Month: December 2017

In Memoriam: Isabel Quintanilla 1938-2017

In the summer of 1985 I happened upon an exhibition of little note at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington, called “Representation Abroad”. The idea of “representation” was hardly a presence in major art circles in the United States (though it would become so later) and it has never been clear to me why this exhibition even took place—-recognition of a frail new figurative movement in Europe that seemed to have no influence here whatsoever. But in it I discovered a small group of artists from Spain who constituted a movement called “Realismo Español” —-Spanish Realism. The papa bear of this group was Antonio López-García but the artist whose work froze me in place was a disciple of his, named Isabel Quintanilla.

I don’t know that Quintanilla’s work was shown in the United States again; not in any major show that I was ever aware of. Intermittently I have searched for it—-longed for it, nearly—-wishing I could see roomsful of her simple moments, her carefully framed domestic scenes, with their gorgeous, perfect light. None of the art people I knew at the time considered this to be important work. But it was important to me. And seeking her out yet one more time, just yesterday, online, I discovered that she died in October, at the age of 79. So, first, doña Isabel: Requiascat in pace.

I looked at web images of her work for a good while yesterday (there aren’t that many of them posted to look at, see links below), and all these years later, encountering these images once again, I think I finally have some idea why they mattered so much to me. I knew even then that what she was doing with oil on canvas was something I wanted to do as  writer of fiction, a vocation I was just beginning to undertake; I wanted, as she did, to get common things so exactly right that you—-the viewer, the reader, either or both—-see them completely anew, see them as redefined and, more than that, glorified, glorified in the exactness of the loyalty the artist has given to their truth. Such work is a form of prayer, I think. What moved me in Quintanilla’s work, I can now see, was the force of an artist’s love for the physical world. The real force of the love it revealed: as in, I love this moment, this normal, mundane, kitchen-reality, this life, so much I will dedicate hours, and every bit of craft I have painfully acquired, to its representation. To see the paintings, especially live, as I got to see four or five of them, allows you to feel Quintanilla’s devotion to reality as she labored to perceive it. The paintings are—-some would say to a fault, I suppose—-flawless.

Sometime in my undergraduate years I read an essay by Lionel Trilling, an introduction he’d written for a particular edition of Anna Karenina. I was very affected by this piece: indeed, as with Quintanilla’s work, I never forgot it and long associated it with my own inclinations and development. In it Trilling wrote that Tolstoy’s great strength as a writer, his unmatchable achievement, resided in his love for his characters. I came to think, eventually, that there is no way to do ‘realism’ in fiction of any importance without something close to this Tolstoyan love. For more modern approaches, that relationship of author to created persons, scenes, circumstances is not a necessity, but in realism it is. Otherwise, why bother? This is why, for instance, I have never been a fan of the longer fiction of John Updike or any that I’ve found so far of Saul Bellow: I don’t think they like people much. I think they like their own sentences, their own ability to describe reality, but the people in those sentences, those realities, not so much. Updike has a humanity (by which I mean a tenderness) in his short stories sometimes that is not to be found in any of his novels that I’ve tried. I’d go so far as to say, Tolstoy aside, the kind of precision of effect that Quintanilla’s work suggests can better be matched in short fiction than in long. In long fiction there is so much furniture to move around, so many bills to pay, one loses touch with the quality of the light, as it were.

This love and devotion for a perceived reality is an idiosyncratic critical principle. I don’t mean to claim it as comprehensive or even, for anyone but me, useful. It’s not easy to resist infusing it with one or another unnatural form of style, and too much style applied to such subject matter, to the essence of lived reality, to felt life, would lead quickly to sentimentality and myth (think, everything that Hemingway wrote after 1930 or so…). Of course the realism itself you might call a ‘style’ but you’d be hard pressed in Quintanilla’s case to attach it to any but the most pious and selfless kind of artist. It is suffused with humility, and the pleasure to be discovered in the basic truth of this vision is overwhelming. I still remember standing there, thirty-odd years ago, galvanized. /#

http://www.artelibre.net/autor/5772 (Linked here with gratitude: that’s the site from which I lifted the images shown above…)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_Quintanilla

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_L%C3%B3pez_Garc%C3%ADa

Kill Your Acknowledgements Page

Just yesterday I was recollecting how my agent chided me, after my first book came out, that I hadn’t expressed in it my gratitude to my editor, who had waited a long time for me to finish the book, it’s true, but who, I assume, found other things to occupy himself in that interim of years. Didn’t he get paid to do this work? I said. He makes more in a year than I’ll ever make from this book. I’ll happily take my thanks in cash, won’t he? She just shook her head. Of course implicit in the conversation was the fact that I should have thanked her too, another matter altogether, in that having left a big agency and gone indie during those years, she did not in fact get paid for whatever she later did for the book. Anyway the memory brought back to me a matter that’s been caught up among the graying hairs on my breastbone for years and years now, and that finally I wish to remove therefrom (see under “My chest, getting things off of” ).

I wish to speak of the “Acknowledgements” page that frequently appears in literary works, in works of the imagination, i.e., fiction, poetry, etc* — please, fellow writers, drop it. Do any of our actually great novelists/poets do these pages? Can you imagine Philip Roth doing one? Don DeLillo? Louise Erdrich? (Actually I should check Erdrich; I haven’t read enough of her books to feel I really know her.) The acknowledgements page as current fashion presents it to us essentially is a display of the author’s social life or social network as such has touched on her working life; it’s a not very subtle form of bragging, in other words, and, even when such a page manages against all odds to avoid seeming so, it still shouldn’t be in the book, especially at the outset, where the author is thanking his lineup of connections before (in the reader’s mind) he’s actually accomplished anything.

What’s at stake here is the reader’s connection to the text — her intimacy with the voice of the work should not be broken or burdened with this material, this alien ‘Saturday voice’ of the writer, whether at front or back. After you make love to someone you’ve much desired — or, if you prefer, fucked that person, we hope very well — you don’t sit up and declare, “First, I’d like to thank my father and mother — from your pain, I sought respite here. To Bobby Durrell — you know why. My first wife Laura taught me so much, thank you, Laura. To my kids: you also were here with me tonight but fortunately for you, you didn’t know it. Finally, to all the women and men who’ve played a part, all the way back to the days of stolen cans of Schlitz turned half-warm in Cicely’s basement, you will never know what my heart owes to all of you, and how large it has grown so that it can joyfully hold you in it.” 

The chirpy claptrap of most acknowledgement pages practically erases the hard won authority of the text.  This authority resides, from the opening lines of the book to its final word, in our acquiescence to the necessity of the existence of this language, this story, this voice speaking low and urgent in our ear. The kind of necessity I’m speaking of is, for me, the indisputable measure, or almost indisputable measure, of greatness in art.

Yes, it’s true, other people do help us. Often, they love us and, boy, do we need it. Send each of them a NOTE. Make it beautiful and true. The reader should not be involved. It doesn’t matter to him and it shouldn’t matter to the people who’ve helped us that we have or have not blared their names at said reader, who will in any case almost instantly forget them.

 

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* Please note I do not mean to include in this denunciation those works of nonfiction to which so many people professionally contribute and in which such people should indeed be named. I also don’t mind when I get to the end of a crime novel, say, to see thanked the specialists who (again, as a professional act of generosity) assisted the author on technical matters. But in a work of art? All the readers of my Wednesday writing group? My agent’s assistant? The publicist? My dad? My spouse? My dog? My cousin Elroy? Clara the robot? No.