The Pen and the Brush
by Anka Muhlstein, Other Press, 14.99
‘I have not only supported the Impressionists,” the young Emile Zola boasted, “I have translated them into literature.” Zola had just burst on to the literary scene with his first novel, Thérèse Raquin, a masterpiece of dark realism. But it was in the milieu of artists that he felt most comfortable. And he wasn’t the only one.
Subtitled “How Passion for Art Shaped 19th-century French Novels”, Anka Muhlstein’s book charts the curious intersection of cultures that would ultimately result in both the modern novel and modern art.
Painters and paintings were not a major concern of 18th-century French literature, yet the novels of the generation that grew up during and after the Restoration – Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Huysmans and Proust – are teeming with art. English, German and Russian fiction of the 19th century has no interest in painters, which leads Muhlstein to ask why this distinct shift occurred in France at that particular time and not anywhere else.
Proximity is one answer. Artists and writers mingled freely in the bohemian enclaves of Paris, often sharing flats and conversation. But more important, Muhlstein says, is the new way of perceiving art that came into being after the French Revolution.
Despite its many horrors, the revolution placed culture at centre stage and democratised it. Paintings were confiscated from secluded country houses and put on display in the newly built Louvre museum. Even more shocking, there was no price of admission: sales girls rubbed shoulders with tram operators and street-sweepers.
The wars of empire only accelerated this trend. Napoleon appointed specialists to comb through the art of his newly conquered territories, picking out the best specimens and shipping them back to the Louvre. Art, therefore, was embedded far deeper in the public consciousness in France than it was in the rest of Europe – and literature profited handsomely from this.
Muhlstein begins with Balzac, a writer who often described his novels as “painting[s] on an easel” and whose immoderate taste for detail can be traced directly to his appreciation of modern art. “The visual novel dates from this period,” Muhlstein states; but one can go even further and posit that what we call the “realist” novel was a reaction to seeing the world so painstakingly depicted on canvas. Balzac’s wealth of detail and Flaubert’s minute descriptions of interiors – the building blocks of the modern novel – are obviously informed from their interest in art.
Zola’s school of Naturalism and its obsession with “lighting” scenes can be traced directly to his apprenticeship as an art critic and his close friendship with Cézanne. The young Proust could always be found in the Louvre and friends often complained that he would stand in front of a painting for half an hour without moving.
Muhlstein looks at these writers’ oeuvres with particular relation to their depiction of painters and paintings. She gives informed and intelligent summaries of masterpieces such as Eugénie Grandet, Madame Bovary and Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. In the latter, it is the painter Elstir who teaches the narrator “how to see” and this idea becomes a metaphor for the re-imagining of the novel in the 19th century – a new kind of novel that is as influenced by the visual as by the verbal.
For centuries, the written word had fuelled the imagination of painters (especially in the Old and New Testaments). But in the early 19th century there occurred a sudden reversal. Writers started to look closely at paintings and how they depicted the world. Muhlstein’s book is an elegant and probing look at this concatenation of reciprocal exchange and creative osmosis.
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