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  • Books: We'll Always Have Paris

    By: Anna Fiutek and John Dorfman

    Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to In Search of Lost Time
    By Eric Karpeles
    Thames & Hudson, $45

    One might think that Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (formerly known in English as Remembrance of Things Past) has by now been analyzed from every possible angle—psychoanalysis, homosexuality, fashion, French cuisine. The essayist Alain de Botton has even written a tongue-in-cheek self-help book calledHow Proust Can Change Your Life. It is hard to believe that a work about Proust and art is coming out only now. Eric Karpeles’ lavishly illustrated volume certainly belongs to the category of coffee-table books, but the guest leafing through it might be so absorbed as to miss the aperitif.

    Karpeles, a painter himself, observes that Proust’s multivolume novel mentions more than 100 artists, many of whom are not household names even for the most cultured readers. The pictures reproduced in Paintings in Proust span seven centuries of European art, from Giotto to Picasso, including works by painters now forgotten but highly regarded in Proust’s time. Who today has heard of Maxime Dethomas, Gustave Jacquet or Jehan-Georges Vibert? Karpeles deserves credit for reminding us of the very existence of these celebrities of the Parisian Belle Epoque salons.

    His book matches excerpts from Proust’s work in which paintings play some role with the corresponding artworks. For example, Proust compares Charles Swann, one of his novel’s principal characters, with one of the elderly figures in Bernardino Luini’sAdoration of the Magi. It is a pleasure to discover a reproduction of this fresco (in the Louvre), which to the great majority of readers is familiar only from Proust’s description. However, most of Proust’s art references are more ambiguous, and instead of filling in the gaps in the reader’s visual imagination, the illustrations Karpeles chose constrain it. When Proust evokes the moonlight “copying the art of Hubert Robert” or compares a beautiful 17-year-old Venetian girl with a Titian masterpiece, a single reproduction of the painter’s work is misleading. More often than not, Proust’s associations cannot be traced to a specific work of art. In order to understand the parallel he makes between Parisian high society and the Venetian aristocracy portrayed by Carpaccio and Veronese, one needs to be reminded of many pictures of great Venetians that the novelist saw and digested.

    Proust usually wrote about pictures that he had seen in the original, but sometimes he mentioned works that he knew only from contemporary copies or reproductions. In the novel, Proust’s room is decorated with pictures of beautiful landscapes and monuments that were given to him by his grandmother. Instead of mechanically reproduced photographs of the famous views, she preferred reproductions of paintings, such as Corot’s view of Chartres or Turner’s of Vesuvius. Swann, instead of a picture of his beloved Odette, keeps on his desk a picture postcard of a beautiful girl painted by Botticelli. In fact, his passion for Odette was ignited by the resemblance that he discovered between her and the girl in the fresco. Love is mediated by a picture, or rather by a poor reproduction of a picture.

    It is good to keep in mind the great number of paintings described by Proust that Karpeles could not reproduce in his book, because they are fictional. The painter Elstir is a product of Proust’s imagination, despite the connection of his work to that of Moreau, Degas, Turner and Monet. Eugène Carrière did not paint the portrait of Madame de Guermantes that Robert de Saint-Loup described in the novel and compared with the works of Whistler and Velásquez. Karpeles’ book reveals that even real paintings become fictionalized when described by a great writer. Swann enjoyed comparing the features of figures in paintings with those of various people he knew. In the notes of Karpeles’ book we find that Proust himself enjoyed this game.

    Karpeles’ compendium is well written and worth reading—even for those who are not Proust fanatics—as an evocation of a milieu so art-obsessed that Swann would wear a certain scarf because it reminded him of the one worn by the Virgin in Botticelli’sMadonna of the Magnificat.

    —Anna Fiutek

    Doisneau: Portraits of the Artists
    By Robert Doisneau
    Rizzoli, $65

    Robert Doisneau is best remembered as a photographer of the street, a flaneur in lightly rose-tinted glasses who cast a romantic glamour over his beloved Paris. Everyone knows his image of a young couple locked in a Gallically passionate kiss, indifferent to the traffic surging all around them. But Doisneau had an indoor side, too, as revealed in this book of portraits of artists made in their natural habitat—the studio.

    The Parisian world of studios and ateliers was quite familiar to Doisneau, who had apprenticed as a lithographer and engraver before turning to the camera. Later he worked as an assistant to André Vigneau, a photographer who made extra money constructing mannequins for department store windows. Doisneau loved hanging out with artists, watching them work; it reinforced his sense that Paris’ painters, sculptors and printmakers, celebrated and humble alike, formed a genuine community. As Antoine de Baecque writes in the foreward to Doisneau: Portraits of the Artists, “For Doisneau, the studio wasn’t just a place of creativity and work, where he could hone his way of looking at things, but it also seemed to have the same effect on him as a spa vacation.” And, ever loyal to his working-class roots, Doisneau liked the studio because it reminds us that creating art is work, done with the hands. Over and over, his portraits reveal the artist as a worker, a craftsman with tools.

    In rich black and white, we see Jean Dubuffet dressed in a white jumpsuit like a manual laborer, resting his arm on his easel, surrounded by canvases and paints; Serge Poliakoff in a heavy paint-splattered apron; Georges Braque painting while wearing an eyeshade like that of an old-fashioned clerk; Roberto Matta peering out of a forest of lightbulbs; and the Cubist teacher André Lhote surrounded by students and their easels, observed from above.

    Though the photographs were mainly taken from the 1940s through ’60s, not all the artists belong to the mainstream of modernism. Here we have the aristocratic André Dunoyer de Segonzac, who, in the words of the accompanying text, “was fairly indifferent to the contemporary aesthetic revolutions taking place,” and the sculptor Richard Guino carving Christ on the cross with the devout intensity of a medieval craftsman. Many of the artists are hardly household names, and some are downright obscure. Maurice Duval, whom Doisneau photographed in a garret resembling a prison cell, found his paints in the public trash bins of the city and washed his canvas clean in the Seine every night.

    Not only do the photographs constitute a documentary of the art-life of Paris at mid-century; they are also beautiful. They are accompanied by reminiscences by Doisneau himself, as well as brief biographies of each artist that are unusually well written.

    —John Dorfman

    Author: admin | Publish Date: March 2009

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