When I was at Bourges, I had some free time, and so I decided to see some of the city’s smaller, free museums. One was particularly interesting, the Musée Estève, dedicated to the work of a single artist, the painter Maurice Estève (1904-2001). Estève worked primarily as a painter, but also designed textiles. The museum is in a beautiful 15th century building, the Hôtel des Echevins—a setting that really contrasts beautifully with the artist’s abstract modernity.  There’s a virtual tour here.

I’d never hear of Estève before, and I’m so glad that I took the time to explore the museum—they had it arranged roughly chronologically, so that you could watch his style and skills develop. I was struck by much of his work, though two pieces really stood out. One was one of his tapestries, which really reminded me of some of Calder’s work, and the other was a painting that evoked Viking longships, with beautiful curves and colors.

Yet for me, it’s not the art that lingers—instead it’s a different object in the museum—one of the artist’s paint palettes. His habit was to work with truly large wooden palettes set on rolling tables. He used them for years, until the accumulated oil finally made them unusable. The one they have exhibited was used between 1956-1981, and now weighs 14 kilos because of the accumulation of layers of paint.

The idea that you can see the process—the time, the patience, the ideas, the materials—really stopped me in my tracks.

The artist’s work is literally visible here—not just the product, but the work—the misfires, the brushstrokes, the rough drafts, the dabs and drops and scrapes.

And it made me once again think about how intangible the work that my colleagues and I do is. Recently some “CVs of Failure” have caught attention—lists of all of the things that people apply for and don’t get. That’s an interesting way of listing effort (though it’s also been critiqued as a kind of a voicing of a particular kind of privilege), but still doesn’t hit that same level of visibility of labor as this palette did, and it made me start to wonder what, particularly in a digital age, the tracings of intellectual labor are. Keystrokes? Words written, un-written, re-written…..

Famous authors’ drafts and manuscripts help us see their habits of mind, their ways of thinking.  Can computer files ever play that role?

And what about books read? Many of us don’t have physical libraries anymore, either—we have copies of the books that matter most to us, but gone are the days (or the means) of scholars keeping an “archive” of the scholarly works we’ve read… friend recently tossed a bunch of photocopies (we use PDFs now), another tossed her files from her dissertation after a flood. I have all of my primary sources for my current project as PDFs that I can access on my computer or ipad, and I’m typing (and un-typing, and retyping) my slow efforts at translation into a word processor, and all past attempts disappear…..

Bill Cronon tackled many of these issues in his columns for the AHA, particularly this one.

We learn about the cultures of the distant past by tracking their jottings. We make scholarly mountains out of finding marginal notes of scholars in books they read—there’s a whole site, for example, for Melville’s marginalia. But what does it mean that 100 years from now, later scholars won’t have today’s marginalia?

Just some musings…