Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau and His World

Antoine's Alphabet: Watteau and His World



The Pequod Review:

Jed Perl's book Antoine's Alphabet explores the life and artistic vision of the Baroque French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). Perl structures his book in the form of various alphabetically-ordered entries, e.g.:

Beginnings. So much begins with intense yet fragmentary experiences. At the start of a friendship or a love affair there may be some acute recognition, some striking sliver of experience, although initially it's impossible to know where this will go, if indeed it will go anywhere. You meet someone, you have a conversation, an argument, some sort of physical interaction, and frequently it's just that -- an isolated event. Years later, you may look back on such encounters, and it can be odd how some that were so full of promise led to very little, while others, far more ambiguous at the time, precipitated much else, perhaps too much. So it's no wonder that even as you are in the midst of these initial experiences, and more so after they're over, the question that hovers is whether whatever has happened can grow, whether this sharply defined early encounter can find a place amid all your other relationships and needs and obligations. For the time being, that initial encounter is a vivid image in a larger landscape that looks misty, elusive, frustratingly faint. This is one of Watteau's essential subjects, both the intensity of the immediate experience and the frustrations or difficulties or excitements of seeing where it will go. Watteau begins with the vivacity of drawings, each a sharply observed encounter, an intense sliver of experience. These slivers of experience are then gathered together, related to one another in a painting or a group of paintings, although the relationships among the parts are frequently left indeterminate, even in Watteau's most beautifully finished canvases, where there is invariably an element of wavering, quivering fluidity, as if to say, "It is all beginnings, there is nothing but beginnings."


New York City. Dime-store decadence, puerile yet sadistic, oozed out of Behind the Watteau Painting, a one-act verse play by a man named Robert Emmons Rogers, that was presented in November 1917 at the Greenwich Village Theater on New York City's Sheridan Square. The play was Greenwich Village bohemian claptrap, perhaps designed to scandalize the tourists slightly, a downtown goosing of the uptown or out-of-town audience, a dumb little sideshow on the road to the Roaring Twenties. The experimental theater was beginning to boom back then, and the Greenwich Village Theater was a less distinguished relative of the little theaters flourishing below Fourteenth Street, which included the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Washington Square Players (which became the Theatre Guild), and most famous of all, the Provincetown Players. And if Eugene O'Neill stood at the zenith of this downtown modernity, Behind the Watteau Painting was probably close to its nadir. The drama was a curiosity, a last, sheepish gasp of the fin de si├Ęcle, a work of sentimental pornography, part Salome, part Rite of Spring, with Columbine, the heroine of the commedia dell'arte whose easygoing sensuousness Watteau gently embraced, now transformed into a man-eater whom the tall, tragic Pierrot somehow had the power to put to death, a power he couldn't finally bring himself to exercise, although her kiss could kill -- almost literally, as we see. The play was a deflated decadent bauble, and in its published version it was advertised as something that "can be given by amateurs on a restricted stage" something a little off the beaten track, a little daring, for the provincial theater group to take on. So here we are, in the sordid afterlife of Watteau's romantic vision.

These are only occasionally interesting and the structure doesn't quite work in the end. But on the positive side, the book is incredibly well-designed, with a gorgeous binding and printing.