‘A Real Allegory’: The Virtual Fun of Fictional Art

‘The Artist’s Studio’ by Gustave Courbet, CC/Wikipedia

Editor's Note:

Lucy Ives is the author of several books of poetry and short prose, including The Hermit and the novella nineties. Her writing has appeared in ArtforumLapham’s Quarterly, and at newyorker.com. Her most recent novel is Impossible Views of the World. Here, Lucy shares the ways in which art can be used in fiction writing to blur the lines of reality.

French painter Gustave Courbet gave an unusual subtitle to his 1854–55 depiction of his workspace, “The Artist’s Studio.” He called it, in addition, “a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life.” This was a painting of “the whole world,” showing, on the right side, actual people Courbet knew and who participated in his artistic practice and personal life and, on the left, figures symbolizing the qualities of the world in which he lived, “the exploited and the exploiters,” as he put it.

When I think about setting and fiction, I often think of this painting, and I think, in particular, of the wordy subtitle Courbet selected. If allegory is a mode of image-making or writing that can be interpreted as encoding a hidden message, a meaning other than the most obvious or literal one, what does it mean to create a “real allegory?” Since the express purpose of an allegory is to represent something other than what it straightforwardly depicts. It’s not entirely clear to me, for example, how an allegory can be “real” or even realistic. Courbet seems to indicate that his painting shows exactly what it depicts, while also depicting something else. I’ve long been fascinated with this tricky notion. It’s something I’ve tried to emulate in my fiction, as a way of using setting to at once talk about the work of writing fiction, while also writing fiction, at the same time.

The more a work of art contains notes about how it was made, as well as notes about the tradition from which it emerges, the more it will tend to show something other than literal scenes and meaning; in these cases, the work of art also shows its own history and social context. In the painting of his studio, Courbet depicts real people, who might have appeared as stock figures in his other paintings. He depicts them as real individuals who lounge around the space in which he works, near what are ostensibly real artworks in progress. Yet these people are, simultaneously, fictional types who exist mainly to represent the political economy and painting styles of Courbet’s time. Their dual nature calls into question the status and value of the paintings in the studio, if not the status and value of the artist himself. It’s a curious move!

Similarly, a novelist can depict her subject as something it is also possible to depict. If this sounds a bit convoluted, think of Vladimir Nabokov’s celebrated 1962 novel, Pale Fire, a work of fiction that masquerades as a poem by fictional poet John Shade, along with a scholarly apparatus by Shade’s (also fictional) neighbor and would-be literary interpreter, Charles Kinbote. In the appended essay, Kinbote ends up telling an outlandish personal history instead of providing scholarly info. This is one reason that this book is a novel, as opposed to something else.

Pale Fire’s form is also its setting. Though Pale Fire is in fact a campus novel about a pedantic and probably failed academic, Kinbote, it appears under the guise of a helpful scholarly edition that will aid us in our reading of Shade’s difficult poem. Or, perhaps it’s the other way around: Pale Fire’s literal form (i.e., book explaining poem) turns out to be less significant than its figurative design, an autobiography by the extraordinarily desperate Kinbote, which Kinbote apparently can’t help writing in place of an essay on Shade. Indeed, it becomes difficult to say with any certainty which of these two meanings is the more important. For putting a fictional poem inside a real novel is a destabilizing move; it undoes any cut-and-dried distinction between the categories of real and fictional. It even calls into the question the reality—the status and value—of the novel, if not the novelist him or herself. This is why, in fiction, a setting that contains (fictional) works of art makes all the difference.

Putting a fictional painting inside an (actual) novel is fun. Never mind that it’s hard to go to see the fictional paintings at the (actual) Museum of Modern Art or Metropolitan Museum (don’t try it, they are not there!), or that said fictional artworks are a challenge to describe because they don’t actually exist. Creating a fictional setting that contains fictional works of art gives the novelist access to a delicious virtual realm. Neither entirely fictitious, since so concerned with mimicking real art, nor entirely realistic, for obvious reasons, such fictional artworks exist, elastically, between worlds. They are impossible entities that signify symbolically within the world in which they exist as real artworks, as well as within ours, as fake artworks that purport to be real. I think this is what Courbet meant with his “real allegory.” The people in his paintings are real there, if not in life. There may also have been some attending question as to whether anything outside of a work of art is real, anyway. I certainly feel open to that possibility. This is why I set my first full-length novel inside a fictional museum, where I could be sure of finding plenty of fictional, and/or real, art.