Thursday, April 24, 2008

Proust and the Vulgarity of Photographic Reproduction

'Young Marcel' on his grandmother:
She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of the most beautiful monuments or landscapes. But at the moment of buying them, and even though the thing represented had an aesthetic value, she would find that vulgarity and utility too quickly resumed their places in that mechanical mode of representation, the photograph. She would try to use cunning and, if not to eliminate commercial banality entirely, at least to reduce it, to substitute for the greater part of it more art, to introduce into it in a sense several "layers" of art: instead oh photographs of Chartres Cathedral, the Fountrains of Saint-Cloud, or Mount Vesuvius, she would make inquiries of Swann as to whether some great painter had no depicted them, and preferred to give me photographs of Chartres Cathedral by Corot, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud by Hubert Robert, of Mount Vesuvius by Turner, which made one further degree of art. But if the photographer had been removed from the presentation of the masterpiece or of nature and replaced by a great artist, he still reclaimed his rights to reproduce that very interpretation. Having deferred vulgarity as far as possible, my grandmother would try to move it back still further. She would ask Swann if the work had not been engraved, preferring, whenever possible, old engravings that also had an interest beyond themselves, such as those that represent a masterpiece in a state which we can no longer see it today (like the engraving by Morghen of Leonardo's Last Supper before its deterioration). It must be said that the results of this interpretation of the art of gift giving was not always brilliant. The idea I formed of Venice from a drawing by Titian that is supposed to have the lagoon in the background was certainly far less accurate than the one I would have derived from simple photographs.
Marcel Proust, Swann's Way, Trans. Lydia Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 40-41.