National Gallery of Art as a college student, he happened to see the painting he remembered not so fondly from all those hours at the keyboard: it was by Cézanne, and called House of Père Lacroix. He was shocked by the dappled sunlight, the lush green foliage, the inviting country cottage. It wasn’t a somber piece at all, and it made him wonder if knowing what it really looked like would have made his time at the piano any less painful than it was.

Who can say? One thing is certain: when Bob saw that painting in the museum, he looked at it far more intensely and prolongedly and with much more enjoyment than he would have otherwise, thanks to his prior experience with its ugly cousin, the repro.

Like our childhood homes, infirmaries are, notoriously, a place where repros have captive audiences. And like Bob with his Cézanne, patients may make associations they would rather not. I myself associate certain images with a hospital room, though they weren’t hanging on the wall, and I wasn’t the patient. They were on the notecards I used to write home to Bob while I was keeping vigil at my mother’s bedside a few summers ago.

Mom still went to tag sales every weekend toward the end. (She and Dad had filled the house with items from other people’s pasts.) One such purchase was an unopened box of 12 notecards from the Guggenheim Museum. Its theme was women’s portraits—two sets of six—including Matisse’s The Italian Woman, Picasso’s Head of a Woman, Dora Maar, Fernand Léger’s Woman Holding a Vase, Alexej Jawlensky’s Helene with Colored Turban, Fernando Botero’s Rubens Wife, and Jean Dubuffet’s screedy, sand-and-pebble Miss Cholera. Bob and I talked at length on the phone every day, but I still felt it necessary to write to him.

I was camped out in the living room of my childhood home, on a foldout couch. In the 1980’s my bedroom had been converted to the kitchen of a mother-in-law apartment. The tenant was a woman in her fifties, whose first name, Selene, was her only name, since she had forsaken her father’s surname, and her former husband’s, too. She believed in angels, only wore white, and electrically pulverized her breakfast grain every morning at five. I wasn’t sleeping well, anyway; I switched on the light.

Miss Cholera was my first selection. “Isn’t this card ugly?” I wrote inside it, then went on to say of my mother: “She’s very comfortable. Oblivious, from the morphine. We hope. We can’t really know. But she smiles and sings little songs that she has made up and recites poems that really are quite funny and/or interesting, and when I say so, she says, “I know it,” very proudly and confidently. One was about “a wig and a witch,” which she said really fast but, she noted, not too fast, “so you won’t get them confused.” Selene is vacuuming over my head… .”

Every day for more than a week, I made another careful selection of a notecard from the box, wrote a message to Bob, and put it into the mailbox. In that way I went through one set of six, then started on the second set, engaging in a kind of ritual on which I grew to depend. She died before I got to the end.

Now, you would think, it might be natural for me to turn away from Miss Cholera and the faces of the others whenever I happen to see them in art books or catalogues, associating them, as I do, with those last days of my mother’s life, but the opposite is true. Instead of being repelled, I go toward them, because, like any other talismans, they helped me through it.

One big reason why Alvin Ailey’s Revelations was such a disappointment to me on video—beyond the fact of the medium itself, that is—was because it wasn’t a collective aesthetic experience: I wasn’t part of an audience. Unlike dance, painting is an art form that isn’t meant to be experienced with a crowd.(That’s why blockbusters, which require expert rubbernecking, are so frustrating.) But not long ago, I think I saw the shape of one possible future in the age of mechanical reproductions while driving into Boston from Cambridge. Looming in the distance, up on a billboard on Charlestown Avenue, was none other than El Jaleo.

It didn’t appear to be advertising anything: neither Sargent nor the Gardner was named. Maybe it was meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of billboard advertising itself, given an exhilarating image. Maybe you were already supposed to know where to find the original and be reminded to go there. Maybe you were expected to be prompted to ask friends about the picture. Buzz, buzz. Or maybe the billboard itself was supposed to be enough: a public service announcement of a kind.

I accept it as such, and would welcome the prospect of a country full of billboard art, which groups of friends or family could view together, like fireworks or an eclipse of the sun. We could gather at the places where the billboards could best be seen, in the same way that people used to assemble for movies at drive in theaters.

Widespread billboard art would be worthless as a commodity, but priceless as generator of a community-making activity.

Of course, some critics fear that constant exposure to repros will foster what they euphemistically call a “casual” attitude toward art. There is certainly nothing more casual than putting fragile paper in a bathroom, where it is sure to become foxed. I take it that they want me to kneel before a painting, not lie on my back looking at it. To them, surely, it would seem equally sacrilegious to gawk at a giant picture while picnicking. As I perceive it, however, the so-called casual attitude toward art would be akin to the one fostered by another tool of democracy, the paperback book; and so—postcards to billboards—I loudly applaud it, and hope that I have convinced you to do the same.

Finally, I would be misrepresenting myself if I left you with the impression that we only have repros in our house. Quite to the contrary, these days, the Homers are it. Over the last few years, we’ve graduated to buying some modest pieces of original art. But I often can’t help wondering if we overpaid for some of these pieces or, alternately, if some have significantly appreciated.

I also worry about hanging them on a wall where they might accidentally be brushed by somebody’s elbow. What must it be like to own a multi-million-dollar painting? I imagine it as a pleasure fraught with similar anxieties but increased in intensity a multi-million-fold—anxieties that may have everything to do with possessing authentic fine art but nothing to do with forming an authentic response to it.


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