Momentary Substances

Nicholas Penny

In the middle of his new book Michael Baxandall wonders whether the ‘complex Newtonian-Lockean sense of how we see’, which he has just expertly expounded, provides any ‘purchase’ on Chardin’s painting, A Lady Taking Tea, to which ‘our primary explanatory duty is due.’ It is bracing to discover that we have this duty but I am puzzled by what exactly needs explanation.

Chardin was a painter of the kitchen table with its coppers and onions and of the dessert table with its fruit and porcelain, and also of tranquil domestic scenes – children saying grace, contented servants preparing food, a lady taking tea. His still-lives (the term suits all his work) are generally arranged in a shallow, and often in a very shallow, foreground space. In the Lady Taking Tea we have, typically, little idea of the shape of the room or of how far behind the wall is. A few faint lines in the scumbled paint taken by Baxandall to indicate panelling must in fact have indicated pilasters (the base mouldings may be discerned above the lady’s hand in the colour plate of a detail of the painting which serves as the dust-jacket). That these pilasters were more evident once is suggested by Filloeul’s engraving, which he reproduces (although he only refers to it in passing).

If Filloeul is reliable, then Chardin attempted with these pilasters to indicate the corner of a room – and failed to do so. The engraving also shows more of the ladder-back chair at the edge of the painting (doubtless trimmed from the original canvas when it was lined), which would have made the chair appear at still less of an angle to the front plane of the picture, a feature which Baxandall considers to be ‘puzzling’; and indeed it is true that if the lady were sitting comfortably it would be turned more into the picture space. Also ‘puzzling’ for Baxandall is the teapot. He finds it ‘rather 1910’ because ‘the spout and perhaps also the handle’ are ‘flattened out on the canvas’. If you try very hard you can see what he means, but you have to forget the marvellously-painted reflections and highlights on the round and shiny surface.

Chardin’s fascination with the richly-painted surface of his pictures sometimes took precedence over his concern for logical foreshortening and even inhibited his capacity for careful drawing: but the drawing of a teapot is in any case notoriously tricky. Sir Joshua Reynolds (who has little in common with Chardin) consistently painted far more ambiguous spaces and flattened chairs and would never have dared draw a teapot. If Newton and Locke are needed to explain Chardin, who would Baxandall propose for Reynolds?

Another feature of Chardin’s work which seems to Baxandall to be ‘puzzling’ is the ‘differential distinctness and lighting of the picture’. This is surely perfectly calculated to enhance our awareness of the textures of the paint and to discourage the kind of meticulous scrutiny of objects or of faces which would have competed with that awareness. The textures of the paint are moreover designed to simulate, or at least suggest, the feel of the objects depicted. This was the ‘magic’ which inspired some of the finest of Diderot’s art criticism. Diderot did not consider Chardin’s paintings ‘puzzling’. In fact, no contemporary seems to have done so. Baxandall finds this ‘disappointing’, and since he wishes to explain what he believes to be puzzles by reference to theories of perception, he is particularly disappointed by Diderot, who was, as he admits, remarkable both for his interest in Chardin and for his interest in perception. To cope with this, Baxandall reminds us that art criticism, although it related to the way people saw painting, was ‘affected by generic constraints and suggestions of a quite literary tradition and mode’. He then asserts that the ‘conventional and normative element in art criticism’ was ‘quite particularly’ oppressive in the ‘subgenre of Salon criticism in which most of what Diderot and indeed others said about Chardin appeared’.

In his earlier books Baxandall explored, with outstanding intelligence and imagination, the way in which contemporaries wrote about art, the available conventions and vocabulary, so to find him dismissing the significance of Diderot in this way is disturbing: the more so because it is clear that Diderot was attracted by Salon criticism precisely because it was a literary form with no fixed conventions and very few precedents of any importance. His criticism is uninhibitedly discursive, and remarkable for its range and variety.

As the chapter on the Lady Taking Tea develops, the claim emerges that Chardin departed from ‘the old Renaissance simplicity of depicting “Nature” ’ and was concerned instead with representing perception. ‘We know perfectly well such a picture took weeks to paint and we ourselves take many minutes to inspect it, but it plays at a new sort of momentariness – not so much the Renaissance or Baroque momentarily caught action as the momentarily caught instant of perception of a state or object.’ This account ignores the degree to which Chardin was concerned, not only with depicting, but with heightening our awareness of, the substantial – the tactile as distinct from the visible world. It ignores precisely that ‘magic’ of which Diderot wrote: the capacity to imitate with the brush the smoothness of porcelain and to distinguish it from the lesser smoothness of eggs, the use of thick oil paint to make milk creamy and bread crusty.

Great significance is attached by Baxandall to the representations (in fact rather rare in Chardin) of ‘momentary substances like spinning tops or frozen steam from a tea-cup’, which he considers to be ‘jokes’ about the ‘fiction’ which is Chardin’s true subject – ‘the story of perceptual experience masquerading lightly as a moment or two of sensation’. To depict something spinning so that we cannot see what we know to be there certainly is to represent perception rather than ‘nature’. However, a far more notable example of this than Chardin’s top is provided by the blurred spokes of the spinning-wheels in Velasquez’s famous picture of a tapestry workshop, Las Hilanderas, painted long before there was a ‘Newtonian-Lockean sense of how we see’.

Baxandall’s account of 18th-century theories of perception and their popularisation can be enjoyed for its own sake. But it needn’t have anything to do with Chardin’s paintings. Although his argument does not depend upon Chardin’s taking any special interest in Newton or Locke, contacts are recorded in the manner of recent works on the assassination of American Presidents: Pieter Camper who wrote a thesis on vision met William Hunter who owned Chardin’s Lady Taking Tea ... Absences of relationship between ideas and art deserve as much serious thought as the relationships. The fact is that theories about the visual world, even new ones energetically debated, need not have any great impact on how we see, or how we usually feel about that world. Even when it was understood that the sun did not rise people went on speaking of sunrises, and surely, then as now, felt it hard to remember as they watched it that it was not rising.

In Giotto and the Orators (1971) Baxandall demonstrated how Alberti’s introduction of the idea of ‘composition’ into modern art criticism and theory was made possible by the rhetorical conventions entailed by the humanist revival of Ciceronian Latin. As he puts it succinctly in his latest book, ‘Alberti’s concept is a metaphor from our use of language: it sees the picture as a hierarchy of bodies, members of bodies, and planes, corresponding to the hierarchy of clauses, phrases and words in a sentence.’ In the sprightlier Painting and Experience in 15th-century Italy (1972) Baxandall emphasised the more practical ambitions of Italian education in the Renaissance and proposed that commercial mathematics encouraged a ‘habit of analysis ... very close to the painter’s analysis of appearances. As a man gauged a bale, the painter surveyed a figure. In both cases there is a conscious reduction of irregular masses and voids to combinations of manageable geometric bodies.’ In The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (1980) he pointed out that the Modists who ran the private schools preparatory for German commercial life gave special emphasis to virtuoso calligraphy, which provides an interesting analogy with the linear flourish in the art they admired, and must have made people alert to this type of disciplined exhibitionism.

We are left uncertain as to how much of a determining factor for the artists the mental training which Baxandall so skilfully reconstructs might have been. Alberti’s idea of composition involved new standards of ‘narrative relevance, decorum and economy’ which may well have influenced Mantegna as Baxandall suggests, but these new standards had already been conspicuous in paintings by Alberti’s fellow Florentine Masaccio (oddly described by Baxandall as ‘obscure’) and in relief sculpture by Donatello and Ghiberti. So what we have here is criticism devising a language appropriate for what artists had already achieved.

It is more likely that the artists’ methods and priorities were shaped by their training in commercial mathematics than by a concern for Ciceronian sentence structure. The problem is that there is another explanation for much of the fascination with geometry in 15th-century art, which is that it was connected with the discovery of how to cheat the eye rather than with school exercises in how not to be cheated by odd-sized barrels and bales. It is true that Piero della Francesca was actively involved in exercises of this kind, but the analytical geometry in his art is no more typical of his period than Seurat’s geometry was of his. Whatever our reservations, however, we must concede that Baxandall was concerned with qualities – a new attitude to composition, a new interest in geometry, linear flourish – central to the art he was writing about. This does not seem to me to be the case with his writing on Chardin.

In the final section of his new book Baxandall considers Piero della Francesca’s Baptism, reiterating some of the themes of his earlier books to which I have just alluded, but he then proceeds with great skill and politeness to demonstrate that what modern art historians have considered puzzling about the painting, and in need of special explanation, would not have been puzzling to Piero’s public. Above all, there is ‘the oddity, prominence and seeming separateness of the three Angels in the left foreground’, which one scholar takes to be a reference to the Trinity and another an allusion to the Marriage Feast at Cana (and hence symbolic of Christ’s marriage to the Church). Baxandall points out, with precisely the common sense, the concern for the practical problems of the artist and the expectations of his public, which is lacking in the chapter on Chardin, that a bunch of attendant angels holding a robe for Christ when he emerges from the water are usually present in earlier representations of the Baptism (most of them horizontal frescoes or predella panels) and that their greater prominence here is determined by the fact that Piero is painting a vertical altarpiece. Their narrative function makes it impossible to relegate them to the background, but the need to separate them in some way from the principal action suggested the device of the architectural tree.

At the start of this chapter Baxandall emphasises that the function of a religious image such as Piero’s Baptism was ‘to narrate scripture clearly, to arouse appropriate feeling about the narrated matter, and to impress that matter on the memory’. This same emphasis (together with several other points in Baxandall’s argument) was present in a discussion of Piero by a colleague of Baxandall at the Warburg Institute, Charles Hope, published in the London Review of Books in March 1983 (Vol. 5, No 5). Both Baxandall and Hope point out that a function of this kind is hard to reconcile with the esoteric symbolism and concealed topical allusions which modern scholars tend to suppose were Piero’s chief concern in his altarpieces. Such symbolism and allusions were surely more appropriate in medals and in court masques and frescoes. One of the books which Hope discussed, Carlo Ginzburg’s Indagini su Piero has now appeared in translation. It includes much valuable research on the involvement of Piero’s probable patrons in the great political, religious and cultural events of the time – the union of the Greek and Latin Churches and the attempted revival of the Crusade – but there is no evidence that anyone would have expected to find reflections of these events in an altarpiece (any more than people in the 18th century expected still-lives to be modified by theories of perception).

There is much else to praise in Patterns of Intention besides the chapter on Piero. Baxandall distinguishes the various factors which determined the shape of the Forth Bridge. This involves brief expositions of such diverse matters as the ductility of steel and the competition between railway companies which may remind us of the lessons on the cell structure of wood and the nature of early capitalism in Germany which the art-loving readers of The Limewood Sculptures were surprised to find so enjoyable and instructive. After the Forth Bridge and before Chardin’s Lady Taking Tea the subject is Picasso’s Cubist Portrait of Kahnweiler – or rather this is the example taken: the title of the chapter is ‘Intentional Visual Interest’. Indeed the subject of the book as a whole is not art but historical method: the Bridge, the Chardin and the Piero are also examples. The book is based on lectures which ‘addressed’ the question: ‘If we offer a statement about the causes of a picture, what is the nature and basis of the statement?’

Baxandall’s arguments will attract art historians far more than the arguments put forward in most books on aesthetics. It should be noted, however, that he does not suggest that his lectures answered the question: they merely ‘addressed’ it. This is indicative of a commendable modesty and subtlety which can sometimes look like coy diffidence, as in the wriggling preliminary discussion of the debate on ‘authorial intention’: ‘I am aware that any book called Patterns of Intention – a title in which the multiple puns (I count three or four) are important to me – will be placed in a relation to the debate. I would quite like to pre-empt this placing and label my position as one of naive but sceptical intentionalism.’

Baxandall’s manner is far more suggestive of the classroom than the lecture hall. There are darts to the blackboard which aren’t always needed: ‘There is not just an intention but a numberless sequence of developing moments of intention – I1→ I2→ I3→ ... What is more, this process will have included not only innumerable moments of decision and action but many foregone or cancelled actions, decisions not to do or have something – ... I3→ [I4→ I5→] I6→ ... – which have had consequences for the picture we finally see.’ Sometimes to keep us alert he pulls something very odd out of a pocket: ‘Addressing a picture with a general law feels rather like addressing a peach with a billiard cue – the wrong shape and size of instrument, designed for movement in the wrong direction. But it seems clear that this is a matter of sub-theoretical dis-affinity.’ Images of impaled fruit distract us from interpreting the jargon which follows. Baxandall needs a less pedagogic ‘literary tradition and mode’ in which to address profound questions. At the end of his book he remarks that the sort of art history and criticism he likes is ‘conversable’ and ‘sociable’. The best model, it seems to me, is provided by Diderot.