Following Proust, by Susan Baker

Hanover, NH, Univ. of New England Press, 68 images.
Hardcover, $27.00

Originally published in Cape Arts Review, Vol.1, 2001

Following Proust, the newest artist's book by Susan Baker, coming out in October, takes an inward turn from her most recent and characteristically comic Provincetown Dogs. It reflects a change in thinking about making art for the N. Truro painter and sculptor - less elaborate, more intimate. It comes out of that kind of creative collision that occurs in the artist's imagination when it all comes together in an exciting idea: a growing passion for landscape painting, largely inspired by Mary Hackett, reading Proust, and planning an annual family trip to Europe.

Initially, Baker had in mind a kind of travel memoir, paintings done on site, combined with short travel stories, focusing on the many village churches of Normandy, sites that had intrigued her on an earlier sojourn. This was the plan, she tells us, before she "got involved with Monsieur Proust." Now it was Marcel himself who would guide the tour of Normandy. Thus, this book is more about pilgrimage than travel. It isn't even about Proust. It is about the artist standing where Proust stood, seeing what he saw.

As it turned out, the November weather, the inevitable snags of travel, and the territory to cover interrupted the painting, so Baker took photographs of the sites on her pilgrimage. Once home, Baker painted - all winter she painted "like a mad woman" through this many-layered relationship with the man some think the greatest writer who ever lived. And in a process that echoes Proust's themes of memory, time, creativity and yearning, his intricate succession of associations, Baker photographed the paintings, xeroxed the photos, and then repainted the Xeroxes. So what the viewer/reader of Following Proust experiences is place itself, place recovered through Proust's memory and writing, through Baker's reading of Proust, Baker's viewing of place, Baker's color overlaying place, and ultimately, and most idiosyncratically lovely, a return to one's own connection with Proust. This is the kind of exquisitely excruciating associative pleasure a true devotee loves.

Baker journeyed from Illiers-Combray, a small village two hours southwest of Paris, across the Norman fields to the coast, back to Combray and on to Paris. The book pictures many of the familiar places in Á la recherché du temps perdu (variously known in English as Remembrance of Things Past and In Search of Lost Time), Proust's masterpiece of introspective cultural history and sybaritic immersion into his own wandering consciousness. Baker's closely focused churches, empty village squares, memorial statuary, hotels, a bridge, a surprising pink sky, and the larger vistas of the Paris rooftops and rivers, sometimes enclosed in their own painted frames decorated with gargoyles, are visual touchstones in the vast territory of memory, and, perhaps, stations of the cross. In his lyrical introduction to Following Proust, poet Richard Howard contends that Baker "has made a sequence of sacramental objects which are the consequence of certain spiritual exercises; by which I mean she has done Proust the honor of taking him seriously....the artist has submitted to the spirit." It has charged her work.

With each page of this book, one anticipates the next, as on a return trip to familiar ground after a long absence. What lies ahead? As Proust said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved