Vladimir Nabakov – Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle,1969

Japanes Shunga-Honolulu Museum of Art

The collection of Uncle Dan’s Oriental Erotica prints turned out to be artistically second-rate and inept calisthenically. In the most hilarious, and expensive, picture, a Mongolian woman with an inane oval face surmounted by a hideous hair-do was shown communicating sexually with six rather plump, blank-faced gymnasts in what looked like a display window jammed with screens, potted plants, silks, paper fans and crockery. Three of the males, contorted in attitudes of intricate discomfort, were using simultaneously three of the harlot’s main orifices; two older clients were treated by her manually; and the sixth, a dwarf, had to be contented with her deformed foot. Six other voluptuaries were sodomizing her immediate partners, and one more had got stuck in her armpit. Uncle Dan, having patiently disentangled all those limbs and belly folds directly or indirectly connected with the absolutely calm lady (still retaining somehow parts of her robes), had penciled a note that gave the price of the picture and identified it as: “Geisha with 13 lovers.” Van located, however, a fifteenth navel thrown in by the generous artist but impossible to account for anotamically.

Vladimir Nabakov, 1899-1977. Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, 1969

Copyright © 1969 by Article 3C Trust under the Will of Vladimir Nabokov

Image: Japanese Shunga. Honolulu Museum of Art

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

s del piombio-Dorotea-berlin

Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

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

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

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

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

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

Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina,1873-77

Mihailov sold Vronsky his picture, and agreed to paint a portrait of Anna. On the day fixed he came and began the work.

From the fifth sitting the portrait impressed everyone, especially Vronsky, not only by its resemblance, but by its characteristic beauty. It was strange how Mihailov could have discovered just her characteristic beauty. “One needs to know and love her as I have loved her to discover the very sweetest expression of her soul,” Vronsky thought, though it was only from this portrait that he had himself learned this sweetest expression of her soul. But the expression was so true that he, and others too, fancied they had long known it.

“I have been struggling on for ever so long without doing anything,” he said of his own portrait of her, “and he just looked and painted it. That’s where technique comes in.”

“That will come,” was the consoling reassurance given him by Golenishtchev, in whose view Vronsky had both talent, and what was most important, culture, giving him a wider outlook on art. Golenishtchev’s faith in Vronsky’s talent was propped up by his own need of Vronsky’s sympathy and approval for his own articles and ideas, and he felt that the praise and support must be mutual.

In another man’s house, and especially in Vronsky’s palazzo, Mihailov was quite a different man from what he was in his studio. He behaved with hostile courtesy, as though he were afraid of coming closer to people he did not respect. He called Vronsky “your excellency,” and notwithstanding Anna’s and Vronsky’s invitations, he would never stay to dinner, nor come except for the sittings. Anna was even more friendly to him than to other people, and was very grateful for her portrait. Vronsky was more than cordial with him, and was obviously interested to know the artist’s opinion of his picture. Golenishtchev never let slip an opportunity of instilling sound ideas about art into Mihailov. But Mihailov remained equally chilly to all of them. Anna was aware from his eyes that he liked looking at her, but he avoided conversation with her. Vronsky’s talk about his painting he met with stubborn silence, and he was as stubbornly silent when he was shown Vronsky’s picture. He was unmistakably bored by Golenishtchev’s conversation, and he did not attempt to oppose him.

Altogether Mihailov, with his reserved and disagreeable, as it were, hostile attitude, was quite disliked by them as they got to know him better; and they were glad when the sittings were over, and they were left with a magnificent portrait in their possession, and he gave up coming. Golenishtchev was the first to give expression to an idea that had occurred to all of them, which was that Mihailov was simply jealous of Vronsky.

“Not envious, let us say, since he has talent; but it annoys him that a wealthy man of the highest society, and a count, too (you know they all detest a title), can, without any particular trouble, do as well, if not better, than he who has devoted all his life to it. And more than all, it’s a question of culture, which he is without.”

Vronsky defended Mihailov, but at the bottom of his heart he believed it, because in his view a man of a different, lower world would be sure to be envious.

Anna’s portrait–the same subject painted from nature both by him and by Mihailov–ought to have shown Vronsky the difference between him and Mihailov; but he did not see it. Only after Mihailov’s portrait was painted he left off painting his portrait of Anna, deciding that it was now not needed. His picture of medieval life he went on with. And he himself, and Golenishtchev, and still more Anna, thought it very good, because it was far more like the celebrated pictures they knew than Mihailov’s picture.

Mihailov meanwhile, although Anna’s portrait greatly fascinated him, was even more glad than they were when the sittings were over, and he had no longer to listen to Golenishtchev’s disquisitions upon art, and could forget about Vronsky’s painting. He knew that Vronsky could not be prevented from amusing himself with painting; he knew that he and all dilettanti had a perfect right to paint what they liked, but it was distasteful to him. A man could not be prevented from making himself a big wax doll, and kissing it. But if the man were to come with the doll and sit before a man in love, and begin caressing his doll as the lover caressed the woman he loved, it would be distasteful to the lover. Just such a distasteful sensation was what Mihailov felt at the sight of Vronsky’s painting: he felt it both ludicrous and irritating, both pitiable and offensive.

Vronsky’s interest in painting and the Middle Ages did not last long. He had enough taste for painting to be unable to finish his picture. The picture came to a standstill. He was vaguely aware that its defects, inconspicuous at first, would be glaring if he were to go on with it. The same experience befell him as Golenishtchev, who felt that he had nothing to say, and continually deceived himself with the theory that his idea was not yet mature, that he was working it out and collecting materials. This exasperated and tortured Golenishtchev, but Vronsky was incapable of deceiving and torturing himself, and even more incapable of exasperation. With his characteristic decision, without explanation or apology, he simply ceased working at painting.

But without this occupation, the life of Vronsky and of Anna, who wondered at his loss of interest in it, struck them as intolerably tedious in an Italian town. The palazzo suddenly seemed so obtrusively old and dirty, the spots on the curtains, the cracks in the floors, the broken plaster on the cornices became so disagreeably obvious, and the everlasting sameness of Golenishtchev, and the Italian professor and the German traveler became so wearisome, that they had to make some change. They resolved to go to Russia, to the country. In Petersburg Vronsky intended to arrange a partition of the land with his brother, while Anna meant to see her son. The summer they intended to spend on Vronsky’s great family estate.

Leo Tolstoy 1828 – 1910.   Anna Karenina, 1873-77  (Part 5. Chapter 13)

Image: Ivan Kramskoi. Portrait of an Unknown Woman, 1883, oil on canvas. 75.5x99cm. Tretyakov Gallery, Russia