Charmed in youth by a Matisse at the Art Institute of Chicago, a memoirist (I Could Tell You Stories, 1999, etc.) later pursues the painter’s story and discovers more of her own.
Hampl, poet and professor (English/Univ. of Minnesota), has crafted an emotional memoir that begins in 1972, when she first saw the painting, Woman Before an Aquarium. She acknowledges that at the time, she had very little knowledge of the artist or of painting. (She amuses with some sentences about her elementary-school art-class clumsiness.) But something about the serenity of the painting caught her eye, and, later, her imagination; before long, her curiosity was leading her through worlds her blindness had hidden from her. She views the artist’s work in museums around the world; she visits the sites where he lived; on the Riviera, she talks to an ancient nun who knew him at the end of his life. Hampl uses Matisse’s story (and his fondness for the odalisque) to pursue her own interest in the concept of leisure, of having the time to think, to look, to note, to create. She visits this idea in other cultures (with much attention to North Africa), sees how it worked in the lives of other writers she admired, among them her fellow St. Paulian F. Scott Fitzgerald, and most notably, her “pagan saint,” Katherine Mansfield (Hampl visited the hotel room in Bandol where Mansfield wrote Bliss). There is a luscious account of a Turkish bath she once took, an experience she encapsulates with one of her lovely sentences: “This night I’m an odalisque at last, all fish, all float.” Images of water and fish and blue backgrounds and bright sunlight and religion occur throughout, and when they reappear, it’s as if an old and valued friend has returned bearing another gift.
An artful, affecting memoir whose lessons arrive in a delicious whisper.