Friday, August 15, 2014

`A Pretty Calculated, Sustained, and Slow Process'

The best French novel of the twentieth century not written by Marcel Proust is Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), a rare example of irresistibly readable near-plotlessness. The old, sick emperor (from 117 to 138) writes a novel-length letter to his adopted grandson and future emperor, the teenage Marcus Aurelius (in office from 161 to 180). That’s it. What keeps us reading is Yourcenar’s unfolding of Hadrian’s sensibility from the inside, a mingling of Roman intelligence, sensitivity and frequent good sense. His morals are not ours but we listen to Hadrian the way we listen to any older person who has paid attention and learned something from life. 

I thought of Yourcenar’s novel again while reading and looking at Richard Estes’ Realism (Yale University Press, 2014) by Patterson Sims, a book devoted to the American photorealist painter born in 1932. Estes is best known for his obsessively detailed urban scenes, storefronts in particular. Sims tells us Estes has painted only eight formal portraits, including one in 1985 of Yourcenar, a neighbor of his in Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine. A resident of the U.S. since the thirties, she became an American citizen in 1947, and in 1981 became the first woman elected to L’Académie française. Required as part of her induction, the portrait was commissioned by Yourcenar. The writer stands, dignified and almost regal, in her work place, across the cluttered desk from her electric typewriter. She casts multiple shadows. (Here is a photo of Yourcenar at her desk.) 

Estes’ paintings, like old photographs, invite study and contemplation. There’s nothing satirical or campy about the way he treats his subjects, like Supreme Hardware (1974) and Grand Luncheonette (1969). He honors and celebrates the human world, including the stuff snorted at by snobs. His paintings are gestures of gratitude for the bounty around us, even the tacky parts. In his essay, Sims says the “cardinal verities” of what Estes does as an artist are “prosaic, workmanlike, and unobtrusively intelligent,” and then he quotes Estes: 

“I think the popular concept of the artist is a person who has this great passion and enthusiasm and super emotion. He just throws himself into this great masterpiece and collapses from exhaustion when it’s finished. It’s really not that way at all. Usually it's a pretty calculated, sustained, and slow process by which you develop something. The effect can be one of spontaneity, but that’s part of the artistry. An actor can do a play on Broadway for three years. Every night he’s expressing the same emotion in exactly the same way. He has developed a technique to convey those feelings so that he can get the ideas across. Or a musician may not want to play that damn music at all, but he has a booking and has to do it. I think the real test is to plan something and be able to carry it out to the very end. Not that you’re always enthusiastic; it's just that you have to get this thing out. It's not done with one's emotions; it’s done with the head.” 

I admire Estes’ unromantic understanding that art is hard work, not happy thoughts and “passion” (an annoyingly overworked word of late). An artist is a tradesman who practices a skill. Boswell reports Johnson saying in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides: “A man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.” Emphasis on the adverb.

[ADDENDUM: From a reader whose late wife was a performing musician: "Richard Estes's thoughts on artistic production in today's Anecdotal Evidence reminded me of her. It always annoyed her when people would say - this happened frequently after recitals and other performances - that it must be wonderful to be so talented. It wasn't talent, she would tell me; she didn't just sit down and play. It took a lot of hard work, years of study and practice, to play as well as she did."]

1 comment:

Ron Slate said...

I've been looking at the Estes, too, in the new Yale book. After losing my taste for realism a la Andrew Wyeth a long time ago, I'm drawn to Estes' version of the detailed surface, facets of light and reflection, layers of images. The technical aspects are spectacular and, as with Wyeth, not especially moving. But Estes seems more given to his subject, his attitude absorbed by the planar effusion. I'm taken.