Secret Destination

Reappraising Sartre’s art writing.

Part of what made Jean-Paul Sartre such an ineluctable figure in the cultural life of his time may be responsible for the subsequent waning of interest in his writings: their extraordinary range and forbidding quantity. Not only did Sartre achieve worldwide renown as a philosopher, a novelist, a playwright, even an idiosyncratic sort of biographer (though a book such as Saint Genet might be better described a nonfiction novel), but in each genre in which he triumphed – except for the theatre – Sartre subsequently threw himself into enterprises whose very scale seems to have been calculated to put his readers, and perhaps himself above all, to the test. The unwieldy quality of his greatest efforts, as much as the notorious dismissal of him as a late-arriving man of the nineteenth century by Michel Foucault, may account for Sartre’s eclipse.

Thus, Being and Nothingness, for all its brilliance in parts, was a baggy monster whose structure could have used judicious pruning. Today, it seems most valuable for its novelistic set-pieces; the tension between Sartre’s totalizing ambitions and his evocation of concrete experience gave an urgency to his thinking that keeps the book alive. Sartre’s second large philosophical work, his Critique of Dialectical Reason, meanwhile, was never completed, and has never really enjoyed a coherent reception. We can agree with István Mészáros that ‘there were some very good reasons why this project could never be brought anywhere near its promised completion’ that had to do with the impossibility of synthesizing abstraction and particularity, necessity and freedom.

Likewise, while Sartre’s first novel Nausea retains its canonical status, his post-war trilogy The Roads to Freedom, equally well received at the time, has receded in importance, perhaps because its elaborate structure exposes more blatantly the problem typical of the novel of ideas, namely a constricting overdetermination that prevents form and content from keeping in sync. As Sianne Ngai recently put it, the genre ‘tends to short-circuit or dissipate the tension between story and discourse that makes narrative so inexhaustibly rich’. (That The Roads to Freedom is not among the dozen examples in her Theory of the Gimmick is yet more evidence that the series has mostly faded from view.) Here, too, we must note that this was also a grand project left unfinished; Sartre intended not a trilogy but a quartet. As with the second volume of the Critique, the remains of the fourth novel were published posthumously.

And then there’s biography. Having written a major book on Jean Genet as well as the autobiographical The Words, Sartre began and abandoned studies of Mallarmé and Tintoretto, though both resulted in published essays, and finally undertook more than a decade of work on The Family Idiot, a vast immersion in the life of Flaubert that, after five volumes, nonetheless remained incomplete. It was, as Fredric Jameson noted when the translation into English commenced, ‘at first glance so cumbersome and forbidding a project’ – and so it has remained after successive glances. In the published fragment of his projected book on Tintoretto, Sartre briefly compares the workaholic Venetian painter, for whom ‘no campo was too vast, no sotto portico too obscure for him not to wish to adorn them’, to ‘another glutton for work, Michelangelo’, who regularly ‘grew disgusted, beginning a work, which he would abandon, unfinished. Tintoretto always finished everything, with the terrifying application of a man determined to complete his sentence’. Sartre, one might say, was a Michelangelo of prose. But he was Tintorettesque at least in this: ‘It is hard to decide whether he was trying to find or flee himself through his work’.

Perhaps there’s another way to approach Sartre’s oeuvre, one that brackets, at least temporarily, the urge to an impossible totalization that ran his greatest projects aground – through his essays, which he collected in ten numbered volumes under the rubric Situations. It’s as if the partial, fragmentary perspectives the essay allows made that genre the secret destination of Sartre’s totalizing projects. The resourceful Seagull Books, which published three hardcover collections of his essays in translations by Chris Turner a decade ago, has recently repackaged them in a dozen slender paperbacks: On Bataille and Blanchot, On Camus, On Poetry, On Revolution, and so on. Sartre’s essays have often been translated before, but these editions represent the most comprehensive gathering available in English, far more copious than the nearest competition, the volume published in 2013 by New York Review Books under the title We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939-1975.

As an art critic, I was most attracted, among the new Seagull paperbacks, to volume seven, On Modern Art. All the more so because the essays it contains were mostly unfamiliar to me; I’d early on let myself be warned off Sartre’s writings on art by a denunciation that turns out to have been false. More about that later. On Modern Art contains half a dozen pieces on artists who were more or less Sartre’s contemporaries and who like him lived in Paris – which is to say that they are all clearly the fruit of personal acquaintance and not just familiarity with the artists’ work. Two of the essays are on Alberto Giacometti ­­– as sculptor and painter – and the others are on Alexander Calder, André Masson, the German painter and photographer Wols, and the now forgotten painter Robert Lapoujade. All but those on Wols and Lapoujade were previously translated in the 1960s. I should perhaps add that there are some stray occasional writings on artists that were not included in the French Situations – I know of texts on David Hare and Paul Rebeyrolle – and it’s a shame that none of these have been included. (The Tintoretto essay can be found in Seagull’s volume six, Venice and Rome.)

The Anglophone art world, should it happen to take notice of this collection, is bound to be surprised, and not only because, behind the times as usual, it may still be under the spell of Foucault’s repudiation. The last it heard of Sartre in any authoritative way was back in 1986, when – under the guise of a review in October of Hubert Damisch’s book Fenêtre jaune cadmium, ou, Les dessous de la peinture (1984) – Yve-Alain Bois published a manifesto of sorts for his own structuralist-inflected form of art history, whose significance was emphasized when Bois took its title for the influential book he would publish four years later, Painting as Model. What Bois, following Damisch, set his face against was ‘that typically French genre, inaugurated on the one hand by Baudelaire and on the other probably by Sartre, of the text about art by a literary writer or philosopher, each doing his little number, a seemingly obligatory exercise in France if one is to reach the pantheon of letters.’

Disdain for the supposedly superficial and dilettantish nature of ‘literary’ art criticism is an age-old theme, but Bois had a more specific charge to lodge against Sartre. This stemmed not from his writing about artists but from his philosophy, specifically, his early work The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. According to the Bois/Damisch reading of Sartre’s aesthetic, based on the latter’s analysis of the image, ‘a portrait, a landscape, a form only allows itself to be recognized in painting insofar as we cease to view the painting for what it is, materially speaking, and insofar as consciousness steps back in relation to reality to produce as an image the object represented’. As a consequence ‘Sartre’s aesthetic is an aesthetic of mimesis, in the most traditional sense of the word’. For this reason, Sartre becomes the bogey man thanks to whose influence generations of historians and critics have taken abstract paintings as oblique representations.

Even if this were indeed a consequence of Sartre’s thought, it is self-evidently not the necessary or most obvious one. It’s clear that every understanding of a representational painting depends on a consciousness of the dichotomy between the painted image and its material substrate: that’s why a painting is not a hallucination, and why admirers of representational art acclaim the skill of a painter who conjures a vivid and telling resemblance. Does Sartre ignore the materiality of the art object? – he who proclaims that ‘the serious changes in all the arts are material first and the form comes last: it is the quintessence of matter’? But for consciousness to recognize a work of art, it has to form a mental representation of the physical thing – and this is the case whether or not the work itself depicts something.

In any case, the artwork is subject to what Sartre calls ‘the great “irrealizing” function of consciousness’. It is only in my mind that a painting by Mondrian becomes a work of art, not on the wall. As Sartre writes of Lapoujade, though the statement counts for Sartre as a general truth, ‘the paths traced out by the painter for our eyes are paths that we must find and undertake to travel along; it is up to us to embrace these sudden expansions of colour, these condensings of matter; we must stir up echoes and rhythms’. Seeing the street grid or subway map of New York in Broadway Boogie Woogie is one way to do this, but so is seeing the painting as home to what Damisch calls ‘some more secret activity of consciousness, an activity by definition without assignable end’, such as Bois’s passion for finding the expression of a model or system – remember that he is from the generation that followed the path of which Foucault was one of the pioneers.

The collection in fact offers abundant proof that Sartre’s method had nothing to do with a reduction of the artwork to what it might offer an image of. Consider his essay on Calder’s mobiles. How does he characterize these? Mainly through metaphor: ‘a little local fiesta; an object defined by its movement and non-existent without it; a flower that withers as soon as it comes to a standstill; a pure stream of movement in the same way as there are pure streams of light’. Do I really need to point out that he does not say that a mobile is really a picture of a festival, or of a flower, or of a stream? With the fiesta the mobile shares its multiplicity, with the blossom its temporality, the sense of gradual opening up; with the running brook its identity in motion. The sculpture functions, not representationally, but affectively. And Sartre affirms this: ‘His mobiles signify nothing, refer to nothing other than themselves. They simply are: they are absolutes.’

The nonreferential absolute was for Sartre the destiny of the artwork. Remember that he rejected the age-old ut pictura poesis: for him, writing was an affair of meaning, of ideas, while painting (representational or abstract), like music, was a matter of things. Thus, we read in ‘What Is Writing?’: ‘For the artist, the colour, the bouquet, the tinkling of the spoon on the saucer, are things, in the highest degree. He stops at the quality of the sound or the form…It is this colour-object that he is going to transfer to his canvas, and the only modification he will make it undergo is that he will transform it into an imaginary object.’ The wonder of Calder’s mobiles, in Sartre’s eyes, was that, with their movements caused by random breezes, they were neither lifelike nor mechanical, but unpredictable and therefore, in a sense, unknowable.

It’s curious that these mobiles are the only works that Sartre describes without trying to fathom why the artist made them as they are. For Sartre, art writing is more a subcategory of biographical writings than criticism. It’s a mistake to believe that he does not look at the paintings or the sculpture. But he believes that understanding them has nothing to do with pretending they are constellations of forms that simply appeared suddenly on a wall as if decreed by nature. Each one was made by someone, and for a reason. To understand the artist’s project is the way toward a deeper, less arbitrary engagement with the work. He therefore begins his essay on Giacometti’s sculpture, not by looking at a bronze in a gallery, or even a plaster in the artist’s studio, but rather by looking at ‘Giacometti’s antediluvian face…’ Sartre is going to assume this oeuvre amounts to a sort of portrait of the artist, but not in any representational sense. He does not presume to find an image of this face in each of Giacometti’s figures. Rather, he is attempting to follow the path of a man who looks, incessantly, at faces: ‘I know no one else so sensitive as he to the magic of faces and gestures’. Giacometti begins from what he sees, but what he tries to extract is not a depiction. ‘For him, to sculpt is to trim the fat from space’; ‘he would like the canvas to be like still water and us to see his figures in the picture the way Rimbaud saw a drawing room in a lake – showing through it’. Giacometti in search of his image is like Achilles trying to catch up with the tortoise; the only image turns out to be the successive traces of motion toward an unattainable proximity.

Of these different artists, it’s evident that Giacometti is the one who most fascinated Sartre. That’s because Giacometti was the most purely a wordless phenomenologist. He’s also undoubtedly the one of whom posterity has, so far, confirmed Sartre’s high regard. And yet to understand Sartre as an art writer, it might make more sense to attend to what he wrote about a painter who means nothing today, about whom one has no opinions, no preconceptions. The 1961 exhibition of Lapoujade’s work that attracted Sartre’s attention was titled, worryingly enough, Peintures sur le thème des Emeutes, Tryptique sur la torture, Hiroshima (Paintings on the Theme of Riots, Triptych on Torture, Hiroshima). One immediately imagines the flayed and tormented figures, but no, Sartre explains, ‘figurative art wasn’t appropriate for manifesting these presences’, and ‘Lapoujade, obeying the very demands of “abstraction”, achieved what the figurative has never managed to pull off’. Without representing the figure, the painting itself, as such and in its very beauty, conjures a presence, that of suffering flesh. How does Lapoujade achieve such a thing? Sartre does not try to describe the paintings, only to convey a sense of their material complexity – ‘Compact in places, rarefied in others, laid on thick at times and liquid at others, the matter of the painting doesn’t claim to make the invisible visible….By its texture and its itineraries, it merely suggests’ – and also of the effort of which they are the outcome, the project of an artist ‘who has reduced painting to the sumptuous austerity of its essence’. But the individual painting never makes an appearance; we cannot answer the question, ‘What does it look like?’

Perhaps, for Sartre, it hardly matters. He is far more concerned with what the painting is meant to do for the person who makes it than for the one who looks at it. ‘It’s the true rapport of the artist with the imaginary which is the work of art’, Sartre once told an interviewer. And the rapport of the viewer? That remains unexplained. Does Sartre cheat us, in some degree, out of the description of the artwork, the ekphrasis we may feel he owes us, when he would only undertake such a thing in an effort to articulate the necessity that drove the painter to resort to that form and not some other? Is there some evasion in his being less fascinated by paintings, finally, than he is by painting – less by what has been made than by the act of making it? Before rendering a judgement, one might seek to act as he said we should with Tintoretto: ‘Oh you lofty, troubled souls, who use the dead to edify the living, and above all, to edify yourselves, try, if you can, to find in his excesses, the shining proof of his passion.’

Read on: Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Marxism and Subjectivity’, NLR 88.