BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 01 JUN 11
Featured in
Issue 140

The Lives and Deaths of Fictional Artists

Sam Thorne explores the esoteric work of writers who created fictional artists, from Paul Auster and Susan Sontag to Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 01 JUN 11

‘Stories arrive in the head in order to be told. Sometimes paintings do the same.’

Artists – like secretaries, shopkeepers or plumbers – are granted plenty of walk-on parts in fiction. They tend to enter, say something plausibly bohemian, and are then swiftly forgotten by both reader and writer. But novels and short stories that pay more than passing attention to a fictional artist’s life and work belong to an esoteric subcategory of modern literature. The small number of truly memorable fictional artists is acknowledged by editor Koen Brahms in the foreword to The Encyclopedia of Fictional Artists (2011): while the two-volume book lists 250-plus short lives, his initial discussions with potential contributors struggled to yield more than 20. Articulating a dramatically compelling, historically credible but completely fictional oeuvre brings with it an unappealing set of challenges that have been risked by few novelists.

As well as being few and far between, the works of art these fictional artists produce are surprisingly similar. It doesn’t matter whether the novel was published in the early 20th century or last year, it will almost always concern a vividly expressive portrait or landscape painted by a man (Paul Gauguin is the persistent model, with novelists from W. Somerset Maugham to Maria Vargas Llosa mining his Tahiti journal for different fictional ends). Beyond these basic characteristics, more specific details of the fictional art work are usually sparse. This elusiveness is perhaps behind our common impulse to put pictures to these fictions: a small publishing industry is devoted to producing coffee-table books of probable sources for the paintings described in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913–27); more idiosyncratically, there was an exhibition in New York last year devoted entirely to interpretations of the films of James O. Incandenza, a character in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

Sophie Calle & Paul Auster, Gotham Handbook, 1994/ 2000. Edition of 3, installation with text and photographs.

Sustained descriptions of fictional art are the point where the membrane between literary fiction and art criticism is most permeable – it’s no surprise that many novels about fictional artists are by writers who also produce criticism of some kind. Many adopt the guise of how art is generally written about and discussed, such as artists’ journals (John Berger’s A Painter of Our Time, 1958), biographies (William Boyd’s Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960, 1998), interviews (John Updike’s Seek My Face, 2003) and accounts of studio visits (W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, 1998). All writing about images can be read as a commentary upon the nature of the encounter between the verbal and the visual, in that it must start from some form of ekphrasis (the evocation of a painting or sculpture by the written word). But writing about fictional art only resembles ekphrasis, for the simple reason that the art work under consideration has never existed; unlike criticism, these novels don’t depend on the aesthetic imagination and artistic production of another.

As Berger wrote in a 1979 essay about a (completely fictional) nude by Frans Hals: ‘Stories arrive in the head in order to be told. Sometimes paintings do the same.’ What happens when writing on fictional objects begins to resemble art criticism? Does modern fiction’s aversion to describing art speak to a more generally held doubt in writing’s ability to ever achieve the (apparently) direct representational power of a work of art? Or does telling stories offer us as good a way as any for talking about art?

‘A multitude of strange lines’

The very earliest pioneer of abstraction – who was claimed as an influence by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century – existed only in fiction. The painter in question is the subject of Honoré de Balzac’s famous short story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ (1831–7), one of the novelist’s most intense efforts to analyze the condition of being an artist. The action takes place in 1612: Frenhofer’s ten-year struggle to complete a painting, La belle noiseuse (The Beautiful Troublemaker), is suddenly resolved when the young Poussin suggests that his mistress Gillette sit for the elderly artist. Within hours the masterpiece is completed, but, on being called into the studio, Poussin and his mentor Porbus can see nothing but ‘confused masses of colour and a multitude of strange lines, forming a dead wall of paint’. In one corner of the canvas a single bare foot emerges from this ‘dim, formless fog’. Devastated, Frenhofer hurries the two men back out. The following morning he is found dead in his studio, with all of his canvases burnt.

‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ is often read as prophesying the heroic struggles of modern painting: Rainer Maria Rilke referred to its ‘unbelievable visions of future evolutions’ and, though Balzac himself intended the story as a warning against overstepping formal conventions, it had considerable sway over artists for more than a century. Willem de Kooning, who read ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ while agonizing over Woman (1949), believed Frenhofer’s painting to prefigure Cubism, while Picasso illustrated his dealer Ambroise Vollard’s edition of the story and even moved to rue des Grands-Augustins, the location of Porbus’s studio, where he would go on to paint Guernica in 1937. According to the account of his friend Émile Bernard, Paul Cézanne – while tearfully ‘striking his chest with his index finger’ – once ‘designated himself as the very person in the story’. Cézanne was certainly sensitive to the overlaps between life and fiction: a few years before he had fallen out with his childhood friend Emile Zola over the latter’s fictionalized portrait of him in his 1886 novel The Masterpiece, which tells of the downfall of a visionary painter.

The wider legacy of ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ was to cement a type that is rarely deviated from: the artist as a tragic, fallen figure whose work is doomed to be misunderstood in his own time. Addiction, madness and bereavement are best-case scenarios for these loners – most careers are truncated by suicide. This is certainly revealing not only of how writers assign certain fears and desires to the artist’s profession, but also of how the wider reading public generally encounters the artist as virtually incompatible with society.

‘Shake off the body’

Before the fictional artist inevitably burns out he is always fading away. Franz Kafka’s 1922 short story ‘A Hunger Artist’ sets the terms for this mode of gradual disappearance. One of Kafka’s many marginalized individuals, the artist works in a travelling circus sideshow, where to entertain the crowds he fasts in a cage for up to 40 days. He is eventually forgotten and becomes so emaciated he seems to vanish, a scrawny corpse lost in a pile of dirty straw. Fragility was of course also central to Baudelaire’s conception of the painter of modern life (who he described as ‘a convalescent’ returned from ‘the brink of oblivion’), and shrinking from sight is a common symptom of the fictional artist. In Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist (2001), Lauren Hartke – who recalls at different moments both Marina Abramovic´ and Chris Burden – is ‘a body artist who tries to shake off the body’, and her performance concludes with the figure of an ‘emaciated and aphasic man’; in Infinite Jest James O. Incandenza’s eventual suicide is referred to continually as ‘self-erasure’; while Janos Lavin, a poverty-stricken Hungarian painter exiled in London in Berger’s A Painter of Our Time, simply disappears into thin air.

In one of the journal entries that forms Berger’s novel, Lavin claims that ‘any suicide is the result of a lack of recognition’. But suicide for fictional artists is almost invariably their only guarantee of public visibility. Acceptance and understanding is always belated, a double-bind in which the artist is always on the brink of disappearance until disappearance is finally decided upon and visibility arrives. New Yorker critic Alex Ross has noted that: ‘To read the literature of fictive music […] is to see the rise and apparent decline in classical music as a medium of cultural power.’ Dogged by critical, commercial and physical failure, fictional artists have never reached such grand heights of genius as the diabolic composer Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus (1947) – they have always been on the brink of disappearance.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863 (Salon of 1865). Courtesy of the Musee d'Orsay.

‘The unnatural technique!’

Artists in fiction are often the unlucky heralds of the quintessential Modernist project: they initiate a turn – from past authorities towards the pursuit of a projected future of new forms and freedoms – whose pressure they can hardly withstand. A particularly severe case of this can be found in H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Pickman’s Model’ (1927), in which a Bostonian painter, intoxicated by ‘art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum’, becomes an occultist. Pickman is black-balled by the city’s Art Club for the ‘unbelievable loathsomeness’ of his ‘modern studies’. What the society members find most shocking is not the demonic beings in his paintings, but the ‘cursed, the impious, the unnatural technique!’ Yes, more terrible than being a devil-worshipper, Pickman is a photorealist painter. In an inversion of gothic fiction’s terror/pleasure principle, where an enlightened innocent stumbles onto something terrible from the forgotten past (witches in the cemetery or some other demonic rite), an institutional establishment is stricken by the shock of the new.

‘A forger struggles…’

Novels are awash with forgeries – in fact there are more of them than original works of art. A provisional explanation: the art work in fiction is less likely to be the basis for some epiphany than to be a MacGuffin, a dramatic device whose physical form is – as Alfred Hitchcock explained to François Truffaut – ‘beside the point’. All that matters is that the MacGuffin ‘must seem to be of vital importance to the characters’; in its purest distillation, which Hitchcock believed he had achieved in North by Northwest (1959), the MacGuffin is ‘nothing at all!’ Despite this helpful malleability of form, for ease of plotting the canny novelist must pay heed to the issue of transportability: the MacGuffin has to be able to change hands swiftly. This is possibly the reason that forged paintings outnumber sculptures in modern fiction, comprising anything from Hieronymus Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins (in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, 1955) to Hubert van Eyck’s The Gaping Mouth of Hell (in Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone, 1985), from a Christian icon (in Tom McCarthy’s Men in Space, 2007) to knocked-off versions of a missing British painter (in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground, 1970). Of course the forgery simply offers better dramatic possibilities, as Highsmith’s antihero Tom Ripley realizes, quoting Han van Meegeren, the great forger of Vermeer: ‘An artist does things naturally, without effort […] A forger struggles, and if he succeeds, it is a genuine achievement.’ But – just as gallerists in popular fiction are typically feckless spivs, critics are embittered alcoholics and collectors are benevolent fools – the prevalence of the forged work of art is doubtless also wrapped up with a sneaking desire to expose art-world expertise as no more than a profitable sham.

‘That medley of impressions’

Paul Auster, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf – many novelists who have written about fictional artists have also produced criticism. Indeed, one of the great novels of the 20th century, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, began life as a work of criticism, a series of essays arguing against the author Sainte-Beuve. This voluminously chatty work is, over the course of its 1.5 million words, peppered with the names of more than 100 real-life artists – from Giotto and Corot, to Bellini and Léon Bakst. By my rough estimate, Vermeer and Whistler are the most frequently referred to, though much dinner party gossip is given over to Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting Olympia (‘Nowadays nobody is in the least surprised by it. It looks just like an Ingres!’ exclaims a duchess). Amidst the masters mingle Proust’s contemporaries – little-known or forgotten academicians, as well as critics and collectors – above whom towers just one fictional artist: Elstir, a famed painter whose seascapes, according to the narrator Marcel, ‘break up that medley of impressions which we call vision’. Many have tried to identify the source of Carquethuit Harbour, which is said to be Elstir’s greatest painting: Manet’s Le Port de Bordeaux (1871) is often mentioned, along with Vuillard and Hokusai, while Michel Butor has pointed out that ‘Elstir’ is a Gallicized anagram of ‘Whistler’.

Elstir belongs – along with the composer Vinteuil and the novelist Bergotte – to the artistic trinity who influence Marcel’s crucial decision to become a writer at the end of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time. Though Elstir’s paintings and Vinteuil’s sonatas are described at length, Bergotte’s novels are barely mentioned. In fact he is more artist than novelist: a painter of the same name pops up in Proust’s very early novel Jean Santeuil (published posthumously in 1952), but, more intriguingly, Bergotte’s defining scene only comes when he dies in front of a painting. After having read a newspaper article about a specific detail of Johannes Vermeer’s View of Delft (1660–1), he goes to examine the work and, while peering closely at the brushwork, collapses from a stroke. Bergotte’s dying thought is that he should have used words a little more like paint: ‘That is how I should have written […] like that little patch of yellow wall.’ Writing ‘like’ art is the impossible ambition of all ekphrastic description. While writing about fictional art would seem to bypass this impossibility – the work of art only ever exists as texts – many novels still insist on the absoluteness of the divide.

Pablo Picasso, Frembofer at work on his 'Unkown Masterpiece', 1931, Engraving, Illustration from ' The Unknown Masterpiece' by Honore de Balzac, 1831-7. Courtesy: The Stapleton Collection, Succesion Picasso/ DACS, London 2011.

‘I have had my vision’

Among many other things, Proust’s sequence of novels constitutes a lifelong apprenticeship in looking. Writing a novel is an enormously time-consuming activity and the novelist’s content is the passage of time itself. This time spent looking, reading and researching is often accounted for within the plot of the novel itself, a process which is rarely so self-conscious as when an artist is the subject. In Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003), a Bildungsroman crossed with comic-book fantasy, the father of the young hero Dylan is an experimental filmmaker in the mold of Stan Brakhage or Len Lye. Dylan would ‘stand at his father’s elbow and try to watch what couldn’t be watched, the incomprehensible progress of an animated film painted by single brushstrokes onto celluloid. For Abraham Ebdus had renounced painting on canvas […] his lifework, an abstract painting unfolding in time, in the form of painted frames of film.’ Lethem is fond of pointing up the parallels with his own life as a writer: he opens a catalogue essay which accompanied a retrospective of his own father Richard’s work, with the line, ‘I learned to think by watching my father paint.’ In a 2003 interview published in The Paris Review, he said: ‘My process is dull. It’s as plodding and pedantic as Abraham’s film, painted one frame at a time.’ Perhaps the most famous example of a writer’s slow progress being mapped onto the unfolding of a novel is the final line of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) when the nervous painter Lily Briscoe – who has been wrestling with compositional problems – finishes her semi-abstract landscape painting: ‘It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.’

‘Lethally entertaining’

The single most detailed record of a fictional artist’s oeuvre can be found in number 24 of Infinite Jest’s closely printed endnotes. Running to some eight pages, the listing catalogues all 78 of James O. Incandenza’s ‘recondite art films’, which had gained a ‘small academic following for their technical fleck’. Just as Proust constructs an intellectual community that stretches from the salon to the museum, Incandenza’s work is located – with exhausting detail and an unnerving knack for verisimilitude – in the deadpan academicism of East Coast 1970s filmmaking. One of the several pleasures of this filmography is Incandenza’s titles: Poultry in Motion; Fun with Teeth; Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators; Dial C for Concupiscence; and Blood Sister: One Tough Nun (one of his few commercial successes). A parody of Hollis Frampton is listed as the ‘most hated Incandenza film’ and requires the audience to be filmed while taking their seats, the footage of which is then projected with a delay onto the cinema screen. Titled The Joke, it lasts as long as it takes for the angry crowd to leave, and is credited with ‘unwittingly sounding the death-knell of post-poststructuralist film in terms of sheer annoyance’.

Incandenza is one of the few conceptual artists in fiction (he is preceded by Maria Turner, a joint creation of Sophie Calle and Paul Auster who pops up in the latter’s 1992 Leviathan – the novel’s accounts of her works were subsequently enacted by Calle herself). Many of Incandenza’s films are described as technically or conceptually unfilmable (one is ‘unfinished due to hospitalization’), while his video Infinite Jest is itself said to be ‘lethally entertaining’ – once viewers start watching they cannot stop and remain transfixed until they starve. This elusive videotape, of which all copies are missing, is wrapped up with the unbearable pleasure of seeing. The visual is thematized as entirely other to language, as Wallace insinuates that the visual can make claims on our attention that the verbal cannot. Within the logic of the novel, the video would be impossible to sufficiently describe; it evades all attempts at ekphrasis – a shortcoming which is in this case redeemed, in that the ability to properly visualize it would result in death.

That writing fiction may finally be incompatible with adequately describing a work of art is the worry that shadows many of these novels. But, like Bergotte’s dying realization, they also suggest that the knowledge of this shortcoming is what makes writing worthwhile.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.