Don’t you wish that every piece of art criticism could begin with a line as specific and disarming as “Take a young man of modest means and artistic inclinations, sitting in his dining room at that banal, dismal moment when the midday meal has just finished and the table is only partly cleared”?
This is how the 24-year-old Marcel Proust opens Chardin and Rembrandt, an unfinished essay (so unfinished that it ends in mid-sentence) written around 1895 and newly published by David Zwirner Books as one of the first two entries in its ekphrasis series, which, according to the Zwirner website, is “specially dedicated to publishing rare, out-of-print, and newly commissioned texts as accessible paperback volumes.”
The books in the series seem designed to slip into your back pocket — slim, spartan, and compact, sporting uniform covers consisting solely of typeface in black or white, with a matching horizontal bar across the top, against a solid color. The other title is Paul Gauguin’s Racontars de rapin, here translated as Ramblings of a Wannabe Painter, but more on that later.
Proust’s essay, gracefully translated by Jennie Feldman, takes the form of an imaginary journey to the Louvre, “through the La Caze room and the gallery of eighteenth-century French painters,” where the author projects himself as a docent attempting to open the eyes of the imaginary “young man of modest means and artistic inclinations” to the work of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, whose canvases transform everyday life — the source of the young man’s “unease and ennui” — into visions of transcendent beauty.
The tactic Proust deploys is a succession of extraordinarily close readings of the paintings, in language so luminous that the text easily embodies the series’ title, ekphrasis, or the translation of visual art into poetry, often through objective description. At first, Proust adopts a metaphysical bent echoing Wordsworth’s famous observation “that poetry […] takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”:
The pleasure you take in [Chardin’s] painting of a room where someone is sewing, or of a pantry, a kitchen, a sideboard, is the same pleasure—seized in passion, detached from the moment, deepened, eternalized—that he took in seeing a sideboard, a kitchen, a pantry, or a room where someone is sewing.
The seductive symmetry of that sentence is just a hint of the verbal pleasures in this book, but the insights are also striking, such as Proust’s admonition to the young man that the above-mentioned “feeling of pleasure was already there in you, unconsciously, at the sight of a humble existence and scenes of still life, otherwise it would not have arisen with you when Chardin, in his brilliant, compelling language, happened to summon it.”
These lines, found on the third page of a 14-page essay, set the tone of the piece, which is not that of a lecture-from-on-high but of a looking-together with a precocious motormouth. The descriptions come fast and furious, with a parade of similes bordering on the overripe, though once in a while one will flash by and stop you in your tracks, such as his account of a partially filleted ray, “tinted with red blood, blue nerves, and white muscle, like the nave of a polychrome cathedral.”
Twelve pages on, the topic abruptly switches to paintings by Rembrandt (“The Philosopher in Mediation,” 1632, and “The Good Samaritan,” c.1650, which was attributed to Rembrandt at the time but is now considered the work of Constantijn Daniel van Renesse) before the essay abruptly ends two pages later. Proust may have intended the section on Rembrandt to have been much longer, but there is no evidence either way. What is manifest, however, is his desire to present Rembrandt as a qualitatively different painter from Chardin. After extolling at length Chardin’s loving embrace of observed reality, he takes a startling leap:
With Rembrandt, reality itself will be overtaken. […] We shall see that objects in themselves are nothing, being hollow orbits whose light is the play of expression […]
In his Afterword, the appropriately named scholar Alain Madeleine-Perdrillat writes that in “the unexpected passage on Rembrandt […] there is a departure that undermines what has come before and may explain why the essay stops short: instead of the object, light itself is seen as the true ‘upholder’ of beauty; the author’s thinking thus moves to the dematerialization of beauty,” and thus enters “the subjective realm [which] will become the author’s chief preoccupation in In Search of Lost Time.”
And it is just this subjectivity, the acknowledgement that art often lies beyond the scope of language, that feels so contemporary. In a remarkable prefiguration of the Barnett Newman quip, “Aesthetics is to artists as ornithology is to birds,” Proust compares a painter listening to “men of letters” talk about art to the astonishment of “a woman who has just given birth to hear a gynecologist describe the physiological process that she, with mysterious strength, has carried through without knowing its nature.”
That new mother would find a kindred spirit in Paul Gauguin, who uses the term “literati,” repeatedly, as a slur. He wrote his Racontars de rapin in 1902, the year before he died, while living in French Polynesia. Donatien Grau, the essay’s editor and translator, tells us in his introduction (“The Last Words of the First Modern Artist”) that “rapin” means “apprentice painter, a term Gauguin uses ironically here.” But “apprentice” implies the intensive acquisition of a skill, while the wince-inducing anachronism “wannabe” connotes wishful thinking and a distinct lack of ambition. Was Gauguin referring to himself, as Grau suggests, “as a striver who has not yet made it,” or as a painter whose ambition exceeded the limits of his own lifetime, ars longa vita brevis?
That’s my only quibble. The translation otherwise brings the flamboyant, abrasive, and highly distractible spirit of Gauguin roaring back to life. A sizable dollop of the text, truth be told, is given over to fin de siècle score-settling, mostly at the expense of critics and academicians, but it is nonetheless a surprise to encounter the Wild One’s sentimental defense of stodgy old Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, or his praise of Camille Pissarro as “a virgin who had many children but remained a virgin despite the seductions of money and power,” or his two-line epigrammatic (if not gnomic) endorsement of Paul Cézanne:
Yes, Rembrandt, apples.
You would think, in light of his fierce engagement with Parisian art world politics, that Gauguin might have left France but France never left him. He hardly mentions his exotic surroundings, except for two memorable moments, one a brief interview with an unreconstructed cannibal, and the other a chance meeting with a blind madwoman in the forest, which left him with an alarming sense of his own otherness, even if its significance doesn’t entirely penetrate his mental shield of Western cultural assumptions.
His foremost concern in writing Racontars de rapin, however, is to enshrine imagination and truth-telling as artistic lodestars, rather than technical finesse and material polish. As Grau points out, Gauguin used “his individuality as an artist to challenge conventions and make art a space for controversy.”
He consistently skewers the Parisian market’s number-one darling at the time, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and tirelessly promotes forward-thinking artists. And for those who traffic in historical relativism, although Gauguin’s world has long since vanished, the artists he supported in his day are the same ones we turn to more than a century later. At the end of the essay, he offers a summary of “the work of the second half of the nineteenth century, [mentioning] a few names among the most important,” and goes on to list everyone from Corot and Courbet to Morisot and Cassatt to Seurat, Bonnard, and van Gogh. Of the 41 artists he cites, 28 are household names and 13 are not.
He concludes his list with, “Many others I forgot,” but quickly acknowledges that there are many more, “arisen since I left [France], whom I don’t know.” And by 1902, there were quite a lot of them.
Gauguin’s art furthered the dematerialization of beauty that Proust discerned in Rembrandt’s use of light by freeing color from form and drawing from realism. His victory lap at the end of the book, which he takes in honor of his fellow avant-gardists, feels deserved, as he declares in his closing words, “most importantly, in recent times, [we] have created freedom for the visual arts. It’s time for me to send you my regards.”