Unreal Nature

August 19, 2015

Not a Landscape Created by God

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:54 am

… The built infrastructure is not a landscape created by god or formed by nature. It is the raw mark of human beings living in this world …

This is from the essay ‘Another Landscape Photography — On Shibata Toshio‘ by Iizawa Kotaro in Randosukepu / Landscape (2008):

A question has been nagging at me: is there a subtle difference between the meaning of fukei in Japanese and its English equivalent, landscape?

fukei implies a space familiar, close and emotionally accessible.

The English term landscape, by contrast, implies an absolute distance between what is being viewed and the viewer. A landscape is an object for us to observe, analyze and recognize.

… [Early art photographers in Japan] tried to become part of the landscape of the natural environment, to merge themselves with it, and reach a state of serene, comfortable integration in which “subject and object are one.” That stylistic ideal is probably not unrelated to the Japanese view of the landscape as peaceful, harmonious, and compact, on the order of a miniature garden.

The Western view, by contrast, requires photographers to adopt an almost defiant attitude towards the landscape, a natural world that excludes them and can be actively hostile to them. Confronting the vast landscapes of Europe and America, photographers wield their skills and their sensibilities as weapons in a battle to capture an entire scene on a single light-sensitive plate. The work of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, William Henry Jackson, and the other “frontier photographers” who documented the American West in the latter half of the nineteenth century clearly bears witness to their spectacular battles to address and comprehend their subjects. Their spirit lived on in the twentieth-century landscape photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, whose sublime work is almost religious in character.

What, then of Toshio Shibata?


… [His] photographs, made with the precision a large-format camera makes possible, have every detail sharply in focus throughout. They are towering examples of landscape photography in the Western sense, rejecting the introjection of any emotion, yet what he captures is a remarkably Japanese landscape or fukei, a patchwork of the man-made and the natural, sensitively, almost neurotically woven together. Shibata took advantage of the confusion that he himself felt about the chaotic Japanese landscape upon his return from Belgium, by daring to ignore the gap between methodology and subject, and to create landscape photographs that have a unique texture.

… The built infrastructure is not a landscape created by god or formed by nature. It is the raw mark of human beings living in this world and engaging in production in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In that sense, Shibata’s color landscape photographs go beyond the aesthetic achievements of his black-and-white work to introduce a more strongly sociological perspective.


The following are not from Iisawa’s essay:

… “I am interested in human ingenuity.” — Toshio Shabata

… “When I see certain scenery develop through my car window, I find myself talking to myself, ‘Shibata!’ and ‘There’s Shibata again!’ ” — Etsuro Ishihara




August 18, 2015

Beyond Ken or Kin

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… Modern thought and style are not only blinders but also powerful lenses.

This is from the essay ‘Contemporary Explorations’ by Kirk Varnedoe in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):

… As we said at the outset, work that has styled itself as postmodern has looked to anthropological models of tribal and prehistoric integration of art and society as curatives for the separation or alienation of art from its viewers and for the consequent undermining of art’s relevance and power. The desire behind many earthworks and site sculptures, as we analyzed it, was precisely to overcome this barrier, to involve a fuller range of the viewer’s experience, and to instill a sense of alignment that heightened awareness of place and moment. In conjunction with astral and earth orientations and references to menhirs or megalithic monuments, many of these works were intended further more to yield on a personal, self-dissolving level the sense of community with immemorial rhythms of natural order and human tradition.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1971-77

… Only in its least creative moments and only for the conventionally minded or uninformed can the twentieth-century fascination with the tribal be seen as a wholly negative — or wholly affirmative — response to modernity. It has been, as primitivist thought has always been, a dialogue of self-projection, discovery, and self-criticism, in which modern life provides both the need for alternatives and the means for uncovering and understanding them.

… The idea of primitivism as flight from civilization, or of Primitive art as a wholly “outsider” challenge, is an offshoot of the Romantic notion that true progress, true revolution, indeed truth in its most irreducible sense is only accessible when we step outside the enchaining confines of culture. Modern ideas of the mind and of the constraints of language suggest that this fantasy of escape is never to be realized. Yet this need not mean that the power of primitivism lies only in delusion, or that we are prisoners of conventions that bar us from contact with anything beyond our ken, or kin. Modern thought and style are not only blinders but also powerful lenses.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The history of modernist primitivism and the character of its best recent examples speak directly to the point. This is a process of revolution that begins and ends in modern culture and because of that — not in spite of it — can continually expand and deepen our contact with that which is remote and different from us, and continually threaten, challenge, and reform our sense of self.

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1971-77

My most recent previous post from this book is here.




August 17, 2015

Meaningful Traces

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:48 am

… new forms arose independently of the environment. They then prospered, or stagnated, or died off, according to their ability to keep adjusting their utility …

Continuing through A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe (1989):

… In one view, modern art became modern when it began a hopeful search for fundamental things; in the other, when it began to rid itself of inappropriate illusions. In either case, mundane subjects, and mundane meanings, were no longer the issue.

But a third alternative, much favored in more recent writing, calls down a plague on both these houses. It holds that the notion of an emptied-out art is just as false as the utopian dream of an ideally full one. In this materialist view, what you see in the forms of modern art is neither a route to higher truths nor a lesson in cognitive austerity but an index of the material conditions of modern society.

Auguste Rodin, Walking Man, 1877-78

… Yet all these aspects of modern art are closely tied together: its capacity to present a truth about the world, its self-consciousness about its structure as a language, and its connections to a social context. We need to think at all these levels if we are going to come to more serious terms with the forms we have already been discussing. One is fragmentation — literally, in Rodin’s practice of exhibiting broken-off sculptural parts instead of whole figures, or metaphorically, as ellipsis, in the way Degas segments figures and crops scenes to suggest a glimpse chopped out of a larger continuum. The other is repetition — the clustering of identical motifs, as in Rodin’s Shades, or near-identical motives, as in The Burghers of Calais and the dancers of Degas’s later groups.

[ … ]

Étienne-Jules Marey, flying pelican, 1882

… The basic ideas about the dynamic order of life that Marey and Bernard held were shared with many other progressive thinkers, and most notably with Darwin: the idea that change was integral, not incidental, to the order of nature; that knowing the way an organism functioned was the key to understanding it; and that transient events, properly understood, were meaningful traces of permanent laws. A later nineteenth-century artist would hardly have needed to see chronophotographs to be affected by these notions. Especially in terms of a widespread fascination with evolutionary theory, they had long since come to bear on the whole question of understanding, and representing, human variety.

Auguste Rodin, The Three Shades

… What Darwin saw about change in nature, as opposed to what contemporary social thinkers wrongly made of his ideas, was that new forms arose independently of the environment. They then prospered, or stagnated, or died off, according to their ability to keep adjusting their utility (not their repertoire of basic equipment) to changing situations. The maintenance of experiment and variety, rather than the narrowing drive to a defined goal, was the engine of long-term success.

In this latter sense, Darwin might well offer us, by analogy, a guide to understanding how Degas’s art worked — not because he was a contemporary or an influence, or because the art obeys some “natural law,” but because Darwin’s view of evolution contains a key insight into the way innovations occur and take hold in the history of populations.

… If there is a general lesson to carry away from studying the emergence of these various uses of fragmentation and repetition in early modern art, it must have to do, not with the drive to newly absolute simplicities of certainty or negation, but with play, in the serious sense of the word: the play between observed particularities and hidden orders, between individuals and societies, and especially between mobile forms and changing contexts of use, as the engine to produce the variety of particular meanings we have seen underlying these resemblances. That play of “meaningless” forms, from which arise new ways to model the world, is a key way social meaning is produced.

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Callais, 1884-86

My most recent previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




August 16, 2015

Under Eighty Mattresses

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… Direct communication of a thought that must not let itself be understood directly is ridiculous.

This is from the essay ‘Kierkegaard’s ‘Journals’ ‘ found in Faux Pas by Maurice Blanchot, translated by Charlotte Mandell (2001):

… he profoundly experienced that every mind needs a mask, that no direct communication is ever valid because the truth of a person itself corresponds to a fundamental ambiguity. On this silence that envelops his entire work, by which it offers itself as an enigma and demands of others that they become enigmas in their turn, one can only recall the words of Chestov that Jean Wahl cites in his remarkable Études kierkegaardiennes [Studies on Kierkegaard]: “Perhaps it is because Kierkegaard (as in the Andersen tale) had hidden his little pea under eighty mattresses that it sprouted and grew to grandiose proportions, not only in the eyes of Kierkegaard, but even in the eyes of his distant descendants. If he has openly shown it to everyone, no one would even have looked at it.”

The following is from ‘On Hindu Thought’ in the same Blanchot collection:

… The danger begins as soon as one is led to believe that an authentic spiritual discipline could be within easy reach. Innocent intelligence is then dispossessed of itself by the act of naive comprehension that thinks it fills it in.

It is impossible to regret adequately the absence of cautions intended to take back from the reader the truths these well-conducted expositions too generously bring him. Direct communication of a thought that must not let itself be understood directly is ridiculous. It is like the preaching of the clergyman of whom Kierkegaard tells and who said, “One should not have disciples”; that was his doctrine; he preached it everywhere, and as he was eloquent, he was followed by many disciples who repeated in their turn, “One should not have disciples.”

[line break added to make this easier to read online] It is the same way each time that discursive reasoning wanders serenely into an order where its only way of reaching a conclusion must be the struggle with contradiction, the infinite contest with itself, the passion of the paradox. It grasps, in peace, like comfortable evidence, the fact that it has been dismissed; it gives this dismissal an interpretation that completely satisfies it; it receives non-knowledge like a knowledge that it formulates in limpid words and on the edge of the abyss takes its charming ease. This trickery casts an invisible shadow on over-obliging books. It is perceived only by those who, when everything is clear, know that they see nothing.

My previous post from Blanchot’s book is here.




August 15, 2015

From Its Flatness to Its Depth and Heft

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:49 am

… It is in the very limitations and leanness of shadows that we learn …

Continuing through Six Drawing Lessons: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 2012 by William Kentridge (2014):

… what sticks in the throat, what must be resisted, is the passivity, the image of people waiting to be rescued, as though nothing can be understood without the philosopher with his big stick. To do this we must pause in the cave.

The associations with Plato’s allegory continue. There is an extraordinary contemporaneity to his metaphor. The shadows on the wall are a procession. Not just people moving across space, but a procession of people carrying objects. They have no specific origin or destination, they pass across behind the viewers. This again feels a completely contemporary phenomenon. The flickering projections we see in the news of people fleeing floods, civil war, refugees, migrations, refugees returning, displacements — still, two and a half thousand years later, so largely on foot, individual human power still the central means of locomotion, handcarts, wheelbarrows, shopping carts the only aids.

… It is in the very limitations and leanness of shadows that we learn, in the gaps, in the leaps to complete an image, that we perform a generative act of constructing the shape — recognizing a horse, a box, a bed roll, a crutch, a typewriter. The very leanness of the illusion pushes us to complete the recognition — and this prompts an awareness of the activity, recognizing in this activity our agency in seeing, and our agency in apprehending the world.

… This is what we miss in Plato.


Not just the obvious agency in making, but the possible agency also in seeing. The understanding of that which is not seen, and being aware of the limits of seeing. And being caught up, as with the image of the horse: being fooled, seeing the typewriter and knowing we are being fooled, by being made aware of our part in the construction of the image; of our part in the construction of the illusion, but most importantly, of the activity of ourselves. It is in the gap between the object and its representation that this energy emerges, the gap we fill in, in the shift from the monochromatic shadow to the color of the object, from its flatness to its depth and heft.

Allowing us to be neither the prisoners in the cave, unable to comprehend what we see, nor the all-seeing philosopher returning with his certainty. But allowing us to inhabit the terrain in between, the space between what we see on the wall and what we conjure up behind our retinas.


My most recent previous post from Kentridge’s book is here.




August 14, 2015

Man Is Not Man

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:39 am

… There is within us only that dark, divine animal engaged in a strange journey …

This is from The Night Country by Loren Eiseley (1947; 1971):

… Let me use as illustration a very heavy and peculiar stone which I keep upon my desk. It has been split across and, carbon black, imprinted in the gray shale, is the outline of a fish. The chemicals that composed the fish — most of them at least — are still there in the stone. They are, in a sense, imperishable. They may come and go, pass in and out of living things, trickle away in the long erosion of time. They are inanimate, yet at one time they constituted a living creature.

Often at my desk, now, I sit contemplating the fish. Nor does it have to be a fish. It could be the long-horned Alaskan bison on my wall. For the point is, you see, that the fish is extinct and gone, just as those great heavy-headed beasts are gone, just as our massive-faced and shambling forebears of the Ice have vanished. The chemicals still about me here took shape that will never be seen again so long as grass grows or the sun shines. Just once out of all time there was a pattern that we call Bison regius, a fish called Diplomystus humilis, and, at this present moment, a primate who knows, or thinks he knows, the entire score.

In the past there has been armor, there have been bellowings out of throats like iron furnaces, there have been phantom lights in the dark forest and toothed reptiles winging through the air. It has all been carbon and its compounds, the black stain running perpetually across the stone.

But though the elements are known, nothing in all those shapes is now returnable. No living chemist can shape a dinosaur; no living hand can start the dreaming tentacular extensions that characterize the life of the simplest ameboid cell. Finally, as the greatest mystery of all, I who write these words on paper, cannot establish my own reality. I am, by any reasonable and considered logic, dead. This may be a matter of concern, or even a secret, but if it is any consolation, I can assure you that all men are as dead as I. For on my office desk, to prove my words, is the fossil out of the stone, and there is the carbon of life stained black on the ancient rock.

… It does not know me. Carbon does not speak, calcium does not remember, iron does not weep.

… From whence, out of what steaming pools or boiling cloudbursts, did he first arise? What forces can we find which brought him up the shore, scaled his body into an antique, reptilian shape and then cracked it like an egg to let a soft-furred animal with a warmer heart emerge? And we? Would it not be a good thing if man were tapped gently like a fertile egg to see what might creep out?

[ … ]

… Man is not man. He is elsewhere. There is within us only that dark, divine animal engaged in a strange journey — that creature who, at midnight, knows its own ghostliness and senses its far road.

My most recent previous post from Eiseley’s book is here.




August 13, 2015

Being Inured to Brutality Is Part of the Satisfaction

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:43 am

… the hazy beauty of a Mexican falling backwards in soft-focus slow motion …

This is from Men’s Cinema: Masculinity and Mise en Scène in Hollywood by Stella Bruzzi (2013):

Kinder likens Peckinpah‘s editing of action in this opening sequence of The Wild Bunch to sex, arguing that the ‘excessive violence’ in The Wild Bunch is orgasmic rather than cathartic, erotic rather than revelatory, for Peckinpah positions the spectator to desire rather than fear its eruption.


… If Kinder has identified correctly the eroticism of the violence in The Wild Bunch, then one has to ask how many ‘orgasmic’ ‘eruptions’ can the spectator ‘hooked on a guilty pleasure’ take before insouciance sets in? If every act of violence in Peckinpah (or each death or near-death fear in later action films) produced the same high-octane, adrenilised, visceral response, then watching would not only be pleasurable but physically and intellectually debilitating. Part of the attraction of Peckinpah‘s repetitious style is not only its eroticism but also, by the time Lyle is gunning down the Mexicans across the table, its familiarity. One of the many enduring pleasures of violent action movies is that, after the initial assault, they stop surprising us, and being inured to brutality is part of the satisfaction.

The Wild Bunch‘s ultimate Macbeth-like moment comes as, shielded by an upturned table, Pike turns to Dutch and goads him into a last moment of action. With horror he witnesses Lyle and Tector staggering as they take yet more bullets, after which, with perfectly choreographed reflexiveness, it is, for the sequence’s climactic twenty seconds, finally Pike’s turn to take control of the machine gun. To a noise-track of ceaseless gunfire, the visuals for these few seconds are built around close-ups of Pike, grimacing as he sprays the town square with bullets, and the reverse high-angle long shots of the Mexicans writhing and falling.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Just as Eisenstein built his montage sequences up to a fast-cut, final, almost patchwork of images, so Peckinpah here need supply only minimal narrative logic (such as Dutch smiling as it looks, fleetingly, as if Pike is making headway) to hold together his series of kaleidoscopic fragments. Their effectiveness lies in their shared histrionic abstraction: the hazy beauty of a Mexican falling backwards in soft-focus slow motion or even the clouds of billowing black smoke curling around horses plunging to the ground as Pike fires at Mapache’s armoury of explosives.

… Spectacle transcends narrative in The Wild Bunch. Why, in this context, this is important is that it is through this recalibration of cinematic elements that we see straightforward forms of identification being marginalised in favor of instinctual, universalised responses to unshackled spectacle.

My most recent previous post from Bruzzi’s book is here.




August 12, 2015

The Art of Dying

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am


Photographs turn the present into the past, make contingency into destiny. Whatever their degree of “realism,” all photographs embody a “romantic” relation to reality.

I am thinking of how the poet Novalis defined Romanticism: to make the familiar appear strange, the marvelous appear commonplace. The camera’s uncanny mechanical replication of persons and events performs a kind of magic, both creating and de-creating what is photographed. To take pictures is, simultaneously, to confer value and to render banal.

Photographs instigate, confirm, seal legends. Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves. Photography converts the world itself into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for esthetic appreciation.

Photography also converts the whole world into a cemetery. Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also — wittingly or unwittingly — the recording angels of death. The photograph-as-photograph shows death. More than that, it shows the sex-appeal of death — another instance of the Surrealist “bad taste” that is the most persistent motif of good taste in photography. The intrusion of still photographs in that remarkable sequence in Robert Siodmak’s film Menschen am Sonntag (1928) is like the intrusion of death. One minute we see ordinary folk milling, laughing, grimacing, yearning. The next moment — as, one by one, they step before the street photographer’s black box — we see them frozen, embalmed in a “still.”

[ … ]

… We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures; but all eyes, at rest, contain that knowledge. The body knows. — Susan Sontag, 1976




August 11, 2015

In the Wake of the Atomic Bomb

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:53 am

… Myth and science, the most Primitive and the most modern, were held to be mirrors one of the other, and one senses … a desire for art to act as the reconciling bond between such apparent opposites …

Concluding the essay ‘Abstract Expressionism’ by Kirk Varnedoe in “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern edited by William Rubin (1984):

… By the mid-1940s and largely as a response to war and the atomic bomb, even sculptors such as Theodore Roszak, whose constructivist-inspired work of the thirties had celebrated technological modernity, looked to the more expressive, process-oriented aspects of Surrealist art and to a rough, often grotesque repertory of Surrealist-inspired form, to give shape to primal distress. In this climate many of the dream forms of Surrealism (especially the visceral and often sadistic images of Giacometti’s sculptures of the early 1930s) were transformed into aggressive nightmares.

Theodore Roszak, Spectre of Kitty Hawk, 1946-47

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Bones and birds became spiky skeletal monsters and horrific airborne predators, while the simple process of metal welding became a vehicle for tortured, twisted shapes of anguish (for example, Lipton’s Moloch of 1946 or Roszak’s Spectre of Kitty Hawk of 1946-47) — to the point that a “regressive” disregard for finish and an “archaic” evocation of mythic horror became predictable, even formulaic aspects of much of American metal sculpture around 1950. The scarred dignity of a work such as Ferber’s He Is Not a Man, 1950, looks backward to the insistent violence of this archaizing period, even as it participates in the less corporeal vocabulary of iconic natural forms seen in the works of painters such as Stamos and announces a new more reserved emotive tone and clarified formal presence.

Herbert Ferber, He Is Not a Man, 1950

… The primitivism of the forties was at its best a self-consuming enterprise. For those artists who reflected most tellingly on the Primitive artist as a model, the borrowing of tribal forms and the pointed evocation of ancient myth came themselves to be recognized as falsifications of the hunger for absolutes and the drive to universality that were the most challenging bases of the primitivizing movement. A new kind of primitivist tone, suspending the gloomy heavy-handedness of the war years, appears in the works and the words of the New York school around 1948.

… There as a general tendency among all these painters, by 1950, to abandon the portentous (and sometimes rather arbitrarily applied) titles characteristic of the forties, in favor of simple numbers, generic titles, or no titles at all. New nomenclature reflected new content. The neutralization of titles accompanied the elimination of borrowed forms and signs, and this in turn signaled a disenchantment with the ideal of an archetype or primal cipher as vehicle for universal meaning.

These changes manifested a broad-based move away from the vestiges of Surrealism, and specifically away from a concept of the symbol-laden unconscious as the fount of artistic experience and the ground of the viewer’s response. A more stringent empiricism displaced the debates over ur-forms of ultimate cognition and human tradition that had characterized the forties.

David Smith, Royal Bird, 1947-48

… Myth and science, the most Primitive and the most modern, were held to be mirrors one of the other, and one senses in the primitivizing of the New York artists a desire for art to act as the reconciling bond between such apparent opposites: first as the embodiment of ancient signs and myths, and subsequently as the theater of confrontation with universal abstract truths and fundamental energies.

[line break added] Just as it was felt that the darkness of the war period was a throwback to primal vulnerability, so many writers in the later forties expressed feelings that the findings of advanced science seemed to be returning man to a condition of mythic awe before the cosmos. This correlation became especially evident in the wake of the atomic bomb. The rhetoric surrounding the opening of this fearful door onto a new unknown domain sounded quite suggestively like the rhetoric of Newman and other artists on the modern experience as a spiritual echo of the Primitive.

The idea that the lessons appropriate to the future lie in an understanding of the deep past is of course not unique to art, and the desire to recover an earlier integration of knowledge and intuition, art and science, forms a deeply pervasive theme in Western thought. In the twentieth century, though, these issues seem especially close to the endeavor of vanguard artists, both in their deep fascination with the art of the Primitive man and in their love-hate relationship with the progress of science.

My most recent previous post from Varnedoe’s essay is here.




August 10, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

… an invention made for one purpose can be adapted to do something sharply different.

Continuing through A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern by Kirk Varnedoe (1989):

… Modern painting seems to say no to a lot of things, and the first of these is space — the kind of pictorial space, with the illusion of recession into depth, that had been a prime aspect of pictures for centuries before. [ … ] By this account, what pioneers like Matisse initiated was a series of narrowing refinements that eventually led artists to distill the essence of being pictorial, in the absolute particulars of color and shape on a plane. This vision of modern art’s destiny is what art history students used to call “the Road to Flatness.”

There is a great deal of complex, sophisticated historical thinking behind this idea, but finally it does not yield a very expansive or satisfying vision. If the One Great Scorer eventually comes to write against this civilization, and sees that classical antiquity gave us the Parthenon, and the Middle Ages Chartres, and that the Renaissance left behind the Sistine ceiling, will it be said that the century that split the atom and put a man on the moon left us a series of odes to the inviolate integrity of the picture plane? If we accept that the thing which has most distinguished the visual arts of this century is a series of systematic exclusions and reductions, of ever firmer refusals to participate in a broader communication with the life of the world, then we have accepted something damning.

There must be a better way to think about this, from the beginning.

[ … ]

Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde (Vicomte Lepic and his Daughters), 1875

… It is not remarkable that Lepic is cropped at the knees. A zillion portraits before this had been cropped at the knees: we always see people up close in portraits. What’s odd about Lepic is that he is striding past without looking at us, so that we have a portrait’s intimacy with a narrative, genre aspect added to it. And what’s even odder is that it is set in the middle of a cityscape. The cityscape is not so odd. The portrait is not so odd. The genre scene is not so odd.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] What is new and crucial is a portrait-cityscape-genre scene, which is the form of something unknown: a new sense of the engagement of a private personality with a public space, a new idea of how one might define a singular personal identity in modern Paris, a new sense of the interaction between intimate things, like inner life and family, and a wider sphere of contingencies. That conceptual montage, that violation of the margins of conventionally defined genres, was the crucial breakthrough. Once he [Degas] decided to undertake those splices, all the devices, all the elements, all the parts lay to hand.

… I do not mean to say that the formally innovative art we find in the generation of Gauguin or Munch or Seurat is essentially just Realism in a new costume, and that it can be read as a description of the world in the same fashion. Just the opposite. I read these relationships — Degas/Gauguin and Caillebotte/Munch — as showing how an invention made for one purpose can be adapted to do something sharply different. It is the powerful differences in the outlook, approach, and intentions of such disparate artists that help release the complex potentials, the multiple artistic lives, resident in previously ignored or suppressed uses of perspective.

[line break added] Taken all together, these diverse instances suggest that the late nineteenth century, far from witnessing the death of perspective, saw a richness of perspectival experiment unprecedented since the early Renaissance — a ferment in which virtually every option, from archaic to mannerist, with many previously untapped variants in between, had a new chance at life.

… This is not a history that starts with the exhaustion of tradition and ends up with the impoverishment of art. It has more to do with the revivification of traditions and the expansion of art. Nor is it a story just about closing a window on to nature, but one about opening up a set of human potentials. It does not rest on the idea of refinement toward an absolute perfection, narrowing down until we arrive at a hermetic nut that no one can crack, in the stoic disillusionment of the self-declaring picture plane. It is a history that has more to do with alchemy — making new elements out of base matter, and giving new life to things that seemed inert.

… The self-conscious manipulation of our inherited conventions brings us to live in an irreversibly expanded world, with an altered understanding of it, and us in it.

My previous post from Varnedoe’s book is here.




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