Proust and Japonisme: Between Nature and Imagination

Japanese influence on Western art began as a trickle and became a flood after the Meiji Restoration in 1861. The Impressionists, and Monet especially, were drawn to the Japanese techniques of foreshortening, flattening and color blocks. Proust made Japonisme an important motif in Search, as necessary to document as the Dreyfus case. Jan Hokenson’s essay “Proust’s japonisme: Contrastive Aesthetics” (in Bloom’s Marcel Proust) surprises us  by showing in how many ways Proust wound this motif through the novel.

She begins by reminding us of the Japanese metaphor Proust invokes to describe how the taste of the madeleine lead to a powerful refreshing of his hitherto dry, colorless childhood memories (much as Japanese art gave new eyes to Monet).

And as in the game wherein the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, solid and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup  of tea (I,64).

 Hokenson sorts the Japanese art references into three types.

First, Proust satirizes the socialites’ frivolous  abuses of japonisme, chiefly in the boudoirs and the salons. Swann is appalled at Odette’s craze for chrysanthemums but, on his first visit to her apartments, he ultimately lets himself be inveigled by her Orientalisms, including her silk cushions and her “grande lanterne japonaise suspendu à une cordelette de soie (mais qui, pour ne pas priver les visiteurs de derniers conforts de la civilisation occidentale, s’éclairait au gaz).” Swann participates in this travesty of the Japanese object, and its relation to light, as the narrator suggests by casting into japoniste allusion his refrain that comfort and art are incompatible. (89)

A similar set of satiric allusions proceeds from the Verdurins’ salon. Aside from predictably garbled judgements on such japonistes as Whistler, the most recurrent travesty concerns the running joke about “la salade japonaise,” which begins as a silly in-joke, the characters’ coy way of letting others know they have been to see Dumas fils’ play Francillon. But soon we learn that the Verdurin salad contains western potatoes. It is another aesthetic hash, on a par  the with the Japanese porcelains jostling among the Verdurins’ Louis XIII vases, mindlessly making counter-systems interchangeable. (89-90)

The second type of japoniste allusion at the level of story occurs among the artistocrats. Almost everyone but Marcel’s mother, his grandmother, and the artists Elstir and Vinteuil are guilty of japoniste folly at some point in the Recherche. The Guermantes characters are just as prey to fashion, although they are associated with its creative aspects that will engage Marcel. At her soirée in Le Côté de Guermantes Madame de Villeparisis is painting a japoniste view, which no one can identify until the Duchesse de Guermantes points out that it resembles the apple blossoms on a Japanese screen. Later even Charlus, in a rare creative endeavor that associates him with the artistic sensibility if not with true painting, paints a fan for the Duchesse, notably a japoniste scene of black and yellow irises. (90)

The third set of allusions, still at the level of story, appears in the subtext of Marcel’s artistic apprenticeship. These concern the japonisme of the finest painters of the period, chiefly Whistler, Degas, Manet, Monet, Moreau and of course Elstir. They have attained the Japanese “way of seeing,” in Berger’s phrase, that Marcel is only slowly acquiring. On one occasion, for instance, just before his first visit to Elstir’s studio, he makes a (retrospectively) significant association with the prints but foolishly does not pursue it. In his room at Balbec, lying in bed and musing on the images of the sea reflected in the glass on the bookcases, Marcel considers the natural beauty of the sunset over the sea and ponders various artistic analogues. But he misconstrues the relationship between the world reflected and the reflections that shift with the light like changing exhibits of paintings….Wisely, Marcel recognizes the link between the Japanese “couleurs se vives” and his childhood, but then (“dédaigneaux, ennuyé et frivole”) he dismisses the thought. In the Japanese model, Marcel has just seen for himself that cloud and lake lack a line of demarcation like the two interchangeable halves of a metaphor, but Marcel cannot apprehend the importance of what he is seeing nor of the Japanese association. he discerns analogies in the seascapes with Monet and Whistler, even noting the butterfly signature that Whistler developed to mime the Japanese hanka (or seal). But it is only thirty pages later, after his visit to Elstir’s studio, that Marcel can assimilate Japanese analogies to his own aesthetic development. The structure of this visual perception in his hotel room continues to structure Marcel’s nascent japonisme: vaguely associated with the purity of childhood impressions and artistic beginnings  (of Marcel, and primitively of Art), it is reflected against books, on the “vitrines de la bibliothèque,” in interreflections of literature and painting that he alone can make real, in ultimately writing this book. (90-91)

Ultimately, japonisme is always central to Marcel’s emotional and imaginative development.

In the modernist round of the novel, then, Proust’s japonisme serves subtly and recurrently to advance the apprentice’s progress preparatory to the writing of his text. In society, in love, in painting and in artworks, the diverse japonisme of other characters trains this eye and challenges his aesthetic and literary judgement to develop an authentic “goût japonais.” The narrator’s prose japonisme in “Combray” is painterly, imbedding the boy’s first strong visual and emotional impressions, and his first efforts at writing, in visual imagery often derived from the prints. Certain iconic images, such as japonisme apple blossoms and silhouetted trees, later reappear in typically Proustian fashion, threading childhood memories through adult impressions and, increasingly, artistic reflections. Isolated japoniste views, including seascapes and sunsets, grow in intensity and complexity until Marcel learns to plumb, rather than dismiss their uniqueness in his visual and artistic experience. In artistic method, indeterminacy holds the lesson of metaphor. Contrast offers a depiction of successive selves. Suggestion reflects the truth of imaginative completion of absent wholes from parts. Throughout his japonisme Proust stresses two continuous refrains, an emotional sadness in pain at impending loss (associated with the evanescence of beauty in nature) and an imaginative reconstruction of absent or concealed essence, that is, anticipatory grief and retrospective creation. In both cases, as in the Recherche as a whole, Japanese art delicately depicts natural beauty that is completed by the mind in revery, first on the artwork then on itself. Proust’s several uses of japonisme imagery reflected on glass recapitulate in graphic terms the mental process, the inward turning from Japanese art which is always positioned between nature and imagination. (97)


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