I forgot to tell you why I love him. I forgot to tell you why I’m tempted to read that book I found at the failing used bookstore in Sugarhouse. I forgot to tell you why I handed the tired and grieving owner my last three dollars. I love Somerset Maugham because he taught me how to love Impressionist art.
Before I read Of Human Bondage, I couldn’t make sense of it. Impressionist art seemed like the sort of thing that artists without talent resorted to. I’m not talking about Abstract art, with its Jackson Pollack squiggles of paint. I’m not talking about Surrealist art, with its Salvador Dali melting watches. I’m not even talking about Cubism art, with its Pablo Picasso double noses. These are also art movements that I had relegated to the home of incompetence, some of which I have learned to love and others I have just learned to tolerate. I’m talking about Impressionist art, where the picture is told in globs of paint on huge canvases. It’s like looking at the world without my glasses. Why would anyone paint that?
Of Human Bondage follows Philip, a failed artist turned medical student, on the journey of his early life. It is Philip’s sojourn in Paris and his burning desire to be an artist that helped me appreciate the artwork of the Impressionists. On my last visit to San Francisco a few years ago, I visited the museums and was lucky enough to see a Monet. I remembered Philip’s pride at showing the artwork of Paris to his friend, Hayward. I imagined him at my side, telling me why this painting is brilliant and why everything else in the museum isn’t worth seeing. The painting became dear to me because of a well-written story.
Now there is a whole classification of art that I can enjoy that I couldn’t enjoy before. Because the artists were referred to so often in that damned and haunting story, their paintings are dear to me. I still can’t appreciate them for the artistic ability. It may be that he is right and only a painter can judge a painting.