Ever since Homer told the tale of the shield made by Hephaistos for Achilles nearly three millennia ago, writers and artists have been telling stories or writing fables about art. Sometimes such fables are passed on as matters of fact, as when Picasso, born at 11:15 p.m. on Oct. 25, 1881, according to birth records, told the charming tale of his nativity at midnight. This seemingly casual alteration of the facts, a mere rounding off of numbers, is not so innocent and not without poetic significance, since, according to legend, midnight was the very hour of Christ’s birth. We cannot forget here that when Vasari described the nativity of Michelangelo, he pictured the advent of the messiah of art. “Seldom a splendid story,” Dr. Johnson once said, “is wholly true.” Or, if it is wholly true, we might add, its “truth” rises above the condition of mere “fact.”
Sometimes the fable of art has been carried to the pitch of high farce and fantasy, as in William Beckford’s largely forgotten, late 18th-century Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, the mock-heroic “lives” of imaginary artists. Of all these artists, the greatest was Aldovrandus Magnus, the epic painter whose labors on a heroic cycle of painting were tragically terminated when his supply of canvas vanished in a great conflagration, which, singeing the beards of his disciples, caused the painter to die of grief. His epitaph, written by Professor Clod Lumpewitz or “Dim Wit” and rendered in English by John Ogilby, who was immortalized in Pope’s Dunciad, likened Aldovrandus to Alexander the Great: the one who died for want of worlds to conquer, the other “for lack of canvas.” Here in a peak of parody, a summit of satire, the whole Renaissance tradition of the heroic artist goes up, you might say, in smoke.
That tradition is epitomized in the monumental 16th-century Lives of the artists by Giorgio Vasari, unarguably the single greatest writer about art in the entire history of literature, one of the great novelistic authors of the modern period, whose accomplishment has sometimes been trivialized by those who call him the “father” of the modern art history. For art history as a modern academic discipline, modeled on a fragile comparison to science, turned away from poetic fable to the more abstract and astringent analysis of art as a problem, written in a decidedly anti-poetic fashion, in a voice alien to the very art it aspires to explain.
As Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion and Pliny’s fables of Apelles became legendary, so eventually did Vasari’s fables, those of Giotto, who drew a perfect O with a single flourish, of Fra Filippo Lippi, who fled the Medici palace to pursue his carnal urges, of Paolo Uccello, so enamored of his “sweet perspective” that he refused to come to bed when called by his wife. Such stories entered into the global imagination of literature, where they merged with the tale of Don Quixote, the greatest illusionist of them all, tilting at windmills. As his niece observed and as he himself later said, Quixote was himself a poet. In other words, Quixote was himself an artist, whose romantic “picture” of the world is one of the masterpieces of art history. Although Vasari’s artists were real people, not imaginary characters like Quixote, our sense of their reality is vivified, indeed magnified, by his fables in much the same way that Quixote is made “real” to us, comes to life, thanks to Cervantes’ fictive powers.
The story-telling impulse in Vasari is nowhere finer than in his biography of Leonardo, where he tells us unforgettably that as a boy the young artist was called upon by his father to paint a shield, which he did with astonishing results, for he depicted a marvelous Medusa-like monster based on the close study of bats, crickets, lizards, butterflies, and serpents. Although there is no persuasive reason to believe Leonardo ever made this painting, which is part of what Walter Pater called Leonardo’s “legend,” the monster is nonetheless true to the painter’s fantasy as we know it, a fantasy matched only by Shakespeare’s fabrication of Queen Mab’s chariot out of hazel nut, cricket bone, spider web, and wings of grasshoppers.
Vasari’s power as a fabulist is equally evident in his description of works of art in fact by the artist. Painting the Last Supper, he tells us, Leonardo had difficulty imagining the head of Judas, since he did not think he could find a model for one so evil as the Apostle who betrayed Christ. Centuries later Vasari’s fantasy would fire the imagination of the Czech writer Leo Perutz, who devoted his novel Leonardo’s Judas, an imaginative portrayal of Leonardo’s iniquitous model, to the question of what such a person was like. Vasari also pretends that Leonardo encountered a similar difficulty imagining the visage of Christ and therefore never finished it. Although there is no reason to doubt that Leonardo painted this head, Vasari’s story shrewdly comments on the theological problem confronting any painter who would seek to probe the penetralia of the very mystery of incarnation by painting the image of God incarnate. The fiction of the unfinished fresco is keyed to a deep theme of Vasari’s biography of Leonardo, the painter’s tendency to leave works unfinished or “imperfect.” This issue arises significantly, if not paradoxically, in the life of the very artist who, as Vasari says, brings “perfection” to the art of painting.
Leonardo’s inability to finish or perfect his paintings, despite the perfection of his ideas, as Vasari said, is of enormous consequence to the fable of art and has everything to do with the modern historical concept of the artist doomed to failure because he can never achieve perfection. A version of this modern fable is found in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of the painter Berthold, who descends from Vasari’s Leonardo. Creating a great religious picture, Hoffmann’s artist cannot achieve the ideal to which he aspires. In the modern version of this story, the painter has become a madman.
We follow this story, as if in a perfect genealogy, to Balzac, who rewrote the tale of Hoffmann in “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the fable of the mad painter Frenhofer, who, aspiring to paint a “masterpiece,” comes to see, as Berthold had not seen, that in the end his work was “nothing”; and we pursue the thread even further to Henry James’s story “The Madonna of the Future,” a tale revising Balzac’s, in which a mad painter, Theobald, working on a masterpiece for many years, ultimately leaves the canvas empty. The inability of these mad, fictional painters—Berthold, Frenhofer, and Theobald—to complete their pictures is true to life, to modern art history, for as Picasso, who identified himself with Frenhofer, would later say, the painter “never finishes,” for “you can never write the end.” Picasso also implicitly addresses the “reality” of these fictional characters when he says of painters in general, “there is a kind of madness that deserves to be taken into consideration”—as indeed it had been by these modern fabulists in the wake of Vasari who describe over and over the mad, quixotic painters incapable of achieving perfection in the root sense of “completion,” painters who, like Picasso, descend from the mad arch-illusionist Quixote.
Whereas Leonardo’s problem in the Last Supper was theological, the difficulty of rendering perfectly the mystery of divinity incarnate, the modern artist, the modern “Leonardo,” is preoccupied with the perfection of art as such, for in the wake of modern “aesthetics,” art in all its purity had become a substitute for religion. The perfect modern painting, “absolute” in Balzac’s terms, is unachievable in its very transcendence. Discussing Leonardo’s Last Supper, Vasari had addressed the way in which art and theology were intimately united. Now, however, in the art of Frenhofer and Picasso, the work of art, no longer informed by the certitudes of religion, could not achieve the perfection to which religious art traditionally aspired, no matter how heroic the painter’s efforts.
The modern artist or “Leonardo” modernized in the fiction of the 19th and 20th centuries, unable to achieve the perfection which he seeks, suffers an anguish not yet experienced by Vasari’s Leonardo. Writing The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci, ultimately a meditation on art and religion, Merejkowski portrays Leonardo as a Renaissance Frenhofer who, filled with “doubts,” is “always dissatisfied with what he has already done,” as he strives for the “unattainable” and therefore “almost never completes his works.” By the time Freud discovered Leonardo in Merejkowski’s novel, the sense of art’s futility had become commonplace, and Freud speaks of this condition when he says that Leonardo “has some dim notion of perfection, whose likeness time and again he despairs of reproducing.” This “Leonardo” lives on in Par Lagerkvist’s novel, The Dwarf, set in a Renaissance court, where the painter Bernardo, conspicuously modeled on Leonardo, proclaims in anguish, “all my efforts have been in vain,” “all that I have created is imperfect and unfinished.” Lagerkvist’s faux Leonardo could almost be speaking for Picasso in confessing that his painting must remain unfinished. As Picasso put it, the finished work is “killed.”
Picasso says something else of great significance in the story of modern art when he observes that the quest for unattainable perfection in art “sometimes becomes an absolute obsession.” For the story of the modern artist’s failed aspiration to the perfection beyond his grasp is inevitably the story of obsession, an obsession with the absolute which can never be achieved, not by Berthold, not by Frenhofer, not by Theobald, or Bernardo, who, like Picasso and the “Leonardo” of Merejkowski and Freud, are obsessed with the unattainable. All of these artists, real or imaginary, have their origins in Vasari’s Leonardo, an artist who “never finished anything” because he could never achieve the “perfection” to which he aspired. It is easy to ignore the centrality of “obsession” in the story of modern art, in the history of what is called “modernism,” precisely because “obsession,” now become a cliche for all desires in modern culture, is thus taken for granted.
Of the paintings by that Renaissance Frenhofer, Leonardo, said to be unfinished by Vasari, the Mona Lisa is arguably the most enthralling. All analyses of its place in our modern culture as an icon of art are incomplete or imperfect, for there are ever new sightings of Leonardo’s portrait in imaginative literature. We find, for example, the almost undetectable ghost of the Mona Lisa in Gogol’s demonic story, “The Portrait,” the tale of an unfinished portrait of haunting effect, acquired by the painter Chartkov. Likening Chartkov’s acquisition to a famous unfinished portrait by Leonardo of great beauty, Gogol evokes Vasari’s description of the similarly unfinished Mona Lisa; even the “finest veins” of Gogol’s portrait recall the “pulses” of Mona Lisa described by Vasari. Lady Lisa’s influence is seemingly present in Chartkov’s own portrait of a young woman, for the sitter, who begins to resemble the figure in the Leonardesque portrait he had acquired, is appropriately named Lise.
When Freud wrote his analysis of Leonardo, Leonardo and a Memory of His Childhood, he was acutely aware of the possibility that he had written a “psychoanalytical novel,” and there are many who think that this is exactly what he did, since his hypotheses, often unbuttressed by the facts, were based on the fantasies of Merejkowski’s romance. Be that as it may, Freud saw in the legendary smile of the painter’s works the remembrance of the maternal smile, which therefore provided a clue to the mysterious expression of Mona Lisa. Freud’s approach informs modern fiction, and in the novel, The Second Mrs. Giaconda, E.L. Konigsberg suggests that Mona Lisa’s smile is again such a remembrance, only in this case the painter remembers the smile of Beatrice d’Este, herself a legendary figure at the court where Leonardo had worked.
All such explanations have their roots in Vasari’s fable of the Mona Lisa, one of his greatest fables, even though it is only, as we often fail to observe, one sentence long. Vasari writes that Leonardo employed musicians and buffoons to amuse his sitter in order to avoid the melancholic air typical of portraits; the result was a smile that Vasari describes as “divine.” If the effect is extraordinary, it follows that the cause should be as well. Vasari’s fable poetically provides a cause that is truly extraordinary, since painters did not use entertainers to amuse their sitters in the Renaissance in order to achieve such remarkable results. Vasari’s etiological fable, like those in Ovid’s Metamorphoses or other tales in the pages of the Lives, is a poetic reflection on the “origin of things,” in this case an explanation of how a marvelous smile came to be. The art of Leonardo’s portrait thus inspired the art of Vasari’s fable. His tale, which has become legendary, enables us to see Mona Lisa as if in real life, smiling as she is entertained, as if she were a lady at court, and, suspending disbelief, we are happy to believe Vasari’s fiction.
As Leonardo’s art begat Vasari’s, Vasari’s fables beget further fables of art. Reading Vasari’s fable of the Mona Lisa as if it were modern scientific art history, as if it were a “true story,” the esteemed modern scholar E. H. Gombrich has written his own unwitting fable of Mona Lisa. Wanting to believe that Vasari’s story is true, even though we have no evidence of painters ever employing buffoons in the Renaissance to entertain sitters during the painting of portraits, Gombrich has written his own tall tale in The New York Review of Books, speculating that Mona Lisa might have been alive when Vasari published his book and that she might have told him about Leonardo’s use of such entertainers. In other words, the modern scholar imagines, in the 19th-century language of Walter Savage Landor, an “imaginary conversation” between the legendary subject of Leonardo’s portrait, about whom we still know very little, and the universally well-known biographer. Imagining Mona Lisa in conversation with Vasari, Gombrich brings her to life. He is, among scholars, a modern Pygmalion.
We can, in fact, associate the Mona Lisa in modern fable with the ancient myths of Ovid, which are still very much alive in the modern period, indeed to a surprising degree, given “modernism’s” fabled rejection of classical antiquity. In his romance of Leonardo, Merejkowski describes the Mona Lisa in terms which evoke one of Ovid’s greatest myths, that of Narcissus. As the painter worked on his portrait, the novelist writes, Mona Lisa “became a feminine double of Leonardo himself,” for “she was smiling upon him with his own smile.” In the end, he says, suspending the laws of optics, Leonardo and Mona Lisa “were like two mirrors reflecting themselves in one another.” Merejkowski calls to mind Ovid’s fable of Narcissus gazing lovingly upon his own reflection in a pool, a myth which took on artistic meaning in the Renaissance when Alberti called Narcissus “the first painter,” when it became proverbial to say, “every painter paints himself.” Merejkowski’s mythologized account, which occupies a central place in the history of explanations of Mona Lisa’s smile, is a fantasy true to the painting. For his fantasy addresses the sense we have that Mona Lisa’s revolutionary inwardness, the painter’s suggestion of her mind or psyche, is a result of the artist’s introjection into his subject. Kenneth Clark effectively set forth the novelist’s point another way when he wrote of the picture “as so full of Leonardo’s demon that we forget to think of it as a portrait.” More than a reflection of the painter in the narrow sense, the picture is a reflection of his psyche. Every painter paints himself.
In the pages of Metamorphoses, the myth of Narcissus, the first painter whose love is unrequited, is metamorphosed into the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor whose love is fulfilled. Ovid’s tale of the artist whose statue comes to life, like his myth of Narcissus, has broad currency not just as the subject of particular works of art but as a deep theme in what is abstractly called “the history of art.” This is not the place to present a catalogue raisonné of allusions to Pygmalion in the modern literature of art, but we must look at some prominent examples in order to see how ancient myth remains very much alive in the modern period. Once again we are drawn back to Vasari’s portrayal of Mona Lisa.
When Vasari pictures Mona Lisa as “alive,” vivo, a word that echoes throughout his description, he writes that one can see the very beating of her pulses, a figure of speech that evokes the pulsing “veins” of Pygmalion’s statue under the sculptor’s hand as he feels her come to life. Vasari’s most famous allusion to Pygmalion is found in his discussion of Donatello’s Zuccone, for when the sculptor addresses the statue, urging it to speak, he does so because his work appears to be alive. Remaining mute, however, the statue recalls Narcissus’s silent reflection, which Ovid had in fact likened to a sculpture in stone.
As in Ovid, the myths of Narcissus and Pygmalion are often intertwined. In his 17th-century treatise On Statues, Gian Andrea Borboni speaks of the Duke of Modena gazing upon his portrait bust by Bernini as a “new Narcissus” and when the Duke addresses the sculpture, like Donatello, he is in Borboni’s words, a “new Pygmalion.” In the following century the great Winckelmann, writing his History of Ancient Art, assumes the very persona of Pygmalion, likening himself to Ovid’s sculptor, as he tries to bring the Apollo Belvedere to life in words. Enamored of the beautiful god, Winckelmann also implicitly assumes the identity of Narcissus, whose beauty Ovid had compared to that of Apollo.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the myth of Pygmalion remains central to the fiction of art and therefore, however imaginative, fundamental to the modern idea of the artist. Let us recall here Gogol’s story of the portrait acquired by the painter, Chartkov, a work likened to the Mona Lisa, which was rendered by that earlier Pygmalion, Leonardo. In a fantastical variation of Ovid’s myth, Chartkov dreams that the terrifying old man in the portrait took hold of the picture frame with both hands and climbed out. The work of art, like Pygmalion’s statue, had come alive. Now, however, in an extraordinary reversal of Pygmalion’s story, the old man climbs back into the picture to become once again the subject of the work of art. We cannot recall anything quite like this inversion from any earlier moment in the broad story of art, except perhaps in Michelangelo’s poem in the voice of his statue Night, where ambiguously, if not paradoxically, the statue, speaking, says that, because the world is full of shame and wrongdoing, she would prefer to remain in stone, in other words, not to come alive.
The old man of Gogol’s portrait, did, however, come to life before resuming his status as the subject of a portrait. This modern story, the ancient myth of Pygmalion upside down, or (should we say) inside out, would be retold in an immensely cunning tale from the beginning of our own century, Nabokov’s “La Veneziana.” The novelist describes a character who, having fallen in love with a beautiful woman, the very subject of a portrait, has the ability to enter the picture. Suddenly, the beautiful woman of the painting and her inamorato are seen together in what has mysteriously become a double-portrait! The lover of the beautiful woman does not remain in the portrait, however, for he exits rather unceremoniously by reappearing asleep on the lawn outside the country house where the wondrous work of art hangs. In a magical inversion of Gogol’s story, Nabokov lifts the myth of Pygmalion into the realm of high farce.
Nabokov’s fable of art is nonetheless true to the deep theme of art and erotic desire, of art and carnality, that we can trace back through Winckelmann’s Apollo to Pygmalion’s beautiful statue. Whether the subject of the artist’s desire, whose art is a form of possession, or the inspiration of the beholder’s desire, the work of art, over and over again in countless fables that constitute the larger history of art, is the very image of erotic allure. When Vasari dwells, for example, on the carne, the incarnazione of the Mona Lisa, on the very “pores” of her roseate flesh, cataloguing also the virtues of her eyebrows, nose, mouth, and throat, he writes in the language of the love poets, foretelling the more modern fascination of a painting which became, as Walter Pater said, “expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire.”
In the 19th century the modern theme of Pygmalion, which has taproots in Vasari’s poetic apostrophe to Mona Lisa’s vital beauty, modulates into a story of artistic impossibility or failure, explored by Balzac. In “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the eventually failed perfectionist, Frenhofer, delivers himself of a long discourse on the defects of a painting of a female figure by another artist, which he finds lacking in the “breath of life,” which is as “cold as marble to the touch.” The allusion to Pygmalion is made even more obvious when Frenhofer says that “the blood does not flow beneath the living skin” of this painted figure, who therefore stands apart from the pulsing Mona Lisa and, ultimately, the living statue of Ovid’s artist. In other words, the painter criticized by Frenhofer has failed, is a failed Pygmalion. What we do not know, cannot know, at this point in Balzac’s story is that Frenhofer, despite his ambitions and vision of what art should be, is himself doomed to the same fate.
Frenhofer also proclaims of the painter whom he likens to a failed Pygmalion that the fire of Prometheus had died out in his hands many times, for various passages in his defective picture have not been “touched by the divine flame.” The association of Pygmalion with Prometheus is based on the fact that, like Pygmalion, Prometheus was also a sculptor whose work was brought to life. An outlaw, punished for stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus animated his statuary with heat from the sun. At the very dawn of modernity, in the Renaissance, Leonardo was likened by Lomazzo to the mythic hero who emerges as the type of the heroic artist celebrated by the Romantics. In the modern period it is not uncommon for such figures as Michelangelo and Beethoven to be regarded as Promethean; and in fiction, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Berthold to Somerset Maugham’s Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence, the artist is likened to Prometheus. Using the words “new Prometheus,” to describe Strickland, Maugham employs a phrase charged with meaning, for these words evoke Mary Shelley’s characterization of Victor Frankenstein as a “modern Prometheus.” A great artist, the Promethean Strickland is also like Frankenstein’s creature, a monster, a figure of evil.
Heroic outlaw and criminal, Prometheus is the classical model for one of the great mythic figures in the modern world, Faust, condemned to hell-fire for his diabolical transgressions, as Prometheus had been enchained for his rebellion. The diabolical Strickland, who “delved into the hidden depths of nature” and “discovered secrets which were beautiful and fearful too,” was as implicitly Faustian as he was explicitly Promethean. The artist as Faust first emerges, however, in Balzac’s Promethean Frenhofer, who had already sought to penetrate the “secrets” of nature. Balzac reinforces this identity by presenting Frenhofer as a magisterial figure of great learning, and when he says that Frenhofer worked for ten years on his masterpiece, he echoes Goethe’s introduction of Faust, who had devoted ten years to his studies. Frenhofer’s labors on his unfinished masterpiece and Faust’s studies of the same duration are seemingly echoed by Merejkowski’s assertion that “after ten years’ pondering,” Leonardo had not sketched the first outline of the head of Christ in the Last Supper. Describing the artist before the blank area of the fresco where the head was to go, saying the artist was impotent and perplexed, the novelist further conjures up Frenhofer. If Leonardo’s inability to finish his works stands behind Frenhofer’s unfinished masterpiece, now Frenhofer’s futility has become Leonardo’s impotence!
Faust’s aspiration to penetrate the mysteries of nature defines the modern fable of Leonardo. A near contemporary of the historical Faust, the learned doctor from whom the myth was fabricated, Leonardo was seen already in the Renaissance as a magus, steeped in alchemy, as Vasari says, and in other occult pursuits. The nascent sense of Leonardo as Faust is sustained by Vasari’s description of the artist in the first edition of the Lives, which was suppressed in the revised edition. Leonardo, Vasari writes, “departed from all religion, perhaps placing knowledge higher than Christian faith,” In Michelet’s words, Leonardo was “Faust’s Italian brother,” reminding us that Balzac’s Faustian Frenhofer, who failed to achieve perfection in his art, had his very origins in the imperfect strivings of the Renaissance Faustus. Portraying Leonardo not long afterward, Walter Pater also invoked Goethe’s Faust, his very “mass of science,” and Freud, following both Pater and Michelet, would speak of the artist, “insatiable and indefatigable” in his “thirst for knowledge,” as Faust.
The emergence of Faust in the modern history of art, in fiction or in the story of Leonardo, where emphasis was placed on the relations of art to science, a powerful theme of modern art history, brings us to Faust’s pact with the Devil, who assumes a major role in the story of art. Satan’s place in modern culture has only been dimly surmised but, after emerging as a figure of overwhelming proportion in Milton, he casts his spell, a broad shadow, over the world, notwithstanding its increasing secularization. In our own century, for example, he plays a conspicuous allegorical role in two exemplary novels of monumental scale about “evil empires,” Thomas Mann’s meditation on art in Nazi Germany, Dr. Faustus, and Bulgakov’s phantasmagoric portrayal of Satan’s place in that nightmare of Stalinist Russia, The Master and Margarita. All of Satan’s epiphanies in the world, as the incarnation or personification of evil, recorded by Marlowe, Milton, Goethe, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Mann, Bulgakov, and many, many others, are part of his life-story, but although the “history of god” has recently been written and even his autobiography published not long ago in Italy, we still have no definitive biography of Satan, whose contributions to art history, colossal, monumental, supernatural, are beyond measure.
In the early modern period, when the artist is usually seen as god-like or saintly, the Devil’s role in the history of art is rare. Although unnamed, he makes an appearance in Vasari’s fable of the fiendish painter, Andrea del Castagno, in one of the writer’s greatest fictions, which tells how the envious artist betrayed and murdered his talented friend, the painter Domenico Veneziano. The satanic artist, Vasari claims, portrayed himself in one of his works as Judas, a fitting sign of his diabolical identity. Only in the 19th century, however, does Satan come to the fore in the artist’s biography. Hoffmann’s painter Berthold, caught in a “devilish hoax,” says that “the Devil lures us with puppets, to which he gives angels’ wings.” Balzac’s Frenhofer, closely related to Hoffmann’s Berthold, has a “diabolical smile,” a hint that this obsessed artist is possessed by the Devil—a reminder of the way in which the modern concept of obsession as a psychological phenomenon is rooted in the earlier notion of spiritual or demonic possession. One of the fullest accounts of the Devil’s possession of the artist’s soul is given by Balzac’s friend Théophile Gautier in the story, “The Painter,” from his collection My Fantoms. It is to this fable that we must turn in order to gain a fuller, more vivid view of Satan’s possession of the painter’s soul.
Gautier writes of the painter Onuphrius, terrified by the Devil, who brought the clock-hands forward and added a mustache to one of the painter’s works, an idea that was appropriated more famously and facetiously by an avant-gardist nearly a century later. Seemingly possessed by the Devil, Onuphrius soared over the Louvre, where he beheld among the works of Delacroix and Ingres one of his own paintings, which created a buzz of admiration among the onlookers. The picture seemed even better than Onuphrius recalled, and he was moved by his own genius, until he discovered that the work was signed by one of his friends in an act of “villainous plagiary.” This is but a single episode from a series of fantastical happening in Onuphrius’s life, worthy of the demonic apparitions of E.T.A. Hoffmann. The painter, saturated with Romantic literature and under the illusion that the Devil had made off with his body, recalled Chamisso’s story of Schlemil, whose shadow was taken away by the Devil. In the end, Onuphrius, who had the potential, as Gautier says, “of becoming one of the greatest artists,” became instead “one of the strangest of our madmen,” squarely in the glorious genealogy of the modern, mad painters Berthold and Frenhofer.
Whereas Gautier’s tone is exceedingly playful, if not ironic, Gogol is far more grave and terrifying in his fable of demonic possession of the artist, “The Portrait,” a story which we have already had occasion to discuss briefly. After Chartkov the painter acquires the portrait of an old man, he finds that there was something very strange about the figure that went “beyond art.” The subject’s eyes were “living, human eyes!” Contemplation of the picture did not uplift the soul but created terror as the eyes bored into Chartkov, for he could not escape those “terrible eyes.” When the old man exited the picture, passing through the frame, he left the painter 10,000 rubles, which he eventually spent to buy up many great works of art, all of which he destroyed in a fiendish rage of spite and jealousy. Conscious finally that he had “destroyed” the best years of his own career, the embittered, deluded painter went mad. At his deathbed all those who gathered around the painter looked like fearful portraits reminiscent of the demonic portrait that had led to his doom. He began to see that painting double, quadruple, multiplying everywhere; diabolical portraits stared down upon him from all around, their living eyes boring into him as he died surrounded by the fragments of those works of art he had destroyed. The painter’s downfall began when the terrifying subject of the portrait he had acquired, seemingly the Devil incarnate, tempted him with the bag of undreamed of wealth. Surely this was the work of the Devil, who presides supremely over the doom of an ambitious artist even more monstrous than Onuphrius’s decline or Frenhofer’s failure.
In Gogol’s horrific tale, it is as if the myth of Pygmalion, the fable of a work of art coming alive, had been infected by Satanism. This is by no means the only occasion when these two threads of myth are interwoven in the fabric of modern art history. Hawthorne’s classic tale, “Drowne’s Wooden Image,” makes this connection explicit. The mediocre woodcutter Drowne mysteriously creates an image of a woman so life-like that he is now seen as a “modern Pygmalion.” When the captain of the ship for which the sculpture was made appears in public with a woman who resembles the statue, it appears that the work has become flesh. Such a sudden change in Drowne’s work, which was conducted in great “secrecy,” cannot go unexplained, and an old Puritan pointed to the source of Drowne’s inspiration when he muttered, “one thing is certain, Drowne has sold himself to the devil.”
Even when Satan is not mentioned in the modern fable of art, one senses his presence. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” a dark gothic tale of gloom, an obsessed, indeed possessed artist, painting a portrait of his wife, is more truly the spouse of his art than of his neglected model. As he paints, as he is absorbed into his art, growing wild with ardor, he rarely turns his eyes from his work to regard his wife’s countenance. When, finally, the painter, having finished his work and “entranced,” looks at his portrait, he cries out, “This is indeed Life!” He then turns to his wife and finds that she is dead. In an utter inversion of the tale of Pygmalion, the spirit of the painter’s wife has seemingly passed into the picture. Had Hawthorne’s old Puritan witnessed this metamorphosis, surely he would have proclaimed that the portrait was the work of the Devil. Can there be any doubt that Poe’s unnamed painter, wild, moody, passionate, tremulous, and entranced, as seemingly mad as Frenhofer and company, was possessed? Here at last, is a story of success in modern art. Poe’s painter in contrast to Frenhofer, Chartkov or Onuphrius achieves “life” in art. But at what price? The sacrifice of his wife! Not until Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray, which similarly broods on the intimate and mysterious relations between portrait and subject, do we encounter a story so chillingly diabolical, a fable typical of what was referred to as the author’s Diabolism.
If Poe’s implicitly diabolical portraitist painter is a type of Pygmalion, who, in a sense, takes the life of his subject as he brings new life to art, Mark Twain’s Satan in the long tale “The Mysterious Stranger,” is more like Prometheus when he creates tiny living creatures out of clay. Twain’s Promethean Satan, the nephew of the Satan, Satan the Younger we might call him, destroys his very own creatures; he is himself perfectly Satanic. The inversion of God the Creator, the archetypal artist, Satan is the sublime destroyer. He epitomizes the destructive power of the modern artist, about which we will have much more to say presently. First, however, it is necessary, in the light of Twain’s satirical tone, to recall that modern writers can also be delightfully playful when they treat the Devil or the artist’s Faustian pact with the Devil. Take the case of the redoubtable writer Enoch Soames.
As a mediocre modernist poet, Soames, who is the subject of one of Max Beerbohm’s fables in Seven Men, frets over the question of how posterity will regard him. He worries that he might be a “failure” and, judging from the history of “modernism,” from the particular stories of Frenhofer and Onuphrius, from the real life anxieties of Cézanne and Picasso, we understand his concern. For failure lies at the very heart of modern art, broadly conceived, even in the minds of the most talented artists. The Oscar Wilde-like Soames is a self-professed Diabolist who, like Faust, makes a pact with the Devil. Satan agrees to transport the poet into the future, where he can take the measure of how his work will be regarded after his death, long after the publication of such mediocre works as the ridiculously entitled Fungoids. Soames does not need the Devil’s help in the writing of his poems, as Thomas Mann’s composer Adrian Leverkühn requires the Devil’s intervention for all his musical compositions. He does, however, depend on the Devil to determine whether he will triumph through art over his own mortality. The story of Soames sublimes the fable of the modern artist, truly bedeviled, into the empyrean of travesty.
The Devil’s role in art is nevertheless not taken so lightly by Somerset Maugham in his portrayal of the Gauguin-like Strickland. Cruel, selfish, brutal, sensual, and odious, Strickland “had the devil,” was “possessed by the devil,” as Maugham reiterates, adding that his art was a form of “black magic.” Possession and obsession are here again closely connected. Observing that Strickland, before he reached Tahiti, was “harassed incessantly by his struggle with technique,” Maugham says he “managed, perhaps, less than others to express the vision that he saw in his mind’s eye.” Maugham’s painter, who reminds us of Frenhofer or Leonardo, prompted the novelist to say that “no artist achieves completely the realization of the dream that obsesses him.” Like Frenhofer, Strickland was a man “not quite sane,” a man possessed by the Devil, seemingly unable to achieve the ideal to which he aspired.
Whereas Frenhofer never achieved the masterpiece to which he devoted his very being, Strickland, who ended his life as a leper in Tahiti, did realize a “strange masterpiece” when, at the last, blinded, he filled his jungle hut with paintings. These extraordinary works filled Dr. Coutras, who described them, with the same feeling he had when he went to the Sistine Chapel, where he was “awed” by the greatness of Michelangelo, by his overwhelming genius, which made him feel small and insignificant. Nothing, however, prepared Dr. Coutras for Strickland’s works, which were “obscene,” “troubling,” making him “uneasy.” Gazing upon Strickland’s work, in horror, he evokes the “abominable terrors” at the climax of The Heart of Darkness. In “the clutch of an unseen horror,” Maugham’s doctor confesses that he is not altogether sorry when Strickland sees to it that his great work is “destroyed” by having the hut burnt down. “I think Strickland knew it was a masterpiece,” Dr. Coutras continues, adding in an almost Biblical language suggestive of God’s creation: “he had made a world and saw that it was good.” But he inverts the idea of God the Creator when he says of the diabolical artist’s destruction of his own work that he did it “in pride and contempt.”
How do we take the measure of Strickland’s artistic self-annihilation? He is not the Michelangelo who, Vasari says, burned his drawings in old age, presumably in order to conceal the effort that went into his master works. Nor is he the bizarre neo-Vasarian Aldovrandus, who never realized his masterpiece when a great conflagration consumed all his canvas. Nor is he even the Frenhofer who burned all his works in disillusionment when he saw that his failed “masterpiece” was “nothing.” Strickland gives undreamt of meaning to the words of Picasso, who said that painting was a “hoard of destructions.” Descending from classical antiquity, the Renaissance and Romanticism, the Promethean, Faustian and Satanic, Strickland is the supreme type of the modern artist as anti-hero, an outlaw, who exposes himself to the “agonies of the damned” in the very blaze of self-damnation.
The role of Satan in the story of modern art is closely tied to the emergence of the artist as criminal or immoralist. In his novel Justine the Satanic Marquis de Sade defends Michelangelo for crucifying a young man in order to copy his very agonies in a Crucifixion. A similar, even more horrific, story was told a short time later about Giotto in a book called The Percy Anecdotes. Also intending to paint a Crucifixion, the artist induced a man “to suffer himself to be bound to a cross” for an hour, after which he would be released and handsomely rewarded. Murder is here combined with the depths of duplicity, for once he had his victim secure, Giotto grabbed a dagger and plunged it into his heart. He now could effectively imitate in painting the agonies resulting from his “foul treachery.” Both of these stories exemplify, we might say, what De Quincey, followed by Oscar Wilde, spoke of as the “fine art” of “murder.”
As the artist is criminal and murderous, so his works take on the character of crime and immorality. Leonardo’s St. John, whose flesh “no one would go out into the wilderness to seek,” as Pater says, gazes out with a “treacherous smile.” Leonardo’s saint, as a character in Merejkowski’s novel observes, has “the impiety of the devil,” is the forerunner not of Christ but of the “Antichrist.” The smile is no less dangerous when it appears on the face of Mona Lisa, a “vampire,” as Pater calls her, whose treachery is mocked by Aldous Huxley in his story, “The Gioconda Smile.” For the woman of this tale, whose smile evokes Mona Lisa’s, is a murderess. The evil of Leonardo’s portrait, which embodies all the “maladies” of the “soul,” also recalls Gogol’s portrait of the Devil, whose horrifying eyes evoked those of the Mona Lisa. The sense of the “unfathomable smile” in Leonardo, “sinister,” as Pater says, points back to Vasari’s incipiently Faustian artist, who had already passed mysteriously beyond conventional religion and morality when he seemingly exalted science above religion.
As Leonardo’s works themselves came to be regarded as mysterious, their chiaroscuro evoking mystery, so did their creator come to be seen as himself a mystery, and this is the way he was described by writers from Baudelaire to Merejkowski. In the wake of the 18th-century sense of the mystery in the sublime, reflected in the Gothic romance, Leonardo’s legend merged with the modern fiction concerning the artist as a mystery. The mystery of the artist had, in effect, become one of the “sacred mysteries” of modernism. Hoffmann’s tale of the strange Berthold, the Leonardesque painter who fails to complete his masterpiece, is an early mystery story about art, foretelling Balzac’s more explicit “mystery” of the more enigmatic and elusive Frenhofer, whose roots also lie, as we have seen, in Leonardo’s thwarted aspiration to perfection.
The strangeness of the artist, already explored during the Renaissance by Vasari in his Lives, in his discussion of Leonardo’s bizarre inventions, his “lunacies” or pazzie, as he calls them, comes to the fore in the romantic period as part of the artist’s mystery. This mystery would be probed by one of the greatest detectives of the era, Freud, and by the legion of psychoanalytical critics, who, following his approach, would probe correspondences between the artist’s psyche and his work, now assumed to be virtually universal. The Narcissus-like reflection of the artist in his work thus took on new psychological depth. The key to these detective investigations of the mysteries of artistic identity, whether the interrogations of Michelangelo or Cézanne, was sexuality, which draws us back once again to the erotic desire that lay at the heart of the myth of Narcissus, the primordial painter.
With the development of the story of the obsessive artist as a mystery in Balzac and Hoffmann, we find that the artist’s critic and biographer, entering into the spirit of the artist, came to be themselves obsessive in their quest of the artist. Frenhofer is, in a profound sense, Balzac’s double, his Doppelgänger, his Narcissus-like twin, reflecting the novelist’s own obsession with the unattainable absolute and Freud, speaking explicitly of his “obsession” with Leonardo, finds in the artist’s obsession with science his own reflection. Saturated with Balzac, Henry James had, before Freud, codified in fiction the story of the would-be biographer’s obsessive search for the clues that would unlock the mystery of the artist, most notably in The Aspern Papers, the tale of the quest for the hidden letters of a dead poet that would provide a key to the mystery of the artist. James’s approach would be assimilated into the writings of biographers of artists, real and imaginary, as mystery stories, indeed detective stories—from A.J.A. Symons’s Quest for Corvo to Ian Hamilton’s Search for J.D. Salinger and A.S. Byatt’s suggestively entitled Possession. These are all works in which the artist himself is now the subject of the biographer’s or novelist’s obsession, the very analogue of the modern artist’s own obsession, which, as we have seen, lies at the heart of “modernism.” The fable of the obsession with the artist, of which there are countless recent instances, for example, Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton, Amanda Prantera’s Conversations with Lord Byron, and Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, is a parable of the modern obsession with art and all its mysteries, a parable more often than not now written with a large quotient of irony and with a sense of the very futility of such obsession.
Nowhere is the delineation of the quest for the artist more delightfully present than in James’s classic story, “The Figure in the Carpet,” the deeply ironic, teasing tale of what the author drolly speaks of as a critic’s “obsession” with the “mystery” or “secret” of the novelist, the clue to which lies “hidden” deep within his work. The critic’s quest to penetrate this secret, futile as it is obsessive, mirrors the obsessive artist’s own failed attempts to penetrate the mysteries of art itself. As in art, so in biography, and the secret of James’s artist is ultimately never “unveiled.” Following Flaubert, and like Walter Pater, James believed that art ultimately is “impersonal” or, as T.S. Eliot would later say in the wake of all these writers, “depersonalized.” This modern tradition of criticism that suggests limits to the biographical approach to the artist is the counter-current of the pervasive psychoanalytical theory of modernism, rooted in the myth of Narcissus, typified by Freud and his followers, who would discover the reflection of the artist, his life or personality, in the work. At its extreme, the idea of artistic impersonality would eventually reach its apogee in Roland Barthes’s classic pronouncement of the “death of the author”—depersonalization in the extreme, when the corpse of the artist was buried once and for all.
Writers in the 20th century, undaunted, have dared to resurrect the artist, to pursue his ghost, to speculate on the mysterious relations of his life to the work—from Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, a novel about a painter whose “secret has something of the fascination of the detective story” to Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, another detective story of obsession in which the narrator, an amateur of the French writer, aspires to know “exactly what Flaubert was like.” In the paradox of Barnes’s profoundly ironical book, Flaubert is always before our very eyes, but always elusive, our efforts to know him ever frustrated by such phrases as “we shan’t ever find out,” “the truth is not recorded.” Flaubert’s Parrot is saturated with the artifice and guile of Nabokov, of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the meta-biographical novel about a novelist which is not only rooted in Symons’s quest for Corvo, published just a few years before Nabokov’s book, but which has its previously undetected taproots in the ironies of Henry James’s detective fictions about writers. The relation of Nabokov’s novel about the mysteries of artistic identity to the fiction of Henry James remains as obscure as it is profound, for Nabokov’s admiring readers, ever attentive to the novelist’s smallest secrets, have previously failed to detect the clues to his indebtedness to the “Master.”
Like James, who, building on the fantasies of Hoffmann and Balzac, invented the type of detective story in which the literary artist is the narrator-detective’s quarry, Nabokov carries irony to an extreme pitch, probing its every nook and cranny, in his own wry but poignant tale of V’s “quest” to know Sebastian, to hunt down the “ghost” of the writer to whom he is intimately related in more ways than one, as Vladimir (Nabokov) is, in a sense, identified by the V who is his narrator and persona. As the “secretive” Sebastian Knight could not tolerate “sham mystery,” so Nabokov rejects the clichés of the conventional detective story in his own detective tale. Although the biographer in Nabokov’s book never penetrates the artist’s “secret,” he does discover that any soul may finally be ours if we “follow its undulations.” Nabokov’s diction here, or rather that of his narrator, who is the double impersonation of Sebastian and Nabokov, is suggestive, for the “undulations” of which he speaks bring us, full circle, back to the pool of Narcissus. Only now the ripples of water dissolve the reflection into something far more subtle and complex than mere reflection, reminding us one last time, as Nabokov intended, of the vagaries of the bedeviled biographer’s obsessive quest to penetrate the mysteries of artistic identity—one of the very deep themes in the pool of modern fiction about art.
The mystery of the artist persists, and nowhere more manifestly than in the recent writings on Leonardo. In his novel, The Memory Cathedral: A Secret History of Leonardo da Vinci, Jack Dann’s subtitle still points to the idea of those “secrets” that lie at the heart of Leonardo’s legend, and George Herman recently wrote a novel, A Comedy of Murders, in which Leonardo, employing his scientific analytic skills, is a detective investigating murders at court. If not the mystery itself, he is still enveloped in the aura of mystery. As with Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity, the detective and the criminal are each the double of the other. Leonardo, the sleuth, is the obverse of the traditional identification of Leonardo with evil, with the very Devil.
The mystery of artistic identity is not the peculiar province of modernist fiction, which is saturated with irony and obsession, with notions of imperfection and failure. It pervades the scholarship of modern art history, as susceptible itself to fiction and myth as fiction is responsive to history. The fabulist’s sense of the “demonic” lingers in Clark’s characterization of Leonardo’s “almost blasphemous” St John; the traditional Faustian view of the artist persists in the scholar’s portrayal of Leonardo’s “passionate curiosity in the secrets of nature,” of “his inhumanly sharp eye.” Indeed the figures of Leonardo’s art, Clark asserts, are not human, but “symbols of mystery.” The mystery resides in Leonardo’s supposed self-portrait as an old man now in Windsor Castle, which is less a self-revelation than an idealized type of sage. The so-called self-portrait, Clark concludes, is “remarkably unrevealing.” In other words, it remains a mystery. Clark’s Leonardo still resembles the artist of Freud, Merejkowski, Pater, and Baudelaire, as he evokes a galaxy of elusive modern artists, real and fictional, from Frenhofer and Flaubert to Sebastian Knight. Over and over in Leonardo’s writings, it has been said, one encounters the lament, “who will tell me if anything was ever finished?” As Leonardo’s pursuit of nature was never completed, so many of his works were left unfinished. The words from Leonardo’s notebooks carry us back through the ages, through the legend of Leonardo, past Vasari’s fables, to the artist himself, to his “unanswered question” whether anything can ever be completed or perfected. In this repeated, if not obsessive, question, we discover the juncture of Leonardo and Balzac’s Frenhofer, the origins of Picasso’s claim that a painting is never done, and we find here, too, the deep roots of our own peculiarly modern and pervasive sense of the mystery of art, the sense that it ever eludes us, that our own obsessive detective investigations of it will remain incomplete, will never be finished. As Leonardo illuminates the diabolical Frenhofer, Frenhofer illustrates the bedeviled Leonardo, and in both figures we find our own imperfect reflection: the portrait of modernity itself.