Translating Jean Frémon’s «Le miroir magique»

Translating Jean Frémon’s Le miroir magique

by John Taylor – followed by Jean Frémon’s “Martin Luther in All His Ages and Moods”

Of course, Frémon’s book is not about translating, even if the art of portraiture assuredly implies a kind of “translation.”

I have recently translated Jean Frémon’s collection of narratives on portraiture, Le miroir magique (Éditions P.O.L., 2020), for an abridged selection, from that book, which will soon be published in the United Kingdom by Les Fugitives under the title Portrait Tales. The book offers a compelling series of behind-the-scenes stories about both well-known and little-known masterly portraits from world art history and, therefore, about the famous or unduly forgotten or neglected artists who painted them. As to the latter, I was delighted to learn about Joachim Bouvet, Carel Fabritius, Sofonisba Anguissola, as artists who deserve a higher place in the history of the art. Moreover, Frémon provides enlightening and sometimes amusing insider’s anecdotes about portraits made by Lucian Freud, Louise Bourgeois, Cy Twombly, and other acquaintances of his, notably David Hockney. 

The narratives develop thought-provoking insights into the artworks and sometimes evoke technical details perhaps overlooked even by connoisseurs. The writer, who is also the president of the Galerie Lelong in Paris and New York, enables us to look both behind and, not least, into the “magic mirrors,” as he phrases it, with which artists paint their own self-portraits. Some of the texts are engagingly fictionalized, all the while remaining rigorously based on the author’s deep knowledge of drawing and painting across the centuries and civilizations.

In that I have long been drawn to landscape painting more naturally than to portraiture, this translation project has opened a personal door much more widely. Now as I stroll through museums, I look at portraits more attentively and with renewed marvel. Something similar can happen when one translates, especially to a writer who is also a translator. As the English-language translator renders the foreign text, not only do new English words enter his or her own habitual vocabulary, but he or she must also sometimes assimilate an unusual syntax (and thus hitherto unexperienced sequences of thinking and perceiving), as well as examine perhaps never-adopted literary forms which might end up being employed, in the near or far future, in the writer-translator’s own literary projects.  

Indeed, the experience of translating Frémon’s narratives, and this new interest in portraiture that they have fostered in me, have enabled me to reflect once again on how translating Italian, modern Greek, and especially French-language poets and writers has sometimes affected my own writing, often years after the translation has been completed. The presence of the sensibilities of a select few of these authors, not to mention the lasting pertinence of their ideas, stylistic techniques and formal approaches, remain with me, sometimes deeply within me.

Of course, Frémon’s book is not about translating, even if the art of portraiture assuredly implies a kind of “translation.” In a passage about the sculptor Jaume Plensa, Frémon defines “every artist’s concern” as “incarnating in wood, marble, bronze, pastel or watercolour. Incarnating and even letting it breathe. The translation of presence.”

Among countless other passages that gave me pause and brought me back to the art of translation per se, let me cite in extenso one in which Frémon, by focusing on a Greek inscription on a tablet depicted in Dürer’s engraved portrait of Erasmus, sketches the fascinating story of how the Reformation, with its emphasis on the written word, indeed on the Word, liberated the image from art, whereby art became “about art.” Frémon writes:

What does this tablet tell us? There are two inscriptions, one in Latin, the other in Greek. Imago Erasmi Roterodami ab Alberto Durero ad vivam effigiem deliniata. (Which is not exact, as one knows, since Erasmus did not pose: the portrait has been made from memory.) But what matters here are the two lines of Greek engraved beneath the Latin, as if a truth of a superior order; they mean: The best image of him will be shown by his writings. Dürer is not being excessively modest here. He knew who he was, as his self-portraits show. But during the period of Luther and Gutenberg, the Word, writing—and for the same reason, critical distance (the Reformation is not anything else but this)—had taken power for good. The Word and writing, says Luther, enable one to triumph against the Gates of Hell. Paradoxically, the victory of the Word is also the greatest victory of the image to which the mission of presenting arguments is no longer allotted; it suffices that the image exists. With the Word now triumphant, the image is at last liberated. It is no longer, as for Gregory of Nyssa, the book of the illiterate. And the artist is no longer in the service of a bishop or of faith. All the efforts of the Counter-Reformation to enroll makers of images go in vain. When faith becomes stupid or hypocritical, when intelligence and honesty have chosen another path, then it is no longer in the power of an image to reverse the course of things. Counter-Reformation imagery is to Sienese painting what the Church of Saint-Sulpice is to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Painting at last speaks to us of painting.

Taking off from this epistemological shift, the author uses various examples to trace the multivarious evolution of portraiture through modernism to the present day. Obviously, all sorts of individualistic and sometimes idiosyncratic experiments are involved. The chapters on Alberto Giacometti and Bram Van Velde are particularly striking. While I was translating, I couldn’t help but return constantly to the age-old issue of the role and place of the translator’s individuality, let alone subjectivity, in translation. Some “free” translations even border, one might say, on “self-portraiture”. . . 

As it turns out, one of Frémon’s texts, which is not included in Portrait Tales, makes an ironic nod towards translation. He recounts the intriguing story of the several portraits that Lucas Cranach made of his close friend Martin Luther, the German translator of the Bible. This remarkable group of artworks includes his double portraits of the Protestant theologian and his wife Katharina Bora. Cranach himself had adhered to the Reformation from the onset, when Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. Yet at one point during the subsequent years, Cranach painted the portrait of Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, who was one of the staunchest enemies of the Reformation. Interestingly enough, the Cardinal is depicted in a way that imitates Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving representing Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin and who is considered the patron saint of translators. . .

Martin Luther in All His Ages and Moods
by Jean Frémon

The first portrait of Martin Luther made by Lucas Cranach is an engraving. It is 1520, Luther is thirty-seven years old; already three years had gone by since he had nailed on the door of the church in Wittenberg the ninety-five theses that sealed the divorce with Rome. His eyes are small and sunken; the gaze is ardent; his mouth is narrow but the lips are fleshy. The shadows, which the burin renders by means of curved, parallel hachures, make the cheekbones and the arch of eyebrows jut out. The chin is prominent, the ear is mostly opened out in its upper part, a vast pinna surmounting a small but fleshy lobe. His hair has been closely cropped, except for a crown of curls that seems blond. One senses high intelligence but also a ferocious harshness, more fanatism than benevolence. Remove the tonsure and the portrait would seem that of a criminal instead of a monk.

In Cranach’s next attempt at an engraving, the same year, the result is very different. It is the same person in the same three-quarter pose, but the facial features are considerably softened: the eyes are bigger, the mouth is larger; he has an ingenuous look. Luther is represented half-length, still in his monk’s robe. The background is a church nook such as those in which statues of saints were placed before the Reformation declared images to be impious. The rotundity of this nook, skilfully rendered by curving hachures, seems to form a halo above the monk’s head. In his right hand, he holds an open book, whereas his other hand is in front of his chest, as if he were going to speak and say what is on his heart. His gaze is internalized as if obeying the orders of a superior power. The path to sainthood is open.

The same pose is used as a model by Hans Baldung Grien to engrave a portrait of Luther surmounted by the dove of the Holy Spirit. The rays of glory which emanate from the bird surround the head of the monk, who henceforth seems invested with a divine mission. The legend is on the move. Now (1521), it is a side view that Cranach engraves: Luther wearing the doctoral cap. From the engraved profile to the medal, only one step is needed. Aimed upwards, the gaze is pure: his faith seems unshakeable, his determination total.

But a rebel’s life is not simple. Enjoined by the Pope to retract, Luther, who refuses to comply, is excommunicated. Then the Emperor summons him to appear before the Diet of Worms. He is banished from the Empire and needs to hide. Frederick III the Wise, Elector of Saxony, takes him in at the Wartburg Castle. This is where Luther begins to translate the Bible. He lives clandestinely, using the name Junker Jörg (a ‘junker’ is a small noble landowner, a country squire). He lets his hair grow, wears a long moustache and a big curly beard whose two points draw apart on each side of the chin. He lives in hiding, but his friend Cranach is in the know. He engraves and paints several portraits titled Luther as Junker Jörg.

In 1525, Luther marries Katharina von Bora, a Benedictine nun who has fled from the Abbey of Nimbschen, where she had been cloistered. She takes refuge in Wittenberg, where she is taken in by Cranach’s wife. It is at Cranach’s home that Luther meets her. Cranach makes a double portrait of the young wedded couple. Luther declares that he would like to send it to Mantua, where the Council is held, and ask the holy fathers if they would prefer the state of marriage to ecclesiastical celibacy. I don’t know if he did this, but, as the irony of the story would have it, the painting is now in the Uffizi Gallery in the collection of the Medici, that family of popes. 

The best-known portrait, because it was copied several times by the artist himself even before it was mass-produced by the workshop directed by Cranach the Younger, is the one called The Reformer. Martin Luther is fifty years old. The man has taken on some roundness; this time, his mouth and eyes are very big, whereas the reliefs of his cheekbones and eyebrows have been stumped. Luther is wearing a black robe and the kind of cap called a Schaube. The portrait is a half-length one. In the right corner of the painting, the two plump hands are resting, relaxed; the battle is over; a great part of Germany, Denmark and Sweden have opted for the Reform. A black garment against a light-coloured background, an absence of ornament, a model of austerity. Cranach has the monopoly of this portrait, which has become almost official; he reproduces it as the orders come in: several hundred copies. The demand increases for this new icon representing the man who claimed to fight them.

Luther and Cranach were close. The monk was the godfather of Anna, one of the painter’s daughters. Cranach became the godfather of Luther’s first son. They were neighbours in Wittenberg. Frederick III protected both of them. Luther’s translation of the Old Testament appeared, illustrated by Cranach’s engravings. When Luther marries, Cranach paints the double portrait of the couple several times; he even painted the portrait of Luther’s parents. This does not prevent him, however, from delivering paintings to the Reformer’s most ferocious opponents. He even goes so far as to paint the portrait of Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, the great defender of the system of indulgences that Luther combats. And he paints him by imitating Dürer’s famous engraving representing Saint Jerome in his study, with his cardinal’s hat hanging on the back wall and with a lion in the foreground. . . Painting in the pose of the translator of the Bible into Latin the despiser of the man who translated it into German is no insignificant matter. It does not seem that this affected the two men’s relationship; the double portrait of Martin and Katharina is posterior. What aggrandizes your adversaries aggrandizes you as much if you surpass them: the true new Saint Jerome is perhaps not the cardinal but the monk.

The last portrait of Luther was made by Cranach the Younger, the son who took over his father’s workshop. It is a drawing, from 1546, which shows Luther on his deathbed. As opposed to the customary codes of the genre, this portrait is vertical. Luther has become rather stout. His eyes are half-closed, his facial features relaxed. The drawing is titled: The Reformer’s Clear Conscience.

Translated from the French by John Taylor  

John Taylor is an American writer and translator who lives in France. His most recent books are Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press) and a “double volume” co-authored with Pierre Chappuis, A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges (The Fortnightly Review Press). [Photo: Françoise Daviet-Taylor]

Jean Frémon, born in 1946, is a French novelist, poet, art critic, and the president of the Galerie Lelong. Many of his books are noted for the engaging ways in which they blend history, art criticism, ekphrasis, and fictional narrative.

Books by Jean Frémon that have appeared in English translation:

Painting, Black Square Editions, 1999, trans. Brian Evenson
Island of the Dead, Green Integer Books, 2003, trans. Cole Swensen
Distant Noise, Avec Books, 2003, trans. N. Cole, L. Davis, S. Gavronsky, C. Swensen
The Paradoxes of Robert Ryman, Black Square Editions, 2008, trans. Brian Evenson
The Real Life of Shadows, Post Apollo Press, 2009, trans. Cole Swensen
The Botanical Garden, Green Integer Books, 2012, trans. Brian Evenson
The Posthumous Life of RW, Omnidawn, 2014, trans. Cole Swensen
Proustiennes, La Presse, 2016, trans. Brian Evenson
Now Now, Louison, Les Fugitives, 2018; New Directions, 2019 trans. Cole Swensen
Nativity, Les Fugitives, 2020; Black Square Editions, 2020, trans. Cole Swensen
Portrait Tales, Les Fugitives, 2022, trans. John Taylor

Essay & Translation originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, November 29, 2022

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