Philip Fisher

Professor Philip Fisher
Harvard University

Small Scale Aesthetics:
Is seeing a form of reading?

History Corner, Building 200,
Room 13, Stanford University

Wednesday, February 20, 2008, 7:00 pm

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Preface: I saw a flyer with a Matisse painting of Joie de Vivre announcing Philip Fisher's lecture "Small Scale Aesthetics: Is seeing a form of reading?" with the following description: "This talk will raise questions about how we see or give a reading of difficult paintings. Among the questions will be these: What is a part? How do we find the smallest meaningful element? Is there an equivalent to syntax in the organization of small units into larger wholes in paintings? Examples will be such difficult recent paintings as Jasper Johns' Land's End and Matisse's Joie de Vivre, earlier examples of visual syntax (like Vermeer portraits), and vague extended syntax in one poetic example, a recent, short, complex poem by James Merrill." Prof. Joshua Landy from Stanford Department of French introduced Fisher— Philip Fisher is the Felice Crowl Reid Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University. His books include The Vehement Passions (2002), Still the New World: American Literature in a Culture of Creative Destruction (1999), Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (1998), Making and Effacing Art (1991), Hard Facts (1986), and Making Up Society (1981). Below are my notes taken of this stimulating lecture. I loved the poem Fisher discussed— James Merrill's "A Vision of the Garden". The paintings of Vermeer and Jasper Johns used as examples were also fascinating. I regret that Fisher didn't have to discuss Matisse's Joie de Vivre due to lack of time.

A Vision of the Garden

One winter morning as a child
Upon the windowpane's thin frost I drew
Forehead and eyes and mouth the clear and mild
Features of nobody I knew

And then abstracted looking through
This or that wet transparent line
Beyond beheld a winter garden so
Heavy with snow its hedge of pine

And sun so brilliant on the snow
I breathed my pleasure out onto the chill pane
Only to see its angel fade in mist.
I was a child, I did not know

That what I longed for would resist
Neither what cold lines should my finger trace
On colder grounds before I found anew
In yours the features of that face

Whose words whose looks alone undo
Such frosts I lay me down in love in fear
At how they melt become a blossoming pear
Joy outstretched in our bodies' place.

— James Merrill, Water Street (1962)
    included in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976,
    Atheneum, New York, 1982, p. 85 (PS3525.E6645.A6.1982)

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), Lady Seated at a Virginal (1672)
National Gallery of Art, London

Jasper Johns (born 1930), Land's End (1963)
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Q & A:

Matisse's Joie de Vivre (1905)

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (2-21-2008)