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  • Print publication year: 1992
  • Online publication date: August 2010

The real or the Real? Chardin or Rothko?


I will begin by considering some themes from Proust's wonderful essay on Chardin, Chardin and Rembrandt (Proust, 1988). Proust speaks of the young man ‘of modest means and artistic taste’, his imagination filled with the splendour of museums, of cathedrals, of mountains, of the sea, sitting at table at the end of lunch, nauseated at the ‘traditional mundanity’ of the unaesthetic spectacle before him: the last knife left lying on the half turned-back table cloth, next to the remains of an underdone and tasteless cutlet. He cannot wait to get up and leave, and if he cannot take a train to Holland or Italy, he will at least go to the Louvre to have sight of the palaces of Veronese, the princes of van Dyck and the harbours of Claude. Doing this will, of course, make his return to his home and its familiar surroundings seem yet more drab and exasperating.

If I knew this young man I would not deter him from going to the Louvre, but rather accompany him there … I would make him stop … in front of the Chardins. And once he had been dazzled by this opulent depiction of what he had called mediocrity … I should say to him: Are you happy? Yet what have you seen but … dining or kitchen utensils, not the pretty ones, like Saxe chocolate-jars, but those you find most ugly, a shiny lid, pots of every shape and material (the salt-cellar, the strainer), the sights that repel you, dead fish lying on the table, and the sights that nauseate you, half-emptied glasses and too many full glasses.

(1988, p. 123)