The Gayety of Vision
January 25, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
What is your favorite fruit?
Do you like monkeys?
Yes, I love them in art: In pictures, in stories, in porcelain, but in life they somehow look so sad. They make me nervous. I like lions and gazelles.
—Isak Dinesen, the Art of Fiction No. 14, 1956
When Isak Dinesen gave her 1956 Art of Fiction interview, she was into her seventies. It’s one of the strangest entries in the Review’s Writers at Work series. While the focus is, naturally, on Dinesen’s work as an author, the artist, also known as Baroness Karen Christentze Blixen-Finecke, addresses her career as a painter, too:
When I was quite young, for a while I studied painting at the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts; then I went to Paris in 1910 to study with Simon and Menard, but (she chuckles) ... but I did little work. The impact of Paris was too great; I felt it was more important to go about and see pictures, to see Paris, in fact. I painted a little in Africa, portraits of the natives mostly, but every time I’d get to work, someone would come up and say an ox has died or something, and I’d have to go out in the fields.
Part of the interview even takes place in a museum, where Dinesen admires several pieces and buys postcards. There are not a great many of her own works extant, although at the the Karen Blixen Museum, outside Copenhagen, you can see a number of her oil paintings.
Her art is akin to her writing in that it’s skillful, often delicately lovely, sometimes problematic, occasionally faux-naif, and deceptively complex. It is, to my eyes, beautiful. Whether that’s a recommendation is up to you—but if the subject interests you, you should seek out a book from 1965 called Isak Dinesen’s Art: The Gayety of Vision, by Robert Woodrow Langbaum. Some of Langbaum’s observations are dated to modern eyes—for instance, today, the dynamic between Dinesen and her “native sitters” is as necessarily acknowledged as her written portrayals in Out of Africa. But it’s an interesting introduction to the author’s multiple contradictions—her willful optimism and hardened fatalism—as well as the aesthetic pleasures of her still lifes and portraits.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.