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Charles Gleyre, Lost Illusions

Amongst many of his reflective musings, the narrator of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time once meditates on the eternal majesty of the moon. Conceiving of a wane moon in an afternoon sky as an actress who, not wanting to attract notice, dresses in ordinary clothes and mingles with the audience as she watches a play from the wing, the narrator marvels at the ineffaceable beauty of nature that, even in its most obscure and lustreless state, one is hard not to notice its reigning presence, shimmering from afar. He is thus reminded of a landscape painting by Charles Gleyre, in which the figures are silhouetted against a sky illumined by a silver sickle.

A composite of realism in methods and mysticism in themes is what characterises Gleyre’s individual style. Having travelled extensively for some time the countries of eastern Mediterranean, there runs through his paintings a streak of oriental influence that conveys an ennobling quality of numinousness. Lost Illusions (1865-67) depicts a vision Gleyre had once he was reminiscing on the banks of Nile; it seems a wistful leave-taking of life: an aging artist watches as a bark sails away with his youthful illusions. The moon, that symbol of the twilight years of life, leaves the brooding artist intentionally in the gloom, casting its soft, luminous light instead on the imagined figures. This is the sort of painting that implies the opposite of what is presented: the dimming of light and, at length, the encroachment of darkness.

The treatment of light can sometimes determine the focal point of a painting. Renaissance’s introduction of chiaroscuro reverts to the medieval tradition that conceives of light as a fundamental component from which all the essentials of art derived. Colours and lines, amongst many others, cannot take forms if without the infusion of light. The strong contrast between light and dark underlines the three-dimensionality of an object; it is a means through which an artwork is invigorated to life. Victor Hugo once rightfully said that “to love beauty is to seek for light.” Such pursuit of ideal beauty in the Renaissance entails an unwavering devotion to God and His Providence. Regardless of how dreadful the conditions- natural disaster, war, pestilence or the removal of trusty guidance- that luminosity of faith, however vague, never diminishes from the hearts of the devotee. But this is not to suppose that the Renaissance regarded darkness as a wholly sinister force. In their sense of what constituted a harmonious world, all natural objects were of the same consequence, with not a single one taking precedence over the others. The equilibrium of the universe was maintained by a host of conflicting elements.

Sometimes in theatre, the premature departure of a character has on the audience an even more indelible impression than those present can contrive. The role is made a star precisely because of its absence, leaving a colossal void that not even a succession of gripping melodramas can fill. But the audience can still feel his presence hovering, lingering, and lurking like an invisible moon in the sky. Gerard de Nerval once likened a mired nation to a world plunged in smothering darkness- “Perhaps God is dead,” he said. But is God ever dead? For Proust, not even the absence of moon can eclipse its light.


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