19 September 2011

From Beryl Bainbridge, 'According to Queeney': Epigraph 2.1 - The Artist, the Model - Striking a Pose

Beryl Bainbridge's novel about Samuel Johnson, According to Queeney, is the source of a second epigraph in A Kiss Before You Leave Me. (For the first, and more general remarks about Bainbridge, According to Queeney, and the real-life characters who appear in it, see here.) By the time I came to this passage in my first reading of Queeney I was so much in the habit of smiling indulgently or ironically over what Bainbridge's Johnson did and said (that's the explanation most charitable to me, at least), that I misread it. That's what I believe today, at any rate. I'll explain.

Johnson is of course best known to readers of our time as the subject of James Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791), considered by many the greatest biography ever written in English. It's a 'classic', part of our or 'our' cultural heritage, one of the 'great books'.

When Boswell is first mentioned in Bainbridge's novel, the future great book is but a gleam in its young author's eye. And Johnson, in this scene, shows little faith in Boswell's ability to capture Johnson's likeness in words:
"[Boswell's account of our conversation] will not be accurate, for man's compulsion is to replicate himself. Think of painting--one has only to examine a portrait to see in the sitter a resemblance to the artist."
Ten years ago, I smiled ironically (and wrongly, I believe) at the skepticism Johnson (Bainbridge's character) expresses about Boswell's accuracy as a verbal portraitist; today, I think, I can better entertain a 'straight' reading of the passage. I used to set more store by Boswell; today I'm more conscious of the tension between Boswell's Johnson and Hester Thrale's--i.e., between the classic, 'great books', canonical version of Johnson on one hand, and Johnson as captured by the other chronicler, who was at one time categorized by some simply as his 'mistress' but whose own writings about him and her era form an alternative account increasingly appreciated in our own time.

What first recommended these lines to me as an epigraph, though, was their introduction of the notion of involuntary self-portraiture, the muddying of distinctions between artist and model, portraitist and 'sitter'. When we first see Miranda posing for Jack, their conversation takes off from his sense that her place is to be nude, his to be clothed; hers to pose, his to depict. While he sketches (and lectures) her, she gives free reign to her imagination... inadvertently planting the seeds for one of his first 'sensations': some fifty pages later, we find him--them--at work on a diptych entitled 'His and Hers', in which artist and model appear to switch roles: in the second panel, he is portrayed as her model, nudity and all. Their differences, their dissymmetry, are by no means dissolved or even suspended: the less expected of the two panels is still an elaborate joke or stunt, and his exhibitionism cannot be cast as a simple corrective. Of course, his career and their relationship are still in the early stages.

But what about the claim made by Bainbridge's Johnson, that the portraitist transforms the sitter, in the sense that portraiture is always to some extent self-portraiture? There may well be some truth to this. Perhaps the (male, let's say) portraitist skews the portrait in his own direction--whereas the (female, let's say) model guides the development of the artist in a less predefined way. This is, at least, one possibility.


Jim Carpenter said...

They say that every portrait is a self-portrait. When I realized that the painting I did of my grandfather and my uncle sitting on the front porch steps looked nothing like either of them but instead looked like me sitting beside me I had to think there must be some truth to the saying.
Which brings me to another favorite saying, "It's all about me," - Do you think that "it's all about me" is the reason why "every portrait is a self portrait"?

James Hulbert said...

I appreciate your comment, especially because of the way it draws on your own experience with your own work. And I think you're right to relate the self-portraiture phenomenon to 'it's all about me'. It may work for fiction as well: perhaps we should ask (if anything) not 'is [such and such a novel] autobiographical?' but 'where/in what ways is it autobiographical?'