On 11th June 2016, the Institute of Advanced Studies and the UCL Centre of the Study of Contemporary Art organised an interdisciplinary conference on the theme of Proust and the Image. The one-day event intentionally shifted attention away from the familiar subject of Proust and photography and instead examined the significance of Proust’s little known writings on art, including essays on Rembrandt, Chardin, Moreau and Watteau. The essays referenced here were written at the moment Proust was trying to decide whether to focus on criticism or fiction. However, these early writings have not yet been fully recognised and many remain unpublished. The Proust Project therefore brought these essays to the fore with the intention to explore Proust’s relationship to the history of art and reconsider how renewed attention to his early writings might resonate today.
The conference featured a number of scholars drawn from different institutions intending to address a range of issues that emerge from Proust’s writing. One such subject was ‘Proust, John Ruskin and detail’, in which Jeremy Melius (Tufts University, Massachusetts) discussed Ruskin’s 1874 lecture on Giotto’s Pet Puppy, highlighting how Proust adopted Ruskin’s belief that writing was the only technology powerful and complex enough to grasp the intricacy of aesthetic detail. The conference also gave particular attention to the theme of Proust and the affect of light and shade in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting. For example, Hanneke Grootenboer (Oxford University) imagined herself in Proust’s shoes viewing Rembrandt’s exhibition for the first time. In doing so, she discussed how Proust found Rembrandt’s exhibition to be swarmed with pensive figures whose thoughts, Proust argued, were drawn from the rays of setting sunlight within the paintings, which in-turn washed over the viewers who stood in front of the canvases. Andrew Witt (UCL) continued the theme by discussing Proust’s critique of illumination within Chardin’s paintings. Unlike Rembrandt, Proust claimed that light cannot be located in Chardin’s paintings as it is a windowless world. Instead, light comes from within the object acting as an animative force that enlivens the object’s interiority, thus buttressing the common cliché that, ‘still life is never still’.
Exploration into the ideas and themes within Proust’s work was intriguing and the additional effort taken to broaden the conversation by drawing people from different disciplines added to the dynamic discussion. Patrick ffrench (King’s College London) extended Proust’s contextual and theoretical study to cinema. Tamara Trodd (Edinburgh College of Art) discussed the image of language in Proust and his criticism of idle-talk. The conference also sought to explore how Proust’s themes are applied and developed within contemporary art. UCL’s Briony Fer led an engaging discussion with the artist Lisa Milroy concerning what Proust means to the artist both as a reader and in her professional life. Milroy is most well known for her object-paintings that present an object repetitively painted in its most characteristic profile, often isolated on a monochrome ground. During the conversation, Milroy discussed her admiration for Proust’s relationships—even friendships—with objects, which in-turn influenced her relationship to objects in her work. The way Proust describes an object and how he holds and conjures the image in the mind is central to Milroy’s work, as she claimed that she is fascinated by how remembering and describing an object allows her to become aware of herself at a particular moment in time. Therefore, in her practice, she finds that holding an object in her mind creates a bodily reaction to the work. The way she repeats and re-renders a single object into multiple objects on a canvas is a performative aspect of her paintings, an attempt to keep hold of the present moment when it is slipping away.
For Proust, a painting is a site encounter of mutual souls. In a similar way, the Proust Project drew together people from a wide range of disciplines who all shared the desire to not only explore the unique and wonderful way Proust viewed the world, but who also sought to expand the conversation through a mix of interests and gain a new perspective on Proust’s relationship to the image.