Sartre and painting

Conférence donnée à Fredericksburg en avril 2008 lors de la 16ème Biennal Conference de la NASS

(North American Sartre Society).

Quelques photos :

Site de la NASS :



Introduction: Did  Sartre prefer words to pictures ?

Man is able to aim at a missing or nonexistent object through this physical or psychological content called « analogon ». And paintings, in the same way, show us something invisible through a visible analogon. Also, we must remember that the first title of the “Nausée” was “Melancholia” (3*), an allusion to Dürer’s engraving of the same name that he could have discovered in his grandfather library and whose Sartre possessed a reproduction in his office.

So what can the writer-philosopher Sartre tell about silent paintings ? Are they just imaginary pictures in order to withdraw from the world, or existential means that actually involve us in the world ? Is there an actual constructed pictorial esthetics by Sartre ? Did he find painters who corroborated his philosophical arguments ?


I) An  « in the negative  » Esthetics (4)

We can distinguish two aspects of this pictorial esthetics, if it does exist : at first sight, the sartrian esthetics of painting would be “in the negative”, and that is for 3  reasons :


a)      A fragmentary Esthetics 

The sartrian texts about painting are rare, fragmentary, written in a disorganised manner or even unpublished. To give an overall view (5) during the first period, we only find one short essay, “Portraits officiels” in 1939, and only pejorative allusions to painting and painters in novels like “La Nausée” or “Les Chemins de la liberté”; moreover, the philosophical essays on “imagination” or “the imaginary” define  art as something unreal; even passages from “Cahiers pour une morale” repeat the “go-between” function of analogon. Nevertheless, the famous text “Qu’est-ce que la littérature ?” plays a pivotal role in order to announce the second period, when Sartre’s conception of painting changes. But even at the time (6) only short hommages to Giacometti, Masson, Lapoujade, Wols and Rebeyrolle (around 20 pages each) can be found. Sartre’s unique huge piece of writing dealing with painting is dedicated to Tintoretto but it remains unfinished and its publication was cut into pieces: “Le séquestré de Venise” and “Un vieillard mystifié” in 1957; “Saint Marc et son double” in 1961 (these last two unpublished texts can only be found in separate reviews); and finally “Saint Georges et le dragon” in 1966. His project of a Tintoretto’s biography and of a new “Nausée” which is set in Italy, entitled “La reine Albermarle et le dernier touriste”, haunted him during years – he loved Italy and had been going there almost each year since 1951. But Sartre didn’t have the time to write a real book on esthetics, his political involment or his writing of laborious texts like “ La Critique de la raison dialectique” or the “Flaubert” were too much time consuming. He told Michel Sicard he would have liked to “ contribuer à un ensemble de thèses sur la peinture : tenter de décrire à la fois ce qu’était un peintre et ce qu’était un tableau, de manière à former une partie d’un ensemble qui aurait été l’Esthétique”. Not an esthetics like Hegel’s, but a reflexion about beauty, that he couldn’t separate from art, and about the original decision to become an artist. He alludes to that intention in the conclusion of “Imaginary” :  Nous ne voulons pas aborder ici le problème de l’œuvre d’art dans son ensemble. Bien qu’il dépende étroitement de la question de l’Imaginaire, il faudrait, pour en traiter, écrire un ouvrage spécial” . But, obviously, there is no systematized esthetics on painting, only little-known essays, scattered commentaries of an half-blind writer who prefers to go to the cinema than to go to the art gallery: Buisine, in “Laideurs de Sartre”, confirms thus: “ Jamais probablement critique d’art n’aura autant dénié et dénigré le pouvoir de l’oeil que celle de Jean-Paul Sartre”. Besides, the last chapter on work of art in the “Imaginary” was added because of a request on the part of the editor. Sometimes his brief meetings with painters ended with an argument ; for example Giacometti couldn’t bear the allusion in “Les Mots” to a so-called triggering accident: namely that he would have felt the revelation of petrification after being knocked down by a car…; Lapoujade also stopped painting for 20 years after reading Sartre’s essay, just as Jean Genet stopped writing after the “Saint Genet comédien et martyr”… All these indications seem to take Sartre away from a real constructed and durable esthetics.


b) The criticism of Official Art(7)


It seems at first sight that Sartre was interested in painting just because the intellectual, as he defines him, must meddle with everything. In fact, Sartre hated art galleries and official art. And that is the only way he talks about painting in the first period, that is until 1947. The description of Bouville museum in “La Nausée” was probably inspired by a visit at the Rouen art gallery with Simone de Beauvoir in 1934. The first painting that Roquentin comes across as he walks into the museum, “La mort et le célibataire”, is a warning to single and selfish men who live only for themselves: they will die alone on their own, there will be no one to take care of them and to close their eyes; so in this painting he sees the picture of failure; it announces the official portraits made by Bordurin and Renaudas; the message is clear: no immortality for the irresponsible being ! On the contrary, the notables of Bouville are represented with signs of powers around them; thus the French deputy Blévigne: he’s an ex student of the Ecole Polytechnique, a small man who is reminiscent of Sartre’s dead father (whose portrait hung over his mother’s bed), and he’s painted in a flattering way, “entouré de ces objets qui ne risquent point de rapetisser ; un pouf, un fauteuil bas, une étagère avec quelques in-douze, un petit guéridon persan”. The aim of this official painting is not to reveal the truth or the weakness of mankind, but to make an impression on the viewer, to persuade people and to justify a powerful position. These men died twice : the first time in reality and the second time in painting, where they became fixed like “choses en soi”. Thus, for Sartre, official culture is an art cemetery. Roquentin is not fooled by the rule of notables : leaving the gallery, he launches: “Adieux beaux lis tout en finesse dans vos petits sanctuaires peints, adieu, beaux lis, notre orgueil et notre raison d’être, adieu, Salauds”. Nevertheless, this visit disgusts him so much that he decides to stop writing his book about Rollebon … Therefore the official artist is for Sartre a small craftsman in the service of upper leading classes; he is not a creator for he knows exactly what he is going to paint before he even starts. The official painter turns the “pratico inerte” philosophical category into a “plastico inerte” attitude, to quote Michel Sicard. It’s all put on . Sartre confirms this idea in his essay called “Portraits officiels”: “Les joues de François 1er ,sont-ce ses joues ? Non, mais le pur concept de joues : les joues trahissent les rois et il faut s’en méfier ». Official portraits crystallize the ambiguous feeling of attraction and rejection that Sartre experiences towards bourgeoisie at the beginning of his life and his sarcastic style reminds us of Flaubert’s. This painting is a dishonest compromise and describes false faces; what they lack is “la mystérieuse faiblesse des visages d’hommes”. It is not by accident that Sartre chooses the example of the political portrait of Charles VIII in the “Imaginary”, or of Napoleon and François 1er in “Portraits officiels”in order to illustrate the absence of the object aimed by the picture: people in official paintings don’t really exist; “”Napoléon n’existe ni exista nulle part ailleurs que sur des portraits”. The characters described are not inside the picture, but hidden far away behind it. The painting is smooth, full of details but deserted by the real persons, just like Titian’s, that Sartre violently criticizes and opposes to Tintoretto’s. We must remember that the principal source of discord between Sartre and Beauvoir was precisely Titian (8) : Simone de Beauvoir was dazzled by the colors and technique of Titian, while Sartre vows an undying hate to him – « Sur ce point Sartre fut tout de suite radical : il s’en détournait avec dégoût . Je lui dis qu’il exagérait, que c’était quand même fameusement bien peint. « Et après ? » me répondit-il ; et il ajoutait « Titien c’est de l’opéra ». Indeed, the colors in Titian’s paintings have an analgesic power and give the illusion to live in the best possible world; so, according to Sartre, he betrays ethics, by masking the evil and not showing human pain : “la discorde n’est qu’une apparence, les pires ennemis sont secrètement réconciliés par les couleurs de leurs manteaux”. Titian the sycophant turns war into a ballet or a procession; he respects the theocratic and political order too much, while the subversive Tintoretto is underming religious values.

In fact, his criticism of art galleries as holy places of worship would become a literary leitmotiv that can be found twice in Les Chemins de la liberté: when Sartre-Mathieu and the young woman Ivitch visit the Gauguin art exhibition, they mock the “french spirit” (« l’esprit français ») : “il convenait de parler bas, de ne pas toucher aux objets esposés, d’exercer avec modération mais fermeté son esprit critique, de n’oublier en aucun cas la plus française des vertus, la Pertinence ».The comments made by the visitors are an additionnal proof of the Sartrian irony: in front of the Bouville portraits, a woman exclaimed : « Ce qu’il est bien , ce qu’il a l’air intelligent… C’est bien de les avoir mis là, tous ensemble » ; now facing Gauguin’s work, a man whispers : « Je n’aime pas Gauguin quand il pense… le vrai Gauguin c’est le Gauguin qui décore ». Besides Sartre defines Ivitch’s father as a spare-time painter who scribbles and colors … Later in the novel, Gomez (the bitter painter who became a general during the Spanish civil war)  and his american friend Richie are visiting the New York Museum of Modern Art and this visit becomes an indictment of Mondrian abstract painting (9) Sartre writes “Maudrian” instead of Mondrian (an allusion to the french word “maudit” which means “cursed”). Sartre-Gomez doesn’t feel any emotions when looking at the abstract canvas; it is a reassuring, seraphic and sanitized painting for happy people, that doesn’t ask embarassing questions. Besides, he thinks, as Masson did, that American cities don’t give the desire to paint, because they are already too full of artificial colours. Finally, all Sartrian characters, when they leave art galleries, seem to be traumatized and dazzled by the real light: Roquentin gazes at a piece of white paper, Ivich feels like needles in her eyes and Gomez takes refuge in a dark restaurant and starts crying… For all these reasons, Sartre seems to distance himself from the world of art.


c) Painting is a « Non-significant » Art  (10)


All this “bad faith painting” raises the problem of the painter’s commitment. Gomez gives up painting, in one hour, without the slightest hesitation, when the Spain war starts in 1936: he gives a guilty conscience to Sartre-Mathieu, who doesn’t leave Paris to fight with the spanish resistants, and he declares: “Si la peinture n’est pas tout, c’est une rigolade”; in other words, painting and commitment seem to be impossible at the same time : you must choose between the unreal and fancy world of painting and the real world of action. Gomez is obsessed with reality and he’s convinced that, after the horror of the war, he won’t be able to paint anymore: he’s suffering from an esthetic cataract. Also Roquentin considers that art is powerless and that it can’t change reality: “Dire qu’il y a des imbéciles pour puiser des consolations dans les beaux-arts !”, he exclaims about jazz music and Chopin ; art is vain and empty compared to the nausea. And Sartre confirmed this idea in an interview: « Quand Roquentin pense qu’il va être sauvé à la fin par l’oeuvre d’art, il se fout dedans ». So the work of art possesses a being that escapes from us, the existants; in the galleries, we can’t even touch them, notes Ivich bitterly: “qu’est-ce que ça peut me faire à moi des tableaux, si je ne peux pas les posséder ?”. Roquentin also finds the famous melody “Some of these days” irritating, for it doesn’t exist and can’t be reached.

In fact, Sartre wants to disengage artists like painters, sculptors or musicians : he defines them negatively as “non-signifi(c)ants” because he considers that social revolution must not apply to art ; for the artist would be subservient to an ideology and the message would be pointed out too clearly; the artist must be only concerned about art; an artist is not aiming to describe class struggle, or he would agree with servile painting. Moreover, it would be difficult for the painter to realize something, in as much as Sartre defines the work of art as an “unreal thing” : the imaginary attitude consists in unrealising the world and aiming at nothingness. Therefore, art is not a just picture, it is just a picture, as Jean-Luc Godard said about cinema : the object becomes a work of art only if the viewer animates the material analogon in order to see an invisible and unreal picture : “le tableau doit être conçu comme une chose matérielle visitée de temps à autre (chaque fois que le spectateur prend l’attitude imageante) par un irréel qui est précisément l’objet peint”, Sartre concludes in his essay on imaginary. So the work of art in its materiality seems to be of secondary importance compared to the unreal object that we are aiming at. That’s the main difference between the perceiving consciousness, that actualises a present object, and the imaginary consciousness, that goes beyond the analogon towards an absent object. When we get closer to the canva and observe the details of the painting, it is a natural perceiving attitude; in order to create an esthetic object, we must forget the canva and put in a thesis of irreality.

Besides, in the introduction of “Qu’est-ce que la littérature ?”, Sartre still opposes litterature and “non signifiant arts” like painting, sculpture, music and poetry : they  act as foils to the writer’s intellectual commitment ; the painter, the sculptor, the musician and the poet are not involved in the same way as the writer : « nous ne voulons pas « engager aussi » peinture, sculpture et musique, ou du moins, pas de la même manière« . Therefore, the lack of commitment of the painter has now two contradictory reasons: before 1947, the cause was that the aimed picture is unreal; only the material analogon (canva, gouache, varnish…) is in the real world. In 1947, the painter was still not involved, but for the opposite reason; it’s because the work of art doesn’t function like words: its sense is not beyond the object or the sign, but already present  in the material object. From this time, the notion of analogon and thus the function of painting gradually changed for Sartre.


II) An Esthetics of Presence (since 1947) (11)


a)      The new « Sense » of Analogon


In fact, painting must make sense without being intentionally significative; that’s why Sartre calls these arts « non-signifi(c)ants ». It means that there is no signifié (signified) beyond or behind the signifiant. We tend to forget the material aspect of the word (the signifiant) in favour of the idea which is signified through it: “ un objet est signifiant lorsqu’on vise à travers lui un autre objet”; on the contrary, the sense of the painting is already contained in the canva: “Je dirai qu’un objet a un sens quand il est l’incarnation d’une réalité qui le dépasse mais qu’on ne peut saisir en dehors de lui”. Therefore the sense can not be understood outside the matter of the canva : Sartre no longer separates the matter from the sense ; for example he talks about a “color-object” : “ Pour l’artiste, la couleur, le bouquet, le tintement de la cuiller sur la soucoupe sont choses au suprême degré ; (…) c’est cette couleur objet qu’il va transporter sur sa toile et la seule modification qu’il lui fera subir c’est qu’il la transformera en objet imaginaire”. One cannot separate the green of the apple from its acid cheerfulness. This idea is also announced in the famous text about Tintoretto’s “Crucifixion (12)”: “ Cette déchirure jaune du ciel au dessus du Golgotha, le Tintoret ne l’a pas choisie pour signifier l’angoisse, ni non plus pour la provoquer ; elle est angoisse et ciel jaune en même temps. Non pas ciel d’angoisse, ni ciel angoissé ; c’est une angoisse faite chose » : (13) the yellow gap in the clouds is an angst made as a thing ; it is not a chromatic vocabulary that could be applied in any case, but a kind of resonance fixed in this yellow gap. In poetry or music too, the words and the notes become a magic incantation, the poet and the musician don’t use them as a means but as an end in itself. So the mistake for the painter would be, like Klee, to consider colors as a langage: painters don’t intend to say anything, they are mute like the world: “Une toile ne parle pas, ou si peu”, Sartre concludes. So the painter paints sense, not a meaning hidden behind the canvas : sense embodied in the picture, sense is signification that turned into being. The painting is a sign without signified, a sign that is a meaning in itself : this new sartrian conception is a kind of revenge of the material picture on the negative imaginary. Indeed, the sense is immanent in a lived-in phenomenon and not an inaccessible and transcendent being. If everything is already said in the canva’s apparition, each time we watch a painting, we have a phenomenological attitude, that is seeing the sense in the apparence, the being in the phenomenon. In others words, matter of form is now more important than the form of the matter.

So “matierism” becomes the main quality for Sartre to look for in his favourite  painters’ works of art. For example, Tintoretto seemed to import the laws of sculpture  in painting : just like Giacometti, he made some little plaster figurines before painting. His contemporaries criticized him for “painting like a sculptor”. (14) Moreover, he seemed to anticipate the scientific laws of gravity: “ ce croyant sombre n’admet qu’un absolu: la matière”. Bodies are always falling and suffering and not flying or floating like in Titian’s representations; Tintoretto insists a lot on muscles and physical torsions or twistings; when they are not falling bodies are leaning and they are about to fall or break.  For example, (15) in “The miracle of the slavery” , the first famous and shocking painting that caused a scandal in 1548, the hero is not the saint, whose feet are the only part we see (he has been turned head over heels) but the hero is a tortured victim; we can notice it’s also a self portrait of Tintoretto. Not only people, but also saints are crushed in the stampeding of the crowd. According to Sartre, Tintoretto’s saints must be compared to trucks, weight lifters or buildings (16) ; any ascension, far from being easy, becomes a long tale of suffering: even Jesus must manage on his own. So we must be strong believers not to expect them to crash : c’est “un dix tonnes que sa vitesse seule empêche de s’écraser au sol”. We must feel and fear the content of the painting: for example, when we are looking at the “Crucifixion”, we have the feeling that Jesus is falling on us. The unsteadiness of awkward bodies has become a plastic scheme because gravity and reprieve are the signs of the weakness of human condition: “La pesanteur est signe; c’est un abrégé de nos faiblesses trop humaines”. Even the clouds (17) are always dark and heavy in a low sky: that’s why, according to Sartre, Tintoretto invented rubber, an elastic and solid matter; the “Evangelists” must show that even sitting on clouds is an acrobatic exercise: “Voyez comme les 4 saints s’arc-boutent contre des puddings bitumés”. Even the stairs (18) painted in a low-angle shot help the viewer to be overcome by vertigo, to feel the tiredness , the weight of bodies : it is “the tyranny of the spinal cord” writes Sartre; . It would be an alpinist feat, as says Sartre, to climb these vertiginous stairs. it is perfectly illustrated in the “Presentation of the Virgin to the temple” where the arm looks like a signpost, according to Sartre, or in the “Visitation” (19) where the Virgin seems out of breath ; even religious character seem to suffer from their human condition. Therefore Tintoretto became a painter because of his obsession for heaviness and matter : he was a small man and furiously covered all the walls of the Scuala Grande di San Rocco in Venice (20), known as “the Sistine Chapel of Tintoretto”, with at least 56 paintings. We can compare this obsession to another Sartrian painter, Giacometti, who became a sculptor because of his obsession for emptiness and distance. As a painter, in his portraits, he uses white streaks rolling on themselves (21), so that we don’t know where the bodies start or finish ; lines give an impression of openness, whereas outlines convey a feeling of imprisonment, for: “Le plein, c’est du vide orienté” observes Sartre. In fact, we already found these white, hazy and ghostly figures in the background of Tintoretto’s paintings (22) : the dyer’s son doesn’t like colors : he already wants to show the matter’s decompression in light. Later, Wols and Rebeyrolle had the same obsession with matter: Wols’ tachism, (23) for example, tries to express the thickness of bodies by painting with his fingers and representing being through non-being, refusing imitation and representation: “suscitée par ce refus, la Présence –qui est la chose elle-même, sans détails, dans un espace sans parties, – va s’incarner”. It is the same obsession for Rebeyrolle (24) , who adds exterior materials to his paintings, so that the matter can split or open out (25): “Des morceaux de bois cassés adhèrent cette chaire flasque, ils rapellent les instruments dans St Marc sauvant un esclave”. Surface and deepness are not opposable anymore since the surface is deep in itself. In all cases, matter is like the added value of painting.

The paradox is that this sense or this material secret of paintings is not immediately visible : the visible matter owns an invisible sense; it is the result of the eyes movement on the surface of the canva. This explains Sartre’s quest for an  incarnation of time and movement in painting. The pictural intuitions of matter are finally, I quote, “immediate data of expression”, something Bergson himself might well have said.


b) Time and movement : Tintoretto as a « film director » (26)


Indeed, only movement can represent this “sense”, this absence inside presence : the lign becomes a vector, the canvas become a movie and the painter a film director. We must remember that Sartre is a movie buff ; according to him, the cinema inaugurates mobility in esthetics, like some bergsonian art. Sartre therefore reproached classical genre paintings for being too much motionless and he constantly sought the movement of cinema in painting. Concerning “Saint Georges and the dragon” (27), Sartre underlines a baroque unsettled temporality. Here Tintoretto tries to solve the contradiction between a succession of events and the simultaneity of spatial objects by realising a compression of time: how to paint time, he seems to ask. He forces the viewer to sight-read the canva like a music score ; we must reconstruct by ourselves the chronology of events through the landmarks that Tintoretto has sown on the canva and we must add our own temporality to it in order to interpret them, as if we were feeling the fear : “une ligne ne devient vectorielle que lorsqu’elle me reflète mon propre pouvoir de la parcourir du regard” explains Sartre. For example the run away virgin in the foreground embodies the tragical powerlessness of the victim, abandoned by the fortified town in the background and trying to go out of the canva ; a neglected corpse in the middle plays the role of the prophet and announces the possibility of the woman’s death ; the gesture of the saint is interrupted in order to relativize the role of the hero and to accentuate the responsibility of the viewer ; we can’t see the spear, which is hidden behind the horse. That’s why the contemplation of painting never ends : Tintoretto introduces special effects that cause accelerations, brakings or frequent stops in our eyes. Through his “time traps” he suggests movement as a film director would.

Beauty is therefore in the being of matter, but it is an explosive beauty that goes beyond the frame, as the almost cut hand of the woman testifies. Sartre borrowed the expression of “beauté explosante fixe” from Breton and used it about Picasso and Masson : it means that beauty lies in a work of unification from the multiple, a virtual totalisation, whose eyes are the constituent movement. That’s why Sartre called Masson the “painter of movement” (28) : his drawings representing monsters are metamorphoses and they annihilate the border between human and non-human ; his personal dionysiac mythology doesn’t determine stilted symbols but creates disorder and confusion, through “action painting”. The real limit of the painting will therefore be the time it takes to cover it, to visit it from the inside.

That’s why reality is never beautiful in itself : “le réel n’est jamais beau”, for beauty results from the incessant circulation of the viewer’s eyes. Even if the painter takes us along with him in his painting and plays the role of a movie director, the fourth dimension of the painting is undoubtedly the human eye. And that’s also why beauty can lie in the ugliness of a tortured body: “ La Beauté ce n’est pas seulement Raphaël, ce peut être le corps torturé !” said Sartre ; for beauty is a unifying totalisation which gives the idea of a totality that is never reached.


c) The existentialist psychoanalysis and the painter’s commitment  (29)


Finally, a very important thing for Sartre was to observe that the artist is an “untotalized” man who seeks totalization through the work of art, in a never-ending movement : “le détotalisé, qui est la personne, se retotalise en retotalisant un objet”.

Besides, (30) after the second world war, Sartre made friends with painters, visited their studios and better understood the collective dimension of freedom. When he doesn’t know much about his painter’s lives, he makes suppositions as he did for Tintoretto: that’s why he imagines him as an accursed child on a black list, haunted by his master Titian. He even tries to apply progressive-regressive method and existential psychoanalysis to this new field of research. Each particular description must be replaced in a totalizing movement, that goes from the individual project of recuperation which created the painting to the object he created, and then back from the matter of the painting to the ego who realised himsef through it. Sartre wants to understand what prompts the project of becoming a painter.

The first essay on Tintoretto, “Le séquestré de Venise”, is an historical and social analysis, that shows the double life of the Venitian painter : Tintoretto flatters his audience by his mannerism, imitating the great masters of painting ; he even forced the Scuala grande di San Rocco to accept his free representation of Saint Roch (31) already painted on the ceiling, in order to nullify the competition and to supplant his rivals ; when  necessary,  he sells his paintings cut-rate, for he paints quicker than anybody. In fact he can’t bear to live in the shadow of Titian: “Pendant plus d’un demi siècle, Tintoret-la-Taupe détale dans un labyrinthe aux murs éclaboussés de gloire; jusqu’à 58 ans, cette bête nocturne est traquée par les sunlights, aveuglée par l’implacable célébrité d’un autre”. But, and consequently, he also tries to surpass the official painters by painting angels and saints crashing, falling bodies, the weight of loneliness even in the middle of others ; actually, he only  adresses to ordinary people, for he inheritated the social humiliation of craftsmen and, like a virus, he always falsifies the subjects he’s dealing with. Besides Tintoretto can’t be separated from his town, Venice ; most of his paintings are there, that’s why he’s so difficult to exhibit. So Tintoretto is generally thought of as an “accursed painter” who existed by a schizophrenic movement of reproduction and transgression ; in fact, he gives on one side what he takes from the other side, revolting against the illusions of perspective that he considers as a geometrical artifice, but also using this trick to amaze us and arouse the memory of our bodies. Therefore his painting is already a militant one, especially in “The miracle of the slavery” when he forces a saint to come down only to save a slave, like the Superman of american cartoons or in the “The Massacre of the innocents” (32) that he turns into a female panic and collapsing bodies, a real “crapaudière” according to Sartre. Thus Tintoretto could be the first existentialist painter : he naturalizes surnatural events, revealing an absurd and nauseous world ; he reveals the dark side of Venice ; hell is here, hell is others : “sous son pinceau, un monde absurde et hasardeux où tout peut arriver, même la mort de Venise”.

Lapoujade(33) whom Sartre regards as the “new painter of the crowd”, also plays with the unspoken: he embodies creation engaged in itself and places himself beyond the alternative between the imitation and the betrayal of reality. He represents crowds, the Hiroshima bomb or scenes of torture but he doesn’t really show them ; he stands inside the scenes that he describes and it is the movement of matter that suggest them from the inside. The artist no longer has the privilege of looking at things from outside or from his upper point of view: like Marx, Sartre would like no more painters, only “men who paint”. A painter is a man in the middle of the crowd of men, applying the « principle of seriality », that is an individual who defines himself through his relation to others : “L’homme au milieu des hommes, les homme au milieu des hommes, le monde au milieu des hommes: voilà l’unique présence, réclamée par cette explosion sans maître ». The painter is involved as soon as he penetrates his painting, as soon as he makes something of what people are doing. He gives himself entirely and we can recognize him in each of his paintings : art is a gift as much as an involvement.

Through his paintings Masson also reveals his obsession with massacres (34) : here again we don’t find a figurative or distant representation of pain, but a confusion and a disintegration of human bodies, so that it is hard to say whether they are making love or making war.

Sartre met Rebeyrolle in 1968 and once again he noticed the violence of human condition directly expressed by the coexistence of materials on the canvas (35): Rebeyrolle tries to find through painting what he can’t find in political involvement ; then it seems that the technical aspect of the painting surpasses itself, so much so that we forget it in favour of the feelings expressed inside the matter ; we can no longer distinguish the subject from the world around: “la technique se renverse, l’horreur devient le grand sentiment qui guide le peintre et qu’il nous fait éprouver”. Paul Rebeyrolle doesn’t represent the idea of injustice, but he impregnates his canva with the flesh of wounded bodies.

Finally, if we can find the totality of the painter inside his paintings, we can also find the totality of Sartre’s philosophy in his essays on paintings : Sartre is also totally involved in the description of these paintings, to such an extent that some pieces of writings, especially about Tintoretto, become real phenomenological descriptions. In all his essays on painting, especially in the unpublished one called “Saint Marc et son double”, Sartre sets about developing an astonishing new style in order to answer the question: how can the silent sense of paintings be successfully expressed through words ? He invents a new kind of esthetic prose : he multiplies the use of catch- phrases, he calls Tintoretto by his first name and uses colloquial expressions. Moreover, he describes many paintings in a very compact and complex style : he tries to give us the sensation of the canva without betraying the sense of the painting and he works on words on the same way as the  painter works the paste ; the matter of words must translate the matter of painting. Because of this pictural mimetism, these texts are like labyrinths in which we can get lost and bogged easily. Later Sartre confessed that he gave up his project of a book about Tintoretto because he wasn’t satisfied with his style. So his essays on painting are unfinished but mainly because Sartre imitates the work of art in itself and identifies himself with the never satisfied artist ; any work of art that tends towards the absolute tends towards the infinity and remains uncompleted ; Sartre’s work on art doesn’t depart from these rules.


Conclusion: Did Sartre appropriate « his » painters ? (36)


Sartre appropriated “his” painters in order to understand himself better. He seems to have found in the criticism of art a way to totalize his own thought and he succeeds in doing the phenomenological correlation that “Being and Nothingness”, according to  his successors, had failed. In spite of appearances, in his essays on painting, Sartre is even maybe announcing the ontology of matter that we find in Merleau-Ponty’s writings. He also found, on top of his philosophical alter ego, his pictural alter ego in the figure of Tintoretto, just as Merleau-Ponty did with Cezanne or Deleuze wih Bacon. The wonderful analysis about the self portrait of Tintoretto (37) called “Un vieillard mystifié”, testifies that Sartre is very impressed by his gaze and feels very close to him: “ il a quelque chose à nous dire, il nous parle. Essayons de le comprendre”.We may say also that these texts on painting prove that dialectic was not only a project of totalisation for Sartre ; totalities do exist thanks to the “sense” of paintings : “Le sens est un second silence au sein du silence”. Therefore the Sartrian esthetics of painting seems to be the blind spot or the hidden truth of the sartrian philosophy, a blind spot which now deserves to be brought to light. (Peintres 38).



 Sophie Astier-Vezon

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