Unreal Nature

February 2, 2015

Material to Work With

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… let us ask of the photographs that follow, one after the other, whether they show the beauty of inflections or the beauty of innuendos …

This is from Manet and the Execution of Maximilian by John Elderfield (2006):

… We are … to imagine Manet poring over a succession of newspaper reports of a distant horrifying event, hoping for clarification and definitive truth, as we do now, and either not finding it or disbelieving it, as we do now. We are also to imagine him picking out what seemed plausible, perhaps because it came from a trusted source; perhaps because it sounded accidentally real rather than essentially ideal; or because it seemed credibly candid. But also, importantly, because it offered him material to work with, either reinforcing or altering his artistic as well as his political expectations. And we are finally to imagine him putting and piecing together these fragments, knowing that they did not realistically or completely describe what had happened, but offered, rather, the means of an imaginative act of recovery of something distant and quickly receding into the past.

Manet_Maximilian
[image from Wikipedia]

… Narratives are composed of events and existents. Events in a narrative tend to be related or mutually entailing, which is how they shape narrative time. What I have referred to as details of events are more properly called existents, that is to say, the people, places, and things that occupy and are occupied by events. “Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.” But, even though existents may thus motivate events and be motivated by them, they occupy another dimension: if events shape the temporality of a narrative, existents shape its spatiality. … When Manet read one newspaper report after the next, he was adding somewhat to his fund of information of story-events (but not much: the important story-event was simple, the execution of Maximilian and his generals). However, he was adding far more to his knowledge of story-existents (of details of the people, place, and things that composed the event of the execution).

… even while delivering this human message, Manet delivers the message that he has taken this humanly moving subject, broken it apart, and reestablished it on a different basis. As Bataille correctly says, to take liberties with the subject is not to neglect it. “After all, the subject in Manet’s pictures is not so much ‘killed’ as simply overshot, outdistanced; not so much obliterated in the interests of pure painting as transfigured by the stark purity of that painting.”

[ … ]

… An extraordinary story of an execution, “The Secret Miracle” by Jorge Luis Borges, tells of Jaromir Hladik, condemned to death by firing squad in 1943, to whom God grants the wish that in his mind a year will go by between the order to fire and the bullets striking. It is, itself, a fitting sequel to Manet’s conflation of the instantaneous and the temporal, and in it, there is a reference to photography. It comes when Hladik is brought out for execution: “The squad formed and stood at attention, Hladik, standing against the barracks wall, waited for the volley. Someone pointed out that the wall was going to be stained with blood; the victim was ordered to step forward a few paces. Incongruously, this reminded Hladik of the fumbling preparations of photographers.

Photography_of_Execution_of_Maximilian
[image from Wikipedia]

… Because photography could not yet [in 1867] achieve effects of spontaneity, the photographic sources that Manet consulted recorded a squad that is not shooting, victims that are not dying, a landscape that is not filled by an execution; that is an unknown blank in their account. … [By comparison, in Manet’s painting … ] We may well be reminded not only of Borges’s story of a moment miraculously extended in the mind, but also of another great writer, the poet Wallace Stevens, who would famously speak of the choice offered to the mind between the moment of an experience and the resonance of that experience:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The black bird whistling
Or just after.

[ … ]

… let us ask of the photographs that follow, one after the other, whether they show the beauty of inflections or the beauty of innuendos — or both, as Manet did.

My previous post from Elderfield’s book is here.

-Julie

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