Saturday, 1 December 2018

Chardin’s Bubbles: Absorption and Play


If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.
                                                                    -Bruce Lee

At first glance, or perhaps from a distance, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles (1733-34) (1.) could appear to depict any number of actions- writing, drawing, playing a musical instrument- which involve a specific state of absorbed-distractedness, that is, a state of mind at once intent, and yet buoyant, fixated yet free, unberthed. Early on we sense the action or task might be one of exteriorization, of ‘interiority’ materialised- the mind directed via the hand to a surface, to a sound, to an object, to an idea. 

However the painting depicts a boy- of so-far indeterminate age and social standing – engaged in blowing a bubble via a long wooden straw from a nearby glass of soapsuds. He is leaning not on a table, as it may at first have seemed, but on a window ledge- probably, judging by the leaves that hang nearby and his downward gaze, on at least the first or second floor, rather than on ground level. And so we already have a sense of gravity, of weight and levity, the stock in trade of a painter engaged with still-life (as Chardin was). Indeed the painting is filled with things which can spill, things that hang, that blow in the breeze, that can topple or dip or float.  

A second figure- another, younger, boy- peeps up from the ledge, watching the bubble blower. 

Depictions of children idly absorbed in blowing bubbles (and the accompanying homily that their childish innocence is just as fragile and ephemeral) are common in Dutch genre painting of the previous century. Chardin, however, adds to, enriches and complicates this subject- as he does in similar genre scenes of daydreaming servants or children building houses of cards- firstly by creating a series of formal-metaphorical connections between the various elements of his composition, and secondly by creating a relationship of absorption between himself, the viewer and the figure depicted. In short, he composes with attention- directing it and creating loops of consciousness between viewer, subject and painting. 
Chardin paints pictures of children at play with objects (a house of balanced cards (2.), a flighty feathered shuttle cock (4.), a spinning top (3.), the ephemeral bubble) which in turn play with objects’ potential for movement, collapse, for transitory moments of wonder; wonder at matter, at its physics and rules and games, its behaviours. As his figures age, so their absorptions require less novel triggers (a woman caught up in the steam rising from her tea (5.), the actions of stirring and pouring) or he suspends them in a moment of daydreaming while engaged in menial tasks, their minds having wandered off to exit the frame altogether, objectless and untethered completely (6. and 7.). 



In the pictures of children however, part of the consciousness is siphoned off to inhabit the object, to be absorbed into it. The seat of the mind’s awareness has travelled out of the body and into a small vessel: the bubble, the spinning top, the painting itself. It is not so much that they have consciously ‘projected’ themselves, but rather that the object very much holds their consciousness, even if for a brief moment. There has been a total momentary exchange or submission from the conscious mind in the environment to a temporary complete focus within an object and how it happens to be performing. This exchange- depicted in the painting- is mirrored in the viewer’s absorption in the illusionistic performance of the painting itself. The viewer inhabits the picture, can feel the different states and transformations of matter, can feel the expulsion of the soapy water from the straw, the effect of breath on the seemingly solid liquid. 





As much as the consciousness of the boy seems to have entered the bubble, the bubble could also be seen as a kind of silent utterance. He leans on the ledge, on the ‘frame’, at the very limit of the framed space but projecting out of it via the bubble, which effectively becomes a kind of speech balloon. We are reminded of Poussin’s ‘profession of mute things’ or W.H. Auden calling the room where he wrote ‘the place where silence becomes objects’. (There are also connotations of conjuring, spell-casting, as well as a more scientific sense of experimentation and testing, with the bubble a kind of chemist’s spherical beaker.)
The curve on the side of the boy’s head, and again in the parting of his hair, echos the contour of the bubble – reinforcing the transference from one sphere to the other. It is as if Chardin is painting the mysterious unknowable thoughts of others (perhaps the problems of communication also), or the mysterious and precarious existence of consciousness itself- as represented by the miraculous orb of the bubble, an object also, like the painting, formed from the alchemical influence of consciousness where it acts upon a material. And of course, the ledge (like a frame) bridges the gap between picture and viewer, between painted and real world- the projection is not just from child to bubble, the viewer is implicitly involved in blowing their own bubbles at and in this painting.
Such projections of consciousness- from boy to bubble, from viewer to boy, from viewer to Chardin, from Chardin to viewer, from Chardin to painting, from Chardin to boy, and so on- are all the more reinforced by the presence of the second (younger?) child. The difference between this painting as a work of art and the many Dutch genre scenes with children blowing bubbles, or the Millais Pear’s Soap painting (10.) or even Manet’s direct
recapitulation of the Chardin (8.), is this very specific inclusion of the 2nd figure, whose gaze falls not on the bubble but on the blower’s hand- caught surely in a glance or a movement of the eyes that has taken in the dipping of the straw, and which will progress to the bubble, perhaps as it floats above the window ledge (we can feel his elastic gaze when we look at other parts of the picture, only a slight upward motion of his eyes will take in the blower’s face, his concentration/absorption), and again these actions mirror that of the viewer of the painting and of the act of painting itself. 




The younger child seems as much mesmerized by the action of the blower as by the bubble, and the bubble is as much a metaphor for the conjuring trick of the painting itself as it is a metaphor for the loss of innocence.

 This is frequently the case in Chardin’s depictions of the objects of his figure’s absorption- the delicate balance of illusion, of harmonious forms in supporting relation to one another, mirrored in the balancing cards or the wobbling spinning top (its motion in turn conjured by the opposing angle of the quill in relation to the vertical stripes on the wall), or the steam from the teacup becoming a flurry of marks, dissipating against the surface of a wall. Here the image is reinforced by the boy’s pose- hunched as if over a drawing or a pastel, his concentration on maintaining the fleeting object, keeping it afloat. Previous depictions of the subject show the blower’s gaze looking upward at a rising bubble, but Chardin (reportedly often fatigued by the sheer effort of making his paintings) instead concentrates on the tension of making: the illusionary sphere is getting bigger and bigger, the illusion he is spinning getting grander and thus at risk of collapse, every move is a gamble, the bubble easily burst. Comparison with the Manet is helpful- Manet, as one could expect, is much more brash, extrovert, his boy is more like the young army flautist (9.), the brushwork more bravura- if Chardin’s boy is hunched over a drawing then Manet’s stands at an easel for a more ‘official’ portrait of the artist confidently dashing a picture off. It is an emptier painting for it. 

Chardin’s bubble itself- created from light, reflection- could also seem to represent not only consciousness and painting generally, but also the genre of still life specifically: it is still life condensed, a kind of transparent apple, glass, etc., a thing of spheres and reflections and highlights, a kind of platonic ‘essential form’ of still life. 

Indeed, Chardin’s approach is always that of someone deeply engaged in still life. The most obvious visual rhyme is between the bubble and the glass of soapy water, the two straws leaning practically parallel. Chardin gently puns on the ‘blown’ nature of the glass and the bubble, hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness, fluid and fixed, and the various temporariness-es of human artefacts. 

To the left, vine leaves hit the straw as if connected to it- they have highlights in close proximity- and the leaves themselves are painterly, sketchy flourishes, as if painted by it, highlighting the brush/straw/tool/instrument connections. The straw shares colour with the twisted branches and again straightness and solidness vs. crookedness and amorphousness, natural and synthetic are set against one another. Examples of this kind of play are countless- see the mirror image sweeps of hair and shirt and ear at the shoulder; his curled side-locks, white collar and ruddy earlobe mirroring in an opposite curl the brown jacket, ruddy lining and white of his exposed shirt, the crinkles and folds reminding us that we are just as temporarily ‘dressed’ in our suits of skin and fluids; and again, the hair ribbon which shoots like glossy splayed leaves out of the continued line of the boy’s straw as the cluster of leaves did from the straw in the glass. 

The best still lives deal with the relative solidities and states of matter, and map and navigate the way these intersect with our lives – or rather the way we orientate our lives around these states of matter and the complex relationships between objects, their uses, their statuses, whether abject or coveted, utilitarian or decorative – and without easy, cliched recourse to skulls or candles to invest them with moral or metaphorical profundity.
To return to the ‘narrative’ of the painting, again there is more besides the bubble to reinvest and extend the tired metaphor of youthful innocence.  For example, what, exactly, is happening below the window ledge, out of the frame? Is he blowing the bubble at someone, for someone – or eavesdropping?

If he is spying down on the world below (probably from his room, or perhaps the soapsuds are from a scullery where the boy idles his time, bringing a wider sociological world into play) he is probably spying on adult affairs (between lovers?), baffled by their complex behavioural codes and systems. There might be the hint of eroticism (perhaps off-stage) in the swelling bubble, the lolling, listless late noon atmosphere (which recalls something of Balthus’s dreamy, troubling pictures of nascent adolescent sexuality and self-absorption).  

If the blower- who may have only one eye open, and maybe even an arch eyebrow cocked- is focused on events on the ground, how then is this to be reconciled with his absorption in the bubble? There is a slight sideways glance in his left eye- is there a moment depicted here when the ‘simple pleasures of childhood’ (or even the more existential stirrings of adolescence) are faced with the distractions of an indomitable forward flow into adulthood? Has he been distracted, his head, metaphorically, ‘turned’? And is the smaller child simultaneously a kind of stand-in for his younger self in a daisy chain of age and absorption– stuck behind a ledge he can’t see over, the older blower leaning not with nonchalance or boredom but tiptoeing to reach over (and is the hand on the ledge therefore a steadying hand?), to see directly below whatever mysterious thing which for us remains so.
Perhaps the blower is on the edge of adolescence – the perfect sphere that will be released should he hold his nerve, maintain enough but not too much control, a conciliatory note of eloquence against the mumbling, stumbling awkwardness that may already be upon him. And that, a metaphor for the conciliatory note of eloquence art strikes against the angles and awkwardness of life for us all. Maybe.


A couple of extra things.

Purely free-associating, I’ve always seen an echo of the Chardin bubble picture within William Nicholson’s The First Communion (1907).

It depicts a rite of passage: one’s introduction to ‘adult’ structures, formalities and cultural practices, but also one’s introduction to abstract ideas, to symbolism and metaphor (the wine and the blood, transubstantiation, the cultural transformations of matter etc.). It’s a child’s sense of the world and its rules of play developing, and it’s there in the skewed shadows, as if the world’s been slightly re-angled, the slight breeze, the precarious ‘stick’ holding the picture up; the mysterious windows, like vacated rooms as stages in one’s development, or rooms yet to be occupied (one’s future). 

The gauzy sphere (a fishnet? Bringing notions of encapsulation, porous-solid surfaces, cells etc. into play, as well as the idea of a child's stick and hoop cast aside for a world of tools and work), stick/pipe, the window ledges, the high shadow might all be superficial similarities between the two compositions- but perhaps these sets of shapes and images point towards similar things. Perhaps it comes down to the basic (primal?) image of a stick and a circle – ‘I am here’...

 In any case, the Chardin helps to explore the mystery of the Nicholson (a haunting painting I’ve found very little commentary on, though I believe it is one of the few reproductions in Marguerite Steen’s 1943 biography).

I’m also reminded of a frequent subject of Merlin James’s- based I think on a Caius Gabriel Cibber sculpture in the V&A- a man with a bagpipe, puffing away while his dog lolls at his feet.  

Again there are superficial similarities between the bubble blower and the piper- its an image from roughly the same sort of late 17th early 18th century as the Chardin (with instrument blowing), a consciously ‘of the past’ image, emblematic in that sense- yet it also fits within this ‘Genre painting’ genre. 

Again the ‘player’ takes on the condition of what he is playing, he becomes the action- the piper is bubbly and amorphous (relative to the background and the more angular segments of the dog)- there’s a sense of exteriorizing, generating, snake charmer conjuring. As with the Chardin there’s a sense of circularity, looping, as the very air the piper is breathing in is controlled and converted, exhaled as music (with the pipes becoming a kind of secondary lung, an extension of oneself, as with all tools).
There’s the sense of pleasing oneself, playing/painting for the pleasure of it. 

It also brings to mind the kind of internal-rebreathing of forms, subjects and ‘standards’ of the artform’s history, which is of high importance within James’s work- what Geoff Dyer referred to in Jazz as the ‘circular breathing’ of the tradition. 

Note: Throughout I refer specifically to the version of the painting in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Three versions of the painting are known and there may have been some lost to history. The other two versions I would argue are very slightly less compelling for various reasons – one with roughly the same format as the Met version is less cropped and condensed, it spills less from the fame, and has no creeping vines or honeysuckle. The other has been significantly altered by hands other than Chardin’s with a stitched on expanded portrait format and perfunctory vines added- the greenery in the Met’s version is believed to be by Chardin, and interacts more inventively with the wider composition than in these later additions.