Talk about pictures

The view of writers on the work of painters: throughout the week, we ask ourselves what it means to “write the painting”, or when the hand of the writer takes over from that of the artist, each one with its own language.

Vermeer's View of Delft (circa 1660), in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague
Vermeer’s View of Delft (c. 1660), in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague • Credits: Photo by Buyenlarge / Getty Images – Getty

Pascal Dethurens , professor of comparative literature at the University of Strasbourg, talks to us today about the relationship between painting and literature. He has devoted several books to this theme: Writing painting. From Diderot to Quignard , republished in 2018 by Citadelles & Mazenod, Éloge du livre. Readers and writers in literature and painting (Hazan, 2018), or L’œil du monde. Images of the window in Western literature and painting (at l’Atelier Contemporain, 2018). 

A fairly mild attack of uremia was the reason she had been prescribed rest. But a critic who wrote that in the View of Delftby Ver Meer (on loan from The Hague Museum for a Dutch exhibition), a painting he loved and thought he knew very well, a small section of yellow wall (which he did not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it alone, like a precious work of Chinese art, of a beauty which would be sufficient in itself, Bergotte ate a few potatoes, went out and entered the exhibition. From the first steps he had to climb, he was seized with dizziness. He passed in front of several paintings and had the impression of the drought and uselessness of an art so artificial, and which was not worth the drafts and sun of a palazzo in Venice, or of a simple house by the sea. Finally he was in front of the Ver Meer that he remembered more brilliantly, more different from anything he knew, but where, thanks to the article of the critic, he noticed for the first time little figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and finally the precious material of the tiny piece of wall yellow. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child, on a yellow butterfly he wants to seize, on the precious little piece of wall.“This is how I should have written, he said. My last books are too dry, it would have been necessary to pass several layers of color, to make my sentence in itself precious, like this small yellow section of wall”. However, the severity of his dizziness did not escape him. In a celestial scale appeared to him, loading one of the trays, his own life, while the other contained the small section of wall so well painted in yellow. “- Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière . 

The links between literature and painting are rich and multiple. With our guest, we discuss several aspects: first, the descriptions of works of art in literary texts – or ekphrasis , the first of which probably date back to Homer, with the shield of Achilles described in the Iliad . According to Pascal Dethurens, by putting words on the “astonishment” he feels, “the writer legitimizes the exercise of admiration”. The writer, sensitive to images, cannot remain blind in front of a painting – as one sees it in the passage of the death of the writer Bergotte at Proust, in front of the “small yellow wall” of the View of Delft by Vermeer ,, whose sketches he had seen in the painter’s studio: 

It is wonderful, in an infinite solitude on the sea shore, under a cloudy sky, to gaze upon a desert of limitless water. You still have to have gone there, have to come back, want to cross over to the other side, not have power, be deprived of everything that sustains life, and nevertheless perceive the voice of this life in the roar of the waves, the breath of the air, the passage of the clouds, the solitary cry of the birds. This requires a requirement of the heart and this disappointment that, to express myself thus, nature inflicts on you. But all this is impossible in front of the painting, and what I was to find in the painting itself, I only found between myself and the painting, namely a demand addressed by my heart to the painting and a disappointment that I felt. inflicted the painting. I thus became the Capuchin myself, the painting became the dune, but the expanse to which my melancholy gazes must have been, the sea, was totally absent. –Heinrich von Kleist, Empfindungen vor Friedrichs Seelandschaft

"The monk by the sea" by Caspar David Friedrich, painted between 1808 and 1810 and exhibited at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin
“The monk by the sea” by Caspar David Friedrich, painted between 1808 and 1810 and exhibited at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin • Credits: Photo by Fine Art Images / Heritage Images – Getty

The proximity to images thus also allows the writer to reflect on his own work: Pascal Dethurens summons during this program the figures of Pascal Quignard (and in particular his text On the image which is missing today ) or of Yves Bonnefoy , which both offer a reflection on the image, the question of the visible and poetic research. Finally, certain literary works can by themselves be considered as paintings, in the same way that a text is also “a window, a cutout given on reality”. We think in particular of the flamboyant red of Salammbô , the shimmers of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine or the mouse gray of Madame Flaubert. As we see with our guest, the writer’s gaze enriches our conception of the works, just as it needs the painter’s hand and eye: “if we were content to see what is only under our eyes, we would miss thousands of images “.