Nice Sketches, Etchings for the Poet Mallarmé

The French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), whose career is currently the subject of an interesting exhibition at Hunter College- A Painter’s Poet: Stéphane Mallarmé and His Impressionist Circle -has long been regarded by artists, esthetes and specialists in modernist thought as one of the saints of the artistic vocation. In his lifetime he enjoyed the friendship and esteem of Manet, Renoir, Redon, Degas, Gauguin and Whistler, and in the 20th century he continued to exert a considerable influence on writers, painters, composers and masters of the ballet. Yet his own poetry was often so hermetic-Mallarmé himself readily acknowledged that it was unabashedly “extreme” in this respect-that it still defies all attempts to explain its meaning with anything resembling intellectual precision. While its meaning remains elusive, however, the sheer musicality of Mallarmé’s poetry continues to enchant its dedicated readers.

To make such a difficult figure even remotely intelligible to a late 20th-century public is certainly a formidable task, and I intend no disparagement of the current exhibition at Hunter in saying that it only partially succeeds. By concentrating on Mallarmé’s relationship with certain painters of his period, A Painter’s Poet does succeed in illuminating an important aspect of his career, for Mallarmé had a real passion for painting and often wrote about it with keen insight. See, for example, the passage in his essay on “The Painting Jury for 1874 and Monsieur Manet,” which is translated in the exhibition’s catalogue, in which Mallarmé speaks of “the delicious range found in the blacks” in Manet’s The Ball at the Opera . Yet it is a disappointment that the painting itself is not included in the exhibition.

For that matter, there are no paintings to be seen in A Painter’s Poet . Although Manet is one of the principal subjects under examination in the catalogue, he is represented in the exhibition by his illustrations for Mallarmé’s most famous poem, L’Après-midi d’un faune (1876) and his translations of Edgar Allan Poe.

A Painter’s Poet is not, then, primarily an art exhibition. It is a documentary exhibition designed to trace the course of a certain aspect of Mallarmé’s career-or, more accurately perhaps, a certain aspect of his   homage to Mallarmé’s life and work. It does not attempt to give us any independent account of the paintings to which Mallarmé was most deeply indebted for his thinking about art. There are, to be sure, some delightful surprises among those works on paper-the Portrait of Mallarmé (1891), an etching by Paul Gauguin, for example, which I had never seen before, though it turns out to be on loan from the collection of the New York Public Library. There are also two marvelous etchings by Henri Matisse from the edition of Mallarmé’s Poésies published by Albert Skira in 1932. Those are likewise on loan from the New York Public Library.

The real substance of the exhibition is to be found in the extraordinary selection of autographed manuscripts on loan from the Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet in Paris. These are, of course, mainly of interest to specialists in the study of French literature, yet their presence is likely to be fairly thrilling even for the nonspecialist who has an interest in Mallarmé. Among these documents are the charts Mallarmé devised for the teaching of English, a task that occupied a large part of the poet’s life. For Mallarmé earned his living-and a hard living it was, too-as a schoolmaster, a vocation that exacted a kind of martyrdom that is not unrelated to the sainthood he achieved as a poet and as a prophet of absolute purity in art.

For there is in all of Mallarmé’s writing and thinking-not only in his poetry but in his prose writings as well, including his letters-a profound and uncompromising rejection of the quotidian world he inhabited as a long-suffering schoolmaster and as a rare genius trapped in the workaday conventions of the bourgeois life of his time. The humdrum social realities that Mallarmé considered too “base”-that is, too contemptible and valueless-to qualify as proper subjects for poetry and art, were precisely the realities of his daily life. His mission as an artist was therefore conceived as a quest for transcendence.

“To name an object,” he insisted, “is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment.” The ideal, for Mallarmé, was “to suggest the object.” What he called “the magic charm of art” required, then, not description “but rather evocation , allusion , suggestion .” It was only by abandoning the objects of earthly life that poetry and art could achieve a “universal musicality”-a musicality that he identified with “a state of soul.”

This was, without doubt, the most radical view of the artistic vocation to be found in the entire history of the modern movement, and it has remained a very controversial view down to the present day. That it was upheld by a writer who was so closely identified with the Impressionist painters, who exulted in the depiction of the quotidian realities Mallarmé rejected in his own work, remains a considerable paradox-and all the more so since it was in the early history of abstract painting, which Mallarmé did not live to see, that his theories seemed to have been triumphantly fulfilled for the first time. Like many a prophet seeking release from the workaday banalities of the world, Mallarmé did not live to enter the Promised Land himself. What he would have thought of an art devoid of objects, had he lived to see it, we cannot know, but that was certainly the direction in which his own artistic theory and practice were heading.

A Painter’s Poet , organized by Jane Mayo Roos and a group of Hunter College graduate students, remains on view at the college’s Leubsdorf Art Gallery, Lexington Avenue at 68th Street, through March 20.