23 January 2010

not a mechanical print

The first thing that caught my attention was a portrait of mama that hung over the desk, in a magnificent carved frame of costly wood—a photograph, taken abroad, of course, and, judging by its extraordinary size, a very costly thing. I hadn't known and had never heard of this portrait before, and the main thing that struck me was the extraordinary likeness in the photograph, a spiritual likeness, so to speak—in short, as if it was a real portrait by an artist's hand, and not a mechanical print. As soon as I came in, I stopped involuntarily before it.
  "Isn't it? Isn't it?" Versilov suddenly repeated over me.
  That is, "Isn't it just like her?" I turned to look at him and was struck by the expression of his face. He was somewhat pale, but with an ardent, intense gaze, as if radiant with happiness and strength. I had never known him to have such an expression.
  "I didn't know you loved mama so much!" I suddenly blurted out, in rapture myself.
  He smiled blissfully, though there was a reflection as if of some suffering in his smile, or, better, of something humane, lofty... I don't know how to say it; but highly developed people, it seems to me, cannot have triumphant and victoriously happy faces. Without answering me, he took the portrait from the rings with both hands, brought it close, kissed it, then quietly hung it back on the wall.
  "Notice," he said, "it's extremely rare that photographic copies bear any resemblance, and that's understandable: it's extremely rare that the original itself, that is, each of us, happens to resemble itself. Only in rare moments does a human face express its main feature, its most characteristic thought. An artist studies a face and divines its main thought, though at the moment of painting it might be absent from the face. A photograph finds the man as he is, and it's quite possible that Napoleon, at some moment, would come out stupid, and Bismarck tenderhearted ... "

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Adolescent (2003: 460-61)