Svetlana Alpers: A Life Spent Looking

“This is not art history, and it is not criticism, nor is it some mixture of the two. It is not, in other words, what people expect me to be doing.”—Svetlana Alpers, Roof Life, “1 Beginning”

Svetlana Alpers is one of the most influential art historians of her generation. She has covered the Dutch Golden age painters and other Old Masters with a discerning eye that, as her new book Roof Life reveals, has been trained through an almost religious dedication to observation. The book’s enigmatic title refers to what one discovers looking out from high windows with distant and distinctive views. It is about looking as a way of being. In some moments, the intensity with which Alpers looks out at the world is self-consciously reminiscent Hitchcock’s Rear Window. At others, her observation is turned fixedly inward, detailing the history of her father and grandparents in their journey through the difficulties of early 1900s Europe. Alpers’ book of vignettes from a life dedicated to observation pieces together into a compelling self-portrait.

“Back in the 1970’s I wrote, in a rather earnest tone, about taking time to look. Art History was on my mind: ‘With such a profusion of objects and cultures, with old hierarchies crumbling, how does one justify such an occupation as looking? It is a daunting question.’

The question still stands as I look out from high windows. But so does the interest of looking: the strangeness and the distance of things that the eye takes in.” —Svetlana Alpers, Roof Life, “2 Roof Life”

Anyone who has attempted to draw a still life has experienced the intensity of the gaze required to truly understand what one is looking at. Through the example of Alpers’ life spent looking, the reader is also given a representation of that state of mind experienced during deep observation. Her compulsion to look out from high windows is almost contagious, urging the viewer to let their own eyes wander to the nearest window.


Stay tuned for an excerpt from Roof Life

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