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, March 9, 2014

Sundays With Updike: "A Case of Solicitude"

Amedeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude (1919)

I enjoy criticism that, in Nabokovian phrase, “caresses the details.” John Updike’s “A Case of Solicitude” (in his great 1989 collection Just Looking) is an excellent example. It’s an appreciation of Amedeo Modigliani’s Reclining Nude (1919), which Updike beautifully describes as follows:

This woman is paler than most of her sisters in Modigliani’s oeuvre, where skin tends to be ruddy or golden. Her pallor flows like a river between the dark banks of the vaguely indicated coverings of her couch. Her elongated torso links two bulging masses, one of them her hips and the other a complicated close lumping of arms, breasts, and head; this long middle softly twists, for the triangle of pubic hair confronts us frontally, while her breasts are shown in three-quarter view, and her face in profile. Her profile is drawn upon her flesh with a fastidious black line, of which her eyebrow is a detached, floating arc. We savor and cherish the patches of pink that she holds in her hands (curled in sleep like those of a baby), and that tinge with a flush her cheeks and eyelid, and that mark her nipples. Without these rosy touches, her form might be too absolute.

That “We savor and cherish the patches of pink that she holds in her hands (curled in sleep like those of a baby), and that tinge with a flush her cheeks and eyelid, and that mark her nipples” is marvelously fine – looking conducted at a sublime level.

Updike’s intense focus on Modigliani’s “patches of pink” connects with his earlier “Gaiety in the Galleries” (The New Yorker, February 27, 1977; included in Updike’s 1983 collection Hugging the Shore), a brilliant review of Peter Gay’s Art and Act, in which he quotes André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence as follows:

Manet’s contribution, not superior but radically different, is the green of The Balcony, the pink patch of the wrap in Olympia, the touch of red behind the black bodice in the small Bar des Folies-Bergère…. [They] are obviously color-patches signifying nothing except color. Here the picture, whose background had been hitherto a recession, becomes a surface, and this surface becomes not merely an end in itself but the pictures raison d’être. Delacroix’s sketches, even the boldest, never went beyond dramatizations; Manet (in some of his canvases) treats the world as – uniquely – the stuff of pictures.

Updike goes on to say, “Malraux’s point about the patches of color offers a perspective, a thread through the tangle….” The same can be said about Updike’s observation regarding the “patches of pink” in Modigliani’s Reclining Nude. “A Case of Solicitude” not only expands our appreciation of a great painting; it provides insight into at least one source of Updike’s exquisite critical sensibility. 

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