Looking at Pictures

by Sam Mapp and Mark Dilks

The first thing you realize in Robert Walsers, Looking at Pictures, is that to look at a picture is much more than to recognize what is pictured. An interest in ekphrastic writing (the Greek term for creative writing about art), in part, helps to explain this unusual relationship to pictures. For the author, a picture provides a space to write,  an opportunity to populate a void with a history of characters. The events contained within a depiction do not foreclose the world of the writer or audience, instead the picture contributes to a life being made that it could not have anticipated: another world generated in its reception.

In addition to pictures, Walser was known to enjoy walks, often writing about them, and the thoughts generated while moving. On one of these walks the writer died in the snow. Sam Mapp and Mark Dilks, inspired by the Swiss author, recall the writings.

Sam: Oh, so, lets talk.


Mark: Does this have anything to do with Philadelphia? Im curious because the other day I overheard a housemate, Bobbi, speaking as it were, to the beholder: I paint watercolors because I want to teach you to love what is around us.”’ (Pg. 57)


S: Well, yeah! If, All we have and possess is what we long for; all we are is what weve never been.(Pg. 53) Does this mean we are constantly moving?


M: Lots of people are moving to Philly. Not sure how long people will stay. Constant transitions of shells or homes, little hermit crabs, each of us. Instead of the shell changing, we are. This may be easier for one to say when most of the belongings in the house are someone elses.


S: So lets go outside and see what we find. Dont stand still too long on the bridge staring at the river. Does nature or society offer anything worth bringing home to domestically share in? Lets find out.


M: Walk: stroll, saunter, amble, trudge, plod, dawdle, hike, tramp, tromp, slog, stomp, trek, march, stride, sashay, glide, troop, patrol, wander, ramble, tread, prowl, promenade, roam, traipse

Walk: accompany, escort, guide, show, see, usher, take, chaperone, steer, shepherd

Walk: stroll, saunter, amble, promenade; ramble, hike, tramp, march; turn

Walk: gait, step, stride, tread


M: A computer search like an android longing is a striving, an urge (forward?) walking with the possibility of encounters and experiences in need of interpreting, a dog pointing for the hunter. Interpretation by means of imagining the characters and places in the scenes versus, and, imagining new characters in order to understand and tell the represented story.

This fake lumberjack walking in the woods, touching barks like reactive screens, waiting for movement, waiting for sensation. If scratching with sharp objects doesn’t make any movement we can always start rubbing to get an impression. Save it for later: (art is saving) or giving/sharing.


S: But, do not love it. (Love is squandering). Rather, use its memory (impression) for guidance. Influence gained in rubbing, fluidly washes over each of us as waves and ripples.


M: (how is love squandering, this still confuses me) Did you ever go pool hopping? Puddle Jumping? Youre kinda doing some pool paintings now. Not like Hockney though.


S: Plenty of puddle jumping but no pool hopping. A pool of water accumulates a low point. Its true, Ive been painting pools, but maybe theyre more like puddles. The paint gathers in the interior of the canvas, revealing its elastic center.        


M: I remember sometimes when it would rain, all these worms would come out trying to breath and slime all over the macadam getting run over and stepped on. Chased out of their homes. Not looking for anything to bring home. No domesticity. Shivering out our trembles tremor like giant worms hungry to become they become the prey of terrified bystanders and earthquake enthusiasts. Shaking worms are ripped in half and consumed. We are full with one another like (a) snake(s) eating our tail(s).


S: There is an image, but rather than snakes, imagine a whole group of dancers on a dance floor, spinning, flowing garments, all getting dizzy, enraptured in their motions, occasionally bumping, and then falling over due to exhaustion, each folding over the other. Flattening out. Cezanne: All things loved equally. All aspects intermarried and treated the same. Compassion for even the quotidian sheet or spoon. All things possess beauty but because he is the only one doing it. SOUL.


M: I dont understand this. WTF is SOUL?


S: Even this tablecloth has its own peculiar soul…” (Pg. 137) Does each fruit have an individual soul? And because the fruits are all on the same tablecloth, do they share a soul? Well it must be so. “…make(ing) unintelligible the obvious…” (Pg. 138) The intermarriage of everything is a way of saying that it is all related and beautifulincluding violence. Social Darwinism in the form of an omnivore. ““He ate fruits and studied them with equal pleasure; he enjoyed the taste of ham just as much as its form and color, which he called wonderful,and its presence, which he called phenomenal.”” (Pg. 141) We are intolerant of nature, intolerant of the porous movement between things, between boundaries and membranes. We prefer lines that divide. But Cezanne blurs edges and space, equally. Morality is fabricated through instinctual contortions formed through renaming obstructions and reactions to phenomenon.


M: Yeah, so society, or culture, is about taming nature, look at farming, laws, and morality. But navigating a social realm can be an extension of nature. In reference to Mrs. Cezannes relations with her husband, Bobbi, says what allows us humanity is our tact. (Pg.138)


S: Like us attempting to control urges better and write something in a new script or add in the line.


M: Add in is like infiltrating and changing from within, like a virus, possibly, or a person. But what if  instead of entering home or body one keeps moving? Never really at home in place or body, they keep walking? If we are they, are we homeless? Is the worldweb includedour home? Whats reflecting?


S: Dont look in the mirror! Its awful! How pale were becoming! And yet we see artistic possibility, even a masochistic delight, in our pallor. In de Pictura from 1435, Leon Battista Alberti speculated that the first artist was Narcissus. The tale of a character who turned away from the world, favoring instead a pool of water that mirrored a self and a sky above. The artist seeks the world not as it is, but as it appears.   


M: In that story, Narcissus was outside in the world but away from society – not locked in a room web. Youre getting pretty thin. Do you find the picture ugly?(Pg. 42) or merely natural? Harsh and beautiful, like Walser describes van Goghs LArlésienne?



S: What makes em sick? Is it really sickening?


M: It is not sick at all; it is change. Bobbi is curvy and firm. Like a tree that grows around a fence in contortions of expansion. The painter comments on “…how much concentrated Naturea picture holds.(Pg. 18) Like a prolonged exposure or a tree which has absorbed an obstruction through a fluid contortion. The picture is a blob. Watch out because if you stand or stare too long it may get you. You may enter in or it may surround you, becoming another layer of us. The Dream: like Russian Dolls, dividing and reproducing like actual organisms or atoms. But wait, we are not another layer, we are integrated as one strong blobby Bobbi, burning like wild fire.