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What Hegel Would Have Said About Monet

The line of French painting that stretches from Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People to Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (or from Camille Corot early in the 1820s to Henri Matisse on the eve of the First World War) is a unique episode in recent history. It has established itself as “world-historical,” to borrow a term from G. W. F. Hegel. That is, it continues to speak to aspects—distinctive features—of the modern condition which succeeding ages seem unable to bring into focus, or go on valuing and properly criticizing, without its aid. The tradition’s only rival, if this is the standard, may be German music from Johann Sebastian Bach to Richard Wagner.

The essay that follows is an attempt to speak to the “world-historical” character of French art—to speak to the subject as Hegel himself might have done. Such an account does not displace, or even “go deeper than,” the more familiar ones we have. It must be, for example, that Delacroix and Gustave Courbet and Edouard Manet hold our attention in the way they do, and go on possessing an inimitable brand of pathos, in large part because in them we sense that a certain drama of “the bourgeoisie” (that thing of the past) is enacted. Just as the agony of that still deeper enigma “the peasantry” is played out in Jean-François Millet and Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh. The look and feel of the modern city; the emerging strangeness of commodity culture; the dazzle of railways and days by the seaside; the sadness of the faces of the prostitute or the saltimbanque; the whole tragic tradition of Revolution—who could come close to understanding Claude Monet or Honoré Daumier or James Ensor without such realities in mind?

Nonetheless, Hegel would have seen the matter differently. A world-historical figure or event, for him—a Napoleon Bonaparte or a Ludwig van Beethoven, the pyramids at Giza, Filippo Brunelleschi’s “invention” of perspective—is one in which a moment in the history of Mind is crystallized and propelled further. Behind the trappings of “history,” then—Napoleon’s conquests and duplicities, Egyptian hydraulics, Florentine merchants’ skill in geometry—lay, Hegel thought, the fundamental urgencies of consciousness reshaping its world. Of course the best writers on French painting in the nineteenth century have sensed this, in practice, and tried to find words for their object’s elusive, unprecedented epistemology. Even the crude period terms “Realism” and “Impressionism” already felt for what it was in this painting that put the notions of subjectivity and objectivity in doubt. The very word “modernism,” grating as it always does against the falsely transparent one “modernity,” expresses the same intuition. Reading Meyer Schapiro’s pages on “sensation,” or Michael Fried’s explorations of the ontology of the picture in Manet and Théodore Géricault—the ways in which even the picture’s status as a thing “made to be looked at” came to be called in question—well, we are already in Hegel’s universe.1 Whatever “modern art” amounted to, in George Seurat’s or Paul Cézanne’s hands, it certainly appears to have meant a root-and-branch interrogation—an unnerving suspension—of the terms “I” and “you,” “world” and “world-making.”

The essay that follows is a sketch, then, of the kind of answer I imagine Hegel giving to the question: What picture of Mind and World did French painting from Corot to Picasso feel “called on” to articulate? I start at a distance from France. This is partly because the first form of the essay, published elsewhere, was a contribution to a conference on Hegel and aesthetics;2 but mostly because I do not believe we shall get the measure of French painting’s eventual fierce argument with Hegel—with the notions of “totality” and “world history”—unless we first of all grant the disputed notions their power. Rescue them, that is, from the cheap condescension of the present. We have, in other words, to recapture what it was that made the ideas of “totality” and “history,” as Hegel deployed them, real explanatory (visionary) tools; what aspects of time and the object-world they made available to reflection; and why artists may have found them apposite. From there we may be able to move on to the first main question: Is there a nineteenth-century art to which such descriptions apply?

The book that seems to me best to represent the Hegelian counter-proposal to “art history” is not the philosopher’s late Lectures on Fine Art—that lecture-note compilation, whatever the strength of its individual insights, inevitably has a second-hand, diligent-student flavor to it—but the Phenomenology of Spirit, written directly in Napoleon’s shadow.3 For whatever the Phenomenology’s faults and peculiarities considered as systematic exposition, generations of readers have found it incomparable as a staging of philosophical drama; and perhaps because this is the book’s essential character—that is, because its whole tempo and texture depend on constant crescendo and diminuendo, a blaring of trumpets followed by long Trauermusik from the cellos and basses—it seems as if Art, in Hegel’s argument, is never far away.

When art appears explicitly in the Phenomenology, as it often does, it is almost unfailingly treated in ways that are devastating, scandalous, astonishing, and—for all Hegel’s obvious exclusions and blind spots—still a challenge to our understanding of art’s purpose. Inevitably I have in mind the book’s unforgettable pages on Greek tragedy and the pains of individuation; but, just as much, its long chapter on the Unhappy Consciousness; and the return of an avatar of that consciousness, in the section on “The World of Self-Alienated Spirit,” disporting itself in full late Enlightenment delight-in-despair—in particular, the paragraphs that build toward the entrance of Rameau’s nephew, in which Music itself, seemingly tearing apart its essential nature, gives voice to “the universal deception of itself and others; and the shamelessness which gives utterance to this deception is just for that reason the greatest truth.” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 317, § 522) (Beethoven is the hero who puts an end to such deception.) From there I move on to the section late in the Phenomenology called “Religion in the Form of Art,” which dares to talk about the world of Spirit as it first objectified itself in history, long before Antigone; and my breath is taken away again by the section’s glimpses of Luxor, the sphinx, the pyramids.

I shall restrict myself to two quotations. The first is Hegel’s dream of Giza:

The crystals of pyramids and obelisks, simple combinations of straight lines with plane surfaces and equal proportions of parts, in which the incommensurability of the round is destroyed, these are the works of this artificer… Thus either the works receive Spirit into them only as an alien, departed spirit that has forsaken its living saturation with reality and, being itself dead, takes up its abode in this lifeless crystal; or [and here is the text’s truly uncanny moment, I think, as Hegel pictures the pyramids in relation to the Nile sun] they have an external relation to Spirit as something which is itself there externally and not as Spirit [to which the monuments are related] as to the dawning light, which casts its significance across them. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 421–422, § 692)

And then Hegel turns to the transition, in the art of the ancient Near East more widely, from geometry and inscribed ornament to a stronger and stronger rendering of self-sufficient organism and animal life:

It is neither the crystal, the form characteristic of mere Understanding, which houses the dead or is illumined by a soul outside of it [that is, the pyramids again], nor is it that blending of the forms of Nature and of thought which first emerged from the plant [that is, the proliferating ornamental energy of Egyptian or Assyrian low relief]… On the contrary, the Notion now strips off the traces of root, branches, and leaves still adhering to its forms, and purifies the latter into shapes in which the crystal’s straight lines and flat surfaces are raised into incommensurable ratios… The human form [finally] strips off the animal shape with which it was blended; the animal is for the god merely an accidental guise; it steps alongside its true shape and no longer has any worth on its own account… By this very fact, the shape of the god in its own self strips off also the poverty of the natural conditions of animal existence, and hints at the internal dispositions of animal life melted into its surface and belonging only to its surface. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 427–428, § 706–707)

As an attempt to understand the relation between the divine and the animal in Egyptian art, and above all to grasp the full meaning of Egyptian art’s stylization of the natural world—its melting of “the internal dispositions of animal life … into its surface”—this seems to me unrivaled. What it says about Egyptian religion may be wrong, even appallingly wrong. But this is because it sets itself the right kind of question—that posed by the difficulty, the true strangeness, of the objects addressed—to which a genuine answer is obliged to be recklessly hermeneutic.

This, then, is what “totalizing” art history was like. And if we come to have a sense, as we read the Phenomenology, of how such an art history must have “struck a contemporary,” we may be able to proceed to the question that concerns us. Is it the case that such stagings of the drama of Mind and World, or of Mind and Negativity, or of Mind and Matter, can be seen to have purchase on particular art objects—specifically, on the painting of Hegel’s own day?

I take “Hegel’s own day” to be an elastic category, certainly not bounded by his birth and death dates. For instance, I take it that the framework of Hegelian thinking—his model of consciousness and its objects, his picture of history and temporality—persisted as a uniquely powerful matrix throughout the nineteenth century, so that figures as far away from Hegel in time as Friedrich Nietzsche, Stéphane Mallarmé and Jacob Burckhardt (and I would say Marcel Proust and Wallace Stevens) are best understood as still struggling with his shade. Indeed, the last completed and most ruthless of the small array of pictures I invite you to think of in relation to the Phenomenology was done as late as 1906, very much in Proust and Mallarmé’s world: it is Matisse’s Les Tapis rouges (fig. 1). As an account of consciousness—or perception as consciousness—opening onto a world, Matisse’s canvas has all of the Phenomenology’s vehemence. It is true to the bloodcurdling phrase in the Lectures on Fine Art—to “the extreme which thinking is.”4 You will forgive me for toying with the fancy that the strange blue-green shawl in the Matisse, twisted and folded across the two carpets’ red field—so irresistibly physiognomic, that fabric, with its final leonine profile even casting a shadow on the wall—might even be Hegel’s ghost.

But is the extremism of the Matisse in pursuit of Hegel’s extremism? Could it even be intended to put an end to the Hegelian drama? That seems to me the real puzzle.

Fig. 1. Henri Matisse, Les Tapis rouges (Nature morte au tapis rouge) (The Red Rugs [Still Life with Red Rugs]), 1906. Oil on canvas, 89 x 116.5 cm. Musée de Grenoble.

We might begin to try to solve it by noting, in a preliminary way, that whatever else Les Tapis rouges may be, it is certainly a kind of answer, aesthetically, to the famous passage in the Phenomenology about Beauty’s fundamental lack of strength. Beauty lacks strength, says Hegel, above all in its dealings with the negative—the negative of Life, which is also the negative that is in Life, and that in some strong sense is Life itself, grasped in its painful Truth. Beauty, by contrast, is a circle that remains self-enclosed. It cannot face the dissolution that is Thought. And “the circle that remains self-enclosed and … holds its moments together [fearing above all the reality of their difference, their opposition to one another] is a merely immediate relationship, one therefore which has nothing astonishing about it”:

But that an accident as such, detached from what circumscribes it … should attain an existence of its own and a separate freedom—this is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thought, of the pure “I.” Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality [here is where my intuition of a ghostliness to Matisse’s green shawl can come to strike me as more than fancy] is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what she cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 18–19, § 32)

I think it is useful to say straight away, for clarity’s sake—though this, in a sense, is to leap toward the conclusion of the line of thought I am developing—that Matisse’s painting seems to me entirely susceptible to description in Hegel’s terms, but also (and precisely because) its final picture of Beauty and deathliness and dismemberment is so deeply anti-Hegelian. Beauty’s lack of strength, in other words, may be the key to its power—its willingness to have the world occur to it. It is just because Beauty is prepared not to “find itself”—not to repeat a circle of self-loss and self-retrieval—that it is, for Matisse, so strong in its weakness. The Understanding in Les Tapis rouges is swaddled—muffled—in its shawl or shroud, trying above all to be One, hanging on to the possibility of totalization. But Beauty, says the painting, is anti-totality. It is the scatter of points and particles on the surface, the buzz of confetti across the black and red, and the improbability of all those particles ending up being together—and yet, look, they are together. It is Mind, says Matisse, that is “the circle that remains self-enclosed”—the power that cannot resist the temptation to hold its moments together by some last ruse of dialectic. Or rather, Mind as Hegel conceives it cannot. Mind as allowed to happen in painting—Mind as weakness, Mind as redness, Mind as particle storm—is a different matter.

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. My example is Caspar David Friedrich’s Chalk Cliffs at Rügen (fig. 2), done in 1818 (so firmly in Hegel’s timeframe), and I ask you to look at it with the Phenomenology ringing in your ears. The passage I choose is from near the beginning of the section “The Certainty and Truth of Reason.” It is a typical Hegel paragraph, with even a touch of sunniness to it—we have, after all, just exited from the Unhappy Consciousness:

Now that self-consciousness [has become] Reason, its hitherto negative relation to otherness turns round into a positive relation. Up till now it has been concerned only with its independence and freedom, concerned to save and maintain itself for itself at the expense of the world, or of its own actuality, both of which appeared to it as the negative of its essence [that is, as Thought]. But as Reason, assured of itself, it is at peace with them, and can endure them; for it is certain that it is itself reality, or that everything actual is none other than itself; its thinking is itself directly actuality… (Phenomenology of Spirit, 139, § 232)

And a few lines further on, notoriously—touching on the matter of permanence versus transience that was to become the lifeblood of French painting:

In thus apprehending itself, after losing the grave of its truth… [Reason] discovers the world as its new real world, which in its permanence holds an interest for it which previously lay only in its transience [remember that the Unhappy Consciousness had been alternately panicked and fascinated by what it saw as the utter ephemerality of the world passing by]; for the existence of the world becomes for self-consciousness its own truth and presence; it is certain of experiencing only itself therein. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 140, § 232)

This is very beautiful, even in English, and I am hoping that native speakers agree that for all its characteristic relentlessness (italics ablaze) it is also somehow delicate—or that its picture of world and consciousness is. Anyway, Friedrich makes it delicate. His picture of the colors of consciousness—the Cliffs at Rügen’s pervasive white and pale blue—is touching, and I think entirely new. Permanence and transience, like the intelligible and the accidental in Matisse, are made by Friedrich into moments of one another. And Reason’s steps on the cliff path to Truth are tenderly, ironically rendered. The Rückenfigur in the picture looks out to Totality straight away—for him infinity is a prospect, a spectacle, an image. But the man next to him with hat and staff wants the world to be closer—investigable, manipulable. He seems to be picking delicately at a flower or rare grass, or an insect in the grass; and he is naïve and absent-minded, far too near the edge of the cliff. Nothingness is always just on the other side of things. No wonder the woman reaches out to him with a movement of caution, or maybe instruction, her left hand firmly gripping a branch. The “moments” of consciousness in the world—easy totality, slightly dangerous absorption, a “care” directed inevitably to one’s fellow humans—are allowed their separate existence here. But they are all steps on the road to non-easy totality. The painting’s structure is that totality. Its sheltering circle of rocks and branches is the shape of the world—which in turn is the shape of the eye—which, time and again in Romanticism, is the shape of the “I,” the form that subjectivity “naturally” takes. And again, circularity is not necessarily the same as self-enclosure: Hegel and Friedrich insist on that. The leafing and bifurcating of the great circle; the fractal logic of the branches and greenery and eroded chalk—these are what knowing is, and what makes a totality as opposed to an empty Beyond. The frame is the world and our knowledge of it. The frame is actualized in the figures on the edge of the cliff: their to-and-fro of kinds of looking is totality personified.5

Fig. 2. Caspar David Friedrich, Kreidefelsen auf Rügen (Chalk Cliffs at Rügen), 1818. Oil on canvas, 90 x 70 cm. Kunst Museum Winterthur, Oskar Reinhart Foundation.
Fig. 3. Georges Seurat, Le Crotoy, amont (Le Crotoy, Upstream), 1889. Oil on canvas, 70.5 x 86.7 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts.

Compare Seurat’s Le Crotoy, Upstream, 1889 (fig. 3). Compare frame and world. The frame is Mind in the Seurat: the colors of the world are put there in the perspective of their “complementaries,” meaning ultimately the blues of infinity and the solar yellow of total illumination. The frame is the Understanding; and yes, Beauty—the grass and clouds and the almost monochrome townscape—lacks strength by comparison. Between frame and world there can only be a total, irreducible gap, for all the work of theory to reconcile them (and Seurat with one side of his sensibility half-believed in such a reconciliation). The frame that is Mind cannot be disposed of or leapt beyond; but the painting tells us that it stands at an absolute distance from the world’s occurrence. There will be no moment at which actuality “returns” to Mind. The essential Hegelian proposition is being resisted: that is, the recognition that the world of otherness and pure event is Mind in its true actuality—is a “becoming-other that has to be taken back.” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 11, § 20) Hegel, when he writes this phrase in the Phenomenology, italicizes “becoming-other.” I would put the stress rather on the necessity implied in his argument: the fact that, for Hegel, the falling of Mind into the accidentalness and transience of experience has to be taken back. Compare the section on “Beautiful Individuality” in Lectures on Fine Art. “The soul too, as natural life, is a subjective but purely inner individuality, present in reality only implicitly, without knowing itself as a return into itself and by that means as inherently infinite… Its manifestation achieves … only a formal life, unrest, mutability, concupiscence, and the anxiety and fear incident to this dependent life… The animation and life of spirit alone is free infinity … because in its manifestation it reverts into itself and remains at home with itself.” (Lectures on Fine Art, 154-155) And the lecturer, as so often, immediately repeats the point: “To Mind alone … is it given to impress the stamp of its own infinity and free return into itself upon its external manifestation, even though through this manifestation it is involved in restriction.”

Fig. 4. Georges Seurat, Le Chenal de Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe (The Channel of Gravelines, Petit Fort Philippe), 1890. Oil on Canvas, 73.3 x 92.1 cm. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

I think, to put it in a nutshell, that Seurat is out to resist the return here—the “taking back” of the becoming-other. And in contrast to Cliffs at Rügen, there precisely cannot be any individuation, or figuration, of Mind in the world within the frame—or infinitely far beyond it. The bollard in the foreground of Seurat’s The Channel of Gravelines, 1890 (fig. 4) makes the point almost comically: it is a parody of anchoring focalizing consciousness, like the ghost or dwarf of a Friedrich Rückenfigur.

And in all this Seurat is profoundly the voice of French painting’s enormous, relentless anti-Hegelianism. That is the point I shall make in conclusion. I want, by the way, to resist equating this anti-Hegelianism with a break, or even a watershed, in the art of the nineteenth century—the kind we call “modernism.” No doubt it has proved immensely productive to think of Hegel’s account of art’s history, and in particular his thoughts on art’s “pastness” for modern culture, in relation to a line of art that did eventually take pastness to be art’s tragic fate. But my sense of the century is different. More and more, I see French painting in the century’s last decades as existing in deep continuity with the art of Hegel’s day (the art we call Romanticism)—in continuity with it just because it went on struggling with its legacy. I look at Seurat’s Crotoy and see it as framing a reply to J. M. W. Turner’s Light and Colour (fig. 5)—very much still in Turner’s color-theory terms, though determined to transform Turner’s and Friedrich’s ocular circle into an implacable non-ocular square; just as I see Les Tapis rouges as an answer, ultimately, to Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (fig. 6). An answer, I stress. What the interior of the Algerian women had meant to Delacroix—the interior as “interiority,” the secret revealed, the dream space of desire and self-certainty entered into at last—had no doubt to be subjected in the Matisse to the full power of the negative, so that the interior could become otherness. But the models of Mind that had structured Turner’s and Delacroix’s world-picture are still determinant: the extremism of the answers to them in Matisse and Seurat only makes sense if the models, the Hegelian dramaturgy, persist in the culture as dominant. In other words, I see the ruthlessness—the vehemence—of French painting’s late-century account of experience not so much as a leaping forward, out of the Hegelian habitus, into some kind of entirely present mere appearance of things—Seurat without the infinite frame, Matisse without the ghost in the winding-sheet—but as propelled by an interminable wrestling with a dead, but immortal, dialectic.

Fig. 5. Joseph Mallord William Turner, Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning After Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, ca. 1843. Oil on canvas, 78.7 x 78.7 cm. Tate Britain, London.
Fig. 6. Eugène Delacroix, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in their Apartment), 1834. Oil on canvas, 180 x 229 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The ruthlessness and vehemence can take many forms. Do not be deceived (as most of our serious guardians of taste still are) by the seeming weakness of Monet’s answer to Mind. Its lack of strength is entirely deliberate, and ironic, and unnerving. “Lack of strength” is Beauty’s best weapon against Totality. I am sure that Matisse and Seurat looked back on the nonchalant blandness of Monet’s La Gare Saint-Lazare à l’extérieur (le signal), 1877 (fig. 7) and wondered why, in comparison, they were still trapped inside the “unrest … anxiety and fear” that Hegel had told them were qualities that went with simple sentience, mere “natural life.” Matisse and Seurat’s whole artistic effort was directed to escaping from that script of consciousness. But it was hard. How had Monet done it?

Fig. 7. Claude Monet, La Gare Saint-Lazare à l’extérieur (le signal) (Exterior of Saint-Lazare Station [The Signal]), 1877. 65 x 81.5 cm. Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover.

This essay will not attempt to work out, or work through, the particular moves and gambits that French painting adopted in its battle with Hegel; and of course it is the particularity of the moves and gambits that matter, and make French painting the world-historical event it is. Without the negation of Hegel becoming “manifest,” and taking such obdurate outward form—the form of Seurat’s frame, for instance, or of Matisse’s warping and flattening of interiority—the negation would mean little or nothing. A fuller version of this argument, it follows, would have as its task the re-description of the distinctive features of French art in specifically anti-Hegelian terms.

Let me simply enumerate some of the main heads.

First, and pervasively, there is French art’s pursuit of the instant, the instantaneous, conceived as an exit from Hegelian History—toward some new presence of Time, or toward a Time intercepted and replaced by an hors temps, or by some form of eternal recurrence, or by a pastness and presentness finally collapsed onto one another. Look at the signals in Gare Saint-Lazare—clocks without hands, anti-timepieces. Remember the famous word “tarrying” in the passage in the Preface to the Phenomenology on “tarrying with the negative”; and, equally a Hegel favorite, the word “lingering”—“each moment is necessary, and … each moment has to be lingered over, because each is itself a complete individual shape” in world history (Phenomenology of Spirit, 17, § 29). No lingering becomes French painting’s war-cry.

Second, there is the long campaign of French art to rid representation of the clash, the polarization, of optical opposites—of “moments” in a dialectical drama. (Let art be “After Caravaggio” at last.) Instead of light versus dark, then, let there be narrow, almost imperceptible shifts of tone, fragile evenness and equality, all-overness, de-differentiation. A dim clearing in the woods as Corot did it—look, for instance, at his Rocks in the Forest of Fontainebleau from the early 1860s (fig. 8)—not a path leading on, out of the half-light, into sunshine and shadow. An art without foreground and background, as in Cézanne’s House in Provence (fig. 9). An art—I recall here the great discussions of space in Cézanne that come down to us from Fritz Novotny—where everything in the world is made to exist in an uncanny middle distance, so that in some fundamental way it seems unrelated to “us” (we viewers, we representatives of Mind).6 Not close to us, but not far away. Disregarding us—neither an “outside” to the “inside” of an onlooker, nor, in spite of its strangeness, the figure of a fictive or notional world that is only real in its being-for-us.

Fig. 8. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Rochers en forêt de Fontainebleau (Rocks in the Forest of Fontainebleau), 1860/65. Oil on canvas, 46 x 59 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Fig. 9. Paul Cézanne, Maison en Provence (House in Provence), ca. 1885. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 81.3 cm. Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Third… but here I stop the enumeration, for already you have an idea of its flight path.

Let me instead try to pin down the various features’ purpose. The “instant,” to start with that, is ultimately a metaphor in French art for the spot of time that has been wrested back from being a “moment” in Hegel’s sense—being part of an unfolding toward truth. There is no “toward-ness” in Seurat and Cézanne. The instant is outwardness, “shining,” dispersal, appearance, the un-teleological, the unmediated, the unreturnable-from—and all these terms are to be valorized, not seen as false fragments of a whole. Always in Hegel the word “immediacy” comes with a qualification. “Sensuous determinations,” he writes, “have only powerless, abstract immediacy, or being as such.” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 30–31, § 33) The Subject “supersedes abstract immediacy … the immediacy which barely is.” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 30, § 32) An “uncomprehended immediacy” is still, for Mind, something not real. Immediacy encourages “passive indifference”: difference and activity—“the suffering and labor of the negative”—await. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 28, § 30) But is not the point of French painting that all these insufficiencies end up being shown as sufficient—indeed, true? Incomprehension, indifference, abstract immediacy—these moments of Mind have to be given unanswerable aesthetic dignity, and thus “magicked” (Hegel’s word) into declaring themselves the new form of totality. Consider Monet’s Wind Effect (Sequence of Poplars), 1891 (fig. 10). “The immediacy which barely is,” as Hegel calls it, is, in the Monet, precisely what wins, in its very passivity, over the same paragraph’s “looking the negative in the face.” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 19, § 32)

Fig. 10. Claude Monet, Effet de vent, série des peupliers (Wind Effect, Sequence of Poplars) 1891. Oil on canvas, 105 x 74 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

I return to Matisse and sum up. For Hegel, artistic reduction—say, in Matisse’s case, the reduction of our complex orientation-toward-the-world to a play of pure color touches—is always the manifestation of a work of Mind. Reduction “withdraw[s]” the viewer from “the profusion of details and accidents,” from “chance and externality” (Lectures on Fine Art, 156) and puts in their stead “pure appearance, produced by the spirit … the marvel of ideality … and an ironical attitude to what exists in nature and externally.” (Lectures on Fine Art, 163) But Matisse is the least ironical of artists. He takes no distance from the world he portrays—the very extremity of his displacements and substitutions, most notably of color, throws us back into contact with the starting point, the merely apprehended. French painting, that is to say, stakes everything on a reduction that will register not as “mental” but physical—an event, an occurrence, an “accident”—a touch or a scatter, as of the Thing-in-Itself. “Only a formal life, unrest, mutability, concupiscence…” (Lectures on Fine Art, 154) We go on struggling with the paradox that in Matisse “concupiscence” becomes the true form of restraint. But all French painting thrives on the paradox.

And this is why we resist it. We are all Hegelians, aesthetically speaking. We cannot help but give the preference to the power of the negative, the Temporal, the deathly. We compare a Monet Poplars to a late Cézanne Mont Sainte-Victoire (fig. 11), and inevitably we warm—we sentimentalists of the negative—to the picture of becoming that seems to contain within it a darkness, a touch of devastation, a “dismemberment.”  Monet’s mere instant unnerves us. His assembling of the world has an ominous superficiality to it, a tragic glib brightness, which goes on distracting and nonplussing.

Fig. 11. Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue des Lauves (Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves), ca. 1906. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

But finally, Hegel can help us to understand the intensity—the aesthetic dignity—of an art dedicated to undoing his world-picture. For he is time and again monstrously good at giving form to exactly the kinds of knowing that, in the end, he wishes us to leave behind, or to understand as partial, undialectical. Take the following passage from the Preface to the Phenomenology:

Appearance is the arising and passing away that does not in itself arise and pass away, but is “in itself,” and constitutes the actuality and the movement of the life of truth… Judged in the court of this movement, the single shapes of Spirit do not persist any more than determinate thoughts do, but they are as much positive and necessary moments, as they are negative and evanescent. In the whole of the movement, seen as a state of repose, what distinguishes itself therein, and gives itself particular existence, is preserved as something that recollects itself, whose existence is self-knowledge, and whose self-knowledge is just as immediately existence. (Phenomenology of Spirit, 27, § 47)

It is clear as we read these sentences that the initial movements of consciousness Hegel is describing here—the arising and passing away that constitute appearance—are for him no more than a “moment” of comprehension, with always the true shape of Spirit calling them on. But the movements themselves are spellbinding—their actuality lives on the page. The sentences are beautiful. We could easily tarry with them. We could, as I think the French did, make them the motto of a line of art.

If we need a final anti-Hegelian voice, my choice would be Samuel Beckett’s. In 1934 he saw a show of Cézannes, and was dazzled by it. Here is a letter written at the time to Thomas McGreevy:

What a relief the Mont Sainte Victoire after all the anthropomorphized landscape… after all the landscape “promoted” to the emotions of the hiker, postulated as concerned with the hiker (what an impertinence, worse than Aesop and the animals), alive the way a lap or a fist is alive… [Cézanne] seems to have been the first to see landscape and state it as material of a strictly peculiar order, incommensurable with all human expressions whatsoever. Atomistic landscape with no velleities of vitalism, landscape with personality [for sure], but personality in its own terms…7

Cézanne’s art is a battleground of interpretation. In no sense is Beckett’s reading brought on as definitive—I simply mean it to sum up the vehemence always lying behind French painting’s good manners. And of course Hegel’s world-view will never go away, least of all if Cézanne is the subject. Think of the phrase Joachim Gasquet has his “Cézanne” coming out with in one of their conversations—a phrase taken up, in slightly simplified form, by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “Le paysage se pense en moi.”8

I imagine Beckett coming across the aphorism in December 1945, when Merleau-Ponty’s essay first saw the light of day in the little magazine Fontaine; and Beckett rounding on the argument with true Waiting for Godot glee:

“The landscape thinks itself in me!” Miserable anthropomorphism! “To Mind alone … is it given to impress the stamp of its own infinity and free return into itself upon its external manifestation.” “The existence of the world becomes for Self-consciousness its own truth and presence; it is certain of experiencing only itself therein.” Hiker’s sentimentality! In Cézanne, thank G**—in Monet, in Seurat, in Pissarro, in all French painting at its best—the landscape un-thinks “Me” in it!



1. See Meyer Schapiro, Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions (New York: George Braziller, 1997), esp. 23-42. The issues are central to Fried’s work from his Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) up to the present. They are put in a nutshell in Chapter One of his Courbet’s Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 1-52, for instance, and in the Introduction to Manet’s Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1-22.
2. See T. J. Clark, “Beauty lacks strength: Hegel and the art of his century,” in The Art of Hegel’s Aesthetics: Hegelian Philosophy and the Perspectives of Art History, eds. Paul Kottman and Michael Squire (Paderborn: Wilhelm Frink, 2018), 239-262. The text is fully illustrated. My thanks to the editors for their help, and to Robert Pippin for his questions at the conference.
3. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977). Subsequent citations are from this edition.
4. G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, vol. 1, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 156. Subsequent citations are from this volume and edition.
5. The precise nature of the figures’ responses to each other is uncertain, of course—Friedrich refrains from spelling out a plot. My reading of the interactions is not meant as definitive.
6. See Fritz Novotny, Cézanne und das Ende der wissenschaftlichen Perspektive (Vienna: Verlag von Anton Schroll & Co, 1938). For selected translations, see Christopher S. Wood, ed., The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 379–433.
7. Samuel Beckett, letter to Thomas McGreevy, 8 September 1934, in The Letters of Samuel Beckett, vol. 1: 1929–1940, eds. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 222.
8. See Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne (Paris: Éditions Bernheim-Jeune, 1926), 132.  Gasquet’s text reads: “Le paysage se reflète, s’humanise, se pense en moi.  Je l’objectivise, le projette, le fixe sur ma toile…  L’autre jour, vous me parliez de Kant.  Je vais bafouiller, peut-être, mais il me semble que je serais la conscience subjective de ce paysage, comme ma toile en serait la conscience objective.” Few people believe this reports Cézanne accurately. Compare Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Le doute de Cézanne” (1945), in Sens et Non-Sens (Paris: Les Éditions Nagel, 1966), 30.
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