The New Yorker opens the 2009 fiction year with Barnes’ short story about Mr. Wadsworth, not-quite-an-artist, and yet not a non-artist. He paints anything people order: portraits, horses, even windows in bad times. The name evokes Wordsworth and the story gives a funny and serious take on the role of an artist in his community: “Wadsworth was paid to represent waistcoats, not opinions. Of course, it was more complicated than that: to represent the waistcoat, and the wig, and the breeches, was to represent an opinion—indeed, a whole corpus of them. The waistcoat and breeches showed the body beneath, as the wig and hat showed the brain beneath—though, in some cases, it was a pictorial exaggeration to suggest that any brains lay beneath.”
Through the deaf figure of Wadsworth, Barnes asks all the old questions about art, artists, mediocrity, excellence, the nature of reality artists “represent” or perhaps even “present as it is”, the truth in painting, the lie in art, the embellishing that sometimes appears as its opposite, the soft religious flavor in artistry, and what not, but everything seems fresh, light/heavy, intimate and yet often ironic.
What I liked the most is the stress on deafness. You’d think a painter doesn’t need to hear because art is purely visual, but in this story sounds are somehow essential to painting. Perhaps because a painter does not merely re-present reality, not does he simply change it into something more beautiful/uglier. The sound in painting is the secret ingredient, what makes Wadsworth an artist in my eyes or rather ears (I tried reading the story aloud right away as if some invisible muse told me so, sorry if I sound ironic).
He’s also something between a master and a slave, in Hegelian terms. Not quite the one, not quite the other. But he is not the Romantic artist/slave whose work is so magnificent that it gives flavor to an empire, but a local bread winner, which I loved.
I relished “The Limner” like no story in a long time. Read it at The New Yorker web site, and please do comment here if you have a different reading. I’d love to discuss it further.