Turning to Visual Memory in Search of a Lost Time: Marcel Proust and the Visual Arts – Aditi Singh

Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.

Marcel Proust

The opening of the twentieth century witnessed an increased interest in the construct of time and memory facilitated by the radical changes occurring in the understanding of the world. The Theory of Relativity propounded by Albert Einstein nudged scientific, philosophical, religious, and aesthetic deliberations on the nature of time and means of its measurement. Sigmund Freud coalesced time and memory and rendered it a physiological whole. Echoing Henry Bergson’s idea of durée, Marcel Proust challenged temporal-spatial conventions and sensationalised time and memory with the use of the visual arts in his works.

The first volume of In Search of Lost Time (French: À la recherche du temps perdu), (originally translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past) is considered Marcel Proust’s masterwork. Written from 1909 to 1922, largely at night in the silence of a cork-lined room, it prompts its reader to experience the sensory. One can see, hear, taste, touch and smell Proust’s threads of literature. Colour, texture, smell—everything is suggested in one go. The effect of his writing was such that it gave rise to the Proust phenomenon indicative of the ability of odours to spontaneously cue autobiographical memories of the past which are highly vivid and affectively toned. Sauntering seven long tours of Proust’s labyrinthine memory, the halls of which are adorned with sharp images of the past, the reader is time and again made to turn to the visual arts to piece together the search of a lost time. Echoing Henry Bergson’s view that art, whether it be painting or sculpture, poetry or music, has no other object than to brush aside the utilitarian
symbols, the conventional and socially accepted generalities, in short, everything that veils reality from us, in order to bring us face to face with reality itself, Proust employs aesthetic analogies to unveil and elevate the experience of reality and the past. Proust investigates the courses of social mobility, love and philosophy, only to realize that only art is for all time.

Spanning over fifty years in the life of its protagonist, Proust’s novel is informed with radical temporal instability. The novel opens with the remembrance of a time when the narrator “would go to bed early.” This is followed by a confession of fleeting consciousness that makes the narrator unaware of his surroundings, even his existence upon waking up. “I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years.” The reader is then presented with a kaleidoscopic vision of the various bedrooms where the narrator sleeps as the novel progresses. Proust, thus, draws the reader into the fantasy of the novel and lays down the constant of the instability of time and space mitigated by the visual. René Girard describes the primary experiences of the novel in terms of “vision,” “transcendance,” “ecstatic moments of peace,” “spiritual emptiness and ennui,” and “resurrection” in memory (Turkey).

Exploring the collaboration of the written word and the image, Henry James in his work Picture and Text claims that what the verbal artist would like to do would be to find out the secret of the pictorial, to drink at the same fountain. The exchange of ideas between the artist and the writer and their consequent seamless blend can be found succinctly in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

Corot is the first painter mentioned in the novel while Chardin is the last. Between the two, Velazquez, Detaille, Bellini, Ingres, Munkacsy, Mantegna, Rembrandt, Titian, Winterhalter and Vermeer among others make their appearance. 24-year-old Marcel Proust wrote an unfinished essay Chardin and Rembrandt around 1895, which was published in David Zwirner Books’ ekphrasis series. Horace’s statement ut pictura poesis characterizes the sibling relationship between art and writing gracefully framed in the Greek concept of ekphrasis, which can be classified into two classes of Notional ekphrasis and Actual ekphrasis.

Proust’s writing is peppered with allusions to artists and works of art: Proust parallels Marcel’s father standing at the foot of his bed allowing his wife to stay with the child to Abraham in the engraving after Benozzo Gozzoli’s Sacrifice of Abraham “telling Sarah that she must tear herself away from Isaac” (Proust 49). The description of the poise exhibited by Mme de Guermantes as she graced the red carpet and “covered its woollen texture with a nap of rosy velvet, a bloom of luminosity, of solemn sweetness in the pomp of a joyful celebration, which characterise certain pages of Lohengrin, certain paintings by Carpaccio” (Proust 251) captivates the reader and brilliantly puts in words an image of tenderness; Marcel’s artist friend Elstir, who makes a brief appearance in Swann’s Way is modelled on the painters Turner, Whistler, Monet and Helleu, to name a few; Odette de Crecy captivates Swann by her resemblance to a famous Botticelli fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Proust makes abundantly clear that Swann located a certain unattractiveness in Odette but his infatuation elevates to an aesthetic plane when he realises her resemblance to Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah. “He stood gazing at her; traces of the old fresco were apparent in her face and her body, and these he tried incessantly to recapture thereafter, both when he was with Odette and when he was only thinking of her in her absence; and, although his admiration for the Florentine masterpiece was doubtless based upon his discovery that it had been reproduced in her, the similarity enhanced her beauty also, and made her more precious” (Proust 313). One of Marcel’s friends at Combray, Bloch’s boyhood appearance is likened to the portrait of Mehmet II by the Italian painter of the school of Venice Gentile Bellini. Proust’s employment of Giotto’s Proto-Renaissance painting Charity (Carità) is more subtle. The folds outlining the pregnancy of the “servant-girl” recall the cloaks in which Giotto shrouds some of his allegorical figures, of which M. Swann gave the narrator photographs.

Proust attempts to locate a verbal equivalent to transpose the essence of the art echoing Joseph Conrad’s words, “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything.” The visual arts are employed ironically, allegorically, metaphorically and introspectively. Proust transforms the mundane and humble through his imagination and the art of association that infuses all space as though it were a still life, a quality he derives from Chardin. His use of the visual arts also emphasizes an interiorization. The spectator, then, sees not just the work of art but also his own desires, afflictions, his inner self in memory. The reader is sometimes kept away from and outside the dangers of such visualizations that are uniquely the spectator’s. The text contains deliberations about vice and virtue deriving from Giotto’s visualizations that attribute a certain morality to the arts and to the work. Botticelli’s painting, according to Jeffrey Meyers “leads to significant revelations about the function of memory, the transformation of unacceptable reality, and the relation between art and moral truth.” The arts effortlessly flow into each other as is with the case of the visual and the aural. Paintings in Proust are sometimes maneuvered to sync with musical memories as when Proust links Carpaccio’s paintings with the sound of a trumpet. The milestones, for Proust, in his search for a lost time are accompanied by aesthetic analogies that stir, sharpen and strengthen his relationship with the past, present and the future.

The visual arts then inhabit the space of the artist where his palimpsest memory merges with the known, the actual to render an error of perception, uniquely his own. Monet’s Water Lilies outline in multiple slants of light the ordinary flowers much like Proust who seeks to stir a memory, an abstraction, who has mastered the art of taking up themes, letting them drop, then coming back to them, each time exposing the theme in a different light. The description of the “quiet little bay” at Balbec is technically stylized to meet the Impressionist masters, who inspire the character of Elstir that rounds in the subsequent volumes. Proust’s prose reads, “each new character is merely a metamorphosis from something earlier” and it is this formal similitude between the subject and the world that Proust seeks to achieve through the visual arts that renders his work a creation in evocation.

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