25 November 2012

Dogs I Have Known

 "The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too." - Samuel Butler

The very first time I visited my mother after she had moved to Buffalo, she took me to meet her new favorite painting, Giacomo Balla's painting Dynamism of a Dog, at the Albright-Knox Gallery.  So many colors went into Balla's time-lapse painting.  The longer I looked the less certain I became of my counting abilities.  The four leashes were easy.  It looked like the dachshund had eight tails, but I was never sure about how many feet the woman had.  I don't know whether Balla (1878-1958) had seen the time-lapse photographs taken by Etienne-Jules Morey with his 1882 invention, the chronographic gun, but he probably did.  An avant-garde artist, Balla was a member of the Futurists, a group of Italian artists who made a fetish of movement and speed.  The cropping of the human figure at dog level was certainly due to the influence of photography.  The gentle humor was Balla's own.

Although I have not met Bonnard's little girl with her dog in person, I had a little dog when I was seven years old.  We had our picture taken together in front of a slatted wooden fence, not on a park bench.  When I look at the two of them, I smile.

"I was a dog in my former life, a very good dog,
and, thus, I was promoted to a human being.  I
liked being a dog.  I worked for a poor farmer,
guarding and herding his sheep.  Wolves and
coyotes tried to get past me almost every night.
and not once did I lose a sheep.  The farmer
rewarded me with good food, food from his table.
He may have been poor, but he ate well.  And his
children played with me, when they weren't in
school or working in the field.  I had all the love
any dog could hope for.  When I got old, they got
 a new dog, and I trained him in the tricks of the
trade.   He quickly learned, and the farmer brought
me into the house to live with the family.  L
brought the farmer his slippers ion the morning, as
he was getting old, too.   I was dying slowly, a little
bit at a time.   The farmer knew this and would
bring the new dog in to visit me from time to
time.  The new dog would entertain me with his
flips and flops and nuzzles.  And then one
'morning I just didn't get up.  They gave me a fine
burial down by the stream under a shade tree,
That was the end of my being a dog.  Sometimes I
miss it so I sit by the window and cry.  I live in a
high-rise that looks out at a bunch of other high-
rises.   At my job I work in a cubicle and barely
speak to anyone all day.  This is my reward for
being a good dog.  The human wolves don't even
see me.  They fear me not."
 - The Promotion by James Tate, 2002.

Bonnard's woman in a blue-checked dress with dog is just as much a favorite at the Clark Art Institute as Balla's woman and dog are the Albright-Knox Gallery.  (One handy though unscientific metric is how many versions of the image you can purchase from a museum's gift shop.)  When Sterling and Francine Clark  decided to build a permanent home for their collection of modern French art after World War II, they chose a remote spot in western Massachusetts to protect it from a possible Soviet nuclear attack.  So that is how the ginger-colored French dog came to live in Williamstown.    I include a Bonnard picture from the nearby D'Amour Museum because it shows more clearly certain features that  you may not notice on the internet reproduction of the Clark painting.  Bits of canvas show through the checked pattern of the dress in spite of heavy layers of paint.   Bonnard's preliminary sketchwork is visible through the paint in the woman's scarf and also in the dog's body.  It looks as though the large yellow marigolds in the lower left corner were an afterthought, or perhaps Bonnard just wanted to remind the viewer that this is a painting and a completely charming one to boot.

"Out of the mouths of city dogs
have come some useful truths.
Barks and whines - noise to some -
are fraught with ancient wisdom.

A dog, to share his basic instinct,
will warn, say, of the landlord
at the door to spoil your day.
"Don't open," he barks.  In vain.

When the van is loaded: laptop, mattresses, and microwave,
a wise dog rides in stoic silence
to the new (smaller) apartment

where joyously he soon resumes
his job of watching over rooms."
 - Wisdom Tinged With Joy, Dorothea Tanning, 2006

A suitably Gallic companion  is Roger Grenier's The Difficulty Of Being A Dog (1998, translated from the French by Alice Kaplan, University of Chicago Press: 2000).   A true Frenchman, Grenier begins in metaphysics. "Animals, which don't do anything useless, don't contemplate death." -  Paul Valery.
Grenier, who was active in the Resistance during World War II, is too much of realist not to recognize that what we write about dogs reflects our own desires.

 He quotes Rilke: "It may be that the dog sometimes finds a recompense for its endless adoration in the caresses of a suffering mistress, or in lying on the body of a dead master and licking his hand. Its eyes may then assume the almost human expression of the lion on the Unicorn Tapestry, and it has a brief glimpse of the burdensome existence it is led toward by humans, without pity or remorse." 
 He knows how much dogs give to us.   People who live with dogs have "discovered a haven even safer and more private than their mother's bosom." – Colette Audry 

We reciprocate their devotion in curious ways. Grenier tells us that Marcel Proust took time out from laboring on A La Recherche de temps Perdus to write regular letters to Zadig, the dog who belonged to his lover, Reynaldo Hahn. "My dear Zadig, I love you very much because you are soooo sad and full of love just like me..."

Note: The Promotion by James Tate and Wisdom Tinged With Joy by Dorothea Tanning both appeared originally in the New Yorker.
1. Giacomo Balla - Dynamism Of A Dog, 1912, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo.
2. Pierre Bonnard - Little Girl With Dog, ca. 1929, private collection.
3. Pierre Bonnard - Woman With A Dog, 1891, Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA.
4. Pierre Bonnard - Woman With A dog, no date, Micehle & Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Art, Springfield. MA.


Kerry said...

Thank you Jane. This was delightful. It's fun to read quotes that are new to me, and most of the artwork is new as well.

Hels said...

Agreed totally. We know how much dogs give to us and we reciprocate their devotion as much as we can. I must admit to loving my black labrador more than I love some of my colleagues at work.

Renoir seemed to have a thing for including dogs in his images which were in any case largely about women, children and young adults in social situations. I love his Luncheon of the Boating Party, for example.

Tania said...

Words & works here totally in harmony.

Jane said...

Kerry, glad you liked it. Roger Grenier (b. 1919) is one of those writers who should be more available in translation. You should be able to find "The Difficulty of Being a Dog" No surpise - it's humans). Grenier is also something of an Oulipian (There is a recent piece here about Oupilians).

Timothy Cahill said...

Hi Jane. I've seen the Bonnard at the Clark hundreds of times, literally, but never looked at it as closely or affectionately as you. Now I can't wait to see it again. What fun! Most good paintings get better with this kind of long gazing and careful attention, but Balla's is one of the few that seems to want us to take it in at a glance. The more you look at it, the less it makes sense!

Jane said...

Hels, there's a scientist (you can tell I didn't want to remember him) who wrote recently that dogs don't really like us. They're just good actors. If it's an act, make that a great act. I always believe them.
Your comments about Renoir and dogs make me think it's time get with a copy of "Renoir My Father" by Jean Renoir. Thanks!

Jane said...

Tania, I'm happy that you think there's a harmony here. I really like the two poems I used but they have a darker tone than the images, which are pure happiness.

Jane said...

Tim, the first time (I've only been there twice) that I saw the Bonnard dog at the Clark, there was a description of the techniques Bonnard used in this painting - and there were many. Also, that some critics thought the artist had been sloppy and indecisive here but it didn't look that way to my eyes.
As to Balla, my mother had to leave Taffy-the-dachs/beagle in my care when she moved to Buffalo so I look at the painting now that they are both gone and see them, together. My mother had rescued Taffy from a shelter and Taffy adored her. Whenever my mother left, she was inconsolable, until she came back.

Tamborim Zim said...

I loved Balla painting.

Carlton Hobbs said...

As dog lovers and committed long time dog rescuers we really appreciated your blog. Thank you so much from all at Carlton Hobbs!


Jane said...

You are welcome, Carlton. You may be interested to know a bit more about Taffy.
She was about four years old (and obviously well-trained and previously well-cared for)when she was dumped at the side of the road. The elderly woman who found her and took her in was unable to keep her and that was how Taffy came to be at the Humane Society where she met my mother.
I knew something was up when my mother kept talking about this pathetic little dog with big, melting brown eyes who was so unhappy that she could barely eat. THAT problem was definitively fixed as soon as my mother brought her home.
Whenever my mother had to go away, Taffy would wimper for almost an hour, ears drooping all the while. Her joy when my mother returned was indescribable. Children in the neighborhood vied for the chance to take the little charmer for a walk.
Some scientists think that dogs manipulate us - if they do it must be something we taught them.

Darrell Baschak said...

Jane, I positively love your blog but this essay on dogs really hits home. I have always lived with dogs and currently have two shelties that are my constant companions who keep me healthy and happy. Thanks!