Art & Photography

Portraits and Landscapes

Saul Steinberg

Giacometti was a dear friend, whom I always enjoyed talking to. Until the end, he remained what I would call adolescent, meaning curious, free. He was also very handsome, because he had the face of a poet, which to me looked quite similar to Colette’s—like a character. He had an eye that looked stricken at one moment, then happy and animated the next. It was curious: A smile would completely change his face, which was rather melancholy, even tragic at times, with a color that wasn’t among the healthiest. That sudden alteration suggested something you see often among children: In the midst of tears, having seen or heard something, they suddenly smile, having completely forgotten they were crying. This smile, with the face still bathed in tears, is one of the most touching things.

He lived for many years in a Parisian courtyard, a beautiful French setting for poverty. He was obliged to install a telephone, probably at the insistence of his dealer. And because he was always working on a sculpture and his hands were always smeared with plaster, the telephone itself gradually became a Giacometti sculpture—a sculpture that, every now and then, you could suddenly hear ringing.

 

 

When I paint landscapes, I feel like I’ve always done them, that I know them by heart. They are my trade, easy as breathing, and create no difficulties.

For me, however, the greatest pleasure is to overcome some difficulty, to find or invent something while I work. I begin by posing myself a problem. But I don’t wish merely to solve this problem. While I solve it, I want to find something else, I want to stumble across something that prods me into unknown territory. Out of boredom or the need to entertain myself, I end up discovering something that gives me pleasure.

This kind of work seems to develop me, to educate me, while painting landscapes is another matter entirely. There, I enter into a much more sensual state of the soul, in which I have the satisfaction of finding exactly what I already know. Many painters surrender themselves to this sensual pleasure—it allows them to duplicate the things they already know, and they think it’s a marvel that all these creations are ultimately recognizable as their own work. It’s a little bit like fairy tales, which end exactly the same way they did the last time we heard them. And if the words are identical, so much the better.

There is something noble and reassuring about repetition. What I see is that by putting a little pink on the horizon, and adding a little yellow that fades into blue, I get a sunset (or sometimes a dawn). It makes me feel like I’ve mastered the laws of gravity, of drying water, of absorbent paper, and so many other things: I’m a plumber, a colorist, a marvel. Let’s not even talk about when I use oil paint, because the color itself has its own beauty, its own magical, phosphorescent quality.

 

Just a few days after Nabokov’s death, there was an invasion of butterflies out in Springs, Long Island. It probably happens every year. But the reason I noticed the butterflies this time was the presence—or the absence—of Nabokov.

While I was riding my bicycle, in fact, I had the pleasure of traveling with one of them: a monarch, one of those orange-and-black butterflies that migrate from Canada down to Mexico. It was right beside me, we were moving at the same speed, and the butterfly was at the same height as my head. The proximity of the butterfly transformed me into an airborne head, a cherub or a seraph, one of Raphael’s angels composed solely of a head and wings.

 

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