Saturday, November 1st, 2003

The World of Proust as seen by Paul Nadar

The World of Proust as seen by Paul Nadar
Edited by Anne-Marie Bernard, translated by Susan Wise
MIT Press (2004) $38 hardcover, $21.95 paper

Proust insisted that “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”) was a work of art, not an autobiography, and that his characters were invented rather than drawn from life. He lost credibility on this point instantly, having written in the first person narrative voice and let slip the name “Marcel” once or twice. But his insistence on art was wishful for other reasons.

The family had became prominent at high levels of French government and diplomacy through Adrien Proust’s pioneering work in the field of epidemiology by the time young Marcel decided upon a literary career. After Proust had made his debut into salon society, his popularity and brilliance began to arouse curiosity about his writing. The success of “Swann’s Way” threw his art and his life into high relief; the author’s resistance to queries only inflamed his friends’ antagonism. We don’t care about that now. The World of Proust both revives and settles the matter. It is filled with beautiful photographs of people he knew who had their portraits taken at Paul Nadar’s studio during la Belle Epoque and even after – from the 1880s to the 1930s. Among them are several pictures that Proust himself owned and cherished.

Paul Nadar was the portraitist of the late 19th century, having inherited the studio and archives of his father, the great Gaspard Félix Tournachon Nadar. Nadar, as Nadar père was known, had photographed writers and artists living in Paris during the period 1854 – 1870. He posed the sitter simply, against a plain background. Some say this was due to the fact that photography was still new and following in the tradition of engravings, but Nadar’s approach to life was neither tentative nor traditional. He had started out as a caricaturist during years of bumptious political upheaval and censorship. He dressed in “Republican” red (as in the guillotine, not the Elephants); he flew over Paris in a hot air balloon with his tripod and camera; he could, and would have, trussed up the scene behind his sitters if he’d wanted to. Perhaps its absence gave those who came to him a feeling of more levity than they would have had at a typical carte-de-visite studio. At any rate, radical politics were expressed very differently at the house of Nadar when Paul took over the studio in 1886 after a 16 year apprenticeship under his father.

Paul Nadar Portrait of Adrien Proust 1886
Paul Nadar, Portrait of Adrien Proust 1886
Portrait of Madeleine Lemaire 1891
Portrait of Madeleine Lemaire 1891

Sitters would henceforth wear fancy clothing, hold props, and pose before decorative or contextual backgrounds. Marcel Proust at the tender age of 16 looks out at the camera with his extraordinary eyes, a large white collar and bow-tied cravat around his neck. Emile Zola peers calmly through his pince-nez, hair combed back, dressed in a heavy fur-trimmed coat over a close-fitting vest. His long watch chain drapes conspicuously and one hand is tucked in a trouser pocket. Comte Robert de Montesquiou strikes a pose with a walking stick and expensive top hat. Six portraits of “the Voice of Gold” Sarah Bernhardt, onstage and off, are exquisitely styled to highlight her languid yet arresting presence. Claude Monet took off his hat, trimmed his hair, and wore a dark suit for his portrait. Even in profile his eyes twinkle. Paul Nadar kept the studio going past the turn of the century, and a soft focus portrait of Jean Cocteau from 1930 (back to the simple background) was perhaps the last one he did that was related to Proust’s circle. Proust died in 1922, Nadar in 1939.
Paul Nadar’s widow entrusted the French government with the entire archive of the Nadar studio in 1950. It has taken since then to catalogue one-fifth of the 400,000 glass plates and vintage prints. “The World of Proust as seen by Paul Nadar” is actually based on a 1991 exhibition that took place in Paris at the Hôtel de Sully, near the Place des Vosges.

Anne-Marie Bernard, credited as the editor of The World of Proust, is an authority on the Nadars’ oeuvre, and works within the Photographic Archives Department of the French Ministry of Culture. Bernard sifted the archives to shake out Proust’s characters beginning with the Narrator himself. Each portrait is given a caption stating who the sitter was in real life and what relationship he or she bore to which Proust character(s). Swann is based on one Charles Haas, a dandy whose fame did not exceed his own lifetime. The Princess and Duchess de Guermantes are composites of several women, aristocratic and not so. Bergotte is and is not based on Anatole France, a writer who greatly influenced the young Proust. Monet inspired Elstir for the most part, and Gabriele Fauré’s music probably served as a model for the Vinteuil sonata that figures so prominently. Chapters are organized into broad cateories entitled “Family Intimates;” “Society Life;” “Literature and the Arts;” “The Ballroom & The Stage;” and “Residences.”

The book offers a number of “full frame” or uncropped reproductions that reveal the scene in front of the camera with all of its staging: assistants hike up a curtain; flimsy painted flats tilt; sitters hold in their laps reflective discs to increase the lighting contrast on their features ever so slightly. No apologies are made for wear and tear on the negatives, either. Holes, cracks, staining and other imperfections occasionally appear, which suggests that some new prints were made from existing glass negatives. In his day, Paul Nadar excelled in the controversial practice of retouching. A number of “before” as well as “after” prints were preserved in the archive and have been reproduced in the book to illustrate this technique. The technicalities of Paul Nadar’s photographic studio will certainly exceed most Proust readers’ interest, but in terms of period detail they’re fascinating and will amuse any artist interested in portraiture, its history, and its artifice. Bernard wrote two introductory essays discussing the art of photographic portraiture and retouching. In the back of the book there are notes for the captions, biographical data, a bibliography, and an index. In terms of organization, thoroughness, and clarity, it has a feeling of great completeness.

Nevertheless true Proustians may find this book bittersweet. Unveiling Proust’s characters is both a supreme gratification and a desperate compromise, like telling a secret – a brief sensation of triumph followed by the sadness that comes with betraying a friend. But of all friends, he might have understood this little crime against art. The delight of anticipation (a person he wished to meet, a place he wished to visit) followed by the terrible disappointment of reality was a subject he wrote about at length in the novel. Imagination is continually pitted against the risk of knowing. It’s no surprise, really, that the Narrator would instigate in his readers a desire to know Proust the author and his characters. That desire is at once gratified and destroyed by “The World of Proust as seen by Paul Nadar.”