"Looking at Pictures" is a little book, physically and in its claims, and therein lies much of its charm. It is a compilation of Robert Walser's essays, sketches and stories on art composed from 1902 to 1930.
Himself an essayist and novelist, Robert Walser was connected to the European art scene through his brother Karl, a highly acclaimed set designer and member of the Berliner Succession, an alternative art association that numbered among its members Käthe Kollwitz, Erich Heckel, Lyonel Feininger and Edvard Munch.
In the introduction, we learn that "Ekphrasis [literary description or commentary on a visual work of art] was a mode of writing [Walser] came to love; he pursued it all his life" in his own idiosyncratic way. While most art critics describe the work under review in copious detail, Walser's descriptions are generally laconic — no matter since they are here reproduced for the reader's perusal — because what interests him is the personal, emotional story the work evokes.
Writing about Watteau's "Italian Comedians," he narrates in the voices of its four principal figures: the Indifferent Man, the Deceiver, the Man of Feeling and the Harlequin. As he stands in front of Van Gogh's "L'Arlesienne," the woman in the painting, whom he nearly dismissed as "a low and charmless" subject, "suddenly began speaking about her life," bringing him to recognize the inner beauty of this woman painted "plain and true." In the best pieces in the book, Walser internalizes the work such that he re-creates the painting in words, telling the painting's story from the inside out.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.