Sunday, January 4, 2009

"The precious little patch of yellow wall"

View of Delft, Jan Vermeer, 1660

Marcel Proust wrote a truly epic novel about ordinary life infused with a richness of experience. Of nature, of sensual pleasure, of jealousy, of habit, of desire, of loss, of philosophy, of art, of every passing moment of being aware.

Art is experienced in Proust at a technical, emotional depth as an inherent part of being human, though his character Francoise offers the reader a humanity without much taste for Art. Certainly, Proust was one of the most intimate writers in western literature, surpassing, say, Hemingway (another brilliant writer I should become better acquainted with).

This respect for the human expression of Art into Being is, to me, fundamental to my enjoyment of In Search of Lost Time.

One of the best Christmas presents I got this year was from Jennifer’s parents. It was a book of paintings that Proust either refers to or discusses in some detail through the long course of his novel. Paintings in Proust contains well over 300 color prints of a vast array of paintings.

Proust visited the Louvre often in Paris during his teens and twenties and had a bright mind for Art. His impressions of many of the canvases he admired are expressed throughout the novel. An amazing accomplishment finally collected in this new book.

One could consider Proust from a wide variety of perspectives. The Art of writing (through the character of Bergotte) or the Art of music (through the character of Vinteuil) are certainly both strong perspectives expressed in Proust. As are the internal demons of possessiveness and force of habit.

The intimacy of the Art of painting (through the character of Elstir) is explored often in the novel but perhaps not more intimately than in the death of Proust’s fictional great writer Bergotte. He dies while viewing a painting by Vermeer.

“At last he came to the Vermeer which he remembered as more striking, more different from anything else he knew, but in which, thanks to the critic’s article, he noticed for the first time some small figures in blue, that the sand was pink, and, finally, this precious substance of the tiny patch of yellow wall. His dizziness increased; he fixed his gaze, like a child upon a yellow butterfly that it wants to catch, on the precious little patch of yellow wall.”

That yellow wall was Bergotte’s last conscious motivation before he died from complications of “a fairly mild attack of uraemia”. His death seems almost sentimental to our postmodern mind. But Proust has enough of a edge to pull things like this off similarly to how Mahler gets away with his moments of sentimentality throughout his body of symphonies.

But what is more intimate than death? And how better to represent Art’s essential quality to the dignity of human experience than to have it rendered as the final experience of an artist who, upon seeing the painting, becomes troubled by the quality of his own work? Then Bergotte considered the “precious tiny patch of yellow wall” and died. There is no closer way for the human mind to touch Art (though there are other ways).

I have considered paintings hung in galleries closely all my life. I’ve always had a fascination for visual arts. I majored in a visual art in college. So this book Paintings in Proust is a real wonder of a work, showing us clearly how vast is the mind of Proust in his novel for this is but one tiny aspect of what Proust portrays and the ideas he presents throughout In Search of Lost Time.

And understanding how a patch of yellow can be so meaningful and significant is what appreciating great art is all about. It is a moment, among many moments, that can grant Being a meaning.


Proust visited the Vermeer exhibition in Paris the year before his own death. A photographer captured him standing outside the gallery on the occasion. These are the last photographs we have of Proust alive. Proust called Vermeer's View of Delft "the most beautiful painting in the world". (William C. Carter, page 753; Jean-Yves Tadie, pages 744-745)

2 comments:

Mandy L Cantrell said...

I love the painting and am just drawn into it but don't know if I would have been had it not been for the sunny yellow that doesn't seem so sunny really.

Keith said...

Yes. It's actually rather cloudy over the town with the sun shining through at an angle. Sunny but not so sunny is a good way to relate to the feeling it projects.