Año XX, 1985, Núm. 1
«Je suis l'Empire à la fin de la décadence», Paul Verlaine wrote in 1883 («Langueur», Jadis et Naguère ) («I am the Empire in the throes of its decline»). These seemed prophetic words. The late 1880s and 1890s are often thought of as the quintessential age of decadence -Belle Époque, fin de siècle, Restauración, call it what you will. We have a picture in our minds, an image of the end of an era, but the truth is, it was only the beginning of one of the most extraordinary periods in Western culture, one whose reverberations we are still experiencing. Because the 1890s in particular was a transitional decade, it was, and is, not always easy to see where change was taking place and when that change was significant. This is especially true of the Spanish realistic novel, which had reached its peak in the 1880s and seemed to some at least to be floundering in confusion and uncertainty in the last decade of the century. Realism, as well as naturalism, was in decline. But where to go from there? Critics have observed of this period that in Spain (as in France and elsewhere) novelists, as they stepped, timidly at first, onto experimental pathways and moved away from what appeared to be the limitations of realism's tenets, would seek a less material reality out of which they could shape their fictional worlds. This tendency to interiorize is evident, for example, in such novels as Leopoldo Alas's Su único hijo (1891) and Benito Pérez Galdós' Realidad (1889; 1892 [dramatic form]). It could be argued, convincingly I think, that the psychological and spiritual depths pursued by such writers and at last eloquently captured in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu represent the logical evolution of realism itself1. At the same time, as we know, Proust in his role as a successor of realism symbolizes the extent to which art had liberated itself from the confines of the mimetic tradition and become, as it has increasingly done so since in all the arts, an object worthy of examination for its own sake, which is to say independent of a necessary external referent.
This move toward artistic autonomy was at the time more apparent in painting than in literature. Although impressionism was at first closely linked with naturalism (one recalls Zola's championing of Manet) since both are based on observation and sense-experience, we can now see that the inclination to fragment reality, to perceive it as a series of discontinuous, fleeting movements in time and space, and to view color more as an abstraction than as an element indivisible from the thing painted, all these tendencies in impressionist and post-impressionist painting point to a radical departure from representational or classical realist art. Cézanne is a key figure in our understanding of the aesthetic transformation taking place in the last decades of the nineteenth century, for though he loved objects for themselves, he also sought to dominate —10→ them in an effort to free himself artistically from his own subjugation to material reality. In doing so he set up, as one critic has termed it, a collision course between the object painted and the painted object. Thus, «the illusion of space and volume is firmly presented -and as firmly denied. The represented reality gives way to the created reality; but Cézanne never conceals the tension between the two in his insistence on the truth of both».2 Cézanne as a major transitional figure anticipates the autonomy of twentieth-century non-objective painting, while keeping one foot solidly anchored in the nineteenth.
How is this process of the growing self-centeredness of art, arising as it does out of the very fastnesses of realism, to be seen in literature, and specifically in the Spanish realist novel of the fin de siglo era? If we are to place the Spanish novel of this period within a larger cultural and aesthetic framework than its own Hispanic context -and I very much believe we ought to- then we need not only to examine influences and role models as we have in the past, but also to search for the underlying structures which govern and give life to an entire age; and to grasp the intimate connections among all the arts as manifestations of that age. Arnold Hauser has suggested that for the final decades of the past century «impressionism becomes the predominant style throughout Europe», meaning that in art we see the expression of a blurred reality, in which «everything becomes episodical, peripheral to a life without a centre». Reality is then perceived as unstable, ever shifting, and relativized so that «every impression we receive from it is knowledge and illusion at the same time». This, he says, is an «impressionistic idea»3.
Whether one accepts or not Hauser's all-encompassing use of the term impressionism, his ability to capture the essence of the fin de siècle is indisputable. One of the more immediate results of both the urge to go beyond surface reality in order to suggest hidden, unexplored planes of being and the proclivity to see the fuzzy edges of that same reality will be the blurring of aesthetic categories among the arts. The symbolists, encouraged in part by Wagner's and Baudelaire's earlier defense of «total art», are a good example of the fin de siècle aesthetic of blending different genres and media (music and literature, painting and literature, and so on). But one didn't have to be a symbolist to have felt the suggestive and stimulating influence of such liberating impulses in art. The gradual breakdown of the classic tradition was perceptible everywhere. It was in the air, fermenting.
Until fairly recently it was customary for most Hispanists (and other critics especially) to think of Spain as something of an exception in all this.4 While it is true she came round a bit more slowly to the change than others, there is no doubt that with the modernistas and the Generation of 1898 she had arrived. But the groundwork for such an artistic transformation had to be laid in traditional Spanish soil as well for it to take root -and it is in the transitional nature of some of the literature of Spain's 1890s where we find the beginnings of a revolutionary new aesthetic. What I would like to examine here is one aspect of that aesthetic, namely, the curious approximation to painting that a number of Spanish novels of this period evidence5. Specifically, in the works of three realist writers -Jacinto Octavio Picón's —11→ Dulce y sabrosa (1891), Clarín's Doña Berta (1891), and Galdós' Tristana (1892)- I see manifested a bent toward what one could call the «iconization of the feminine», which is to say that all convert their main female characters (Cristeta, Doña Berta, Tristana) into objets d'art (and, as we shall see, at the same time into artists or would-be artists as well). In addition, all three novelists place that objet d'art within a frame-like setting, thus resembling even more a kind of literary painting. In Doña Berta and Tristana, especially, one even sees a tendency to miniaturize and to flatten the novelistic reality depicted so as to present an enamelled surface, shiny with apparent precision, with the result that at times it is very hard to penetrate the inner reality of the text. My aim then is to study how realism transforms itself in these novels and how Picón, Clarín, and Galdós demonstrate novelistic self-awareness -akin to the artistic autonomy of fin de siècle painting- in their use of the objet d'art and in their painterly conception of the text.
Of the three, Picón (1852-1923) is clearly, notwithstanding his radical politics, the most conservative as an artist, but as a sounding board against which the innovative sensibilities of Clarín and Galdós may emerge more distinctly, he is a good point of departure. Picón's passion for the arts was an all-consuming one. Early in his career he penned a history of caricature (Apuntes para la historia de la caricatura, 1877-78), followed by a study entitled Exposición nacional de bellas artes de 1890, another one on Velázquez (Vida y obras de Don Diego Velázquez, 1899), and an essay on the rare appearance of the nude in Spanish art (Discurso leído ante la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, 1902)6. Pictorial references abound in his fiction; and as Gonzalo Sobejano has observed, there are many examples of impressionistic city and landscapes anticipating the modernistas' descriptive approach to color and light7.
The passage I am about to highlight, however, has little to do with this particular technique (which really merits further study) and, at first reading, with lo pictórico en sí, since it is actually a sculptural depiction of Picón's heroine in Dulce y sabrosa, Cristeta Moreruela, as she is observed by the very male eye of Don Juan Todellas:
Los pies de la dama eran de forma irreprochable, finos, algo elevados por el tarso, ni tan largos como de bolera, ni tan cortos como de china, y no calzados, afectando descuido, con zapatones a la inglesa, sino con medias de seda roja y zapatos de charol a la francesa, de tacón un poquito alto y sujetos con lazo de cinta negra... Aquella mujer no llevaba ridícula y dañosamente apretada la cintura; su talle, sin que nada le oprimiera, resultaba en perfecta armonía de líneas con las curvas que hacia arriba dibujaban el pecho y con las que hacia abajo modelaban las caderas... Vista de espalda, descubría por bajo del sombrero gran parte del rodete bien prieto, formado por una cabellera rubia oscura, surcada de hebras algo más claras, que, heridas por la luz, parecían de oro. Su andar era pausado y firme; pisaba bien y sus movimientos estaban animados por una gracia encantadora.8
Verbally clothed in sartorial splendor, Cristeta seems like a living sculpture, lovingly molded into being by an artist who very obviously takes great delight in exhibiting the natural and artificial elements adorning a beautiful woman. This sculptural effect in the creation of Cristeta's character is bolstered by other, similar allusions. In Chapter V, for example, Cristeta, who has theatrical ambitions, finds out she is to play the allegorical part of «Sculpture» —12→ in a rather risqué revue. «En la escena», writes the author, «en que se hacía referencia a la última Exposición de Bellas Artes, salían personificadas en tres guapas chicas la Arquitectura, la Pintura y la Escultura... la Escultura debía aparecer sobre un pedestal a modo de estatua, en la mayor desnudez posible, y sin más ropaje que un trozo de paño liado a las caderas» (p. 109). Picón also uses, along the same lines as the motif of the statue, another classically inspired image to portray his protagonist. She is a «ninfa de apoteosis zarzuelesca» (p. 85); and one of the early roles will be that of a half-naked «Ninfa Eléctrica» (p. 99)9. Later the two images are combined: «La ninfa de abrasadora voluptuosidad se había trocado en fría escultura» (p. 178).
The mythological qualities attached to Cristeta suggest something so extraordinary in Picón's heroine that only supra-human images seem to fit her: «Tenía los enlaces perezosos y movimientos lánguidos con que ciertos animales mitológicos, mitad mujeres, mitad serpientes, se ciñen a los troncos de árbol...» (p. 246). (This description bears a great deal of resemblance to the exotic images of mythologized women appearing in decadent and symbolist painters of the 1880s and 90s. See for example Alexandre Séon's «The Chimera's Despair» [«Le Désespoir de la Chimère», 1890], Gustave Moreau's «Chimeras» [«Les Chimères», 1884], or Fernand Khnopff's «Sphinx» .) In her lover's dream of this captivating creature, whom he had seduced and then abandoned only to find her again later, apparently in the hands of another, and now sweet, forbidden fruit, she is transformed into a cold and remote statue. «En vano [don Juan] pretende vivificarla acariciando sus hermosas caderas, y gimiendo de dolor entre sus marmóreos pechos. Ya no es mujer, es una divinidad» (p. 338). And finally in the last chapter, when the unworthy but attractive Don Juan has won back Cristeta, the narrator gives us this final view of her: «El rostro iba tomando la palidez marmórea de la estatua que vio don Juan en sueños; pero esta no era piedra esculpida, sino hermosa carne modelada por Dios y vivificada con el soplo de su espíritu para delicia del hombre» (pp. 347-48).
Elsewhere I have pointed out that the use of sculptural images in delineating his heroine forms part of Picón's delightful reworking of the Galatea-Pygmalion story, with Don Juan playing the role of the artist -that is, the practitioner of the art of love- as he awakens Cristeta's quiescent state of sexuality. Thus like Pygmalion he too demonstrates how love itself is an art form, a creative force analogous to art in its capacity to transform from within10. In the second half of the novel, I should add, Picón in a clever twist turns the tables when the by now Machiavellian Cristeta metamorphoses through her own artfulness and talents as an actress one shallow-souled, complacent Lothario into a middle-aged, lovesick wretch. But the metaphor can, I think, be further taken to mean for out purposes here the supremacy of the artistic impulse itself, for surely there is more than one Pygmalion present in the creation of this late nineteenth-century Spanish Galatea, and that is the narrator himself. In his glorification of the feminine -a constant in his fiction- Picón in essence is setting up an altar to art, to its very inception within the pages of his book, for Cristeta as «Sculpture» represents the artist's breathing life into his secretly cherished (and god-inspired) images. But Cristeta is also an artist, in the same metaphorical sense, as well as an —13→ art object -a dual role which, we will see, also obtains to varying degrees in the characterization of Doña Berta and Tristana. This means, first of all, that she incarnates both passive (as objet d'art) and active (as artist) traits, but in either instance it confers upon her a superiority, a separateness, apart from the very circumstances in which she has been set. It also intensifies the role of art within the verbal artifact, operating as a sign of the artist's cognizance that this is after all a work of art, a play of words with actors within it pursuing the lines of the text.
Woman had, of course, functioned before this as the symbol of those mysterious forces behind the creative drive -the Muses, for example- and she continued to do so in Picón's time. (And in ours. See, for example, John Fowles' 1982 novel, Mantissa, for a witty yet disturbing modern recreation of the muse Erato.) Indeed, the exaltation of lo femenino and the intimate associations established between woman, love, and art contribute significantly to the verbal and visual iconography of the fin de siècle, whether one chooses to look for it in the symbolist movement, post-impressionism, or modernismo. One need only bring to mind Gauguin's exotic females in the «Flowering of Spring» (1891) and «The Seed of the Areois» (1892), of Jean Delville's visionary portrait of Madame Stuart Merrill (1892), anticipated by the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti's «Beata Beatrix» (c. 1863)11. Jacinto Benavente would exclaim in 1893: «Sin vosotras [las mujeres] no existiría el Arte, porque el Arte es el amor...» And this: «¡Bendito el Arte, porque es Amor, pero bendito el Amor antes! Y vosotras, mujeres, eterno femenino del Amor y del Arte, ¡benditas sobre todo!»12 And two years later, one remembers, Ramón del Valle-Inclán would publish a book called Femeninas, a clear forerunner of his more accomplished Sonatas13.
Thus what Picón has expressed through the metaphor of sculpture as it is applied to his heroine -really a form of verbal painting for us- is a heightened self-awareness of the aesthetic qualities of his own art. In momentarily detaching his verbal object (Cristeta) from its surroundings, he takes that first step in making art the supreme reality. At the same time this act of placing into high relief the feminine as objet d'art creates a kind of invisible frame around the verbal construct, for it forces us to make a temporary dissociation between the objet d'art and the rest of the work. The reading eye in this way becomes a framing device through the subtle manipulations of the narrator as he consciously separates one element of his work from the whole. I should also mention that in a more conventional sense Picón frames many of the scenes in Dulce y sabrosa as though they were moments taking place on stage14. Both the use of theatre as a form of enclosure and the exploitation of art in its most classical form -sculpture- are indications of what could be termed the novelist's artistic timidity. But like Puvis de Chavannes who also preferred the serene, even static proportions of classical art in paintings highly suggestive of stylized souls wandering through almost abstract landscapes, Picón represents a similar impulse to heighten ideal forms -Cristeta as objet d'art- within fictional reality. Thus both artists are still strongly attached to a subject in art which has its referent in the outside world, but their absorption in form itself -the sculptural lines —14→ of the feminine in particular- prefigures the constructing of an artistic reality sufficient unto itself.
If we now look at what Clarín has done in Doña Berta, we will see that far bolder than his friend Picón, he has made art and its function within the text a key element to our understanding of what appears at first reading to be a simple and even romantic tale of lost love and honor and the desire to make amends for that loss. Set in a near paradisiacal and enclosed space and a time which, deceptively for us, seems to be in essence uchronic, Doña Berta possesses all the surface tones of a latter-day fairy tale15. This in itself is characteristic of a trend in writing and painting of the 80s and 90s to use the archetypal patterns of what could be called dream literature and iconography. Zola's Le Rêve (1888) is a good example. Whistler's «Rose and Silver: The Princess from the Land of Porcelain» (1864), the Pre-Raphaelites' fondness for Arthurian legend, and Gustave Moreau's «The Unicorns» («Les Licornes», c. 1885) are only a mete sampling of what would become a veritable deluge of unreal and mythic landscapes and figures in the symbolists and decadents of the period. As Philippe Jullian remarks, «about 1880 a regular invasion of fairies took place»16.
I mention all this for a good reason. Hidden in the beguiling surfaces of such painting, in its tendency to flatten contours, is the artist's gradual move away from his dependence on external reality and toward an inner reality suggested by the dreamscapes of his mind. Thus art, observes Robert Goldwater, «could alter and rearrange [externals] in accordance with the artist's desire to evoke emotion and suggest ideas and so could become a symbol of the affective life of the mind»17. I suspect this is what Clarín was after when he put these words into the head of his protagonist: «Parece que hay dos almas, se decía a veces; una que se va secando con el cuerpo, y es la que imagina, la que siente con fuerza, pintorescamente; y otra alma más honda, más pura, que llora sin lágrimas, que ama sin memoria y hasta sin latidos...»18 These two souls are like the surface and depth, the visible and the invisible, of Doña Berta's inner being: a soul that could be painted, and another that could only be suggested.
And Clarín does try to paint her. Indeed, painterly effects are very much in evidence, beginning with the initial description of contrasting greens and whites in Doña Berta's property, as Laura de los Ríos has remarked. She also suggests, rightly so, that Alas' use of color, light, and air recalls both Spanish impressionist painting and the Northern landscape artists such as Darío de Regoyos and Aureliano de Beruete. The very name of the painter in Clarín's story -Valencia- evokes the presence of Joaquín Sorolla, whose first exhibited work, «El dos de mayo» (1884), may have served as the inspiration for the historical painting of Doña Berta's presumed illegitimate son19. This portrait (and others) in Alas' novella also functions as a major catalyst in the promoting of plot and action20.
But what interests me more in this Clarinian masterpiece is not so much his verbal painting of the visible world, which we can already see in Bécquer's leyendas, as his novelistic self-consciousness in exploiting art within art to suggest the misleading nature of reality. In so doing he also intimates that it is only through art that we can make sense of life itself, even when —15→ that experience ultimately ends in defeat, as it does for Doña Berta. To begin to grasp what Clarín has achieved in this work, we need to see first how he verbally recreates for us a portrait of his main character. He does this principally through the sensitive eye of the painter Valencia, who analyzes her as though she were both a painted object and an object to be painted. In the middle of the Asturian countryside there stands a figure,
Earlier she is also compared to a «bargueño humano», an old-style desk possessing many drawers, which is to say a kind of storehouse of memories (p. 154). In other words, Doña Berta is for the painter -and thus implicitly for the narrator as well- an objet d'art.
But once again as with Picón in Dulce y sabrosa, the passive feminine object becomes transformed into an active one when Clarín's protagonist, jolted by the sight of a copy of Valencia's portrait depicting a heroic captain who died during the Second Carlist War, determines she will sacrifice everything in an effort to acquire what for her seems to be the only likeness of her lost son. In effect, Doña Berta, incited by the revelatory powers of art itself, will become the artist of her own destiny and create her own acts of heroism or in other words, her own painting of reality. And indeed this is precisely how Clarín presents that critical moment of her life, when she finally succeeds in viewing the original of Valencia's work. Mounted on a small ladder to see the painting more closely because workmen are in the process of moving it, she catches only a glimpse of it: «Y al mismo tiempo que el cuadro desaparecía, llevado por los operarios, la vista se le nublaba, a doña Berta, que perdía el sentido, se desplomaba y venía a caer deslizándose por la escalera, en los brazos del mozo compasivo que la había ayudado en su ascensión penosa. Aquello también era un cuadro; parecía a su manera un Descendimiento» (p. 190).
Clarín has intentionally framed the moment by making art out of art; more specifically, by projecting a form of interior duplication into his text and thus effecting a doubly aesthetic rendering of the work. These scenes (and others) seem like paintings not only because of their pictorial values but because of the frame-within-the-frame technique applied to them. Ferdinand Brunetière was, we think, the first to suggest that impressionist writing could be characterized by its use of the frame. «Chaque scène devient un tableau, qui s'arrange comme dans une toile suspendue sous les yeux du lecteur, complète en elle-mme, isolée des autres, comme dans une galerie, par sa bordure, par son cadre, par un large pan de mur vide»21. The term «impressionist» is by its very nature vague and hard to define, as subsequent criticism has —16→ shown22. Hence, I refrain from labeling the prose of Clarín (or Picón's and Galdós' for that matter) «impressionist».
Nevertheless, Brunetière's observation is an acute one, because it prefigures the modern inclination to break reality into fragments, fragments which become increasingly isolated from external reality. What one sees in much of the art and literature of the 90s is, as Calvin S. Brown has commented, «a general preference for small units... the typical impressionistic work, whether in literature or music, is a miniature»23. This concept of the tableau, which in effect is a smaller piece of a larger whole, fits in well with the notion of miniaturization. Both techniques tend, in their framing of fictional (or painterly) reality, to remove the artistic moment from its objective context. In a word, the act of framing makes the frame become part of the tableau itself24. Thus Clarín, by making us conscious of the frame he has fashioned round his objet d'art-artist (Doña Berta), heightens the aesthetic properties of his work. It makes us aware of the text as text and offers us at the same time a distanced point of view. Indeed, the frame is a point of view, as I have noted elsewhere25.
There is also a curious tension operating in the two examples I have extracted from Alas' novella: a split between the surface qualities of their tableau-like appearance and the implied notion of depth in the art-within-art metaphor, akin, I might add, to the two souls of Doña Berta herself. One recalls, in this context, the well-known definition of a painting given by Maurice Denis in 1890: «Se rappeler qu'un tableau -avant d'être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue, ou une quelcone anecdote- est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées»26. We can even see in the artist Valencia's portraiture of Doña Berta how the observant eye of the painter as narrator deconstructs the visual elements composing Alas' heroine. She is first of all «llena de dibujo», that is implicitly, an object of painterly interest, whose individual components may be broken down into three colors («cera, tabaco, ceniza»). But she is also a «copia de una miniatura en marfil», intimating that life is patterning itself after art, rather than the accustomed reverse. Doña Berta is thus both fictionally real and a mere image of an image. When Clarín says she seems like a figure escaped from a scene painted on an old fan, he means not only that her appearance is anachronistic, but that she is above all an aesthetic entity imagined solely in an artist's mind. In this sense, her connection with a reality beyond the pages of the text seems tenuous here. But not illusory. For Clarín, steeped in the Western tradition of mimesis, never forgets that a context outside the text does exist. Hence any remarks on the autonomous reality of his fictional art, of which we see tantalizing glimmerings here, must be tempered by our awareness of that fact. The same of course is true of Galdós, though in the case of Tristana one also observes that the process of decomposing reality into smaller (and discontinuous) pieces has advanced much more than in Picón or Clarín, anticipating the increasingly fragmented vision of reality which we see in Azorín, Baroja, and Valle-Inclán. Indeed, just as textual self-awareness will become more and more acute in the twentieth century, so too will the angularity of its fictional universe's separate parts, —17→ culminating (for the Generation of 1898) in the wounding shards of works like Valle's grotesque esperpentos and Tirano Banderas.
For this analysis, Don Benito's initial portrait of his protagonist will be our point of departure: «era joven, bonitilla, esbelta, de una blancura casi inverosímil de puro alabastrina...» And several lines later:
[...] y cuando se acicalaba y se ponía su bata morada con rosetones blancos, el moño arribita, traspasado con horquillas de dorada cabeza, resultaba una fiel imagen de dama japonesa de alto copete. Pero ¿qué más, si toda ella parecía de papel, de ese papel plástico, caliente y vivo en que aquellos inspirados orientales representaban lo divino y lo humano, lo cómico tirando a grave, y lo grave que hace reír? De papel nítido en su rostro blanco mate, de papel su vestido, de papel sus finísimas, torneadas, incomparables manos.27
Later, the narrator also says of her that she is like a «figura japonesa, de esas cuya estabilidad no se comprende, y que parecen cadáveres risueños pegados a un árbol, a una nube, a incomprensibles fajas decorativas» (p. 66).
Galdós' allusions to Japanese prints are not surprising. First of all, his life-long interest in painting and drawing is well-documented28. And second, the dissemination of Japanese prints and other curios was widespread throughout the second half of nineteenth-century Europe. Japanese woodcuts were, for example, shown at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, which a young Galdós saw but didn't, he was to confess in his memorias desmemoriadas, very much enjoy29. Japanese art was again on display at the 1878 Exposition, an event which a then equally young Jacinto Octavio Picón was to write home about30. «In addition, the 1888 Exposición Universal de Barcelona, designed with the cultural model of Paris and other large capitals in mind, also contained a Japanese exhibit31. Indeed, there was a veritable craze in the West for things Japanese, for bibelots and other knick-knacks. It was a vogue whose high point was reached between the years 1875 and 1895; and by the late 1880s, it was even an affordable one, as prices dropped due to the flooding of the European market with by then inferior Japanese products32. Tristana's alabaster doll-like appearance, often attributed to the ideological influence of Ibsen, could just as easily be a reflection of the Japanese porcelain dolls then popular in Europe.
More importantly, Japanese xylography exercised a radically new influence on impressionist and post-impressionist art of the last century. As one critic has remarked, «it is impossible to understand the basic characteristics of modern art in general without recognizing the extent of its debt to Japan»33. The flat-looking presentation, the decorative treatment emphasizing form and color for their own sake, the use of borders to suggest the autonomous nature of the work of art, a non-Renaissance conception of space in which the subject is often decentralized and point of view demonstrated from unusual angles, the inclination toward simplified forms, all these elements found in such Japanese artists as Hokusai and Utamaro were absorbed and reinterpreted by Western painters, beginning in the 1860s with Manet and Whistler and continuing with Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many others. The desire to capture the fleeting moment, life in flux, as seen in the ukiyo-e, or «pictures of the floating world» -the world of ephemeral, —18→ earthly pleasures to be found in the «green houses», or brothels of Edo- appealed hugely to Western painters. «C'est un affinement», Louis Aubert wrote of Degas, Monet, and others, «une exaltation de la sensation, un entraînement à saisir le furtif et le rare dans la lumière et le mouvement...»34 And although the Japanese printmakers depicted other subjects besides women, it is largely due to their obsession with lo femenino that we can speak of the feminization of this enchanting art form. Thus the Japanese qualities attributed to Tristana are doubly fitting.
But Galdós' portrait expresses more than mete verbal painting here35; for, as I have pointed out in another study, this passage mirrors a highly articulate novelistic self-awareness of art as artifice, or put another way, as paper invention36. What Galdós stresses is the paper thinness of Tristana's fictional reality. When he says that «toda ella parecía de papel» he means just that, for Tristana possesses no more substance than the very paper she springs from. She is, in effect, her creator's literary objet d'art, his own version of a Japanese print. Thus this «fiel imagen de dama japonesa» is doubleedged in meaning: that is, the faithful image, the true mirror of reality, of that reality which is mere image. This initial portrait of Tristana, with its verbal brush-stroke qualities of flatness and delicate precision suggesting a knowable surface reality, is both genuine and deceptive. Galdós' protagonist is, first of all, an enchanting, highly decorative art object, reminiscent in appearance of the cloisonné enamel techniques characteristic of several fin de siècle painters37. Yet, as the narrator himself later remarks, Tristana's place in his fictional world is to a large degree incomprehensible, for in being compared to a «figura japonesa, de esas cuya estabilidad no se comprende», she also assumes the heraldic values of this essentially mysterious art form. lt is, we discover, in the twistings and turnings taken by the enigmatic nature of her personality where Galdós will subtly reveal the hidden depths of what at first seems like a character without substance.
Tristana's indeterminateness, her mutability as a character will be demonstrated repeatedly as, chameleon-like, she passes through in record time a series of artistic apprenticeships in her effort to become successively a full, fledged painter, actress, and musician. Indeed the only way we can even attempt to define Tristana is as an art object struggling to transform herself into an artist. Thus like Picón and Clarín, Galdós conceives of his creation as possessing a double existence and function. But it is significant that with Tristana this second and more active role remains to the very end an incipient one, even as she sheds yet one more set of characteristics -as an organist a lo divino- to assume the delectable and domestic mask of pastrymaker. Throughout all this, Tristana's personality appears as embryonic and unfinished, provoking the narrator at one point to exclaim: «En cuanto a Tristana, ¿sería, por ventura, aquella su última metamorfosis?» (p. 178). This succession of selves, glimpses of which we are permitted to see in Tristana, is but a fictional hall of mirrors, the mere illusion of self, as the protagonist restlessly moves from one artistic toehold of personality to another and, in the process, erases, even forgets, what came before in the very making (and unmaking) of her persona. The truth is, Galdós' allusion to an «estabilidad —19→ [que] no se comprende» is deliberately misleading, for what the novelist is implying in his character's memory losses, in the tabula rasa of her white face and, by extension, self, is that Tristana is composed of nothing more than a series of fragmentary, discontinuous instants. There is no stability in the «damita japonesa» of this Galdosian version of the «floating world» because there is no center we can properly call Tristana.
This is to say that the japanese print Galdós has created out of his protagonist is a mutable one, shifting out awareness of what constitutes fictional selfness from one artistic pole to another. When the reader's notion of a center becomes disoriented, at times even lost, when he can no longer find the reassuring lines of the novel as a progressive construct of personality, such as we traditionally see in nineteenth-century forms of realism, then a tremendous tension is set up in the house of fiction. By arranging that out first view of Tristana should be literally and figuratively a picture, the novelist establishes limitations, creates a frame around his literary object -much as we have seen in Picón and Alas- thus leading us to believe initially that what we are about to discover is an orderly and contained reading experience. But the frame, which thereby implicitly miniaturizes the main character by reducing her to a series of lines and colors belonging to a mete print (the same process occurs in Doña Berta), is, like much else in Galdós, a deceptive one38. For, as we know, Tristana's persona cannot be confined to this seemingly one-dimensional perspective. Indeed, she continually defies all attempts to demarcate in a clear synthesis the contours of her character. Thus there is a subtle but intense pull between the framing and unframing of fictional reality in Galdós' novel, suggesting that the artist is aware of the difficulties inherent in trying to contain what he senses cannot be contained: reality itself. In another context, Alas too in Doña Berta makes us aware of these same constraints of art when the painter Valencia says: «Estas cosas no caben en la pintura; además, por lo que tienen de casuales, de inverosímiles, tampoco caben en la poesía: no caben más que en el mundo... y en los corazones que saben sentirlas» (p. 162).
Unlike Clarín, however, who uses the forms of art to illuminate and heighten the dearness of life in Doña Berta (one need only recall the ending), Galdós is far more conscious of the frustrating limitations of both art and the outside world and, ultimately, of their insubstantiality (again, think of the ending). This fluctuation between the constraints of art and its very autonomy, it seems to me, is supremely modern in Galdós. It is precisely what Cézanne exalted as the central predicament in modern art; and what impressionists, post-impressionists, symbolists, and other artists of the period were also moving toward. For just as art was beginning to conceive of the object qua object in its progress toward the abstract, paradoxically, it was also to lose its sense of the transcendent as the very reason for its being. One could say in brief that in all three of these works by Picón, Alas, and Galdós, each novelist reelaborates within a modern context the Galatea-Pygmalion myth of the transformative and sublime powers of art by using woman in the dual role of art object and artist. But only in Galdós' Tristana does one sense that the resplendent capacity of art to unveil and enlarge out perception of —20→ the world has been seriously compromised by the artist's acute awareness of the equivocal and fragile reality behind the picture39.
University of Georgia