John Barrell

  • Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot by Michael Fried
    California, 249 pp, £16.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 520 03758 8

A family listening as their father reads them the Bible; a philosopher poring over a book; an artist, who turns his back on us as he draws; a secretary absorbed in taking dictation, and another absorbed instead in listening to the figure who dictates; a sleeping hermit. These figures, all of them represented in paintings exhibited in the Paris Salons of the 1750s, all share the same oubli de soi, are all engaged in ‘absorptive’ states which create the fiction that we, the spectators, are not there: in forgetting themselves, they forget us too. In proportion as the picture thus excludes the fictive spectator, it gives the actual spectator a greater access to the world of the painting, which becomes the more real precisely because it has apparently not been painted to be observed, but simply is, independent of the observer. The art of the Salons of the 1750s, argues Michael Fried, is much preoccupied by such images of absorption, a preoccupation which was registered and admired by contemporary critics: but the very fact that it was thus registered made the problem of establishing the reality of the image, by the illusion of negating the spectator’s presence, increasingly difficult, and so increasingly urgent to solve. Accordingly, in the 1760s and after, painters in France became less concerned to depict states of concentration, often in private and intimate contexts, and turned instead to the representation of ‘grandly pathetic action and expression’. But the basic, ‘ontological’, nature of their concern, with the relation of object and beholder, did not change, as the character of their paintings became increasingly dramatic, yet anti-theatrical in the sense defined by Diderot in his criticism of French theatre and his suggestion that it should learn – from painting – that as soon as an actor turns to address the audience, we can no longer believe in the reality of what we are witnessing.

In the 1760s, a renewed importance was ascribed, by Diderot in particular, to the doctrines of the hierarchy of genres and the supremacy of history-painting: these doctrines were not advanced, Fried argues, in a new spirit of conservatism which would have denied the achievements of Chardin and Greuze in the previous decade, but because Diderot saw that the representation of heroic action, in a history painting whose compositional unity established the causal necessity of every expression, gesture and attitude within a group of figures, was the most likely form of painting to preserve the illusion that the beholder was not there; and thus, paradoxically, to secure his emotional involvement in the action he beheld.

Even an account as bare as this of Fried’s argument will indicate the remarkable originality of the reinterpretation he offers of the history of French painting and of the criticism of art in the second half of the 18th century: a reinterpretation supported by immense learning and by a series of brilliantly perceptive readings of paintings and of criticism alike. This is an exhilarating book, and it will be intriguing to see how the exponents of the approaches it criticises will absorb, or recover from, the insights it offers. For my part, I will be intrigued to see whether Fried will feel he needs to modify his argument to take account of the kind of criticisms I am about to make.

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