Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hidden In The Shadow Of The Index

Today’s post is going to be a short update on an earlier post.

But maybe it is something more, too.

Today’s post is an example of a little, weird thing—even a trivial thing—that once I become aware of, I just can’t stop thinking about. Rationally I’m sure there is no “deeper meaning” here, but it is just so weird that I can’t help wondering how this little thing happened or if—in some almost unimaginable way—it is indicative of a larger dynamic.

Okay. Here’s the start.

I posted last week—in ‘Hortense Had Her Adventures’—that I’m reading this book by Ruth Butler: “Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cezanne, Monet and Rodin.”

Well, I picked up the book to read the first section about Hortense Fiquet, Cezanne’s model and wife. And I finished that section. I skimmed through the rest, but I’m not a big fan of Monet, and Rodin makes me sad because he really seemed to have hurt Gwen John and I like Gwen John a lot. So I’m pretty much through with this book.

The section on Hortense was interesting. There were some anecdotes I hadn’t read before, but, mostly, the section was just a summary of Cezanne’s work life with a focus on when and where the portraits of Hortense came into existence. (Cezanne almost never dated his paintings so any chronology is an educated guess.) There simply isn’t a lot known about Hortense.

My favorite part was the story of Hortense having dinner with Renoir’s children and Matisse—after Cezanne’s death—and Hortense says, “You know, Cezanne did not really know what he was doing. He didn’t know how to finish his paintings. Renoir, Monet, they really knew their metier as painters.” Now, of course, everyone knows Hortense and Cezanne had their disagreements. What I liked most about this story is that Matisse didn’t contradict her or correct her! (There’s an old saying: Silence implies consent.) Hmmm. (In fact, Matisse took Hortense’s evaluation of her husband so seriously that in a moment of self-doubt in his old age, he wondered if her assessment might be applied to himself, as well.)

Okay. That’s all as may be. It was interesting but not earth-shaking.

Here’s the thing that grabbed me.

I mentioned last week that this book about model-wives only contained one index reference to Victorine Meurent and no index reference at all to Berthe Morisot, even though the book singles out Manet and a “prototypical” painter of the era.

But in fact the author does mention Berthe Morisot at one point. The author mentions Morisot, but the reference is not included in the index.

In a book about overlooked women, the person who made the index overlooked a reference to Berthe Morisot. And the author didn’t catch it.

Now, that alone would catch my attention. And it would bug me. But I’m a fan of Berthe Morisot so if it were only that Berthe Morisot got left out of the index I would just figure it bugs me because someone I like got slighted.

But there is one other aspect to this index business.

Here is the complete paragraph where the author mentions Berthe Morisot. I’ve highlighted the mention in red:

By January 1874, Paul, Hortense, and their two-year-old son were back on the Left Bank in a small two-story house at 120, rue de Vaugirard, in the Seventh Arrondissement. It may have been the anticipated exhibition of independent artists that lured Cezanne back to Paris. Thirty artists had signed on, including Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Berthe Morisot, and Renoir. The group’s biggest disappointment was Manet’s decision not to participate. Publicly he stated that he believed professional artists should exhibit “only in the Salon.” Monet circulated the idea that his refusal might have been his reluctance to hang his works in the company of Cezanne, for the sophisticated Parisian considered the work by the painter from Provence to be as repugnant as his manner and his appearance.

Okay, that paragraph speaks of six artists: Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Manet and, of course, Berthe Morisot. Five men and one woman. And the Exhibition of Independent Artists was a pretty big deal in all their lives.

This is weird because—as I’m typing this I’m sighing and shaking my head—the index of the book contains entries for all five of the male artists mentioned in that paragraph. And all five of those index entries for the male artists contain a reference to the page containing this paragraph. In fact, for all the men the index breaks out the reference to this page as a sub-head in the index because of the mention of the Exhibition of Independent Artists (the Degas index entry has a reference to the page but not as a sub-head).

Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Renoir and Manet get links. Berthe Morisot gets ignored.

In a book about overlooked women, the one woman who created works on par with all these men gets overlooked by the person making the index.

How does that happen?

Is it simple bumbling by the publisher? It’s Yale University Press!

Or is there a larger dynamic at work here?

Is the prejudice to see history as “made by men” so deeply ingrained that even professionals putting together a book about overlooked women still are so engaged with the male names that they pass over a woman’s name and their professional imperative to catch their own errors does not draw their error to their conscious attention?

I don’t know.

I just shake my head. It’s the 21st century, so we can never discount simple bumbling incompetence. But just knowing that the person preparing the index had to look at this paragraph so many times to pull out the other references—and still missed the Berthe Morisot reference—makes me strongly suspect that there is a psychological dynamic having some impact on this mistake.

I don’t know.

But this is how I’m going to remember this book now. Not by the two or three good stories about Hortense Fiquet. But by this stupid index omission.

And it makes me wonder, a bit, about what other “little” mistakes may get made. And how those little mistakes may add up. And how much of our understanding of the past (and the present?) is colored or outright shaped by psychological dynamics rather than by the actual content of reality.

I don’t know. (I’m shaking my head and sighing and shrugging as I type that.)

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