Laura Gascoigne: The Masterpiece Delusion

Laura Gascoigne

Thank God for books. When shut off from real life, you can see it reflected in novels. But how accurate is the reflection? Does the mirror distort? In month ten of the no-longer-new-abnormal I sat down with a stack of novels about artists. Some I’d read before, others were new, chief among them the fons et origo of the genre, Émile Zola’s L’Oeuvre, first serialised in French in 1885.

At 500 pages Zola’s book is certainly an oeuvre, though not a masterpiece. The 14th novel in his Rougon-Macquart series, it’s the one most closely based on personal experience. His friendship with Paul Cézanne, going back to their schooldays in Aix-en-Provence, gave him an early entrée to the Paris avant-garde; at 26 he came out fighting on behalf of Manet and co in a series of critiques of the Salon of 1866. L’Oeuvre, written 20 years later, represents “the Parisian art world as it really was,” claims Edward Vizetelly, its first translator into English as His Masterpiece. The novel is a roman à clef with composite characters that don’t necessarily fit particular locks. Its doomed painter hero Claude Lantier is a mash-up of Cézanne and Manet, while his best friend the novelist Pierre Sandoz is quite clearly Zola and gets all the best lines, eg: “How can a man be sufficiently wanting in self-doubt as to believe in himself?”

The book is said to have ended their friendship but in fact, apart from the “bluey tinge” of his palette and his lack of social graces, Lantier hardly resembles Cézanne at all. For a start, Zola makes his hero the illegitimate son of a laundress living on a small allowance from a benefactor who recognised his talent. Cézanne’s background was too bourgeois for Zola’s purposes: the son of a provincial banker, his friend lived on a family allowance he was so desperate to keep that he hid the existence of his mistress and son from his father, only marrying in 1886, the year of the old man’s death. No wonder Hortense looks so sour-faced in pictures. The line in the novel Cézanne was least likely to forgive is put into the mouth not of the painter Lantier but the art critic Jory: “And so we waited for my father’s death, and then I married her.”

But I suspect what Cézanne couldn’t stomach was the melodrama. “A fever stiffened him, he worked on with the blind obstinacy of an artist who dives into his entrails to drag therefrom the fruit that tortures him.” Pur-lease! The mix of metaphors alone would be a turn-off for any painter of apples. And Lantier’s obsession with creating a single masterpiece is ridiculous. What Zola gets right, though, is the dedicated artist’s essential selfishness; as Lantier confesses to the equally doomed heroine Christine on day one: “As for me, when it’s a question of painting, I’d kill father and mother you know”. She couldn’t say she wasn’t warned.

Solipsistic selfishness is a constant in the characters of artists in novels. “He is an exceptional man,” Vermeer’s friend van Leeuwenhoek warns the heroine of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. “His eyes are worth a room full of gold. But sometimes he sees the world only as he wants it to be, not as it is. He does not understand the consequences to others of his point of view. He thinks only of his work, not of you.” 

Clutton, the leader of a gang of young English artists on the loose in Paris in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, is a chip off the Lantier monomaniac block: “The only reason that one paints is that one can’t help it… One paints for oneself, otherwise one would commit suicide.” Lantier takes that final option, but Maugham’s hero Philip foresees a less dramatic end for Clutton: he saw him “in twenty years, bitter, lonely, savage and unknown; still in Paris … at war with himself and the world, producing little in his increasing passion for a perfection he could not reach: and perhaps sinking at last into drunkenness.” Clutton’s own hero is a chap he met in Brittany who’s just off to Tahiti – a former stockbroker with a wife and family. “‘He chucked it all to become a painter.’ ‘And what about his wife and family?’ asked Philip. ‘Oh, he dropped them. He left them to starve on their own account.’ ‘It sounds a pretty low-down thing to do.’ ‘Oh, my dear fellow, if you want to be a gentleman you must give up being an artist… An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse.’”

No prizes for guessing the identity of this ungentlemanly chap. Gauguin had a fascination for Maugham, who returned to him four years later in The Moon and Sixpence, the story of a London stockbroker who abandons his wife and children to go to Paris and become an artist, ending up in Tahiti. Like Lantier’s, his paintings have a strange power. “They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance,” is the narrator’s verdict when he first sees them in Paris. Years later in Tahiti he learns from the local doctor of a climactic cycle of paintings burnt on the artist’s orders after his death. “I think Strickland knew it was a masterpiece… He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”

What would the real Gauguin would have made of this romantic flim-flam? I suspect he’d have liked it even less than Cézanne liked Zola’s L’Oeuvre. Gauguin had plenty of pride and contempt, but it was not directed at posterity. He was in fact a rare example of an artist sufficiently wanting in self-doubt to believe in himself. For a reality-check on how artists actually think, novelists could do worse than to read his final memoir, Before and After, written on The Marquesas in 1903. Gauguin was no self-destructive Strickland: “I have worked and spent my life well, intelligently, even courageously, without weeping, without tearing things,” he concludes “– and I have very good teeth.” Nor did he treat his family heartlessly, if you believe Émile’s defence of his father in the preface to the first edition. “It is a good story,” Émile dismisses the Gauguin myth. “It is a pity to contradict it, so many credulous souls have been entertained by it. But alas, it is not true.”

Many credulous souls are entertained by novels about artists but alas, they’re not true either. The one exception is The Horse’s Mouth, whose author Joyce Cary, like Maugham’s Philip, studied art in Paris but gave it up when he realised he was third-rate. Cary’s anti-hero Gulley Jimson (illustrated, played by Alec Guinness in Ronald Neame’s 1958 film) has the artist’s essential selfishness and ambition to paint masterpieces, but it’s the practicalities – the getting of materials and walls to paint on – that exercise him. There’s no diving into entrails for torturous fruits. Jimson is a desperado, not a fruitcake.

Of all the novels about art and artists, Cary’s is the only masterpiece. But let’s give the last word to the non-fictional Gauguin: “As you see, everything is serious and ridiculous also. Some weep, others laugh… What is one to do about it? Nothing. All this must be; and, after all, it’s of no consequence. The earth still turns round; everyone defecates; only Zola bothers about it.”