In the power of photography by Brassäi

Book Reviews

Published by University of Chicago Press

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed,” writes Susan Sontag in On Photography, as “photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal.” An imaginary possession of the past was, of course, the theme of Marcel Proust’s chef d’oeuvre. In Time Regained, he urges the reader to approach his work from different angles, suggesting, “Perhaps you will see better with this lens, or perhaps with this one.” Later he compares his work to a sort of “optical instrument”.

In 1924, when he arrived in Paris, the young Hungarian photographer Brassaï turned to the works of Proust as a means to improve his French. He found a kindred spirit. Not only did he discover that Proust avidly collected photographs of friends; Brassaï also came to realise how Proust had used photographs in the construction of his innovative narrative. In his fascinating Proust: in the Power of Photography, never before published, Brassaï investigates the novelist’s use of photography as a metaphor for involuntary memory, pointing out that early in Swann’s Way, the magic lantern “drew out of the darkness images which plunge the young Marcel into an enchanted world.”

Brassaï shows Proust’s penchant for being photographed in uniform, and how his descriptions of landscape and Combray had the quality of snapshots. (He studied both architecture and painting in photographic form, his ill health preventing travel.) Most fascinatingly, he reveals how, for Proust, who kept a whole collection of photographs in his bedroom, they acquired an unconscious fetish-like quality.

In love with Gilberte Swann, young Marcel stands beside her, leaning over the balcony of the Swanns’ apartment: “Gilberte’s braids… touching my cheek… For even an inch of one of these braids, what heavenly herbal wouldn’t I have given to enshrine it? But in despair of obtaining a real piece of those braids, if at least I could have had a photograph of them.” Here braid, photo and love object all elide into the site of unobtainable longing. Although a contemporary of Freud, Proust appears to have been unfamiliar with psychoanalysis and, therefore, unaware of the psychology whereby an object stands in for the missing object of desire.

Brassaï demonstrates how life, art and artifice meld in Proust’s novel, so that it is almost impossible to evoke protagonists and places without referring to the circumstances and characters that inspired them. Illustrated with previously obscure photographs of Brassaï’s High Society series, this intriguing book charts how the early-20th-century fascination with photography, along with the growing interest in the exploration of our psyches, merged in Proust to create the great modern work on the investigation of memory. For Proust it was language that was the “developer” that “fixed” the past. As his health failed he retired to his room, “my darkroom” as he sometimes referred to it, where he wrote: “I am the man” who has withdrawn from the world in order the more vividly to relive it.”

Portraits in Fiction
AS Byatt

Published by Random House

A S Byatt writes in Portraits in Fiction that “Portraits in words and portraits in paint are opposites rather than metaphors for each other. A painted portrait is an artist’s record, construction, of a physical presence… A painting exists outside time and records the time of its making.” In contrast “a portrait in a novel… may be a portrait of invisible things” such as thought and desire. A painting, therefore, is largely a spatial experience while the understanding of a text is temporal, for through it we experience the unfolding of the writer’s imagination. As readers we share the author’s journey, whereas with a painting – however many marks are left revealing the struggle of its making – we are witnesses only to the point of arrival.

The sitter of a portrait may also feel threatened by the artist’s interpretation, with the work, more often than not, ending up more a portrait of the artist than the sitter. But those who find themselves appropriated into novels may feel attacked; and haunted thereafter by an often unwanted doppelganger. Writers rely on the varying images constructed by their readers; so Byatt tends to be distressed by film adaptations and the “blasphemous feeling” when her characters are represented by photos of real people on book covers.

Portraits in Fiction originated as a lecture given at the National Portrait Gallery. Byatt uses her immense erudition to delve into the complex relations between portraits and characters. In her own novels, she has evoked the power of portraits – as in A Virgin in the Garden, set in the 1950s at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, where her red-haired heroine takes on some characteristics of the Darnely Portrait of Elizabeth I. Novelists have often used portraits as imagined icons, while characters may use them as temporary mirrors: as when Milly Theale is shown a Bronzino in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. It bears a striking resemblance to her own image; she reflects on her mortality and “the paradoxical timelessness and death of portraits”.

Byatt’s authors range from Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch to Salman Rushdie, and her artists from Holbein to Cézanne. She gives a prolonged analysis of perhaps that most famous portrait in literature, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, where the portrait shifts from its normal fixity into a hidden temporal narrative recording the decadence of both Dorian’s life and the erotic arousal felt by the artist. Though packed with analysis and information this is a book, perhaps, more for the scholar than the casual reader. Those without a knowledge of the novels or portraits discussed may find Byatt’s discourse rather arcane.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images maybe subject to copyright


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