Issue #26: The Nineteenth Century (Part One)
This is the first in a series of issues featuring new scholarship on nineteenth-century art. The next issue will continue the series. Edited by Bridget Alsdorf and Marnin Young. Editorial Assistant: Luke Naessens.
Inside the issue
The question I promised to pose in this essay was whether we have an art—a nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century art—to which Hegel’s descriptions of world and consciousness can be seen to apply. I seem to be saying that they only apply, in the art I take seriously, in the negative—they are what French painting is out to annihilate. But for Hegel’s view of things to be worth refuting in this way—with Matisse’s special vehemence—surely in the first place there must have been pictures that exemplified it strongly, beautifully. And yes, there were.
To extrapolate directly from Caillebotte’s class a certain mindset that forms the hermeneutic ground for reading the economy of his paintings runs the risk of striking a false equivalence between Caillebotte’s structural class position and his imaginary relation to that position as it manifested in his activity. Rather than dispensing with alienation as an analytical category founded on a Marxist critique of modernity while retaining the restrictive class-determinism of Marxian thought, it will be more productive to retain the former and dispense with the latter.
How to represent—or, better, to create—“sensation” in a painting? The challenge was to introduce the experience of external and internal simultaneously. Further complication: the demand would have to be met without losing the active presence of the living artist, that is, without reducing the process to a mechanism. A problem for photography: even when it exhibited blur, it suffered the slur of appearing mechanistic. A satisfying image of nature would need to incorporate, on the one hand, nature’s essential animation, and, on the other hand, the animation associated with the living, sensing being of the artist—the artist as both sensing nature and recording this sensation.
In spite of the historical and ethical difficulties these photographs pose, I would argue that the hesitations are worth overcoming, as the images have a great deal to teach us about the power immanent in the very act of posing for a picture, even when the imagined audience remains unseen. Through the photographs made at the Holloway Sanatorium, a modicum of agency may have been granted to those who were generally presumed to be without it. And thus, even if only for the span of time it took to stage and take the photograph, a highly vulnerable person could resist being reduced to the category of specimen, and could become, instead, a subject.
In an age acutely aware that revolutionary upheaval had broken the continuous thread of history, the question of how a modern identity would navigate between the desire for historical continuity and the need for contemporaneity was as crucial as it was painful. After all, even Charles Baudelaire desired to distil the eternal from the transitory, and defined modernity through this gesture. Thus, Schadow’s pictures remind us that the geo-political desire for a German identity intersected with the specific desire undergirding the more general quest for a modern identity.