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Aesthetic Rivalries

Word and Image in France, 1880–1926


Linda Goddard

This book explores interaction and competition between painting and literature in France, from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, offering new readings of works by key figures including Paul Gauguin, Stéphane Mallarmé, Pablo Picasso and André Gide. Combining close visual and literary analysis with a broader examination of critical discourse, the volume uncovers a mutual but often contentious exchange of ideas. The author challenges habits of periodisation, drawing attention to the links between Symbolist and Cubist criticism. Issues such as the debate about ‘literary’ painting, the role of art criticism and artists’ writings, as well as themes such as newspapers and gold, alchemy and forgery, are shown to connect the two centuries. In examining how the rejection of mimesis in painting affected literary responses to the visual arts, the book explores a shift in power from the verbal to the visual in the early decades of the twentieth century.


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IntroductionInterchange and Rivalry between the Arts 1


Introduction Interchange and Rivalry between the Arts In 1893, Alphonse Germain, art critic for the Symbolist periodical Art et critique, mocked the attempts of literary men to express their thoughts on painting: ‘Because they have read a whole library, writers believe themselves readily able to hold forth on anything […] Alas! Most of them only see paintings and sculptures through their reading’. Literature and painting operated according to such distinct criteria, he explained, that a written account could rarely do justice to a work of visual art: Writers talk about painting in the same way that they talk about a book: they borrow their criteria from their own art, an art which has practically no connections with pictorial art. They do not realise […] that literature evokes images through ideas, by means of conventional signs, words; while plastic art can only evoke ideas through images, by means of that universally comprehensible sign: Form.1 Germain’s conviction that ‘ideas’ are the essence of poetry, ‘forms’ the sub- stance of painting was central to turn-of-the-century beliefs about the rela- tion between visual art and literature. It appeared to be echoed by Maurice Denis, for example, in an 1895 article recalling the development of Symbolist painting. Referring to the early Synthetist experiments of Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin, Denis regretted that ‘there is a tendency 1 ‘Parce qu’ils ont lu une bibliothèque, les écrivains se croient facilement aptes à dis- serter sur tout […] Las! La plupart ne voient tableaux et statues qu’à travers leurs...

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