Genre Paintings, Ceiling Frescoes

Author di Thomas Pavel

At Simona Carretta’s kind invitation, I reread Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel[1] looking for affinities between Kundera’s own writing and the art of painting. These affinities are not as explicitly emphasized as the musical ones[2], perhaps because painting and sculpture rely on spatial perception, while literary narratives develop in time. One can still look for them starting from Kundera’s idea that «[a]ll novels, of every age, are concerned with the enigma of the self», as he formulates it in his dialogue with Christian Salmon included in The Art of the Novel (p. 23).

By acting, Kundera argues, a human being intends to show who he / she is and, in Kundera’s terms, to distinguish himself / herself from others and become an individual. In novels, characters do not always recognize themselves in their actions, since most often these lead to unexpected consequences, as happens to Don Quixote in Cervantes’s visionary novel of adventures and, later, to the protagonist of Denis Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste, whose initial amorous escapade leads him to join the army where he gets wounded in the knee and, consequently, would limp for the rest of his life. Similarly, I would add, when the main character in Madame de Lafayette’s Princess of Clèves confesses to her husband her infatuation with another man, she intends to affirm her marital loyalty, but unfortunately a sequence of mishaps that follow her confession ends in her husband’s death. Do paintings convey a similar message? Not necessarily. Whereas the sequence of actions a novel narrates may not fully clarify the nature of the protagonist’s self, the portraits painted by Italian Renaissance artists like Leonardo, Titian, Tintoretto, as well as those of the Northern painters Roger van de Weyden, Holbein, Quinten Massys, distinctly convey the personality and state of mind of their models.

But if in literary narratives the self «is not to be grasped through action, then where and how are we to grasp it?» Kundera wonders, his answer being that at some point novel writers were «forced to turn away from the visible world of action and examine instead the invisible interior life» (p. 24). In Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novels Pamela and Clarissa, the characters patiently describe their feelings in the smallest detail. Like Madame de Lafayette and Diderot, Richardson portrays the power of love, be it chivalrous or less honorable, but he gives precedence to the protagonists’ self-description, as would later do Goethe, Choderlos de Laclos, Benjamin Constant and Stendhal. Similarly, some painters captured the undisclosed vibrations of their models’ souls, as did Vermeer and Rembrandt, for instance, and numerous nineteenth-century European and North American artists.

In Marcel Proust and James Joyce’s works, Kundera continues, the interest in the characters’ inner life reaches its highest point when Proust evokes the resonances of “lost time” and Joyce’s «great microscope manages to stop, to seize, [the] fleeting instant and makes us to see it» (p. 25). Unfortunately, by insisting on each and every detail, the close look practiced by these two writers ends up missing the specificity, the uniqueness of the individuals it depicts. Moreover, in Joyce’s case love, still present, is barely visible. Consequently, Kundera states, «[t]he quest for the self has always ended, and will always end, in a paradoxical dissatisfaction» (p. 25). In the same way, twentieth-century painters became so interested in formal games that the people and scenes they painted often became indecipherable.

It is in Franz Kafka’s The Trail and The Castle that Kundera finds an alternative approach, for which it might be difficult to find a correspondent in visual arts. Kafka, he observes, never mentions more than the initial K. of the main character’s name, never describes his physical appearance, his past life, and his interests. K. is always «absorbed by the situation he finds himself trapped in and nothing that might refer beyond that situation […] is revealed to us» (p. 26)[3]. Rather than follow the older examples of Richardson, Constant, Stendhal or Proust, Kundera’s own novels, not unlike those of Kafka, emphasize the “trap” in which human life is caught, especially in the stormy Central and Eastern Europe between and after the two World Wars, when human beings were “more and more determined by external conditions, by situations that no one can escape and that more and more makes [them] resemble each other” (p. 27).

Under such conditions, how can a writer patiently gaze inside his characters and grasp the profile of their unique selves? To describe inner feelings in detail, in the manner of Richardson or Proust would make less sense than, quite differently from Kafka, to apprehend the “existential code” (as Kundera calls it) of each character’s life, the personal themes that point to his / her main features, dreams and worries, as, for example, the body, the soul, the vertigo, the weakness, the idyll, and the Paradise, in the case of Tereza, the delicate, tolerant spouse of unfaithful Tomas, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, published in 1984 (p. 29).

This approach allows Kundera to reflect on the feelings his characters experience when they interact with each other. In Life is Elsewhere (1973), the young, inexperienced Jaromil «is out walking with a girl who suddenly lays her head on his shoulder». As the author tells his readers, this was the happiest event the young man experienced up to this point in his life and, to explain Jaromil’s attitude, he adds that «[a] girl’s head meant more to him that a girl’s body». It doesn’t mean that the young man wouldn’t have been happy to look at her body, but, as the author’s comment continues, «he didn’t long for the nakedness of a girl’s body; he longed for a girl’s face lighted by the nakedness of her body» (p. 30). An early twentieth-century painting suddenly comes to mind, since this is how the smiling, naked Eve peacefully rests her head on Adam’s shoulder in Gustav Klimt’s Adam and Eve (1917/1918).

Trying to name this attitude, the writer proposes “tenderness”. How to define it? Not by telling readers what happens in Jaromil’s mind, but by showing them how he, the author, understands and labels the young character’s attitude. The tenderness he portrays is thus described as the creation of «a tiny artificial space in which it is mutually agreed that each would treat the other like a child» (pp. 30-31). Notice that this account of tenderness differs from the usual definitions of the term as ‘the quality of being gentle, loving, or kind’ (Cambridge Dictionary) or ‘a tendency to express warm, compassionate feelings’ (Century Dictionary). By describing tenderness as a scene rather than a notion, a scene that involves two naked characters who gently rest against each other in an intimate space, the author, not unlike a painter, imagines and narrates how Jaromil and the girl who walks next to him would possibly act.

The enacting of tenderness does not actually take place in Life is Elsewhere, yet it belongs to the novel’s ambiance, given that, as Kundera explains in his conversation with Christian Salmon, whereas historians write «about events that have taken place […, a] novel examines not reality but existence», that is «the realm of human possibilities, everything that man can become, everything he’s capable of» (pp. 42-43). Novelists, he argues, draw maps of existence or, rather, maps of its possibilities. Quoting Martin Heidegger’s dictum that human existence is “being-in-the-world”, Kundera reminds us how his novels pay particular attention to the characters’ close dependency on the time and space in which they live. In The Joke (1967), which takes place in Czechoslovakia under the Stalinist leadership of the early 1950s, the main character, young Ludvik, is excluded from the university during a meeting at which he sees all his friends raise their hands to approve the exclusion. Since Ludvik is certain that they would also have voted to hang him if they had been required to do so, he defines a human as «a being capable in any situation of consigning his neighbor to death» (p. 37).

The Unbearable Lightness of Being takes place almost two decades later, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the armies of the Soviet Union and of some of its allies. The Czech communist leader Alexander Dubcek, considered guilty for having promoted a version of socialism with a human face, is arrested and sent to Moscow to negotiate with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. When Dubcek returns home and must announce over the radio the pro-Soviet results of these negotiations, he is still terrified, gasps for breath and makes long pauses, cut in time by radio technicians. Weakness, Kundera comments, is a general feature of human existence that arises when human beings face superior strength[4]. Just as Dubcek was afraid of Brezhnev, Tereza, the female character of the novel is weak and defenseless in the face of her husband Tomas’s infidelities. Private, daily interactions and historical conflicts rely on similar existential features. Kundera, one may infer, does not worship the goddess of History (with capital H), whom so many rulers and thinkers had held in the highest regards. For him, human interactions, whatever their span and scope might be, rely on the same set of existential features, all being possible topics of the novel. Yet, concerning his portrayal of totalitarian systems, I’m not sure I can suggest a corresponding set of paintings.

His characters, however, are also “in-the-world” in a less terrifying way, since this expression means that they constantly interact with other human beings, some being fully identified and living close to them: parents, children, husbands, wives, friends, colleagues, and bosses; while others exerting their influence anonymously and at a distance: past and present geniuses, political parties, leaders, media, police. To “be-in-the-world” is to intermingle with those who are immediately, undeniably around us, but also to undergo the more distant pressure of traditions, cultural ideals and clichés, collective aspirations, ideological trends, propaganda, and fashions. And both meanings have well-known painterly correspondents.

At the beginning of Life is Elsewhere, for instance, readers find out that Jaromil’s parents asked themselves whether the future poet was conceived at a friend’s apartment, on a bench in a public square, or at a romantic spot not far from Prague. Jaromil’s mother is convinced that her son could only have been conceived during a sunny morning under the cover of a big rock. Her “existential code” reimagines the actual event in accordance with the romantic stereotype of free love surrounded by a majestic landscape. Subsequently, she would convert her ordinary experiences into revelatory events by calling upon the patriotic pride, the religion of art, and the blind devotion to one’s progeny. As for Jaromil, he would grow up and succeed in life by being encouraged on the one hand by his mother’s blind trust in his poetic genius and on the other hand by his time’s inquisitorial political stereotypes.

By emphasizing the characters’ intoxication with imaginary ideals, Kundera’s novels differ from Kafka’s exclusive interest in the situation that traps his main character K. and rejoin instead the much older parody of blind imitation of ideals depicted by Cervantes in Don Quixote, whose half-mad main character is convinced that he must bring back to life the heroic models of the medieval errant knights[5]. Like Cervantes’s hero, «set forth from his house into a world he could no longer recognize» (p. 6), Kundera’s The Art of the Novel vindicates the ironic portrayal of “being-in-the-world” by asserting that in the twentieth century the world has grown alien to the older spirit of continuity and cross-temporal dialogues. To survive and advance, he asserts, the novel must turn «against the progress of the world» (p. 19). The future, Kundera agrees, would pass judgement on his choices. But since he does not crave for the approval of the future or worship abstract notions like God, country, people, or the individual, he confesses that in fact his true attachment is the legacy of Cervantes who, like Kundera, patiently depicted Don Quixote’s and his square Sancho Panza’s small surroundings and staggering ideals.

Thus, Kundera’s narrative art invites us to remember two kinds of painterly achievements. On the one hand, the actual life of his characters evokes the genre paintings that depict everyday interactions, as do Pieter de Hooch’s friendly Interior with Figures (1664) and Company in Garden (1664) or, in a darker fashion, Wilhelm Leibl’s Dachauerin mit Kind (1875) and Der Zeitungleser (1891)[6]. On the other hand, both Jaromil and his mother transfigure their daily life as if it was nothing less than an early modern ceiling fresco, resembling, say, Pietro da Cortona’s spectacular Ceiling Fresco with Medici’s Coat of Arms (1648-49)[7]. And just as, to admire Cortona’s beautiful fresco, visitors at the Palazzo Pitti must turn their heads up, thus losing sight of what goes on around, Kundera’s characters most often neglect what happens next to them, instead letting themselves be enthralled by splendid, dizzying archetypes.

  1. Transl. by Linda Asher, New York, HarperCollins, 1998. All quotations will be taken from this edition.
  2. As examined by Simona Carretta, Il romanzo a variazioni, Milano, Mimesis, 2019.
  3. On Kundera’s links with Kafka, see Philippe Zard, « Le territoire où le jugement moral est suspendu » ? Penser « l’art du roman » avec (après) Milan Kundera, presented at the colloque Sagesse du roman? L’Héritage critique de Milan Kundera (2021), in
  4. For an overall view of this topic, see François Ricard, Le Roman de la devastation. Variations sur l’oeuvre de Milan Kundera, Paris, Gallimard, 2020.
  5. See Guiomar Hautcoeur, “Kundera, lecteur de Cervantes”, in Sagesse du roman? L’Héritage critique de Milan Kundera (2021),
  6. Well discussed in Christopher Brown, Scenes of Everyday Life: Dutch Genre Painting, London, Faber and Faber, 1984 and Marianne von Manstein & Bernhardt von Waldkirch, Wilhelm Leibl: Gut sehen ist alles!, München, Hirmer Verlag, 2019.
  7. The classic study being Malcolm Campbell, Pietro da Cortona at the Pitti Palace. A Study of the Planetary Rooms and Related Projects, Princeton, NJ Princeton University Press, 1977.

(fasc. 48, 11 luglio 2023)