Saturday, November 1st, 2008

Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to “In Search of Lost Time” by Eric Karpeles

Thomas Couture Romans during the Decadence 1847 oil on canvas, 186 x 304 inches Paris, Musée d'Orsay © photo RMN, Hervé Lewandowski
Thomas Couture, Romans during the Decadence 1847 oil on canvas, 186 x 304 inches Paris, Musée d'Orsay © photo RMN, Hervé Lewandowski

Thanks to the very fully annotated correspondence, in 38 volumes, we know a great deal about Marcel Proust’s tastes in visual art. When young he frequented the Louvre, went to the Low Countries and, under the spell of John Ruskin, traveled to see France’s medieval churches. He devoted long essays to Gustave Moreau and Monet, and admired a host of minor painters, including Jacques-Emile Blanche and Paul Helleu. And so In Search of Lost Time reveals a sophisticated visual culture. The greatest scene devoted to painting describes in considerable detail the hero’s studio visit with an imaginary artist Elstir, including a very full account of his masterpiece, Harbor at Carquethuit, a picture that has been linked to Degas, Renoir, Ruskin’s drawings, Vuillard, and Whistler. But by the time he was writing his masterpiece, Proust had lost touch with the art world. He met Picasso, but never encountered the pictures of Seurat or Matisse, who realized Elstir’s ambition to do a seashore painting of modern life.

The Search mentions, Karpeles notes, more than one hundred visual artists, most of them old masters. How does this knowledge enter into the novel: in Swann’s obsessive comparison of people and scenes with paintings, in the descriptions of Elstir’s imaginary paintings, in some more general way? What does it mean to say, as the author does, that “writing was the way Proust painted”  (p. 20)? This lavishly illustrated book, with splendid color illustrations in a very reasonably priced volume, matches Proust’s reference to paintings and sculptures, sometimes including the exact picture discussed, though often only a relevant example. Any reader of the Search will enjoy having Paintings in Proust at hand to see Proust’s account of Elstir’s imaginary Bundle of Asparagus illustrated by Manet’s 1880 painting with that title and the passage that alludes to Frans Hals’s The Women Regents of the Old Men’s Almshouses accompanied by that picture.

But what is missing is an explanation of how Proust used these sources. Traditional commentators — George Painter is the most influential —  argue that the Search reproduces the people, places and also art it describes in literal ways.  Thanks to Joshua Landy’sPhilosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (2004), we can now understand why this approach is unsatisfactory. Proust was a creative writer, not someone who copied literally from reality. And so when, for example, his narrator compares departing from a train station to the crucifixion, surely something odd is going on, which cannot really be explained, as Karpeles proposes, by reproducing a Veronese Crucifixion. And when the Baron de Charlus compared people who rush to Thomas Couture’s philosophers, presenting that painter’s Romans of the Decadence doesn’t really help us understand the narrative. Being reminded that Albertine’s gown was Tiepolo pink, are we instructed by juxtaposition of Tiepolo’s pink The Triumph of Zephyr and Flora? Karpeles’s beautiful book responds to Proust’s novel in an oddly mechanical way.

Eric Karpeles, Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to “In Search of Lost Time”
London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. 352 pp. $45 (cloth) (ISBN 978-0-500-23854-7)