l’imagination au pouvoir: the theory of modern art & the crucial “Giorgione effect” according to Enrique Vila-Matas

When back in May ’78 I was able to interview Salvador Dalí in his Cadaqués house, the painter kept going on about a Venetian painting: “A while ago, just before you arrived, I was looking again at Giorgione’s Tempest. There is a soldier, and a naked woman holding a baby. It is a pivotal painting, though our fellow countrymen don’t know it.”

The Illogic of Kassel, 2015, by Enrique Vila-Matas, p. 158

The Tempest, Giorgione, 1506–1508

[Strangely enough, this painting too is a theme in the great English experimental novelist, Nicholas Mosley’s Metamorphosis. He wrote the novella in 2014, aged 91. Like his masterpiece, Hopeful Monsters written in 1990, it affirms the force of biological mutation in metamorphosis and is as optimistic about the future of life and of human life through transformation as Enrique Vila-Matas is about the future of art in transforming itself with life.]

…that interview with Dalí unexpectedly took on greater depth when I read by chance Mallarmé’s recommendation to Édouard Manet that is for some the founding statement of the art of our time: “Paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces.”

I immediately thought of Manet’s The Railway, that painting that dumbfounded critics of the time. In it, a young mother looks at us, while her daughter stares at the plume of steam from a passing train.

– Vila-Matas, ibid., p. 159

The Railway, Édouard Manet, 1873

[This scene, as described, without the steam, is repeated in A Man in Love, the second volume of his life story called My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard, an avowed art-lover, who speaks of how a painting can make him cry where the events of life do not. At once the proximity of these themes will be discerned to the European cultural and political tragedy of mid-twentieth century totalitarianism, of which Vila-Matas is at first sentimentally aware and to which, in his encounter with what has become by 2012 of the avant-garde at Documenta, he later unsentimentally reconciles himself.]

la réminiscence archéologique de l’Angelus de Millet, Salvador Dalí, 1935

In the foreground, the little girl has her back to us. In the background, there’s the great cloud of smoke that the train has left as it chugs through the center of Paris.

I noticed that the structure of The Railway reminded me of Giorgione’s The Tempest. Looking it up, I saw I was not mistaken, many people had said the same. And then I thought if only Manet’s picture had an actual trace of what someone had done before. A sketch or a hint of Giorgione would allow us to see the direct connection between the two, in the same way Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase would acquire greater depth if it contained an actual trace of Manet on the canvas. And might it not be that Dalí, lost in a very dark Spain, wanted to bequeath to me that day the effect that introduced modernity, the crucial Giorgione effect?

Se non è vero, è ben trovato, Dalí was known to say. That was, in fact the expression he quoted to me in that interview when I told him that his book [Le mythe tragique de l’Angélus de Millet] formed a sort of “obligatory perimeter,” while leaving free in the center of language a great “shore of imagination,” perhaps with no other object than for us to play on it. To this Dalí  replied that his wife Gala, when she read the book, had said: It would be great if what he wrote were true, but if in the end it turned out not to be, the book would be greater still.”

– Vila-Matas, ibid., p. 159

L’atavisme du crépuscule, Salvador Dalí, 1933