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Out of the Picture

Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot

by Michael Fried
University of California Press, 249 pp., $11.50 (paper)

How much can we learn about the art of the past by reading about the attitudes of contemporaries to it? Though not much stressed, this is the first and among the most significant of the questions raised by Michael Fried’s book. Absorption and Theatricality is ostensibly devoted to a short period in the history of eighteenth-century French painting but it is in fact also concerned with far wider issues. We know very little about how the “general public” reacted to art exhibitions before the end of the nineteenth century, and the few comments we can overhear from a remoter past do not, in general, encourage confidence that many fresh insights are to be learned from them. Thus in 1775 a writer tells us that “adorable, heavenly, divine, prodigious, detestable, pitiful” were the most common adjectives used of the pictures on view at the Salon; two years later “frightening” (effrayante) became a fashionable word with which to praise a specially telling likeness. Anyone who attends private exhibitions today will recognize that after two centuries the vocabulary of art appreciation remains remarkably unchanged.

Art criticism can naturally yield more, and Fried is right to point out that historians have made much too little use of it except for the factual information (about the appearance of lost pictures, and so on) that it can sometimes be made to provide. On the whole modern historians have treated with neglect and contempt those contemporary critics who, by the taste of today, proved themselves to be “wrong” (about the Impressionists, for instance); while the few men of genius who have written about the art of their own times—Diderot, Goethe, Baudelaire, Ruskin—have been looked upon as too idiosyncratic to help us much in understanding the aims of the painters whom they discussed.

Fried sometimes runs the risk of ignoring this latter danger, but although, with the exception of Diderot, French art criticism of the eighteenth century is not of outstanding quality, he is surely right to insist that it deserves the very close, valuable, and informative study he gives of it for what it can tell us about the intentions (and hence also the failures and successes) of painters who are not always easy for us to appreciate or understand. And in fact whether Fried (himself a well-known critic) is right or wrong on this issue, it is absolutely essential for his thesis to rely extensively on the written word, for the pictures alone cannot give him the arguments he needs.

This is partly because it is in the nature of pictures to remain silent (or, at best, ambiguous) when interrogated by even the most persuasive of Marxists or structuralists or semiologists—or connoisseurs; and partly because—as Fried acknowledges—the qualities he is looking for in French art of the second half of the eighteenth century are to be found also in other schools and other periods. But there is a further problem, for—by making imaginative use of the literary evidence at his disposal—Fried is trying to demonstrate that the main characteristic of this art is its deliberate reticence, its reluctance to acknowledge the presence of us, the beholders.

Such is not the conventional view, though, as will be seen, I am inclined to believe that Fried (along with some of his admirers and some of his critics) rather exaggerates the novelty of his opinions. It has of course long been acknowledged that the 1750s mark a turning point in the history of French painting, but it has usually been held that Greuze, the most gifted artist to emerge during this decade, far from initiating an “absorptive” style of painting designed to exclude the spectator, as Fried claims, in fact made an embarrassingly self-conscious and artful attempt to appeal to the public. This he did by painting highly charged pictures of virtue rewarded and vice punished set in a familiar world of domesticity, a world far removed from that of the more distant Biblical, historical, or mythological stories which had hitherto provided most scope for moral indoctrination (sometimes made more palatable by suggestions of eroticism). The apparently excessive display of emotions in Greuze’s paintings has often been attributed to a desire to attract an aesthetically unsophisticated (and, by implication, middle-class) public which began visiting art exhibitions in greater numbers during the second half of the eighteenth century. But in fact Greuze’s patrons and collectors were usually of aristocratic birth, and the social significance of his work is not easy to assess.

Fried is not concerned with this, and he concentrates instead on what he sees as a deliberate attempt made not only by Greuze but by other prominent artists of the period (among them Carle Van Loo and Vien) to paint pictures in which the characters are so absorbed in their own affairs or with each other that the presence of the spectator is rendered superfluous. Occasionally one of the figures (usually a child) neglects the story being told in the picture, but this is only in order to emphasize the concentration of the others. Even states which might be thought of as deliberately opposed to each other—such as sleep and extreme attention to work—should, Fried claims, be subsumed into the more overriding category of “absorption.” In this way the painters of the 1750s and 1760s prepared the ground for an art of total autonomy which—so it is hinted—characterizes the finest work of our own time.

It is possible to criticize some of the ways Fried uses paintings and texts to establish his point, and I will return to this. But there can be no doubt that he has singled out an influential concept in the art and writing of the period which has not been noted before, and that in so doing he has made many pictures by Greuze look rather different to us. He has established a good case for making this painter out to be more interesting (and acceptable) than has often been thought.

However, the book has far greater ambitions than to invite us to reappraise an insufficiently admired painter, and in order to advance further his concept of the “supreme fiction”—i.e., the selfsufficient picture, independent of those looking at it—Fried finds himself involved in increasingly tortuous demonstrations. In just the same way, so he implies, the very success of Greuze’s pictures and the perceptions of the imaginative critics who commented on them made this painter increasingly strained as the years went by. It was this self-consciousness that made it necessary for artists to adopt other means to achieve the same object, and it is because of this that the traditional hierarchy of genres, which gave pride of place to “history painting,” was revitalized by “progressive” critics such as Diderot as well as by such bodies as the Royal Academy of Painting.

The primacy given to “history painting” should not therefore be seen as moving in the direction of pedantic conservatism or as rejecting the achievements of Greuze, but rather as a means of consolidating and moving beyond those achievements. Diderot’s discussion of the differences between the theater and theatrical painting gives Fried the clues he needs. It is the tirade addressed to the audience, the excessive desire to please that audience, that paradoxically destroys the very effects which the dramatist is trying to project. Art can only achieve its ends by forcing us into a totally subordinate role, and the book comes to a close (as did Diderot’s critical career) with a celebration of David’s picture exhibited in 1781 of Belisarius Recognized by a Soldier Who Had Served under Him at the Very Moment When a Woman Is Giving Him Alms. In this picture, claims Fried, the composition is so ingeniously devised that not only is our presence in the scene actively negated, but we have, so to speak, been replaced by the soldier at the back who lifts up his hands in appalled astonishment as he witnesses the humiliation of his old commander. This “marks the beginning in David’s art of a persistent engagement with the problematic of painting and beholder that Diderot was the first to define.” The author makes clear that he intends to pursue this engagement (which he regards as being of far greater concern to many artists than the stylistic or iconographical differences between them might suggest) into the nineteenth century and later.

How far, in fact, can Fried substantiate his case and how significant is it for the artists of this period? There are certainly pictures that he (like all art historians) fails to discuss because they do not conform to his thesis, but he also boldly tries to confront problems that he is unable (so it seems to me) to solve within the terms he has set. Thus we are shown a print of a lost picture by Greuze of 1769 depicting A Young Girl Who Blows a Kiss out of the Window While She Leans on Some Flowers Which She Crushes, and we are given Diderot’s comments on what Fried legitimately describes as the girl’s “self-abandonment, nearly to the point of extinction of consciousness, via sexual longing.”

But Fried’s own appraisal goes much further: “the denial of the beholder that her condition implies is given added point by the way in which, although facing the beholder, she appears to look through him to her lover.” Can this possibly be true of the pretty, barebreasted nymphet who seems to be looking so appealingly at us? Has not Greuze intended in fact to create a deliberate confusion between the beholder and the lover?

Or again is it really plausible to claim that Greuze’s young girls, distraught at their loss of virginity, are “intended at once to elicit and to resist” the attempts at consolation which Diderot and other critics were only too ready to offer, and “thereby to make perspicuous the depth and intensity of the…absorption in [their] grief”? Does not this response which the grief-stricken creature hopes for actually demand the presence of the beholder if it is to have any hope of success?

In another painting by Greuze, L’Aveugle trompé of 1755, we are shown

a young wife and her lover wholly engrossed in an effort to deceive her blind and aged husband. Indeed the young man apparently is so intent on not making a sound that without knowing it he has begun to spill the contents of the jug he carries in his right hand. In short the theme of blindness is made the basis for a narrative-dramatic structure which, as frequently in Greuze’s art, asserts the primacy of absorption.

This is surely quite unconvincing: we can (just) bring ourselves to accept that, in Fried’s terms, both intense visual concentration and helpless blindness can be classed as “absorptive”—but to play one state against the other in the same picture can only destroy the illusion. The beer is spilt just so that we, and only we, can see it, and shudder.

Is it not the case, in other words, that in some of Greuze’s works the absorption of the figures depicted gains (and is intended to gain) in irony or pathos or eroticism because the beholder’s voyeuristic presence is required to complete the picture? To claim this is not to deny that the artist is, as Fried maintains, highly sophisticated and “far from the Greuze of common repute.”

There are many other interpretations which can be challenged on similar grounds—I find it disingenuous (and wholly uncharacteristic of so forthright a book) that in his careful account of Vien’s La Marchande à la Toilette Fried should refer to the very unabsorptive obscene gesture of one of the cupids only in a footnote. But it is when one moves on to entire categories of painting that the difficulties become most apparent. Portraiture, he points out, was “ill equipped to comply with the demand that a painting negate or neutralize the presence of the beholder,” and he implies that this is one of the reasons why portraiture was held in low critical repute. There is, I believe, no evidence to support this view and much to challenge it.

Fried certainly makes an interesting point when showing how much the critics of the day admired certain group portraits in which the figures appear more interested in each other than in the beholder, but I find his discussion of Diderot’s attitude toward what he expected from portraits of himself quite unconvincing. Surely Diderot’s claim that such a portrait would be “a beautiful thing” had it shown him meditating rather than with “the air of an old coquette who still tries to charm” is a natural enough statement for a philosophe; and it does not imply that Diderot would have specially admired the aesthetic qualities of a portrait showing a soldier “in a state of reverie.” In fact there has probably never been a society in which portraiture was treated within so consciously sociable a convention as that of mid-eighteenth-century France.

There are other branches of painting—the still lives and trompe l’oeils of Chardin and others spring to mind—which were sometimes praised just because the spectator is apparently invited to test them by touch. But it is landscape that presents Fried with his greatest problem. He faces it with such courage and ingenuity that he commands a rather stunned respect, if not always assent; for while acknowledging that Diderot’s famous fantasies about wandering through the landscapes of Vernet would appear to conflict with everything that has been said about the exclusion of the beholder, he then proceeds to demonstrate that in fact such fantasies form a necessary complement to just this thesis. It is, Fried argues, only the “lesser genres” which attract Diderot in this way—in other words, those genres where the strategies available to the figure painter are of no use. And once inside the landscape the beholder is in fact himself put into a sort of passive trance by surrounding nature, which does to all intents and purposes deny his existence as a beholder of art.

It will be clear that while this is a very stimulating book, it is difficult to accept its argument in full. The reason seems to me that having seized on one new perception of real value—the fascination felt by a few critics and artists for rather less than a generation with what can be called “absorption”—Fried has tried to make of this a consistent doctrine which becomes the central preoccupation of French eighteenth-century art and (so we must assume) of much later art as well.

To this several objections are possible. I have already hinted that Fried’s views may not be quite as startlingly novel as appears at first sight. By this I mean that he has isolated for special attention, and hence, I believe, exaggerated and distorted the true significance of, only one feature—“absorption”—from among a great many others which have long been familiar to students of this period. Thus although he finds writers of the 1750s condemning the Nereids in the foreground of Boucher’s Rising of the Sun (in the Wallace Collection) for not showing enough interest in the arrival of Apollo, this sort of criticism constitutes in fact only a fraction of a very extensive polemic directed against the unseriousness of rococo painting.

Expression, dignity, moral uplift, truth to nature—all these burning issues were raised at the time, and although Fried of course acknowledges this, it does not seem to me that he has sufficient evidence—visual or literary—to play them down to the extent he does in order to emphasize the one critical approach that particularly interests him. In so doing he has certainly elucidated something of real significance, but he has surely also given a misleading air of “modernity” to the art of the period. It is at this stage that one is driven to consider his reliance on Diderot.

This is both inevitable—Diderot was by far the greatest writer on the art of the time—and dangerous, because it is by no means as certain as Fried claims (or is able to demonstrate) that Diderot’s more original ideas were widely shared. It is true that Diderot was in close touch with many of the artists whose work he discussed, and it is also true that in the case of so communicative a man we are probably entitled to assume that many more people could have been aware of his opinions than could actually have had access to the writings (either private or semi-public) in which they were explored. It is, however, very difficult to believe that his dazzlingly imaginative and yet frequently changing insights into the relationship between art and the public are likely to have been of much concern to the painters of mid-eighteenth-century France.

That these painters might have picked up certain hints—including, for instance, hints about “absorption” and the way that this might be intensified by having one child in the picture break the convention—seems perfectly possible, even likely. But we are asked to assume that the development of the arts—for which Diderot is relied upon to act as chief spokesman—was a far more complex and intellectually demanding procedure than this would imply. Fried is right to point out the anachronisms which have so often falsified judgments made on French history painting of the eighteenth century; here he surely runs the same risk himself and writes as if Seurat or Duchamp were under consideration.

No one who reads Fried’s book with care need find his or her critical vocabulary restricted to “adorable, heavenly, divine, prodigious, detestable, pitiful” when contemplating those pictures of Chardin, Greuze, and other artists that have been genuinely (sometimes brilliantly) if fitfully illuminated by him. Most readers will find themselves considering far more carefully than hitherto (and perhaps with confusing results) their own relationship to the art that they admire, and will keenly await the promised studies to come where this approach seems likely to be much more fruitful. But few, I think, will be altogether persuaded by this lively exploration.

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