Ravishing Atrocities

Patrick Maynard

  • Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane by Michael Fried
    Chicago, 215 pp, £23.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 226 26210 3
  • Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology by W.J.T. Mitchell
    Chicago, 226 pp, £7.25, October 1987, ISBN 0 226 53229 1

I said, I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Piraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of execution at the same time felt a desire to see them and a repugnance and aversion, and that for a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered despite all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried. There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!

I, too, he said, have heard the story.

So have we, and this was already an old sort of story by the time Plato told it. He has made it seem more real by telling a local, recent version, but he would have known the mythic one quite well: for in the story of Perseus, the king and his court, who had sent the hero for the head of Gorgon Medusa, had to look when he took the disfigured thing from his bag, and were turned into stone. What goes for seeing also goes for imagining we are seeing. We do a lot of such imagining, and many of the books, news pictures, films and television images we enjoy are designed to stimulate this. By this means we are often drawn to see things in imagination which we say we would not wish actually to see. There exist for this purpose whole industries of Medusa media.

It seems reasonable to explain the point and workings of such media by the word ‘realism’. Catastrophe, atrocity, difficulty need to be known as they really are, and such images help us to know them by making us imagine that we see them. Where reality is shocking, realism of representation may entail shock. Realistic devices such as perspective, highlight, colour and motion are sometimes seen simply as devices for letting reality come through into the picture. But we know by now that the situation is not so simple. That a camera is present, that it is so placed, with this focus and field, and how the result is edited – these are factors not entirely dictated by the events themselves, and all these variables may be controlled for effect. There can be art in this, and Michael Fried argues that within Western painting there is a special tradition of realism, stemming at least from Caravaggio (who, he reminds us, painted a Medusa). In such pictures it is not that a shocking effect is due to reality being let in through pictorial devices, but rather that the manipulation of devices unsettles our sense of being safe in front of what is just a picture. Fried imagines ‘the definitive realist painting would be one that the viewer literally could not bear to look at,’ but that is ‘all but impossible, hence painful, to look away from’.

Just such a conflict, lying behind the realism of Thomas Eakins’s large portrait The Gross Clinic, forms the main topic of the first of the two essays which constitute Realism, Writing, Disfiguration. The picture was presented at Philadelphia in 1876, the year of the second Impressionist exhibition, which represented artists of a different sort of realism (a sort in which the Paris-trained American showed little interest). Eakins’s portrayal of a noted surgeon of the time shows him at work in an operating arena before a full audience, including the intently absorbed artist who was often present at such events. It would be obvious to remark that what gave offence then and disturbs still was not the operation shown (not at all a radical one) but the manner in which Eakins shows it. Here, as usual, no one is likely to find Mr Fried an obvious writer. Indeed, the sets of associations by which he pursues two explanations of precisely how this picture recovers Caravaggio’s lapsed ‘esthetic of implied affront to seeing’, one formal and one psychoanalytic, will have most readers grasping gratefully at anything that looks obvious.

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