on Walser and the Visual Arts

Sam Jones: What is it about Walser, do you think, that speaks so powerfully to artists?

Tom Whalen: An image, a rhythm, a setting, a philosophical conundrum—I imagine anything out of Walser might make one reach for a brush and palette. A sense of kinship can also be a prime mover. It's easy to like a writer who reminds us simultaneously of our insignificance and the importance of the same. Walser expressed his gratitude to those writers who had the kindness to say yes to him and we in turn express ours to Walser by drawing from his generosity, following the turn, say, of one of his paradoxes, or wandering with him into one of his land- or snow- or dreamscapes. How quickly he can shift tones and perspectives, shuffle space and time. The shape and trajectory of Walser's motion, the improvisatory aspect of some of his prose—these in particular interest me when I write or paint with Walser in mind. The Brothers Quay recreate the liminal quality of the Benjamenta Institute in their feature film based on Jakob von Gunten. Walser's ability to affect a childlike ingenuousness ("The origin of art is the nursery"— Paul Klee) can also be a visual stimulant, as can his outsider status, opening conceptual doors for some, for others narrative ones. Several artists have been enticed by the official photos taken of Walser lying dead in the snow, after suffering a heart attack while on a Christmas Day walk outside the asylum grounds above Herisau. And so have several creative and critical writers. (See, for one example of the latter, Walter Keutel's essay "In Pursuit of Invisible Tracks: Photographs of a Dead Author" (German Critique 50, 1990). A certain necrophilic engagement, however, can ensue when a corpse becomes an icon.

SJ: In explaining Walser's relevance to him, artist Thomas Hirschhorn has remarked that "He was interested in little things and treated every element with equal relevance." Does that remark resonate with you?

TW: Walser examined and exalted the small, yes, but despite Jakob's "As in small things, so in big ones" (and, like a good feuilletonist, Walser is as likely to write about a penny dreadful or a cabaret performance as a painting or great novel), we should be careful in saying he gave equal weight to everything, which is how, in their different ways, depressives and paranoiacs see the world.

SJ: Discussions of art and Walser might begin with his brother Karl, who was close to Walser in age and no doubt influenced him greatly. In Berlin, he also provided Robert entrée into a community of artists that included members of the Berlin Sezession. Supposedly Robert worked for a while as an assistant at Sezession gallery. Are there elements of that world that you see in Walser's work?

TW: Yes, living and working alongside his painter brother can't help but to have influenced Robert. Professor [Tamara] Evans has written well about Walser's relationship to the artists associated with the Berliner Sezession in her essay "Robert Walser: Writing Painting" in Robert Walser and the Visual Arts edited by Professor Evans (CUNY, 1996).

Two notes that might be of interest regarding Walser and the Berliner Sezession:

1) In the introductory essay in the "Robert Walser Number" of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (1992), Susan Bernofsky and I, as an example of Walser's not altogether appropriate work as a secretary at the Sezession, quote from a "business letter" Walser wrote to Walter Rathenau in 1907, asking him if he "would be so good as to let us know when it would be possible for you to drop by so as to purchase something from us. Won't you please do this? We hope you won't be angry with us for reminding you of your promise to buy an E. R. Weiss. We've already taken the Sezession's percentage into account, i.e., the profit has already been used up (drunk). Isn't this fabulous weather we're having?"

2) Of Theodor, Walser's lost novel from 1921-22 based on his Berlin years and his experiences working for the director of the Sezession, Paul Cassirer, we have a 25-page fragment, which begins:

The cigarettes come from Reinhold, this genius of a businessman. He motioned to the box with a sideward glance. Instead of only taking one, I took two handfuls, which impressed him, even though from time to time he might complain about me. Let him. The main thing is that he believes he can use me.

Will I disappoint him? Well, that depends. If he demands what I cannot carry out, then we're both guilty or not guilty. A master must be smart in his way, as a servant in his.

—(tr. by Annette Wiesner and TW, from my essay "Beneficent Irrelevancies: Robert Walser and The Robber," The Hollins Critic, 2003)

SJ: There are also the artists Walser mentions in his prose pieces: I can think offhand of Watteau, El Greco, Goya, Beardsley, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Cézanne.

TW: As Professor Evans has noted in her essay "Robert Walser: Writing Painting," several of the artists on the list above were promoted by the Berliner Sezession; her essay traces the development of Walser's writing on artists, from seemingly straightforward description to his later, more arabesque flights. Perhaps my favorite of the former is "The Old Fountain," in Masquerade and Other Stories, a late Biel piece wherein Walser describes and meditates on a statue in Biel's Altstadt. After working on a translation of "Der Alte Brunnen" one summer in Buffalo, I had a pleasant shock of recognition when a summer or two later I turned a corner in Biel and saw it standing there as real as it had upon the page.

Equally fascinating are those moments in Walser's work when he fuses writing to painting, almost creating some other form of art, a sort of camera-stylo prose, say, as in this sentence from "I would like to be standing," a microscript text from 1927: "Perhaps, on that occasion, lisping in this tree or that, this or that solitary leaf was unwittingly, inconspicuously, and wonderfully illustrating the meaning of existence, and now I doubtless make an unquestionably lovely assertion, if not perhaps even a grand one, the first of which would permit me to say that from the clouds, which resembled curiously huge couches and resting places, gods and goddesses at their repose gazed down upon this desolation of a landscape" (Speaking to the Rose). Or the ending of "A Village Tale" (translated, as was the above, by Christopher Middleton): "A stork flew through the azure air high over the village drama, bearing in its beak a baby. Wafted by a slight wind, the leaves whispered. Like an etching it all looked, anything but natural" (Selected Stories). In passages like these, Walser's nonrepresentational prose "creates," as Christopher Middleton noted fifty years ago in his essay "The Picture of Nobody," "its own proportions, its own world of imaginative forms."

SJ: We can also talk about his microscript manuscripts, which are probably works of art in themselves.

TW: For an excellent discussion of this aspect of the microscripts, see Werner Morlang's "'Small Is Beautiful': The Aesthetic Implications of Walser's Pencil Method" in Robert Walser and the Visual Arts and his "Singular Bliss of the Pencil Method: On the Microscripts" in the "Robert Walser Number" of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. In the latter essay, Werner notes that the decrease in size of the pencil writing from 2 mm to 1 mm in height, was consistent with the inconspicuousness which "had always been part of Walser's aesthetic program." Sebald, in his essay on Walser, "Le Promeneur solitaire," from Logis in einem Landhaus (Carl Hanser Verlag, 1998) mentions the second-handness of the Mikrogramme: "Even the paper he wrote on was second-hand."

One of my interests in the Mikrogramme has been along the lines of their tactility, where the words seem to impress themselves on the world that has become the page. In a passage from the microscript novel The Robber he minutely pencils: "Outstandingly courageous, what I'm saying here, don't you think? The paper's taking it well, but whether the reader will, not to mention the average reader, is another matter."

SJ: Finally, there are the various artists who have been associated with him in the adaptation of their art to Walser's books, such as the book cover illustrations created by his brother Karl, and in contemporary editions, cover art adapted from the works of Adolf Wölfli and Felix Vallotton. As a reader, I feel they inflect our experience of Walser in different ways, Wölfli perhaps highlighting Walser as the outsider, Vallotton emphasizing the current of gravity and seriousness that underlies (I think) even the most playful of Walser's works. Perhaps they are chosen because they are Swiss—are there connections to Swiss art in particular in Walser, do you think?

TW: Susan Bernofsky knows more about how a detail from Adolf Wölfli's "Arnica Flower" came to be used on the cover of Masquerade and Other Stories, but what I recall is that someone (the book's designer?) at Johns Hopkins University Press had recently come across Wölfli's work and made the Swiss connection (and the Waldau Clinic connection? Wölfli died in Waldau in 1930; Walser's stay was from 1929-33). Of course some of the Walser gang back in Switzerland were not pleased to see Walser associated with this madman and serial sexual abuser of children. Wölfli, Julio Cortázar said in his essay "I Could Dance This Chair, Said Isadora," "made life miserable for all God's children until one day it occurred to a psychiatrist to offer this chimpanzee a banana in the form of colored pencils and sheets of paper" (Around the World in Eighty Days, North Point, 1986).

Still if one tilts one's head a little, one can see some connection between Wölfli and Walser, for example an extreme formality that allows for imaginative freedom. Sanford Schwartz has noted that Wölfli's work "often has to do with travel and movement [that] connote endlessly alluring yet destinationless voyaging" ("A Track All His Own," The New York Review, April 12, 2007). And there's the little masked face, Wölfli's usual stand-in for his huge, bulking self, at the center of the "flower," that one can connect with Walser's child mask (art thrives on masks).

The image on the book is naïve, strange, mysterious, ordered, delightful and a little frightening. I guess those are the main reasons Wölfli's art is on the cover of Masquerade.

The Swiss artist most often associated with Walser, of course, is his contemporary Paul Klee. In her essay "'A Paul Klee in Prose': Design, Space, and Time in the Work of Robert Walser" (The German Quarterly, 1984), Tamara Evans analyses closely the affinities between these two artists, noting how both in a sense "set out to structure motion, which is to say time," and she gives close readings to two late drawings by Klee and two early poems by Walser ("Und ging" and "Ein Landschäftchen"), showing how they "are studies in structural as well as semantic antitheses and ambiguities." She also notes the importance of nonrepresentationality in their work. In her essay, "'Am awake and lie yet in deep sleep': Robert Walser and Modern Perception" (in Mark Harman's Robert Walser Rediscovered, University Press of New England, 1985), Professor Evans mentions another affinity between Klee and Walser that appeals to me. "Klee's strange, primordial creatures," she says, "belong in that world-in-between as do some of the figures that Walser's characters, who fade in and out of varied states of consciousness, come up against at all hours of the day." I also find that reading Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook and his other writings on art alongside Walser's work can strike up interesting conversations between these two anything-but-naïve Swiss masters.

Have a thought to share on this post? Head over to our Walser Discussion Forum and add your comment!