Vladimir Nabakov – Venetsianka, or The Fascination of Art , 1924 (La Veneziana)

s del piombio-Dorotea-berlin

Chapter 3

“I  guess  you  liked  that old rake del Piombo’s Venetian lass,” said McGore, releasing a rosy puff  of  smoke  into  the dark.
“Very  much,”  replied  Simpson,  and added, “Of course, I don’t know anything about pictures–”
“All the same, you liked it,”  nodded  McGore.  “Splendid. That’s  the  first  step toward understanding. I, for one, have dedicated my whole life to this.”
“She looks absolutely real,” Simpson said pensively. “It’s enough to make one believe  mysterious  tales  about  portraits coming  to life. I read somewhere that some king descended from a canvas, and, as soon as–”
McGore dissolved in  a  subdued,  brittle  laugh.  “That’s nonsense,  of  course.  But  another phenomenon does occur–the inverse, so to speak.”

Simpson glanced at him. In  the  dark  of  the  night  his
starched  shirt-front bulged like a whitish hump, and the flame
of his cigar,  like  a  ruby  pinecone,  illumined  his  small,
wrinkled  face  from  below.  He had had a lot of wine and was,
apparently, in the mood to talk.

“Here is  what  happens,”  McGore  continued  unhurriedly.
“Instead of inviting a painted figure to step out of its frame,
imagine  someone  managing  to  step  into the picture himself.
Makes you laugh, doesn’t it? And yet I’ve done it many a  time.
I  have had the good fortune of visiting all the art museums of
Europe, from The Hague to Petersburg and from London to Madrid.
When I found a painting I particularly  liked,  I  would  stand
directly in front of it and concentrate all my willpower on one
thought:  to  enter it. It was an eerie sensation, of course. I
felt like the apostle about to  step  off  his  bark  onto  the
water’s surface. But what bliss ensued! Let us say I was facing
a  Flemish  canvas,  with  the  Holy  Family in the foreground,
against a smooth, limpid, landscape.  You  know,  with  a  road
zigzagging  like a white snake, and green hills. Then, finally,
I would take the plunge.  I  broke  free  from  real  life  and
entered the painting. A miraculous sensation! The coolness, the
placid  air  permeated  with wax and incense. I became a living
part of the painting and everything around me came  alive.  The
pilgrims’  silhouettes  on  the  road began to move. The Virgin
Mary was saying something in a rapid Flemish patter.  The  wind
rippled  through  the  conventional  flowers.  The  clouds were
gliding. . . . But the delight did not last long. I  would  get
the  feeling  that  I  was softly congealing, cohering with the
canvas, merging into a film of oil colour. Then I would shut  my
eyes  tight, yank with all my strength, and leap out. There was
a gentle plop, as when you pull your foot out  of  the  mud.  I
would  open my eyes, and find myself lying on the floor beneath
a splendid but lifeless painting.”

Simpson listened with attention  and  embarrassment.  When
McGore  paused,  he  gave a barely perceptible start and looked
around. Everything was as before. Below,  the  garden  breathed
the  darkness,  one could see the dimly lit dining room through
the glass door, and, in  the  distance,  through  another  open
doorway,  a  bright  corner  of  the  parlour with three figures
playing cards. What strange things McGore was saying! .. .

“You understand, don’t you,'” he  continued,  shaking  off
some  scaly  ash,  “that  in another instant the painting would
have sucked me in forever.  I  would  have  vanished  into  its
depths  and lived on in its landscape, or else, grown weak with
terror, and lacking the strength either to return to  the  real
world  or  to  penetrate the new dimension, I would have jelled
into a figure painted on the canvas, like the anachronism Frank
was talking about. Yet, despite the danger, I have  yielded  to
temptation time after time. . . . Oh, my friend, I’ve fallen in
love  with Madonnas! I remember my first infatuation–a Madonna
with an azure corona, by the delicate Raffaello. . .  .  Beyond
her, at a distance, two men stood by a column, calmly chatting.
I  eavesdropped on their conversation–they were discussing the
worth of some dagger. . . . But the most enchanting Madonna  of
all  comes  from the brush of Bernardo Luini. All his creations
contain the quiet and the delicacy of the lake on  whose  shore
he  was  born, Lago Maggiore. The most delicate of masters. His
name even yielded a new adjective,  luinesco.  His  best
Madonna has long, caressingly lowered eyes, and her apparel has
light-blue,  rose-red,  misty-orange tints. A gaseous, rippling
haze encircles her brow, and that of her reddish-haired infant.
He raises a pale apple toward her, she looks at it lowering her
gentle, elongated eyes . . . Luinesque eyes . . .  God,  how  I
kissed them. . . .”

McGore  fell  silent  and  a  dreamy smile tinged his thin
lips, lighted by the cigar’s flame.  Simpson  held  his  breath
and, as before, felt he was slowly gliding off into the night.
“Complications  did  occur,” McGore went on after clearing
his throat. “I got an ache in my  kidneys  after  a  goblet  of
strong  cider that a plump Rubens bacchante once served me, and
I caught such a chill on the foggy, yellow skating rink of  one
of  the Dutchmen that I went on coughing and bringing up phlegm
for a whole month. That’s the kind of thing  that
can happen, Mr. Simpson.”

Chapter 8

He was unaware of how he had got up, gone indoors, and
switched on the lights, bathing Luciani’s canvas in a warm
sheen. The Venetian girl stood half-facing him, alive and
three-dimensional. Her dark eyes gazed into his without the
sparkle, the rosy fabric of her blouse set off with an
unhabitual warmth the dark-hued beauty of her neck and the
delicate creases under her ear. A gently mocking smile was
frozen at the right corner of her expectantly joined lips. Her
long fingers, spread in twos, stretched toward her shoulder,
from which the fur and velvet were about to fall.

And Simpson, with a profound sigh, moved toward her and
effortlessly entered the painting. A marvelous freshness
immediately made his head spin. There was a scent of myrtle and
of wax, with a very faint whiff of lemon. He was standing in a
bare black room of some kind, by a window that opened on
evening, and at his very side stood a real, Venetian,

Maureen–tall, gorgeous,  all  aglow  from within. He realized
that the miracle had happened, and  slowly  moved  toward  her.
With a sidewise smile la Veneziana gently adjusted her fur and,
lowering  her  hand  into her basket, handed him a small lemon.
Without taking his eyes off her now playfully mobile eyes, he
accepted  the  yellow  fruit  from her hand, and, as soon as he
felt its firm, roughish coolness and the dry warmth of her long
fingers, an incredible bliss came to  a  boil  within  him  and
began  deliciously  burbling.  Then, with a start, he looked
behind him toward the window. There, along a  pale  path  amid
some  rocks,  walked  blue  silhouettes  with  hoods  and small
lanterns. Simpson  looked about  the  room  in  which  he  was
standing, but  without  any  awareness  of a floor beneath his
feet. In the distance, instead  of  a  fourth  wall,  a  far,
familiar  hall glimmered like water, with the black island of a
table at its centre It was then that a sudden terror made him
compress  the cold little lemon. The enchantment had dissolved.
He tried looking to his left at the girl but was unable to turn
his neck. He was mired like a fly in honey–he gave a jerk and
got  stuck,  feeling  his  blood and flesh and clothing turning
into paint, growing into the varnish, drying on the canvas.  He
had  become part of the painting, depicted in a ridiculous pose
next to the Veneziana, and, directly in front of him, even more
distinct than before, stretched the  hall,  filled  with  live,
terrestrial air that, henceforth, he would not breathe.

Vladimir Nabakov, 1899-1977
Venetsianka, or The Fascination of Art, 1924 (La Veneziana)

Image: Sebastiano Luciani, called Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547),  Ritratto di giovane romana con cesto di frutta, (La Dorotea), c. 1512. oil on panel. 78 x 61cm, ©Gemäldegalerie Berlin

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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