Just out of college, Patricia Hampl was mesmerized by a Matisse painting she saw in the Art Institute of Chicago: an aloof woman gazing at goldfish in a bowl, a mysterious Moroccan screen behind her. This woman seemed a welcome secular version of the nuns of Hampl’s girlhood, free and untouchable, a poster girl for twentieth-century feminism. In Blue Arabesque, Hampl explores the allure of that woman, immersed in leisure, so at odds with the increasing rush of the modern era. Her tantalizing meditation takes us to the Cote d’Azur and North Africa, from cloister to harem, pondering figures as diverse as Eugène Delacro ix, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Katherine Mansfield. Returning always to Matisse and his obsessive portraits of languid women, Hampl discovers they were not decorative indulgences but surprising acts of integrity.
Moving with the life force that Matisse sought in his work, Blue Arabesque is a dazzling tour de force.
"Whether trained on the Gospels, the Kama Sutra, the Book of Mormon or even Martha Stewart Living, Patricia Hampl’s eye would remain thoroughly and indelibly catechized. “Blue Arabesque” is either the heady confession of an aesthete, or a critical examination of art and literature as vehicles for a (if not the) holy ghost. Possibly, Hampl would draw no distinction between the two.
The author’s earlier memoirs, “A Romantic Education” and “Virgin Time,” have prepared her readers for her arrival at this point in the evolution of her thinking and her seeing — of what she thinks about what she sees. As revealed in her poetry and her prose, Hampl’s purpose is one of meticulous observation and equally focused description. So we’re not surprised to learn that on a spring day in 1972, when Hampl was visiting the Chicago Art Institute, she was arrested — no other verb will do — by a painting. For her, “Woman Before an Aquarium,” by Henri Matisse, “became in an instant, and has remained, an icon.” Further, she tells us that she “absorbed the painting as something religious, but the fascination was entirely secular.”
Given the pilgrimage inspired by the “icon,” it would be equally true to report that Hampl absorbed the painting as something secular, but her fascination was entirely religious. If the distinction isn’t just another semantic Möbius strip, it might seem irrelevant to those raised outside a tradition as richly and seductively evoked as that of the Roman Catholic Church. Even lapsed Catholics, even Catholics hostile to the church’s doctrine who have excised its teachings from their worldview, are left with its imprint on their aesthetic sensibilities — with a tendency to conflate representations of the holy with holiness itself; this is the reason Judaism and many Protestant sects dispense with iconography. It’s not only the simple-minded folk who get confused. Because art doesn’t act on the intellect alone but reaches into our deeper, unconscious selves, it doesn’t matter if we understand that of course God isn’t in the painting or the graven image. Another, more primitive part of us makes no such discriminations.
“Hammered” by “Woman Before an Aquarium,” Hampl undertook a quest for what immediately became her personal holy grail, a vessel bearing not the blood of Christ but its secular equivalent, as ineffable, mystical and impossible as transubstantiated wine. As her subtitle makes clear, she was in pursuit of the sublime, by which she means art with transcendent power, enough that it jolts its audience into exaltation, curiosity and craving. Art as drug, and addiction. Art that can hammer.
Judiciously, “Blue Arabesque” doesn’t offer readers a reproduction of “Woman Before an Aquarium” to examine. The transaction between object and observer is idiosyncratic, and although this painting bewitched the author, it might underwhelm her readers. In fact, Hampl says the Matisse that set her on a long pilgrimage is not considered one of the artist’s best. “Rather muddy,” she calls it; fainter praise would be hard to imagine. But for the author, the woman gazing at the goldfish in the bowl embodied an “exquisite balance” of “passion and detachment, of intimacy and distance.” A “thoughtful madonna,” she presented Hampl with “the clairvoyant image of a future I wanted.”
But why? How? In 1972, Hampl was in her 20’s, old enough to be a grown-up, too young to know how one might navigate adulthood gracefully. Out of school, editing copy under deadline, “already squeezed and breathless,” she was fast discovering that life rarely conforms to our vision of how it should be. The worst of it, for Hampl, a contemplative individual with a keen aesthetic appetite, was that “the world was not set up for sitting and staring,” the sole occupation — the eternal occupation — of the woman in Matisse’s painting.
“A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen,” Hampl asserts, having “shadowed” Matisse — and the portraits of women known as “his odalisques — from museum to museum,” both at home and abroad. To her eye, these reclining females “suggest not languor but the art of perception” as they gaze calmly back at their observers. But Hampl’s operating assertion is another slippery one, for “take away the goldfish” from the painting, “and you take away a fragment of consciousness itself.” Once seen, the painted goldfish floats in the mind as well as on the canvas; it has become thought: at once objectified and disembodied, instantly attached to countless feelings and ideas.
Hampl embarks on her pilgrimage to discover “perception” from a postlapsarian consciousness; she seeks an absolute seeing and knowing that cannot exist in an imperfect world. To remind her readers that Adam and Eve were allowed to look as much and as long as they wanted at the tree of knowledge is to admit the mortal impossibility of satisfying her purpose. Once upon a time, in Paradise, contemplation was uninterrupted by the grimy chores of workaday mortal life. Once upon a time, the intellectual and emotional consummation Hampl seeks through art, through seeing — the ecstatic union between subject and object — would already be hers.
The enemy of the sublime, it turns out, is “the rush that is modernity.” There’s no time to sit and stare. “Blue Arabesque” bemoans our mortal need for industry, the demands made by flesh for food and shelter, the mind’s need of occupation. Eternally dissatisfied, caught in the relentless march of time, humankind is always becoming and never being, and to see requires cessation of movement. Bit by bit, our hungers have led us to make our world ever more ugly and frantic. So what’s an aesthete to do?
Like all good Catholics, Hampl seeks intercession — a bridge to the sublime — from those artists and writers she calls “my saints.” Matisse is foremost among them — at least as represented in this text, the title of which refers to the Moroccan screen motif that distinguishes many of his paintings — joined by the painters Delacroix and Ingres, and by the writer Katherine Mansfield, whose essence Hampl “stalked,” so intent on penetrating the mystery of Mansfield’s transcendent prose that she “tracked any shred of memory or gossip.” Having learned from Frieda Lawrence’s memoir that Mansfield used Cuticura soap, for example, Hampl was “thrilled” to find she could buy and use it herself, identifying it as “a relic.”
Ultimately, “Blue Arabesque” isn’t a memoir so much as it is a paean to the act of seeing, celebrating our capacity to be transformed by the truths art holds, recognizing them as . . . holy. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled,” John Berger writes in “Ways of Seeing.” “On Photography,” by Susan Sontag, identifies a “heroism of vision” and finds “everyday life apotheosized” in image. Patricia Hampl’s determination to occupy the space between the eye and its object and her success at articulating the mysterious transactions therein grants her authority among writers like Berger and Sontag, who not only sit and stare but see. Read “Blue Arabesque” and you too might mistake — or exchange — art museums for churches.
Kathryn Harrison is the author of the memoirs “The Kiss,” “Seeking Rapture” and “The Mother Knot.” Her most recent book is a novel, “Envy.”
New York Times