A Space Of Which One Has No Idea

A Space Of Which One Has No Idea

From La Peinture Cubist (1945-57) by Jean Paulhan

(a work of translation in progress by R. Groome)

If visual space is superior to tactile space, it is because with a little goodwill one can give it three dimensions.

                                                                                                    -Henri Poincare, Derniere Pensees, III, 3.

There is a celebrated, but laconic thought of Pascal that insists in being understood on the diagonal: Is it necessary to lend a trompery to things that are not foolish?  Neither Pascal (nor anyone else) ever supposed that painting in general was vain because it limited the appearance of an object. He wanted to say — and he precisely said it — that painting was not vain, but a sort of painting, a particular species of painting which contents itself with appearance and fooling the eye — trompe-l’oeil — “What vanity that painting draws admiration by resemblance to things that one does not admire the originals”. Where it logically follows his call for a painting that does not attract by resemblance admiration and therefore escapes the vanity of that which does. In sum, Pascal prefers a painting that doesn’t resemble too much. He would also like to get rid of nenuphars (water-lilies) and false windows.

He appeals to modern painting. And he would like to mark with the same blow the vanity of Man, ready to admire in the copy what he does not admire in the original. He repeats in this manner what the philosophers have always said — and this is very well what common sense thinks. Hsieh Ho condemned severely the “the copy of appearances”; Plato, who counseled painters in the Philebe to use geometric forms as much as possible “that give the sentiment of turning and moving”, and orders them, in the Republic, to “flee perspective, and other charlatan things”; Plotin vomits “the imitation pure and simple”. The Koran says that on the day of judgment one will condemn the painters, after punishing their pretensions, to live the life of the characters and animals that they have represented. And if they fail, to hell they go! (They never succeed). Baudelaire revealed in the “copy of appearances” such dangers — the forgetting of the just and the true; the passion of beauty, of the pretty, the pictorial; monstrous and unknown disorders — that he comes to understand and “excuses as the suppression of the object”. Why, and what do they want to say?

First of all, it is to say that a simple art of trompe-l’oeil, rather than art, is a simple amusement good for teaching the public on the latest discoveries of optics. It is done mechanically, while the soul doesn’t feel itself in the least engaged: rather it is alarmed, when it sees at the theatre, at the cinerama, or quite simply in the optical views and stereoscopes a little more of the relief that it distinguishes in the world (and finishes by doubting whether there is anything in this that is truthful). That an artist paints insects so resembling that monkeys try to eat them is quite humorous, but that does not go much further (there are a lot of other traps that monkeys fall into). This is done without the least amount of genius. Nobody has esteem either for the painting or for the monkeys. The painting that represents my office with its writing pad (not to forget the ink stains), the messed up papers and the glasses on top, the clock hanging on the file cabinet and the two pens, can be resembling to the utmost degree. But I already have my office, and that suffices. There are even moments when I have too much of an office that gets out of control. What is this double worth where I do not even have the chance of finding the letter I lost last month? What? I do not even dream of searching for it — and the least that one can say for trompe-l’oeil, is that it does not tromp (fool) the eye?  I believe everyone would agree with this. But what does this vanity consist of and what is a trompe-l’oeil?

It is a tableau that attempts to make its quality of being a tableau forgotten — or to establish that it at least might make it forgotten; which begins by conserving the exact dimension (whereby the number of its objects are strictly limited. The trompe-l’oeil can very well represent a paperweight, but not a mountain; a cameo, but not the figure of a real woman; a flea, but not an elephant), which voluntarily makes the choice, in order to reproduce them, of images, of engravings and tableaux, where the relief of imitation is already in play: becoming the perspective of a perspective, which uses a mellow and invisible execution where the hand of the painter does not betray itself, which avoids arousing us and neither has a unity nor subject other than simple resemblance, such that the personal spirit of the painter, her fantasy, her passions, or her faith, does not show itself any more than the hand. There is still more.

Trompe-l’oeil is not content to mime the space that separates one represented object from another. It still aims, in the manner of certain films in relief, to suggest to the spectator a space which separates it from the canvas. In such a way it shows the spectator before a rare object, a precious vase, a globe map, a simple writing pad, which makes of its principal subject, a corner of drapery that covers and protects it from dust and gazes; or then again, where the highest steps permit an access to the platform where it is found exposed. It is a question of compromising the spectator, to make her enter into this game, where cunning is good: meanwhile, the amateur from her side multiplies around the trompe-l’oeil traps and passages, arranging on a chimney the same playing cards of which the trompe-l’oeil is itself the image, where the ashtray responds to the half consumed cigarette, where a magnifying glass reveals a miniature, thus, redoubling from all sides the play of a perspective which no longer knows any obstacle, which is shown in a pure state, and betrays clearly its default.

What default and what is finally perspective?

(to be continued)