Unreal Nature

January 12, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… I will read the cropped border as a kind of designation of image-making as play, play with habitual boundaries of all sorts, an oscillation between contingency and determination …

This is from The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity by Linda Nochlin (1994):

… ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned and men at last are forced to face … the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.’ This is Karl Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, speaking at mid-century of the dynamic destructiveness and self-disintegration inherent in the capitalist system and bourgeois society more generally. ‘By “modernity” I mean the ephemeral, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.’ [Baudelaire]

Edgar Degas, Ludovic Lepic and Daughters in the Place de la Concorde, mid-1970s

… Marshall Berman … maintains that it is crucial to note Baudelaire’s use of concepts of fluidity — ‘floating existences’ — and gaseousness (which ‘envelopes and soaks us like an atmosphere’) as symbols for the distinctive quality of modern life and stresses the fact that fluidity and vaporousness would become primary qualities in the self-consciously modernist painting — as well as music and literature — that would emerge later in the century.

The Impressionist painters of the 1870s hardly needed to learn about modernity and the modern city from Marx or even Baudelaire: and, certainly, the fluidity and vaporousness, the disintegrative structure and open brushwork they developed to accommodate to the urban body in pieces in their cityscapes rise from different roots and sources, including, of course, that primary source of modern visual culture, photography. But their paintings of the urban, specifically Parisian, vista share with Marx and Baudelaire a sense of that loss of solidity, a compensatory dynamism and flow, a sometimes centrifugal and often random organization and, above all, the notion that fragmentariness, in the broadest sense of that term — including both the cut-off view of the body and the cropped picture-surface — is a quality shared in the modern city by both the perceiver-constructor and the object of perception.

… There is one painting of Manet in which all the complex, and often contradictory, significations of the crop, the cut, and the fragmented figure in relation to the representation of modernity and the construction of modernism as a style are laid out in all their aspects: Masked Ball at the Opera, rejected for the Salon of 1874. Here, we are confronted not only with a crowd of Parisian men-of-the-world, and dominoed and costumed women, but also with, at the left, half a Punchinello, and, at the top, a female torso, a female leg and a sash hanging over the balcony. To paraphrase the painter’s friend Mallarmé, who perfectly grasped the unusual coincidence of the casual and the deliberate in Manet’s pictorial vision, the artist has here discovered a new ‘manner of cutting down pictures’ so that the frame has ‘all the charm of a merely fanciful boundary, such as the view I would see if I framed my eyes with my hand at any given moment.’

Masked Ball at the Opera, 1873

… Turning first to an examination of the cut-off view, the cropped picture surface in the Ball, I realize that it may itself suggest two opposing interpretations:

a. Total contingency: An equivalent of the meaningless flow of modern reality itself, a casual reality which has no narrative beginning, middle or end (Mallermé’s ‘view I would see … ‘). This is a structure associated with aspects of nineteenth-century realism in art and literature, and with the new medium of photography as well. Photography was often thought to be particularly ‘artless’ and, by the same token, particularly associated with reality, because of its tendency simply to record the raw data of visual experience, whatever happened to be caught by the lens at a particular time, whether or not a unified composition resulted, and whether or not human figures were oddly dissected by the photographic frame.

b. Total determination: the image is understood to be cropped, cut off, deliberately, as a function of the artist’s will and aesthetic decision. The cut or the crop must be read as a strategy of that ‘laying bare of the device’ central to modernist creation. I am forced to pay attention to the formal organization of the picture surface, which becomes the realm of the pictorial signifier, not a simulacrum of reality, however modern.

c. A third alternative: I will read the cropped border as a kind of designation of image-making as play, play with habitual boundaries of all sorts, an oscillation between contingency and determination frequently encountered in Manet’s work and, I believe, central to his conception of the modern in art.




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