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If You're Sitting, Why not Read?
Looking at four paintings.

January, 2004

By the 11th room, I was mildly overwhelmed. I'd walked past nearly 40 years of painting by the German artist Gerhard Richter, circling through the Lego-like rooms of Washington, D.C.'s Hirshhorn Museum. Much of it was disquieting. The blurry rendering of a disbelieving, horrified Jacqueline Onassis-like figure. The Baader-Meinhof terrorists. The abstract canvases, yawning at me in Technicolor anger. And then...

There she was — "Lesende," "The Reader," inspired by Richter's wife, Sabine Moritz. Hanging next to "Zwei Kerzen" ("Two Candles"), the 28 x 40 inch oil-on-linen piece drew me in. First, it was the light that did it. The figure appeared as if under a loving spotlight. The woman's neck and hair and upper back and left breast shone with a brilliant luminosity, as did the magazine, and the hands holding the magazine. Was it Stern? I wondered. Der Spiegel? One couldn't say. Soon, I didn't care. For a moment, I was content just to look, and imagine. What was she reading? What did the concentrated look on the woman's face mean? I relaxed. I read with her. Briefly, I was transported.

And in the next moment, my anxiety returned. Precisely because I had no idea what Frau Moritz was studying, I realized the magazine could be imparting anything. Richter made the painting in 1994. Was she reading about the everlasting pains of German reunification? The recurring spasms of neo-Nazism? Perhaps it was altogether benign: maybe the magazine was the German version of Cosmopolitan or House & Garden, and Mrs. Richter was dreaming up her perfect living room.

Ambiguity is one of the pleasures — and consternations — of looking at art of any kind. But as I recently looked over four paintings depicting readers by four vastly different artists, I began to appreciate an inherent dilemma posed by this sort of art. In none of the four paintings on this page will the viewer notice a book's title, though all of the works feature books or periodicals being read. The text remains unknowable, a mystery. We are thus left to look, and wonder, and try to see as the subject sees.

Where I saw Richter's reader perusing a magazine, Madeleine Grynsztejn, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, saw something else: "She is clearly reading a newspaper. It is illegible to us what she is reading, but there is no question that she is reading that day's news," says Grynsztejn. "It places her at a certain moment in time. And she is giving it a thought, or moment of quiet." The curator compares Richter's reader to Vermeer's paintings of women in their drawing rooms. "There is a kind of perfection, a kind of stillness of time and movement, that you see in both of them," Grynsztejn says.

Vermeer was but one of Richter's predecessors who depicted women reading. One popular image, says the Hirshhorn's curator of works on paper, Phyllis Rosenzweig, dates back to the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance: that of the Virgin Mary interrupted in her reading of the Bible at the moment of the Annunciation. Such pictures, notes Rosenzweig, parallel the development of book production in Europe.

But Richter probably painted his wife with a rather more temporal — as opposed to religious — cast of mind. "Richter's painting pretends to be a picture of nothing more than an ordinary moment captured in time like a snapshot, and a snapshot was, no doubt, its source," says Rosenzweig.

It is doubtful that Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) had a Polaroid to work with, but there is something equally like a snapshot about her 1894 painting "Love Sonnets." Like "Lesende," "Love Sonnets" depicts a frozen moment in time, showing nothing more than an alabaster-faced woman staring absorbedly into a small green book. As the title implies, the volume is likely of poetry — perhaps of none other than the love-sonnet master himself, Shakespeare. As the British wife of an American journalist, Stillman spent several years in Florence and Rome, and the extended residences in Italy appear to have influenced her art. Many of her works draw on Italian literary themes, particularly of Dante and Boccaccio.

There is a whiff of refinement about Stillman's poetry-reading bella donna. Compared to the plainly bourgeois appearance of Richter's news reader, Stillman's society lady adorns herself in the satiny sheen of a black gown and a frilly red shirt. Her facial features are goddess-like, and the cranberry-colored flowers resting in her left hand round out this picture of gentility personified.

In spite of the differences between the Richter and Stillman subjects' appearances, there is an important commonality. Both subjects are engaged in utterly private acts, spiriting themselves away through words. That, after all, is what reading is supposed to do.

To be sure, one can come up with hundreds of reasons why an artist would choose to paint a subject reading. Phyllis Rosenzweig says, "I think reading is associated with feelings such as stillness, privacy and intimacy that can be both pleasurable and poignant, and that is one reason why a painter would want to make such a picture and that someone else would want to look at it."

For some, though, the act of reading itself — or, perhaps, the opportunity to read — might be considered a remarkable act. Given place and time considerations, reading a book and all that it implies — leisure, education, knowledge, upward mobility — can be seen as an act of empowerment. Indeed, racial empowerment is indelibly associated with the colorful, robustly executed paintings of the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). In 1960, ARTnews said that he was "undoubtedly one of the few painters who can handle a social message and painting simultaneously," which was a nice way of saying that the painter didn't beat you over the head with his beliefs. Time magazine's brilliant art critic Robert Hughes puts it this way in his majestic 1997 book American Visions: "Lawrence was not a propagandist."

But, with its bold, multicolored presentation of Black figures in a book-filled library, "The Libraries Are Appreciated" nonetheless powerfully depicts a once-revolutionary activity: Black people reading. Black people educating themselves. Black people getting smarter. It is not unfair to group this work with Lawrence's many paintings of builders, a favorite theme of the artist's. "I like the symbolism [of the builder]," Lawrence said. "I think of it as man's aspiration, as a constructive tool-man building." What is reading but building the mind? In "The Libraries," printed pages substitute for hammers and nails; the soul stands in for a construction site.

In our television-soaked digital age, it is easy to forget that reading used to be a popular form of entertainment. Families are more likely to plaster themselves to the boob tube than sit quietly and read a book. Not so in Mary Cassatt's time. Cassatt, who died near Paris in 1926, was a doyenne of artistic domesticity — she is renowned for her tea-drinking ladies and mother-and-child scenes. Her portraits today seem at once refined and homespun. The portrait of her brother Alexander and his son Robert is an outstanding example of Cassatt's cushy brand of home life. In their tailored clothes, her brother and nephew bring to mind Stillman's sonnet reader. The eyes of both the boy and the man gaze fixedly but not intensely at a periodical or book. It is a moment of warm, shared experience, and the painting radiates an intimate buzz.

Again, you don't know what they're reading; only that they're doing it and that they appear somehow to be enjoying it. That is enough. So it was with a man I saw on my way home from the Richter exhibit. He was in his 40s, casually dressed and oblivious to the prattle of the subway riders around him. He was lost in a little brochure, reading it intently, eyes cast downward and moving slowly over the words. There was some of "The Reader" in him, in the eyes. And there was a vaguely Stillman-esque ease about the man; he looked sophisticated, comfortable. He sat unmoving, as if in a studio. Those looking closely would have seen what he was reading: a small program about Gerhard Richter. He looked, indeed, like a Richter, waiting to be painted.

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