Sans Sunflowers

David Solkin

The tremors of political unrest that rocked so many universities on both sides of the Atlantic during the late Sixties and early Seventies had important repercussions in many of the humanities and social sciences; but no discipline was more profoundly shaken than the history of art. Throughout the postwar era, the vast majority of art historians had championed the canonical achievements of European visual high culture: in the wake of the events of 1968 they suddenly awoke to find themselves accused of complicity in the hegemonic operations of an oppressive structure of power. Once among the cosiest and most genteel of subjects, academic art history entered on a period of protracted and divisive confrontation.

The initial phase of hostilities was largely driven by a scattering of younger scholars on the radical left, whose views on the shortcomings of the discipline were summed up in an influential article by Kurt Forster, entitled ‘Critical History of Art, or Transfiguration of Values?’ which appeared in New Literary History in 1972. In the space of a few incisive pages, Forster dismissed conventional art-historical scholarship as an unreflexive and shallow intellectual exercise preoccupied with formalism, iconography and artistic biography; the transcendent assumptions of an idealist aesthetics, he argued, had provided the basis for a catastrophic separation of art from history, which made it impossible for scholars to explain the phenomena they were committed to describe. Furthermore, the prevailing tendency among art historians to empathise with and admire the objects of their study had robbed them of the critical distance necessary to see through the art mystique, or to recognise how its authority (supported by their own unthinking efforts) served the interests vested in the status quo. For these and other reasons, Forster issued an urgent call for a ‘critical history of art’, founded on an understanding that ‘the only means of gaining an adequate grasp of old artifacts lies in the dual critique of the ideology which sustained their production and use, and of the current cultural interests that have turned works of art into a highly privileged class of consumer and didactic goods.’

Not surprisingly, it proved simpler to explode the assumptions underlying the old art history than to construct a viable alternative. But if at first the way forward seemed difficult to make out, there was some measure of agreement as to which paths to avoid. Perhaps the most obvious of these was the adulatory study of an individual artist’s life and work, long the dominant focus of scholarship. But equally suspect in the eyes of the new ‘critical’ regime, if not more so indeed, were broad surveys like the Pelican History of Art, those grand empiricist narratives dedicated to preserving the authority of the canon, and to parading a spectacular array of great masters and great masterpieces in a ‘pure’ space, cocooned from the gross, corrupt world of politics, ideology and social strife.

Monographs and surveys are still published today in great numbers, of course; and there remain large parts of the discipline – notably that concerned with the Italian Renaissance – which have been mainly untroubled by the inroads of the ‘new art history’. Over the past two decades, much of the most innovative work has tended to concentrate on the modern period, and especially on French painting from Courbet to Cézanne. Here the writings of T.J. Clark have been particularly influential: starting with two books on Courbet and the art of the Second Republic – Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois (both 1973) – and more recently with The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1985), Clark has played a pioneering role in producing a fundamentally revised history of modern art, one that adheres to an essentially neo-Marxist agenda initially informed by French structural linguistics, and later modified by subsequent developments in (mainly French) critical theory. Since the early Eighties this approach has broadened out to include considerations of gender and race as well as class, in response above all to a series of interventions by feminist scholars such as Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock.

In their ambitious new survey of 19th-century European and American art, Stephen Eisenman and his collaborators have sought to build on this legacy and to consolidate the gains they feel have been achieved. Apart from Professor Nochlin, the most senior member of the team, all the contributors belong to the generation that cut its teeth on the radicalised art history of the Seventies. They have also all taught courses on 19th-century painting to American undergraduates – an experience that doubtless led them to recognise the need for a new sort of textbook, one which (unlike those already on the market) would be ideologically compatible with the work they were doing in class. That the book has evidently arisen out of a pedagogic format helps to explain its structure: one can easily see how the 16 chapters, each averaging twenty well-illustrated pages, could be read in tandem with a lecture series spread over a university term or semester.

Yet while there may have been perfectly good pragmatic (as well as commercial) motives for writing a new book on 19th-century art, the main reason put forward by Eisenman et al is the need for a critical (as opposed to empiricist/affirmative) survey of the period. That salient adjective is to be understood in a double sense, as referring both to the text itself and to its historical subject-matter: for what is on offer here is a Marxist and feminist critique of an art that was itself critical – a term the authors use to describe the ‘most salient’, ‘formally innovative’ developments in Western visual culture, over a period starting with David’s politically-engaged works of the 1780s, and culminating in Cézanne’s ‘revolutionary’ but ‘apolitical’ modernism a century later. Very few of the artists or images discussed along the way would look out of place in the most conventional of surveys, even if the old canon has now been recast as that ‘body of formally advanced and politically alienated works’ which ‘played a greater role’ than aesthetically conservative images ‘in bringing about (or, at least, compellingly addressing) historical change’. Eisenman and Co have set out to produce a politically engaged art-historical text that aims to heighten its readers’ ‘critical consciousness of society and culture’.

Is this, then, the sort of work Forster might have anticipated when he issued his call to arms more than twenty years ago? The answer is yes and no. Certainly, and most significantly, Eisenman’s project fully supports the imperative to treat high cultural developments as part of a larger constellation of historical events: instead of occupying a neutral zone somewhere on the sidelines, works of art feature here as active participants in ideological conflicts that have had real effects on the lives of actual individuals. Few historians of modern art would today wish to dispute the necessity of trying to make students aware that high cultural products have been and continue to be implicated in the construction of class, gender and ethnic identities, and teachers will be glad to avail themselves of an introductory book which raises these issues in a sensible yet challenging way. Some may nonetheless feel – as I suspect Forster might have felt – that this new survey bears at times an uncomfortably close resemblance to the older versions it claims to have superseded.

Although Eisenman puts forward a reasonable case for adhering to the established canon of artists and images, surely there is at least some irony to be found in a methodological revolution that has secured the old gods all the more firmly to their thrones. And despite the inclusion of Vigée-Lebrun, Labille-Guiard, Charpentier, Cassatt, Morisot, Edmonia Lewis, and one or two others, the masculinist bias of art-history remains effectively unchanged. In this instance one could argue that such an unequal distribution of attention is justified by the historical record; yet there are other imbalances which are considerably more problematic. How much sense can we make, for example, of one side in an ongoing cultural struggle, when the other (dominant) faction is largely omitted from the story? More than twenty years ago, T.J. Clark stressed the importance of acknowledging the ‘dominance of classicism in 19th-century art’ as a central prerequisite for understanding the tactics and attitudes of the avant-garde: ‘An art history which sees Chassériau, Moreau, Gérome, Rodin, Puvis and Maurice Denis as marginal episodes, rather than the most vivid representatives of a vigorous, enduring tradition – that art history will not do.’ For Eisenman, however, it does do – although classicism may have done more to shape his own views than he would care to admit. In a study which focuses primarily on anti-academic painters and movements, it is curious to discover an implicit commitment to a hierarchy of pictorial genres that any 19th-century academy of art would have been more than happy to support.

For this is above all a book about narrative images dominated by the human figure. With the one notable exception of Nochlin’s rather contrived chapter on Eakins and Cassatt, portraiture is conspicuous only by its absence; the only still-life is a Géricault study of severed limbs (though we may feel duly grateful for the absence of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers), and the development of French landscape art prior to Van Gogh and Cézanne is given remarkably short shrift. Another aspect of the book which suggests that old habits die hard is the persistence of the monograph as the central building-block of the historical narrative. Nine of the 16 chapters are studies focused almost exclusively on the careers of one or more individual artists, works by whom are often (though by no means always) treated with a surprisingly traditional degree of empathy. Even if high aesthetic quality has now given way to critical commitment as the principal criterion for admiration, this difference (and I’m not sure it is a difference) may count for very little if the end-result is to reconstruct the old affirmative art history by another means.

No such risks are run by Frances Pohl’s two chapters on American art, which in many respects function as the exceptions that prove the rule. Neither monographs nor surveys, they consist instead of thematic studies on issues of race and its representations: one chapter deals with the imagery spawned by the European encounter with Native Americans, the other with 19th-century portrayals of African Americans. Unlike the other contributors, Pohl looks beyond the realm of high art to include magazine illustrations and photographs; and she also stands alone in forgoing any interest in formal innovation in favour of judging works thematically, and on political grounds. While her contribution makes for a powerful indictment of racism in American culture from the early 1800s to the present, it sits rather uneasily in a book that seeks on the whole to tell a different kind of story, and to deploy a Marxist analysis that elsewhere insists on the inseparability of form and content.

Pohl’s approach stands in particularly dramatic contrast to that taken by Thomas Crow, in the opening two-chapter survey of French painting from David to Delacroix. To a much greater extent than any of his collaborators, Crow demands that we look closely and anew at a sequence of major pictures, and appreciate the ideological resonance of developments in style; at the same time, he never allows us to forget that the impact of broader historical shifts on the relatively autonomous arena of artistic production must always be mediated by a complex network of aesthetic, institutional, interpersonal and other facts. No one, I think, has ever written in a more illuminating manner about Ingres, Géricault or Delacroix – there are no better chapters in Nineteenth-Century Art.

Throughout the book, indeed, one finds critical writing of the highest standard: Brian Lukacher’s discussions of William Blake and Henry Fuseli, and Eisenman’s chapters on Goya and Seurat, are especially good at striking a balance between sophistication and accessibility. Elsewhere, Eisenman, who is responsible for fully half the text, has had mixed success. In his discussions of Courbet and Manet he appears to struggle under the burden of trying to distil an overwhelming amount of recent literature concisely while still covering the essential points; but on the whole he succeeds in maintaining firm control over an enormous body of primary and secondary material. His chapters seek consistently to open up particular art-historical events to larger historical themes: to the rise and collapse of the public sphere, for instance, to the ideological power of individualism, to the explosive relationship between high and popular culture, in addition to the issues of gender, race and class. As a result, we emerge from the book with our appreciation of its visual subject-matter immeasurably enriched. Unlike the traditional survey’s self-contained, totalising narrative, Nineteenth-Century Art will provide students with a point of departure for a multiplicity of investigations.

For the modern period at least, the leftist struggle to transform the history of art appears to have been won – but by whom? Does Eisenman’s book mark a belated triumph for the radicalism of the early Seventies, or does the appearance of a lavishly illustrated, highly commercial, Marxist-feminist survey of the canon simply confirm the dominant culture’s ability to recuperate all threats to its authority? Is the difficult history of the 19th-century avant-garde simply repeating itself as academic farce? Perhaps. But even if the critical history of art is a mug’s game, it’s still the only game worth playing.