Pentimenti

January 4, 2010


During the ten years I worked as contract art educator at the National Gallery of Canada, I spent countless hours in front of the painting entitled As the Old Sing, So the Young Pipe (c. 1640-1645) by the Flemish artist, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), in the Baroque room of the National Gallery of Canada. I was enchanted by the miniature 17th century streetscape with its blue sky, white clouds and red brick buildings reflected in the wine glass that was half-full, half-empty. And the pentimento revealing a “third” ear on the dog in the foreground never ceased to amuse and intrigue gallery visitors.

I used to have little patience for pentimenti in my own painting. The visible brush stroke was meant to add to the strength of the image not reveal errors or alterations. But there they were, in the right light from the right distance, traces of the past. There was the evidence that the spruce tree that I began on December 27, 1998 was covered so heavily with snow on December 28, 1998 that the branches no longer were springing up but were bending down with their burden of snow. The snowfall changed the whole painting.

Italians called such errors a pentirsi. I repent. I am sorry but I really have to change the placement or the angle or the light.

The real world which does not resemble the step-by-step how-to painters who work from imagination or other 2-D images, interrupts the painter’s process.

Sometimes months or even years pass before a painting can be completed. Sometimes seasons change or we change; we move or we become ill or someone dies; or maybe someone is born.

I spent a week shifting my studio to the room with the best light. It was a lot of work.

By a Lady Uploaded to Flickr by ocean.flynn (2008-04-08). On March 9, 2008: Completed hanging plant; Added basket of art books; Added set of brass?pots for spherical reflections; Clipped apple tree branches and put into water to force growth of leaves and blossoms.

From Reflexivity: Mise en Abyme

In his chapter entitled “Las Menina” in Les Mots et Les Choses (1966), French philosopher, Michel Foucault, provided an analysis of the painting entitled Las Meninas (1656) in Madrid’s Museo del Prado by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1599 – 1660). In great detail and without reference to contemporary art historical approaches, Foucault described the enormous oil painting. He re-presented the painting from his own perspective in 1966 drawing attention to the ways in which Velázquez used mirrors, paintings within paintings, the canvas itself and screens that force the viewer to mentally oscillate, shift perspectives and ultimately question where the images-within-images begin and end. Is the frame hanging on the wall in the background that of a portrait of the king and queen or is it a mirror in which case, the King and Queen in the act of observing Velázquez painting are themselves represented in a mise en abyme? Which surface is the artist representing? What is the image’s interior, surface, and exterior? See also Gresle (2006-12-01).

I have been fascinated by mise en abyme since my adolescence and and in the last decade it has become more frequent in my painting.

Webliography and Bibliography

Gresle, Yvette. 2006-12-01. “Foucault’s Las Meninas and art-historical methods.” Journal of Literary Studies).”


Cupboards, drawers, boxes and storage bins are open and private everyday objects are strewn about, turned into something public in preparation for the moving sale. Personal histories related to each item are re-examined. Will they survive without the physical archives? Do they need to?

Le Carré describes this tortuous upending of a home in A Perfect Spy as agents tramp through every cranny and cupboard of her house. Mary’s husband, gifted in the spy tradecraft, has gone missing. He’s taken a ‘retirement’ and is writing his autobiography. I am intrigued by his process because he wants his story to read like a fiction and he wants his hero, himself to be lovable. In her interrogation with the agents, she said,

He’s not writing yet. He’s preparing.

He calls it a matrix.

When he retires, he’ll write.

He’s still finding the line. He likes to keep it to himself.

Listen to this: ‘ When the most horrible gloom was over the household; when Edward himself was in agony and behaving as prettily as he knew how. ‘

It’s from something he read. When he reads a book he underlines things in pencil. Then when he’s finished it he writes out his favourite bits (Le Carré 1986:51).

I think of a mise-en-abime, the hypodiegetic and diegetic framing narratology but this is only a spy mystery. But I also think of the collage-montage and I remember Benjamin. It seems to be what I am doing with my blog. I underline with digg or deli.cio.us. I cut and paste using Flickr, Youtube, Google docs or WordPress itself. But unlike Benjamin or the perfect spy, I scrupulously hot link the most reliable url I can find to every image, citation, idea. The blog itself may seem fragmented or may link the images with new juxtapositions but the sources can be followed by the reader. So my blog is more like a collage-montage than writing.

Before being driven to suicide through physical and mental exhaustion while fleeing the Nazis at the French border in 1940, German cultural theorist, Walter Benjamin was working on a consuming project to educate his own generation and awaken a new political consciousness (Buck-Morss 1991: 336, 47 in Holtorf 2001) . Using the Paris arcades as his prime metaphor, through his passion for collecting fragments of everyday urban experience he wanted his contemporaries to engage in a cleansing memory work, history with an ethical dimension, to revisit 19th century Parisian social and cultural history. He introduced a new form of ‘writing’ which consisted of cutting-and-pasting original citations without citation marks.

Benjamin’s fragmented direct, literal quotations, images and things were purposefully taken out of context. In this way they were deliberately not reduced to generally accepted theoretical or methodological frameworks or categories. He wanted his contemporaries to question unchallenged assumptions about anthropological nihilism, iron construction, the flâneur, the collector and capitalism itself. Something new was created from the old by constructed these fragmented, de-racinated elements into a collage-montage by juxtaposing them in a new way. In this way Benjamin questioned commonly held notions of ‘representation as finding some correspondence with an exterior reality’ (Shanks 1992: 188-90 Holtorf 2001).

Webliography and Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. 1991. Trans. Buck-Morss. Das Passagen-Werk. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. V [1982]. Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp. [English edition 1996]

Buck-Morss, Susan (1991) The Dialectics of Seeing. Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project [1989]. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Holtorf, Cornelius. 2001. Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk.

Le Carré, John. 1986. The Perfect Spy. New York: Penguin.

Shanks, Michael (1992) Experiencing the Past. On the Character of Archaeology. London: Routledge.


How can I know what I’m feeling isn’t just me imagining that I am feeling? What is counterfeit and what is real?

Psychological analysis lost all interest for me from the moment that I became aware that men feel what they imagine they feel. From that to thinking that they imagine they feel what they feel was a very short step . . .! I see it clearly in the case of my love for Laura: between loving her and imagining I love her- between loving her less and imagining I love her less – what God could tell the difference? In the domain of feeling, what is real is indistinguishable from what is imaginary. And if it is sufficient to imagine one loves, in order to love, so it is sufficient to say to oneself that when one loves one imagines one loves, in order to love a little less and even in order to detach oneself a little from one’s love, or at any rate to detach some of the crystals from one’s love. But if one is able to say such a thing to oneself, must one not already love a little less? (Gide 1925 [1958:84])

These are the questions asked by Edouard, the narrator and protagonist of André Gide’s novel Les Faux-Monnayers (1925). Edouard reads the letters, poetry and novels of others and writes in his journal as a background to his experiment in writing a new, more authentic form of novel entitled Les Faux-Monnayers. In the post WWI period of confused values and identities, Edouard begins to question his own reality:

The only existence that anything (including myself) has for me, is poetical – I restore this word its full signification. It seems to me sometimes that I do not really exist, but that I merely imagine I exist. The thing that I have the greatest difficulty in believing in, is my own reality. I am constantly getting outside myself, and as I watch myself act I cannot understand how a person who acts is the same as the person who is watching him act, and who wonders in astonishment and doubt how he can be an actor and a watcher at the same moment. (Gide 1925 [1958:84])

But is it Gide who also experiencing an existential crisis?

André Gide introduced the concept of the mise en abîme in his Journal (1893),

J’aime assez qu’en une œuvre d’art on retrouve ainsi transposé, à l’échelle des personnages, le sujet même de cette œuvre par comparaison avec ce procédé du blason qui consiste, dans le premier, à mettre le second en abyme (Gide 1893).

It is defined by Rimmon-Kenan as,

An analogy which verges on identity, making the hypodiegetic level a mirror and reduplication of the diegetic, is known in French as mise en abyme. It can be described as the equivalent in narrative fiction of something like Matisse’s [1933 painting La Condition Humaine] of a room in which a miniature version of the same painting hangs on one of the walls (Rimmon-Kenan 2002: 94).

and described by Wenche Ommundsen, who foregrounds the metatextual significance of such text-segments, considers mise en abyme as ‘an embedded self-representation or mirror-image of the text within the text. The mise en abyme may […] refer to the whole work which includes it; it may also refer to a particular element within that work, or it may take as its subject the processes of fictional creation and communication’ (Ommundsen 1993: 10 cited by Weiss).

Bibliography

Bal, Mieke. 1985. Narratology. Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (transl.).Toronto/London: University of California Press.

Boheemen. “Notes on Narrative Embedding.” Poetics Today 2.2 (1981): 41-59.

Gide, André. 1925. Les Faux-Monnayers.

Gide, André. 1958. The Coiners. Trans. Dorothy Bussy. London: Cassell & Company.

Gide, André. 1958. XIII. “Edouard’s Journal: Douviers and Profitendieu.” The Coiners. Trans. Dorothy Bussy. London: Cassell & Company. p. 358

Caws, Mary Ann. 1986. Reading Frames in Modern Fiction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Dällenbach, Lucien. 1977. Le récit spéculaire. Essai sur la mise en abyme .– Paris : Seuil, 1977. The Mirror in the Text.– Cambridge : Polity Pres, 1989.


Meyer-Minnemann, Klaus, Schlickers, Sabine. 2004. “La mise en abyme en narratologie.” Vox Poetica. January 7. http://www.vox-poetica.org/t/menabyme.html

Ommundsen, Wenche. 1993. Metafictions? Reflexivity in Contemporary Texts. Victoria: Melbourne University Press.

Ricardou, Jean.1990 [1973]. Le Nouveau Roman. Paris : Seuil.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. 2002. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. 2nd edn. London and New York: Routledge.

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