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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Brown

35. Memory Palaces

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

I know that I promised to take you back to 1888, but we have some breaking news.

The Wildenstein Plattner Institute is celebrating the holidays this year by releasing two more volumes of the Gauguin Catalogue raisonné. They are promising to drop both digitally by the end of December. I have subscribed to all of WPI's social media channels and put myself on their newsletter mailing list, and even so I find myself checking the website once or twice a day to see if the gift has arrived. I remember in about 2002 getting up early on a Saturday morning so that I could stand in line outside a record store to buy tickets to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. There was a line on the sidewalk when I got there. If I could drive somewhere and wait on the sidewalk for WPI to release the new Gauguin catalogue, I would.

As part of the lead up to the release of the catalogue--which, did I mention, is set for this month--WPI released an oral history of Sylvie Crussard. Madame Crussard has worked at Wildenstein since the 1970s and on Gauguin since the early 1980s. Wildenstein's Executive Director, Elizabeth Gorayeb, conducted the interview a few months ago. The interview covers Crussard's career--her work as an assistant on the Monet catalogue raisonné, her glimpses of the earlier generation of researchers and art historians, and her growing expertise over decades in Gauguin's work. I should say that I have corresponded briefly with Sylvie, and she has been kind and generous, more so than she had to be. That's what comes through in the oral history, too. I have conducted enough oral histories myself to be able to recognize the moments when someone decides which story she will tell, and which she will hold back. There were a few of those moments.

Madame Crussard's description of her long relationship with Gauguin's works is striking. The time spent with his letters, photographs, archival materials--many of them now available to us digitally, but not when she was first working with them--has given her a sense of the artist and his work that is palpable. She's fond of him. She has a lot more time for his genius than I do. In the interview she never once casts him as a moocher, for instance. She is impressed by his intellect, his ideas, his experimentation. She even coins a new English word: he was an experimentator. Crussard's knowledge feels deep, a memory palace with levels and rooms and comfortable chairs to sit in when you pull boxes off the shelf to flip through their contents, knowing that the page you need is about two-thirds through, after the old folded Union-Agricole.

It's the kind of knowledge that I covet. I have explained that I was not trained as an art historian so many times, in so many places, that it's become a family joke. My training--the French would say, my formation--was as a historian. And although I have spent all this time immersed in Gauguin and his circle, I am quick to explain that I am not an art historian by formation. As though there is some ineffable magic that comes through sitting in dark lecture halls as an undergraduate, some sprinkling of gilded dust that confers a different sort of knowledge.

Before two minutes of the oral history interview have passed, Sylvie Crussard is explaining that she was not trained as an art historian. She studied political science "which was a mistake," she says, not that she didn't like it; she finished her degree. But the history of art was, for her, "very relaxing." And though she had "no serious degree and no serious qualification" she found a job as a junior researcher at Wildenstein.

That was in the early 1970s. She co-edited the 2002 Gauguin catalogue that I use in these pages. That catalogue takes Gauguin to the end of 1888. The coming publications will cover the rest of his life and work, to 1903. Madame Crussard's volume will detail the Breton years: the years in which Flowers and Fruit may have been created, when Gauguin and Roy worked together, and when Gauguin left a few seasons' worth of paintings with his landlady Marie Henry in place of rent.

Sylvie Crussard has built a reservoir of knowledge that few are privileged to acquire. Think of all of the afternoons she has spent these last forty years comparing letters, comparing handwriting, comparing, dare I use the art historical word, brushstrokes. I hope it's been fun. I suspect it has. I hope she has plenty of stories that she won't let anyone record, that she keeps for her friends. And I hope she has friends who are eager to hear them; I imagine, even, that there are those in Madame Crussard's circle that know nearly as much about Gauguin as she does, just by virtue of having sat together over so many meals. Still, though, the first thing that came to mind to tell her interviewer, on the cusp of releasing a massive scholarly undertaking? That she was not, by formation, an art historian.

There's a poem by A.A. Milne about Edward Bear, the stuffed toy otherwise known as Winnie the Pooh, in which Edward worries that he doesn't get enough exercise and is, therefore, "short and stout." He ruminates over his lack of exercise as he sits in the play room until one evening he looks through an illustrated history for children:

Wherein he came across by chance

The picture of a King of France

(A stoutish man) and, down below,

These words: "King Louis So and So,

Nicknamed 'The Handsome!'" There he sat,

And (think of it!) the man was fat!

Edward Bear is vastly relieved to learn that though he might be stout he might still be handsome. The poem culminates in the bear falling from the window to the sidewalk below where, as it happens, the King of France is strolling by and picks him up. Edward Bear recognizes the King--and the King, in turn, recognizes Edward Bear.

They stood beneath the window there,

The King and Mr Edward Bear,

And, handsome, if a trifle fat,

Talked carelessly of this and that….

We are given to understand that afterwards Edward Bear no longer worries about his lack of exercise, knowing that even the King of France struggles with fitness. I confess to feeling a bit the same about my lack of formation in art history.

I will let you know as soon as the catalogue drops.

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