THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
The day after the 2016 presidential election, I experienced emotion that I didn’t know how to express. The combination of anger, fear, sadness, and frustration was powerful, but also without a behavioral outlet. Not only had I never felt like this before, I had never acted out feelings like these. I found myself caught in the gap between feeling and its performance.
I am a historian of French art between the early 17th century and the early 20th century, a long period, but one that is unified by an effort to discover a visual means with which to “express the passions.” In the French tradition, the expression of the passions is most often allied with the representation of “history.” The presence of passionate affects validated the representation of historical settings and historical personages with the denomination of “history painting.” Indeed, for the French, insufficient passionate expression could cause a painting to lose its historical status. For example, when the 18th-century painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze failed to animate an exchange between the Roman emperor Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture declared Greuze a “genre” painter, not a painter of history.
On November 9, I experienced history as passionate agitation. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I was privileged enough and sheltered enough to feel that history had ended. I was so densely cocooned that even on September 11, which I experienced from my family’s home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I felt disoriented rather than moved. I sensed that a major shift had taken place, but I had yet to feel it touch me. This isn’t a flattering thing to admit about myself, but it’s worth knowing and acknowledging.
I can’t put my finger on what changed, but on November 9, 2016, when I saw that the result of the election was so very different from what I wanted or expected, history began—for me. It took the emergence of massive opposition to my desires and my narrative for me to realize that history had always been happening, but without my feeling it. Again, I’m not proud of what I learned about myself, but in the process of interpreting this new set of feelings, I found myself thinking about the art that I study in a different way.
In this light, the French model of painting seemed prescient, because of its insistence that history and passion go hand in hand. Immediately following the election, I looked to French painting as a school of affect, a repository of figures whose emotions provided a series of lessons in how to behave as a historical agent and how to respond to historical events. However, as the days after the election passed, I found myself drifting towards works of art that present an outwardly unresponsive surface. This led me to the paintings of Claude Monet. In my opinion, Monet masters the representation of banality. At times, this banality approaches the affect of cheerful normalcy—sunny days on the river banks, wind-rippled crisp white sails. At other times, surfaces of deadpan like blank house façades or blurred faces become more insidious, reading as manifestations of indifference and isolation. As I drifted towards these paintings of inexpression, I recognized in deadpan the very affect that had sheltered me for so long.
What I offer here is not a narrative of progress from a confused state of passionate feeling to one of lucidity. Rather, I offer a narrative of rediscovery via regression. In other words, my exploration of French painting took me not forwards but backwards, so that I could look at the deadpan place that I had been before, and to which I am still tempted to retreat. If historical narratives in painting unfold through the expression of the passions, my narrative of regression shows the passions as they fold inwards, unexpressed. Yet I learned that art can still teach me things about myself, particularly in the affective mode. In our historical moment, there remains much to learn from an artistic tradition based upon the premise that history, politics, and emotions are densely intertwined.
A person in search of instructions on how to react to dramatic historical events can find advice aplenty in French history painting. Beginning in the mid-17th century, the French academic system cultivated an elite of “scholar painters” (peintres savants), who invented multi-figure compositions illustrating the crucial ethical and political crises of ancient and biblical history. From the late 18th century to the late 19th century, the painting of history co-existed with constant political upheaval, namely four revolutions in less than one hundred years, between 1789 and 1870. This contemporaneity allowed history painting to function as a school of affect for its viewers, as lessons in the manner and the varieties of response that historical events ought to arouse.
Perhaps the single most famous French history painting is Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784), a muscular and stark composition in which three sons, the Horatii, swear an oath of vengeance to their father, Horace. On the right side of the canvas, the Horatii’s womenfolk slump in weepy despair over the way this oath taken against a rival clan will divide their families (before the conflict, the two clans had intermarried). Two kinds of passions are presented here: devotion to honor and duty on the part of the young men and grief and fear on the side of the women. One of the virtues of this painting is its emotional clarity. In most instances, however, history painters found themselves struggling to press figures and historical detail into unambiguous and legible compositions.
On the day after the election, I found myself drawn to a messier example of history painting, Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1839). The painting alludes to the events and figures of the Revolution of 1830, when popular agitation in the streets of Paris led to the transfer of power from one line of the restored monarchy to another (not exactly the result for which the Revolutionaries hoped). In the foreground, Delacroix presents one of the barricades that had closed off parts of the city during the fighting. He places a pyramidal assemblage of striding figures atop the barricade, posing at the center a strapping young woman in a yellow garment, one breast exposed. With raised arm holding the tricolor French flag, she lopes forth across the barricade composed of stones, planks, and semi-nude corpses. To her side are representatives of the social groups that took part in the 1830 revolution: a Parisian street urchin or gamin, a student in a top hat and coat, and a proletarian worker.
The young woman is both a participant in the unfolding events as well as an allegorical figure of Liberty, one of the triumvirate of values—liberty, equality, fraternity—espoused by the French Revolution in 1789. Delacroix successfully overlays the representation of a moment in historical time, in which a line of figures walk across a barricade, with an allegory of the cardinal virtues driving revolutionary upheaval over the course of century.1 I have taught this painting to undergraduates innumerable times as a fusion of allegory, history painting, and a typically 19th-century sense of gritty realism. On November 9, however, the painting functioned differently for me, as a trace of historical emotions, of the intensity of feelings that lead people to take to the streets, to arm themselves, to scramble over the dead bodies of friends and lovers.
Before, I had read Delacroix’s painting not as history but as “historical genre,” as representation of a distant time when people wore old-fashioned clothes and carried swords. “Genre” was the category of painting immediately below that of history in the academic hierarchy. It encompassed the representation of human figures doing ordinary, run-of-the-mill things, like peeling carrots or drinking wine. Around the same time that Delacroix was active as a history painter, other artists devoted themselves to “historical genre” painting, which presented figures peeling carrots and drinking wine in meticulously rendered historical interiors. In its devotion to the detail of material environments, historical genre painting represents history as a matter of decor and costume rather than emotional intensity.
I had always known that Liberty Leading the People was categorically different than a historical genre painting, but I had never actually felt that difference. My previous experiences of the painting had cast even the emotions of its figures as a form of historical costume, as if revolutionary fervor were the accessory of historical existence, a badge that attested to the authenticity of the historical appearance. In this light, I placed dramatic emotions on the same level as period-specific furniture. Looking at the painting on November 9, the intensity of the painting’s emotional affect was no longer other to me.
Liberty Leading the People comforted me, in a way. I no longer felt alone in my agitation. The next morning, however, I woke up to see Ivanka Trump’s bare legs parading across the front page of The New York Times as she followed her father onstage for his victory speech. Ivanka wore a powder blue mini-dress and stiletto heels. My engaged affect drooped at the sight of these slim, toned, expensive legs. I was once again a long way from the barricades of 1830.
Ivanka’s legs conjured up Edgar Degas, whose work deforms the language of history painting through its fragmentation of the human body. The human figure had served as the basic unit of history painting and its expression of the passions. All the emotions of the Oath of the Horatii, for example, are channeled into the bodies of its figures, from the tense, straining musculature of the brothers to the slumped shoulders and hidden faces of the mourning women. While the emotions might be disturbing, the legibility of the bodies promises a means of shared communication.
Degas does something quite different with his bodies, a point eloquently argued by the art historian Carol Armstrong.2 Armstrong reveals the sinister side of Degas’s ballet dancers, who the artist saw not so much as pretty ballerinas but as specimens of social degradation, “rats” who scurried through the warren of backstage passages, fixing assignations for after the show, living in bestial proximity to the other members of their “species,” from whom they inherited their squished chins and the un-Roman profile of the low, slanted forehead leading without interruption to a long, snout-like nose. In his oil paintings, pastels, and monotypes representing these “rats,” Degas ruthlessly fragments bodies, twisting several dancers into knots so that it becomes impossible to tell which arm or leg belongs to which dancer, cropping bodies at the knees and waist so that only a splayed leg in a toe shoe remains, or using the edge of the frame to slice a figure exactly down the middle, from head to toe.
The affect of these fragmented bodies is no longer readable in the old way. Degas wreaks violence upon his figures and then rigorously formalizes the result. What remains is Degas’s own affect as cool mastermind of tight, densely patterned compositions. I didn’t quite see Ivanka Trump as one of Degas’s ballet dancers, but the jarring impression of her legs as not hers reminded me of the coolness with which Degas breaks apart his figures’ bodies. In his indifference to the bodily integrity of his subjects, Degas mimics the blasé gaze of modernity, which Georg Simmel attributed to the leveling power of monetary value.3 Degas sees the bodies of the dancers as nothing less than a series of numbers: a number for a body’s price on the clandestine market for sex, a number for the dancer as a unit within the symmetrical array of bodies performing synchronized routines every night on the ballet stage.
On the second day after the election, Degas’s broken figures crept into my mind to take Liberty’s place. I looked at Ivanka’s legs with Degas’s cynical but prescient gaze, a gaze that enacts a surrender to automatism and fragmentation as the visual vocabulary of modern life.
As Degas’s work demonstrates, the passions of the French Impressionists are far from uniformly sanguine. While exhibitions of Impressionist paintings draw enormous crowds, sophisticates often dismiss this work as without emotional nuance or critical positions. In fact, the Impressionist oeuvre is crucial for the way it responds to a history of passionate expression by offering instead an opaque surface of indifference, a kind of deadpan. It is not merely that an Impressionist painter like Claude Monet absents emotions from his paintings and thereby acknowledges emotions through negation, it is that the covering-up of emotional content can lead to charged surfaces. One of these surfaces is found in a very typical painting from Monet’s early years working in Argenteuil, the Parisian suburb where he painted following the wretched events of 1870, when Prussia successfully invaded France. Following the French capitulation, Parisian holdouts declared a new state within the city walls and refused entry to Franco-Prussian forces. A few months later, the commune was gruesomely suppressed during a period known as “bloody week.” Monet fled to Holland during the commune, but when he returned to France he rented a house and a studio in Argenteuil and set to work in a manner that showed little change from his pre-war oeuvre. He liked to sit on the river bank near the railroad bridge that crossed the river and paint the boats in the water, the dramatic diagonal of the bridge, and the house that sat on the opposite bank, partially hidden by trees.
Two days after the election, on November 11, I started thinking about Monet and a painting of his that I had recently seen at the Rhode Island School of Design. This painting shows the railway bridge at Argenteuil, rendered in crisp complementary colors, electric blue water pierced by the orange hulls of a few sailboats, the trees on the opposite bank tipped by dashes of mauve, as if autumn is coming. Yet what drew my attention was the house amidst the trees, a little tan house with bottle green shutters covering its windows and a brown roof. This is just a normal house, without particular distinction or shame, but Monet’s refusal to particularize the emotions of his scene—note the exclusion of human figures, those old vehicles of the passion—led me to a desperate search for surfaces that suggest passionate content. I wanted so much to see emotion in this house that three days after the election, I wrote “a serial killer lives there.” I admit that this could simply be the utterance of a madwoman, but I want to think that it is more, just as I want to think that the façade of Monet’s house hides more than nothing.
House façades often seem to take on the features of a human face, but rarely in a way that is welcoming (the ramshackle house in Psycho, for example). Monet’s house-face has green eyes, a bowl cut of a roof, a green nose above a fuzzy moustache of yellow trees. Yet it resembles a face in the way that a sociopath resembles a person; the outward features are intact, but that is all there is. No compassion lies beneath, no sense of relationality or engagement. It is truly deadpan in the etymological sense of the word: a dead face (when the phrase originated in the 1920s, “pan” was slang for “face”). This brings me back to the fundamentally responsive vision of the world put forth by history painting, in spite of all its represented violence. The expression of the passions provided a means with which to visualize communities as bound by comparability of emotional response, so that when one person expressed an emotion, another person responded using a shared language or repertoire of affects. The deadpan surface, however, manifests no response, no inclination, one way or the other. Thus deadpan refuses to perform its relationship to a community.
In Monet’s house, I discovered the place that I had been living all my life, in an ordinary house on a riverbank, its eyes shuttered against the noonday sun. Albert Boime has described Impressionist paintings of the early 1870s as cover-ups of the bloodshed of the commune.4 Read in this way, it is as if Monet took all the bodies of the dead revolutionaries in their mass graves (perhaps as many as 10,000 were killed) and hid them inside this house. Over the bodies, this unremarkable façade presides, yet now its plainness is laced with the terror of unfeeling.
The election of Donald Trump requires a rethinking of our own vision of emotion, community, relationality, and history as not past, but present. If my own experience serves as a model, for many people the election spurred passionate agitation of an unfamiliar kind. Looking at these French paintings suggests that what we need to do now is remain in the streets, searching out the proper language with which to express what we feel. Above all, we need to resist the urge to go back inside.
- This allegorical overlay is another way in which the category of “history” functioned elastically. The size of Delacroix’s canvas, its allusion to historical events, and the size of its chief figures mark it as indubitably a “history painting” according to the generic criteria. The co-presence of allegory did not endanger its status as a history painting.
- Carol Armstrong, Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas, 2nd Edition (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2003).
- Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Modern Life,” in Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, ed. Richard Sennett (Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1969), 47–60.
- Albert Boime, Art and the French Commune: Imagining Paris after War and Revolution (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995).
ContributorMarika Takanishi Knowles
MARIKA TAKANISHI KNOWLES is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. She studies French art of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.