Transcending Pickman’s Frames

“Pickman’s Model” is not a dream vision. However, it invokes the image of the dream in a way that sets it parallel to the other framing devices of interest to the story: paintings and photography.

This story is structurally a bit of a departure for Lovecraft, since it is told almost as a dramatic monologue, with the first-person narrator, Thurber, describing some experiences to a listener, Eliot. In the process, Thurber defends his decision to stop socializing with Pickman, and is very firm that it was not a moral objection to Pickman’s subject matter.

It is crucial that Pickman is a painter, because paintings are artifice, isolated from reality literally by the frame (either in the form of the edges of the canvas itself or by that and the addition of a physical picture frame) and figuratively by being an invented image. Thurber asserts himself sophisticated enough that he is adamant he does not condemn Pickman on moral grounds for subject matter, which reinforces his belief in this division of painted horrors from the real world. Paintings are fancies, they are dreams, so they do not matter in a way that requires moral condemnation. Thurber asserts part of his aesthetic theory here:

You know, in ordinary art, there’s all the difference in the world between the vital, breathing things drawn from Nature or models and the artificial truck that commercial small fry reel off in a bare studio by rule. Well, I should say that the really weird artist has a kind of vision which makes models, or summons up what amounts to actual scenes from the spectral world he lives in. Anyhow, he manages to turn out results that differ from the pretender’s mince-pie dreams in just about the same way that the life painter’s results differ from the concoctions of a correspondence-school cartoonist.

In particular, notice the words vision and dream in this passage, and the way vision implies something more true than dream, for that odd definition of ‘true’ whose more optimistic usage we inherit through Emily Dickinson and John Keats and others – artistic truth. The idea of some dreams being valid and others false dates back at least to Homer, who describes the gates of horn and ivory through which dreams descend. True dreams enter our realm through the gate of horn, and false through the gate of ivory.

For Thurber, visions are created by true artists, great visionaries, and mere craftsmen create dreams. Even in our own contemporary conversation, consider the difference in tone and meaning between ‘visionary’ and ‘dreamer’.

The thing is, as much as Thurber respects visions more than dreams, he considers that both are fictions. The figurative frame “painting” provides a buffer for Thurber between the subject of the painting and what he considers real. This should inspire anxiety in the seasoned reader of Lovecraft, since several of his other stories argue that dreams are real, that in dreaming you simply achieve an extra-dimensional perception of things that are present always and everywhere, even though you cannot see them.

Some kinds of painting are more realistic (as distinct from real) than others, as in the passage above. The realist paints from life models, photographs, etc, and attempts to depict some curated subset of reality as closely as possible, where the fantasist invents whimsical, disturbing, unrealistic images from the imagination and renders them concrete on canvas. One of the reasons that Thurber had continued socializing with Pickman even after many others had stopped, was his conviction that Pickman must be a fantasist, who conjured horrors from his fancy – that Pickman’s visions were nevertheless fictions, however visionary.

That conviction shatters:

It was not any mere artist’s interpretation that we saw; it was pandemonium itself, crystal clear in stark objectivity. That was it, by heaven! The man was not a fantaisiste or romanticist at all—he did not even try to give us the churning, prismatic ephemera of dreams, but coldly and sardonically reflected some stable, mechanistic, and well-established horror-world which he saw fully, brilliantly, squarely, and unfalteringly.

At this point, though, being a realist could just mean Pickman is that much more disturbed, that he wishes to impose the TECHNIQUES of realism on his horrific fantasies; since Thurber has already asserted he doesn’t care one way or the other about Pickman’s moral failings, the possibility that Pickman is more disturbed than he previously seemed doesn’t cause Thurber to falter for long. He can still reassure himself that Pickman is creating fictions, even if he uses real men and dogs and places as models.

Pickman’s use of photographic models hints at further degeneration in the effectiveness of frames as a way to create distance between horror and reality. But at least photographs are curated – you don’t get the WHOLE truth from a photograph. Within the frame of a photograph light and shadow can distort truth, and of course just outside the boundary of the picture might lurk some image that changes the meaning entirely. And, again, Pickman can be using the features of a man or a dog or a building and imposing them on some context other than that which they inhabit by nature. So Thurber continues along his path, still confident that Pickman is a moral degenerate genius painter, intent on upsetting the viewer of his works, but nevertheless crafting fictions, however ingenious.

The final fact that convinces Thurber to avoid not just Pickman, but also all underground places like the subway and basements, is the revelation that the photograph shows the complete image of Pickman’s painting in progress,
not just some element of it waiting to be inserted into its gothic context. Thurber is broken by the destruction of the final frame, the final belief that divides horror from truth.

Thurber had persisted in his friendship because he was convinced that Pickman’s images were dream visions. His departure from the friendship occurs when he learns the truth that Pickman’s horrors are real. When all the frames break, so does Thurber.

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