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Proust and Chinese Art

In a previous blog post I discussed the influence of Japanese prints on Proust. As a specialist of Chinese art at an auction house however, I came across several refences to Proust's own collection of Chinese art in auction records. The various references to Chinese art in À la recherche du temps perdu are also important and mysteriously cryptic at times to have lured me into further research. Perhaps the most famous is the puzzling patch of yellow wall in Vermeer's View of Delft that was "like a precious work of Chinese art".

Jan Vermeer, 'A view of Delft' (1660-1661), oil on canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague

The painting by Vermeer and its 'Chinese' beauty is described when the novelist Bergotte dies:

"after a mild ureic attack he has been ordered to rest. But a critic having written that in Vermeer's View of Delft (lent by the museum at The Hague for an exhibition of Dutch painting), a painting he adored and thought he knew perfectly, a little patch of yellow wall (which he could not remember) was so well painted that it was, if one looked at it in isolation, like a precious work of Chinese art, of an entirely self-sufficient beauty."

In Search of Lost Time: the Prisoner, p.169

Bergotte struggles to the museum and admires the painting to study the yellow patch of wall before dramatically falling onto the circular sofa in the gallery before rolling onto the ground and dies.

Many have searched and tried to identify where the yellow patch on the wall is, and what was so 'Chinese' about it? Personally, I'm not sure it matters exactly where the yellow patch of wall is, and I think the comparison to Chinese art serves just to highlight something seemingly ordinary and commonplace as something worthy of appreciating and looking carefully at as one would look at something exotic and precious. As Proust wrote later describing the narrator's trip to Venice, "we can find beauty not only in the humblest but also in the most precious things" (In Search of Lost Time: The Fugitive, p.588.). Beauty can be both precious and humble. It certainly had the effect of making me look at Vermeer's painting much more carefully!

Why mention the patch of wall as precious as Chinese art though? why not Japanese, or Persian or anything else for that matter? I believe the answer specifically is that Proust and the narrator of the novel both knew that Chinese art could be worth a substantial sum of money. Japanese prints however, no matter how beautiful, were always relatively cheap, etc. When the narrator wishes to buy more flowers for his love Gilberte, he decides to sell a Chinese vase:

"My pocket money from my parents did not allow me to buy expensive things. But I remembered a large vase in old Chinese porcelain that Aunt Leonie had left to me. My mother was for ever predicting the day when Francoise would come and report, 'It's gone and got broke!' and it would be irreparable. In that case, was it not wiser to sell it, so as to lavish every pleasure on Gilberte? I thought it might fetch 1,000 francs. One good thing about getting rid of it was that it afforded me the opportunity to get to know it: as it was being wrapped up, I noticed how habit had prevented me from ever seeing it. I took it with me on my way out and told the coachman to drive to the Swanns' via the Champs-Elysees: on a nearby corner, I knew there was a large shop dealing in Oriental article owned by a friend of my father's. To my amazement, he offered me on the spot not 1,000 francs but 10,000!"

In Search of Lost Time: In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, p.199.

By his own admission, the narrator never really paid much attention to the vase, until he wrapped it up to sell. Perhaps this is the important link to the yellow patch of wall? A message for us to look more carefully at things? The mention of Chinese art specifically may not have been so random. Below is a famille verte brushpot, Kangxi, which was from Proust's collection and was sold at Sotheby's New York, 11 September 2019, lot 906. Then as now, Chinese artefacts can be worth a fortune...

Sotheby's New York

Another famille verte brushpot, Kangxi, was exhibited by a dealer of Chinese art, Marchant & Son. Formerly in the collection of Marcel Proust, it went by descent to his nephew, Patrice Théodore Edmond Marcel Mante-Proust (1926-2006). Both are vessels for containing brushes used by scholars to write calligraphy or paint. Interestingly, they both feature the same subject of Su Dongpo (1037-1101) visiting the Red Cliffs.

Marchant & Son., London

To explain a bit further the subject matter of the brush pots: Su Dongpo was first sent to Huangzhou in exile for opposing reformist policies at court in Kaifeng, he passed by the supposed site of the naval battle of the Red Cliffs (AD 208) during the Three Kingdoms period. It was here, purportedly that that the powerful northern warlord Cao Cao was defeated by Liu Bei, virtuous scion of the Han dynasty, who dreamt of reuniting China but ultimately failed. Su wrote the two poems on the Red Cliffs commemorating the valour and bravery of the historical heroes that fought in the battle long past, while also voicing his own sense of nostalgia, loss and receding into the pages of history. His poems have since entered into the Chinese literary canon and are a continuously popular motif for artists and poets.

Hervey de Saint-Denis

One wonders if Proust would have known the meaning of the poems inscribed on the brush pots and their subject matter? It is not entirely impossible. Proust knew Louise Ward, the widow of the Marquis Hervey de Saint Denis (1823-1892), who was Professor of Chinese at the College de France in 1874. He is mentioned in a conversation between the Duc de Guermantes and M. de Charles:

"Mme la Duchesse will present you with a Chinese dictionary.'- Because remember, Basin, at that time Basin, I had a thing about Chinese. - Do I not remember, my dear Meme! And that old porcelain vase that Hervey de Saint-Denis brought you back, I can see it now. You'd been threatening us you'd go spend the whole of your life in China, so smitten were you by that country"

Sodom and Gomorrah, p.121.

It is interesting to note that the Professor of Chinese was also an authority on lucid dreams and wrote numerous books on the subject. I also wonder if Proust had read his works on dreams? Dreams play an important part in Chinese philosophy and literature. The most famous example perhaps, being the butterfly dream by the philosopher Zhuangzi (4th century BC), who dreamt he was a butterfly, but upon waking wasn't sure if he was a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Dreams are central too in the love story of Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (1550-1616). In Tang Xianzu's play, the heroine Du Liniang dreams of her lover and dies of lovesickness, only to be rescued from the Underworld by the hero/lover, and brought back to life. Is this not what the narrator wishes he could do with the deceased Albertine?

Blue and white porcelain, circa 1640s

"...does not dreaming hold an even greater place than waking, since dreams take no notice of infinitesimal divisions of time, suppress transitions, reject blatant contradictions, undo in an instant the web of consolation so slowly woven during the day and during the night arrange for us to meet the women whom we would ultimately have forgotten as long as we never saw her again? For, whatever people may say, it is perfectly possible during a dream to have the impression that what is happening is real."

In Search of Lost Time: The Fugitive, p.504.

I would of course, love to say that there is a connection between Proust and Chinese literature of dreams via the professor of Chinese, Hervey de Saint-Denis, mentioned in the novel. However, I think it is more likely that this is a case of great artists arriving by a keen and incisive intuition at similar conclusions about dreams.

Below are some other items which have come up at auction and have the provenance of belonging to Proust and his family.

Bonhams Hong Kong

This pair of massive Imperial zitan rectangular panels, offered at Bonhams Hong Kong, 3 December 2015, lot 50, Mid Qing dynasty, were reputedly in the collection of Marcel Proust, as was the pair of stools below.

Bonhams Hong Kong

A rare pair of Imperial champlevé enamel openwork garden seats, Qianlong period, were sold at Bonhams Hong Kong, 3 December 2015, lot 61.

Chinese items and works of art, were of course, long valued by the European middle and upper classes. So strong in fact, was the passion for Chinese porcelain that it was known in French as "la maladie de porcelain' (The malady for porcelain), akin to a type of obsessive mental illness. In Europe, the craze for Chinese porcelain and works of art led to Chinoiserie: styles of art, architecture and decorating that were inspired by Chinese art and European fantasies of China. It is unsurprising thefrore, that Chinoiserie is described throughout Proust's novel, as this would have been reasonably typical among wealthy circles.



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