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Portrait of the Artist

If there are novels that write-in their own readers, there can be works of pictorial art that represent, at an appropriate remove from their fields and streams and dozing cattle, elements not directly present in the paintings. These are not simply the lines our thoughts propose to complete the draftsman’s broken ones, or the hidden bodies we infer still resting on chairs beneath the banquet table, the interiors that swell behind their shuttered windows, or those figures cleverly reflected in burnished brass, in pools and mirrors, hanging about out of sight like clothes in a closet; but, in addition, there can be designed yet undrawn spectators who stand between us and the canvas, if only as eyes, and whose gaze becomes a part of what we see and see through—scopes, as it were, for the scope and “inscape” of these imaged things.

I say, “if only as eyes,” because it is for what they will see that they are to be imagined there; however, Wollheim will not allow them to be “eyes only” in the mechanical sense often ascribed to the camera. The painter must assign to his invisible spectator “a repertoire that will grant him an inner life,” for this will enable you and me to put ourselves in his place as fully fledged perceivers. And he is a perceiver, I suspect, capable of having painterly intentions.

So now we understand that, for Wollheim, the artist has first of all imagined a mind, and secondly imagined a tableau to place before it, in order to paint a canvas—which eventually we shall witness—as if seen through the soul of his own fiction, thereby requiring us to return on a path made of multiple points of view toward our goal of grasping the artist’s increasingly complex intention. It is a brilliant idea. My question is: Just how many painters have been smart enough to employ it?

Wollheim’s principal examples of this kind of intention come from the hand of Edouard Manet, and while I haven’t here the space to brush in the details of his argument, a great deal of it depends on how in Manet’s paintings we read the focus and feeling of the eyes, as in a subsequent lecture concerning Ingres and Picasso the stare, the gaze, will be similarly essential—a consequence natural enough since, for a painter, the eyes are nearly everything, as ears would be for a musician, and, for the writer, a mind that can choreograph its concepts. Given any image with an eye, even a fish on a plate, a cat in a corner, the painter must decide where that eye ought to be looking, since it is our customary key to the direction of its owner’s attention, as well as a major contributor to the expression of the face.

Shall the glance be directed inside the frame of the painting? outside it yet in its virtual space? to nothing in particular but the great beyond? or brazenly, confidingly, seductively, at whoever happens to pass the easel? and shall the look be empty in order to harmonize with a blankness favored for all the features? or shall it be readable as a comic strip, whether of weariness, intensity, invitation, or isolation? One important formal reason for choosing an absence of expression is that it inhibits the anecdotalist who lurks after-hours in the museyroom, like Resentment with a vial of acid, to hurl his fancies at the helpless canvas. Figures often sit like the figures of early photos: in ceremonial soberness, their faces simply at rest in the shape of their faces, signifying nothing momentary, but a face all their faces return to after departing for a smile, a frown, a hiss, or a howl. These faces are faces for all time…such as their owners had.

When the stories start spinning, there are bound to be disagreements, and I have mine with Wollheim, as he has with others. On a double page of Ingres reproductions, one can observe that M. Granet is smiling, M. Lemoyne looks a bit anxious, and young Ingres himself seems quietly determined, well contained; nevertheless, these observations carry us a very little way, nor does the magisterial calm of Ingres’s classical subjects, for which calm is a simple “of course.” As for that painter’s great portrait of Louis-François Bertin, a work which is, in a sense, all face: it is a face which desolates description, which is neither this nor that, but which, magnificently and completely, simply is.

The dialogue between those who would and those who would not use expressive features—between, indeed, those who may accept or deny any sort of contortion in defiance of classical calm—has been long and contentious. It is by listening to that dialogue that we learn the significance and function of these different strategies (since there are crucifixions in which Christ hangs as quietly on the cross as an undisturbed drape, and others in which an agonized fist is clenched about nothing more painful than the stem of an evening pipe). However, Wollheim’s narrow focus on the canvas’s alleged psychological transactions suggests that what we need to possess is the fundamentals of a gestural psychology, when, it seems to me (as it has seemed to others) that we learn about painting from paintings (as the painters did), about music from music, and poetry from other poetry, and only bad habits from verse.

In the Degas painting, Au Café, which Wollheim singles out, we see a man and a woman seated at a banquette, he with his arms on the table, she with her hands properly in her lap, each with sloping shoulders, he with a backward tilting hat, she with a bonnet lilting forward, a weary meditative absence in their eyes. However, we need not rest our case, as the man does his arms, on the fact of the couple’s common slump, in order to read there the presence of “a deep, persistent inhibition of feeling,” because the planes of the tables also help us to that conclusion. They squeeze the figures into the right rear corner of the canvas; the shadows of the pair on the wall behind them could be said to be the pallid shadows of the souls, while the indifference of the surroundings, the isolation of every object, the recession of the table tops like disappearing floes of ice, make a heavy contribution (as Wollheim would no doubt insist himself). So that often, when we judge of some features the presence of this expression or that, it is because the configuration of the canvas has led us to it, and not simply some small turn of the mouth which otherwise might mean…who knows?

Then if we turn to another of Degas’s paintings, the double portrait of his sister and brother-in-law, which reveals, despite a difference in social milieu, a similar psychological content, we can say, “yes, but not quite,” because the formalities of this second painting suggest that the pair’s isolation from each other is willed, and not the result of weariness or a general dismay.

Whatever aspect of painting Wollheim examines, whether it is representation, expression, textual borrowing, or historical significance, reveals his single-minded pursuit of the mind, and he reiterates his reasons:

In these lectures I have been upholding a real distinction, or a distinction in the nature of things, between what a painting means and what falls outside its meaning, between what is, and what is not, part of its content…. The meaning of a painting derives from how it is made, or the creative process.

This process appears to have a vocabulary, but not a grammar.

When Wollheim discusses borrowings, for instance, his obsession serves him well, since his entire text is free of both fads and historical pieties. Any motif that a painter may appropriate, any idea he may employ, any iconic device, symbol or theme, belongs to the painting as a proper part of its content only if it has really passed through the deep regions of the painter’s psyche, so that it signifies something, finally, to him; and in that sense it matters not at all what this “text” has meant to others, or how it has been passed from brush to brush, or whether the artist has got “it” right. Poussin is a classic borrower and Wollheim’s treatment of the conflict in this painter, expressed as “reason mobilizing desire against desire,” is a masterful blend of his method and his background in both philosophy and psychology.

In addition to the primary meanings of a painting (which I enumerated above), there are secondary ones. The scuffling man, we might determine, was trying to rub out the children’s hopscotch court; and we would understand this by connecting the practicalities of rubbing-out with his intentions. In addition, the act itself might mean something to him (such as an assertion, at last, of his masculinity, or a testimony to his honesty in the forthright expression of his malice) which could be quite different from the act’s immediate objective. If we shared Melanie Klein’s view that a work of art attempts formally to repair a loved person or object which has, in fantasy and out of disappointment, been materially destroyed (thus completing, over and over again, a cycle of love, hate, and reparation), then these elements would also be what Wollheim calls secondary meanings. He devotes some of his most brilliant pages to an account of what he takes to be a conflict between primary and secondary levels of significance in the work of Ingres, extending a text which, moment by moment, grows richer in implication.

Wollheim’s final lecture—on Titian, Bellini, De Kooning, and Thomas Jones—contains some of his finest pages. A painting can be made to stand in a metaphorical relation to something else, and this something else is always an object, most importantly, a body or one of its parts. In Titian, the representation of bodies in the field of the painting can be so sensuously corporeal that when rocks, grass, trees, and bushes receive a similar treatment, the entire canvas becomes a nude. In like fashion will a writer confer upon every line of his text the physicality of the sounds the speaking mouth makes, as if they were being chewed or sucked or kissed. In other cases which Wollheim considers, the paint’s surface becomes skin, and so on.

Wollheim’s assimilation of aesthetics to psychology leaves the aesthetics of painting helplessly dependent on the fate of this other field. I wonder at the end how a painting can be made out of psychological gestures alone, and whether, to interpret a painting, one must first have in one’s head a theory of the psyche and the characteristic manner of its manifestations (as I assume a view that art was an expression of society would also require), and whether this standpoint had better be a sound one (Freud rather than Watson or Adler or Jung in Wollheim’s case). Nor is it clear why we should prefer one work to another, for would it be enough that the painting fulfilled an intention if the intention were trivial? Again, why should we care what the content of a painting was, if we were concerned with the formal properties that made it beautiful, rather than the psychological factors that rendered it merely interesting? Aesthetic attention may not be mediated by concepts, as Kant argued, and it might be necessary to ignore or look past a painting’s psychological signals in order to examine the structure which validates it, much as one judges the excellence of an argument.

These and other kinds of questions will always be around in one phase or other of arrival or departure, and they will never cease, like the incessant waves, to rise and fall and wet us. Nevertheless, Richard Wollheim’s thoughtful and imaginative volume—strong-headed as it is—should bestir us to consider every old issue anew, and as stale as we may be ourselves, to turn each idea around as energetically as if we were young to the world and fresh to its confusions.

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