Marcel Aymé – La Jument verte, 1930, The Green Mare

m-ayme-la-jument-verte

On a certain spring morning there occurred at the Haudouins’ house a notable event of which at the time no one appreciated” the true significance. Mme Haudouin, while seated with her lace-work at the dining-room window, saw a young man enter the yard. He wore a floppy hat and he carried a painter’s paraphernalia on his back.

‘I happened to be passing,’ he said, ‘and so I thought I would ask permission to have a look at your green mare. I should like to see what I can make of her.’

The maidservant showed him the way to the stable. He chucked her under the chin, as was still customary in those days, and she giggled, reminding him that he had come to see the mare.

‘It really is green,’ said the painter, studying it.

Being exceptionally endowed with imaginative sensibility, he thought at first of painting it red, but Haudouin came along while he was still considering the matter.

‘If you want to paint my mare,’ he said with his customary good sense, ‘paint her green. Otherwise no one will recognize her.’

The mare was led out into the pasture and the painter set to work. But in the course of the afternoon Mme Haudouin, passing that way, espied a deserted easel. Investigating the matter further, she was shocked to find the painter helping the maidservant to her feet in the middle of a field of barley which was already grown high. She was justly incensed: the wretched girl ran risk enough of being put in the family way by the master of the house, without going to outsiders. The painter was sent about his business, his canvas was confiscated, and Mme Haudouin resolved to keep a close eye on the servant’s figure. The picture which was destined to perpetuate the memory of the Green Mare was hung above the chirnney-piece in the dining-room, between the portrait of the Emperor and that of Canrobert.

Two years later the mare fell ill, wasted away for a month, and then died. Haudouin’s youngest son was not yet sufficiently instructed in the veterinary science to be able to name the malady that had carried it off. Haudouin scarcely regretted the loss, since the animal had become a nuisance to him. Sightseers had continued to invade his stable, and when one is in politics one cannot refuse to exhibit one’s green mare even to persons of the most trifling consequence.

Chapter 1.

Observations of the Green Mare I

THE artist who painted me was none other than the celebrated Murdoire. In addition to his genius as a painter he was the possessor of a stupendous secret which I shall refrain from making known to the painters of the present day. It is not that I fear to diminish Murdoire’s reputation by doing so; the portraits he left behind, so disturbingly endowed with life, the very landscapes of which it has been said that the shadow of the god Pan may be seen to stir amid their foliage — all these bear witness to the fact that without the genius of the painter mere technical acquirements are as nothing. But artistic snobbishness in these days has in some cases gone so far that I am reluctant to run the risk of starting a vogue for a process that can only be carried out at considerable personal expense.

Suffice it to say, then, that the humours of the spring, the warmth of the earth, the sap of youth, the favours of the servant—girl, all these magical distillations were in a fashion which must remain for ever unrevealed blended in the paint with which Murdoire’s inspired brush depicted the speaking curve of my neck, the eloquence of my lips, the sensitive awareness of my nostrils, and above all the half-human light in my eyes, that mysterious glow of life which lovers, misers, and neurotics have sought ever since to interpret as they peer into the troubled waters of my gaze. He was driven from the farm, poor Murdoire, leaving behind him a masterpiece, and exhausted by his manifold labours he died soon afterwards.

As the Haudouins hung me in the dining-room the artist’s spirit trembled in my milky eyes and ran quivering the length of my green flanks. I was born to the consciousness ofa harsh and desiring world in which my animal nature was enriched by the generous and lofty eroticism of Murdoire. This simulacrum of my flesh was endowed with all the painful yearnings of humanity: the call of pleasure stirred my imagination with heavy and burning dreams, with priapic turmoil. Alas, I was not slow to discover the wretchedness of existing merely as a two-dimensional appearance, or to perceive the vanity of desires lacking all means of fulfilment.

In order to find an outlet for these impulses I obliged myself to divert them along other paths, where they might do service to the contemplative tendency favoured by my immobile state. I concerned myself with the study of my hosts and with reflections upon the spectacle afforded me by the observation of their intimate life. The liveliness of my imagination, the regrets which I could not prevent myself from feeling, and the dual nature, half man and half horse, with which the artist had endowed me – all this made it almost inevitable that my particular interest should dwell upon the love-life of the Haudouins. Whereas the mobile observer is obliged in his contemplation of the world to discover the harmonies of numbers and the secrets of series and permutations, the stationary witness may discern the very habits of life itself. I was, moreover, assisted in my purpose by the subtle powers of intuition which I owe to the brush of Murdoire: however, I shall offer no conclusions that are not based upon what I have seen or heard or deduced at first hand.

Observations of the Green Mare II

THE posthumous renown of Murdoire has led to my appearing in art exhibitions all over Europe. I have thus been able to see for myself how the people in the great cities make love and make ready for love, and I have for them nothing but pity. Whether it preys upon their minds, upon the nobler impulses of their hearts, or, as is most often the case, upon the appropriate regions of their bodies, love to them is no more than a gnat—swarm of desires, a succession of torrnents, a pursuit without end. They are consumed with petty lusts for which they seek solace wherever they go, in the street, in the folds of a skirt, in their dwellings, at the theatre, in the workshop and office, in books, in ink-pots. The ardent lovers and the virtuous husbands and wives imagine themselves to be faithful to a grand passion, stormy or tranquil as the case may be, for an object which changes in aspect, or which simply changes, an incalculable number of times a day. A man will swear that he is in love with a woman, that he knows none more alluring, very much as he might say, ‘It is at So—and—So’s Restaurant that one dines best and most inexpensively.’ He sets out for So—and- So’s fully intending to get there in good time. But should he take the wrong turning and chance upon some other establishment, seeming more attractive, he will very likely not get there at all. And if he does dine at So—and-So’s it will be with a secret regret in his heart for the place that was dearer, the place that was more crowded, the unknown. In the cities there is no true concupiscence, merely a diffused hankering after sexual love, a restless resolve to gratify each least desire. For three weeks, while I took part in an exhibition of Murdoire’s works, I hung opposite a well-known canvas entitled, ‘The Lonely Rider’. It depicted a man passing between two rows of women of all descriptions, beautiful and plain, young and old, fat and thin. He was staring straight in front of him, seeing nothing, his face tense with twinges of suffering and longing and regret, but with his nose still snifing the air, his hands still ready to grasp. In his sombre eyes, witless and despairing, Murdoire had depicted a tiny gleam like a plaintive cry, desiring but without hope: the cry of the Wandering Jew doomed to squander through all eternity the small change of life.

Marcel Aymé, 1902–1967. La Jument verte, 1930, The Green Mare, 1963

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Colette-La Vagabonde,1910

harrison-fisher1875-1934-pastel-portrait

My ex-husband You all know him. He’s Adolphe Taillandy, the pastelist. For twenty years he’s been painting the same feminine portrait: against a cloudy golden background, borrowed from Lévy-Dhurmer, he poses a woman in a low-cut dress whose hair, like a precious padding, forms a halo around a velvety face. The skin at the temples, in the shadow of the neck, on the swelling of the breasts, is iridescent with the same impapable effect of velvet, blue as the velvet of those beautiful grapes which tempt one’s lips:

“Potel and Chabot paint no better than this!” Forain said one day, viewing one of my husband’s pastels.

Aside from his notorious “velvet effect,” I don’t think Adolphe has any talent. But I readily admit that his portraits are irresistible, especially to women.

In the first place, he definitely sees them all as blondes. Even the hair of Madame Guimont-Fautru, that skinny brunette, was adorned by him with red and gold reflections, which he found God knows where and which, spread over her lustreless face and over her nose, turn her into an orgiastic Venetian courtesan.

Tailandy did my portrait too, in the past . . . No one recalls any longer that she’s me, that little Bacchante with a shiny nose, the middle of her face lit by a sunbeam as if she were earing a mother-of-pearl mask, and I still recall my surprise at finding myself so blonde. I also recall the success of that pastel and those which followed it. There were the portraits of Madame de Guimont-Fautru, the Baronne Avelot, Madame de Chalis, Madame Robert-Durand, and the singer Jane Doré; then we come to those, less famous because the sitters are anonymous, of Mademoiselle J.R., Madamoiselle S.S., Madame U., Madame Van O., Mrs F.W., and so on.

Those were the days when, with that cynicism which is characteristic of handsome men, and which suits him so well, Adolphe Taillandy used to proclaim:

“I only want my mistresses as sitters, and only my sitters as mistresses!”

For my part the only genius I found in him was one for telling lies. No other woman, none of his women, can have had my opportunities for guaging, admiring, fearing, and cursing his rage to lie. Adolphe Taillandy lied feverishly, sensuously, tirelessly, almost involuntarily. Fo him adultery was merely one of the ways—and not the most pleasurable—of lying.

He thrived on lying with a power, variety and prodigality that increasing age has failed to exhaust. At the same time that he was perfecting some ingenious treachery, planned ever so carefully and enlivened with all the skill of his masterly cunning, I’d see him squandering his crafty energy on vulgar impositions, needless ones, caddish ones, on childish and all but idiotic fairy tales . . .

I met him, married him, lived with him more than eight years . . . and what do I know of him? That he does pastels and has mistresses.

Colette,1873-1954.             La Vagabonde,1910

Images: Marcel Vertès, b. Ujpest, Hungary 1895–Paris 1961, Portrait of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette.

Harrison Fisher,1875-1934. Pastel Portrait. New York.

 

Xavier de Maistre – Voyage autour de ma chambre, 1794 Voyage Around My Room

x de maistre madame elisabeth vigee lebrun

Chapter 7

Doesn’t that seem clear enough to you? Here’s another example:

One day last summer, I was making my way on foot to court. I had spent the whole morning painting, and my soul, enjoying its meditations on painting, left it to the beast to transport me to the Kings’s Palace.

“What a sublime art is painting!” my soul was thinking. “Happy is the man who has been touched by the spectacle of nature, who is not obliged to paint pictures for a living, and who does not paint merely as a pastime, but is struck by the majesty of a beautiful physiognomy and the admirable play of the light that suffuses the human face with a thousand subtle hues! He attempts to approach in his works the sublime effects of nature. Happy too is the painter whom the love of landscape leads out on solitary excursions, who is able to express on canvas the feeling of melancholy inspired in him by a gloomy wood or a deserted countryside! His productions imitate and reproduce nature; he creates new dark seas and dark caves on which the sun has never shone: at his order, green copses emerge from nothingness, and the blue of the sky is reflected in his pictures; he knows the art of fanning the breezes and making the tempests roar. At other times, he offers to the eye of the bewitched spectator the delightful landscapes of ancient Sicily: you can see panic-stricken nymphs taking flight through the reeds from some satyr in hot pursuit; temples of majestic build raise their proud heads above the sacred forest that encloses them: the imagination loses itself along the silent roads of this ideal country; the blue horizons merge gently into the sky, and the whole landscape, mirrored in the waters of a tranquil river, forms a spectacle that no lagoon can describe.”

As my soul was reflecting thus, the other kept right on going – God knows where! Instead of making its way to court, as it had been ordered to, it drifted away so far leftwards that, by the time my soul had caught up with it, it was already at the door of Mme de Hautcastel, half a mile away from the royal palace.

I will leave it to the reader to imagine what would have happened if the other had entered all by itself the home of such a beautiful lady.

——-

Chapter 10

Don’t get the idea that, instead of keeping my word and giving a description of my journey around my room, I am merely beating about the bush and evading the issue; you’d be quite wrong. No, my journey is really and truly continuing; and while my soul, withdrawing into itself, was in the last chapter exploring the tangled and twisted paths of metaphysics, I was in my armchair, in which I had leant back so that its two front legs were raised two inches above the ground; and by leaning forward, I had imperceptibly come right up to the wall – this is the way I travel when I’m not in any hurry. Here my hand had mechanically taken down the portrait of Mme de Hautcastel, and the other was diverting itself by breathing off the dust with which the portrait was covered. This occupation gave it a tranquil pleasure, and this pleasure communicated itself to my soul, even though the latter was lost in the best plains of the sky. It is worth noting observing in this respect that, when the spirit travels thus through space, it is still attached to the senses by some secret link; as a result, without being distracted from its occupations, it can participate in the joys and pleasures of the other, but if this pleasure increases to a certain degree, or if it is struck by some unexpected sight, the soul immediately reassumes her place as quick as a flash of lightening.

This is just what happened to me as I was cleaning the portrait.

As the cloth wiped the dust away and revealed curls of blond hair, and the garland of roses that crown them, my soul, although far away in the sun to which she had transported herself, felt a slight quiver in her heart, and emphatically shared the pleasure of my heart. This pleasure became less indistinct and more intense when the cloth, in one single sweep, laid bare the gleaning forehead of that enchanting physiognomy; my soul was on the point of leaving the heavens to come and enjoy the spectacle. But if she had been at the Champs- Élysées, or attending a concert of cherubs, she wouldn’t have stayed there for even half a second, when her companion, taking an increasing interest in her work, decided to seize a wet sponge that was handed to her and immediately proceeded to draw it over the eyebrows and the eyes – over the nose – over the cheeks – over the mouth – ah, God! How my heart beats! – over the chin, over the breast: it took no more than a minute; the whole face seemed to be reborn and to emerge from nothingness. My soul came sweeping down from heaven like a falling star; she found the other in a state of enraptured ecstasy, and succeeded in increasing its bliss by sharing it. This strange and unforeseen situation made time and space disappear for me. I existed for a moment in the past, and I grew again, against the order of nature. Yes, here she is, that adored woman, it really is her, I can see her smiling; she’s going to speak, she’s going to tell me she loves me. What a gaze! Come, let me press you to my heart, soul of my life, my second existence! Come and share my exaltation and my happiness! – This moment was brief, but it was ravishing: frigid Reason soon regained control, and in the space of the twinkling of an eye, I grew a whole year older: my heart became cold and frozen, and I found myself on the same level as that host of indifferent people who weigh down the globe.

Xavier de Maistre, 1763-1852            Voyage autour de ma chambre, 1794 Voyage Around My Room. Translation by Andrew Brown. Published by Hesperus Press Ltd, 2004.

The French writer and critic Charles Saint-Beuve, 1805-1869, admired de Maistre’s technique of storytelling by digression, or “manière de confession d’ailleurs”. In the first chapter de Maistre explains the subject of his story “I have undertaken and completed a forty-two day journey around my room. The interesting observations I have made, and the continual pleasure I experienced en route, filled me with the desire to publish it;…” His journey starts at the armchair, observes the pictures on the wall, walks to his desk and concludes by the fire. That is the physical plot of the novella, but the narrative concerns a love affair with a Madame de Hautcastel. The story resulted from an incident in Turin where he was imprisoned for forty-two days in the citadel in Turin following a duel with a Piedmontese officer. De Maistre admired Lawrence Sterne and the absurdity of the inversion of space and time in the Voyage autour de ma chambre is a parody of the traditional travelogue. De Maistre was an army officer and an aristocrat, and also a painter of miniatures and landscapes with a sophisticated understanding of artistic ideas. Inspired by the ideas of Rousseau, his separation of his physical self, the other, and his emotional self, the soul, illustrates how pictures were perceived as sensitive mirrors of emotional states.

Image: Madame Élisabeth, (Élisabeth of France) (Elisabeth-Philippe-Marie-Hélène) 1764-1794, sister of Louis XVI, was guillotined during the French Revolution. Engraving after a painting of Madame Élisabeth, 1782 by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1755–1842, Musée National du Château de Versailles

Édouard Levé – Oeuvres,2002

Oeuvre1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being.
72. The eraser residues of all the students in a fine arts institute are collected for a year and reconstituted into a cube.
84. Photographs catalogue an inventory of destroyed works. Once its destruction is complete, what’s left of a piece is rubble and ashes. Damages are classified by type: fire, flood, submersion, earthquake, shock, fall, collapse, bombardment, assault, vandalism, poor conservation . . .
89. Soap bubbles are blown into a space where the temperature is 100°C. Keeping the shape that the cold surprised them in, they are exhibited in a refrigerated aquarium.
95. An artist creates ten paintings on his fingernails. Those on his left hand are painted with those on his right hand, and vice versa. The exhibit takes place in the home of the viewer. He is given a ten-sided die and asked to throw it. The artist shows him the fingernail corresponding to the number on the die for as he long as the viewer wants. He keeps his other fingernails hidden. The exhibition ends after ten throws of the die. The viewer has a chance of thirty-six out of a hundred million to see all ten nails in the same session.
110. The atelier of Frenhofer, the painter in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, as imagined by four readers, is shown as slideshow projections onto the walls of a room. The readers explain their visual interpretation to an artist, who draws the scene, dutifully complying with each reader’s amendments, in the style of an identikit. These drawings form the basis for the construction of four ateliers that are then photographed, the result showing four real versions of this fictive place.
113. The silhouette of a dog is cut out of a pornographic picture.
142. “POISONWOOD FAIRYLAND” is painted in orange block capitals on canvas woven from flax linen taken from a field peppered with poisonous plants.
143. A labyrinth is painted in skimmed milk on a museum façade is destroyed in bad weather.
179. In an enormous hall lies a valley between two mountainous slopes made out of white Styrofoam. At the far end is a crashed Airbus A 320 made out of kebabs. Smaller parts of the wreck, also made out of kebabs are scattered throughout the valley, making visible the trajectory of the accident. The ensemble is looked upon through a panoramic window piercing the wall.
181. The Aleph. A dull glass sphere floats in the middle of a dark room. Random video images taken from cinema and television archives are projected onto its surface from the inside. Landscapes, houses, animals, automobiles, supermarkets, books, news, images, scenes of family, love, war . . .
212. A naked man, seated on a chair. His testicles are two tiny globes: the one the earth, the other the moon.
228. A misty black ring against a white wall—trace of a motorcycle tailpipe.
238. Places are photographed by their reflections in spit bubbles.
247. The paragraphs of a novel are replaced by black rectangles whose surface area corresponds to the number of letters used in the paragraph. Spaces and line breaks are not counted. The top of each rectangle is aligned with where the corresponding paragraph started. The narrative is reduced to a sequence of geometric paintings.
358. The labels on a sound system—CD, Tape, Tuner, Aux—are replaced with new ones: Love, Break-up, Friendship, Depression.
359. A naked man standing upright is adorned with pockets of colour created by using a syringe to inject ink into the layer of silicone he wears on his skin.
372. The daily sounds made by a family in a house are recorded. The family then moves out and the house is emptied. Only the marks made by their furniture on the floors and walls remain. In each room, the sounds made there while the house was occupied are played back.
378. The paintings in a museum of fine arts are temporarily taken down and replaced by monochrome paintings of identical dimensions. The colour of each monochrome is chosen by a computer that analyses all the brushstrokes of the original painting and comes up with its average colour. With rare exceptions, such as paintings of the sky, or night scenes, the dominant colour is brown.
385. A stream disappears into the earth somewhere in a French park where visitors throw flowers into it. Somewhere in a garden in New Zealand, is a spring where the emerging water contains the same flowers.
449. The letterboxes inside an apartment building bear the names of famous dead writers and artists.
499. A human puddle lies on the floor, halfway between a bearskin and a pool of polyurethane. Head, hands, feet, nipples, genitals, buttocks, elbows, knees, and shoulders poke up here and there out of a shapeless mass of pink silicone.
471. Schopenhauer’s The Art of Being Right is read in the tone of a televised soccer commentary.
512. Museum of the Answering Machine. Chosen at random from the phone book, ten thousand messages left on answering machines are collected. Kept on CD-ROM, they can be consulted using a computer, either by typing in a number between one and ten thousand, or through searching for a keyword corresponding to a type of language or to a word used in the message.
520. A novel is shot with a revolver, resulting in a bullet hole piercing its core. The missing words are found in another copy. A short story called “The Hole” is written, using only these words.
530: A Philip K. Dick story is written in reverse. The last sentence is the first, the second to last is the second, and so on, right up to the first sentence, which is the last.
533. After having published a book describing works he has not brought into being, the author gives public readings. The audience is invited to say the number of the work they wish to have read to them, and the author complies by reading the corresponding description. The reading ends when no one asks him to continue.

Édouard Levé,1965-2007. Oeuvres,2002 Works,2014

Édouard Levé, Oeuvres. Published by P.O.L Editeur, France, 2002.

Édouard Levé, Works. Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2014. Translation by Jan Steyn.

Édouard Levé’s Oeuvres is modular rather than a narrative literature, describing in the style of a formal catalogue, a potential list of 533 conceptual artworks conceived by the author. Many of the ideas appear odd, banal or ridiculous as isolated conceptual artworks, although they are often closely related to contemporary artists’ statements and projects, and verge on satirizing the content of contemporary art. The first project described in this book, 1. A book describes works that the author has conceived but not brought into being is in fact the book Oeuvres. Some ideas were completed by Levé, in the books Amérique and Pornographie. Oeuvres emerges from the Oulipo group and post-1945 French experimental writing.

Gustave Flaubert – Sentimental Education,1869

Arnoux quickly re-entered the dressing-room, rubbed some cosmetic over his moustaches, raised his braces, stretched his straps; and, while he was washing his hands:
“I would require two over the door at two hundred and fifty apiece, in Boucher’s style. Is that understood?”
“Be it so,” said the artist, his face reddening.
“Good! and don’t forget my wife!”
Frederick accompanied Pellerin to the top of the Faubourg Poissonnière, and asked his permission to come to see him sometimes, a favour which was graciously accorded.
Pellerin read every work on æsthetics, in order to find out the true theory of the Beautiful, convinced that, when he had discovered it, he would produce masterpieces. He surrounded himself with every imaginable auxiliary—drawings, plaster-casts, models, engravings; and he kept searching about, eating his heart out. He blamed the weather, his nerves, his studio, went out into the street to find inspiration there, quivered with delight at the thought that he had caught it, then abandoned the work in which he was engaged, and dreamed of another which should be finer. Thus, tormented by the desire for glory, and wasting his days in discussions, believing in a thousand fooleries—in systems, in criticisms, in the importance of a regulation or a reform in the domain of Art—he had at fifty as yet turned out nothing save mere sketches. His robust pride prevented him from experiencing any discouragement, but he was always irritated, and in that state of exaltation, at the same time factitious and natural, which is characteristic of comedians.
On entering his studio one’s attention was directed towards two large pictures, in which the first tones of colour laid on here and there made on the white canvas spots of brown, red, and blue. A network of lines in chalk stretched overhead, like stitches of thread repeated twenty times; it was impossible to understand what it meant. Pellerin explained the subject of these two compositions by pointing out with his thumb the portions that were lacking. The first was intended to represent “The Madness of Nebuchadnezzar,” and the second “The Burning of Rome by Nero.” Frederick admired them.
He admired academies of women with dishevelled hair, landscapes in which trunks of trees, twisted by the storm, abounded, and above all freaks of the pen, imitations from memory of Callot, Rembrandt, or Goya, of which he did not know the models. Pellerin no longer set any value on these works of his youth. He was now all in favour of the grand style; he dogmatised eloquently about Phidias and Winckelmann. The objects around him strengthened the force of his language; one saw a death’s head on a prie-dieu, yataghans, a monk’s habit. Frederick put it on.
When he arrived early, he surprised the artist in his wretched folding-bed, which was hidden from view by a strip of tapestry; for Pellerin went to bed late, being an assiduous frequenter of the theatres. An old woman in tatters attended on him. He dined at a cook-shop, and lived without a mistress. His acquirements, picked up in the most irregular fashion, rendered his paradoxes amusing. His hatred of the vulgar and the “bourgeois” overflowed in sarcasms, marked by a superb lyricism, and he had such religious reverence for the masters that it raised him almost to their level.

Gustave Flaubert, 1821-1880  L’Éducation sentimentale, 1869 Sentimental Education. Chapter 4

Octave Mirbeau – The Diary of a Chambermaid,1900

DG Rossetti Veronica Veronese

Chapter X, November 3rd.

The topic of correctness in society being exhausted, there followed an embarrassing lull in the conversation, which Kimberly broke by telling of his last trip to London.
“Yes,” said he, “I spent in London an intoxicating week; and, ladies, I witnessed a unique thing. I attended a ritual dinner which the great poet, John-Giotto Farfadetti, gave to some friends to celebrate his betrothal to the wife of his dear Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton.”
“How exquisite that must have been!” minced the Countess Fergus.
“You cannot imagine,” answered Kimberly, whose look and gestures, and even the orchid that adorned the button-hole of his coat, expressed the most ardent ecstasy.
And he continued:
“Fancy, my dear friends, in a large hall, whose blue walls, though scarcely blue, are decorated with white peacocks and gold peacocks,—fancy a table of jade, inconceivably and delightfully oval. On the table some cups, in which mauve and yellow bonbons harmonized, and in the centre a basin of pink crystal, filled with kanaka preserves … and nothing more. Draped in long white robes, we slowly passed in turn before the table, and we took, upon the points of our golden knives, a little of these mysterious preserves, which then we carried to our lips … and nothing more.”
“Oh! I find that moving,” sighed the countess, “so moving!”
“You cannot imagine. But the most moving thing—a thing that really transformed this emotion into a painful laceration of our souls—was when Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton sang the poem of the betrothal of his wife and his friend. I know nothing more tragically, more superhumanly beautiful.”
“Oh! I beg of you,” implored the Countess Fergus, “repeat this prodigious poem for our benefit, Kimberly.”
“The poem, alas! I cannot. I can give you only its essence.”
“That’s it, that’s it! The essence.”
In spite of his morals, in which they cut no figure, Kimberly filled women with mad enthusiasm, for his specialty was subtle stories of transgression and of extraordinary sensations. Suddenly a thrill ran round the table, and the flowers themselves, and the jewels on their beds of flesh, and the glasses on the table-cloth, took attitudes in harmony with the state of souls. Charrigaud felt his reason departing. He thought that he had suddenly fallen into a mad-house. Yet, by force of will, he was still able to smile, and say:
“Why, certainly … certainly.”
The butlers finished passing something that resembled a ham, from which, in a flood of yellow cream, cherries poured like red larvæ. As for the Countess Fergus, half swooning, she had already started for extra-terrestrial regions.
Kimberly began:
“Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton and his friend, John-Giotto Farfadetti, were finishing their daily tasks in the studio which they occupied in common. One was the great painter, the other the great poet; the former short and stout, the latter tall and thin; both alike clad in drugget robes, their heads alike adorned with Florentine BONNETS, both alike neurasthenics, for they had, in different bodies, like souls and lily-twin spirits. John-Giotto Farfadetti sang in his verses the marvelous symbols that his friend, Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton, painted on his canvases, so that the glory of the poet was inseparable from that of the painter, and that their works and their immortal geniuses had come to be confounded in one and the same adoration.”
Kimberly stopped for a moment. The silence was religious. Something sacred hovered over the table. He continued:
“The day was nearing its end. A very soft twilight was enveloping the studio in a pallor of fluid and lunar shade. Scarcely could one still distinguish on the mauve walls the long, supple, waving, golden algæ that seemed to move in obedience to the vibration of some deep and magic water. John-Giotto Farfadetti closed the sort of antiphonary on the vellum of which, with a Persian reed, he wrote, or rather engraved, his eternal poems; Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton turned his lyre-shaped easel against a piece of drapery, placed his heart-shaped palette upon a fragile piece of furniture, and the two, facing one another, stretched themselves, with august poses of fatigue, upon a triple row of cushions, of the color of sea-weed.”
“Hum!” said Mme. Tiercelet, with a slightly warning cough.
“No, not at all,” said Kimberly, reassuringly; “it is not what you think.”
And he continued:
“In the centre of the studio, from a marble basin in which the petals of roses were bathing, a violent perfume was rising. And on a little table long-stemmed narcissuses were dying, like souls, in a narrow vase whose neck opened into the calyx of a lily, strangely green and distorted.”
“Impossible to forget,” said the countess, in a quivering voice, so low that it could scarcely be heard.
And Kimberly, without stopping, went on with his narration:
“Outside, the street became more silent, because deserted. From the Thames came, muffled by the distance, the distracted voices of sirens, the gasping voices of marine boilers. It was the hour when the two friends, giving themselves over to dreaming, preserved an ineffable silence.”
“Oh! I see them so clearly!” said Madame Tiercelet, in a tone of admiration.
“And that ‘ineffable,’ how evocative it is!” applauded the Countess Fergus, “and so pure!”
Kimberly profited by these flattering interruptions to take a swallow of champagne. Then, feeling that he was listened to with more passionate attention than before, he repeated:
“Preserved an ineffable silence. But on this special evening John-Giotto Farfadetti murmured: ‘I have a poisoned flower in my heart.’ To which Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton answered: ‘This evening a sorrowful bird has been singing in my heart.’ The studio seemed moved by this unusual colloquy. On the mauve wall, which was gradually losing its color, the gold algæ seemed to spread and contract, and to spread and contract again, in harmony with the new rhythms of an unusual undulation, for it is certain that the soul of man communicates to the soul of things its troubles, its passions, its fervors, its transgressions, its life.”
“How true that is!”
This cry, coming from several mouths at once, did not prevent Kimberly from going on with the recital, which thenceforth was to unfold itself amid the silent emotion of his hearers. His voice became even more mysterious.
“This minute of silence was poignant and tragic. ‘Oh! my friend!’ implored John-Giotto Farfadetti, ‘you who have given me everything, you whose soul is so marvelously twin with mine, you must give me something of yourself that I have not yet had, and from the lack of which I am dying.’ ‘Is it, then, my life that you ask?’ said the painter; ‘it is yours; you can take it.’ ‘No, it is not your life; it is more than your life; it is your wife!’ ‘Botticellina!’ cried the poet. ‘Yes, Botticellina; Botticellinetta; flesh of your flesh, the soul of your soul, the dream of your dream, the magic sleep of your sorrows!’ ‘Botticellina! Alas! Alas! It was to be. You have drowned yourself in her, she has drowned herself in you, as in a bottomless lake, beneath the light of the moon. Alas! Alas! It was to be.’ Two tears, phosphorescent in the penumbra, rolled from the eyes of the painter. The poet answered: ‘Listen to me, oh! my friend! I love Botticellina, and Botticellina loves me, and we shall both die of loving one another, and of not daring to tell one another, and of not daring to unite. She and I are two fragments, long ago separated, of one and the same living being, which for perhaps two thousand years have been seeking and calling one another, and which meet at last to-day. Oh! my dear Pinggleton, unknown life has these strange, terrible, and delicious fatalities. Was there ever a more splendid poem than that which we are living to-night?’ But the painter kept on repeating, in a voice more and more sorrowful, this cry: ‘Botticellina! Botticellina!’ He rose from the triple row of cushions upon which he was lying, and walked back and forth in the studio, feverishly. After some minutes of anxious agitation, he said: ‘Botticellina was Mine. Henceforth must she be Thine?’ ‘She shall be Ours!’ replied the poet, imperiously; ‘for God has chosen you to be the point of suture for this severed soul which is She and which is I! If not, Botticellina possesses the magic pearl that dissipates dreams, I the dagger that delivers from corporeal chains. If you refuse, we shall love each other in death.’ And he added, in a deep tone that resounded through the studio like a voice from the abyss: ‘Perhaps it would be better so.’ ‘No,’ cried the painter, ‘you shall live. Botticellina shall be Thine, as she has been Mine. I will tear my flesh to shreds, I will tear my heart from my breast, I will break my head against the wall, but my friend shall be happy. I can suffer. Suffering, too, is voluptuousness, in another form!’ ‘And a voluptuousness more powerful, more bitter, more fierce than any other!’ exclaimed John-Giotto Farfadetti, ecstatically; ‘I envy your fate, do you know? As for me, I really believe that I shall die either of the joy of my love or of the sorrow of my friend. The hour has come. Adieu!’ He rose, like an archangel. At that moment the drapery moved, opening and closing again on an illuminating apparition. It was Botticellina, draped in a flowing robe, of the color of the moonlight. Her floating hair shone around her like artificial fire. In her hand she held a golden key. An ecstasy was on her lips, and the night-sky in her eyes. John-Giotto rushed forward, and disappeared behind the drapery. Then Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton lay down again on the triple row of cushions, of the colour of sea-weed. And, while he buried his nails in his flesh, and while the blood streamed from him as from a fountain, the golden algæ, now scarcely visible, gently quivered upon the wall, which was gradually taking on a coating of darkness. And the heart-shaped palette and the lyre-shaped easel resounded long and long, in nuptial songs.”
For some moments Kimberly was silent; then, while the emotion that prevailed around the table was choking throats and compressing hearts, he concluded:
“And this is why I have dipped the point of my golden knife in the preserves prepared by kanaka virgins in honor of a betrothal more magnificent than any that our century, in its ignorance of beauty, has ever known.”
The dinner was over. They rose from the table in religious silence, but thrilled through and through. In the salon Kimberly was closely surrounded and warmly congratulated. The looks of all the women converged radiantly upon his painted face, surrounding it with a halo of ecstasies.
“Ah! I should so like to have my portrait painted by Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton,” cried Mme. de Rambure; “I would give anything to enjoy such happiness.”
“Alas! Madame,” answered Kimberly, “since the sorrowful and sublime event which I have related, Frederic-Ossian Pinggleton has been unwilling to paint human faces, however charming they may be; he paints only souls.”
“And he is right! I should so like to be painted as a soul!”
“Of what sex?” asked Maurice Fernancourt, in a slightly sarcastic tone, visibly jealous of Kimberly’s success.
The latter said, simply:
“Souls have no sex, my dear Maurice. They have….”
“Hair on their paws,” said Victor Charrigaud, in a very low voice, so as to be heard only by the psychological novelist, to whom he was just then offering a cigar.

Octave Mirbeau,1848-1917

Le Journal d’une femme de chambre,1900 The Diary of a Chambermaid. Chapter X, November 3rd

Image: Dante Gabriel Rossetti,1828-1882 Veronica Veronese,1872. Oil on canvas. 1092 x 889 mm. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935

Translation: Benj. R. Tucker. Octave Mirbeau, A Chambermaid’s Diary. Published by Benj. R. Tucker, New York, 1900. Source: http://www.gutenberg.org

Honoré De Balzac – Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. 1831 The Unknown Masterpiece

P Picasso_Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu 1934

II—CATHERINE LESCAULT

“Come in, come in,” cried the old man. He was radiant with delight. “My work is perfect. I can show her now with pride. Never shall painter, brushes, colours, light, and canvas produce a rival for ‘Catherine Lescault,’ the beautiful courtesan!”

Porbus and Poussin, burning with eager curiosity, hurried into a vast studio. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-size figure of a woman partially draped.

“Oh! never mind that,” said Frenhofer; “that is a rough daub that I made, a study, a pose, it is nothing. These are my failures,” he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.

This scorn for such works of art struck Porbus and Poussin dumb with amazement. They looked round for the picture of which he had spoken, and could not discover it.

“Look here!” said the old man. His hair was disordered, his face aglow with a more than human exaltation, his eyes glittered, he breathed hard like a young lover frenzied by love.

“Aha!” he cried, “you did not expect to see such perfection! You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you can not distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure? Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmosphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not?… Ah! she breathed, I am sure that she breathed! Her breast—ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her? Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. Wait!”

“Do you see anything?” Poussin asked of Porbus.

“No… do you?”

“I see nothing.”

The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns.

“Yes, yes, it is really canvas,” said Frenhofer, who mistook the nature of this minute investigation.

“Look! the canvas is on a stretcher, here is the easel; indeed, here are my colors, my brushes,” and he took up a brush and held it out to them, all unsuspicious of their thought.

“The old lansquenet is laughing at us,” said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. “I can see nothing there but confused masses of colour and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.”

“We are mistaken, look!” said Porbus.

In a corner of the canvas, as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of colour, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town.

“There is a woman beneath,” exclaimed Porbus, calling Poussin’s attention to the coats of paint with which the old artist had overlaid and concealed his work in the quest of perfection.

Both artists turned involuntarily to Frenhofer. They began to have some understanding, vague though it was, of the ecstasy in which he lived.

“He believes it in all good faith,” said Porbus.

“Yes, my friend,” said the old man, rousing himself from his dreams, “it needs faith, faith in art, and you must live for long with your work to produce such a creation. What toil some of those shadows have cost me. Look! there is a faint shadow there upon the cheek beneath the eyes—if you saw that on a human face, it would seem to you that you could never render it with paint. Do you think that that effect has not cost unheard of toil?

“But not only so, dear Porbus. Look closely at my work, and you will understand more clearly what I was saying as to methods of modeling and outline. Look at the high lights on the bosom, and see how by touch on touch, thickly laid on, I have raised the surface so that it catches the light itself and blends it with the lustrous whiteness of the high lights, and how by an opposite process, by flattening the surface of the paint, and leaving no trace of the passage of the brush, I have succeeded in softening the contours of my figures and enveloping them in half-tints until the very idea of drawing, of the means by which the effect is produced, fades away, and the picture has the roundness and relief of nature. Come closer. You will see the manner of working better; at a little distance it can not be seen. There I Just there, it is, I think, very plainly to be seen,” and with the tip of his brush he pointed out a patch of transparent colour to the two painters.

Porbus, laying a hand on the old artist’s shoulder, turned to Poussin with a “Do you know that in him we see a very great painter?”

“He is even more of a poet than a painter,” Poussin answered gravely.

“There,” Porbus continued, as he touched the canvas, “Use the utmost limit of our art on earth.”

“Beyond that point it loses itself in the skies,” said Poussin.

“What joys lie there on this piece of canvas!” exclaimed Porbus.

The old man, deep in his own musings, smiled at the woman he alone beheld, and did not hear.

“But sooner or later he will find out that there is nothing there!” cried Poussin.

“Nothing on my canvas!” said Frenhofer, looking in turn at either painter and at his picture.

“What have you done?” muttered Porbus, turning to Poussin.

The old man clutched the young painter’s arm and said, “Do you see nothing? clodpatel Huguenot! varlet! cullion! What brought you here into my studio?—My good Porbus,” he went on, as he turned to the painter, “are you also making a fool of me? Answer! I am your friend. Tell me, have I ruined my picture after all?”

Porbus hesitated and said nothing, but there was such intolerable anxiety in the old man’s white face that he pointed to the easel.

“Look!” he said.

Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.

“Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work…” He sat down and wept.

“So I am a dotard, a madman, I have neither talent nor power! I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress, I have done nothing after all!”

He looked through his tears at his picture. Suddenly he rose and stood proudly before the two painters.

“By the body and blood of Christ,” he cried with flashing eyes, “you are jealous! You would have me think that my picture is a failure because you want to steal her from me! Ah! I see her, I see her,” he cried “she is marvelously beautiful…”

At that moment Poussin heard the sound of weeping; Gillette was crouching forgotten in a corner. All at once the painter once more became the lover. “What is it, my angel?” he asked her.

“Kill me!” she sobbed. “I must be a vile thing if I love you still, for I despise you…. I admire you, and I hate you! I love you, and I feel that I hate you even now!”

While Gillette’s words sounded in Poussin’s ears, Frenhof er drew a green serge covering over his “Catherine” with the sober deliberation of a jeweler who locks his drawers when he suspects his visitors to be expert thieves. He gave the two painters a profoundly astute glance that expressed to the full his suspicions, and his contempt for them, saw them out of his studio with impetuous haste and in silence, until from the threshold of his house he bade them “Good-by, my young friends!”

That farewell struck a chill of dread into the two painters. Porbus, in anxiety, went again on the morrow to see Frenhofer, and learned that he had died in the night after burning his canvases.

Honoré De Balzac, 1799-1850

Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. 1831 The Unknown Masterpiece, translation by Ellen Marriage (?)

Image: Pabo Picasso, Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. Black ink and wash on paper, laid to card, c.15 x 15 inches