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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: On ne peint pas Venise

by Maurice Ulrich

One Doesn’t Paint Venice

Translated Friday 26 December 2008, by Henry Crapo

Basel, Switzerland. Canaletto, Guardi, Turner, Monet and others exhibited at the Beyeler Foundation [1]. How to paint a city to which no one arrives as a stranger, the city already existing in the imagination?

Among the many watercolors William Turner painted in Venice, around 1840, now on exhibit at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, two in particular strike us with particular force. The first is called Fire on the Docks, and the second, simply, A Bridge. They have in common that they were painted on a dark brown paper, it was at night, and, above all, they pretend no clinical rendering of architecture. In A Bridge, a curve is represented by a single brush stroke, a few steps suggest a staircase executed with the same apparent nonchalance, and as for the rest of the image, it consists of flat sections of color, scraped, rubbed, juxtaposed, representing nothing at all, except perhaps, yes, that’s the word, the enduring impression that the disintegrating walls of the city may leave on a man’s spirit, the water’s dark stain. Turner, whom they say nourished himself almost exclusively on milk and whiskey, never tried to paint Venice, but instead tried to capture, of Venice, something of her essence lingering within his mind, as on a photosensitive plate, left, perhaps, on some nocturnal return from wandering in the city, as did the composer Aschenbach in the film of Visconti [2]

To paint Venice is surely an impossible task, and this is certainly the essence of the truth one can retain from this exhibition, which brings together a selection of remarkable works. By Turner, of course, but also Monet, Whistler, Sargent, also Canaletto and Guardi, it being understood that with these latter two, it was a question of another period and quite another artistic problem. For those two, in the middle of the 18th century, it was a question of presenting images of the city, of the life of the Grand Canal, the coming and going of the gondolas and other boats, of men and women going about their various occupations. Though, even so, the flat sections of white of the plastered façades seem to suggest a later Turner of The Bridge. Canaletto and Guardi are here, in a certain sense, "documentarists" of their city. They are in no lesser sense great painters, sensitive to the interplay of sky and water, able to draw in a few rapid brush strokes the luminosity of silhouettes and crowds. To see together in one place some twenty of their canvasses is already a rare privilege.

They are, the two of them, with their contemporary Tiepolo, himself Guardi’s brother-in-law, the last great Venetian painters. In the 19th century it was strangers to the city who painted her, or, better said, who made use of the city in order to paint. In the 18th century, the city that had dominated the Adriatic and world commerce encountered competition from, and was then supplanted by, the great ports of the North, and lost her lustre. She became an irreplacable destination for an idle young European nobility in search of games and pleasures. The Napoleonic occupation, then the Austrian occupation, will again rob Venice of its liberty. She became, if one dare say so, a beautiful courtesan well loved by writers and poets, in a way a sort of imaginary place and an allegory, in the words of Byron, "in a decline both moral and material", an allegory that we can understand both as a personal and national warning: confronted by Venice’s fall, consider your own. And with the great art critic John Ruskin, she becomes a city that exists foremost in the spirit and in recall, a city born of the spirit.

Turner will thus make Venice his place of dreams, gilded with light or darkened by his sombre visions. Monet will resist a long time, as his friend Octave Mirbeau would testify, "We understand that Monet did not want to go to Venice, that city that was no longer a city, but a stage-setting or a motif". Claude Monet did not dare. He felt strong enough to paint country landscapes and cities. But to paint Venice is to measure oneself against all the human stupidity that has collaborated to create the image we have of Venice. He waited for the moment when his assurance of mastery would admit new conceptions, new intuitions. Monet would not paint Venice, but used Venice in order to paint water, sky, and above all, light. And he will outdo even all this, when, painting the Contarini Palace by night, we are in 1908, he did it not on site, but after his return to Giverny, ... he painted a phantom.

This is the feeling that seems to extend on into the part of the exhibition where the contemporary photographer David Claerboot offers, in a darkened room where one’s eyes become but slowly accustomed to the dim light, photos of the city that gradually reveal themselves. What we see this way has the quality of dream, of appartition.

Many other painters besides Turner and Monet came to the city, such as John Singer Sargent, known for his superb portraits done with a fluid and elegant touch. But none whom, like him, believed himself capable of painting the views of Venice, have truly succeeded in capturing its mystery.

Translator’s notes:

[1Venice, from Canaletto to Turner and Monet, Fondation Beyeler in Basel, until 15 February 2009. For a preview of the exhibit, see this slide show from the International Herald Tribune or this slide show from the Fondation Beyeler.

[2Death in Venice, 1971, Luchino Visconti, director, with actor Dirk Bogarde.

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