Michel Houellebecq – La carte et le territoire, 2010 The Map and the Territory


A little despite himself, he approached Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, which was standing on his easel in the middle of the studio, and dissatisfaction seized him again, still more bitterly. He realised he was hungry, which wasn’t normal after the complete Christmas dinner he’d had with his father — starter, main course, cheese and dessert, nothing had been left out but he felt hungry and so hot he could no longer breathe. He returned to the kitchen, opened a tin of cannelloni in sauce and ate them one by one, while looking morosely at his failed painting. Koons was undoubtedly not light enough, not ethereal enough — it would perhaps have been necessary to give him wings, like the god Mercury, he thought stupidly; there, with his pinstriped suit and salesman’s smile, he reminded you a bit of Silvio Berlusconi.

On the ArtPrice ranking of the richest artists, Koons was world number 2; for a few years now, Hirst, ten years his junior, had taken his place at number 1. As for Jed, he had reached 593 ten years ago — but 17 in France. He had then, as the Tour de France commentators say, ‘dropped to the bottom of the classement’, before disappearing from it altogether. He finished the tin of cannelloni and opened an almost empty bottle of cognac. Lighting his ramp of halogen lamps to the maximum, he trained them on the centre of the canvas. On closer inspection, the night itself wasn’t right: it didn’t have that sumptuousness, that mystery we associate with nights on the Arabian peninsula; he should have used a deep blue, not ultramarine. He was making a truly shit painting. He seized a palette knife, cut open Damien Hirst’s eye, and forced the gash wider; it was a canvas of tight linen fibres, and therefore very tough. Catching the sticky canvas with one hand, he tore it in one blow, tipping the easel over onto the floor. Slightly calmed, he stopped, looked at his hands, sticky with paint, and finished the cognac before jumping feet first onto his painting, stamping on it and rubbing it against the floor until it became slippery. He ended up losing his balance and fell, the back of his head hitting the frame of the easel violently. He belched and vomited, and suddenly felt better, the fresh night air circulating freely on his face, and he closed his eyes contentedly: he had visibly reached the end of a cycle.

Chapter 9.

Many years later, when he had become famous — extremely famous, if the truth be told — Jed would be asked numerous times what it meant, in his eyes, to be an artist. He would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing, which he would consequently repeat in each interview: to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages, that you would be led, for want of a better word and in the absence of any religious belief, to describe as intuitions, messages which nonetheless commanded you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape — except by losing any notion of integrity and self-respect. These messages could involve destroying a work, or even an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction, or even occasionally no direction at all, without having any project at all, or the slightest hope of continuing. It was thus, and only thus, that the artists condition could, sometimes, be described as difficult. It was also thus, and only thus, that it distinguished itself from other professions or trades, to which he would pay homage in the second part of his career, the one which would earn him worldwide renown.

Chapter 11.

Jed was not to remain faithful to the Sennelier brand, and his mature paintings are almost entirely made with Mussini oils by Schmincke. There are exceptions, and certain greens, particularly the cinnabar greens that give such a magical glow to the forests of California pine descending towards the sea in Bill Gates and Steve jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, are borrowed from the Rembrandt range of oils by the firm Royal Talens. And for the whites he almost always used Old Holland oils, whose opacity he appreciated.

Jed Martin’s first paintings, art historians have later emphasised, could easily lead you down the wrong track. By devoting his first two canvases, Ferdinand Desroches, Horse Butcher then Claude Vorilhon, Bar-Tabac Manager, to professions in decline, Martin could give the impression of nostalgia for a past age, real or fantasised, in France. Nothing, and this is the conclusion that has ended up emerging about all his works, was more foreign to his real preoccupations; and if Martin began by looking at two washed-up professions, it was in no way because he wanted to encourage lamentations on their probable disappearance: it was simply that they were, indeed, going to disappear soon, and it was important to fix their images on canvas while there was still time. For his third painting in the series of professions, Maya Dubois, Remote Maintenance Assistant, he devoted himself to a profession that was in no way stricken or old fashioned, a profession on the contrary emblematic of the policy of just-in-time production which had orientated the entire economic redeployment of Western Europe at the turn of the third millennium.

In the first monograph he devoted to Martin, Wong Fu Xin develops a curious analogy based on colorimetry. The colours of the objects in the world can be represented by a certain number of primary colours; the minimum number, to achieve an almost realistic representation, is three. But you can perfectly build a colorimetric chart on the basis of four, five, six, or even more primary colours; the spectrum of representation would in this way become more extensive and subtle.

In the same way, asserts the Chinese essayist, the productive conditions of a given society may be recreated by means of a number of typical professions, whose number according to him (it is a figure he gives without any empirical evidence) can be fixed at between ten and twenty. In the numerically most important part of the ‘Professions’ series, the one that art historians have taken the habit of entitling the ‘Series of Simple Professions’, Jed Martin portrays no less than forty—two typical professions, thus offering, for the study of the productive conditions of the society of his times, a spectrum of analysis that is particularly extensive and rich. The following twenty—two paintings, centred on confrontations and encounters, classically called the ‘Series of Business Compositions’, themselves aimed to give a relational and dialectical image of the functioning of the economy as a whole.

The ‘Series of Simple Professions’ took Jed Martin a little more than seven years to paint. During these years, he didn’t meet many people, and formed no new relationship — whether sentimental or simply friendly. He had moments of sensory pleasure: an orgy of Italian pasta after a raid on the Casino hypermarket in the boulevard Vincent-Auriol; such-and-such an evening with a Lebanese escort girl whose sexual performances amply justified the ecstatic reviews she received on the site Niamodel.com. ‘Layla, I love you, you are the sunshine of my days in the office, my little oriental star,’ wrote some unfortunate fifty-somethings, while Layla for her part dreamed of muscular men, virile, poor and strong: this was the life, basically, as she saw it. Easily identified as a guy who was ‘a bit bizarre but nice, not at all dangerous’, Jed benefited with Layla from that kind of exception of extra-territoriality that has always been attributed to artists by the girls. It is maybe Layla, but more certainly Genevieve, his Malagasy ex-girlfriend, who is recalled in one of his most touching canvases, Aimée, Escort Girl, treated with an exceptionally warm palette based on umber, Indian orange and Naples yellow. At the opposite extreme from Toulouse-Lautrec’s representation of a made-up, chlorotic and unhealthy prostitute, Jed Martin paints a fulfilled young woman, both sensual and intelligent, in a modern flat bathed in light. With her back to the window, which opens onto a public garden since identified as the square des Batignolles, and simply dressed in a tight white miniskirt, Aimée is finishing putting on a tiny orange-yellow top that only very partially covers her magnificent breasts.

Martin’s only erotic painting, it is also the first where openly autobiographical echoes have been uncovered. The second one, The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business, was painted two years later, and marks the beginning of a genuine period of creative frenzy that would last for a year and a half and end with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, subtitled The Conversation at Palo Alto, which many consider his masterpiece. It is astonishing to think that the twenty-two paintings of the ‘Series of Business Compositions’, often complex and in wide format, were made in just eighteen months. It is also surprising that Jed Martin finally hit a snag on a canvas, Damien Hirst and Jefi Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, which could have, in many regards, matched his Jobs-Gates composition. Analysing this failure, Wong Fu Xin sees in it the reason for his return, a year later, to the ‘Series of Simple Professions’ through his sixty-fifth and final painting. Here, the clarity of the Chinese essayist’s thesis carries conviction: in his desire to give an exhaustive view of the productive sector of the society of his time, Jed Martin was inevitably, at one moment or another in his career, going to portray an artist.

Michel Houellebecq, 1956      La carte et le territoire, 2010 The Map and the Territory

La carte et le Terretoire, published by Flammarion, Paris 2010. © Michel Houellebecq ©Translation copyright by by Gavin Bowd, Published by William Heinnemann, London.

Mina Loy – Insel, 1937

m loy-richard oelze


What am I to do with you? The Taxi metre is ticking, the surrealist’s waiting. Pull yourself together—quick! I’ll take you along.
“However did you get that hole in your trousers, its new—” I demanded, detecting, as we got into the taxi, a perfect round of perforation letting out a tiny light from his thigh. I suspected him of replenishing his beggar’s capital.
“It was there before,” said Insel sanctimoniously, as if referring to a halo earned by excessive martyrdom.
“You might as well come up and see Ussif with me,” I suggested.
“No,” said Insel, “none of the surrealists will have anything to do with me. They know only too well, if they did, I should try to borrow money.”
“I should have thought you’d be worth a little money to a surrealist. He might learn what supereality is about—you are organically surreal—”
“I don’t do it on purpose, said Insel dejected.
“I know you don’t,” I assured him warmly. You only do Kafka on purpose—you’re so much better in the original.
I kept my promise of going to his room on my way back. Strangely—the very name of the street he lived in had the sound of a ghostly exhaustion. His attic was on the seventh storey.
Along the narrow open passage with its bare iron railing the Chambres de Bonnes moved past me as I looked for his name on the doors, when, coming to a closed iron shutter fleeced with dust and cobwebs growing in patches like a moss of soot or hanging in gray festoons about its slits, I felt the liveness of the air decrease, and “Insel” written in the archaic hand of some automatic writings drew up my eyes—. To that darkened crack which outlines the magical versatility of a barrier measuring a yard across and with merely the touch of a hand diminishing to a strip three inches wide. That cover of a living book whose history may come to an end before you can get it open; or cut short your personal adventure by remaining shut; out of this oblong outline of Entrance and Exit there leaked a perceptible seepage of Insel’s torpor.
Noiselessly, indolently, the door vanished. I walked into its chasm and Insel led me to his painting set in the pacific light of a large attic window.
Das ist die Irma?” he said with the secretive in-looking twinkle that lit up his eyes with recurrent delights. And suddenly it dawned upon me that one thing about this man that made him so different to other people was that contrary to our outrunning holding-up-the-mirror self- consciousness, his was constantly turning its back on the world and tiptoe with expectancy, peeping inquisitively into its own mischievous eyes. Or, in some cerebral acrobatic recoil, that being who is, in us, both outlooker and window, in him, astonishingly, was craning back to look in at the outlooking window of himself, as if there were something there he might forget, some treasure as to whose existence he wished to remain assured, some lovely illusion inside him, he must re-see to insure its continued projection.
“Die Irma,” he repeated lovingly to introduce her to me, and the magnetic bond uniting her painted body to his emaciated stature—as if she were of an ectoplasm proceeding from him—was so apparent one felt as if one were surprising an insane liaison at almost too intimate a moment. He was glittering with a pleasure as dynamically compressed as the carbon of a diamond.
A narrow canvas, nigger-black, whose quality of shining obscurity was the effect of minutely painting in oil on some tempera ground, die Irma stood knee—deep on an easel.
To her livid brow, rounded like a half-moon, clung a peculiarly clammy algaeic or fungoid substitute for hair. Beneath it a transparent mask of horizontal shadow was penetrated by the eyes of an hypnosis; flat disks of smoked mirror, having the selfsame semblance of looking into and out of oneself as her creator.
Perhaps in a superfine analysis, this is what all men really do, but as a natural interplay; whereas Insel and his picture were doing it with alternating intent. Indeed the great thin uninscribed coins of her gunmetal pupils, returning his fascinated gaze, were tilted at such an angle as to give a dimly illuminated reflection of an inner and outer darkness.
Her hands, as if nailed to her hips like crossed swords, jutted out from her body which seemed to be composed of rippling lava that here and there hardened to indentations like holly leaves growing from her sternum—her male hands that hardly made a pair, for the one had the bones of the back marked all of equal length and the other, one finger too long with an unmodeled edge which curved like paper against the background.
He hung over die Irma like a tall insect and outside the window in the rotten rose of an asphyxiated sunset the skeleton phallus of the Eiffel Tower reared in the distance as slim as himself.
Beside the picture I noticed that the gutter of his upper lip was interrupted by a seam, a fine thread of flesh running from the base of the nose to his mouth that accentuated the compression of his lips in their continual retention of the one remaining tooth which, so thin as to be atavistic in an adult, was like a stump forgotten in a croquet ground, left over from the Game of Life. An incipience or reparation of harelip? And Irma? In this very same spot she puffed to a swollen convergence.
“But Insel,” I asked, “her upper lip is about to burst with some inavowable disease. You have formed her of pus. Her body has already melted.”
“Exactly,” he answered with mysterious satisfaction. “I don’t care for it,” I decided.
“And I,” said Insel, with the reverent intonement with which he accompanied his tacitly implied admittance of myself to his holy-of-holies, “thought that this picture would be just the one that you would like.”
Time hovered, suspended in the attic air as the powders of life in the noxious mist of the exhausted city below. When suddenly the soporific lure he sowed in his magnetic field—shattered. Insel was snatching at the emptied flesh on his face in the recurrent anxiety inspiring his wilder gestures.
“She ought not to be,” he cried out, “if you don’t like her, I am going to destroy her.”
His cerebral excitement seemed to inflate his head, rather as a balloon from which his wasted body hung in slight levitation.
“Come down to the floor, for God’s sake,” I said peremptorily. “What does my opinion matter? I ’m not the museum.”
“But you’re right,” he insisted. “I have been going in the wrong direction. Die Irmas out.”
“And don’t use me as a sop for your terror of working.”
“It’s really not that—but a technical question. Die Irma ist nass.”
“She isn’t, she’s bone dry. I felt her.”
“I assure you, underneath—”
“Every time I’ve come to Paris you’ve said the same thing. Pull yourself together Insel, you’ve got to finish this for the museum. For you it’s work or death. Can’t you figure it out?” I urged helpfully— “When you have money and can eat you paint a picture so as to have more money— when you haven’t any more money.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” he objected again, “die Irma is wet—”
I was getting exasperated— When the balls of our eyes caught each other, we both began to laugh.
“If you had heard the Lesbian’s synopsis of Frank Harris’s confessions, you wouldn’t even trouble to mention it—.”
“I shouldn’t care to read this Lesbian’s confessions—it is a Lesbian who has taken the love of my life away from me.”
“Well now, I wouldn’t mention that either. Of course, it does not matter with me—anybody can tell me anything—you know what I mean—when you surrender your arms, chuck them onto neutral territory. I know it’s a touch that modernizes your romanticism; all the same, I’d advise you never to make that particular confidence to a woman ‘ou connaît ça.’”
But Insel was past advice. With a look of dogged emptiness he recited for the nth time the story of those Mädchen who shut themselves into the house for a fortnight for fear he would shoot them.”
Mostly when speaking of his loves of the past he became quite normal; subnormal really, for his adventures in the actual world had been of an excruciating banality.
As I was also engaged for dinner, I asked the time. Insel who was sitting on a wooden stool stretched out his arm—it reached much further than its actual length would warrant.
Behind the curtain in the corner, carefully secreted under empty boxes, neatly stacked, was his wristwatch. He did not bring it out—his arm seemed in some Einsteinian contraction to shorten the necessary distance for focusing the hands.
It was seven o’clock. I took my leave. Insel, astonished as if this were the first break in a timeless conversation, snapped in half; or at least bowed like a poplar in a sudden gale; his dessicated limbs the branches.
Staring vainly towards the door I was opening—he choked in the voice of a Robot, “Morgen komm ich im Gericht. Tomorrow I go to court—I am going mad!”
Then don’t forget your little afternoon,” I reminded him— “I dote on madmen.”
As I was leaving, he seized his palette and dripping an enormous brush into a pile of ebony pigment painted with a heinous neigh of victory, “Die Irma—Out!”

Mina Loy,1882-1966  Insel, 1937. First published October 1st 1991 by Black Sparrow Press

Image: Richard Oelze,1900-1980

A novel that follows an autobiographical relationship between, the character of the Loy narrator, Mrs. Jones, and the painter, Insel, based on the German Surrealist painter Richard Oelze. Mrs. Jones, is a writer in Paris, who also collects art for a New York gallery. The ethereal narrative represents an attempt to create a surrealist non-linear way of seeing the world. “It was the evening outside the Lutetia I experienced its effects. A sort of doubling of space where different selves lived different ways in different dimensions at once. Sitting on the sidewalk—floating in an Atlantic Ocean full of skyscrapers and ethereal cars.” To a background of daily life in the artist’s studio in Paris Mrs. Jones’s attempts to understand and articulate the superreal thought process of the Surrealist mind.  “Insel,” I asked puzzled, “how does the world look to you? Like an Aquarium?”

Albert Camus – Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, 1957 The Artist at Work

Albert Camus 1913-1960

The following day Jonas went out very early. It was raining. When he returned, wet to the skin, he was loaded down with boards. At home, two old friends, come to ask after him, were drinking coffee in the big room. “Jonas is changing his technique. He’s going to paint on wood!” they said. Jonas smiled. “That’s not it. But I am beginning something new.” He went into the little hall leading to the shower-room, the toilet, and the kitchen. In the right angle where the two halls joined, he stopped and studied at length the high walls rising to the dark ceiling. He needed a stepladder, which he went down and got from the concierge.

When he came back up, there were several additional people in the apartment, and he had to struggle against the affection of his visitors, delighted to find him again, and against his family’s questions in order to reach the end of the hall. At that moment his wife came out of the kitchen. Setting down his ladder, Jonas hugged her against him. Louise looked at him. “Please,” she said, “never do it again.” “No, no,” Jonas said, “I’m going to paint. I must paint.” But he seemed to be talking to himself, for he was looking elsewhere. He got to work. Half-way up the walls he built a flooring to get a sort of narrow, but high and deep, loft. By the late afternoon, all was finished. With the help of the ladder, Jonas hung from the floor of the loft and, to test the solidity of his work, chinned himself several times. Then he mingled with the others and everyone was delighted to find him so friendly again. In the evening, when the apartment was relatively empty, Jonas got an oil lamp, a chair, a stool, and a frame. He took them all up into the loft before the puzzled gaze of the three women and the children. “Now,” he said from his lofty perch, “I’ll be able to work without being in anyone’s way.” Louise asked him if he were sure of it. “Of course,” he replied. “I don’t need much room. I’ll be freer. There have been great painters who painted by candlelight, and . . .” “Is the floor solid enough?” It was. “Don’t worry,” Jonas said, “it’s a very good solution.” And he came back down.

Very early the next day he climbed into the loft, sat down, set the frame on the stool against the wall, and waited without lighting the lamp. The only direct sounds he heard came from the kitchen or the toilet. The other noises seemed distant, and the visits, the ringing of the doorbell and the telephone, the comings and goings, the conversations, reached him half muffled, as if they came from out on the street or from the farther court. Besides, although the whole apartment was overflowing with blinding sunlight, the darkness here was restful. From time to time a friend would come and plant himself under the loft. “What are you doing up there, Jonas?” “I’m working.” “Without light?” “Yes, for the moment.” He was not painting, but he was meditating. In the darkness and this half-silence which, by contrast with what he had known before, seemed to him the silence of the desert or of the tomb, he listened to his own heart. The sounds that reached the loft seemed not to concern him anymore, even when addressed to him. He was like those men who die alone at home in their sleep, and in the morning the telephone rings, feverish and insistent, in the deserted house, over a body forever deaf. But he was alive, he listened to this silence within himself, he was waiting for his star, still hidden but ready to rise again, to burst forth at last, unchanged and unchanging, above the disorder of these empty days. “Shine, shine,” he said. “Don’t deprive me of your light.” It would shine again, of that he was sure. But he would have to meditate still longer, since at last the chance was given him to be alone without separating from his family. He still had to discover what he had not yet clearly understood, although he had always known it and had always painted as if he knew it. He had to grasp at last that secret which was not merely the secret of art, as he could now see. That is why he didn’t light the lamp.

Every day now Jonas would climb back into his loft. The visitors became less numerous because Louise, preoccupied, paid little attention to the conversation. Jonas would come down for meals and then climb back to his perch. He would sit motionless in the darkness all day long. At night he would go to his wife, who was already in bed. After a few days he asked Louise to hand up his lunch, which she did with such pains that Jonas was stirred. In order not to disturb her on other occasions, he suggested her preparing some supplies that he could store in the loft. Little by little he got to the point of not coming down all day long. But he hardly touched his supplies.

One evening he called Louise and asked for some blankets. “I’ll spend the night up here.” Louise looked at him with her head bent backward. She opened her mouth and then said nothing. She was merely scrutinizing Jonas with a worried and sad expression. He suddenly saw how much she had aged and how deeply the trials of their life had marked her too. It occurred to him that he had never really helped her. But before he could say a word, she smiled at him with an affection that wrung his heart. “Just as you say, dear,” she said.

Henceforth he spent his nights in the loft, almost never coming down any more. As a result, the apartment was emptied of visitors since Jonas couldn’t be seen any more either by day or night. Some were told that he was in the country; others, when lying became an effort, that he had found a studio. Rateau alone came faithfully. He would climb up on the ladder until his big, friendly head was just over the level of the flooring. “How goes it?” he would ask. “Wonderfully.” “Are you working?” “It comes to the same thing.” “But you have no canvas!” “I’m working just the same.” It was hard to prolong this dialogue from ladder to loft. Rateau would shake his head, come back down, help Louise replace fuses or repair a lock, then, without climbing onto the ladder, say good night to Jonas, who would reply in the darkness: “So long, old boy.” One evening Jonas added thanks to his goodnight. “Why thanks?” “Because you love me.” “That’s really news!” Rateau said as he left.

Another evening Jonas called Rateau, who came running. The lamp was lighted for the first time. Jonas was leaning, with a tense look, out of the loft. “Hand me a canvas,” he said. “But what’s the matter with you? You’re so much thinner; you look like a ghost.” “I’ve hardly eaten for the last two days. But that doesn’t matter. I must work.” “Eat first.” “No, I’m not hungry.” Rateau brought a canvas. On the point of disappearing into the loft, Jonas asked him: “How are they?” “Who?” “Louise and the children.” “They’re all right. They’d be better if you were with them.” “I’m still with them. Tell them above all that I’m still with them.” And he disappeared. Rateau came and told Louise how worried he was. She admitted that she herself had been anxious for several days. “What can we do? Oh, if only I could work in his place!” Wretched, she faced Rateau. “I can’t live without him,” she said. She looked like the girl she had been, and this surprised Rateau. He suddenly realized that she had blushed.

The lamp stayed lighted all night and all the next morning. To those who came, Rateau or Louise, Jonas answered merely: “Forget it, I’m working.” At noon he asked for some kerosene. The lamp, which had been smoking, again shone brightly until evening. Rateau stayed to dinner with Louise and the children. At midnight he went to say goodnight to Jonas. Under the still lighted loft he waited a moment, then went away without saying a word. On the morning of the second day, when Louise got up, the lamp was still lighted.

A beautiful day was beginning, but Jonas was not aware of it. He had turned the canvas against the wall. Exhausted, he was sitting there waiting, with his hands, palms up, on his knees. He told himself that now he would never again work, he was happy. He heard his children grumbling, water running, and the dishes clinking together. Louise was talking. The huge windows rattled as a truck passed on the boulevard. The world was still there, young and lovable. Jonas listened to the welcome murmur rising from mankind. From such a distance, it did not run counter to that joyful strength within him, his art, these forever silent thoughts he could not express but which set him above all things, in a free and crisp air. The children were running through the apartment, the little girl was laughing, Louise too now, and he hadn’t heard her laugh for so long. He loved them! How he loved them! He put out the lamp and, in the dark-ness that suddenly returned, right there! wasn’t that his star still shining? It was the star, he recognized it with his heart full of gratitude, and he was still watching it when he fell, without a sound.

“It’s nothing,” the doctor they had called declared a little later. “He is working too much. In a week he will be on his feet again.” “You are sure he will get well?” asked Louise with distorted face. “He will get well.” In the other room Rateau was looking at the canvas, completely blank, in the centre of which Jonas had merely written in very small letters a word that could be made out, but without any certainty as to whether it should be read solitaire or solidaire.

Albert Camus, 1913-1960.    Jonas, ou l’artiste au travail, in, L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 The Artist at Work, in, Exile and the Kingdom

Originally published in France as L’Exil et le royaume, 1957 ©Librarie Gallimard. Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1957

Image: Albert Camus 1913-1960

Raymond Roussel – Impressions d’Afrique, 1910 Impressions of Africa


Chapter IX

After leaving the town, Louise continued walking for a moment longer, then attracted by certain combinations of colour, she stopped on the very spot where, the previous evening, we had watched the firework display.

The dawn, shining from behind the magnificent trees of the Behuliphruen, produced curious, unexpecred lighting effects.

Talu himself chose a favourable spot for the fascinating test which had been promised, and Louise, opening the bag her brother carried, unpacked a folded object which, once it was opened into its normal position, formed a strictly vertical easel.

A new canvas, stretched tightly over its inner frame, was placed half-way up the easel and held firmly in place by a screw clamp, which Louise lowered to the required level. Next, the young woman, with gret care, took from a box, made to protect it from any contact, a palette, prepared in advance, which fitted exactly into a special metal holder fixed to the right side of the easel. The colours, placed well apart in little heaps, were arranged in a semi-circle with geometrical precision, on the upper part of the thin wooden board, which like the empty canvas, was set up facing the Behuliphruen.

In addition, the bag contained a hinged stand, similar to a camera tripod. Louise picked it up, then lengthened the three extending legs, which she set down on the ground not far from the easel, anxiously adjusting the height and stability of the apparatus.

At that moment, Norbert, obeying the instructions of his sister, took the case, to place it behind the easel, a heavy chest whose glass lid revealled several batteries arranged next to each other.

In the meantime, Louise was slowly unpacking with, with infinite caution, a utensil, doubless very fragile, which looked to us like some thick, solid plate, protected by a metal lid which corresponded exactly with its rectangular shape.

Distinctly recalling the skeleton of a weighing-machine, the top part of the three –legged support consisted of a sort of fork, with two widely diverging prongs, which ended up abruptly in two vertical arms, on which Louise was able to fix one of the long sides of the plate, cautiously assembling it by using two small, deep holes, correctly placed at the point where two grooves at the back, carved out to facilitate the sliding movement of the sides encompassing the lid, projected.

In order to appraise the disposition of the various articles the young woman, screwing up her eyes, stepped back towards the Behuliphruen, in order to judge their relative distances more accurately. From this position she could see on her right the stand, on her left the easel with the chest behind it, and, in the centre, the palette with the paints.

The lid of the rectangular plate, with a ring in the centre by which it could be grasped, was directly exposed to the light of the dawn; from its back, completely unconcealed, sprang a myriad of fine metal wires, giving it the appearance of a head of hair growing too evenly, which seemed to connect every imperceptible area of the surface with a kind of machine charged with a supply of electric energy. The wires were twisted together to form a thick coil, wrapped in insulating material, which ended in a long bar, and this, Louise, returning to her post, bent down to plug into a socket in the side of the box of batteries.

The bag also furnished a strong vertical tube, somewhat in the form of a photographic head-rest, standing firmly on a circular base and fitted at the top with a screw, which turned easily, and could fix an iron rod inside at a convenient height.

Placing the device in front of the easel, Louise pulled the movable rod up out of the tube and tightened the screw, carefully verifying the level reached by its highest point, which was exactly opposite the still untouched canvas.

On this single, steady point, as if it were a game of cup and ball, the young woman planted a large metal sphere, fitted horizontally with a short hinged arm on a pivot extending in the direction of the palette, in whose tip were inserted some ten paint brushes, radiating like the spokes of a wheel lying on its side.

Soon the operator had contrived to establish communication between the sphere and the electric box by means of a double wire.

Before beginning the experiment, Louise, uncorking a little oil can, poured a drop of oil on the hairs of each paint brush. Norbert moved away the bulky suitcase, almost empty now that he had extracted the metal sphere.

Throughout these preparations, the day had been slowly breaking, and dazzling rays of light flashed among the trees in the Behuliphruen, turning it into a many-coloured fairyland.

Louise could not stifle a cry of admiration as she turned to look at the splendid magic garden which seemed to have been illuminated by magic. Judging the moment incomparable and miraculously propitious for the realisation of her plans, the young woman went up to the stand with its threefold ramification and seized by the ring the lid which fitted over the metal plate.

All the onlookers crowded round the easel so as not to offer any impediment to the luminous rays.

Louise was clearly moved when the moment came to undergo the great test. Her musical respiration quickened, increasing the frequency and the power of the monotonous chords continually emitted by the tags of her shoulder-knot. With a quick movement she snatched off the lid, then retreating behind the tripod and the easel, joined us to watch the movements of the mechanism.

Deprived of its shutter, which the young woman still held between her fingers, the plate now stood exposed, revealing a smooth brown, shiny surface. All eyes were fixed eagerly on this mysterious substance, endowed by Louise with strange, photo-mechanical properties. Suddenly, opposite the easel, a slight shudder ran through the automatic arm, which consisted of an ordinary, bright, horizontal blade, bent in the middle; the adjustable angle of the elbow tended to open as wide as possible, owing to powerful spring, whose effect was counteracted by a flexible metal wire, which, emerging from the sphere, was fastened round the furthest tip of the arm and thus regulated the gap; at present the wire was being stretched to allow the angle to become progressively greater.

This first sign of activity caused a slight stir among the restless, uneasy, audience.

The arm slowly extended towards the palette, while the horizontal, rimless wheel, created on the end of it by the star of brushes, was gradually raised to the top of a vertical axle, wound upwards by a cogged ring which was directly connected to the sphere by a highly elastic driving belt.

The two actions combined brought the tip of one of the brushes on to a thick supply of blue paint, in a pile near the top of the palette. The hairs quickly became stained, then, after a short descent, spread the particles they had picked up over a clean section of the surface. A few specks of white, gathered in the same way, were deposited on the place which had been stained blue, and the two shades mixed perfectly by a prolonged stirring, gave a very subdued pale blue.

Slightly shortened by the tautening of the metal wire, the arm swivelled a little and stopped higher up, in front of the left corner of the canvas fixed on the easel. Immediately the brush, impregnated with the delicate shade, automatically drew a narrow, vertical strip of sky down the side of future picture.

A murmur of admiration greeted this first broad brush stroke and Louise, thereafter assured of her success, let out a long sigh of satisfaction, accompanied by a noisy fanfare from her aglets.

The wheel of brushes, coming back to face the palette, suddenly began to turn, driven by a second belt made of the same expandable material, which disappeared inside the the sphere. There was a sharp snap as a stop-catch fixed another brush with new, unblemished hairs firmly in the place of honour. Soon, several primary colours, mixed on another part of the palette, made up a golden yellow pigment full of fire, which was carried to the picture and contained the vertical band already begun.

Turning to look at the Behuliphruen again, it was possible to verify the absolute exactness of this sharp juxtaposition of the two shades which composed a line clearly marked in the sky.

The work proceeded with precision and speed. Now each time the palette was visited, several brushes in turn concocted their various mixtures of colour; returning to the picture, they followed each other in the same order, all laying on the canvas, sometimes in minute quantities, their particular new tint. This process made it possible to achieve the most subtle gradations of tone, and, it by bit, one corner of a landscape, vividly true to life, spread itself before our very eyes.

Without taking her eyes off the mechanism, Louise gave us some useful explanations.

The brown plate alone set the whole process in motion, by means of a system based on the principle of electro-magnetisation. In spite of the absence of any lens, the polished surface, owing to its extreme sensitivity, received enormously powerful light-impressions, which it transmitted by means of the countless wires inserted in the back to activate a whole mechanism contained within the sphere, whose circumference must have measured more than a yard.

As we were able to ascertain with our own eyes, the two vertical arms which terminated the fork at the top of the tripod were made of the same brown substance as that of which the metal plate itself was composed; because they were so perfectly adapted to each other, they formed together a homogeneous block and were now contributing in their special field, to the continued progress of photo-mechanical communications.

According to the disclosures of Louise, the sphere contained a second rectangular plate, fitted with another network of wires, conveying the polychromatic sensations of the first, and, through this a thin metal wheel moved from section to section, while the current it set up drove a complete series of crank arms, pistons and rollers by electricity.

The work advanced progressively from left to right, still in vertical strokes, sketched in rapid succession, from top to bottom. Each time the rimless wheel revolved in front of the palette or in front of the canvas, a sharp click could be heard as the catch fell shut to hold one brush after another steady throughout the duration of its task. This monotonous noise was like a very slow imitation of the whirlygigs at a fair.

The whole surface of the palette was now touched-in or broadly smeared; the most incongruous mixtures of colours were placed side by side, constantly being altered by the fresh addition of one of the primary colours. There was no confusion, in spite of the disconcerting bright medley, and each brush was assigned to a particular category of shades, so that it was confined to a certain, more or less limited speciality.

Soon the whole of the left side of the painting was finished.

Louise followed with delight the movements of the apparatus which had functioned so far without any mishap or error.

This success was never once threatened during the completion of of the landscape, the second half of which was painted with amazing assurance.

A few seconds before the end of the experiment, Louise had once again passed behind the easel and then behind the tripod in order to take her place near the sensitive plate. By this time there only remained in the top right-hand corner of the canvas a narrow white line which was quickly filled in.

After the last stroke of the brush, Louise promptly replaced the obturating cover on the brown plate, stopping the hinged arm by this simple action. Then, free from any anxiety concerning the mechanical process, the young woman was able to examine at leisure the picture which had been executed in such a curious fashion.

The tall trees of the Behuliphruen were faithfully reproduced with their magnificent branches, whose leaves, of a strange colour and shape, were covered with bright reflections. On the ground, large flowers, blue, yellow or scarlet, sparkled among the moss. In the distance, through the trunks and the branches, shone the sky; at the bottom, a first horizontal belt of blood-red faded into a strip of orange just above it, which in turn became lighter, giving birth to a bright golden-yellow; next came a pale blue, almost white, in the heart of which, on the right, shone one last, late star. The finished work, seen as a whole, gave an impression of uncommonly intense colouring and remained strictly true to the original as each person was able to confirm by a quick glance at the actual garden.

With the help of her brother, Louise, unwinding the clamp of the easel, replaced the painting with a block of the same size, consisting of a thick pile of sheets of white paper, placed one on top of the other and joined at the edges; then removing the last paint brush to have been used, she inserted a carefully sharpened pencil into the empty space.

In a few words we were informed of the aim of this ambitious young woman, who now wished to submit for our examination a simple drawing, whose lines would naturally be more precise and more detailed than those of the painting and which required her only to press a certain spring in the top of the sphere to make a slight adjustment to the internal mechanism.

In order to provide a complex and animated subject, fiteen or twenty of the spectators went, at the request of Louise, to arrnage themselves in a group a short distance away. Seeking to produce an effect of life and movement, they posed as passers-by in a busy street; several of them, suggesting by their position that they were walking with rapid strides, bent their heads with a look of deep concentration; others, more relaxed, gossiped together like couples taking a stroll, while two friends exchanged familiar greetings as they passed each other at a distance.

Instructing them, like a photographer, to maintain the utmost immobility, Louise standing near the plate, sharply removed the cover and then made her usual detour, to come and watch the action of the pencil from near at hand.

The mechanism, reset at the same time as it had been adjusted by the action of pressing the spring on the sphere, slowly swung the jointed arm to the left. The pencil began to run up and down the white paper, following the same vertical sections, previously marked out by the paint brushes.

This time, there were no journeys to the palette, no changes of instrument, or mixing of paint to delay the work, which made swift progress. The same landscape appeared in the background, of secondary importance this time, and was blotted out by the figures in the foreground. The gestures, taken from life – the mannerisms, very marked – the silhouettes, strangely amusing – and the faces, blatant likenesses – all had the desired expression, sometimes gloomy, sometimes gay. One person’s body, leaning slightly towards the ground, seemed to be bent by the impetus of walking briskly forward; another’s beaming face denoted pleasant surprise at an unexpected meeting.

The pencil glided lightly over the page, leaving it often and in a few minutes it was covered. Louise, returning to her post at the appropriate moment, replace the shutter over the plate, then beckoned to the models, who came running to admire the new picture, delighted to move around after their prolonged immobility.

In spite of the contrast of the setting, the drawing gave the exact impression of a street of busy traffic. Each one recognised himself without difficulty among the compact group, and the warmest congratulations were lavished on Louise, who was excited and happy.

Norbert set about dismantling all the accessories, to pack them back in the suitcase.

In the meantime, Sirdah conveyed to Louise the complete satisfaction of the Emperor, who had been amazed at the perfect manner in which the young woman had fulfilled all the conditions he had strictly imposed.

Raymond Roussel, 1877-1933      Impressions d’Afrique, 1910 Impressions of Africa: A Novel

Translated by Rayner Heppenstall. Published by Calder & Boyars Ltd, London, 1983

Louise Montalescot’s fantastic painting machine in Impressions d’Afrique introduced the concept of a machine that can paint, and consequently the generation of images through chance, which influenced Duchamp, Picabia, Dali and other Surrealist artists as well as avant-garde writers.  Montalescot was ‘Particularly fanatical in her devotion to chemistry, she keenly pursued, during the long night watches, an important discovery long germinating in her mind. The problem was to generate by purely photographic means, a motor force sufficiently precise to guide a pencil or brush with certainty.’ Impressions d’Afrique was published as a novel in 1910. Roussel adapted it for the stage and presented it at the Théâtre Fatima in September 1911. Duchamp, Picabia and Apollinaire attended the play when it reopened in May 1912.

Tiphaigne de la Roche – Giphantie,1760

Roche - for giphantie

Chapter 18. La Tempeste.

The esprits élémentaire, continued my guide, are not dressed as skilled painters, but as clever physicists. You must judge the manner in which they operate. You know that rays of light, reflected from different bodies, form pictures, and paint the image reflected on all polished surfaces, for example, on the retina of the eye, on water, and on glass.

The esprits élémentaire  have sought to fix these fleeting images; they have made a subtle material, very viscous, and very quick to dry and harden, by means of which a picture is formed in the twinkling of an eye. They coat a piece of canvas with this material, and place it in front of the object to capture. The first effect of this cloth is similar to that of a mirror, but by means of its viscous nature the prepared canvas, as is not the case with the mirror, retains a facsimile of the image. The mirror represents images faithfully, but retains none; our canvas reflects them no less faithfully, but retains them all. This impression of the image is instantaneous. The canvas is then removed and deposited in a dark place. An hour later the impression is dry, and you have a picture the more precious in that no art can imitate its truthfulness.

We take in the most pure source, in the body of the light, the colours that painters take from different materials, that the passage of time never fails to alter. The accuracy of the drawing, the truth of the expression, the touches more or less strong, the gradation of shades, the rules of perspective; we abandon all this to nature, which with undeniable certainty, traces on our canvases those images that impose on the eyes, and cast doubt on our sense of reality, and that they are not a species of phantoms who take control of our sight, hearing, touch, and all the senses at once.

The esprit élémentaire  then described some physical details; firstly, on the nature of the resinous surface which intercepts and captures the rays; secondly, the difficulties to prepare and use; thirdly, on the play of light and the dry surface; three problems that I pass on to physicists in our time, that I refer to their wisdom.

However, I could not look away from the picture above. A sensitive viewer, who, from the shore, contemplating a sea that a storm turns upside down, could not feel impressions more vivid: than these images equal to the object in reality.

Tiphaigne de la Roche,1722-1774.    Giphantie, 1760. Published by Durand, Paris

Giphantia, or A View of What Has Passed, What is Now Passing, and, During the Present Century, What Will Pass, in the World. Published 1760-1761 by Robert Horsfield, London

Giphantie is an early ‘science-fiction’ novel that explores the secret land of Giphantie in the heart of Africa, and a civilisation of isolated superior beings ‘ elemental spirits’. They communicate through a medium that resembles television, and describe a process of making images that predicts the first héliographie photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 and the photo-chemical experiments and discovery of modern-day photography by Louis-Jacques Daguerre in 1839.

And the original French text…

Tiphaigne de la Roche,1722-1774.    Giphantie, 1760. Published by Durand, Paris

Chapitre 18. La Tempeste

Les esprits élémentaires, poursuivit le préfet, ne sont pas si habiles peintres qu’adroits physiciens ; tu vas en juger par leur manière d’opérer. Tu sais que les rayons de lumière, réfléchis des différents corps, font tableau, et peignent ces corps sur toutes leurs surfaces polies, sur la rétine de l’œil, par exemple, sur l’eau, sur les glaces. Les esprits élémentaires ont cherché à fixer ces images passagères ; ils ont composé une matière très subtile, très visqueuse et très prompte à se dessécher et à se durcir, au moyen de laquelle un tableau est fait en un clin d’œil. Ils enduisent de cette matière une pièce de la toile, et la présentent aux objets qu’ils veulent peindre. Le premier effet de la toile, est celui du miroir ; on y voit tous les corps voisins et éloignés, dont la lumière peut apporter l’image. Mais, ce qu’une glace ne saurait faire, la toile, au moyen de son enduit visqueux, retient les simulacres. Le miroir vous rend fidèlement les objets, mais n’en garde aucun ; nos toiles ne les rendent pas moins fidèlement, et les gardent tous. Cette impression des images est l’affaire du premier instant où la toile les reçoit : on l’ôte sur le champ, on la place dans un endroit obscur ; une heure après, l’enduit est desséché, et vous avez un tableau d’autant plus précieux, qu’aucun art ne peut en imiter la vérité, et que le temps ne peut en aucune manière l’endommager. Nous prenons dans la source la plus pure, dans le corps de la lumière, les couleurs que les peintres tirent de différents matériaux, que le laps des temps ne manque jamais d’altérer. La précision du dessin, la vérité de l’expression, les touches plus ou moins fortes, la gradation des nuances, les règles de la perspectives ; nous abandonnons tout cela à la nature, qui, avec cette marche sûre qui jamais ne se démentit, trace sur nos toiles des images qui en imposent aux yeux, et font douter à la raison si ce qu’on appelle réalités ne sont pas d’autres espèces de fantômes qui en imposent aux yeux, à l’ouïe, au toucher, à tous les sens à la fois.

L’esprit élémentaire entra ensuite dans quelques détails physiques ; premièrement, sur la nature du corps gluant, qui intercepte et garde les rayons ; secondement, sur les difficultés de le préparer et de l’employer ; troisièmement, sur le jeu de la lumière et de ce corps desséché : trois problèmes que je propose aux physiciens de nos jours, et que j’abandonne à leur sagacité.

Cependant, je ne pouvais détourner les yeux de dessus le tableau. Un spectateur sensible, qui, du rivage, contemple une mer que l’orage bouleverse, ne sent point des impressions plus vives : de telles images valent les choses.

Jean Rhys – Tea with an Artist, 1927

Pierre Bonnard_Femme Sortant du Bain

  It was obvious that this was not an Anglo-Saxon : he was too gay, too dirty, too unreserved and in his little eyes was such a mellow comprehension of all the sins and the delights of life. He was drinking rapidly one glass of beer after another, smoking a long, curved pipe, and beaming contentedly on the world. The woman with him wore a black coat and skirt; she had her back to us.
I said : ‘Who’s the happy man in the corner? I’ve never seen him before.’
My companion who knew everybody answered : ‘That’s Verhausen. As mad as a hatter.’
‘Madder than most people here?’ I asked.
‘Oh, yes, really dotty. He has got a studio full of pictures that he will never show to anyone.’
I asked: ‘What pictures? His own pictures?’
‘Yes, his own pictures. They’re damn good, they say.’. . . Verhausen had started out by being a Prix de Rome and he had had a big reputation in Holland and Germany, once upon a time. He was a Fleming. But the old fellow now refused to exhibit, and went nearly mad with anger if he were pressed to sell anything.
‘A pose?’
My friend said : ‘Well, I dunno. It’s lasted a long time for a pose.’
He started to laugh.
‘You know Van Hoyt. He knew Verhausen intimately in Antwerp, years ago. It seems he already hid his pictures up then . . . He had evolved the idea that it was sacrilege to sell them. Then he married some young and flighty woman from Brussels, and she would not stand it. She nagged and nagged : she wanted lots of money and so on and so on. He did not listen even. So she gave up arguing and made arrangements with a Jew dealer from Amsterdam when he was not there. It is said that she broke into his studio and passed the pictures out of the window. Five of the best. Van Hoyt said that Verhausen cried like a baby when he knew. He simply sat and sobbed. Perhaps he also beat the lady. In any case she left him soon afterwards and eventually Verhausen turned up, here, in Montparnasse. The woman now with him he had picked up in some awful brothel in Antwerp. She must have been good to him, tor he says now that the Fallen are the only women with souls. They will walk on the necks of all the others in Heaven . . .’ And my friend concluded: ‘A rum old bird. But a bit of a back number, now, of course.’
I said: ‘It’s a perverted form of miserliness, I suppose. I should like to see his pictures, or is that impossible? I like his face.’
My friend said carelessly: ‘It’s possible, I believe. He sometimes shows them to people. It’s only that he will not exhibit and will not sell. I dare say Van Hoyt could fix it up.’

Verhausen’s studio was in the real Latin Quarter which lies to the north of the Montparnasse district and is shabbier and not cosmopolitan yet. It was an ancient, narrow street of uneven houses, a dirty, beautiful street, full of mauve shadows. A policeman stood limply near the house, his expression that of contemplative stupefaction : a yellow dog lay stretched philosophically on the cobblestones of the roadway. The concierge said without interest that Monsieur Verhausen’s studio was on the quatrième à droite. I toiled upwards.
I knocked three times. There was a subdued rustling within . . . A fourth time : as loudly as I could. The door opened a little and Mr Verhausen’s head appeared in the opening. I read suspicion in his eyes and I smiled as disarmingly as I could. I said something about Mr Van Hoyt — his own kind invitation, my great pleasure.
Verhausen continued to scrutinize me through huge spectacles: then he smiled with a sudden irradiation, stood away from the door and bowing deeply, invited me to enter. The room was big, all its walls encumbered on the floor with unframed canvases, all turned with their backs to the wall. It was very much cleaner than I had expected: quite clean and even dustless. On a table was spread a white cloth and there were blue cups and saucers and a plate of gingerbread cut into slices and thickly buttered. Mr Verhausen rubbed his hands and said with a pleased, childlike expression and in astonishingly good English that he had prepared an English tea that was quite ready because he had expected me sooner.
We sat on straight-backed chairs and sipped solemnly.
Mr Verhausen looked exactly as he had looked in the café, his blue eyes behind the spectacles at once naive and wise, his waistcoat spotted with reminiscences of many meals.
But a delightful personality — comfortable and comforting. His long, curved pipes hung in a row on the wall; they made the whole room look Dutchly homely. We discussed Montparnasse with gravity.
He said suddenly: ‘Now you have drunk your second cup of tea you shall see my pictures. Two cups of tea all English must have before they contemplate works of art.’
He had jumped up with a lightness surprising in a bulky man and with similar alacrity drew an easel near a window and proceeded to put pictures on it without any comment. They were successive outbursts of colour: it took me a little time to get used to them. I imagine that they were mostly, but not all, impressionist. But what fascinated me at first was his way of touching the canvases – his loving, careful hands.’
After a time he seemed to forget that I was there and looked at them himself, anxiously and critically, his head on one side, frowning and muttering to himself in Flemish. A landscape pleased me here and there : they were mostly rough and brilliant. But the heads were very minutely painted and . . . Dutch! A woman stepping into a tub of water under a shaft of light had her skin turned to gold.
Then he produced a larger canvas, changed the position of the easel and turned to me with a little grunt. I said slowly: ‘I think that is a great picture. Great art !’
. . . A girl seated on a sofa in a room with many mirrors held a glass of green liqueur. Dark-eyed, heavy-faced, with big, sturdy peasant’s limbs, she was entirely destitute of lightness or grace.
But all the poisonous charm of the life beyond the pale was in her pose, and in her smouldering eyes — all its deadly bitterness and fatigue in her fixed smile.
He received my compliments with pleasure, but with the quite superficial pleasure of the artist who is supremely indifferent to the opinion that other people may have about his work. And, just as I was telling him that the picture reminded me of a portrait of Manet’s, the original came in from outside, carrying a string bag full of green groceries. Mr Verhausen started a little when he saw her and rubbed his hands again — apologetically this time. He said : ‘This, Madame, is my little Marthe. Mademoiselle Marthe Baesen.’
She greeted me with reserve and glanced at the picture on the easel with an inscrutable face. I said to her : ‘I have been admiring Mr Verhausen’s work.’
She said : ‘Yes, Madame?’ with the inflexion of a question and left the room with her string bag.
The old man said to me: ‘Marthe speaks no English and French very badly. She is a true Fleming. Besides, she is not used to visitors.’
There was a feeling of antagonism in the studio now. Mr Verhausen fidgeted and sighed restlessly. I said, rather with hesitation : ‘Mr Verhausen, is it true that you object to exhibiting and to selling your pictures ?’
He looked at me over his spectacles, and the suspicious look, the look of an old Jew when counting his money, came again into his eyes.
‘Object, Madame? I object to nothing. I am an artist. But I do not wish to sell my pictures. And, as I do not wish to sell them, exhibiting is useless. My pictures are precious to me. They are precious, most probably, to no one else.’
He chuckled and added with a glint of malice in his eyes: ‘When I am dead Marthe will try to sell them and not succeed, probably. I am forgotten now. Then she will burn them. She dislikes rubbish, the good Marthe.’
Marthe re-entered the room as he said this. Her face was unpowdered but nearly unwrinkled, her eyes were clear with the shrewd, limited expression of the careful housewife — the look of small horizons and quick, hard judgements. Without the flame his genius had seen in her
and had fixed for ever, she was heavy, placid and uninteresting — at any rate to me.
She said, in bad French : ‘I have bought two artichokes for . . .’ I did not catch how many sous. He looked pleased and greedy.

In the street the yellow dog and the policeman had vanished. The café opposite the door had come alive and its gramophone informed the world that :

Souvent femme varie
Bien fol est qui s’y fie !

It was astonishing how the figure of the girl on the sofa stayed in my mind : it blended with the coming night, the scent of Paris and the hard blare of the gramophone. And I said to myself : ‘Is it possible that all that charm, such as it was, is gone?’
And then I remembered the way in which she had touched his cheek with. her big hands. There was in that movement knowledge, and a certain sureness: as it were the ghost of a time when her business in life had been the consoling of men.

Jean Rhys, 1890-1979.   Tea with an Artist, in, The Left Bank and Other Stories, 1927

 Image: Pierre Bonnard,1867-1947. Femme Sortant Du Bain, c.1925 Oil on canvas, 110 by 94.9 cm

Stendhal – Féder, ou Le Mari d’argent; 1839 Féder or, the Moneyed Husband

Stendhal_ Feder Chsseriau  rmn fr

Chapter 1

. . . . She for her part, looked at him too with a shyness that was not without its appeal, and blushed. The fact is that this charming woman carried her shyness to an extreme that was barely credible; her brother and her husband had been obliged to make a scene in order to induce her to come and see some pictures in the company of a painter she did not know. In a manner of speaking she had made a monster out of this painter, a man of the highest merit and chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Her fancy had pictured a sort of swashbuckler covered with gold chains, wearing a long black beard, and eyeing her constantly from head to foot; talking incessantly and very loud, and, even, telling her the most embarrassing things.

When she saw the arrival of a slim young man with a good figure, dressed in black, wearing his watch attached by a ribbon of the same colour, with an almost imperceptible red ribbon on his coat and a quite ordinary beard, she gripped her husband’s arm, so great was her surprise.
“But that’s not the celebrated painter?” she said to him.
And she was just getting reassured when her brother launched into his brutal account of the word ‘pious’, which presented her devotion in such an unfavourable light. She hardly dared look at the young painter; she dreaded to encounter the most mocking of glances. Reassured, however, by his modest and grave manner, she ended by venturing to raise her eyes. Imagine her joy and amazement when she found in the young painter a serious, almost tender expression. Extreme shyness, when linked with intelligence, leads one to reflect with all the clairvoyance of passion on the slightest detail of things, besides sharpening the wits. This was Valentine’s case. As a result of cholera she had early been left an orphan and had been put in a convent, which she had left only to marry M.Boissaux, who seemed to her as odd as her brother but lacking the gaiety and wit which made the latter such good company when he toned them down and was not wholly absorbed in making himself agreeable. In no time Valentine had indulged in a swarm of reflections on this great painter, who had turned out so different from the one she had figured. Then she was hurt at remembering that he seemed unwilling to paint her portrait. One must realize that to pose for this portrait, to submit for so long to the scrutinizing gaze of a stranger, was for her an appalling ordeal. It had reached so serious a point that she had needed to remind herself of the oath she had sworn at the altar to consider her husband as absolute master of all her important actions, before consenting to this portrait. Her brother had repeated to her two or three times, each time with great exaggeration, the reasons advanced by Féder for preferring the great artist already mentioned.

Valentine was agreeably and deeply surprised when, on reaching a comparison of the two paintings she saw all Féder’s reasons against doing her portrait waver; he could do no less than repeat them, having put them forward only the previous night, in talking to Delangle. With the subtlety natural to a woman of intelligence, however little experience chance had yet provided for her, Valentine noticed that Féder, in comparing his own work with the masterpiece they had come to see, became quite another man. That projecting lower lip was definitely a flaw in her beauty, and Féder felt it keenly; but it did announce a certain possibility of loving with passion to which, somehow or other, he now found himself most susceptible. He was seized with an immoderate desire to paint Valentine’s portrait; to achieve this, it was necessary to address Delangle in a language absolutely opposed to that of the previous night. But Delangle was not the man to restrain his sense of humour. If he detected this variation in Féder’s opinion, he was just the man to shout: “By Jove, sister, let’s do your bright eyes justice; they’ve change the great painter’s mind for him”; and the remark, repeated a score of times in stentorian tones and in every conceivable variation, would have been absolute torture to Féder. He had therefore to let himself be swayed by Delangle’s arguments, and, if he did abandon his verdict of the night before, at least to execute this manoeuvre so far from unknown in our day, with all the skill of a deputy most in command of his words. Above all, he dare not let it be guessed that in fact he set an infinite value on doing this portrait.

Stendhal, 1783-1842 (Marie-Henri Beyle) Féder, ou Le Mari d’argent; 1839; published 1855 . Féder or, the Moneyed Husband

Image: Théodore Chassériau, 1819-1856. Autoportrait de l’artiste tenant une palette, Musée du Louvre © RMN