Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Besides providing a scholarly tour of the cultural circles of late Romanticism, Marbot is an ingeniously constructed expression of Hildesheimer’s own notions of art and artistic productivity. An artist as well as a writer and a former resident of Marbot’s chosen home of Urbino, Italy, Hildesheimer clearly shares much of his subject’s vision of life and art; yet, at the same time, he distances himself from Marbot’s excesses through the novel’s multiple ironic refractions. The biographer’s stuffy pedantry, the elaborate pretense of biographical truth, and the flat, psychological representation of Marbot’s life prevent any simple identification of Hildesheimer with his alter ego. Nevertheless, Marbot’s unsystematic notes, deftly interwoven throughout the narrative, complement perfectly Hildesheimer’s own loose, aphoristic style.

Marbot’s keen observations of specific artworks (Antoine Watteau’s Gilles, Giotto di Bondone’s frescoes in Padua, Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, Jan van Eyck’s The Anolfini Marriage, Giorgione’s Self-Portrait, and Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus) are, in Hildesheimer’s opinion, more important than Marbot’s prophetic anticipation of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories of art. What is unique to Marbot’s theories is the weight he gives to the subjective truth of the work of art, that is, the truth of the artist and not of the subject matter. Marbot defended William Turner, whose work he greatly admired, by stating, “The true artist does not portray nature but his own image of her essence: not nature itself, but his own nature.” He reserved his sharpest criticism for allegorical and narrative art, which merely reproduced reality without inventing or creating it anew. His modernist, anti-Romantic bent is revealed in his preference for what he termed “reflective painting,” which “discloses the depths of the inner life of its subject,” as opposed to “descriptive painting,” which reinterprets old myths and stories. The former is primarily visual, spiritual, and pictorial, the latter, intellectual, derivative, and representational. After Turner’s visit to Urbino in January, 1829, Marbot noted that the English artist was “on the way to dissolving the concrete objectivity of Nature into forms of manifestation. Gradually all firm outlines vanish, becoming atmosphere, air, mist, he is no longing painting creation, he is himself creating.” Condemned merely to be objective, describe, and reproduce, Marbot scribbled in the margin: “Happy is he who lives in his objects and thus becomes his object.”