Friday, May 02, 2008

Imaginary Portraits discussion: Chapters 1 – 2

This post will look at the first two chapters of Imaginary Portraits, a work which can be found here. The use of the word ‘portrait’ in the title of the collection is telling as it feels like Pater creates a written picture, solidifying a relationship between life and art. (The works were individually published in Macmillan's Magazine from 1885 through 1887)

Chapter 1, “A Prince of Court Painters”, recounts “extracts from an old French journal.” The journal is imaginary and the entries focus on a fictionalized telling of Jean-Antoine Watteau's life by a female friend of the family. In focusing on his life, the ‘diarist’ also relays reactions and criticisms of Watteau’s work. The descriptions of his work heavily rely on sensory reactions and impressions that the work gives, marginally describing the subject. Certain words are used repeatedly to describe his work, in particular the ‘light’ or ‘lightness’ of his work. Pater ends up critiquing his work (and delving into the nature of art) though the journal entries.

As a youth (in the fictional journal) Watteau is described as sketching “with a kind of grace—a marvelous tact of omission…in dealing with the vulgar reality.” He is compared to actors who perform “a sort of comedy which shall be but tragedy seen from the other side.” Later in his career, the journalist notes that his works contain “a certain light we should seek for in vain upon anything real.” The importance of this comes from how the viewer responds:
”Beside that unreal, imaginary light upon these scenes, these persons, which is pure gift of his, there was a light, a poetry, in those persons and things themselves, close at hand WE had not seen. He has enabled us to see it: we are so much the better-off thereby, and I, for one, the better. The world he sets before us so engagingly has its care for purity, its cleanly preferences, in what one is to SEE—in the outsides of things—and there is something, a sign, a memento, at the least, of what makes life really valuable, even in that. There, is my simple notion, wholly womanly perhaps, but which I may hold by, of the purpose of the arts.”

Pater adds reviews of Watteau’s work as well as includes one (Pater’s?) view of art. In the quote, the journalist shows a relationship between life and art, but as you are immersed more in the story the feeling that life should be treated as art shines through. The transcendent reaction from viewing his work is not to be limited to art, but can be used when viewing the world as well. The world itself does not become better, despite the journalist’s belief that that is what Watteau wants, but how we view the world can change.

As I read through this story, I kept hearing echoes of a few themes within To the Lighthouse. Pater’s elaborate sentence construction, with numerous intricate clauses, also felt familiar. Here is Pater’s description of Watteau having difficulty translating his impression of a scene to canvas: “(H)e is often out of humor with himself because he cannot project into a picture the life and spirit of his first thought with the crayon.” It’s easy to see how Watteau could have been Lily Briscoe’s great-great-great-grandfather. Additional reflections on the purposes of writing and usefulness of art, as well as some thoughts on memory, tie the stories together even more. I’m not trying to overdo the similarities, but did want to point them out.

An additional theme in the story is one of Watteau’s unhappiness and desire to escape. For a while he constantly moves, first from his poor home and then between patrons. Over and over the journalist mentions he despised the society he moved in, describes his demeanor as melancholy, and notes the lack of peace he found even when successful. Changing the way people see the world is not the same as changing the world, and the melancholy Watteau feels appears to hasten his demise. The bird trapped in a chapel, fluttering to escape until it eventually dies, becomes a metaphor for the artist. When Watteau dies of consumption, it is noted that “He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.”

Chapter 2, “Denys L’Auxerrois,” is a retelling of the Dionysus myth, set in 13th century France. The first part of the story feels like a travelogue, focusing on the architecture of a few towns in the Burgundy/Chablis region (I guess the story has me focusing on wine). As the narrator happens upon some stained glass and a tapestry, he is told the story behind the pieces. Denys l’Auxerrois is an updated Dionysus. His appearance brings bountiful harvests (especially of grapes and the resulting wines) and a wild atmosphere complete with ecstatic gatherings. An artistic high-point was reached during his appearance in the area, including the creation of a pipe organ, yet the exuberant atmosphere he engendered was unsustainable. Denys also seemed set apart from the change in the area.

The story begins by noting of past “golden ages” as people like to recall but as the tale of Denys progresses the reader begins to question how much better things were “back then.” In this case the gold turns out to be a thin, gilded layer on top of something much more base. This gilding was symbolized by several things but one interesting one was the change in the area's wines that had been judged phenomenal--before the bottle was empty the contents would turn rancid. Wild tales begin to circulate about Denys’ followers, so he hides himself among artisans finishing a cathedral. He guides much of the work without them always realizing it and their work took on a progression that was repeated regardless of medium: gaiety, followed by the grotesque, and finally a “well-assured seriousness.” This, along with the note that Apollo’s picture was on the organ-case, highlights the conflict of the two gods.

The finding of a child’s skeleton in the foundation of an ancient bridge calls into question the notion of a golden age at any time (the bridge was from the Roman Empire) as well as the feeling of the past coming back to haunt the present. The gaiety and frenzy that Denys had engendered could not be sustained and brings forth a darker side within his followers as they dismember their former leader. The melancholy that Denys seems to feel is the realization that there is no resolution between Dionysus and Apollo, only a delicate balance. There is no return to a golden age as there never was one initially. Or, if the time of Denys was meant to be represent one, the golden age has a dark core.

Interesting stories so far, and I look forward to the last two...

No comments: