Unreal Nature

April 30, 2011

A Calling

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:27 am

… Evocation: a call and, in the call, breath, exhalation, inspiration and expiration. In appellare, what comes first is not the idea of “naming,” but that of a pressure, an impulsion.

This is from Listening by Jean-Luc Nancy (2007):

…Is listening something of which philosophy is capable? Or — we’ll insist a little, despite everything, at the risk of exaggerating the point — hasn’t philosophy superimposed upon listening, beforehand and of necessity, or else substituted for listening, something else that might be more on the order of understanding?

Isn’t the philosopher someone who always hears (and who hears everything), but who cannot listen, or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize?

Not, however, without finding himself immediately given over to the slight keen indecision that grates, rings out, or shouts between “listening” and “understanding”: between two kinds of hearing, between two paces [allures] of the same (the same sense, but what sense precisely? that’s another question), between a tension and a balance, or else, if you prefer, between a sense (that one listens to) and a truth (that one understands), although the one cannot, in the long run, do without the other?

… To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin — at least the sound that is musically listened to, that is gathered and scrutinized for itself, not, however, as an acoustic phenomenon (or not merely as one) but as a resonant meaning, a meaning whose sense is supposed to be found in resonance, and only in resonance.

But what can be the shared space of meaning and sound? Meaning consists in a reference [renvoi]. In fact, it is made of a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject or to itself, all simultaneously. Sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding “in me,” as we say (we will return to this “inside” of the subject; we will return to nothing but that).

… as we have known since Aristotle, sensing [sentir] (aisthesis) is always a perception [ressentir], that is, a feeling-oneself-feel [se-sentir-sentir]: or, if you prefer, sensing is a subject, or it does not sense.

… One can say, then, at least, that meaning and sound share the space of a referral, in which at the same time they refer to each other, and that, in a very general way, this space can be defined as the space of a self, a subject. A self is nothing other than a form or function of referral: a self is made of a relationship to self, or of a presence to self, which is nothing other than the mutual referral between a perceptible individuation and an intelligible identity (not just the individual in the current sense of the word, but in him the singular occurrences of a state, a tension, or, precisely, a “sense”) [ … ] A subject feels: that is his characteristic and his definition. This means that he hears (himself), sees (himself), touches (himself), tastes (himself), and so on, and that he thinks himself or represents himself, approaches himself and strays from himself, and thus always feels himself feeling a “self” that escapes [ s’échappe] or hides [se retranche] as long as it resounds elsewhere as it does in itself, in a world and in the other.

… When one is listening, one is on the lookout for a subject, something (itself) that identifies itself by resonating from self to self, in itself and for itself, hence, outside of itself, at once the same as and other than itself, one in the echo of the other, and this echo is like the very sound of its sense. But the sound of sense is how it refers to itself or how it sends back to itself [s’envoie] or addresses itself, and thus how it makes sense.

… To be listening is … to enter into tension and to be on the lookout for a relation to self: not, it should be emphasized, a relationship to “me” (the supposedly given subject), or to the “self” of the other (the speaker, the musician, also supposedly given, with his subjectivity), but to the relationship in self, so to speak, as it forms a “self” or a “to itself” in general, and if something like that ever does reach the end of its formation. Consequently, listening is passing over to the register of presence to self, it being understood that the “self” is precisely nothing available (substantial or subsistent) to which one can be “present,” but precisely the resonance of a return [renvoi].

… Sound essentially comes and expands, or is deferred and transferred. [ … ] It is a present in waves on a swell, not in a point on a line; it is a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches out or contracts, and so on.

… Sound (and/or sense) is what is not at first intended. It is not first “intentional”: on the contrary, sound is what places its subject, which has not preceded it with an aim, in tension, or under tension.

On this account, we should say … that music (or even sound in general) is not exactly a phenomenon; that is to say, it does not stem from a logic of manifestation. It stems from a different logic, which would have to be called evocation, but in this precise sense: while manifestation brings presence to light, evocation summons (convokes, invokes) presence to itself. It does not establish it any more than it supposes it already established. It anticipates its arrival and remembers its departure, itself remaining suspended and straining between the two: time and sonority, sonority as time and as meaning. Evocation: a call and, in the call, breath, exhalation, inispiration and expiration. In appellare, what comes first is not the idea of “naming,” but that of a pressure, an impulsion.

… While the subject of the target is always already given, posed in itself to its point of view, the subject of listening is always still yet to come, spaced, traversed, and called by itself, sounded by itself …

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

April 29, 2011

A Making Wave

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:10 am

… it is stretched like that hollow and quietness of water that is formed at the root of a making wave, and it waits …

This is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs); first published in 1941. It’s night and Agee is upstairs in his room in the attic of the house of one of the tenant farmer’s where he’s staying:

… It is the middle and pure height and whole of summer and a summer night, the held breath, of a planet’s year …

… I know of the lateness and full height by the quietly starved brightness of my senses, which some while ago made the transition past any need for sleep without taking much notice of it, as, in the late darkness, the long accustomed liner loses the last black headland, and quietly commends her forehead upon the long open home of the sea …

… above me, black: where, beyond bones of rafters underlighted, a stomach sucked against the spine in fear, the roof draws up its peak: and this is a frightening dark, which has again to do with an attic: for it is the darkness that stands just up the stairs, sucking itself out of sight of the light, from an attic door left ajar, noticed on your way to bed, and remembered after you are there: so that I muse what not quite creatures and what not quite forms are suspended like bats above and behind my bent head; and how far down in their clustered weight they are stealing while my eyes are on this writing; and how skillfully swiftly they suck themselves back upward into the dark when I turn my head: and above all, why they should be so coy, who, with one slather of cold membranes drooping, could slap out light and have me: and who own me since all time’s beginnings. Yet this mere fact of thinking holds them at distance, as crucifixes demons, so lightly and well that I am almost persuaded of being merely fanciful; in which exercise I would be theirs most profoundly beyond rescue, not knowing and not fearing, I am theirs.

… Just a half-inch beyond the surface of this wall I face is another surface, one of the four walls which square and collaborate against the air another room, and there lie sleeping, on two iron beds and on pallets on the floor, a man and his wife and her sister, and four children, a girl, and three harmed boys. Their lamp is out, their light is done this long while, and not in a long while has any one of them made a sound. Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather, I have a not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live, and thus I know they rest and the profundity of their tiredness, as if I were in each one of these seven bodies whose sleeping I can almost touch through this wall, and which in the darkness I so clearly see, with the whole touch and weight of my body.

[ … ]

… And the land:

The land, pale fields, black cloudy woodlands, and the late lamps in the central streets of the rare and inexpiable cities: New Orleans, Birmingham; whose facades stand naked in the metal light of their fear:

the land, in its largeness: stretches, is stretched:

it is stretched like that hollow and quietness of water that is formed at the root of a making wave, and it waits: not a leaf, not a grass blade, trembles even: but is stretched: stretched: stretched: and waits (the blood stream strident meanwhile coursing): waits (the whippoorwill has established in a much nearer tree; one almost knows the feathers that work at his larynx: but he is uncertain).

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

April 28, 2011

That From a Long Way Off Look Like Flies

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:39 am

Today I take a break from art, art, and more art due to serious distraction inflicted by a post, “Eletelephony,” on Felix Grant’s blog. The poem of the post title brought to mind the story “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” by Jorge Luis Borges found in Other inquisitions (1937-1952). I’ve been studiously trying to fit the elephone and the telephunk into the Chinese encyclopaedia described as follows in Borges’s story:

 … These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Borges’s story ends as follows:

… Leaving hopes and utopias apart, probably the most lucid ever written about language are the following words by Chesterton: “He knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest… Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of this own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire.”

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

April 27, 2011

That Tree

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 2:43 pm

“We’re not putting the rose, the single rose, in the little glass vase in the window — we’re digging a hole for the tree — and as we dig have disappeared in it.” — William Carlos Williams from a talk given at the University of Washington, 1948

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Indefinite Reflection

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:43 am

… One set of looks is relayed by another — and then by still others: looking multiplies in a veritable mirror-game of indefinite reflection.

This is the first of second of two posts today from The World at a Glance by Edward S. Casey (2007):

… Let us, however, resist the language of “frozen,” a notion that is foreign to the flow of time: Cartier-Bresson remarks that “the world is movement,” and if this is so nothing, not even the most portentious photograph of the moment of death (as in Capa’s Falling Soldier) can undo the liveliness of temporal development. Cartier-Bresson himself famously maintained that the proper designation for the temporality of photography is the “decisive moment.” But his discussion of the term exhibits its considerable ambiguity. “Sometimes you light upon the picture in seconds,” he remarks, but “it might also require hours or days.” To what, then, does the decisive moment belong? To the action of the photographer — that is, the moment in which the lens is definitely engaged: the “click” of the apparatus — or to the subject matter of the photograph: its decisive moment, as it were? Or our own decisive moment of viewing? Whose moment is it? Where is it located? How are we to find it?

The decisive moment is the moment of the look. The fact that this moment is manifold — that it is differently embodied and situated — only makes its role all the more crucial. First of all, there is the look that belongs to the subject matter that is being photographed: in the case of human beings, this ranges from the briefest of cursory glances (for example William Klein’s Mère et Fille, in which mother and daughter are both shown looking aside, glancing at something off the margin of the photo that has caught their attention momentarily) to the most pensive and prolonged gaze (for example, in many of Avedon’s straight-on portraits in which the photographic subject, eminent or unknown, seems to look right into our soul; or in Newman’s Woman on Porch, West Palm Beach, in which a black woman is looking despairingly off her porch into a very uncertain future). Sometimes a “collective look” is at stake — as in many of Klein’s dense and crowded photographs taken in the midst of crowds: for example, Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1959, in which four people are caught glancing, two in one direction and two in the other. Many other variations are possible but in every case what matters is that the subject matter is caught looking, whether glancing or gazing: these are all photographs of the look, whatever its exact modality.

… We here encounter a situation in which the moment of the look combines with the moment of the image: the two moments becoming one in an intensely visual experience. We, the viewers of the photographic image, look at a work that possesses, by a complex combination of material constraints, its own visual allure. … As I look into this world by means of the photographic image, I sense that its occupants are inviting me to join them. They seem to regard me, the onlooker, as a companion of their own looking. This looking, captured by the mechanical look of the camera, is twofold: they have “looks” as sheer appearances (“how they look”) and they look out from where they stand. As I see them in the photographic image, both kinds of look float among their original occurrence, their selection for photographic reproduction, the creation of the physical print, and my present viewing. One set of looks is relayed by another — and then by still others: looking multiplies in a veritable mirror-game of indefinite reflection.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

There

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:37 am

… it looks at us even as we look away: this is the core of its hauntingness.

… [he/she/it] will be haunting us so long as at least one material analogon supporting that look still exists.

This is the first of two posts today from The World at a Glance by Edward S. Casey (2007):

… everything, insofar as it can be considered something sheerly apparent or phenomenal — showing itself in itself — is already on its way to being an image: a self-presenting image of the thing itself. True, it never becomes entirely or simply such an image, or it would cease to be a thing — it would become other than itself, e.g., a sheer sign.But when it becomes an image-thing, it demonstrates that the image-potential of each thing is powerfully present in the thing itself. And if this is so, pictorial image-things such as photographs and movies, paintings and videos only serve to realize this potential more effectively than would a nonpictorial material thing itself: their pictoriality accentuates the image component and lets it stand forth more saliently. Otherwise said, the image-thing allows the thing to become expressly an image: to step forward into an explicitly imagistic format, as if to say: “This is not just X but an image of Y!” The thing as image — true of all things we experience in their sheer appearing — is now a pictorial image: an image-thing that is an image-of-something. We have in effect two hybrids for the price of one.

… It is both image and image-of, at once true to its origin as an imago that captures and holds a prior reality within its own thinghood — as in an “imago dei,” an icon that itself contains divine power — and a reinstatement of reality, something that refers to a reality that is outside itself.

The issue is not that of playing epistemic games in which image and reality are competitors or rivals (games in which there are no real victors) but to realize that photographs — along with paintings, movies, videos, DVDs, and television, as well as images on the Internet — possess a genuinely productive polyvalence: they are at once images and things, image-things and pictorial image-things such that no decision has to be made in favor of any of these various terms. Such polyvalence is a source of inspiration for painters, filmmakers, photographers, and video artists. Even if this complex source is rarely made explicit, much less a matter of coherent argument, visual artists thrive on the very fact that they are not forced to choose between thing and image-thing or pictorial image thing.

… A photograph is a pictorial image-thing, a triplex artwork whose effect is reinforced by virtue of its being at once image and thing and picture.

A photograph gains its full haunting power from the fact that its image is continually recoverable. Even if we never re-perceive a given physical photograph, we know that its imagistic-pictorial content is available to us in an album or an archive, a book or a museum: each of which maintains it as perceptible for ourselves and others. Wherever we may be, the image is there, supported by an appropriate material thing to which (were we so inclined) we can gain access in principle. We sense Walker Evans to be still gazing at us from his self-portrait — in whichever format it may assume. Indeed, it looks at us even as we look away: this is the core of its hauntingness. The merest memory, or just chancing upon the cover of the book Walker Evans: La soif du regard in a Parisian bookstore confirms this. Whatever the status of our relationship to the particular material “analogon” in which his look appears — that is, whether this analogon is now in front of us, or merely remembered — we are assured that Evans will be seen as looking out through it. He will be haunting us so long as at least one material analogon supporting that look still exists.

Even in the case of photographs in which no face, human or otherwise appears, we often experience the subject matter of the work as addressing itself to us: sometimes accusingly or angrily, sometimes gently or humorously, sometimes indifferently. But in every case there is a sense that the depicted “object” or “event” is looking out toward us as its current viewers. The exterocentric aspect of such photographs lends to them not just a life of their own but also a distinct sense of their own identity, even their own mass. This identity and mass, phantom-like and belonging exclusively to the image, is another basis of their haunting us. This is true of the least photographic image — whereas it holds only for certain paintings and movies. Just as Klee experienced himself as looked at by trees in a forest, so we may sense ourselves as somehow witnessed by the trees or flowers or animals that figure into photographs: we become the objects of their enigmatic but directed look.

… Another aspect of the perduring power of photographs relates to the hand more than to the eye. I refer to their comparative handiness, their literal manipulability: the fact that they typically fit easily into one’s own hand. This is especially the case with snapshots, whose comparatively diminutive size allows them to reside comfortably in the palm of the hand: but it is also true for albums or books of photographs, which are produced so as to be held by one hand while the other turns the pages. This is not just a matter of convenience or convention; the literally “handy” size invites palpation on the spectator’s part in actions of holding, turning, and so on. The result is a special form of intimacy, implying that a given photographic image is minimally mine — at least mine to admire, manipulate, play with, and more. Even if the image itself is of someone else, even of a complete stranger, I still regard it as entering my life-world. When I look at images of drifters from the American West as photographed by Richard Avedon — people whom I have never met and who look back at me from their very strangeness — I still experience them as momentarily part of my world (and sometimes I in theirs), and in any case as ingredients in the intimacy of my act of looking at them.

… photographic images present themselves as coming to us directly from their world of origin, with a minimum of cognitive machinery attached to them: this is why they are experienced as gratuitous offerings from another place, with few if any conditions for their viewing other than a certain visual curiosity on our part.

“Look at me,” photographs seem to say, “and do so without concern for school or style or epoch or author.”

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

April 26, 2011

The Tongue Is An Eye

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:21 am

Authors are actors, books are theatres.

Money is a kind of poetry.

Realism is a corruption of reality.

Aristotle is a skeleton.

The fundamental difficulty in any art is the problem of the normal.

Thought tends to collect in pools.

The world is a force, not a presence.

The tongue is an eye.

The above, which I find quite satisfyingly irritating, are from the “Aphorisms” section of Opus Posthumous by Wallace Stevens. Two more that are a little too serious to make the cut but which are still mildly entertaining:

The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.

To live in the world but outside of existing conceptions of it.

And there were bunches and bunches of the kind that we don’t like: “Happiness is … ” “Poetry is …. [happiness, health, etc. etc.] If you have any of these lying about your own house, you might want to shred them right now, just in case there is a Posthumous in your future.

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Common Calibration

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:04 am

… adjudication presupposes a nonexistent scale of equivalence.

This is the second of two posts today from an essay “Notes on the Ascent of a Fictitious Mountain” in the collection For Documentary: Twelve Essays by Dai Vaughan* (1999):

… Twenty-five years ago, in an article on Robert Flaherty, I quoted from the commentary of Industrial Britain the words “So these industrial towns are not quite so drab as they seem, for behind all the smoke beautiful things are being made,” and observed: “But we know perfectly well that ‘these industrial towns’ are a good deal more drab than they seem to a cameraman with a good eye for composition.”

I was never happy with this formulation; and it has continued to nag at my mind long after the remainder of the article has evaporated from my memory. The difficulty is that it seems to suggest there is a correct balance to be found — hence somewhere a common calibration — between the qualities of photography and the qualities of lives. Obviously there is not.

… As we watched the rushes of a Mongolian carpet factory, which had been shot in hypnotic close-up on hands, faces, and the richly coloured wools, the sound recordist remarked that he remembered this factory as a bleak, raw, comfortless place. With his comments in mind, I tried to find ways of setting these shots “in quotes” as projections of a cultivated national self-image in the manner of a poster. But we cannot put everything in quotes. Sooner or later we must make a decision whether a certain quality of image is or is not appropriate to the matter recorded. Was the close-up shooting of the carpet weavers a proper portrayal of the intensity of their concentration and perhaps also of some level of satisfaction in their work? Again, adjudication presupposes a nonexistent scale of equivalence.

… Again and again we tread the same ground, seeking that slight unevenness which may help us map the buried truth. One more example. In a film I was cutting about a mercurial character, much given to hesitation and digression, rarely finishing a sentence before starting another, I came into severe conflict with the director over the extent to which the speech patterns, in voice-over, should be tidied up for the sake of clarity. The director’s position, I think, was that this was not a vérité exercise, that we were composing a portrait with filmic materials, that no one portrait could be inherently more valid than another, and that to grant priority to the accidentals of the rushes was perverse. My own position — more difficult to define, for I was certainly not arguing for total nonintervention — was that we were progressively discarding those very elements which made the subject an engaging, quirky, and likeable personality. Toward the end of the schedule, however, the subject visited the cutting room. I became aware that what I had perceived as “mercurial” carried with it something darker, more unmanageable, almost entropic; and I began to see in the director’s compulsion to curb this personality a fear of disorganisation, of loss of control, of the dissolution of that filmic coherence which director and editor alike are inevitably seeking. Leaving aside the question whether, in this instance, the director had not confused a threat to his authorial control with a threat to the inner logic of the text, we are left with the fact that the personality to which I felt responsibility, and which I hoped to reconstruct in the film, was not that of the subject as directly encountered but that which I had inferred from a reading of rushes. And this, moreover, cannot be dismissed as error or misfortune: for it replicates precisely, and quite properly, the situation of a viewer faced with the completed work.

… My most revealing reaction, when meeting people who have appeared in films I have cut, is to be shocked that they should say and do things which did not occur in the rushes. The filmmaker says to the subjects as perceived by the viewer: “The limits of my language are the limits of your world.”

[*As I can’t find an online bio of Mr. Vaughan, here is what’s on the back of his book: “Dai Vaughan, who resides in London, has been an editor of documentary films for more than thirty-five years. His previous books include novels and a biography.”]

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

Perception Brutalised

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:02 am

… we suspect that the photograph, which seems to posit all other visualisations as subjective and hence discreditable, will negate the experience of seeing: will brutalise our perception.

This is the first of two posts today from an essay “Notes on the Ascent of a Fictitious Mountain” in the collection For Documentary: Twelve Essays by Dai Vaughan* (1999):

… I have sometimes found myself forced to leave a cinema, not because anything particularly unpleasant was being shown, but because the very activity of animating images which I was not also free to stop, the feeling of meanings into a text which had the physical magnitude to overwhelm me with them, the shriek of feedback as I locked into a tight short circuit with activities which raced ahead of me, had become intolerable.

The horror of documentary can lie in our being required to conceptualise (or — if there is such a word, perceptualise) the world in a certain way and being, at least for the duration of the film, powerless to intervene in it. The horror of a “horror” fiction lies in the fact that the horror to which we are reacting is not in any way pertinent to the pro-filmic but has drawn its compulsion, its power to trap us, wholly out of our own psychic resources.

[ … ]

… It is easy to dislike photographs: not so much when we see them as when we foresee them. Glancing through the bus window at the dawn light on the Albert memorial, we can imagine — or imagine we can imagine — exactly what a good colour supplement spread would look like: the dewy grey of the grass, precisely rendered, in muted dissonance with the cuprous stains on the white stone; the figures of the tableaux beckoning and gesticulating to an absent multitude . . . and we resent this reducibility, this predictable accuracy which renders all details equal, denies us the eye’s choice of emphasis and disqualifies such nonvisual components as the chill in the air or the elusive scent of leaf-smoke. In short, we suspect that the photograph, which seems to posit all other visualisations as subjective and hence discreditable, will negate the experience of seeing: will brutalise our perception.

Conversely, we are all familiar with the way in which a glossy picture postcard, which we would normally dismiss as too bland to be expressive of anything, can take on a different quality if it shows a place we are about to visit. We scan the image searchingly. What character of light is represented by this insensitive colour? How would it feel to mingle with that crowd, to sit on that terrace, to look back across those hills? By the shift in focus of our attention, the glazed surface of the convention seems revealed as transparent. When confronted with an old postcard, in hand-tinted monochrome, where the conventions, though still inexpressive, have shed their facile familiarity, we seek both to reinstate that familiarity — to think ourselves back to when the conventions would have been neutral — and yet to penetrate these conventions to the actuality of what is shown. The “fascination” of old postcards lies in our attempt to perform these contrary movements simultaneously . . .

[*As I can’t find an online bio of Mr. Vaughan, here is what’s on the back of his book: “Dai Vaughan, who resides in London, has been an editor of documentary films for more than thirty-five years. His previous books include novels and a biography.”]

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

April 25, 2011

Rhyparographos

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:21 am

… for as long as painting’s mode of vision would be constructed by men, the space in which women were obliged to lead their lives would be taken from them and imagined through the values of the ‘greater’ existence from which they were excluded.

This is from the fourth and last chapter, “Still Life and ‘Feminine’ Space,” in Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting by Norman Bryson (1990):

In the section of the Natural History devoted to painting in the antique world, Pliny spends less than a paragraph discussing the greatest Greek painter to work in the lower genres, Piraeicus:

In mastery of his art but few take rank above him, yet by his choice of a path he perhaps marred his own success, for he followed a humble line, winning however the highest glory that it had to bring. He painted barbers’ shops, cobblers’ stalls, asses, eatables (obsonia) and similar subjects, earning for himself the name of rhyparographos.

The label could hardly be more dismissive. It is an insult: ‘rhyparographer’ means painter of rhyparos, literally of waste or filth; the association is with things that are physically and morally unclean. Yet, at the same time, Pliny tells us that the paintings of Piraeicus were highly prized: ‘In these subjects he could give consummate pleasure, selling them for more than other artists received for their larger pictures.’ From Pliny on, the painting of what are regarded as ‘trivial’ or ‘sordid’ subjects has been received by Western culture with deep ambivalence.

Skipping over various diversions (Bryson admits as much at one point where he writes: “Someone might complain at this point that the argument has strayed from still life into genre scenes, where different conditions may apply.”) I’m not complaining but I shall, in this post, stick to the chapter’s theme of the feminine and still life. I shall also, leave out most of his excursion into Freudianism that precedes his conclusions:

… This sense of the space of still life as alien to the male painter, incapable of being occupied from the inside, and at the same time as a place of fascination and obsessive looking, points to an ambivalence which the discourse of psychoanalysis does much to clarify. Still life of food, in particular, seems to require extremes of rationalisation and displacement. In Cotán, the approach to food is elaborately indirect: it must not be touched; its sensuous appeal is disavowed. At the same time, the repression involved invests the contents of the larder with an uncanny intensity that makes sense in terms of Freud’s concept of a return of the repressed. In Caravaggio, the value of food as nourishment is denied, and food becomes the pretext for a bravura display of artistic strength. Similarly in Cézanne, the table is ignored as a place of nourishment and converted instead into the space of a studio, where creatural dependency turns into extraordinary aesthetic ambition. In Dutch vanitas still life, the issue of nourishment is deflected into a ‘higher’ discourse of ethics.

[paragraph break added by me for easier online reading] Food is associated with an unruliness that is quickly returned to order by the craft values embodied in painting itself. The table is marked by complex signs of hesitation, bordering on refusal and the re-assertion of masculine identity. In the still life of luxury, the space is rebuilt in terms of male wealth and ownership. In all these cases one finds the same pattern of rejection of the space of the table per se; to be acceptable it must present itself as some other thing — art, morality, prestige, production — through which male superiority may be re-affirmed. Above all, the space must be controlled: subjected to a relentless and strenuous focus; redesigned first as a composition of objects, and redesigned once more as a composition on canvas. The exteriority of the painter to the scene is dealt with by power working on a number of levels at once, in a tremendous exertion of masculine resources operating upon the scene from outside.

… Within the terms of their own discourse the theorists were right in supposing that between the ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms of painting there existed a fundamental opposition of values. That was exactly the founding axiom of the ideology they worked with. Megalography seeks an image of human life that exalts the exceptional event and individual, magnifies personal distinction and achievement, and raises existence to the level of the gods. Against that, what we have been calling rhopography finds the truth of human life in those things which greatness overlooks, the ordinariness of daily routine and the anonymous, creatural life of the table. It is the same opposition which, in Greek theatre, is projected as the masks of tragedy and comedy. Their perspectives are complementary and intertwined, equally true and untrue, and between them, by exaggeration, they were perhaps able to give some structure and intelligibility to the confusing mass of human experience that lies between their extremes.

[paragraph break added by me for easier online reading] It was inescapable that, in painting, the opposition between them fed into the division of the sexes. In the societies which produced still life, the opposition seemed naturally to parallel the construction of gender, with men leading so to speak megalographic, and women rhopographic, lives. For as long as painting and the discussion of painting, concurred in awarding the palm to megalography, the domestic, interior space of still life would be represented as it appeared to men: inviting, alien, heimlich yet also estranged. And for as long as painting’s mode of vision would be constructed by men, the space in which women were obliged to lead their lives would be taken from them and imagined through the values of the ‘greater’ existence from which they were excluded. As the category of the nude pictured women’s body from the outside and re-fashioned it according to the logic of another point of view, so still life pictured the space of women from the outside and imposed on it the values of another world.

Fede Galizia [female painter], Peaches in a pierced white faience basket (1578-1630)

Given that last paragraph, I think maybe you can see why I found what was in my previous post to be … confusing (but interesting if taken as unrelated to the above).

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

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