Monday, December 15, 2008

from "The Clown Prince" by Holly Brubach (New York Times Style Magazine, Winter 2008)

On the book Antoine's Alphabet by Jed Perl

"Nearly three centuries after his death, in 1721, it is hard for us to take the full measure of (Antoine) Watteau’s fascination with commedia dell’arte, with its archetypal characters no longer in circulation, their place in our lives now confined to the curio cabinet, where porcelain figurines of Pierrot and Harlequin strike poses, collecting dust...Perl cites George Sand, who described commedia as 'an uninterrupted tradition of fantastic humor, which is in essence quite serious and, one might almost say, even sad, like every satire that lays bare the spiritual poverty of mankind.' Pierrot and Harlequin are barely recognizable to us now, but Watteau’s audience knew them well, and legends surrounding them survived well into the modern era. Perl calls the roll of the artists and writers since Watteau who have availed themselves of commedia’s timeless themes. The painters: Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse. The poets: Verlaine, Laforgue, Apollinaire and Wallace Stevens. The Sitwells. Schoenberg, the composer of Pierrot Lunaire. The dancers who immortalized the characters: Nijinsky in Fokine’s Carnaval; Edward Villella and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Balanchine’s Harlequinade. Perl sees a kinship among these artists who worked in various forms and cites as one of Watteau’s most notable — and improbable — admirers none other than Samuel Beckett. It has become commonplace lately to cherry-pick artists and writers from prior centuries and extol their 'modern' outlook, long before Modernism was born. But in Watteau’s case, the claim seems justified. 'The waiting, the questioning, the equivocating, the bafflement, the absurdity' — Perl counts these as preoccupations the artist and Samuel Beckett shared, and the poor souls whose fate it is to wait for Godot seem not all that different from the cast of Watteau’s bewildering fêtes champêtres...As a critic, Perl is sensitive to the slightest physical nuance, and Watteau’s penchant for portraying people from the back — even Venus in his Judgment of Paris faces away from the viewer — inspires in Perl an appreciation that is equal parts erotic and poetic. Perl calls the back 'a volte-face face, a second face,' one that 'denies the understanding of a person that is centered on the eyes and the mouth.' 'And this denial,' he continues, 'can be a fascination, a relief, an invitation in its own right. Instead of the eyes and the mouth, there is this monolithic form, this wall of flesh, soft or muscled or softly muscled, dense or delicate, straight or bent, all of which can, in its own way, suggest the essence of a person’s being. This is a face with its own kind of bilateral symmetry: the angled, mirrored shoulder blades; the muscles stretched over the rib cage; the deep, long cleft of the spine.'"
New York Times

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