PRINT December 1974


13 Paintings, 13 Books

John Gage, Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed, Art in Context Series, ed. John Fleming and Hugh Honour (New York, The Viking Press, 1972), 99 pages, 51 black-and-white illustrations.

Joel Isaacson, Monet: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1972), 124 pages, 45 illustrations.

Marilyn Aron-berg Lavin, Piero della Francesca: The Flagellation (1972), 109 pages, 57 illustrations.

Roy Strong, Van Dyck: Charles I on Horseback (1972), 112 pages, 49 illustrations.

Elisabeth Dhanens, Van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece (1973), 154 pages, 77 illustrations.

John Golding, Marcel Duchamp: The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1973), 116 pages, 62 illustrations.

Reinhold Heller, Edvard Munch: The Scream (1973), 127 pages, 50 illustrations.

Robert L. Herbert, David, Voltaire, Brutus and the French Revolution: An Essay in Art and Politics (1973), 160 pages, 62 illustrations.

Benedict Nicolson, Courbet: The Studio of the Artist (1973), 98 pages, 53 illustrations.

Donald Posner, Watteau: A Lady at her Toilet (1973), 112 pages, 52 illustrations.

Nicolas Powell, Fuseli: The Nightmare (1973), 120 pages, 55 illustrations.

Hugh Thomas, Goya: The Third of May, 1808 (1973), 112 pages, 59 illustrations.

Howard Hibbard, Poussin: The Holy Family on the Steps (1974), 117 pages, 56 illustrations. Each book has one colorplate.

The demand of the editors of the Art In Context Series on their writers is to put “a famous painting or sculpture as both image and idea in its context.” (I take it that image means “what it looks like” and idea “what it means.”) Each work of art, though separated from the rest of the artist’s production, is to be contextualized according to one or more of the following kinds of knowledge: “stylistic, technical, literary, psychological, religious, social or political.” Thirteen such books have appeared in the past three years, so we are now in a position to see how the method works. The authors are mostly young or youngish art historians. In effect, they are being invited to pay more than usual attention to the inputs that artists receive and on the basis of which they reach the decisions that go into the making of art. The traces of these inputs in the output, the work of art, is the subject.

What is welcome about this approach is that in principle, it removes art from the impoverished status of senseless artifact, something characterized by visual properties alone. Thus the series is in tacit opposition to formalist doctrine as this includes the idea that evidence from outside the work, beyond the visual configuration, is distracting. Defense of the autonomy of art is based on the notion that only properties that are perceived directly, the color on its material plane in a painting, and its arrangement, can be of primary importance. Mediated information is alleged to be an adulteration of the purified experience of art as an object in space.

Theoretically, one might object that imaginable brackets for a work of art are endless; but in practice, the limits of cogency are not hard to find. The books discussed here provide clear examples of the problems of contextualization and their solution. We are dealing with the role of collateral information in the interpretation cf art, as documentation, as syntax, and as content. Documents supply verification of the place of the artist and his work in the world; syntax sets the historical limits of what can be painted at a particular time; and content is what a work signifies of the artist and of his purpose. The task for these writers, as they compile information about each single work, is to show the interpenetration of foreground and background, the convergence of scattered data on the representative work. It is imperative to go beyond the conventional formula of foreground artist and background biography, sociology, or history in which there is no interaction of the two terms.

Two matters of general interest are raised by the series. First, how much information can a single work of art carry? And second, what is the role of collateral information? The first question can be answered by more than just piling up facts attached to the work; a common experience of gallery and museum visitors is also relevant here. We all know, I take it, the experience of encountering a work which suddenly is made to signify more than it has before, and which brings into focus an artist’s work, a period style, or an iconographic type. There is a sense of rapport, an epiphanic closeup, in which the physiognomy of a unique work comes to signify a class, a period, a tradition. The one equals the many; single contact illuminates other like works. Thus the route that the writers for Art in Context have to follow is a complex one: however much they draw on their expertise, the success of their method will be connected to the extent that their research provides an analogue to a form of normal response, in which one piece becomes a token of more than itself. The second question is probably best approached by means of the books themselves. Collateral information is useful when it is organized centripetally, that is to say, when it proceeds toward the center (i.e., where the work of art is), but maddening when it functions centrifugally, moving away from the center.

The best of the series is Robert Herbert’s on David’s Brutus, the full title of which is David, Voltaire and the French Revolution: Art and Politics. Herbert situates the painting within a series of occasions that constitute, in his words, a “cult of Brutus.” Beginning with a play by Voltaire, Brutus held a special place in the emerging iconography of revolutionaries; he was the type of moralist who placed the state before the family. David’s painting, in the course of Herbert’s account, is linked to a flow of information, including the temporary festivals of the revolution. The painting is shown to condense, with particular grandeur, a theme that David did not invent. Herbert states clearly the continuities of the cult which David drew on, and the ways he.transformed one of its episodes into something uniquely the artist’s own. History as data and art as a power of compact organization (image-making) are synthesized. The editors, John Fleming and Hugh Honour, appear to have contacted the author at the right moment, a sense not transmitted by all the volumes in the series. Their choices seem to be intelligently grounded in the past performances and interests of the various writers, but the elation that comes from an author’s aroused interest is rarely felt.

The best books after Herbert’s, those that maintain a centripetal structure, are by Donald Posner and Joel Isaacson. Posner takes Watteau’s Lady at her Toilet and unwraps, as it were, the veils of traditional nudity. He relates the picture to more overtly erotic art of the 18th century, not hard-core pornography as Posner points out, but works in which the figure poses of Renaissance iconography are used without their original philosophical programs and, at the same time, with an increased sexual explicitness. (This is an observation that could be extended to other figure paintings since the 16th century to clarify the erotic content latent in nudity.) Posner shows connections between the engravings of women in the demythologized boudoir of the 18th century and Watteau’s painting, but shows, too, the difference. The result is that. this picture can now be known with a resonance that it did not possess before Posner’s interpretation. Isaacson takes a damaged painting by Monet, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, of which only sketches and fragments survive, and reconstructs the original. His point is that this was a decisive work of the 1860s in France which has received its clue owing to the accident of mutilation. To present his argument schematically: the picture shows a convergence of Baudelaire’s theory of modernity, the influence of Monet’s contemporaries Manet and Courbet, Renaissance-derived desire to integrate life-size figures and landscape, and a compound of nature studies and studio work. These inputs are hound together by Monet’s ambition to produce a summarizing work. Aside from establishing Monet’s picture as a major one, Isaacson possesses what some of the writers in the series seem to lack, a sense of the artist at work. Monet is not represented as a passive or unmotivated beneficiary of the cultural milieu, but as undergoing the stress of forcing together a number of separated interests.

The role of collateral information in these books is to expand connections between art and the world, introducing information that is different in kind from pure visual appearance. Collateral means situated at the side, or parallel, attendant, auxiliary, which does not mean that it is not an essential part of the system within which art is created and interpreted. Art cannot be restricted to properties that can be seen directly, and to them only; if we accept the function of signification as a part of the work of art, it can be matched by a complexity at its inception. This is the condition of multiple causation of which Isaacson gives a good account. Hibbard, in his book in the series, raises the necessity of allowing for multiple causation and uses the Freudian term for it, overdetermination. He writes: “the great artist . . . draws upon unconscious, forgotten, and half-remembered well-springs of memory and experience.” Why only the great artist? Surely it is either a function of art or not,rather than a property of greatness, whatever that may be. However, though Hibbard fails to do much with it, the notion that it is naive to assume a single cause for a work of art is an essential one, and it is a theme of this series.

A model of clearly stated plural inputs is the book Michelangelo’s David by Charles Seymour, Jr. (1967). Art history, Florentine sociology, art for art’s sake, and Michelangelo’s ambition are brought to bear on the genesis and interpretation of the work. In addition, Seymour raises a problem of knowledge, or at least of its distribution, which is relevant here. In a data-rich society, which includes a hefty literature on the David, what is the function of writing about this work, Seymour asks. His aim he decided should be “to lighten the dead weight of familiarity; to oppose, if not to correct, a flabby stereotype into which general thinking about so ubiquitous an image could very easily slide.”

Among the books that have appeared in this series (there are three more to come) only two deal with paintings that have the kind of celebrity that led Seymour to his scruples: the Ghent Altarpiece and Goya’s Third of May 1808. Elisabeth Dhanens’ book on the altarpiece is a lucid map of its complicated format and iconography (with the existence of Hubert, as no less than Jan, Van Eyck taken for granted). Hugh Thomas’ study of the Goya, however, supposed to link art and politics in the overfamiliar person of Goya, is full of dubiously apposite material. For instance: “the soldiers in the picture are not easily identifiable, but they were probably French infantrymen of the rather second-rate calibre that Napoleon, who despised Spain at this stage, dispatched south of the Pyrenees in early 1808.” And, referring to the artist:

He had introduced the gentlemanly ‘de’ into his name in 1786. In recent years he had painted, in some cases many times, most of the main characters in this strange history [of the Spanish court]—Charles III twice, Charles IV and the Queen about a dozen times, and all their family, not to speak of Godoy, Floridablanca, Jovellanos and so on.

Detail of this kind contributes nothing to the interpretation of the picture, nor to a sense of the artist’s motives. On the contrary it acts centrifugally, blowing the picture apart into unrelated streamers of picturesque information.

If these are the uncontested classics, there are also more problematic masterpieces: Coubet’s Studio, Piero’s Flagellation, Poussin’s Holy Family on the Steps, and Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. Benedict Nicolson’s study of Courbet is boring, a patient inventory of what can be seen and who posed for the figures. Everything else is discarded as speculative or chancy, which has the effect of shrivelling this extraordinary picture like a dried fig. Marilyn Aronberg Lavin’s piece on Piero is an extended version of her iconographical reading of the Flagellation, first given in the Art Bulletin in 1968. She sees it as a commemorative work, thus converting the pure forms for which the picture used to be admired into consolatory emblems. Howard Hibbard’s study of the Poussin does not really start until page 35, after a biographical sketch and a section on Neo-Venetianism (not relevant to the picture under discussion). Anthony Blunt, in his monograph on Poussin, refers to The Holy Family on the Steps as a work “in which Poussin’s pursuit of mathematically simple forms reaches its highest expression.” Hibbard remains within these terms but polishes the apple to make it shine more. John Gage discusses Turner’s picture of a train in a landscape as a product of the convergence of two different, indeed disparate, factors, “the railway mania” of the early Industrial Revolution and the Rembrandt revival. The author, unfortunately, shares this mania so the focus of the book is pulled apart by nonessential, if entertaining, railroad material. In Roy Strong’s book on Van Dyck, Caroline court culture takes the place of Gage’s railroad. Strong is infatuated with the Stuart court, masques, Neo-Platonism, and considers most of it to be an appropriate background for Van Dyck’s picture. The result is that the stately equestrian portrait is dilated and blurred by references to contemporaneous but unrelated material. The diffuseness of Gage and Strong also afflicts Nicolas Powell’s writing on Fuseli’s Nightmare. If Seymour was afraid that Michelangelo’s David had become a cliché, what is the status of this not especially momentous and already grossly overdiscussed painting? Folklore of a demonic character, cited from throughout the 18th century, is supposed to have helped predispose Fusel i toward his dream-picture, but the links are vaporous and do not survive the light of day.

The series includes two works of what is called modern art, though I am self-conscious about suggesting the absolute distinction between then and now that this term carries with it: Reinhold Heller on Munch’s Scream and John Golding on Duchamp’s Large Glass. In fact, the same methods of analysis that art historians bring to bear on past art are used here. Golding traces the female imagery in Duchamp’s paintings that leads to the Glass. He points out that the image of “The Bride retained certain visual links with the world of Cubism. The Bachelors on the other hand belong to the world of the ready-made,” but Golding’s interest in the two themes seems unequal. He refers to the “celebrated ‘ready-mades’, the objects which will perhaps prove to have been his most important contribution to the creation of a particular esthetic climate which has conditioned a very considerable amount of subsequent artistic production.” The italics I have added indicate surely a “very considerable amount” of reservation on Golding’s part concerning the Readymade. Already it seems perfectly clear that Duchamp’s historical importance has to do with the Readymades and not at all with the conservative, rather timid Cubist pictures that preceded them. Golding’s lack of enthusiasm for the innovative aspect of Duchamp blunts his sense of what the Large Glass meant to the artist. It was conceived as a major piece, a summarizing work, and as such it is a continuation of history painting, one of those works by which artists tested their skills, all of them, and declared the intellectual range of their art. Heller’s study of The Scream shows a nice balance of stylistic analysis, biography, and iconography, all smoothly in orbit around Munch’s work. Like Fuseli’s, the picture is probably a cliché, but the contexting of Munch’s overall painting plans, neurotic crisis, and shared iconography is persuasive.

The books in the series are well designed, with an easy-to-follow text and picture relationship; details and comparative material are engagingly presented. However, more unqualified successes might have been expected from two, such experienced editors (responsible for Penguin’s Style and Civilization and Architect and Society Series) and able writers. Does the trouble lie in the concept of one work/one book? One-object criticism can do several things very well. It can be used to discuss a genre: Oliver Millar’s Zoffany and his Tribuna (1966) is of this kind. On the basis of one piece, he expands to place it within the sub-group of conversation pieces called gallery pictures, views of art collections. One-object criticism can serve as a guidebook to great monuments, such as Richard Krautheimer’s Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors (1971) or, here, Dhanens on Van Eyck. Then there are puzzle-pictures which solicit detective work, such as Edgar Wind on Giorgoni’s La Tempesta (1969); Lavin’s book in the present series is of this type, which might be called the locked-library mystery. The technique can also be used to recount the dimension of personal meaning, with references drawn from the artist’s life, as in Ronald Alley’s Picasso: The Three Dancers (1966). Alley’s pamphlet is the text of a Charlton Lecture in Art given at the University of Durham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In this series, devoted to the exegesis of a single work at a time, are George Heard Hamilton’s brilliant study of Claude Monet’s Paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1958) and L. D. Ettlinger’s commentary on Kandinsky’s At Rest (1959). Longer books often include more or less self-contained one-object explications, of course: Panofsky’s discussion of Melencolia I in Chapter V of The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer (1943) would seem to be the last word on that puzzle-picture for the present. Iconography and its relation to process, modified by the progress from sketch to terminal work, is the subject of Anthony Blunt’s excellent Picasso’s Guernica (1969). One-object writing can, of course, be used to reveal the successive steps of work: the model here must be Lorenz Eitner’s Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1972) in which his masterly inspection of the drawings enables one to share the process of an artist’s thought with rare fullness and precision.

Aside from Eitner’s book, which is the outcome of years of work, most of the works cited above are shorter than the volumes of Art in Context. And this points to the problem. Some of the writers have simply padded, prolonging their material past its natural scale, e.g., Gage, Powell, Strong, and Thomas. Others have not padded, but run short of sufficiently interesting material, for one reason or another, e.g., Golding, Lavin, and Nicolson. The complexity of the Ghent altarpiece sustains Dhanen’s book, but it too, might have been more concise. Heller’s book should certainly be added to Herbert’s, Isaacson’s, and Posner’s as commensurate to its subject. A hundred or so pages, which is what each book averages, including illustrations, seems to have its difficulties. In no case, I should say, does the writer of one of these books leave us wanting more than what has been offered.

To return to the general questions with which we began, it can be asked: does the procedure of contextualization, by reason of its concentration on the single work, lead to a separation of paintings from the artist’s oeuvre? Does the painting sink into a sea of collateral information? Certainly not in the cases of David, Monet, Watteau, and Munch, where the decision-making and adaptive process of the artist is clarified by the closeup view. However in the case of some of the other artists, the writers’ accretion of milieu characteristics does separate the work from the life of the artist and blunt our sense of his presence. This is not because of an inherent fault in the method, but simply because some of the writers failed to conceive their problem correctly.

What is necessary is to view the work itself and the collateral information as components of a larger system which includes both intraart antecedents and social events whose bases are not in art but to which artists are not immune. It is not a question of taking the work of art as the real object and setting it into a supposedly relevant background, of railroads or court etiquette or the Napoleonic wars. It is a matter of seeing society, artist, and object as mutually impinging phenomena, but not as explanations of each other. It is interesting to note that one of the handiest ways of approaching a holistic view of art at present is by the study of the single work. When the method succeeds it turns out that, far from isolating the selected piece, we arrive at a model of connectedness. It is a way in which multiple causation can be handled coherently. Inspecting one painting at length leads to the ways in which artists respond to their culture and the ways in which their art contributes to the definition of culture. One-object analysis is precisely a way around the formalist tactic of detaching art from everything else, because it forces attention to art’s links to culture without simplifying the esthetic solidity of the painting.

Lawrence Alloway