Painting Nathalie Sarraute

The scene takes place in painter Silvère Jarrosson’s workshop. At the end of a day spent giving life to a linen canvas coated with a succession of acrylic paint layers. Hours spent alternating between dismay and enthusiasm, the banal and the sublime. Then back. And back again.

I spent time wondering how one could speak about art. Does commenting on an artpiece merely involve analysis, establishing bearings, or perhaps penning a description? At stake before my eyes is no less than the creation and revelation of the universe: chain reactions, chaos, sliding, running puddles, cracks, posturing, power grabs, reversals. As many constellations are born under my eyes as there are butterfly wings. Foam here, marbling there…

Being totally entrapped, one wonders how to properly encompass this highly personal emotion, this diffuse, fleeting, intangible impression, constantly dodging away. How can one approach it and, short of covering it properly using appropriate words, skim over its surface… At that point in my thoughts, with my mind fully occupied by the glistening canvas that Silvère Jarrosson has just laid out flat, a familiar voice resonates: I can hear Silvère Jarrosson’s comments: Why is it vibrating here, whereas there nothing is happening… Why is there life at one end, while all is dead at the other… Between life and death… Or, in French, Entre la vie et la mort, Nathalie Sarraute’s novel on the act of emerging creation.

Why should memories of Nathalie Sarraute come interfering here? Whatever.

Let’s take things one step at a time.

Away from the canvas, I start feverishly observing what is playing out here: this phenomenon, this imperceptibly-moving embryo, these myriads of slight oscillations. Here they all come: the slow creeping process, the limp unwinding, the wobbling; tiny particles bounce around, turn, huddle together, complicated shapes appear and then vanish… Here comes the old fascination… miniature worlds gravitate in the midst of gelatinous grey droplets 1Nathalie Sarraute, Entre la vie et la mort, Paris, Gallimard, 22 April 1968 ; re-ed. Gallimard, coll. Folio, 1973, p. 164. 

A battle begins. Acrylic paint coats melt, spread and thin out, eventually vanishing. The lower coat predominates, moving up to the surface, before eventually splaying out. Something within will simmer, arise.. Something will skirt away and hide… or slowly unwind in a set of huge, visquous rings 2Nathalie Sarraute, L’Usage de la parole (tr. The Use of Speech), Paris, Gallimard, 8 February 1980 ; re-ed. Gallimard ed., coll. Folio, 1983, p. 112.

The light, colours, vibrations and tremors, these waves, this liquid world, with its slight impulses: the painting is alive… There, it appears to perceive… it would seem to be something akin to a flutter, a pulsation… It stops, starts over, stops again and begins yet again… It is similar to the intermittent, obstinate noise, the scratching, the slight nibbling that reveals a living presence to the person listening, quite tense in the silent night 3Entre la vie et la mort (tr. between Life and Death), op. cit., p. 65.

Here is goes again… softly… in slight impulses… short-lived bursts… it comes through the closed door, creeps in 4Nathalie Sarraute, Vous les entendez ?, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Le Chemin, 17 January 1972, p. 11.

Little by little, I can feel myself keeling, diving into Silvère Jarrosson’s work. Amalgamating. Brewing.That is where you see that slit, that crack on the wall… something unspeakable could filter through or ooze out… it would seem something drains from this spongy substance… what exactly? What is the eact cause of these surprising effects on the human who perceives it, exercising an attarction on him comparable to the moonbeams? 5L’Usage de la parole, op. cit., p. 111.

I rise up, floating, opening and flaring upwards, allowing myself to be filled up. Like a fracture in a smooth wall, a thin crack, something glides softly… surrepticiously insinuating itself in him, something shapeless, sticky, seeking to find a path within him with a sneaky obstinacy […] yet blindly fumbling yet further away… to the point where it feels everything living seeks refuge within it… it touches… despite his repugnance he grasps it, it wriggles, he tightens his grip with all his strength 6Entre la vie et la mort, op. cit., p. 61.

A diffuse warmth embraces me and absorbs me. I lose my substance, break up, split into a thousand particles flying around and merging with the painting What comes out from there, emanating, irradiating, flowing, penetrating them, filtering into them everywhere, filling them, swelling them, lifting them… creates a sort of vacuum around them, wherein they float, allowing themselves to be carried… no word can describe it 7Vous les entendez ?, op. cit., p. 10.

I attempt to express my emotion, my feelings. Everything appears, then disappears at once. This is what escapes the meaning of words, observed Nathalie Sarraute. There I am, having dived in, on the lookout. I am seeking the right words to express in one go what I can perceive at a mere glance…

And suddenly, it is as an emanation, a radiance, a light… I strain to distinguish its source, which remains in the shadows… it is as a vabration, a modulation, a rythm… it is as a fragile, firm line unwinding, plotted with insistent gentleness… a naive, erudite arabesque… dimly scintillating… seeming to stand out in a bleak emptiness… Then the scintillating line fades, blurs as if absorbed, and everything switches off 8Nathalie Sarraute, Les Fruits d’or (tr. The Golden Fruits), Paris, Gallimard, coll. blanche, 24 April 1963, p. 195.

In vain.

Their mobile, light spirit jumps, lets itself be carried, buffeted, carried away by what is moving, unfolding, being undone, gliding, swirling, disappearing, coming back… slow, barely perceptible apparitions… sudden surges, unplanned clashes, repetitions with infinite shades… reflections… variegations… Nothing is so repugnant to them as to come to a standstill, settling down, letting oneself be filled and dozing off with the blissful smiles of gorged infants… everything you wish, to which you aspire, old lunatic… forget it, give up, come, throw yourself among us body and soul 9Vous les entendez ?, op. cit., p. 85.

I give up, lay down my arms and allow myself to be invaded. The dyke yields, the wave intrudes into the space and fills it.

Then the waves close in, time starts flowing again, it is over. Only a great peace remains. 10Vous les entendez ?, op. cit., p. 131..

Immense a transcendence. This blissful joy that follows pleasure, the satisfaction of having approached grace, just once. A few seconds during which I might have foundered, to the brink of unconsciousness, into that limbo where sensations are born, in as many tiny convulsions and subtle, fleeting flashes.

When I arise, somewhat stunned, I hear Silvère Jarrosson softly continuing: When I take leave from a canvas, I know it is still, instinctively, slowly, moving, till it solidifies.