Tuesday, May 6, 2008

When the painter is a writer in disguise

When an author writes a story about another artist – a painter, a composer, a choreographer* – what is she really writing about? Recently, I wrote that I always assume that the artist character is really a disguised writer. A little glib, I know, but this is my starting point until convinced otherwise.

A novelist who wants to write about the source or character or limits of her own creativity may want to avoid directly writing about another writer. One reason is to appear a bit less narcissistic, another is to create some distance between the author and her subject.

Some examples, 19th century and modern. I know two Balzac stories about painters, The Unknown Masterpiece (1832) and Pierre Grassou (1840) , both of which seem to me like blatant statements about Balzac’s own purpose. In The Unknown Masterpiece, a great master labors over a single painting for a decade, and to what end?** The contrast to Balzac’s own massive productivity is obvious. Pierre Grassou goes in the other direction. The painter is a prolific hack who becomes successful because of the ignorance of his audience. This one has a great twist ending, perfectly obvious but no less entertaining. Both stories might as well have called the central character “Not Balzac.”

A modern, modernist, example: in The Lost Steps (1953) Alejo Carpentier takes a composer from New York City up the Orinoco into the Venezuelan jungle. The composer is struggling with an oratorio based on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. The novel is a critique or investigation of Romantic notions of the Primitive. Some people hate being told what a novel is about in such stark terms, and a rich book like The Lost Steps is “about” more than one thing, sure. But, no kidding, Romantic notions of the Primitive – ignore that and you ignore most of the book. If the narrator were a painter or writer or photographer some details would change, possibly in interesting ways, but not the central question.

To be clear: I don’t think that Balzac or Carpentier or Gogol are writing about writing as such when they tell these stories (Lost Illusions is Balzac writing about writing as such). They’re writing about creativity. That’s the subject they can displace onto another art form.

Tomorrow, the deep end of the pool (and I'm not such a strong swimmer): when the form makes all the difference.

Thanks to the Incurable Logophile for the suggestion. Got me thinking.

* Half kidding about the choreographer. What are the great novels or stories about choreographers? No idea. Suggestions welcome.

** The Unknown Masterpiece has taken on a life of its own, interpreted by later readers in ways that might shock Balzac. More on that some other time.


  1. I can see the author wanting to explore notions of creativity but not wanting to be so bald as to write about his/herself and the specific writing process, so this makes sense. I'm trying to think of other examples and drawing a complete blank except for contemporary writer Jane Urquhart. Two of her novels have centered on an artist as the main character and I'd like to consider whether this idea would apply. And whether applying it might be useful step toward a deeper understanding of her work. Hmmmm.
    Form? Send me a buoy!

  2. I was just wondering what novels had been written about less glamorous artists (craftsmen), and then you point me towards Urquhart's The Stone Carvers.

  3. There are lots of contemporary pop novels in which fiber arts are a metaphor for life or community or mending one soul together or something. While quilting or knitting plays a major part in many such books, I can't think of one of them in which the subject is really the creative process or could be considered a surrogate for writing, although some toy with the obvious metaphors of spinning a tale or weaving plots together.

  4. In the 19th century, it's all painters and composers, painters and composers. 20th century writers expanded their reach. I can see how quilting and sewing would be metaphorically rich, at the least.

    A piece of writing that turned my head on this issue was Paul Johnson's chapter on Christian Dior in The Creators, which convincingly took Dior seriously as a creative person. Not an artist, necessarily, but still a person of enormous creativity.

  5. I see what you're saying. Isn't it that writers often project parts of themselves into their characters? Having a painter as a character could just be a surface-level issue, a facade to hide the writer's self from his/her readers...

  6. Jacqueline, it's definitely partly that - the writer disguising himself. Mostly, perhaps. But in some cases the artist is a different writer-in-disguise - not the author, but one of the author's enemies. The Balzac examples are more like the latter.