Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 2
Unfortunately for the painter, or, to put it more precisely, all the worse for the painter who is trying to paint a portrait only to discover that everything is wrong, the lines are awkward, the colors wild, and the blotches on the canvas capture a likeness which may satisfy the sitter but certainly not the painter. I believe this happens in the majority of cases, but because the resemblance is flattering and justifies the fee, the client carries home that presumably ideal image of himself and the painter sighs with relief, freed from the mocking specter which has been haunting him night and day. When the finished portrait remains there, waiting to be collected, it is as if it were revolving on its vertical axis and turning accusing eyes on the painter: one might almost call it an apparition, had it not already been described as a specter. On the whole, any painter who really knows his craft recognizes that he is moving in the wrong direction right from the initial sketch. But given the difficulty of explaining his mistake to the sitter, and because most clients are pleased with what they see from the outset, afraid that another angle or perspective might show them in a less favorable light, or, on the contrary, turn them inside out, like the finger of a glove (the thing they fear most of all), the painting of the portrait goes on, increasingly superfluous. As I said earlier (in different words), it is as if the painter and his model were both intent on destroying the portrait. They have put their boots on back to front, and the path they have covered, which appears to go forward because of the footprints left on the ground, in this case the canvas, is in fact a hasty retreat after a defeat sought and accepted by the two warring factions. When death removes the painter and his model from this world, and the flames, by some happy coincidence, reduce the portrait to ashes, they will erase some of the deception and make room for some new adventure or dance, some new pas de deux which others will inevitably recommence.
On starting to paint the portrait of S., I also realized that my method of division (a picture, according to my academic approach, is also an arithmetical operation of division, the fourth and most acrobatic of operations) was wrong. I knew it even before drawing a line on the canvas. Yet I made no attempt to correct anything or start again. I accepted that the toes of the boots should be pointing north while I was allowing myself to be dragged south toward a treacherous sea where ships are lost, to an encounter with the Flying Dutchman. But I soon realized that the sitter on this occasion would not be deceived or would only be prepared to be deceived the moment I showed any awareness of being at his disposal and therefore allowed myself to be humiliated. A portrait that should embody a certain circumstantial solemnity, of the kind that expects no more from one’s eyes than a fleeting glance and then blindness, came to be marked (is being marked even now) by an ironic crease which was not my doing, which may not even exist on S.’s face, yet deforms the canvas, as if someone were twisting it simultaneously in opposite directions, just as irregular or faulty mirrors distort images. When I look at the picture on my own, I can see myself as a child at a window in one of the many houses where I lived, and I can see those elliptical bubbles in the glass panes of poor quality found in such houses, or that impression like an adolescent nipple sometimes formed in glass, and that distorted world outside which was all askew whenever I looked away from the windowpane in either direction. The portrait on the canvas stretched over the frame ripples before my eyes, undulates and escapes, and it is I who am forced to admit defeat and avert my gaze and not the painting, which opens up once understood.
I do not tell myself that the work is not ruined, as I have done on other occasions in order to go on painting, anesthetized and remote. The portrait is as far from being completed as I would wish or as close to being finished as I had hoped. A couple of brushstrokes would finish it, two thousand would not give me sufficient time. Until yesterday, I still believed I could complete the second portrait in time, I felt confident I could finish both pictures on the same day. S. would collect the first portrait and leave the second one with me, proof of a victory I alone would relish, but that would be my revenge against the irony of that distorted image S. would hang on his wall. But today, precisely because I am sitting in front of this paper, I know that my labors have only just begun. I have two portraits on two different easels, each in its own room, the first portrait there for all to see, the second locked up in the secrecy of my abortive attempt, and these sheets of paper represent a further attempt I shall make empty-handed, without the assistance of paints and brushes, simply with this calligraphy, this black thread that coils and uncoils, comes to a halt with periods and commas, draws breath within tiny white spaces and then advances sinuously as if crossing the labyrinth of Crete or the intestines of S. (How odd: this comparison surfaced quite unexpectedly and without any provocation. While the first is no more than a commonplace image from classical mythology, the second is so unusual that it gives me some hope. Frankly, it would be meaningless if I were to say that I am trying to probe the spirit, soul, heart and mind of S.; the intestines form another kind of secret.) And as I said at the outset, I shall go from room to room, from easel to easel, only to return to this little table, to this lamp, to this calligraphy, to this thread which is constantly breaking and has to be tied beneath my pen yet is my only hope of salvation and knowledge.
What is the word “salvation” doing here? Nothing could be more rhetorical under the circumstances, and I loathe rhetoric, although it is my profession, for every portrait is rhetorical. Here is one of the meanings of “rhetoric”: “Everything we use in discourse to impress others and win over our audience.” Knowledge is preferable, because to desire and strive for it always commands respect, although everyone knows how easy it is to slip from sincerity into the most awful pedantry. All too often knowledge entrenches itself within the most solid bastions of ignorance and contempt. It is just a matter of using the word unwittingly or without paying too much attention, so that the simple combination of its sounds will occupy the place or space (inside the air pocket where the word lodges and mingles) of what should be, if truly understood and practiced, a work to the exclusion of everything else. Have I now made myself understood? Have I myself understood? Cognition is the act of knowing: this is the simplest definition, with which I must be satisfied, for it is essential that I should be able to simplify everything in order to proceed. It was never exactly a question of knowing in the portraits I have painted. Enough has already been said about the counterfeit money in my change and I have nothing more to add. But if on this occasion I was unable to simply mess up the canvas in accordance with the desires and money of the sitter, if for the first time I secretly began to paint a second portrait of the same sitter, and if, also for the first time, I am repeating, attempting, drawing a portrait in words which definitely eluded me through the medium of painting, this can be attributed to knowledge. When I applied the first stroke to the canvas, I should have put my brush down, and, with all the apologies of which I am capable in order to disguise the extravagance of my gesture, I should have accompanied S. to the door and calmly watched him go down the stairs, or taken a deep breath in order to recover my composure with the unexpected relief of someone who has just had a narrow escape. Then there would have been no second portrait, I should not have bought these sheets of paper or be struggling with words more awkward than brushes, more similar in color than these paints which refuse to dry in there. I would not be this triple man who for the third time is going to try to say what he has unsuccessfully tried to say twice before.
That is how it turned out. The first picture was a complete failure and I could not give up. If S. eluded me, or I failed to capture him and he realized it, then the only solution would be a second portrait painted in his absence. I tried this. The sitter became the first portrait and the invisible one I was pursuing. I could never be satisfied with a mere likeness, nor even with the psychological probing within the grasp of any apprentice, based on precepts as banal as those which give form to the most naturalistic and superficial of portraits. The moment S. enter
This very day I decided to attempt a definitive portrait of S. in words. I do not believe that at any time during the last two months (it was exactly two months yesterday that I began the first portrait) the idea would have occurred to me. Yet, strange to relate, it came naturally, without taking me by surprise, without my questioning it in the name of my literary ineptitude, and the first action it provoked was the purchase of this paper, as naturally as if I were buying tubes of paint or a set of new brushes. I was out for the rest of the day (having made no appointments for any sittings). I drove out of the city with a ream of paper on the seat beside me, as if parading my latest conquest, the kind of conquest for which the seat of a car is as good as a couch. I dined alone. And when I returned home I made straight for the studio, uncovered the portrait, applied several brushstrokes at random, and once more covered the canvas. Then I went into the spare room where I keep my suitcases and old paintings; I added the same brushstrokes to the second portrait with the automatic concentration of someone performing his thousandth exorcism and then seated myself here in this tiny room of mine, part library, part refuge, where women have never felt at their ease.
What do I want? First, not to be defeated. Then, if possible, to succeed. And no matter where these two portraits lead me, to succeed will be to discover the truth about S. without arousing his suspicion, since his presence and images bear witness to my proven inability to give satisfaction while satisfying myself. I cannot say what steps I shall take, what kind of truth I am pursuing. All I can say is that I have found it intolerable not to know. I am almost fifty and have reached the age when wrinkles no longer accentuate one’s features but give expression to the next phase, that of encroaching old age, and suddenly, I repeat, I have found it intolerable to lose, not to know, to go on making gestures in the dark, to be a robot which dreams night after night of escaping from the punched tape of its program, from the tapeworm existence between the circuits and transistors. Were you to ask me whether I would take the same decision even if S. were not to appear, I would be at a loss for an answer. I think I would but cannot swear to it. Meanwhile, now that I have started to write, I feel as if I had never done anything else and that I was actually born to write.
I observe myself writing as I have never observed myself painting, and discover what is fascinating about this craft. There always comes a moment in painting when the picture cannot take another brushstroke (bad or good, it can only make the picture worse), while these lines can go on forever, aligning the numbers of a sum that will never be achieved but whose alignment is already something perfect, a definitive achievement because known. I find the idea of infinite prolongation particularly fascinating. I shall be able to go on writing for the rest of my life, whereas pictures are locked into themselves and repel. Tyrannical and aloof, they are trapped inside their own skin.
I ASK MYSELF why I wrote that S. is handsome. Neither of the two portraits shows him to be so, and the first one should try to present him in a favorable light, or at least give a real likeness with all the flattering ingredients of a portrait that will be well rewarded. To be frank, S. is not handsome. But he has that self-assurance I have always envied, a face with regular features in the right proportions which confers that solid look which men who are physically as weak as I am cannot help but envy. He moves at his ease, sits in a chair without so much as looking at it and is comfortably seated at once, without any need for further adjustments which betray embarrassment and timidity. One might think he had been born with all his battles won or that he has others to do his fighting for him, invisible warriors who quietly perish without fanfare or speech, preparing the way as if they were simply the bristles of a broom. I do not believe S. is a millionaire by current standards, but he is not short of money. This is something one can tell just from the way in which he lights a cigarette or looks around him. The rich man never sees or notices, he simply looks and lights a cigarette with the air of someone expecting it to arrive already lit. The rich man lights the offended cigarette, that is to say, the rich man is offended as he lights the cigarette because there is no one there to do it for him. I am sure S. would have found it perfectly natural if I had rushed forward or showed signs of doing so. But I do not smoke and I have always kept a sharp eye for a chance to deflate and subvert this affected gesture—from the moment a flame is released from a lighter and then extinguished, the opening and closing of a circular movement, according to circumstances, can be a sign of adulation, of subservience, of complicity, a subtle or crude invitation to go to bed. S. would have liked me to acknowledge the wealth and power I perceive there. Artists, however, traditionally enjoy some privileges which, even when they do not exploit them, or only exploit them as a last resort, maintain a romantic aura of irreverence, which confirms the client in his (provisional) state of subordination and in his individual superiority. In this somewhat farcical relationship, the artist and the client each plays his respective role. Deep down, S. would have despised me if I had attempted to light his cigarette, but worse still, he would have achieved what he wanted had I done so. There were no surprises on either side and everything passed off as expected.
S. is of medium height, robust, in good physical shape (as far as I can tell) for a man who appears to be in his forties. He has enough gray hairs at the temples to add a touch of distinction, and he would be the perfect model for advertising luxury products associated with country life, such as briar pipes, hunting rifles, Scottish tweeds, powerful cars, holidays in the Alps or in the Camargue. In short, the kind of face most men desire because promoted by the American cinema and associated with a certain type of woman with long hair, but probably not worth keeping (I mean the face, not the woman) for any longer than it takes to photograph; in real life men are more commonplace, sallow, unshaven, have bad breath and often suffer from body odor. Perhaps S.’s face—his eyes, mouth, chin, nose, hair roots and hair, eyebrows, skin tone, wrinkles, expression—perhaps all this is to blame for the untidy mess I have transferred onto the canvas and which is no clearer even in the second portrait. Not that it bears no likeness or that the first portrait is not the faithful image I charitably set out to achieve, not that the second portrait could not pass for an exercise in psychological analysis expressed through painting. In both cases, I alone know that both canvases remain white, virginal, if you prefer that word, ruined, if truth be told. Yet I come back to asking myself why (since the S. I have described is so loathsome) I feel this obsessive need to understand and get to know him better, when much more interesting men and women whom I have portrayed durin
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