Willy Ronis, who died on September 12 2009 aged 99, was the last of the great photographers whose images came to define postwar France; like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, he was an aesthete of photo-reportage and street life, capturing politics and poetry in the humdrum and the everyday.
He was, however, more artistic than Doisneau and less patrician than Cartier-Bresson. Ronis had a tender eye, photographing working-class neighbourhoods where men drank rough wine and children played on the streets.
In Le Petit Parisien (1952), a young boy wearing shorts runs down the pavement, laughing, carrying a baguette that is as long as he is tall. In Rue Rambuteau (1946), two waitresses stand behind the counter in a busy café, wearing aprons that are crumpled and dirty, leaving us in no doubt that their working days are long and hard. But with smoke rising from the grill and light falling across the scene, illuminating their hair, the documentary image is also a composition full of beauty.
To a contemporary eye, such themes – lovers kissing, smoky cafés and Parisian rooftops – can seem nostalgic and clichéd; but the lives Ronis documented during the reconstruction of France after the war were anything but cosy. The country was wracked by poverty and social unrest, and Ronis’ vision was radical: for those who wanted France to be seen as modern, he showed a humble world that was entrenched in the past.
Ed van der Elsken‘s groundbreaking book of photographs, Love on the Left Bank, first published in a small edition in 1954, has been reprinted by the small British publisher, Dewi Lewis. This is a cause for celebration. It is a classic of its kind – grainy, monochrome cinéma vérité – and one of the first photobooks to record the nascent flowering of rebellious youth culture in Europe.
Set in and around the hinterland between Odéon and St Germain-des-Prés, shot in black and white, the book is an impressionistic narrative that centres on a fictional character, Ann, a beautiful and enigmatic bohemian, and her circle of vagabond friends, who haunt the bars, cafes and clubs of the area. Van der Elsken’s camera trails Ann as she works as an exotic dancer, drinks, flirts, fights, sleeps, falls in and out of love.
Ann is actually the legendary bohemian figure Vali Myers, a self-exiled Australian artist, who was friends with Cocteau and Genet, and, by way of van der Elsken’s evocative portraits of her, later became a muse for the teenage Patti Smith. When the two eventually met in New York in the early 1970s, Myers tattooed a lightning bolt on Smith’s knee, while Smith described her as “the supreme beatnik chick – thick red hair and big black eyes, black boatneck sweaters and trench coats”.
Love on the Left Bank is actually narrated by a relatively minor character called Manuel, a young Mexican on the run from his own demons, who falls for Ann and whose thoughts form the text that accompanies the pictures. The text, van der Elsken makes clear from the start, “is entirely fictional and is not related to any living person”. The story of Manuel’s unrequited love for Ann creates another layer of mystery, adding to the sense that this is a snapshot not just of a time and place, but of a mood, maybe even a collective state of mind. That mood could be described as the beatnik sublime, and van der Elsken captures the first stirrings of a kind of youthful non-conformity that would become much more familiar – and ritualised – in the coming decades.
The intimate portraits of Ann – daydreaming, dozing, stirring a coffee – are the still moments in an otherwise impressionistic, often frenetic, narrative. The characters in the book are constantly on the move, from cafe to bar, nightclub to jazz club, the streets of St Germain-des-Prés alive with young people in search of the next nocturnal high. The supporting cast of real-life characters includes Jean-Michel, Benny and Pierre, who look like stylish proto-punks and drift in and out of trouble without much thought for the consequences, getting drunk, getting high and, at one point, getting arrested for brawling on the street. Like Brassaï before him, van der Elsken is drawn to the symbolic as well as the impressionistic: in one portrait of Ann, she leans against a wall on which the word Rêve (Dream) has been painted: shades of the Situationist slogans that would transform Paris during the student uprising of 1968.
In one series of fly-on-the-wall photographs, van der Elsken captures Jean Michel teaching a girl to “smoke hashish in the right way … the cigarette not held in the mouth, the smoke inhaled together with air from the cupped hands”. Jean Michel Mension would later become one of the main protagonists of the 1968 student uprising, a member of the Letterist International, to which the legendary Situationist activist and thinker, Guy Debord, also belonged. Legend has it that the back of Debord’s head can be seen in one of the many bar scenes in the book.
Ed van der Elsken’s Love on the Left Bank is important for many reasons, then: as an early reflection of youth cultural ennui, disaffection and rebellion; as a glimpse of a particular place and time when Parisian culture, specifically its youth culture, was on the cusp of a great sea change; as one of the first visual narratives that walks the line between fly-on-the-wall reportage and created narrative.
Vali Myers went on to become an opium addict, then an artist of some repute. She lived for a time in her own personal “Garden of Eden”, a small house with a rambling garden in Positano. She is the subject of four films, one, Death in the Port Jackson Hotel, made in 1971 by van der Elsken. She died of cancer, aged 72, in 2003 in her native Melbourne. In a newspaper interview, given from her hospital bed, she said, “I’ve had 72 absolutely flaming years. It [the illness] doesn’t bother me at all, because, you know love, when you’ve lived like I have, you’ve done it all.”
Van der Elsken went on to produce several brilliant books and to embrace colour photography in order to capture the vitality of his native Holland, but he was never at ease with the world of commercial photography.
Love on the Left Bank, his first and most groundbreaking book, remains his most beautifully realised body of work. He died of cancer, aged 65, in 1990. He once said, “I report on young, rebellious scum with pleasure … I rejoice in everything. Love. Courage. Beauty. Also blood, sweat and tears. Keep your eyes open.”
When I go out into the countryside and see the sun and the green and everything flowering, I say to myself Yes indeed, all that belongs to me!. Nothing makes me so happy as to observe nature and to paint what I see. Beauty is the promise of happiness. It is often said that my heart is too open for my own good. I cannot now change my style, which I acquired, as you can imagine, by dint of labour.
via Henri Rousseau – ArtinthePicture.com.
Rousseau, Henri, called ‘le Douanier’ (1844 – 1910), was an amateur or ‘Sunday’ painter with a direct, simple and hauntingly naive vision who painted some unusually large and complicated pictures of elaborately fanciful and pituresquely exotic subjects in a matter-of-factly pedestrian technique and strong colour. He served as a Regimental bandsman – according to his own account, in Mexico in 1861-7, which provided him with his fantastic settings – and as a Sergeant in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. He entered the Paris municipal Customs service (hence ‘le Douanier’), and began painting about 1880, exhibiting at the Independants from 1886. A dinner in his honour was given in Picasso’s studio in 1908, and this gesture has played its part in the transmogrification of ‘le Douanier’ into a symbol of sophisticated interest in the pseudo – Primitive and in the opening of the floodgates of both psychological and the sentimental school of writers on art. He seems to have combined a certain peasant shrewdness and bland self-esteem with gullible simplemindedness; he kept a school where he taught elocution, music, and painting, wrote two plays, got himself involved, though guiltlessly, in a trial for fraud, and finally died, it is said, as a result of a disappointment in love in pursuit of a third wife.
There are works in London (Tate, Courtauld Inst.), New York (M of MA), Paris (Louvre), Zurich, and elsewhere.
Taken from ‘Dictionary of Art & Artists’, by Peter and Linda Murray, 1959
Due coniugi si reincontrano dopo cinque anni e scoprono di amarsi, di un amore diverso che ha lasciato la passione selvaggia della giovinezza, per trovare la passione della conoscenza profonda reciproca. Sullo sfondo le vicende di un villaggio di pescatori del sud della Francia in cui lui vive attualmente e dove è nato.
Agnes Varda con quest’opera pone le basi della Nouvelle Vague, per l’impianto tecnico-stilistico utilizzato, ma soprattutto per le tematiche utilizzate. Forte è l’influsso del neorealismo italiano, in quanto una parte delle vicende raccontate riguardano la vita di tutti i giorni di un villaggio di pescatori, che dà appunto il titolo al film. Gli attori sono quindi attori non professionisti, gente del popolo che si presta a recitare sulla pellicola la propria vita.
Il taglio non è quello documentaristico in quanto ci sono degli evidenti elementi di finzione, ma la vita di questi pescatori viene raccontata e mostrata nella sua integrità nei piaceri e nelle difficoltà che debbono affrontare. Si pongono le basi di un lavoro particolare del quale le riprese in esterni, in ambienti reali accompagnate da un uso sapiente della camera a mano si propongono come elementi cardine a livello stilistico.
Ma ciò che marca questa pellicola è l’intreccio della vita dei pescatori, con la vita di due coniugi(interpretati da un giovane Philippe Noiret e da Silvia Monfort), da lungo tempo separati, che si ritrovano e cercano di riannodare un discorso e un rapporto mai veramente concluso. I loro discorsi, le loro passeggiate amoroso-riflessive ci colpiscono per il livello di intensità che raggiungono.
Il discorso sull’amore, sulle vicende amorose, sui rapporti tra amanti risulta essere uno degli elementi cardine del nuovo cinema francese; si pensi qui ad esempio ai tanti film di Louis Malle (Gli amanti, Ascensore per il patibolo…) o di Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour, L’anno scorso a Marienbad…) in cui questo amore viene tematizzato e viene trasposto in immagini poetiche che enfatizzano il rapporto uomo-donna, idealizzandolo.
La Varda getta in questo modo le basi per un cinema nuovo su entrambi i registri, quello stilistico e quello contenutistico, confezionando una pellicola di modeste intenzioni, ma pregna di significato per la storia del cinema. Poesia e realtà formano così un unicum che segnerà in modo indelebile il cinema francese degli anni a venire. Da segnalare il montaggio effettuato dall’allora sconosciuto Alain Resnais.
‘Nobody lives on the third floor right. The owner is a certain Monsieur Foureau, who is said to live on an estate at Chavignolles, between Caen and Falaise, in a farm of thirty- eight hectares, with a sort of manor house. Some years ago, a television drama was filmed there, under the title The Sixteenth Edge of This Cube; Remi Rorschach took part in the shooting but never met this owner. Nobody ever seems to have seen him. There is no name on the door on the landing, nor on the list fixed on the glass pane of the concierge’s office door. The blinds are always drawn.’
Se per qualche ragione vi foste trovati a Parigi intorno alla fine degli anni ’70, e in cerca di Trelkovski, L’Inquilino del Terzo Piano (forse perchè vi doveva una scommessa, o quasi certamente perchè eravate voi a dovergli più di qualcosa), allora avreste fatto bene a cercarlo in Rue Simon-Crubellier. Sottoscrive Perec, al terzo piano di Rue Simon-Crubellier, numero 11, non vive nessuno, ma il sospetto di un omicidio. Lo stesso filmato da Roman Polanski due anni prima l’uscita del romanzo ‘La vita, Istruzioni per l’uso‘,? Sarebbe azzardato credere Trelkovski l’inquilino mancante a chiudere il ‘tour’ e rendere possibile il Percorso del Cavallo tracciato da Perec attraverso questo romanzo?
Prendete una scacchiera e sfidate un cavaliere in una crociata, in palio la soluzione a un quesito matematico: come attraversare la scacchiera partendo da D7, compiere una sola volta tutte le mosse di gioco, visitare tutte le case della scacchiera, quindi concludere il tour in F7, esattamente nella casa vicina a quella di partenza.
Poniamo Perec abbia utilizzato una scacchiera 10×10, pari ai 10 piani in Rue Simon-Crubellier, e alle dieci camere in ciascuno dei piani. Una camera un capitolo, un capitolo una storia, una storia una mossa del cavaliere. 99 personaggi, ognuno con un passato diverso e un futuro in comune; 99 storie nella storia, una sola mossa mancante a rendere possibile una sfida letteraria quasi riuscita. La sfida in questione rientra nell’ambizioso progetto visionario lanciato dalla Oulipo, una sorta di circolo, una confraternita del Merlot, fondata nel 1960 da Raymond Queneau e François Le Lionnais, che riunisce scrittori e artisti per lo più francesi (Italo Calvino un infiltrato speciale) cui obiettivo è quello di realizzare un’opera attraverso precise regole, coordinate stilistiche, poste a soluzione di un problema matematico, un lipogramma (di Perec anche La scomparsa, del 1969, un romanzo scritto senza la vocale ‘e’, e Le ripetizioni, un romanzo scritto di sole vocali ‘e’), palindromi, anagrammi.
Ne La vita, istruzioni per l’uso, la toponomastica esistenziale tracciata da Perec definisce una dimensione in cui convergono e si intersecano Arte, Storia, ‘Umanesimo’e Scienze. Ho ammirato con stupore e meraviglia la maniera in cui Perec dà respiro al romanzo affascinato dal potenziale visionario delle parole, delle immagini, dei colori, dei suoni, dei ricordi. Dev’essere stato un bel viaggio.
Mi rendo conto leggere questo romanzo è una sfida. Perec è un autore pretenzioso. Pretende noi si venga informati bene circa i fatti. Pretende noi ci si dedichi esclusivamente alla lettura del testo, in totale isolamento e regressione spazio temporale da ciò che ci circonda.
Del resto l’intero appartamento in Rue Simon-Crubellier sembra esistere nello spazio in una dimensione propria di trascendentale realizzazione causale e implicativa, rimandata al passato, interposta nel presente, e convergente nel futuro. Nel romanzo niente viene lasciato al caso, ogni attimo assemblato, composto entro un’unica cornice, un preciso ordine stabilito, la perfetta realizzazione di un puzzle umano e vivente, ricostruito minuziosamente attraverso una progressiva esarazione delle storie perchè ‘la storia’ centrale abbia a realizzarsi nell’insieme. Preamble To begin with, the art of jigsaw puzzles seems of little substance, easily exhausted, wholly dealt with by a basic introduction to Gestalt: the perceived object – we mai be dealing with a perceptual act, the acquisition of a skill, a physiological system, or, as in the present case, a wooden jigsaw puzzle – is not a sum of elements to be distinguished from each other and analyzed discretely, but a pattern, that is to say a form, a structure: the element’s existence does not precede the existence of the whole, it comes neither before nor after it, for the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts: knowledge of the pattern and of its laws, of the set and its structure, could not possibly be derived from discrete knowledge of the elements that compose it. That means that you can look at a piece of a puzzle for three whole days, you can believe that you know all there is to know about its colouring and shape, and be no further on than when you started. The only thing that counts is the ability to link this piece to other pieces, and in that sense the art of jigsaw puzzle has something in common with the art of go. The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing – just an impossible question, an opaque challenge. But as soon as you have succeeded, after minutes of trial and error, or after a prodigious half-second flash of inspiration, in fitting it into one of its neighbours, the piece disappears, ceases to exist as a piece. The intense difficulty preceding this link-up – which the English word puzzle indicates so well – not only loses its raison d’etre, it seems never to have had any reason, so obvious does the solution appear. The two pieces so miraculously conjoined are henceforth one, which in its turn will be a source of error, hesitation, dismay, and expectation. The role of the puzzle-maker is hard to define. In most cases – and in particular in all cardboard jigsaw – the puzzles are machine-made, and the lines of cutting are entirely arbitrary: a blanking die, set up once and for all, cuts the sheets of cardboard along identical lines every time. But such jigsaw are eschewed by the true puzzle-lover, not just because the solutions are printed on the boxes the come in, but because this type of cut destroys the specific nature of jigsaw puzzles. Contrary to a widely and firmly held belief, it does not really matter whether the initial image is easy ( or something taken to be easy – a genre scene in the style of Vermeer, for example, or a color photograph of an Austrian castle) or difficult ( a Jackson Pollock, a Pissarro, or the poor paradox of a blank puzzle). It’s not the subject of the picture, or the painter’s technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it jas been cut; and an arbitrary cutting pattern will necessarily produce an arbitrary degree of difficulty, ranging from the extreme of easiness – for edge pieces, patches of light, well-defined object, lines, transitions – to the tiresome awkwardness of all the other pieces (cloudless skies, sand, meadow, ploughed land, shaded areas, ect.). Pieces in a puzzle of this kind come in classes of which the best-known are the little chaps the double crosses and the crossbars and once the edges have been put together, the detail pieces put in place – the very light, almost whitish yellow fringe on the carpet on the table holding the lectern with an open book, the rich edging of the mirror, the lute, the woman’s red dress – and the bulk of the background pieces parcelled out according to their shade of grey, brown, white, or sky blue, then solving the puzzle consists simply of trying all the plausible combinations one by one. The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and , instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge. All the elements occurring in the image to be reassembled – this armchair covered in gold brocade, that three-pointed black hat with its rather ruined black plume, or that silver-brained bright yellow livery – serve by design as points of departure for trails that lead to false information. The organized, coherent, structured signifying space of the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements containing little information or signifying power, but also into falsified elements, carrying false information; two fragments of cornice made to fit each other perfectly when they belong infact to two quite separate sections of the ceiling, the belt buckle of a uniform which turns out in extremis to be a metal clasp holding the chandelier, several almost identically cut pieces belonging, for one part, to a dwarf orange tree placed on a mantelpiece and, for the other part, to its scarcely attenuated reflection in a mirror, are classic examples of the types of traps puzzle-lovers come across. From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.
Avendo letto questo romanzo in inglese, mi sono concentrata più sul vocabolario e meno sull’ architettura della trama e il procedimento logico di progressione al vertice finale e conclusivo del testo. E’stato bello abbandonarsi all’evasività della lettura, carezzevole e pigra, ma è stato specialmente faticoso trovare il tempo e la concentrazione necessari a leggere Perec fra le righe e con la dovuta attenzione.
Non ho le competenze tecniche necessarie ad analizzare il romanzo dal punto di vista estetico, figurativo e stilistico, ma credo di aver individuato una sostanziosa quantità di suggerimenti, tecniche di componimento, tendenziosità allo spettacolarismo dei dettagli, che potrebbero tornare utili nell’organizzazione di un testo narrativo, per esempio. Perec è insieme architetto e portinaio, poeta ed esteta, matematico e pittore. Perchè no, a suo modo un voyeur, e Parigi sullo sfondo la cornice di un’epoca.
Cercando delle immagini dello scrittore da inserire nel post, ho trovato quest’articolo meraviglioso che commenta, dal punto di vista estetico, le opere realizzate da Bartlebooth : Life A User’s Manual – Evening All Afternoon. Non mi permetto di rubare l’originalità delle considerazioni poste dall’autrice a commento delle opere, per questo ve ne consiglio la lettura.
E voi che mi dite, piaciuto?
Chi di voi vorrebbe aggiungere particolari alla descrizione del romanzo? A quali coinquilini vi siete affezionati, quale quadro vi ha suggestionati e impressionati maggiormente.
Volendo prendere a esempio il romanzo e improvvisare un esercizio di scrittura, potremmo anche noi catalogare degli oggetti, e sulla base di un finale, costruire un racconto che li comprenda
Ho per le mani una raccolta di storie, Last Night, a mio parere assai noiosa, dello scrittore americano James Salter. Si tratta di una coincidenza soltanto se avendone aperto a caso una pagina, è venuto fuori questo finale, tratto da Platinum, che recita ‘Tahar made another gesture of slight annoyance. For him, it was only the beginning.’
Non vi nascondo ho spedito all’inesistente indirizzo del palazzo, uno scarabocchio di Londra, realizzato a matita su un foglio A4 Monsieur Gaspard Winckler, here a view of London I was working on a whole night in solitude and ecstasy Cheers from Hyperuranian
A breve posterò il calendario delle altre letture; perchè mattoni, ho considerato i libri più voluminosi da inserire alla fine, in modo da iniziare a leggerli, a poco a poco, già da adesso.
Vada per Il Seno di Philip Ruth, come lettura di febbraio?
Avrei voluto postare qualcosa lo scorso venerdì, in occasione della Giornata della Memoria (la madre di Perec fra le vittime della Shoah), ma sono stata via una settimana e ho avuto poco tempo a disposizione. Dal profondo un pensiero di pace, e un augurio. Che gli orrori del passato non abbiano a ripetersi nel futuro, come già nel presente e, purtroppo, ancora.
Buona Domenica a noi tutti
‘Look with all your eyes, look’ (Jules Verne, Michael Strogoff)
Quelle volte che penso agli anni del liceo, ho come la sensazione di essermi persa qualcosa; non solo scuola (che marinavo d’abitudine, 3 volte a settimana- almeno), ma forse quel sentimento di partecipazione collettiva, le gite fuori-porta, i bigliettini sotto-banco, i pomeriggi a studiare con le amichette, il tormento delle interrogazioni. Cose così.
Il fatto è che io trovavo noioso andare a scuola, e di gran lunga più divertente trascorrere, da sola, una mattinata al parco, a piedi nudi sull’erba. O al mare, sugli scogli, a leggere dei dolori del giovane Werther, delle bravate di Holden, dei tormenti di madame Bovary, del lupo nella steppa, dei padri e dei figli della rivoluzione russa.
M’è sempre parso una perdita di tempo, andare a scuola.
E poi avevo la pessima abitudine di litigare coi professori. E di starmene in disparte dalla classe. Meglio ancora se fuori, a fumare nei giardinetti del cortiletto vicino la palestra.
Che poi in fondo, ai professori, devo aver fatto pure un favore. Io marinavo scuola, loro non dovevano preoccuparsi di redimermi, o punirmi. Il direttore di sospendermi. E tutti eravamo felici.
C’è un libro, che conservo nella memoria come il ricordo di quegli anni, a cui sono molto affezionata e che se mai mi fosse stato suggerito dalla mia insegnante di italiano (probabilmente) sarebbe valso a farmi amare almeno l’ora di letteratura; l’ho trovato l’altro giorno in libreria e rileggerlo, sebbene in inglese, ha lo stesso potere, come allora anche oggi, di affascinarmi, emozionarmi.
Sapete ci sono scrittori che amano scopare con le parole. Te ne accorgi dalla passione esagerata, quell’orgia sentimentale d’inchiostro nero schizzato sulla carta di getto, al climax del piacere intellettuale. What is literature è un libro sensuale. E, a mio parere, un capolavoro della critica e della prosa letteraria.La ragione per cui amo leggere Sartre consiste appunto nello stile, elegante, netto, attento, acuto, della scrittura.
In What is Literature, Sartre s’interroga circa il ruolo dello scrittore, impegnato, e della letteratura.
Questo un meraviglioso articolo, estratto dal Corriere della Sera SARTRE Quel che resta dell’ intellettuale impegnato
Questa, una meravigliosa critica del libro, di Morgan Palmas 1libro1giorno: “Che cos’è la letteratura?” di Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sotto, l’introduzione e una parte del libro, tratta dal capitolo primo
A fine testo, il link tramite cui accedere alla lettura dell’intero volume, e ancora una critica, in inglese, taken from Philosophy Now | a magazine of ideas.
FOREWORD “If you want to engage yourself,” writes a young imbecile, “what are you waiting for? Join the Communist Party.” A great writer who engaged himself often and disengaged himself still more often, but who has forgotten, said to me, “The worst artists are the most engaged. Look at the Soviet painters” An old critic gently complained,”You want to murder literature. Contempt for belles-lettres is spread out insolently all through your review.” A petty mind calls me pigheaded, which for him is evidently the highest insult. An author who barely crawled from one war to the other and whose name sometimes awakens languishing memories in old men accuses me of not being concerned with immortality; he knows, thank God, any number of people whose chief hope it is. In the eyes of an American hack-journalist the trouble with me is that I have not read Bergson or Freud; as for Flaubert, who did not engage himself, it seems that he haunts me like remorse. Smart-alecks wink at me, “And poetry? And painting? And music? You want to engage them, too?” And some martial spirits demand, “What’s it all about? Engaged literature? Well, it’s the old socialist realism, unless it’s a revival of populism, only more aggressive.” What nonsense. They read quickly,badly, and pass judgment before they have understood. So let’s begin all over. This doesn’t amuse anyone, neither you nor me. But we have to hit the nail on the head. And since critics condemn me in the name of literature without ever saying what they mean by that, the best answer to give them is to examine the art of writing without prejudice. What is writing? Why does one write? For whom? The fact is, it seems that nobody has ever asked himself these questions. WHAT IS WRITING? No, we do not want to “engage” painting, sculpture, and music too, or at least not in the same way. And why would we want to? When a writer of past centuries expressed an opinion about his craft, was his immediately asked to apply it to the other arts? But today it’s the thing to do to “talk painting” in the argot of the musician or the literary man and to “talk literature” in the argot of the painter, as if at bottom there were only one art which expressed itself indifferently in one or the other of these languages, like the Spinozistic substance which is adequately reflected by each of its attributes. Doubtless, one could find at the origin of every artistic calling a certain undifferentiated choice which circumstances, education, and contact with the world particularized only later. Besides, there is no doubt that the arts of a period mutually influence each other and are conditioned by the same social factors. But those who want to expose the absurdity of a literary theory by showing that it is inapplicable to music must first prove that the arts are parallel. Now, there is no such parallelism. Here, as everywhere, it is not only the form which differentiates, but the matter as well. And it is one thing to work with color and sound, and another to express oneself by means of words. Notes, colors, and forms are not signs. They refer to nothing exterior to themselves. To be sure, it is quite impossible to reduce them strictly to themselves, and the idea of a pure sound, for example, is an abstraction. As Merleau- Ponty has pointed out in The Phenomenology of Perception, there is no quality of sensation so bare that it is not penetrated with signification. But the dim little meaning which dwells within it, a light joy, a timid sadness, remains immanent or trembles about it like a heat mist; it is color or sound. Who can distinguish the green apple from its tart gaiety? And aren’t we already saying too much in naming “the tart gaiety of the green apple?” There is green, there is red, and that is all. They are things, they exist by themselves. It is true that one might, by convention, confer the value of signs upon them. Thus, we talk of the language of flowers. But if, after the agreement, white roses signify “fidelity” to me, the fact is that I have stopped seeing them as roses. My attention cuts through them to aim beyond them at this abstract virtue. I forget them. I no longer pay attention to their mossy abundance, to their sweet stagnant odor. I have not even perceived them. That means that I have not behaved like an artist. For the artist, the color, the bouquet, the tinkling of the spoon on the saucer, are things, in the highest degree. He stops at the quality of the sound or the form. He returns to it constantly and is enchanted with it. It is this color-object that he is going to transfer to his canvas, and the only modification he will make it undergo is that he will transform it into an imaginary object. He is therefore as far as he can be from considering colors and signs as a language. What is valid for the elements of artistic creation is also valid for their combinations. The painter does not want to create a thing. And if he puts together red, yellow, and green, there is no reason for the ensemble to have a definable signification, that is, to refer particularly to another object. Doubtless this ensemble is also inhabited by a soul, and since there must have been motives, even hidden ones, for the painter to have chosen yellow rather than violet, it may be asserted that the objects thus created reflect his deepest tendencies. However, they never express his anger, his anguish, or his joy as do words or the expression of the face; they are impregnated with these emotions; and in order for them to have crept into these colors, which by themselves already had something like a meaning, his emotions get mixed up and grow obscure. Nobody can quite recognize them there. Tintoretto did not choose that yellow rift in the sky above Golgotha to signify anguish or to provoke it. It is anguish and yellow sky at the same time. Not sky of anguish or anguished sky; it is an anguish become thing, an anguish which has turned into yellow rift of sky, and which thereby is submerged and impasted by the proper qualities of things, by their impermeability, their extension, their blindpermanence, their externality, and that infinity of relations which they maintain with other things. That is, it is no longer readable. It is like an immense and vain effort, forever arrested half-way between sky and earth, to express what their nature keeps them from expressing. Similarly, the signification of a melody if one can still speak of signification is nothing outside of the melody itself, unlike ideas, which can be adequately rendered in several ways. Call it joyous or somber. It will always be over and above anything you can say about it. Not because its passions, which are perhaps at the origin of the invented theme, have, by being incorporated into notes, undergone a transubstantiation and a transmutation. A cry of grief is a sign of the grief which provokes it, but a song of grief is both grief itself and something other than grief. Or, if one wishes to adopt the existentialist vocabulary, it is a grief which does not exist any more, which is. But, you will say, suppose the painter does houses? That’s just it. He makes them, that is, he creates an imaginary house on the canvas and not a sign of a house. And the house which thus appears preserves all the ambiguity of real houses. The writer can guide you and, if he describes a hovel, make it seem the symbol of social injustice and provoke your indignation. The painter is mute. He presents you with a hovel, that’s all. You are free to see in it what you like. That attic window will never be the symbol of misery; for that, it would have to be a sign, whereas it is a thing. The bad painter looks for the type. He paints the Arab, the Child, the Woman; the good one knows that neither the Arab nor the proletarian exists either in reality or on his canvas. He offers a workman, a certain workman. And what are we to think about a workman? An infinity of contradictory things. All thoughts and all feelings are there, adhering to the canvas in a state of profound undifferentiation. It is up to you to choose. Sometimes, high-minded artists try to move us. They paint long lines of workmen waiting in the snow to be hired, the emaciated faces of the unemployed, battle fields. They affect us no more than does Greuze with his “Prodigal Son. 53 And that masterpiece, “The Massacre of Guernica, ‘does any one think that it won over a single heart to the Spanish cause?’ And yet something is said that can never quite be heard and that would take an infinity of words to express. And Picasso’s long harlequins, ambiguous and eternal, haunted with inexplicable meaning, inseparable from their stooping leanness and their pale diamond-shaped tights, are emotion become flesh, emotion which the flesh has absorbed as the blotter absorbs ink, and emotion which is unrecognizable, lost, strange to itself, scattered to the four corners of space and yet present to itself. I have no doubt that charity or anger can produce other objects, but they will likewise be swallowed up; they will lose their name; there will remain only things haunted by a mysterious soul. One does not paint significations; one does not put them to music. Under these conditions, who would dare require that the painter or musician engage himself? On the other hand, the writer deals with significations. Still, a distinction must be made. The empire of signs is prose; poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture, and music. I am accused of detesting it; the proof, so they say, is that Les Temps Modernes publishes very few poems. On the contrary, this is proof that we like it. To be convinced, all one need do is take a look at contemporary production. “At least,critics say triumphantly, “you can’t even dream of engaging it.” Indeed. But why should I want to? Because it uses words as does prose? But it does not use them in the same way, and it does not even use them at all, I should rather say that it serves them. Poets are men who refuse to utilize language. Now, since the quest for truth takes place in and by language conceived as a certain kind of instrument, it is unnecessary to imagine that they aim to discern or expound the true. Nor do they dream of naming the world, and, this being the case, they name nothing at all, for naming implies a perpetual sacrifice of the name to the object named, or, as Hegel would say, the name is revealed as the inessential in the face of the thing which is essential. They do not speak, neither do they keep still; it is something different. It has been said that they wanted to destroy the “word” by monstrous couplings, but this is false. For then they would have to be thrown into the midst of utilitarian language and would have had to try to retrieve words from it in odd little groups, as for example “horse” and “butter” by writing “horses of butter.” Besides the fact that such an enterprise would require infinite time, it is not conceivable that one can keep one- self on the plane of the utilitarian project, consider words as instruments, and at the same contemplate taking their instrumentality away from them. In fact, the poet has withdrawn from language-instrument in a single movement. Once and for all he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs. For the ambiguity of the sign implies that one can penetrate it at will like a pane of glass and pursue the thing signified, or turn his gaze toward its reality and consider it as an object. The man who talks is beyond words and near the object, whereas the poet is on this side of them. For the former, they are domesticated; for the latter they are in the wild state. For the former, they are useful conventions, tools which gradually wear out and which one throws away when they are no longer serviceable; for the latter, they are natural things which sprout naturally upon the earth like grass and trees. But if he dwells upon words, as does the painter with colors and the musician with sounds, that does not mean that they have lost all signification in his eyes. Indeed, it is signification alone which can give words their verbal unity. Without it they are frittered away into sounds and strokes of the pen. Only, it too becomes natural. It is no longer the goal which is always out of reach and which human transcendence is always aiming at, but a property of each term, analogous to the expression of a face, to the little sad or gay meaning of sounds and colors. Having flowed into the word, having been absorbed by its sonority or visual aspect, having been thickened and defaced, it too is a thing, increate and eternal. For the poet, language is a structure of the external world. The speaker is in a situation in language; he is invested with words. They are prolongations of his meanings, his pincers, his antennae, his eyeglasses. He maneuvers them from within; he feels them as if they were his body; he is surrounded by a verbal body which he is hardly aware of and which extends his action upon the world. The poet is outside of language. He sees words inside out as if he did not share the human condition, and as if he were first meeting the word as a barrier as he comes toward men. Instead of first knowing things by their name, it seems that first he has a silent contact with them, since, turning toward that other species of thing which for him is the word, touching them, testing them, palping them, he discovers in them a slight luminosity of their own and particular affinities with the earth, the sky, the water, and all created things. Not knowing how to use them as a sign of an aspect of the world, he sees in the word the image of one of these aspects. And the verbal image he chooses for its resemblance to the willow tree or the ash tree is not necessarily the word which we use to designate these objects. As he is already on the outside, he considers words as a trap to catch a fleeing reality rather than as indicators which throw him out of himself into the midst of things. In short, all language is for him the mirror of the world. As a result, important changes take place in the internal economy of the word. Its sonority, its length, its masculine or feminine endings, its visual aspect, compose for him a face of flesh which represents rather than expresses signification. Inversely, as the signification is realized, the physical aspect of the word is reflected within it, and it, in its turn, functions as an image of the verbal body. Like its sign, too, for it has lost its pre-eminence; since words, like things, are increate, the poet does not decide whether the former exist for the latter or vice-versa. Taken from ‘What is Literature’, by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1949. Translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman
via What Is Literature. Sartre on Literature | Philosophy Now.
Robert Doisneau, one of France’s most popular and prolific reportage photographers, is known for his modest, playful, and ironic images of amusing juxtapositions, mingling social classes, and eccentrics in contemporary Paris streets and cafes. Influenced by the work of Kertesz, Atget, and Cartier-Bresson, in over 20 books Doisneau has presented a charming vision of human frailty and life as a series of quiet, incongruous moments. He has written: “The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.” Text from ‘The Encyclopedia of Photography’ (1984) – Robert Doisneau French photographer Robert Doisneau