PUBLISHED IN MIDWEST REVIEW OF BOOKS
Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime
In 1972, late to meet a friend in the cafeteria of the Chicago Art Institute, Minnesota writer Patricia Hampl was hauled up short before Matisse’s Woman Before an Aquarium. For Hampl, Matisse’s Woman was “A madonna, but a modern one, ‘liberated,’ as we were saying without irony in 1972, free, even, of eros. Not a woman being looked at. This woman was doing the looking.”
“I didn’t halt, didn’t stop,” writes Hampl of this “uncanny moment.” “I was stopped. Apprehended, even.” Thus begins her fascination with the artist’s gaze via the work and life of Henri Matisse, around whom she fashions her own life and her latest work, Blue Arabesque.
In this her third memoir, Hampl’s “search for the sublime”—some of it literary, some of it literal—takes her across Northern Africa, “Asia Minor,” and the holy land. But the journey has two primary points of reference: the St. Paul of Hampl’s Catholic roots, and Cassis, on France’s Côte d’Azur, of that perfect, artist’s light. Or, put differently, the artist’s sun-dazzled studio away from the grit of the world, and its antipode, the “hardscrabble surface of raw ambition” that fuels the work of Matisse—a poor boy from the work-weary north of France who claimed he worked “like a drunken brute trying to kick the door down.” Simply, Hampl is an artist in search of inspiration, even as she makes light of her quest: “The big bearded Primary Cause and his timepiece may have stopped ticking for us, Jesus may have become ‘historical,’ but the Holy Ghost is still aloft.”
From her “gazer at the golden fish,” Hampl turns her eye to the odalisques—those lounging, long-backed ladies draped in silk—and the mystery of their subjectivity in the context of their day and the context of our own. Feminism, after all, drives us to question the subjugation of these “lovely women scattered about like decorative pillows,” but who doesn’t envy the boundless leisure of the harem divan? Or the convent cell? Or the room of one’s own? Are these odalisques, Hampl wonders, objects for us to pity? Or have they realized “the curvilinear satisfaction of just being-here-now, of being alive”?
Hampl jokes that the sight of a confession booth beckons to her to “Open the door, open your heart….Tell All, ” but this memoir spends more time on the “eye” than the “I.” Whole chapters tell Matisse’s story, or that of the traveler Lady Montagu who was pitied by the harem dweller for the cage she wore (her corset), or the amateur documentary filmmaker from St. Paul, Jerome Hill, who also made his way to Cassis in his day. And yet, Blue Arabesque is profoundly intimate: “[Memoir’s] great intimacy (the display of perception),” Hampl’s professor-self explains, “paradoxically reveals its essential impersonality. It wishes to see the world, not itself.” In this same line of mirror work, Hampl illustrates with her own prose arabesques how Matisse’s odalisques “do not offer rare glimpses of ‘the East,’ or illicit peekaboos into a real or imagined sultan’s world with its souk’s-worth of colonial loot on exhibit. They display nothing more or less than the mind of Henri Matisse.” And thus this study of the artist displays nothing more or less than the mind of the writer.
Behind the tapestry of odalisques and foreign lands, this book is a graceful study of the creative process, “the abstract lovemaking of art making.” Hampl turns her artist’s eye to “greatness” in the likes of Henri Matisse and Katherine Mansfield (whose work Virginia Woolf deemed, “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”). Though whole chapters pass with little more than a fleeting first person, this artist renders the characters who render (Hampl would say “create”) her artist self: her gaze refracts—often inverted or camera obscura—glimpses of herself. Hampl tries out being both the gazing woman in Matisse’s Woman Before An Aquarium and the contents of that aquarium itself: “an odalisque….all fish, all float.”
This lovely, intelligent book reads like rich, leisurely conversation, perhaps outside a French cafe over coffee served in bowls. It would be best read lounging in sunlight, with a plate of dates nearby.