Robert Walser (1878 – 1956) was a poet, a novelist, and a short story writer. In addition to these esteemed categories, he was also a critic, and why ever should he not have been, he who saw so many things and ventured upon so many places, after, of course, taking so many steps? Large steps and small steps he took, and in-between steps too, always keeping his eyes focused, yet wandering ever so liberally the same, and ever so generously as well, from this thing to that, every day and every night, even when the sun had gone and left him alone in darkness—even then, Mr. Walser, of whom it is my chief pleasure to introduce you to now, even then, Mr. Walser was looking about, and looking about charitably.
Some folks will dismiss Mr. Walser as a critic. They will say he sorely failed, that he confused his genres, mixed his fiction with his nonfiction, and got his tongue tied up by double-dipping into the real and the unreal. In a word, by being ekphrastic in his criticism (a trait that has been noted by Susan Bernofsky and Christine Burgin), some folks will say that Mr. Walser has said nothing save for some sidelong and inconsequential drivel conjured up by his fanciful, pretty head. To that I cry “Falsehood, good sir or good madam!” For what, do tell, does it even mean to be fanciful or pretty—or a head, for that matter; and how, do tell, do these three things come together to constitute a judgment of another man’s judgments? I can easily recall many a man without a single fanciful or pretty quality to his name who, nevertheless and on a regular basis, managed to make poor judgments, by any standards, and without the slightest problem at all; and as for those with no heads to speak of, you wouldn’t believe the absolute bunk that they so commonly spew when speaking about the arts. As you can see, there is no case for these accusations concerning the merits, or lack, of our dear Mr. Walser and his method of criticism; and so, having put an end to such nonsense, I would like to make clearer to you what it is that Mr. Walser does do when he does criticism, for he does do criticism indeed.
- CONTEXT— No painting hangs alone! That is, it is impossible to see a painting without seeing what is around a painting, in its periphery, above, below, and beside it otherwise. Context matters, indeed it is of the upmost importance. Tell us the painting’s story—not its history so much, but your history, the two of you together, how you first met. Have you known the painting for long and does it have the same taste in music as you do? So it is with Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Apollo and Diana that Walser tells us at the start: “I was working, I remember, at the brewery in Thun. This was approximately ten years ago, and…” And he goes on to tell a story, a sort of snippet of a memoir really, and brings the reader into the world of the painting by first bringing them into the world of Mr. Walser at the time when the painting and he shared this world (41).
- TONE— There is no sense in being boring about art. It would be a shame to let coldness—a perennial trait of the objective critic—translate into a sleepy style. Be serious, of course, but try not to forget the drama; and if drama will not do, then set the work to music; and, when that too fails, try, ever so gently, pulling the music right out of it. For Walser, this has to do with the trans-mediation of ekphrasis, which is no respecter of difference between canvas and melody, but joyously strings together all of God’s beautiful creation without a single second of fretting. Walser does not just sing in the shower; he dances there too. Sometimes, I dare say, he even takes the shower out for a walk.
- UPDATE THE WORK— Classic works often bear thick and obscuring cobwebs. Brush them off tenderly, for how can you even see such antiquated pieces fully with so much dust and debris of yesteryear on them, clouding their sweet visages? As Walser notes, “It is difficult, for example, to know how earlier people might have looked at these pictures, with what sort of eyes, filled with what sort of spirit, and what they were thinking as they gazed, what the pictures meant to them” (69). How indeed can we know such historically different eyesight, and how shall we compensate for this difference? Our own eyesight ought to suffice. Ask yourself whether or not the style of the figure you behold is out of date or up to it, whether or not you, in this present age, have ever seen anything so striking or so bland in your day-to-day, and whether or not “She wears the sort of skirt one sees all the time, and has the sort of hands one encounters everywhere…” as Walser says of Van Gogh’s Arlésienne (43). We who are known for being so overwhelmed in this age of information, must not trouble too much over outdated visions, though without sacrificing our wonder for the past, for it was quite wonderful indeed.
- PSYCHOLOGIZE— “What were you thinking?” is a common enough thought one might have while looking at a challenging work of art; and one can be challenged for all sorts of reasons, meaning that one can ask the question in all sorts of ways. It is an indispensable tool of the critic’s toolbox to be able to enter the psychology of the artist, to think the way the artist thought. Think like an artist; wax imaginative; be subjective, worshipping and destroying tradition in equal turn, and so on and so forth. One might also try thinking as a patron of the arts thinks. One might think both ways: “No one could have possibly commissioned such works; the artist would appear to have given himself the assignment and then painted something that perhaps no one ever wished to see depicted” (44).
- IMAGINE CURATION— This is a continuation of the last point, but more on the question of where rather than who. Part of knowing the inner workings of an artwork is first to understand what outer workings would suit it best. Use your imagination to see the work in different places—at home, in a museum, at a church, above a toilet. After all, and as Walser so eruditely divulges, “paintings do have to get hung somewhere” (62). A novel location might disclose the true nature of the work before you, its natural habitat, so to speak. “Who could want to hang such an ordinary picture on his wall?” Walser asks at one juncture (44) and, at another, saying, “Perhaps if I were the owner of this picture I, too, would tuck it away in a garret, since it isn’t a picture for the parlor” (63). Some pictures are for parlors, while others are not. Take a moment to picture where the picture goes; this will help you place it.
- LISTEN AND RESPOND— It is often said that one should let the work of art speak to one’s self. This much is true, but it is equally true that one ought to speak to the work of art as well. Invite conversation, not only amongst your cultured company, but also with the work itself. Considering Arlésienne again, Walser notes, “The woman suddenly began speaking about her life. Once she was a child and went to school” (46). To think, how much shorter and poorer his essay would have shaped up to be if he had not been such a good listener!
- SPECULATE (WILDLY)— But don’t stop there; go beyond the merely audible, the merely linguistic, and let the artwork say things to you that it is not saying at all: “She no doubt often went to church, or to dances. … Can she not have had a lover, and known joy, and many sorrows? She listened to the ringing of bells, and with her eyes perceived the beauty of branches in blossom” (46). Being a good listener means more than just paying attention to words; are not judgments also made in fiction, and ever as aptly as they are in history books and editorial columns besides? And do we not also feel the truth, sometimes even more than we think it? Yes, quite a lot more, we do.
- BE (WILDLY) CHARITABLE— Don’t be rude; the artwork is giving you its time, and so you ought to show some manners. You are the guest of its aura. Do not race to conclusions too quickly—conclusions of the bitter sort that miss the fact of your host’s hospitality. Indeed, Walser saw in Arlésienne that, even after decrying her brute simplicity, one could not help but want to “caress her cheeks, this long-suffering woman” (49). Be nice to the work of art; it too has the capacity for touch and for touching.
- BE ETHICAL— Let not your charitable spirit be the limit, whereby you stand still at the level of the private one-to-one relationship you have with the artwork and no one else. Be impressionable and allow the artwork to advise. It will make you universal, for such is the manner of art. Looking at his brother Karl’s Portrait of a Lady, Walser tenderly asks of the central figure’s state of mind, saying, “Will the girl who is reading the book also be happy?” This sort of a question is, no doubt, a nice question, and we must say “Good job,” to Mr. Walser for asking as much; however, he goes on further than this, ethicizing the matter beyond his mere singular personhood: “Will the girl who is reading the book also be happy? She certainly would deserve to be. Every creature and every living thing in the world should be happy. No one should be unhappy” (52).
- LEAVE YOURSELF OUT OF IT— If you alone are not able to say what is great about the work, worry not; for surely others can. “Everything I have neglected to say can be given voice to by others” (70). Take some peace from this, that your eyes and mind are not so precious as to be in constant demand of an answer. “Most of our fellow citizens think they can just throw in their two cents,” Walser bemoans; “I mean their personal judgments, right away, as if every work were required to be instantly comprehensible to all, with any absence of comprehension justifying the most disparaging remarks” (61). Just because you cannot understand the work does not mean it is talking nonsense—or at least not the kind of nonsense that cannot be understood.
- PUT YOURSELF IN IT— Furthermore, when you cannot locate the words that say what is great about the work, remember that that has nothing to do with what you do and do not know about the work itself or its greatness; and that saying that you do not know what to say is quite another way of saying something about how the work is working. “I know why,” says Walser, “but I don’t know how to say it” (38). Indeed, this was the case for Pascal as well, whose heart had reasons that Reason did not know. Looking at Ferdiand Hodler’s rather chilly The Beech Forest, Walser reminds us of the power of art, how it can make “You involuntarily put your hands in your pockets when you look at it, since it so wonderfully communicates its wintry nature” (63). What a difference it makes when someone is brave enough to speak honestly from the place they are looking! I see things otherwise when looking from the point-of-view of the art history textbook; indeed, I see with eyes half-open, for it makes me rather sleepy; but with Mr. Walser, I see as one sees while at a museum with a dear friend who loves and is excited by everything on display there. That enthusiasm is infectious, and honest too, for when descriptive powers reach their limit, I can still see my dear friend smiling: “I have perhaps not yet said everything that could be said about this picture, but you can certainly feel from what I’ve said here how greatly I admire it” (63).
- RAMBLE— I too have not said everything that there is to say, concerning Mr. Walser’s way of doing criticism; indeed, I am most certain that there are things that I could never say. What’s more, there are things that I probably should not have said, for how ever could I capture what it is that such a mind, from such a time, and such a place could only capture? I suppose I am still getting the hang of the point of ethics, for I feel very small and local, and thus very impossible for the job. I want to pitch a mighty fit from all this impossibility, all this skepticism that the world has heaped on me and, I suppose, on other minds. “But how shall you know that the fit is mighty?” I hear Arlésienne, peeping from the garret still, right before the world goes dark again, and I am left to wonder, a little more.