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Nabokov and the Art of Painting

Nabokov and the Art of Painting

Gerard de Vries
D. Barton Johnson
with an essay by Liana Ashenden
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Nabokov and the Art of Painting
    Book Description:

    Vladimir Nabokov was one of the greatest novelists of the previous century and his mastery of English and Russian prose is unequalled. Nabokov had originally trained to become a painter and shared Marc Chagall's tutor in Paris. In Nabokov and the Art of Painting the authors demonstrate how the art of painting is interwoven with the narratives. His novels, which refer to over a hundred paintings, show a brilliance of colours and light and dark are in a permanent dialogue with each other. Following the introduction describing the many associations Nabokov made between the literary and visual arts, several of his novels are discussed in detail: Laughter in the Dark, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Pnin, Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada. Separate chapters are devoted to Leonardo da Vinci and Hieronymus Bosch, as Nabokov had a special appreciation for both painters. The authors show how the pictorial gave an extra depth to the great themes of love and loss in Nabokov's work.

    eISBN: 978-90-485-0546-3
    Subjects: Art & Art History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-5)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 6-6)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. 7-8)
    Santa Barbara, D. Barton Johnson and Gerard de Vries

    The plan for the present study was first discussed during the Nabokov Centenary Festival at Cornell in 1998, itself an event that exuberantly showed the arts in which Vladimir Nabokov was interested, combining literature with theatre, an art exhibition and a concert. In the following years, various suggestions for approaching the references to the visual arts in Nabokov’s work were considered. Should the throng of fictitious painters be included, should the subject be addressed directly, thematically or, more safely, through the novels which include these references? More ambitious avenues were relinquished when it proved difficult to continue in an unmapped...

  4. Note on Abbreviations and References
    (pp. 9-10)
  5. 1 Nabokov and the Two Sister Arts
    (pp. 11-29)

    It was in a sunlit mountain lodge in Utah, in 1943, that Vladimir Nabokov explained to a puzzled publisher the aims of his eccentric and brilliant study of Nikolay Gogol; when inSpeak, MemoryNabokov recalled a locomotive his St. Petersburg drawing teacher had drawn for him, he imagined it had come from Utah; and it was in Utah where he caught an entirely new species of butterfly, Nabokov’s Pug.¹ Utah seems to be a nodal point for Nabokov’s main interests: literature, lepidoptera and the visual arts.

    Nabokov’s passion for butterflies and its impact on his writing are well known....

  6. 2 The ‘Mad Pursuit’ in Laughter in the Dark
    (pp. 30-38)

    ‘Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.’ With this epitome, Nabokov opens his novelLaughter in the Dark. The title of the Russian original version of this novel,Camera Obscura, Latin for ‘dark room’, possibly refers to the dark room – a cinema – where Albinus first meets his mistress, and the room where she kills him. The last room is ‘dark’ because he has...

  7. 3 The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. Its Colours and Portrait
    (pp. 39-43)

    InLolita, Nabokov refers to ‘Whistler’s Mother,’ the well-known painting by James McNeill Whistler of his mother, which is titledArrangement in Grey and Black(Lo184). Likewise,The Real Life of Sebastian Knightcould have been subtitled ‘Composition in Violet and White.’¹ The colour violet – or purple, which is the same hue but of a higher intensity – is encountered in the book in various forms, including ‘sugar-coated violets’, ‘violet sweets’, a pension called ‘Les Violettes’, ‘purple pansies’ and ‘violets’, ‘a mauve dress’, a ‘talc-powder tin with violets figured between its shoulders’, ‘an Oriental amethyst’ (purple or violet...

  8. 4 Pnin and the History of Art
    (pp. 44-58)

    Pninis a portrait of a Russian émigré who teaches Russian at an American university. His ex-wife has a son, Victor, who, as a boy, shows remarkable talent as a draughtsman. Victor’s instructor, Lake, ‘a recognized art expert’, has a profound knowledge of innumerable techniques, which he transmits to his pupil.¹ Victor learns the theory of colours and is made aware of their shades, up to the point where they transcend ‘human perception’. He studies the blown up reflections of convex mirrors, the mediums and techniques of old masters and the transfigurations of objects seen through a glass of water....

  9. 5 Lolita and Aubrey Beardsley
    (pp. 59-66)

    Lolita, Nabokov’s best-known novel, is one of the most demanding with respect to the reader’s faculty of observation. It is after repeated readings that we are able to fully perceive the real tragedy incorporated in this seemingly blithe novel: the ruination of a young girl’s life. When this tragedy is recognised,Lolitaappears to be, in Linda Kauffman’s words, ‘an uncannily accurate representation of father-daughter incest’.¹ With respect to his stories, Nabokov noted that ‘a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one’ (SL117). Humbert’s account is so well written that, albeit semitransparent, it...

  10. 6 Pale Fire Zemblematically
    (pp. 67-86)

    In a much-quoted observation, Francis Bacon notices that ‘there is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion’.¹

    In the essay from which this citation is taken, Bacon discusses the way in which painters should compose portraits: ‘by a kind of felicity’, and not ‘by rule’. Proficiency does not make an artist. A successful work of art is marked by striking qualities, striking because of the originality and imagination the artist has employed in selecting its subject and rendering it with artistry, thus presenting the viewer or reader with knowledge, with ‘things unknown’, which would have gone...

  11. 7 Leonardo and ‘Spring in Fialta’
    (pp. 87-97)
    Gerard de Vries

    No other painting has been admired as much and as enduringly by Nabokov as Leonardo da Vinci’sLast Supperand references and allusions to this painting, or its painter, are numerous. His attachment to Leonardo’s masterpiece dates from an early age. In 1918 he composed a poem entitled, ‘The Last Supper’:

    The reflective hour of an austere supper,

    Prophecies of betrayal and parting.

    A nocturnal pearl illuminates

    the oleander petals.

    Apostle leans toward apostle.

    Christ has silvery hands.

    Candles pray brightly, and along the table

    nocturnal moths crawl.¹

    The leaning apostles clearly indicate that Nabokov had been thinking of Leonardo’s...

  12. 8 A Shimmer of Exact Details: Ada’s Art Gallery
    (pp. 98-144)
    D. Barton Johnson

    Adais by far the most painterly of Nabokov’s novels.¹ From childhood on, Nabokov’s life was unusually rich in the fine arts. The family had a substantial collection of paintings, many inherited from earlier generations; included were a Rubens, a Palma Vecchio, a Teniers, a Ruisdael, and a Zurbarán.² The printed catalogue of the Nabokov family library shows not only dozens of art books in various languages but over a hundred well-illustrated volumes from the German seriesKünstler – Monographien.³ The children had private tutors for drawing and painting, among them Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, whose drawings of St. Petersburg scenes were...

  13. 9 Ada and Bosch
    (pp. 145-166)
    Liana Ashenden

    Van’s memoir contains numerous instances of life and art reflecting each other, in addition to Ada’s orchid painting scenes and thetrompe l’oeilroses.¹Ada’s relationship with prior art is an important part of the novel’s focus on imitation and resemblance, and allusions to painters and paintings are pervasive throughout. Of the many visual artists evoked inAda, none is as central to the novel as the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). The novel refers to three of his paintings directly,The Ship of Fools, The Last JudgementandThe Garden of Earthly Delights, and allusions to the latter are...

  14. Appendix I: List of Passages in Nabokov’s Novels, Stories or Autobiography Referring or Alluding to Paintings
    (pp. 167-177)
  15. Appendix II: List of Artists Mentioned or Obviously Referred to in Nabokov’s Works
    (pp. 178-180)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 181-196)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-206)
  18. List of Illustrations and Acknowledgements
    (pp. 207-211)
  19. Corresponding Pages in the Volumes Published by Vintage International and Penguin Books
    (pp. 212-213)
  20. Index of Authors
    (pp. 214-218)
  21. Index of Artists
    (pp. 219-223)
  22. Colour Illustrations
    (pp. 224-255)