Tess Jaray’s Blue Cupboard
In Tess Jaray’s new book The Blue Cupboard (Royal Academy of Arts, 2014), there is a tantalizing illustration that reproduces the first page of an undated letter written by W.G. Sebald to Jaray, with whom he had collaborated on the 2001 book For Years Now, which paired his brief poems with her artwork. The letter, written on a curiously narrow and long piece of paper, makes me wish for Sebald’s letters to be collected and published one day. Here is my transcription of the visible part of the letter:
Dear Tess, Your letter did not come too soon by any means. I was much amused by your likening the company of the formidable Musil to the sensation of having a large rock in your room. When I first read The Man Without Qualities, in the winter of 1966/67, that was pretty much how I felt about it. There is this anecdote about Musil & Joseph Roth (a great favourite of mine): the two had always studiously avoided each other until one day in a Vienna coffeehouse, a mutual friend brought them together. Well, what do you think, the friend said to Roth afterwards. Well, said Roth, he speaks like an Austrian but he thinks like a German. [Perhaps that explains his intransigence.]
Although Jaray doesn’t mention why she initially raised the subject of Robert Musil, it undoubtedly had to do with Vienna, which is a touchstone for her throughout The Blue Cupboard. As an infant, Jaray and her parents were the only members of her family who managed to flee Vienna, Austria just before the Holocaust began in earnest. Everyone else in the family would eventually perish in concentration camps. For Jaray, the story of her parents life in Vienna, the last minute escape, their new life in England, and her own intense artistic curiosity is embodied in a hand-painted blue cupboard that she inherited from her parents.
It is not just plain blue, but inset with four panels painted with bouquets of flowers – frontal, formal, childlike in their conception of what flowers should look like, and painted in reds, pinks, white and blue, all now faded to that patina that can never be achieved other than over time. The panels are surrounded with garlands, which also wreathe the edges of the cupboard, almost turning it into a painting. A date is written at the top, in decorative Gothic lettering: 1815. But the cupboard is much older than that, and you can see the underpainted date, 1778. if you look carefully against a glancing light.
Her parents acquired the cupboard in Salzburg, on their honeymoon, and they later told her that they paid for it with 100 light bulbs. “I don’t know why my father had 100 light bulbs with him on his honeymoon, but he was like that.” Her father, a serial inventor, remained certain all of his life that one of his many patents would change the family fortunes, though none ever did. Not surprisingly, some of the finest passages are Jaray’s responses to works of art. She writes about the Renaissance painter Rosso Fiorentino, Matisse, Picasso, and more contemporary artists like John Stezaker and Alison Wilding. In an essay on Watteau, Jaray writes:
There is a great difference between looking at a painting and looking at a drawing. Perhaps its like looking at a person dressed in their best clothes, in contrast to how they look when they are wearing nothing. In painting, artists can separate themselves from the world. Colour, and the stuff of paint, are weapons of distancing as well as of enticement, and they are used by artists to give to the world those experiences, thoughts and feelings that they have decided to present. But with a drawing artists are undressed and defenceless. They cannot hide behind a drawing. Drawing is the artist’s connection to the world, a way of reaching out. And it cannot be done without expressing something of the spirit.
In her 2010 book Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, Jaray wrote eloquently about the creative and technical processes involved in her own work, alternating with meditations on the artwork of a wide range of other artists. The Blue Cupboard is, likewise, a painter’s memoir but overlaid with the story of her family. There is a serendipitous structure to The Blue Cupboard, as Jaray weaves her life, her parent’s lives, and the world of art into a single fabric. Along the way, she tosses out brief, but alluring breadcrumbs that made me wish for a full autobiography one day. Jaray writes of foxes (for which she seems to have a fondness), living next door to the singer Amy Winehouse for a spell, staying in the same Tangiers hotel where Matisse stayed and painted in 1912, and her very brief encounter with Samuel Beckett. There is a short video on Vimeo of Jaray reading from The Blue Cupboard, along with a few glimpses of the cupboard itself.