Keeping Company

Keeping Company

On Loneliness and Love

By Max Blue, WTP Guest Writer

One speaks often of the feeling of being alone in a crowd, but rarely of keeping company in solitude. Sometimes, I think my whole life has been a slow adjustment to an acute sense of alienation toward the world around me, an experience of having never quite fit in or, when fitting, fitting best in antisocial spaces. Libraries and bookshops are high on that list, but I am the most comfortable in the silence and stillness of the museum or art gallery. And when I avail myself of the pleasure of looking at art, of being moved by another’s way of seeing the world, I find myself a little less lonely.

While the act of considering and contemplating an artwork necessitates a certain degree of solitude, the ultimate reward is the sense of companionship with the artist. It is in that discovery of companionship, realized in the experience of one mind speaking to another through the artwork, that the very same activity that requires solitude also alleviates it. I am able to narrow this experience of good company into two major categories: when an artist shows me a more pleasurable vision of the world than the one I regularly see, and when an artist shows me the world as I see it. There are two artists whose works demonstrate best for me these dynamics: the paintings of Henri Matisse and the photographs of Brassaï.

Matisse was my first love. It was, as a boy of eight or nine, standing before his paintings in the de Young Museum in San Francisco, that I became aware of the simultaneous feelings of solitude and company I now associate with art-looking. In the act of momentarily occupying Matisse’s subjectivity, by looking through the window of those framed paintings, I felt a sudden affinity for the artist and the artist’s affinity for me, a sensation something like friendship, or at least kinship. Here was a vision of the world more beautiful, more joyful, more vibrant, than my own, and it offered proof and encouragement that seeing the world that way was possible.

The painting that had touched me so was La Conversation (The Conversation), 1938, which shows two women leaning over the arms of their chairs to speak with each other. The painting is sketched in light, dry brushstrokes, pencil marks visible on exposed patches of canvas. Matisse spares nothing when it comes to vibrancy, the color palette bright and warm, conveying in a flash his exuberance for the scene. It is in studying the visible transference of Matisse’s hand, his delicate, gentle motions with the brush, and the palpable joy with which he applied those strokes, that I feel an immersive sense of impersonation, of being transported back in time, of becoming Matisse in the moment he rendered his vision of the world in paint. The colors he chose and the way he applied them tell me everything about his feeling for that subject, allow me entry to his interior – the picture of friendship is itself conveyed with conviviality.

I have had a more recent encounter with Matisse, which I think perfectly communicates the experience of art-looking that allows me to inhabit the world through the artist’s perceptions. In 2017, I went to see an exhibition of Matisse’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In response to one of the paintings, Les Poissons Rouges (Interior with a Goldfish Bowl), 1914, I scribbled the following note in my journal:

Let me into your apartment in the Eighth Arrondissement, how you remembered it in blue paint.

The painting, a wash of mostly blue hues, shows a room, or the corner of a room, but it illustrates, above all else, a mood.

This mood, unlike the one of warmth and communion portrayed in La Conversation, is one of solemn meditation, of deep interiority. The room itself is cast in the long shadows of l’heure bleue, the blue hour at dawn or dusk, the buildings beyond the window lit by whatever first or last rays of sunlight grace the day, the chair in the corner dappled, too. The focal point of the composition is a fishbowl, two bright goldfish twisting in the water. I can’t help but think of the short-term memory goldfish possess as somehow integral to this portrayal of quietude, the feeling of being lost in thought, or lost thought.

The view of the room is the first instance of intimacy in the painting, in the sense that Matisse has allowed us inside this private space. Just by viewing the painting, we have already been transported by him to somewhere other than the gallery or museum in which we stand looking at the painting. But – and this is the second layer of intimacy – we have not gone to the exact location he portrays, but to the place as he portrayed it, as it appeared to Matisse’s eyes or in his memory. The place is not a real room in Paris, but a room in the painter’s imagining, the room as it felt to him.

Being allowed inside someone else’s head and heart is a degree of intimacy that we experience with few of our closest flesh-and-blood friends. But we experience it all the time when we look at art, especially in mediums that require the artist to represent the world through a process of interpretation, of filtering the world through the hues of their experience. This is a degree of intimacy that photography, for example, does not possess. But its coldness succeeds in communicating a different kind of kinship.

Brassaï was a college tryst. I first encountered the work of the pseudonymous, Hungarian-born photographer not long after the second Matisse episode, at another exhibition at the SFMOMA, in 2018. I became more than a little obsessed, returning every weekend for the duration of the show’s three-month engagement. When someone asked me where I had been spending all my free time, I told them: at the museum. Alone? They asked. No, I said, with a new friend.

Why had I been so captivated? On the one hand, Brassaï’s pictures of the Parisian night entice my imagination, the same way Matisse’s paintings do: I want to make my way into the Borgesian dreamscape Brassaï presents, this nocturnal world of thugs and prostitutes. But the other thing his pictures do for me – and more importantly in this case – is to present me with a recognizable experience, equal to the way Matisse presents me with the experience I long for. Brassaï’s pictures of echoing cobblestones, of fog wrapping its way around the Seine, of the denizens of the witching hours, illustrate perfectly the experience of social isolation I find so familiar. Like a good friend, Matisse shows me what’s possible; Brassaï, another kind of good friend, commiserates with me.

A particularly striking picture from Brassaï’s monograph Paris De Nuit (Paris Nocturne) is A Morris Column in the Fog, Avenue de l’Observatoire, 1934, whose title describes only one element of the photograph, omitting the silhouette of the man studying the adverts on the column. The figure stands at a slight slant to the column, paused midmotion in the sway of his footsteps. The foggy night air expands all around him, his black silhouette, the lighted column, the diffuse glow of streetlamps burning beyond and filling the air with a mysterious ambiance. Looking at this photograph, I see myself—I, too, seem to be moving through the fog of life; I, too, am trying my best to make sense of the succession of images placed before me; I, too, feel that the world beyond those images is something hazy and difficult to define.

A similar feeling arises from an earlier photograph, At the Florist’s, c. 1930-1932. It is another picture about looking, in which a woman’s face floats ghost-like in the window of a flower shop as she stares, from the inky black night, at the many buckets of white flowers filling the shop’s interior. The woman’s expression is pensive, as if looking, herself, at a work of art. Here, again, I see myself. I feel like I am always looking in, always trying to make sense of the world that is at once around me and always at a distance, just out of touch – always trying to make sense of the world through windows into other places; through works of art.

During one of my repeat visits to the exhibition, I learned that Brassaï would time his exposures using cigarettes. In the time it took to smoke a single cigarette of a particular brand, he could get the perfect exposure in certain low-light conditions; in darker conditions another, slower-burning brand was called for. So, when he went out shooting at night he would take two packs of cigarettes with him, one of each brand, and depending on the lighting conditions he had to work with in a given area, he would estimate which brand was called for, set up his tripod, take out a cigarette, open the shutter, and light up. By the time he was finished enjoying his smoke, the picture was done. This feels familiar to me, too, the way I measure periods of contemplation by the length of a cigarette, the way the imposed separation of stepping out to smoke becomes its own space in which I develop my ideas, like a photo appearing on a slide of film.

In addition to illustrating the two main ways I engage with art, Matisse and Brassaï encapsulate my two primary experiences of being in the world. When I leave the museum or the gallery, a world of warmth and joy much like a Matisse painting, I am cast back into the cold, into desolate roving, such as Brassaï depicts. I am a lonesome wanderer between points of light, each frame on the gallery wall like the lighted window of a friend’s house. When I stop looking, I feel the world go dark.

My delight when, early in our romance, I discovered a postcard reproduction of one of my favorite photographs tacked to the wall in Hope’s garden apartment. Taken by Brassaï in 1939, Henri Matisse and His Model shows the painter seated in the middle of his studio, a drawing pad open over one knee as he considers the nude model’s statuesque pose. She is at a half-turn, her arms resting on her head, hips cocked, one foot crossing the other. Matisse, himself looking almost carved of stone, is singularly focused, his eyes on the model, but all his energy is in the hand holding his drawing implement. There is a painting resting on an easel in the foreground, an unfinished picture of a bouquet of flowers. The photograph itself is black and white, but I swear I can almost see the colors.

There was the overwhelming sense, looking from that tiny window into the studio of an old friend, as it had been captured on film by my companion in the human condition of loneliness, around the warm, lamplit apartment, in which Hope and I were set to share the meal she had prepared, to unwind the hours opposite each other on the couch, moving between our personal histories and particularities in candid talk, eventually finding our way to the bedroom to make quiet, incendiary love – there was the overwhelming sense of being surrounded by my closest intimates. Here was a trio of loved ones who had not only offered me forms of shelter from the world I found so difficult to navigate but who had helped me (and continue to help me) navigate that world.

That’s the paradoxical way of being they’ve helped me learn. When I visit with these friends – when I look at art, when I let my hair down in my lover’s arms – I am right where I belong in a place apart from the rest of the world. And it is the intimacy and the love I find in that place that makes the rest of my isolation a bit more bearable.

Max Blue writes about the visual arts and modern culture. His criticism and reporting have appeared in Hyperallergic and the San Francisco Examiner, among others, and his short fiction has appeared in Mount Hope and Your Impossible Voice, among others. He lives in San Francisco.

Leave a Reply