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On the Book Shelf: Somerset Maugham

alec vanderboom

If you've only got an hour to peruse the 700 page masterpiece called "Of Human Bondage" you must first read the most arresting death scene where a mother, dying of childbirth complications, says goodbye to her nine year old son.

Then you must skip to the most fascinating, witty recount of a young art student's life in Paris at the turn of the century. These students are obsessed with that dashing new group of bohemians who called themselves "The Impressionists." If you've ever had a Monet watercolor reproduction hanging on your wall in college, you'll relish this historic insight into the lives of their contemporary "wannabees."

But, during the course of your reading as painters names are flung around as thickly as absinthe orders, and you're secretly gratified that the hours you spent in a darken lecture halls of Art 100 were not in vain, you may stumble into this passage. It will cause you to sit up and wonder if you've ever really studied the history of painting at all:

"A good painter had two chief objects to paint, namely man and the intention of his soul. The impressionists had been occupied with other problems, they had painted man admirably, but they had troubled themselves as little as the English portrait painters of the eighteenth century with the intention of his soul. . .

The greatest portrait painters have painted both man and the intention of his soul; Rembrandt and El Greco; it's only the second-raters who've only painted man... Correctness is all very well: El Greco made his people eight feet high because he wanted to express something he couldn't get any other way."

An arresting thought which makes reading Maugham's novels so addictive! Impressionists as simply the inventors of a new technique to record light. The painters put as little thought into the meaning behind their compositions as a camera does for a simple family photograph.

Now you think, for all your talk & Paris museum visits, have you ever really like the Impressionists? Did Monet with his lovely colored shadows ever paint his mistress so that you could see the contents of her soul? Or was did her face always remain inscrutable? Where the dabs of paint just a fad of technique like Jackson Pollack? Something cool to know about but never so absorbing as to force you to stand again and again in front of them probing for deeper meaning. In fact, the obvious popularity of the Impressionist makes them sort of an embarrassment. Rather like discovering at age 32 that you do not in fact like the lyrics of "Imagine"?

Is Maugham's criticism of the Impressionists valid? I leave it for you to debate, gentle readers. I know that I for one, will be seeking out more Rembrandts and El Grecos, to ponder at the National Galleries in the near future.

El Greco, Holy Trinity