PRINT October 2015


Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Les Hasards heureux de l’escarpolette (The Swing), 1767, oil on canvas, 31 7/8 × 25 1/4".

ONCE A STUDENT at an academy for butlers, and another time employed as an inventor’s assistant, Robert Walser (1878–1956) approached writing as a kind of butler or assistant too. “To be small and stay small” was an antiambition Walser shared with Jakob von Gunten, the eponymous hero of his great 1909 autofiction-cum-bildungsroman about getting ahead in a school for servants. Walser’s late microscripts—uncategorizable prose pieces written in a hand so infinitesimal that it was long thought to be meaningless scratching—pack prolixity into the confines of the minuscule; his novel The Robber (1925) was written on a twenty-four page manuscript. Style in Walser is small too, leaving things like ringing gravitas for those born to higher callings, going instead for more déclassé pleasures, playing around on the edge of sentimentality, and having fun as a faux-naïf who sometimes narrates as if entering a big fancy room he probably doesn’t belong in, picking up words like silverware. Walser joins Kafka and Beckett among those literary modernists who countermanded that echt-modernist device, the stream of consciousness, which, however vexed in tone or content, always suggests a profusion that will never stop coming, as if subjectivity is a bottomless well. Reading Walser, you feel that here is writing for an era when consciousness doesn’t stream—content does. Language’s status as content, something to haphazardly fill a page in the heyday of the broadsheet (or a screen today), is a little secret animating his writing, nowhere more so than in his art writing, where he took on high culture in the context of its mass dissemination.

Translator Susan Bernofsky has already brought several excellent collections of Walser’s short prose into English, including The Walk (New Directions, 2012), “Masquerade” and Other Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), and Microscripts (New Directions, 2012). A forthcoming collection from New Directions, Looking at Pictures, with translations by Bernofsky as well as Lydia Davis and Christopher Middleton, gathers texts specifically about art—not that an art critic could ever be conjured from the vagabond pencil of Walser, who happily fails to be pinned down vocationwise in flighty, prankish texts such as “A Discussion of a Picture” (1926), “A Picture by Fragonard” (ca. 1927), “Watercolors” (1925), and the early, novella-like “A Painter” (1902). The sort of urbane protosnark that an interwar freelancer might churn out for popular feuilletons is joined by more subjective, unemployable kinds of writing, often within a single text. Written between 1902 and 1930 and, with two exceptions, previously untranslated, the pieces gathered here elaborate a nervous, slapstick sort of hack journalism that set the stage for a fabulously experimental modernist writing situation whose fans included Kafka, Musil, and Benjamin. Micronarratives and fragmentary sketches, “infinitesimally small little essaylet[s],” and dashed-off reports on city life often make a show of writing in humble service to the “Dear Reader” of the mass-produced page, meanwhile returning the speed, anonymity, and disposability of that page as nonstop literary surprises.

In Looking at Pictures, we get literary prose in service to the “cold” and noble art of painting, but performing the situation of its own enthrallment to the point where the chatterbox text always inevitably steals the show: Pictures become opportunities to flamboyantly derail writing. “An Exhibition of Belgian Art” (1926), for example, takes on the job of reviewing a show at a local museum in Bern, but the text is almost immediately diverted by a slanting shaft of sunlight in a nearby café, and then the music of coats on coat racks, coffee, flags, and the recollection of a dream about a sharp-featured woman reflected in a mirror, etc. Or, looking at The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, the author begins to ponder the etiquette and psychic boundaries of massage. Such digressions, disruptive asides, and willful misinterpretations (in Walser’s view, the blind men are brawling) do not abandon the job at hand so much as find new ways of “flaneuring” within it. The writing always wants to do and say more, and faster than art. Descriptions of works sometimes operate at such a different energy level than what they’re describing that reviewing becomes a rush job and a comedy, tossing out adjectives as if to flatter the picture he is already taking leave of: “The table at which she sits is covered with a tapestry. One might also refer to this table-covering as a tablecloth, and now we must report that this tablecloth is meticulously executed, it is virtually smiling, beaming; and now the remark might be apropos that the woman is seated in an eminently paintable pose. Above all, her garment—which displays a certain ceremonious wealth of folds—deserves to be honored with the exclamation ‘Enchanting!’”

While many Walser texts narrate walks in public space, here pedestrian rambles happen within descriptions of pictures by Bruegel, Watteau, Van Gogh, and Walser’s brother Karl, among others. “Great art resides in great goings-astray,” says the narrator of “A Painter,” which was first published in summer 1902 in Sonntagsblatt des Bund, the literary supplement of the newspaper Der Bund. Using the narrative device of a found diary, Walser not only allows the imaginary artist of the title to assume authorship of this text—he lets this blowhard go so far as to dismiss poets and writers as distracted, undisciplined gossips and fools. This ironic device allows Walser to write himself out of the picture while putting words in the painter’s mouth. Painting is the more serious art, laboring under a cold, inhuman sun. Writing in the name of painting, Walser, meanwhile, has already “set out.”

John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures, translated by Susan Bernofsky, Lydia Davis, and Christopher Middleton, will be published on October 20 by Christine Burgin/New Directions.

Karl Walser’s The Poet, 1904, an original illustration for Robert Walser’s “A Painter” as it appeared in “Fritz Kochers Aufsätze” (Fritz Kocher’s Essays), 1904.


These pages from a painter’s notebook chanced to fall into my hands, as the saying goes. I consider them not so insignificant that I might hesitate to publish them. Certainly opinions may differ regarding the views on art expressed here. But that isn’t the most important thing; rather, there was something else I found interspersed among these pages, something purely human, that seemed to me more significant and truly worthy of being read.

This is to be a sort of diary or book of notes. When I have finished filling these pages, I shall burn them. But if they should happen to survive, let’s hope they fall into the hands of some curiosity-driven chatterbox of a writer; what’s it to me? The world concerns me not at all, nor do human beings, nor these scribblings. I write for my own amusement, snatching a moment here and there from my painting, like a thief or some sort of scoundrel; I’ve always been fond of pranks. And what an innocuous, insignificant prank it is to write all these things down! In them I shall deposit something of my sensibilities, my views on art, my soul, as if placing them upon a small, modest sacrificial altar, if I may put it thus. And why not? Besides, writing is an enjoyable change of pace for a painter’s hand, and why should I begrudge my hand this pleasure? For several weeks now, I’ve been in this villa deep in the mountains, amid fir trees and the dear, lonely cliffs. All day long—all week long, nearly—there’s been fog. The fog never fully vanishes here, only when it’s absolutely the clearest weather. I love the fog, just as I love everything that is moist, cold, and colorless. I have never had cause to long for more colors, for I have always, from earliest childhood, seen color where there was almost none. And so that compulsion of artists to head to southern, sunny, colorful lands has never made sense to me. Gray has always been one of my favorite colors, one of the most refined and sweetest, and to my delight, it is everywhere in these mountains. Even green looks gray here: the fir trees! How I love them, these sacred firs—there’s no expressing it. And then the fog! Often I roam around for the sole purpose of trying to outroam the fog. It rises, falls, it stretches out and creeps, it shoots suddenly to one side, how magnificent. Like white snakes! But a poet would never be allowed to say so, only a painter can. I could never be a poet, for I love Nature too rapturously, and: I love only her. But a poet is supposed to report above all on the world and human beings. In his descriptions of Nature, he will always lag behind the painter, that’s all there is to it. The paintbrush will always trounce even the most delicate verbal exercise, and this is a good thing. Every art should and must have its limitations, so they don’t swallow each other up. I plan to talk to myself as freely as I please in these pages, but now as I continue to write, I feel come over me a—I don’t know—a certain irrepressible sense of responsibility for what I am writing. Is this something inherent in writing itself, or is it just me who experiences it like this? Well, I’m sure I’ll get to the bottom of it. How curious, the way everything has its own special meaning, and every meaning its conditions and terms. This is indeed peculiar.

[ . . . ]

A painter is a person who holds a brush in his hand. On the brush is paint. The paint has been selected in deference to his tastes. He has a hand to direct the brush according to the commands of his seeing and feeling eye. With this brush he simultaneously draws and paints. Usually the hairs of a brush are wonderfully sharp and fine, but even sharper and finer is the conscientiousness with which the painter’s senses—all his eager, excited senses—share in the work. A person who is rigorous and reliable paints all the better for this. His noble, refined sensibility finds wonderful expression in his brushstrokes. Sloppy people make sloppy painters. Their paintings can be brilliant but never great. The modest, well-mannered personality tends to select his colors with delicate care, in accordance with more thoughtful tastes. It’s no wonder the most courteous and obliging people—the French—supply the most important painters, or used to. Impertinence and arrogance will never produce a painting. Every great painter the world has known has been cheerful, quiet, thoughtful, clever, and superbly educated. Good pictures are produced by neither thinking too hard nor thoughtlessly taking too little care. Faithfulness to Nature, faithfulness even to a certain smiling defiance, combined with coldness and incomprehension with regard to all else that insistently intrudes: This is the pot, the palette where the sweet, eternal colors lie. What peacefulness, what stillness, what restraint and therefore: What Nature one finds in the paintings of most of the old masters. Nature is never agitated, although she is filled with life. How coldly the sun shines, the leaves and flowers sway, the crowns of trees repose, the cliffs loom, the songs of birds resound. In Nature there is no warmth, it is only man—fearful, ever-zealous man—who thinks he ought to feel some. And what charming lies the poets present to us! Poets are not usually acquainted with Nature, they rarely get to know her and don’t even wish to. They are generally quite thickheaded. The painter’s trade involves his making far more tender observations. It is Nature’s indifference and intransigence that often inspire him to apply his most glowing, ardent colors. The task in a certain case is to pull oneself together; in another, to remain cold in the face of coldness. One can be cold with the greatest ardor, cordiality, and warmth when art requires. All the great painters mastered this, every one of them had to learn this skill. Their paintings make this obvious. Painting is the coldest art, it is an art of the intellect, of observation, of contemplation, of the most severely dissected feelings. What is taste other than dissected sentiment, dismembered musings? And what does one paint with if not with one’s taste? Should not one’s sense of color and one’s sense of taste stand in the closest proximity to each other? Should not a certain odor be able to call forth the impression of a certain color?


Do something, talk about something.
Brutus, thou sleep’st. Awake, awake!
What did I see today? Some watercolors!
May I speak about these watercolors?
Certainly. Go right ahead. Why not?
The watercolorist is perhaps a feuilletonist in the field of painting.
Did these watercolors please you, my dear fellow?
They did. Very much so, in a sense.
What sense is that?
With regard to their daintiness, their objectivity.

The watercolorist watercolors freely while appealing to common sense. He paints cheekily, as it were, and at the same time documents his own good judgment, his feeling for what is.

He speaks, as it were, to the beholder: “I paint watercolors because I want to teach you to love what is around us.”

To this end, he presents mountain villages, each with a church in a narrow street, and cliffs towering up beside them, topped with clouds.

These worklets speak; but even with all this speechifying, the colors say no more than what they are meant to express, something utilitarian.

Now he shows me, for example, a country road whose country-roadishness I instantly believe in.

If a painter teaches me to believe in what he’s painted, he paints well. His bouquets of flowers possess flower-bouquetishness, and his domiciles domesticity. His rooftops, balconies, poles, etc., are all as they should be, they lead their own existence, we believe them.

Mountains display a fitting grandeur. These watercolor mountains, too, instantly inspire belief.

I could submit a mile-long report about this, but I think I’ll keep it brief.

Here, for example, we see a hedge-lined road with a bit of grass, a bit of sky.

In Berlin I was shaved by a barber who was in the habit of saying: “In Heaven, there’s no kümmel.” He would drop this phrase as if flinging away a bit of ash.

My watercolors, too, have something casually dashed off about them.

Here I am saying “mine.” But they do not belong to me. They belong to the painter, until someone buys them from him.

Upon you, most gracious lady, rests the beautiful obligation to buy them from him, that is, you’re not obliged to do so. I’m just saying you might.

What I’m saying here is that I saw some nice, intelligent watercolors that have a certain eloquence to them, by which I mean to say merely that I believe in the painter’s pictorial abilities.

While at the same time wishing him buyers.

He paints butterflies as well.

At any rate, Nature brings him joy; he plays wittily, that is: He paints, he doesn’t play, but is not the painter also a player, as the poet is as well?

Watercolors are like short pieces for the piano, or sonnets, for example.

Already I can hear one in my mind. I’m so musical I can dispense entirely with listening to music.

It’s always playing inside me, take my word for it.

And won’t you do me a favor and buy one of this painter’s little pictures?

Please, do be so kind.

The artist’s dream is so difficult, so rich. Civilizations sing, and humankind in all its childish glory leaps high up into the air heaving a great sigh.

Pieter Bruegel the Younger, The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, ca. 1616, oil on wood, 48 × 66 7/8".


For all that, in other words: By the way—and what might be understood by this introductory phrase need scarcely concern me—I am thinking, and this is to be only a tiny, infinitesimally small little essaylet, of the captive naked man from days of yore.

Must I specify the time or century? As if the specific chronology made any difference at all, much less being indispensable! I am occupied, incidentally, by a fairly adventurous question, to wit the small and yet nonetheless important, large question of the day: whether a masseur assigned the task of rubbing down a woman, of molding her like clay, as it were, may be permitted, for purposes of summoning forth beauty, to bestow on her a kiss. Might this not lead to unexpected consequences, to theatrical scenes, to unpleasantries of the highest order? “Good Lord, what liberties you take!” a body artist might find himself reproached, should it occur to him to enlarge so liberally the bounds of his obligations and the dictates of his trade.

But let me return to that unfortunate man of mine, who has been standing here stark naked.

Might we speak, regarding this creature, of an exposedness beyond compare? I do hope this is allowed. Today the sun shines down upon a day that can be described as Infant Welfare Day. A girl as young as a bud asked me whether I was inclined to take action of some sort to benefit this humane cause. How could I refuse? I would have found it impossible.

A famous poet lies in a state of printedness beside a freshly marketed bit of bread in the drawer of my wardrobe, and my mouth, which has a laughing quality about it, for which I hold Father and Mother responsible, will now utter some possibly rather peculiar words: The previously underscored captive stood in a sort of box or iron cabinet, utterly isolated and erect. The faintest movement he faintingly allowed himself caused him to be pierced by daggers between whose polished points he was imprisoned, wedged and stuck. What loneliness this meant for him! One can scarcely imagine it. This is what had transpired with regard to this outstandingly poor, pitiable man: He had committed some wrongdoing; he appears to have made himself eminently unpopular, and in punishment for that sin he now languished in a manner most extraordinary within a relatively extremely tight cage, which must have struck him as hideously uncomfortable.

Yesterday, seated in a corner of a public house, I enjoyed an apparently excellent editorial. Am I permitted to believe that this article of mine will in its turn be all the more likely to receive excellent marks as a number of sightless individuals may possibly still appear in it? Recently, you see, I visited an art exhibition being presented here, and on this occasion discovered a painting by Bruegel depicting a scene of blindness that can scarcely have been portrayed any more significantly, strikingly, profoundly, or thoughtfully. Blind men are quarreling, belaboring one another so thoroughly with their walking sticks that it is nearly, so to speak, a pleasure to behold. There is a high level of tragicomedy at work here, and quite possibly this picture of blind men was the strongest painting in the entire show.

To a certain extent and in a certain sense, all of us are blind, even though we have eyes to see. Once, walking down some street or other, I passed a blind man whose calmness drew my notice—his equanimity if you will, his self-contentedness and self-sufficiency, his acquiescence to his fate. The Bruegel painting, meanwhile, shows people blindly hacking away at each other’s worthy, respect-worthy heads. This takes place in a splendidly portrayed village at night. At this hour, all of humanity, as it were, lies fast asleep in bedchambers and beds, and amid all this stillness, all this general slumber, these vagabonds indulge in so hearty a reciprocal thrashing that one might fancy it unique. O light-hallowed Earth, what are you? O humans blessed to dwell on this beautiful Earth, who are you, from whence do you hail and come? Well, those are fairly banal as questions go, but at least they have a ring to them.

Let us now feel a little pity once more for our poor man stored away in his box all full of knives and things of that sort. As a boy, I saw this good, unspeakably unfortunate individual in an illustration in some magazine that might have been entitled Art for All. Was there not, in those days, among other things a journal called From the Cliffs to the Sea, which perhaps still gaily flourishes today? If we assume there was no longer any dear, kind woman seeing to it that the prisoner possessed at least a pair of socks and received proper meals, surely a person confronted with this exemplar of utter forsakenness must inevitably be overwhelmed with a compassion leaping and warbling from all the immediacies that surround us.

Dear Reader, should you not have reason to be glad—in other words practically be overjoyed—first, that you are not compelled to wander about blind; second, that you happen not to find yourself in the position of either administering or receiving blows; and third, that there are no daggers tickling you at the slightest movement? Why don’t you say a brief prayer now and then for the blind instead of kicking up a fuss over trifles that annoy you, and do think occasionally—for the sake of your own spiritual growth—of that poor fellow in the iron cupboard before you venture or undertake to begin fretting on your own account.

As for the masseur, we entreat him to proceed with caution.

Beautiful women adorn the promenade with their presence, and still I sit here writing?