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Painting of Modern Life’

In response to:

The Impressionists on Trial from the May 30, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

I find myself lacking the heart for a doughty exchange of blows with your reviewer over the rights and wrongs of Situationist theory, art-historical explanation, me and the Puritan ethic, or class struggle in the nineteenth century. And no doubt these topics would be of limited interest to readers of the NYRB. In any case the real issue underlying Françoise Cachin’s review of my Painting of Modern Life [NYR, May 30] is more modest, and a bit closer to home: it is whether a certain present-day bourgeoisie shall continue not only to have the painting of Manet and the Impressionists—for assuredly they have it, and will do so for some time to come—but have it by right, because they understand it best, because their writers have described it adequately, because its values correspond to their own. A great deal of modern art history is concerned to offer reassurance on these questions. Cultural apparatchiks like Ms. Cachin work particularly hard at the job; they have a State machine set up for the purpose, which never stops vomiting retrospectives. The animus informing Ms. Cachin’s review of my book was provoked in great measure, I believe, by my wish not to do this kind of professional duty, and my lack of enthusiasm for most of its products.

Reviewing is a difficult game, I realize. Your readers may want to make up their own minds as to Ms. Cachin’s competence in the basic moves by considering the following comparisons. I have chosen them for simplicity’s sake, and restricted myself to matters largely of fact, matters of accuracy in reading. If we strayed over into the Never Never Land of Ms. Cachin’s interpretations—her wonderful account of my book’s overall argument and tone—we should soon all die laughing.

  1. Your reviewer: “Why did Manet’s Olympia cause a scandal at the 1865 Salon? […] T.J. Clark has his own answer: Olympia caused an uproar because she was a proletarian nude and because her hand over her sex was really pointing out the absence of a phallus.” My text: “The hand is Olympia’s whole body, disobeying the rules of the nude. We might even say that it stands too strongly for that disobedience, for, after all, the body on the bed is not simply scandalous; the hand is a detail, and the critics were wrong to focus upon it, as they sometimes did, as if there were nothing else there to be seen” (p. 136).

  2. Your reviewer: “By failing to take form and style into account, Clark makes an obvious blunder: the contemporary criticism of Olympia was aimed, in part, at Manet’s ‘realism,’ his departure from the traditional chiaroscuro and modelé techniques. Clark forgets that one of Manet’s principal innovations was stylistic: he was using dark outlines to describe shapes, and the contrast between dark and light in the painting would have seemed crude to the conventionally trained eye of the time.” My text: “One aspect of that drawing [in Olympia] is emphatically linear: it is the side seized on by some writers in 1865 and described in such phrases as ‘circled in black,’ ‘drawn in charcoal,’ and ‘stripes of blacking.’ These were ways of objecting to Manet’s disregard of good modelling and the abruptness of his lights and darks. But this use of shadow—these lines of darkness put round heel or breast or hand—is also part of Manet’s drawing, in the limited sense I want that word to have here” (p. 134).

  3. Your reviewer: “Had Clark been more accurate, in fact [it is a question of my having located Le Ballon in the Tuileries instead of the Invalides; for which I apologize most humbly], he would have risked revealing that under Napoleon III there were places and circumstances in which ‘class struggle’ was of no importance whatever and where ladies in crinolines, workers, and Paris gamins [the figure I am pointing to is actually a legless beggar on a trolley, in Manet’s lithograph; but let it pass] could meet peaceably as part of the same urban pageant, and perhaps even take some pleasure of a peculiarly modern sort in doing so.” My text: “The typical scene—this the new painting certainly suggested—was likely to be one in which the classes coexisted but did not touch; where each was absorbed in a kind of dream, cryptic, turned in on itself or out to some spectacle, giving off equivocal signals: the worker looking out of the street without sides in Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe, and the bourgeois engaged in mysterious transaction with a woman—his wife, his mistress, a passer-by, a prostitute, who knows? Class exists, but Haussmann’s spaces allow it to be overlooked.” (p. 73. In this passage, by the way, I am supposed to be getting quite hot under the collar, in my Puritanical fashion, about the man and woman’s morals. I must say I admire Ms. Cachin’s sensitivity to the least sign of textual righteousness. There is my high moral tone; and then there is hers. A reader must have a mind quite given over to sweetness and light, I should have thought, to believe there is no double entendre intended in the phrase marchande de consolation applied to Manet’s barmaid—let alone in the four or five other such winks and nudges I cite, without relish. Which one of us here is the Puritan? It is a nice question.)

  4. Your reviewer: “Manet, he concludes, class-conscious at last, is using a formal joke to express the objective connection between the world of labor (the factory) and that of leisure (the boat and hat). Thus factory workers and white-collar canotiers would be, at least symbolically, reunited by the artist’s intuition!” My text: “The presence of industry at Argenteuil is different from this. It lays claim to the landscape in rather the same way as the two people in the foreground—a bit erratically, a bit naïvely, acre by acre, without much of a flourish. And this seems to me the ultimate point of the picture’s formal language. It fits its figures and landscapes together, it makes out relations between them—between shoulders and water, chimney and halyard, straw hat and white wall—but the edges and links are mostly implausible, and surely meant to be so. The forms are like cut-outs against the bright blue ground; the outlines of everything are too sharp and simple. This has to do, I think, with many things: with the look of objects close up in sunlight, with the fact that a picture is actually flat, and with the received wisdom in 1875 about such places as Argenteuil. It is not that Manet reproduced that wisdom in any simple form” (p. 172).

  5. Your reviewer: “Much as they yearned for all these pleasures, Clark argues, the members of the new class could only partake of the images and ‘signs’ of them. The result in his view was that they became isolated, bitter, disappointed. This idea comes directly from the critic Guy Debord, who summed it up in a cryptic formula: ‘The spectacle is capital accumulated until it becomes an image.”’ My text….

But finally the mind boggles at this farrago of nonsense, which bears not the slightest relation to my argument or Guy Debord’s. Debord, it is true, has been visited with more than his fair share of fatuous interpretation. This one takes the biscuit.

I could go on. There is plenty more in the same vein. Is what we are dealing with in such cases, I wonder, malice or dullness or mere difficulty with the English language? Perhaps the latter; I don’t presume to know. (In the case of Debord, Ms. Cachin might anyway have tried reading him in her native tongue—il écrit un assez bon français, quand même—rather than dispensing picturesque summaries picked up on the Paris cocktail circuit.) At all events, it should be clear by now why I am inclined to yawn at your reviewer’s condescension. Loftiness has to be earned, Ms. Cachin; one does not earn it like this.

T.J. Clark

Paris, France

Françoise Cachin replies:

I will not play Mr. Clark’s game by answering his various offensive remarks. I could easily do so, but I leave to him the responsibility for his tone and acidity, typical of a campus mandarin who resents criticism or discussion. But I am curious about his strictures, against the state system “vomiting retrospectives.” What else exactly does Mr. Clark want? That Impressionist paintings should remain on Park Avenue, where their place as part of the “decor” is, as he puts it, “well deserved,” and be seen only by privileged art historians like himself? That Manet should only be seen in private galleries, as a function of the art market? That we should not allow large numbers of people to enjoy our state-vomited exhibitions? This is indeed a raffiné form of populism.

I will stick to a few specific points.

  1. Of Olympia, Mr. Clark wrote: “Her hand enraged and exalted the critics as nothing else did, because it failed to enact the lack of the phallus (which is not to say it quite signified the opposite). When the critics said it was shameless, flexed, in a state of contraction, dirty, and shaped like a toad, they toyed with various meanings, none of them obscure. The genitals are in the hand” (p. 135). He also compared Olympia to Titian’s Venus whose hand is “enacting the lack of the phallus.” “In that sense…,” he wrote, “Olympia was certainly scandalous.” And “Freud’s account of origins is not necessarily to be taken as the whole truth, but it states quite well the ordinary form of male inattention in art” (p. 135). He went on to explain how “pubic hair…may hide the lack of the phallus but is somehow too close to being that lack, which is why it cannot be shown” (p. 136); and describing Bertall’s cartoon of Olympia, he writes that Bertall “could offer the reader…his own solution to the absent phallus: he put the black cat…in place of the hand which covered the genitals” (p. 144), etc. etc. So much for the absent phallus, perhaps the last resuscitation of that Freudian ghost in neo-Marxist art theory.

  2. I never wrote that Clark did not take any account of Manet’s technique. I said that the technique was at least as scandalous as Olympia’s nude image for the critics of his day. Mr. Clark cites the sexual scandal and not the formal one; when critics alluded to dirt, black shades, etc., they referred to the way Olympia was painted.

  3. My mind irony about Mr. Clark’s interpretation of Caillebotte’s couple did not of course concern the author’s personal judgment of their sexual relationship, as he claims to understand it. It was directed against his overinterpretation of Caillebotte’s imagery. What I say elsewhere, and firmly maintain, is that puritanism, in the large sense, is the key to Mr. Clark’s ideology—as reflected, for example, in his curious idea that French art historians live in a continous “fêete impériale” with champagne and cocktails, so unlike the life at Harvard University!

As for the Marchande de consolation, it was not a “double entendre” at the time. It clearly referred to alcohol, and alcohol only. May I offer Mr. Clark some new quotations for his files? “Les Débits de consolations. A Paris, on a donné ce nom aux marchands d’eau de vie et de liqueurs qui vendent en détail, sur le comptoir, et débitent mêeme pour un sou de leur marchandise aux ouvriers, artisans, gens du peuple, coureurs de nuit, bambocheurs, ivrognes, ou tous autres individus q’ui souvent, sans avoir le plus léger chagrin, éprouvent le besoin d’entrer au débit de consolations” (Paul de Kock, La grande ville, 1844, p. 257). He should also check the Journal des Goncourt, October 26, 1856.

  1. Mr. Clark is right: he does not say exactly what I wrote. But I was not quoting him, only giving the sense of his text.

  2. Frankly, I don’t understand the meaning of Mr. Clark’s reference to “my text….” It is not his. In fact, Guy Debord writes “Le Spectacle est le Capital à un tel degré d’accumlation qu’il devient image” (La Société du Spectacle, 1971, p. 20). Given Debord’s glittery style, the phrase remains cryptic, rhetorical, and empty. Even as translated by Mr. Clark.

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