What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sundays With Updike: "The Purest of Styles"

Van Gogh, letter to Émile Bernard, March 18, 1888
I reserve Sundays for Updike. I associate him with Sunday. (He wrote, among other Sunday-related works, a novel called A Month of Sundays and a beautiful appreciation of Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning.) I try to read at least one piece by him every Sabbath. Is it too much to say he’s my form of worship? Today, I reread his wonderful “The Purest of Styles,” a piece I first encountered when it appeared in the November 22, 2007, New York Review of Books. It’s included in Updike’s posthumous collection Higher Gossip (2011). It’s a review of “Vincent van Gogh – Painted with Words: The Letters to Émile Bernard,” an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, September 28, 2007 – January 6, 2008. I relish this piece for its delicious word-painting – van Gogh’s and Updike’s. Here, from a letter to Bernard, quoted by Updike, is van Gogh’s description of a painting he recently completed:

Large field with clods of plowed earth, mostly downright violet.
Field of ripe wheat in a yellow ochre tone with a little crimson.
The chrome yellow 1 sky almost as bright as the sun itself, which is chrome yellow 1 with a little white, while the rest of the sky is chrome yellow 1 and 2 mixed, very yellow then.
The sower’s smock is blue, and his trousers white. Square no. 25 canvas. There are many repetitions of yellow in the earth, neutral tones, resulting from the mixing of violet with yellow, but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the color.

How I love that “but I could hardly give a damn about the veracity of the color.”

And here is Updike’s description of two late van Goghs, Enclosed Field with Young Wheat and Rising Sun and A Corner of the Asylum and the Garden with a Heavy, Sawn-Off Tree (both 1889):

The latter is the very painting described as a picture of anxiety in his last letter to Bernard – circular swirls and flame-shaped arabesques move like a wind through the branches of the olive trees, against a yellow-and-blue sunset, while small human figures slowly become visible on the asylum grounds. In the former, the undulating field, blue and golden and green, rushes toward the viewer, and the blue mountains beyond seem a roiling river, under a bright-yellow sky where the white sun is pinned like a medal. His impasto has become terrific – ridged ribbons of color as in a heavy brocade.

That “ridged ribbons of color as in a heavy brocade” is as beautifully textured as the painting it describes.

Updike closely identifies with van Gogh. He quotes a letter to Bernard in which van Gogh says his art is “truly first and foremost a question of immersing oneself in reality.” Later in his piece, Updike writes, “Van Gogh’s achievement was to sublimate his own mysticism in the representation of reality, rather than inventing symbolic images.” For Updike, one of fiction’s basic questions is “how literature represents reality” (“Fairy Tales and Paradigms,” in Due Considerations, 2007). In the Foreword to his The Early Stories, 1953-1975, he says, ““My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me – and to give the mundane its beautiful due.” He finds Van Gogh’s “resistance to abstract thought and advocacy of realism” exemplary. He concludes “The Purest of Styles” with this clinching image: “Van Gogh, out in the hot fields, his easel anchored with iron pegs against the winds of the mistral, resolved the debate [between abstraction and representation] with acts of submission: ‘I do what I do with an abandonment to reality, without thinking about this or that.’ ” 

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