Watteau and His World
By Jed Perl
Alfred A. Knopf, 210 pages, $25
Where will Barnes and Noble shelve Jed Perl’s Antoine’s Alphabet? It’s an art book illustrated with gorgeous etchings based on the paintings of Antoine Watteau; it’s a short biography of the painter in the style of the Penguin Lives series, drawing vivid scenes of the artist’s life in 18th-century Paris; it’s a coded memoir of the critic himself, who interrupts musings on his subject with sketches of conversations with “a writer friend” of fierce intelligence (and irritating self-importance). And it’s also, unassumingly, what its title says—a child’s Alphabet: A is for actors (one of Watteau’s pictorial obsessions), B is for backs (whose expressive potential Watteau recognized long in advance of Rodin), and on down the line, mimicking in spirit the quality Mr. Perl most lovingly extrapolates from Watteau’s canvases: capriccio, caprice, fanciful flourishes of interpretation that viewed from afar feel arbitrary, yet when done right make the whole world seem as enchanted as it would always be—if only we could bring ourselves to shut up, sit still, and look.
So let’s borrow a term from music and call Mr. Perl’s book a fantasie. A little fancy maybe, but you’ll have to take a little fanciness for granted if you’re going to hand yourself over to Watteau’s world, most strikingly embodied in The Mezzetin, a painting of a man seated with legs crossed in an overgrown garden, gazing longingly into the distance as he rears back soulfully to strum his guitar. (How is it that the fluffy white ruffle on his cuff doesn’t get caught between the strings and his implausibly bowed thumb?) On first encounter, any honest contemporary viewer will describe Mezzetin as ridiculous, might even infer that Watteau had with this painting invented ridiculousness. In fact, Mezzetin is a Pierrot, a clownlike figure derived from commedia dell’arte, a close cousin of the harlequin, whose position among the archetypes has been demoted in our own period to the level of kitsch, reserved nowadays for ornate tchotchkes, romance novels, and other cheap junk.
As The New Republic’s art critic and author of New Art City (2006), among other books on modern and contemporary art, Mr. Perl fills a role in art criticism roughly analogous to the one his former New Republic colleague James Wood plays among book reviewers: He keeps ’em honest, insisting that the value of a work of art derives solely from intrinsic qualities, irrespective of hype. In Gallery Going (1991), a collection of his writings on the ’80s art scene, Mr. Perl tells a story to illustrate: When the editor of a prominent magazine took him to lunch in an effort to persuade him to write a profile of Cindy Sherman, Mr. Perl declined, explaining that he didn’t believe Ms. Sherman had created anything worthwhile since her early Film Stills. The editor didn’t see what difference it made whether Mr. Perl liked Sherman’s work—she was a hot artist, and it was the critic’s function to chronicle the scene. Mr. Perl disagreed, strenuously, and ended up paying for his own meal.
ARTWORKS, FOR JED PERL, are facilitators of a mode of thought rather than objects of consumption, and—while I’m sometimes irritated by the air of sickly-smug refinement wafting from the back pages of The New Republic—Mr. Perl, in his element, is incomparable. If you’ve ever longed for the time when Baudelaire could make people faint in the streets by messing with the alexandrine, this is the book for you.
Mr. Perl’s own signature flourish is the description that begins modestly, indisputably, building steadily until the reader finds himself peering exhilarated over a cliff of purest speculation. “One might say that the theme of this great painting,” Mr. Perl writes of Watteau’s The Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (1717), a canvas depicting a crowd of amorous couples piling toward a boat headed for a mythical Greek island of love, “is a rather simple question—Are you coming or going?—a question that runs through pastoral poetry, where the shepherds and farmers are sometimes losing their land, or yearning to return to it, or the city folk are just visiting, and who knows for how long? Yet this absolutely ordinary question—Are you coming or going?—the question we’ve all asked a friend as we arrive at a party, is raised to the level of metaphysics by Watteau, or at least is given all the allegorical trappings, but lightly, so they do not become a trap.” Mr. Perl is straining for Proust-territory here, composing sentences (after Walter Benjamin’s great spot-on description of Proust’s style) that are rolled up like a sock—we can’t tell figure from ground, but somehow, wonderfully, it works. And what’s more—he’s right.
Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.