The Luminous Elsewhere
Review of Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, The Painter’s Touch: Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017. 336 pp.
For two centuries, art historians have stumbled over the nature of eighteenth-century French genre painting. For those reaching for the criteria of history painting, the canvases of Chardin or Greuze inevitably fell short. When it wasn’t overly didactic, genre painting was considered minor, dwelling on ordinary and mundane subjects rather than capturing the lofty and grand. Critics would often confuse the children depicted in this painting with the art’s childlikeness, erroneously assuming its inferiority. Genre painting was often seen as intellectually simple, beneath the mental capacity of rational adults. Art historians, moreover, tended to assimilate genre painting into the art of the late eighteenth century, which was seen as the culmination of these early developments. Genre painting couldn’t compete with the aggressive size, nor the sheer impact provided by the moralizing canvases of an artist like Jacques-Louis David. Some of the discounting also came from the fact that eighteenth-century genre painting had a different ontology. A lot of this art did not partake of the firm distinction between subject and object; it was often mistaken for artistic pathology or cultural degeneration. The negative judgment of eighteenth-century genre painting parallels the judgment of the eighteenth century as a mere transitional period, wedged between two more impressive centuries, chock-full of artists armed with longer resumés. But above all, we put eighteenth-century art in shadow the minute we buy into the old saw that the nineteenth century—or indeed modernism—began in art with David, in history with the French Revolution, or in philosophy with Kant (who has been seen, epochally, to have “solved” the problems of the previous century).1
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth has written one of the first books that elevates eighteenth-century genre painting to the level of artistic and philosophical complexity that it truly deserves. One could say that it is a lesson in taking the art on its own terms. The result of close to a decade of sustained thought and research, the book is simply stunning. What’s remarkable is the utter lack of apology for this art: nary is there a mention of David. While many art historians have trawled the same territory (nods are given to prior contributors, mostly in the footnotes), the author’s achievement is to have brought these disparate findings and analyses together into an integrated whole. The power of the argument derives from the author’s sheer command of her materials—both primary documents and artifacts, as well as the secondary art-historical literature. One marvels at the range of evidence—unusual paintings, newly-discovered sketches, X-rays, art criticism, literary fiction—brought to bear on her argument. One gets the sense, throughout the book, of artworks placed front and center. And, despite the descent into archival materials and the canvassing of detail, the author manages to draw out an interpretation that’s fresh and unexpected.
Three long chapters expound on the art of Boucher, Chardin, and Fragonard. Building on recent revisionist scholarship (notably by Melissa Hyde2), Lajer-Burcharth’s Boucher is markedly different from the slavishly commercial, anti-public, morally-corrupting image of the artist held by “anti-rococo” critics like Diderot. Boucher is shown to be in touch with amateurism and the range of practices known as “commercial modernity.” His inheritance of and education by Watteau is treated sensitively, and the younger artist is shown to have strategically experimented with signatures in the construction of (his) subjectivity. Though it’s a veritable cliché these days to talk about the “branding” of an artist, Lajer-Burcharth shows Boucher instead able to pragmatically disperse his self in and through his artworks, in a manner sufficient enough for authorship to be recognizable. In the second chapter, the author convincingly deals with the entirety of Chardin’s oeuvre, from early still lifes, to genre paintings, and the later return to still life. (Compare the last holistic treatment of Chardin by René Démoris.)3 Revealingly, Chardin is shown to have doubly separated himself from an older artisanal tradition and established Academic practice, in and through his painting. The third chapter pushes aside the familiar interpretation of Fragonard as a mere painter of seduction. Mary Sheriff’s scholarship on the artist is acknowledged, and surpassed.4 Lajer-Burcharth considers the place of eros or pleasure in Fragonard’s work, with “place” in a more structural rather than iconographic sense. There is an excellent discussion of Fragonard’s fantasy portraits, based on a recently discovered drawing, that both expands the archive and deepens the complexity of this body of work.
Despite its ostensible linearity, the chronological approach for each artist affords the author interpretive control on a narrative that attends very carefully to artistic practice. Lajer-Burcharth gives us intimate peeks into the procedures and techniques of the three artists, as though we were in the studio silently looking over Boucher’s or Chardin’s or Fragonard’s shoulder. The book’s emphasis is on artistic production rather than reception. Rather than biographical surveys, which tend to make the art secondary to and illustrative of an artist’s life, the three chapters examine pictorial problems—derived from the specificity of practice and materials—that the artists engaged on and worked through. This isn’t an old-fashioned art-historical analysis reliant on style and iconography; rather, a sophisticated version of formalism is in play, one that sensitively attends to practice. What results is an account that does not understand paintings as expressions of identity. Making—or better, the thought “in” making—is placed front and center. Like a Winnicottian transitional object, the artwork allows the artist, in turn, to construct subjectivity. Avoiding familiar readings of these works in terms of class or gender identity, the artist’s encounter with society—Boucher’s engagement with commercial modernity, Chardin’s artisanal training, Fragonard’s understanding of the body—is, instead, inscribed in these artworks. Society recursively shapes artistic subjecthood, with the art a kind of agential trace or deposit. Importantly, “self” and “society” do not pre-exist their representations. As much as an artist “works on” representations, such representations are in turn constitutive of subject and society.
I would, however, question the rhetoric of depth that appears at several points in the study, e.g. with regard to Chardin’s interiors, or Fragonard’s bodies.5 (Another word for depth would be “affect.”) I wonder whether “deep materiality” captures the particularity—the sheer strangeness—of Chardin’s canvases. “What I have called the ‘deep materiality’ of Chardin’s paintings,” Lajer-Burcharth writes, “refers not only to the physical depth of their surface, which, due to the particularity of the painter’s procedures amounted to a thick, quasi-geological formation, but also to their inner life. For Chardin’s paintings confront us with a dimension of interiority that, while generated by his technical procedures, is irreducible to them, a material register that must be examined as a domain of meaning.”6 (90) Here, the author is well aware of the difficulty of her project: how do we extract meaning from a realm that’s rigidly opaque and recalcitrant to discourse? And is it meaning we’re extracting? The following passage might encapsulate the book’s methodology: “We need, in my view, a more detailed account of the texture of Chardin’s painting and a fuller articulation of the logic that governs its material and technical, rather than merely visual or iconographic, dimension. While in and of themselves the technical aspects have not been ignored, how exactly they matter in the contextual exegesis of Chardin’s work [i.e. in the dominant historiography of Chardin] remains unclear… How painting complicates, exceeds, or bypasses the existing forms of knowledge—how its materiality produces its own discourse—is of key importance to me. It is in this sense that I attend to Chardin’s craft.” (90) While one might quibble over some phrases (what, exactly, is a materiality that “produces its own discourse”?), I find the last word of that final sentence particularly intriguing. It is not so much that a familiar term, “craft,” is being reinvested with meaning (as though we were injecting dour Chardin with a dose of romance and cozy nostalgia). What’s clever, rather, is the way the word points in two directions: as the mid-eighteenth-century revaluation of craft looked backward and turned away from an older discourse that privileged decorum and costume, Chardin’s painting, looking forward, anticipated the modern meaning of craft as handmade production (the French “métier” has connotations of profession, technique, and experience). Artisanal production was being rediscovered as cognitive.7 I would say that the book is about the intentionality (or directed thoughtfulness), materiality, and historicity of artistic practice.8
A lot of the author’s treatment of depth is, I think, anti-hermeneutic—a stance that derives from the author’s understanding of psychoanalysis.9 She isn’t making iconographic nor semiotic “interpretations.” Take her extended, and rewarding, analysis of the “oral” dimension in Chardin’s The Ray, 1725–26 (fig. 1). No doubt the entire fish comes across as a mouth itself, “with some of its bulbous innards lined up in rows like teeth,” she says. “But it is oral also in the sense of evoking a basic psychic operation of a subject defining itself in relation to an object through an act of ingestion that is also an act of incorporation.” (99) And then this unusual, and very specific, discussion of process: “In some places, the fish’s corpus appears to have been painted directly with the painter’s own body, which left its indelible traces on the canvas’ surface … The sticky chewiness of pigment in some places—the white highlights in particular—heightens the impression of the painter’s direct bodily contact with the canvas—a way of painting Chardin came to be known for—thus also underscoring the notion of the painting subject’s entanglement with the object.” (99) “Entanglement” slides between inextricability and dependency. A decade ago, art historians would have said that the Ray operates at an unconscious, affective level that is inaccessible to the subject. But Lajer-Burcharth avoids this. She turns the process back on Chardin himself, as subject: “Aggressive but also affectionate in its attention to the object rendered lovingly in all its horrifying details, this oral performance does not only serve the purpose of depiction … It is also involved in the task of drawing the bodily and psychic boundary of the subject involved in the act.” (99) One fascinating point has Chardin using the painting to “wrest” himself from parental and artisanal domains: “In Chardin’s hands, craft became self-reflexive and interiorized; it spoke of affect as much as skill. Performing the very process that brought it about, The Ray produced an image of a skill that was at once self-aware and unknowing, capable of reflecting upon itself but also transmitting, as if unwittingly, the (oral) impulses of the body.” (106)
In the eighteenth century, the psychic depth of the subject was commonly seen to be sustained by Lockean materialism, more commonly known as “sensationism.” More than the fact or mere existence of sensations, sensationism posited a model of the mind. In Locke’s famous “camera obscura” model of perception, sensations enter an individual’s mind, after which they are translated or converted into perception, then built up into ideas and knowledge.10 Sensation precedes perception—note the linearity. In familiar accounts of sensationism, the self “gradually” acquires sensations and thus knowledge.11 No doubt Lajer-Burcharth’s deployment of Locke is subtle: for example, she cites Turgot, who, in his article “Existence,” written for the Encyclopédie, connected Locke’s inner sensation (which referred to a discrete space within the self) to the body through what he called “le tact intérieur” (the internal touch or experience of the self produced primarily by sensations of pleasure and pain). The self’s encounter with an “external” object triggers an inner touch which marks out an internal boundary “within” the self: “What [Chardin’s] paintings evoke is not simply a tactile experience of the object but its internal processing through touch, the very basis of interiorization.” (144) Lajer-Burcharth’s “inside/out” relation is this recursivity of subject and object.12
And yet Lajer-Burcharth could have more strongly re-thought Lockean sensationism. The standard “empiricist” reading of Locke has the mind as an oculus, taking in sensations, as in the camera obscura model. But there’s a metaphysics to this: even as we apprehend the secondary qualities of objects (colors, sounds, flavors), which are nothing more than our sensations, we don’t have access to their primary qualities (matter, extension, and movement). Sensationism kept the object world at an epistemological distance. What Krzysztof Pomian has called “indirect vision”—the non-perspicuousness of vision to cognitive understanding—was brought to its logical conclusion in Berkeley.13 Berkeley “[eliminated] the duality present in Descartes and in Locke. But he pays for this with a duality of cognition and feeling …”14 Hume, equally anthropocentric, got rid of the necessary connection between objects, and reduced human nature to ideas.15 According to Pomian, the “duality” in Locke refers to the fact that part of his philosophy kept in touch with the tradition of “direct vision,” inherited from Plato, Aristotle, Duns Scotus, Ockham and Descartes, which understood vision as having immediacy and as strongly tied to cognition.16 These philosophers held that there was a direct contact between the seen object and the soul; hence the Platonic metaphor of the block of wax upon which we impress our sensations and conceptions.17 So there was a side of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—in Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, and, I would argue, de Piles and Condillac—that, in rejecting the supposed superiority and priority of the mind over the passions, recovered the direct vision tradition. Vision was immediate, even if now shorn of its metaphysical and religious connotations. It had a strikingness that was also mundane—and we see this in eighteenth-century genre painting, with its claim to the concrete and the everyday.
Most commentators have relegated Fragonard’s Island of Love, ca. 1770 (fig. 2) to the status of mere product of the artist’s imagination.18 In this thoroughly strange painting, a passenger-filled boat comes upon a verdant landscape, as a surging, bulbous vegetal edifice on the right hovers (menacingly? mysteriously?) over a circular, watery basin at left. Never has there been a more perverse riff on Watteau’s Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera, 1717. Lajer-Burcharth launches into a sustained reading of the painting as figuring Buffonian materialist reproduction, impressively marshalling images of female reproductive anatomy to support her case. “The basic academic principles of picture-making, such as ordonnance and distribution,” she writes, “that made visible a certain hierarchy of meaning are replaced in Fragonard by what may be called an epigenetic understanding of painting—one that rejects preexisting structures of organization in favor of a more spontaneous procedure, a self-generated materialization of the image.” (193)
And yet Buffon never quite managed to expunge preformation from his concept of the “interior mold.”19 While epigenesis was certainly materialist, Buffon didn’t completely solve the problem of generation. Preformationism continued to haunt materialist theories of generation, with direct vision—that striking of the object on the soul—persisting within the latter. So, if Lajer-Burcharth surmises that the ominous figure in the distant left background of Fragonard’s painting is “a sign—or cipher—of femininity presiding over this ambiguous visual ‘ode’ to nature as a force of life” (193), to me, the statue represents the ineradicability of preformation. (Aren’t certain sculptures, moreover, made from molds?) Even the watery basin at the bottom of the painting resembles a block of wax, ready to receive the fetal imprint.20 While most materialist philosophers and physicians in the eighteenth-century understandably wanted to push away from the early-modern belief in the maternal imagination—that a mother’s thoughts could shape a newborn infant21 —the problem of the determinacy of human biological origins did not go away.22 One could say that that the strength of Fragonard’s painting lies in its admission of the contradictions of “materialist” biological reproduction.
Direct vision also returns in Boucher’s The Breakfast, 1739 (fig. 3). In Lajer-Burcharth’s compelling analysis, the painting doesn’t simply depict an ordinary interior, but shows how domestic interiority came to be. “It is the importance of commodity in the multiple senses of the term—as a commercial article, an object of pleasure, and an attribute of private space—that Boucher’s painting brings to the fore. The focus on consumption, rather than leisure per se, as the defining aspect of elite life, and, as a consequence of it, a new ideal of intimacy that is not class based but derives from access to commodities and to the pleasures they provide, are the two key novel aspects in Boucher’s painting.” (52) Lajer-Burcharth connects the painting to the emerging Parisian culture of luxury in the 1730s and ‘40s, with this culture “[producing] a significant change in the mode of living across different social strata, contributing to the invention of privacy in the spatial and, more broadly, cultural sense of the word. The interior came to be understood and lived as an intimate space defined by the presence of an array of personal items in it, the objects of taste, vehicles of sensory gratification.” (52) So, instead of the predictable remark that these depicted individuals are “in” an interior, Lajer-Burcharth suggests, more interestingly, that these individuals are creating what we now know of as “domestic interiority.” The architecture of the room shapes or forms these individuals, as much as the (mostly) women and children enact intimacy via a range of objects. The discussion of the mirror in the painting—with a reflection of multiple rectangles that conveys, yet withholds, a sense of space beyond the depicted room—is an especially bravura moment in the chapter: “What we have is not the traditional motif of the mirror as the device of vanity or narcissistic self-confirmation… Rather, it is a kind of abstracted illusion—a sign of space—aligned, moreover, with another form of illusion, the painting above it. A figure of an internalized exteriority, the mirror hints at what the immersion in the field of objects that define the realm of the visible in the era of consumption does to the inner life of the subject. It reveals a kind of outwardness emerging within the self.” (57) Rather than the now-familiar Rousseauian association of the commodity with reification and alienation, “the emphasis on exterior creates a sense of interior.”
It’s as though the mirror had always been there, if we had bothered to look. It was hidden in plain sight. There is a directness to the mirror and its reflection, as though it were looking back at us, more than us looking at or through it. One wants to reach for the appropriate psychoanalytic term: narcissism. But a term closer to the eighteenth century might be more apropos: by the “coup d’oeil,” Roger de Piles named a glance that could, almost impossibly, take in an entire work of art, including its discursive content.23 It was less an empirical seeing than a reflexive transfusion or innervation by a work of art. The term, I would argue, was indebted to Leibniz’s critique of Lockean camera obscura perception. For Leibniz, vision didn’t translate between inside and outside; the mind was continually producing the threshold or separation between inside and outside. Vision was direct but also ecological; it registered the fact that we perceive in an environment. To me, the mirror in Boucher’s painting perfectly represents what Leibniz called “monads.” These were simple substances that had no parts, were indivisible, and were famously windowless (which meant that no monad could receive or supply causal influences, from or to an outside).24 They mirrored the entire universe. It is striking that there is a curtain in the mirror reflection, as though the slowness of drawing it open is in diametric contrast to the quickness by which we take in the painting.25 The painting teeters between totalization and sheer ordinariness. And, remarkable for any twenty-first-century viewer, despite the mirror being almost perfectly parallel to the picture plane, the painter-viewer is not depicted. No cheeky Van Eyckian mirrored presencing here. And yet the darkened mirror masterfully contributes to the effect of these individuals being revealed to one another. Eighteenth-century intentionality was less a directional striving or will, than disclosive, something that made us aware of our being in the world.26 What the senses do, in this sense, is to make the world available, rather than keep it at a skeptical remove. Perception, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Kramnick, is a “skilled attunement.”27 It is Lajer-Burcharth’s singular achievement to give us a very different eighteenth century, a “luminous elsewhere” (205) that’s also right here with us. And radically ordinary.