The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera (1986)

Need I stress that I intend no theoretical statement at all, and that the entire book is simply a practitioner’s confession? Every novelist’s work contains an implicit vision of the history of the novel, an idea of what the novel is; I have tried to express here the idea of the novel that is inherent in my own novels. (Preface)

This book contains seven essays on the art of the novel. First, a few observations.

Kundera is an academic Remember Kundera was a lecturer in ‘World Literature’ at Charles University in Prague for some 20 years (1952-75). This is a grand title and obviously encouraged a panoramic overview of the subject. Then he emigrated to France, where he continued to teach at university. He is, in other words, an academic, an expounder, a simplifier and teacher of other people’s views and theories, and that is probably the most dominant characteristic of his fiction – the wish to lecture and explicate.

He discusses a narrow academic canon You quickly realise he isn’t talking about the hundreds of thousands of novels which have been published over the past 400 years – he is talking about The Novel, the ‘serious novel’, ‘real novels’ – an entirely academic construct, which consists of a handful, well at most 50 novelists, across that entire period and all of Europe, whose concerns are ‘serious’ enough to be included in ‘serious’ academic study.

Non-British And he is very consciously European. This means many of his references are alien or exotic to us. Or just incomprehensible. When he says that The Good Soldier Schweik is probably the last popular novel, he might as well be living on Mars. There is no mention of Daniel Defoe, of Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James, DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf, or anyone from the British ‘Great Tradition’ except the dry and dusty Samuel Richardson, in some histories, the founder of the English novel. He mentions Orwell’s ‘1984’ to dismiss it as a form of journalism. All Orwell’s fiction, he thinks, would have been better conveyed in pamphlets.

There is no mention of American fiction: from Melville through Twain, Hemingway and Faulkner (OK, Faulkner is mentioned right towards the end as one of the several authors who want nothing written about their lives, only their works), Updike or Roth or Bellow. No reference to science fiction or historical fiction or thrillers or detective fiction. Or children’s fiction. There is no mention of South American fiction (actually, he does mention a novel by Carlos Fuentes), or anything from Africa or Asia.

Some exceptions, but by and large, it is a very very very narrow definition of the Novel. Kundera can only talk as sweepingly as he does because he has disqualified 99.9% of the world from consideration before he begins.

1. The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes (1983)

In 1935 Edmund Husserl gave a lecture titled ‘Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man’. He identifies the Modern Era as starting with Galileo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) and Descartes (Discourse on the Method, 1637) and complains that Europe (by which he includes America and the other colonies) has become obsessed with science and the external world at the expense of spirit and psychology, at the expense of Lebenswelt.

Kundera says that Husserl neglected the novel, which was also born at the start of the modern era, specifically in the Don Quixote of Miguel Cervantes (1605). It is in the novel that Europeans have, for 400 years, been investigating the interior life of humanity. The novel discovers those elements of life which only it can discover. Therefore the sequence of great novelists amounts to a sequence of discoveries about human nature:

  • Cervantes – explores the nature of adventure
  • Richardson – the secret life of feelings
  • Balzac – man’s rootedness in history
  • Flaubert – details of the everyday
  • Tolstoy – the intrusion of the irrational into decision making
  • Proust – the elusiveness of time past
  • Joyce – the elusiveness of time present
  • Mann – the role of ancient myth in modern life

At the start of the Modern Era God began to disappear, and with him the idea of one truth. Instead the world disintegrated into multiple truths. In the novel these multiple truths are dramatised as characters.

The whole point of the novel is it does not rush to judgement, to praise or condemn. Religion and ideologies (and political correctness) does that. The whole point of the novel is to suspend humanity’s Gadarene rush to judge and condemn before understanding: to ‘tolerate the essential relativity of things human’ (p.7).

He describes how there is a straight decline in the European spirit, from Cervantes – whose heroes live on the open road with an infinite horizon and never-ending supply of adventures – through Balzac whose characters are bounded by the city, via Emma Bovary who is driven mad by boredom, down to Kafka, whose characters have no agency of their own, but exist solely as the function of bureaucratic mistakes. It’s a neat diagram, but to draw it you have to leave out of account most of the novels ever written – for example all the novels of adventure written in the later 19th century, all of Robert Louis Stevenson, for example.

As in all his Western books, Kundera laments the spirit of the age, how the mass media are making everything look and sound the same, reducing everything to stereotypes and soundbites, simplifying the world, creating ‘the endless babble of the graphomanics’ –  whereas the novel’s task is to revel in its oddity and complexity.

2. Dialogue on the Art of the Novel

In a written dialogue with an interviewer, Kundera moves the same brightly coloured counters around – Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce. The novel was about adventure, then about society, then about psychology.

He states his novels are outside the novel of psychology. There’s psychology in them but that’s not their primary interest.

Being a central European he sees the 1914-18 war as a catastrophe which plunged art and literature into the grip of a merciless History. The essential dreaminess of a Proust or Joyce became impossible. Kafka opened the door to a new way of being, as prostrate victim of an all-powerful bureaucracy.

He clarifies that a key concern is the instability of the self: which is why characters often play games, pose and dramatise themselves; it is to find out where their limits are.

He clarifies his approach as against Joyce’s. Joyce uses internal monologue. There is no internal monologue at all in Kundera. In fact, as he explains it, you realise that the monologue is his, the author’s as the author tries different approaches in order to analyse his own characters. His books are philosophical analyses of fictional characters. And the characters are conceived as ‘experimental selfs’ (p.31), fully in line with his core idea that the history of the novel is a sequence of discoveries.

If the novel is a method for grasping the self, first there was grasping through adventure and action (from Cervantes to Tolstoy). Then grasping the self through the interior life (Joyce, Proust). Kundera is about grasping the self though examining existential situations. He always begins with existential plights. A woman who has vertigo. A man who suffers because he feels his existence is too light, and so on. Then he creates characters around these fundamentals. Then he puts them into situations which he, the author, can analyse, analyse repeatedly and from different angles, in order to investigate the mystery of the self.

Thus a character is ‘not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being. An experimental self.’ (p.34) Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of their existential problem’ (p.35).

A novel examines not reality but existence. And existence is not what has occurred, existence is the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of. (p.42)

The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence. (p.44)

The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of imaginary characters. (p.83)

A theme is an existential enquiry. (p.84)

3. Notes inspired ‘The Sleepwalkers’

The Sleepwalkers is the name given to a trilogy of novels by the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch (1886 – 1951). The three novels were published between 1928 and 1932. They focus on three protagonists and are set 15 years apart:

  1. Joachim von Pasenow set in 1888
  2. August Esch set in 1903
  3. Wilhelm Huguenau set in 1918

In their different ways they address on core them: man confronting the disintegration of his values.

According to Kundera, before one writes one must have an ontological hypothesis, a theory about what kind of world we live in. For example The Good Soldier Švejk finds everything about the world absurd. At the opposite pole, Kafka’s protagonists find everything about the world so oppressive that they lose their identities to it.

After all, What is action? How do we decide to do what we do? That is, according to Kundera, the eternal question of the novel. (p.58)

Through an analysis of the plots of the three novels, Kundera concludes that what Broch discovered was the system of symbolic thought which underlies all decisions, public or private.

He closes with some waspish criticism of ‘Establishment Modernism’, i.e. the modernism of academics, which requires an absolute break at the time of the Great War, and the notion that Joyce et al. definitively abolished the old-fashioned novel of character. Obviously Kundera disagrees. For him Broch (whose most famous masterpiece, The Death of Virgil didn’t come out till the end of World War Two) was still opening up new possibilities in the novel form, was still asking the same questions the novel has asked ever since Cervantes.

It is a little odd that Kundera takes this 2-page swipe at ‘Establishment Modernism’, given that a) he is an academic himself, and his own approach is open to all sorts of objections (mainly around its ferocious exclusivity), and b) as he was writing these essays, Modernism was being replaced, in literature and the academy, by Post-Modernism, with its much greater openness to all kinds of literary forms and genres.

4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition (1983)

Second part of the extended ‘dialogue’ whose first part was section two, above. Starts by examining three principles found in Kundera’s work:

1. Divestment, or ellipsis. He means getting straight to the heart of the matter, without the traditional fol-de-rol of setting scenes or background to cities or towns or locations.

2. Counterpoint or polyphony. Conventional novels have several storylines. Kundera is interested in the way completely distinct themes or ideas can be woven next to each other, setting each other off. For the early composers a principle of polyphony was that all the lines are clear and distinct and of equal value.

Interestingly, he chooses as fine examples of his attempts to apply this technique to his novels, the Angels section in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – which I found scrappy and unconvincing – and Part Six of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is by far the worst thing he’s ever written, embarrassingly bad.

There’s some chat about Kundera’s own personal interventions in his novels. He emphasises that anything said within a novel is provisional hypothetical and playful. Sure, he intervenes sometimes to push the analysis of a character’s situation deeper than the character themselves could do it. But emphasises that even the most serious-sounding interventions are always playful. They can never be ‘philosophy’ because they don’t occur in a philosophical text.

From the very first word, my thoughts have a tone which is playful, ironic, provocative, experimental or enquiring. (p.80)

This is what he means by ‘a specifically novelistic essay’ i.e. you can write digressions and essays within novels but, by coming within its force field, they become playful and ironic.

The final part is an analysis of his novels in terms of their structure, their architecture i.e. the number of parts, the way the sub-sections are so distinct. And then a really intense comparison with works of classical music, in the sense that the varying length and tempo of the parts of his novels are directly compared with classical music, particularly to Beethoven quartets. Until the age of 25 he thought he was going to be a composer rather than a writer and he is formidably learned about classical music.

5. Somewhere behind (1979)

A short essay about Kafka. He uses the adjective Kafkan, which I don’t like; I prefer Kafkaesque. What does it consist of?

  1. boundless labyrinth
  2. a man’s life becomes a shadow of a truth held elsewhere (in the boundless bureaucracy), which tends to make his life’s meaning theological. Or pseudo-theological
  3. the punished seek the offence, want to find out what it is they have done
  4. when Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends everyone laughed including the author. Kafka takes us inside a joke which looks funny from the outside, but…

Fundamentally his stories are about the dehumanisation of the individual by faceless powers.

What strikes Kundera is that accurately predicted an entire aspect of man in the 20th century without trying to. All his friends were deeply political, avant-garde, communist etc, thought endlessly about the future society. But all of their works are lost. Kafka, in complete contrast, was a very private man, obsessed above all with his own personal life, with the domineering presence of his father and his tricky love life. With no thought of the future or society at large, he created works which turned out to be prophetic of the experience of all humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

This Kundera takes to be a prime example of the radical autonomy of the novel, whose practitioners are capable of finding and naming aspects of the existential potential of humanity, which no other science or discipline can.

6. Sixty-Three Words (1986)

As Kundera became famous, and his books published in foreign languages, he became appalled by the quality of the translations. (The English version of The Joke particularly traumatised him; the English publisher cut all the reflective passages, eliminated the musicological chapters, and changed the order of the parts! In the 1980s he decided to take some time out from writing and undertake a comprehensive review of all translations of his books with a view to producing definitive versions.

Specific words are more important to Kundera than other novelists because his novels are often highly philosophical. In fact, he boils it down: a novel is a meditation on certain themes; and these themes are expressed in words. Change the words, you screw up the meditations, you wreck the novel.

A friendly publisher, watching him slog away at this work for years, said, ‘Since you’re going over all your works with a fine toothcomb, why don’t you make a personal list of the words and ideas which mean most to you?’

And so he produced this very entertaining and easy-to-read collection of short articles, reflections and quotes relating to Milan Kundera’s keywords:

  • aphorism
  • beauty
  • being – friends advised him to remove ‘being’ from the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being’: but it is designed to be a meditation on the existential quality of being. What if Shakespeare had written: To live or not to live… Too superficial. He was trying to get at the absolute root of our existence.
  • betrayal
  • border
  • Central Europe – the Counter-Reformation baroque dominated the area ensuring no Enlightenment, but on the other hand it was the epicentre of European classical music. Throughout the book he is struck by the way the great modern central European novelists – Kafka, Hasek, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz – were anti-Romantic and modern just not in the way of the flashy avant-gardes of Rome or Paris. Then after 1945 central Europe was extinguished and – as he was writing this list – was a prophetic type of the extinguishment of all Europe. Now we know this didn’t happen.
  • collaborator – he says the word ‘collaborator’ was only coined in 1944, and immediately defined an entire attitude towards modernity. Nowadays he reviles collaborators with the mass media and advertising who he thinks are crushing humanity. (Looking it up I see the word ‘collaborator’ was first recorded in English in 1802. This is one of the many examples where Kundera pays great attention to a word and everything he says about it turns out to be untrue for English. It makes reading these essays, and his ovels, a sometimes slippery business.)
  • comic
  • Czechoslovakia – he never uses the word in his fiction, it is too young (the word and country were, after all, only created in 1918, after the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed). He always uses ‘Bohemia’ or ‘Moravia’.
  • definition
  • elitism – the Western world is being handed over to the control of a mass media elite. Every time I read his diatribes against the media, paparazzi and the intrusion into people’s private lives, I wonder what he makes of the Facebook and twitter age.
  • Europe – his books are streaked with cultural pessimism. Here is another example. He thinks Europe is over and European culture already lost. Well, that’s what every generation of intellectuals thinks. 40 years later Europe is still here.
  • excitement
  • fate
  • flow
  • forgetting – In my review of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting I pointed out that Mirek rails against forgetting as deployed by the state (sacking historians) but is himself actively engaged in trying to erase his past (claiming back his love letters to an old flame). Kundera confirms my perception. Totalitarian regimes want to control the past (‘Orwell’s famous theme’), but what his story shows is that so do people. It is a profound part of human nature.
  • graphomania – he rails against the way everyone is a writer nowadays, and says it has nothing to do with writing (i.e. the very careful consideration of form which he has shown us in the other essays in this book) but a primitive and crude will to impose your views on everyone else.
  • hat
  • hatstand
  • ideas – his despair at those who reduce works to ideas alone. No, it is how they are treated, and his sense of the complexity of treatment is brought out in the extended comparison of his novels to complicated late Beethoven string quartets in 4. Dialogue on the Art of Composition
  • idyll
  • imagination
  • inexperience – a working title for The Unbearable Lightness of Being was The Planet of Inexperience. Why? Because none of us have done this before. We’re all making it up as we go along. That’s what’s so terrifying, so vertiginous.
  • infantocracy
  • interview – as comes over in a scene in Immortality, he hates press interviews because the interviewer is only interested in their own agenda and in twisting and distorting the interviewees’ responses. Thus in 1985 he made a decision to give no more interviews and only allow his views to be published as dialogues which he had carefully gone over, refined and copyrighted. Hence parts two and four of this book, although they have a third party asking questions, are in the form of a dialogue and were carefully polished.
  • irony
  • kitsch – he’s obsessed with this idea which forms the core – is the theme being meditated on – in part six of the Unbearable Lightness of Being. It consists of two parts: step one is eliminating ‘shit’ from the world (he uses the word ‘shit’) in order to make it perfect and wonderful, as in Communist leaders taking a May Day parade or TV adverts. Step two is looking at this shallow, lying version of the world and bursting into tears at its beauty. Kitsch is ‘the need to gaze into the mirror of the beautifying lie and to be moved to tears of gratification at one’s own reflection.’ (p.135)
  • laughter – For Rabelais, the comic and the merry were one. Slowly literature became more serious, the eighteenth century preferring wit, the Romantics preferring passion, the nineteenth century preferring realism. Now ‘the European history of laughter is coming to an end’. (p.136) That is so preposterous a thought I laughed out loud.
  • letters
  • lightness
  • lyric
  • lyricism
  • macho
  • meditation – his cultural pessimism is revealed again when he claims that ‘to base a novel on sustained meditation goes against the spirit of the twentieth century, which no longer likes to think at all. (p.139)
  • message
  • misogynist – gynophobia (hatred of women) is a potential of human nature as is androphobia (hatred of men), but feminists have reduced misogyny to the status of an insult and thus closed off exploration of a part of human nature.
  • misomusist – someone who has no feel for art or literature or music and so wants to take their revenge on it
  • modern
  • nonbeing
  • nonthought – the media’s nonthought
  • novel and poetry – the greatest of the nivelists -become-poets are violently anti-lyrical: Flaubert, Joyce, Kafka (don’t think that’s true of Joyce whose prose is trmeendously lyrical)
  • novel – the European novel
  • novelist and writer
  • novelist and his life – quotes from a series of novelists all wishing their lives to remain secret and obscure: all attention should be on the works. Despite this, the army of biographers swells daily. The moment Kafka attracts more attention that Josef K, cultural death begins.
  • obscenity
  • Octavio – the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz
  • old age – frees you to do and say what you want.
  • opus
  • repetitions
  • rewriting – for the mass media, is desecration. ‘Death to all those who dare rewrite what has been written!’ Jacques and His Master
  • rhythm – the amazing subtlety of rhythm in classical music compared to the tedious primitivism of rock music. Tut tut.
  • Soviet – the Germans and Poles have produced writers who lament the German and Polish spirit. The Russians will never do that. They can’t. Every single one of them is a Russian chauvinist.
  • Temps Modernes – his cultural pessimism blooms: ‘we are living at the end of the Modern Era; the end of art as conceived as an irreplaceable expression of personal originality; the end that heralds an era of unparalleled uniformity’ (p.150)
  • transparency – the word and concept in whose name the mass media are destroying privacy
  • ugly
  • uniform
  • value – ‘To examine a value means: to try to demaracte and give name to the discoveries, the innovations, the new light that a work casts on the human world.’ (p.152)
  • vulgarity
  • work
  • youth

7. Jerusalem Address: the Novel and Europe (1985)

In the Spring of 1985 Kundera was awarded the Jerusalem Prize. He went to Jerusalem to deliver this thank you address. It is a short, extremely punch defense of the novel as a form devoted to saving the human spirit of enquiry in dark times.

In a whistlestop overview of European history, he asserts that the novel was born at the birth of the modern era when, with religious belief receding, man for the first time grasped his plight as a being abandoned on earth: the novel was an investigation of this plight and has remained so ever since.

The novel is the imaginary paradise of individuals. It is the territory where no one possesses the truth… but where everyone has the right to be understood. (p.159)

Every novel, like it or not, offers some answer to the question: What is human existence, and wherein does its poetry lie? (p.161)

But the novel, like the life of the mind, has its enemies. Namely the producers of kitsch and what Rabelais called the agélastes, people who have no sense of humour and do not laugh. He doesn’t say it but I interpret this to mean those who espouse identity politics and political correctness. Thou Must Not Laugh At These Serious Subjects, say the politically correct, and then reel off a list which suits themselves. And kitsch:

Kitsch is the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling. It moves us to tears of compassion for the banality of what we think and feel. (p.163)

The greatest promoter of kitsch is the mass media which turns the huge human variety into half a dozen set narratives designed to make us burst into tears. We are confronted by a three-headed monster: the agélastes, the nonthought of received ideas, and kitsch.

Kundera sees European culture as being under threat from these three forces, and identifies what is most precious about it (European culture), namely:

  • its respect for the individual
  • for the individual’s original thought
  • for the right of the individual to a private life

Against the three-headed monster, and defending these precious freedoms, is set the Novel, a sustained investigation by some of the greatest minds, into all aspects of human existence, the human predicament, into human life and interactions, into human culture.


Central ideas

The novel is an investigation into man’s Lebenwelt – his life-being.

Novelists are discoverers and explorer of the capabilities, the potentialities, of human existence.

Conclusions

1. Fascinating conception of the novel as a sustained investigation into the nature of the self, conducted through a series of historical eras each with a corresponding focus and interest.

2. Fascinating trot through the history of the European novel, specially the way it mentions novelists we in England are not so familiar with, such as Hermann Broch or Diderot or Novalis, or gives a mid-European interpretation to those we have heard of like Kafka or Joyce.

3. Fascinating insight into not only his own working practice, but what he thinks he’s doing; how he sees his novels continuing and furthering the never-ending quest of discovery which he sees as the novel’s historic mission.

But what none of this fancy talk brings out at all, is the way Milan Kundera’s novels are obsessed with sex. It is extraordinary that neither Sex nor Eroticism appear in his list of 63 words since his powerfully erotic (and shameful and traumatic and mysterious and ironic) explorations of human sexuality are what many people associate Kundera’s novels with.

Last thoughts

Changes your perspective It’s a short book, only 165 pages with big gaps between the sections, but it does a very good job of explaining how Kundera sees the history and function of the novel, as an investigation into the existential plight of humanity. It changed my mental image of Kundera from being an erotic novelist to being more like an existentialist thinker-cum-writer in the tradition of Sartre.

The gap between Britain and Europe There is a subtler takeaway, which is to bring out how very different we, the British, are from the Europeans. True, he mentions a few of our authors – the eighteenth century trio of Richardson, Fielding and Sterne – but no Defoe, Austen, Scott or Dickens.

The real point is that he assumes all European intellectuals will have read widely in European literature – from Dante and Boccaccio through Cervantes and into the eighteenth century of Diderot, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade. And when you read the French founders of critical theory, Barthes or Derrida, or the influential historian Foucault, they obviously refer to this tradition.

But it remains completely alien to us in Britain. Not many of us read Diderot or Novalis or Lermontov or even Goethe. We’ve all heard of Flaubert and Baudelaire because, in fact, they’re relatively easy to read – but not many of us have read Broch or Musil, and certainly not Gombrowicz. Though all literature students should have heard of Thomas Mann I wonder how many have read any of his novels.

My point being that, as you read on into the book, you become aware of the gulf between this huge reservoir of writers, novels and texts in the European languages – French, German and Russian – and the almost oppressively Anglo-Saxon cultural world we inhabit, not only packed with Shakespeare and Dickens, but also drenched in American writers, not least the shibboleths of modern American identity politics such as Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou.

Reading this book fills your mind with ideas about the European tradition. But at the same time it makes you aware of how very different and apart we, in Britain, are, from that tradition. Some of us may have read some of it; but none of us, I think, can claim to be of it.

Credit

The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera was first published in French in 1986. The English translation was published by Grove Press in the USA and Faber and Faber in the UK in 1988. All references are to the 1990 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Boilly: Scenes of Parisian Life @ the National Gallery

Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761 – 1845) was 28 and an established painter when the French Revolution broke out. He managed not to get his head cut off by the apostles of freedom and equality, going on to survive the rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, and enjoying a long and successful career – 84 was quite a ripe old age, especially back then.

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sheet of studies with five self-portrait drawings of the artist, about 1810 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The National Gallery owns just one Boilly painting, the small but intriguing A Girl at a Window. For this exhibition they’ve borrowed 20 works from a British private collection which have never previously been displayed or published and hung them all in Room One of the gallery (up the stairs and immediately to your left, if you come in the main entrance).

So this really is an unparalleled opportunity to find out more about an artist who is little known in Britain.

The twenty paintings and drawings on display show that Boilly was a lot of fun. He comes from an era when people used paintings for amusement and entertainment and information and titillation.

The latter motive is to the fore in two or three of his paintings from the 1790s. In these boudoir scenes or ‘seductive interiors’ Boilly combines two or three of key concerns. One is human interest. This is an anecdotal scene of two nubile young women comparing feet (and stockings). For the time this was quite a ‘saucy’ picture in that you can see a lot of the ladies’ stockinged feet and (as the wall label points out) a titillating amount of bosom on the verge of falling out of both women’s dresses. Boilly was certainly not highbrow. He wanted to please and entertain.

Comparing Little Feet, about 1791 by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Comparing Little Feet (about 1791) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

But the second feature of this painting is the phenomenal attention to detail. When you lean in you can see how much fun he’s had capturing the difference textures and surfaces and the play of light on the wooden table, the pink sash, the silver tankard and the sheets of paper behind them. A tremendous eye for detail and a concern that the image is completely finished. The looseness of brush we are used to in the Impressionists and everyone who followed is inconceivable here. Every millimetre of the canvas is covered in paint which depicts the scene in loving detail.

But it was scenes of Parisian street life that made Boilly famous. the exhibition includes half a dozen paintings of street scenes – working men gambling at a tavern, a beggar importuning a smartly dressed couple couple, a small crowd of gawpers gathered round a punch and judy booth.

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

The Poor Cat (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

This is narrative or anecdote painting. You’re meant to admire the overall composition, but then are encouraged to look out for all the humorous touches and details the painter has included – the boy at far right trying to look inside the booth, the soldiers at far left commenting, the old lady nursing a baby under the tree, the dog on the left has he seen or smelt something? And of course the central event they’re all looking at which is the hand puppet of Mr Punch trying to fit a hoop over the neck of a cat.

Note the twee little girl in a bonnet with her face turned towards us. Boilly’s crowd scenes nearly always include someone looking out directly at the viewer, including us in the scene. And then, stepping back, note that by far the brightest, best illuminated part of the painting is the bright pink and white dresses of the two young ladies with their backs to us.  Once you’ve noticed how dazzlingly bright they are, you can read the painting again, purely in terms of the play of light and shade. When you do that, you come to appreciate how cannily Boilly has used various levels of lighting to create a dynamic interplay between different parts of the composition.

The French Revolution brought a new class to power, very loosely definable as the bourgeoisie, the educated middle classes who supplanted the French aristocracy in positions of power. Boilly’s naughty but nice interiors, and his observant depictions of street scenes were aimed at this new market. Instead of lofty allegories about Greek gods – the kind of thing which made aristocrats feel clever and godlike – Boilly’s pictures depict Parisian life as it actually was, naughty young ladies, beggars, the homeless, street entertainers, fine looking bourgeoisie, workers in rags.

The teemingness of it, the panoramic effect reminds me of the huge series of novels written by Honoré de Balzac which commenced in the same year as the Poor Cat and as what is arguably Boilly’s masterpiece, A Carnival Scene.

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

A Carnival Scene (1832) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

It is a winter’s afternoon and characters from the Italian commedial dell’arte are roaming the streets of Paris alongside men dressed as monkeys and aristocratic spectres from the pre-revolutionary era. Down at the front is a dog leaping with a theatrical mask over its tail, a boy is blowing a horn, a fat lady is climbing into the coach in the middle and her skirts have blown up to reveal her bare buttocks. This is the largest panorama of Paris life Boilly attempted, and I think you can detect its influence in later panoramic anecdotal paintings.

There’s a (slightly spooky) figure at the front a third of the way across the painting which is holding out its arms to the scampering dog. This gesture reminded me of William Powell Frith’s classic panorama, Derby Day, painted about 25 years later in 1858, where, in the centre at the front an acrobat entertainer dressed in white with yellow shorts is holding out his arms to his son who is completely distracted by the lavish meal being laid out on a picnic to his left (our right).

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 - 1858)

The Derby Day by William Powell Frith (1856 – 1858)

Comparing the two paintings brings out how totally Frith has assimilated all the lessons of painting and applied them directly to depicting his day with complete realism, fastidiously capturing costume, human types, and the chaotic teeming of the crowd.

By contrast Boilly seems very dated. The pink sky and the overall brown hue refers back to the countless landscapes of the Dutch school of the 17th century. Although his crowd is teeming, too, a look at any individual in it indicates that they are either caricatures (all the masked and costumed characters) or sentimentalised (the young ladies) and Boilly uses bright white light to lead the eye towards the centre of the composition and the fine lady in an expensive yellow dress, which acts as a sort of visual and psychological anchor. The well-heeled bourgeoisie are still at the heart of, still in control of things.

Portraits

Boilly’s depictions of modern urban life made his reputation at the Salon, but it was his vast output of portraits which made him his income. Over the course of  his career he painted over 5,000 small portraits for a huge range of patrons, soldiers, lawyers, members of the Napoleonic nobility and the bourgeoisie.

Most of these were smallish oil portraits measuring about 22cm by 17cm. It is recorded that they took him about two hours to complete. He was nothing if not a pro. But I’ve chosen to represent his skill at depicting the human face with this set of charcoal and chalk drawings of Jean Darcet and six members of his family. It’s a funny mix of the conventional and the truly realistic. The two young ladies on either side of the venerable patriarch have rather simpering expressions and the chap at bottom left looks like a certain stock type of 18th century portrait. It was the row of sons along the bottom that caught my attention, specially the chap with the porky cheeks second from left. I really like the way they all have very loose and scruffy haircuts.

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Portrait of Jean Darcet and Six Members of his Family (about 1801) by Louis-Léopold Boilly. Black and white chalk on paper. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

Sentimentality

Connected to the portraits are Boilly’s rather sickly sweet treatment of small children. Boilly was married twice (both wives predeceased him) and fathered ten children, of whom four died young. This picture depicts three of Boilly’s young sons, Julien adjusting the position of Alphonse’s head, while Édouard (left) looks on. It’s one of several which focus on small children and mothers.

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

My Little Soldiers (1804) Louis-Léopold Boilly. The Ramsbury Manor Foundation. Photo © courtesy the Trustees

If you look on the left you can see the boys’ pet dog is sitting to attention, with a stick over one soldier like a soldier. Yes, this is sickeningly sentimental tripe for a sensitive bourgeois audience, but Boilly knew his market very well. Pictures like this sold very well, particularly to mothers, which is why many of them feature a mother amid her oh-so-lovely brood.

Trompe l’oeil

I had no idea that Boilly coined the expression trompe l’oeil, which is French for ‘deceives the eye’ and has come to be the term used to refer to tricks with paint which create visual illusions. The final little section of the display shows three or so paintings which use trompe l’oeil effects including this, the only Boilly painting the National Gallery possesses, A Girl at a Window.

It dates from 1799, the decade when Boilly was painting his saucy interiors, and it is an interior with a young woman but there’s nothing hugely saucy about it. As in so many of the paintings the figure is looking directly out at us, inviting us into the scene and at first we are – as we’ve seen in some of his other works – mainly taken with her face and dress because this is so very highlighted, so bright, the best lit part of the composition.

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

A Girl at a Window (after 1799) by Louis-Léopold Boilly © The National Gallery, London

Only slowly do our eyes adjust to the relative gloom of the rest of the scene and slowly come to realise how absolutely packed it is with anecdote and detail. To the right not just a vase but a bowl with a fish swimming in it, echoed by the smaller vial in front of it and then some kind of stick (or flute). And when you really look you realise there is a bird cage hanging on the wall above the goldfish bowl.

And to the left is an attractive young boy peering through a telescope trained off to the left. Look at the catchlight on the rim of the telescope and then on the frame and tripod supporting it. The depiction of light and reflection is wonderful.

And then you notice the frieze carved into the stone beneath the window ledge. Half a dozen characters are depicted in that, caught in some mythological travails.

It qualifies as a trompe l’oeil, as a humorous attempt to trick the viewer because although it is painted, every aspect of it is designed to make it look like a print, namely the fact that it is monochrome, painted only in shades of black, white and grey. This illusion is accentuated by the grey mount or surround for the picture which is itself painted, and by the artist’s ‘printed’ signature at bottom left.

Coming to A Girl at a Window hanging on its own in the National Gallery, you might have been intrigued for a few minutes and then passed on. The achievement of this small but beautifully formed little exhibition is to place it in the context of a life and career which was artful, clever, stylish and fun.

This is a FREE exhibition and you leave it with a smile on your face.


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