Friday, 3 March 2006

Event: Look at Me, Robert Dessaix

The blurb for this talk at the Art Gallery of New South Wales went like this:

In a talk about what it is that self-portraits and autobiographies try to capture and both why and how they do it, Robert Dessaix draws on his own experience of autobiographical writing to touch on a wide range of subjects, from obituaries and the nature of the self in modern times to transfiguration, redemption and what we mean by 'beauty'.

This was in the e-mail announcement of his talk that I received in my Netscape account. Of course I planned immediately to get there in time to hear him. The talk was designed to complement an exhibition currently on at the gallery: Self Portrait: Renaissance to Contemporary.

Dessaix’s half-hour talk was very interesting. It wasn’t boring, in fact. I took along a tape recorder to attempt to catch the talk. Here’s a transcript of the talk, inasmuch as the recorder‘s quality allows me to reproduce it. Elipses below indicate poor reception. Reception at the end gets so poor that I’ve simply left off in the middle of a — no doubt — brilliant trope. Apologies to Dessaix for these impertinences.

He talks, basically, about artistic license.

I want to be remembered as a poem. Just hold that thought and let me explain.

The French writer, André Gide — nobody much reads him any more, I know, but you may have when you were younger — André Gide, at the age of twenty-two, having done nothing of note, except meet Oscar Wilde, wrote in his journal: “a man’s life is his image” (“la vie de l’homme c’est l’image”). “At the hour of death we shall be reflected in the past, and leaning over the mirror of our acts, our souls will recognise what we are. Our whole life is spent in sketching an ineradicable portrait of ourselves. We recount our lives, lying to ourselves, but our life will not lie. It will tell the story of our soul.” And then he says a very interesting thing. He says, “rather than recounting his life as he has lived it, the artist must live his life as he will recount it.”

Sartre, by the way, said something similar in the portrait of his own childhood called Words (Les Mots). He talked about becoming his own obituary: already, as a child, he said he was "completely posthumous". I didn’t start writing autobiography until I was fifty, so became posthumous, as it were, a little later. Gide may have been just twenty-two years old, with little experience of life … when he wrote those lines, but he put his finger, it seems to me, with astonishing perception, on what makes self-portraiture such a ‘fraught’ art. You paint what it is. The energy, the eros, the flash of intimate electricity that thrills us in any self-portrait worth its salt. At its source I think Gide was right. In the French, the contradiction between …; what we know to be true about what we are: the image of our actual life that conceals a mirror — in almost all the portraits in this exhibition, on the one hand — and how, on the other, now, at this moment, as we recount or paint ourselves, we would like to be remembered, even by ourselves, at the hour of our death. So I think he was right to mention mortality, in talking about self-portraiture, and I think he was right to talk about his soul, even if, over a century later, we tend to shy away from this awkward word, preferring ‘self’ or ‘psyche’, or perhaps the ‘ego’. You might not agree with me, but I think the electricity crackles loudest when the eros is strongest, so to speak, when the mirror’s presence is strongly hinted at, played with, but not openly acknowledged.

Take a look at the Derain self-portrait, for example, in the exhibition, the André Derain. He is obviously looking in a mirror … and what he sees in the mirror is obviously not what we see in the self-portrait: the zig-zagging face, the slashes and blocks of brilliant colour. And this excites us. All the great portraits, and all the great autobiographies, I think, play games with the mirror. Various games. Alessandro Allori … did in 1555. Joshua Reynolds did in the mid-eighteenth century. As did Jacques-Louis David in 1794. Cézanne. Van Gogh. Sydney Nolan, for that matter. And Francis Bacon. All did, as well, with more concealment. While Pierre Bonnard … popped the mirror into the painting, although it’s not doing what you would expect of the mirror in your bathroom at home.

So, you see, some of them acknowledge the mirror, some pretended it wasn’t there at all, although it was. Some painted in the mirror itself, or at least a mirror. In Las Meninas Velasquez, as you know, went right over the top, acknowledging a mirror and then pretending that a second mirror, on the back wall of the room … and that he wasn’t painting himself painting what he was actually painting, but the king and queen of Spain. No wonder we love Las Meninas.

Well, autobiographies do this all the time. Some sharp-tongued critics suggested it was what I did in A Mother’s Disgrace. While pretending to be looking into the mirror of my mother’s life all I was really doing was looking at my own image, with my mother sketched in hazily in another mirror on the back wall. It is their candour, even brazenness at times, about distorting the mirror image, distorting their life, as it were, that is exciting in these portraits. There, artists are telling you not so much what they look like — who cares? — but who they are. About their soul, in Gide’s terms. They are performing a ‘self’, as I am, at this very moment. The ‘self’, or ‘soul’, being an action, it seems to me, not a thing. A verb, not a noun. So Derain is boiling, Bacon is being violently wrenched … dispassion. And Francis Newton Souza is, well, clearly feeling very tense indeed, very stretched … about a lot of things. Oddly enough it’s actually a pretty good likeness, as well. If you’ve seen a photograph of Francis Newton Souza you’ll know what I mean. It’s almost like a wild illustration of Sargent’s famous bon mot about a portrait being just a likeness with something more about the mouth. No artist, writer, painter or, even, photographer, simply records life. A CCTV camera records life, plenty of home videos and bloggers record life. The mirror, we know, is just outside the frame in these portraits, records life. But that’s not art. That’s life on film, in a mirror, or it’s typing.

The poet Paul Valéry, who was no mere typist, said he could never bring himself to write the sentence “The marchioness went out at five o’clock” (“La marchise sorti à cinq heures”). I sympathise. In English, at least, in a literary text we need another ‘m’ in that sentence. Regardless of when she actually went out, in art a marchioness would be well advised to go out mid-morning for instance. A marchioness and numerals like ‘five’ simply can’t exist in the same artistic space. Marchionesses, aesthetically speaking, are above numerals. Their punctuality is to be taken for granted. There are no marchionesses in my books. But long ago I noticed my own Valéry-like reluctance to mention specific numerals. What I like is ‘dozens’, ‘hundreds’, ‘half a century’, ‘straight after the war’, ‘after breakfast’, ‘a couple of weeks later’. Because otherwise it sounds like a police report. Police reports are also often fiction, of course, but rarely art. Gide himself, or at least the narrator of his Marshlands … also a writer, naturally, at one point early in his career decided to describe life. He looks out the window and sees a bus, three vegetable hawkers going past, a doorkeeper sweeping in front of his door, a cook going to market, some men buying newspapers. He breaks down and weeps. What he sees lacks composition. What he sees won’t do at all. Later on, in a train, he tells his travelling companion about the big, greenish beetles he’s just seen munching caterpillars in the forest they’re passing. The caterpillars march down the tree trunks and when they reach the ground hoards of beetles devour them, one by one. “I didn’t see any beetles,” she says, “Mr Can.” “Nor did I, Angela,” he says. “Or any caterpillars, either. Besides, it’s not the right season. But what I said, don’t you think, gives an excellent impression of our journey.” Exactly. The caterpillars and beetles are true but not factual.

I admit to finding myself in the same quandary when I came to write my own autobiography, A Mother’s Disgrace, some years ago. And in my autobiographical fiction and letters, for that matter, things that have been red simply have to be blue, like some of Van Gogh’s eyelashes. Because I needed an ‘eu’. Things that had happened on a Wednesday were shifted to Sunday because I had an interesting point to make about Sundays. Evenings became mornings, months became weeks, dogs became cats. Well not really, but this talk is also a composition, not a mirror held up to life. I did what Cézanne did to the wallpaper, if you can remember: altered its pattern to suit my compositional purposes. I could say, and I have said — and I notice the writer embroiled in the latest literary scandal in the United States, the author of A Million Little Pieces (it’s an autobiography but not the author’s), has also said of himself that he “remained true to a higher truth” but really, I don’t know about James Frey — I just needed structure and poetry and composition. I needed the rhythmic articulation of space and ideas. It was art, you see. Who on earth would be interested in looking into the mirror of my actual life? I’m not even interested myself. I may be interesting, but my life isn’t.

Not all the painters in the exhibition have used distortion to reveal their souls. The ‘who’ rather than the ‘what’ of their lives. Distortion is not the best word to use to describe what some, like Van Eyck, for example, or Rembrandt … did in their self-portraits. Or, to be fair, André Gide, in his autobiography … one of the finest ever written. This is a short talk so you must allow this kind of … generalisation. Just five seconds with self-portraits like these and you’d pick these men out of any police line-up in a flash. Something you might do with less confidence with Derain, Bacon or Nolan, after the invention of the camera. What Van Eyck, Rembrandt and others seem intent on doing is what art photography, as opposed to snapshots, does in the modern era. While presenting exact likenesses of themselves, they still contrive, as artist-photographers do — Helmut Newton for example — to hint at an interior life, at having become who they are. Rubens’ self-portrait, for instance, is no doubt a fine likeness, but it also has what I would call ‘sweep’: my word for ‘soul’. It implies movement, action, rather than a thing. Yes, there is refinement, aloofness, self-importance, self-esteem, not just virtue but vanity. Yes, there is, as the catalogue suggests, a claim to masterfulness here. But it’s not just a matter of character. There’s a sense here of the self as a becoming, uniquely experienced. And it is not just the record of a moment, as family snapshots, generally, are. The moment is stretched to encompass this becoming, this once-only swirl of multiple moments: we have been. And it’s the multiplicity which makes a self-portrait so engrossing, I think. There’s a shard of éclat in a good portrait, if you have the eyes to see it. I think that ‘sweep’ is a more useful word in some ways than words which you write to contrast between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, ‘soul’ and ‘body’. It’s not so much a matter of inner and outer for me, as of experience, of the living out of who we think we are. One of the reasons that Pissaro’s Woman Washing Dishes, for instance (you may have seen it recently in the Pissaro exhibition here), is not a portrait, in my opinion, is that it lacks ‘sweep’. Fabulous painting. Not unevocative of this woman’s character. But not evocative enough of a lived life to be a portrait. There’s not enough self being performed here. Of course, intriguingly, some theories would say that unless you have a name to go with the body no painting can really be a portrait. Without a name the image can’t quite make the leap into a lived life. If the painting were called Marie Dubon Washing Dishes we might have to consider it a portrait, strangely enough, although I would say not a particularly good one. That is just a measure of how reliant we are on other information for the sense of ‘sweep’ … For the writer, naturally, ‘sweep’ is much easier to capture than it is for painters. We have time and hundreds of pages at our disposal, if we need them. We can show change, development, movement, motivation, the unfolding of experience, without much trouble at all. In fact the writer A.S. Byatt — much beloved, I’m sure, of many of you — considered that portraits in paint and writing are opposites. Paintings being too much the depiction of the moment while biographies have, well, ‘sweep’. I see it differently. To me, paint and words simply make different demands on the viewers’ and readers’ imaginations. It’s true, of course, that it’s harder for a writer to strike the reader with that sense of wonder, of being suddenly impaled on a shaft of beauty, which a painter can sometimes achieve. All the same, I think we writers have a lot to learn from painters who paint self-portraits. The main lesson is this: in the end, it’s not just the recounting of adventures or incidents or things that were said, that create the illusion of a living self and composition. It’s such a temptation to think that it’s the accumulation of bric-a-brac that makes a life seem real. The equivalent of the dogs and … hats, minutely observed tableware, in some portraits. But it’s not. It’s all in the brushstrokes. The lengths of them, the colour, the thickness, the way they complement other brushstrokes. It’s in the posture, the shape, the balance, the architecture. That’s what transforms the banal into the extraordinary. That’s what creates a living voice. … And that, ultimately, is why I think we do it, why we create self-portraits. You might, after all, perhaps wonder. Ultimately, I think it’s all about redemption … if you’ll excuse a religious word. Ludmila Jordanova in her catalogue essay for this exhibition mentions all sorts of motives for painting a self-portrait — vanity, of course, … self advertisement, a statement of ambition, an assertion of virtue, a demand for a place in the cultural terrain, an indication of tradition, even national identity. But I’ve already said that I think an important motive is the desire to write one’s own obituary, as it were … Indeed many artists, and writers, for that matter, probably create self-portraits because one Monday morning they can’t think of what else to do. Certainly writers — everyone from Tolstoy to V.S. Naipaul to the woman next door, and André Gide as a matter of fact — frequently start the autobiography in some form or other, what I like to call ‘home’, that nest of experiences and feelings we think of as embodying who we are. Indeed, sometimes they even begin with something cruder than a home, they begin with ‘house’. I have a picture of my childhood house written in my first book. But eventually, you have to get out of the house, out of biography, because its walls are so smooth with constant use that they become mirrors. So, we’re left just being us: ironing, shopping, falling in and out of love, going up and down escalators, feeding the canary. We’re not beautiful, you see. I don’t mean as Nicole Kidman or — who shall I choose? — Alain Delon, perhaps or, at a pinch, Johnny Depp are beautiful. But beautiful to behold because of a transfigured wholeness. I’m resorting here, as you can hear, to transfiguration, another religious term, of course, rather than redemption. … But I mean much the same thing. We start with the mirror, we writers, then, drifting, move out of what was to what might have been possible or, even, impossible. We are transfigured. … What we seek to transfigure or redeem is our biography — true autobiography.

I panicked when, some years ago, quite a well-known writer asked me how I’d feel about his writing my autobiography. I immediately felt dead. No, I said, I want to keep writing my own life for as long as I can. I’ve got such a lot to say. What I meant was: I’ve got a picture to paint here before anyone holds up a mirror to my actual… Before I turn into an obituary I want to create more art, I want to redeem myself. My actual everydayness, all those cups of tea and walks with the dog, evenings spent watching television, the plotlessness of my life, my amateur’s mind — always haring off on the scent of something it hasn’t really understood — and my precarious hold on real life (about the existence of which I’m still shocked to read every morning…). Curiously, by the way, what happens when I write autobiographically, is this: my body disappears. … What happens is closer to Derain’s self-portrait, of those we have looked at today. Obviously I have … the usual bits and pieces that get you through the day. But actually, in amongst the … for a particular reason we needn’t go into here, I mention my calves … But, basically, the body dissolves and we’re left with just a voice. I don’t do it on purpose. It just happens. In the novel Corfu it’s even more obvious because — in A Mother’s Disgrace there are actually photographs of me being me at different points in my life — but in Corfu the partly autobiographical narrator reaches the point of complete disembodiment. Whether he’s short or tall, fair or dark, fat or thin, young or old, handsome or plain, green-eyed, brown-eyes, or so unremarkably-eyed you can’t tell is nowhere made plain. He doesn’t even have a name. He’s pure voice.

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