has become crucial concept for our purposes. Realism itself seems a value
related to the emergence of photography. Realism is also associated with
verisimilitude in imitation. Surely when we look at Olympia, we
look for painterly not photographic details. T.J. Clark speaks to this
when he writes of Olympia, "She failed to occupy a place in the
discourse on Woman ... she was neither a nude, nor a prostitute" (Frascina
114). A paraphrase might read, "she was neither glamorous, nor realistic
(in the sense that a morgue photo might have a disquieting realism). Instead,
for Clark, Olympia refuses to appear, except in her action on us and that
action is a result of the "production of the person herself ...
an inevitable elision between the qualities of precision and contrivance
in the image and those qualities inhering in the fictive subject" (Frascina
"... incompatibilities precisely tuned ...
" Let me tease this out some more.
The action of the image on us is the result of two forces that seem to
elide. First you sense one of these forces, then the other. It becomes
impossible to dismantle the shuttling between a glimpse of the "fictive"
or imagined subject, a woman on a bed, and the way in which the image has
been produced. Clark enumerates the disquieting forms of "contrivance in
the image." There is her face and the "blatancy" of her gaze, "direct,
yet guarded, poised between address and resistance" (Frascina 115). We
see this gaze as inherent in the subject, "a production of the person
herself." Imagine this gaze as a projection or reflection on a surface.
Now consider the surface itself, the marks of the brush. Clark points out
the soft shock of auburn hair on her left shoulder, difficult to disentangle
from the Japanese screen behind her head. "Once it is seen, it changes
the whole disposition of head and shoulders: the flat, cut, cut-out face
is surrounded and rounded by the falling hair; the flower converts from
a plain silhouette into an object resting in the hair below; the head is
softened, given a more familiar kind of sexuality" (Frascina 117). Our
eyes are drawn from the projections that we associate with the subject
to the surface and in the process of shuttling between the two, we find
there are two faces, "one produced by a ruthless clarity of edge and a
pungent certainty of eyes and mouth, and the other less clearly demarcated,
opening out into the surrounding spaces" (Frascina 117). An everyday equivalence
on the level of how the eyes work occurs if you look through a window and
then look at a window. Your sight shuttles through the glass and bounces
off the glass. It is difficult to hold both sights together as one image
in your mind's eye. The two faces of Olympia are a result of such
a struggle for congruence between the surface and the projected subject.
This uncertain and shifting quality Clark attributes to Manet's art of
"incompatibilities precisely tuned" (Frascina 117).
One might also say that the surface of the image keeps the viewer at
a distance from the subject. We are excluded. For Manet, authenticity might
then be thought of as a discovery of such exclusion, such uncertainty as
to what we look upon. This also has to do with the way in which an image
defies ideological constructs. Manet, unlike Baudelaire in "Meditation",
is not finding authenticity away from "the sordid multitude" in some longed
for quiet corner. He is instead engaging the indeterminable reality of
appearances or constructing with paint an equivalence for uncertainty.
Previously "realism" had meant an imitation or the construction of an equivalence
to the subject; now (after Manet) it has come to mean authenticity with
respect to how we see, how both social norms and composition (the construction
of the image) effect the operation of the eyes.
If Manet had a model or precursor for his realism, it is Francisco Goya.
I have also written about Manet's subject on another page at this site.
I want to suggest now that there is a struggle between the values of realism
and authenticity for each of the painters whose work we will be examining.
A similar struggle is evident in the different uses of language employed
by the poets collected below on this page, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Cendrars.
It will prove useful to think of the work of painting as an engagement
with visual language. A central contention being advanced in this course
is that the work of Manet, Cézanne, and Seurat made crucial contributions
to the development of an authentic visual language, setting their sites
on a radical 'realism' that Picasso would in turn advance in his visual
For instance, the significance of Georges Seurat’s work, in the opinion
of Herbert Read, lies neither in the technique of pointillism nor in the
attempt to derive “a scientific foundation for aesthetic harmony,” but
in “an awareness of dialectical problems in the very process of art which
could be solved only by a revolutionary transformation of its cognitive
status. The old language of art was no longer adequate for human consciousness:
a new language had to be established syllable by syllable, image by image,
until art could once more be a social as well as an individual necessity”
Why am I asking you to read French poetry, Baudelaire,
Partly because the work of these poets provides an analog in the word arts
for what we have looked at in the pictorial arts.
It is an analog in a simple way: from Baudelaire to Rimbaud the form
loosens. There is maybe a rush in Rimbaud similar to the rush I associate
with Van Gogh: swirling energies. Subjectivity unleashed and almost infecting
ordinary life. Both Manet and Baudelaire were every bit the gentleman in
their daily lives, even the dandy, fussy, holding themselves above the
masses, even as they sought to understand the new proportions of "modern
In a letter to Paul Demeny, Rimbaud wrote, "the form that is so much
praised in [Baudelaire] is trivial. Inventions from the unknown demand
new forms" (RP 16). Peter Nicholls identifies this crucial
difference between Baudelaire’s art and that of Rimbaud:
…for the allegorist [like Baudelaire],
the lack of coincidence between self and world had stemmed from a loss
of social coherence, for Rimbaud society is to be forged anew through the
medium of poetic language. The recognition of a disjunction between words
and things no longer generates feelings of loss and anxiety but provides
a sort of mandate for a creative destruction of the world (another paradox
that was to have a long and distinguished avant-garde career). … [In "The
Drunken Boat"], there is a constant shattering of frames of vision … vivid
images crash together, seeming as out of control as the intoxicated craft
of the poem. (29)
The reader who feels the anarchistic energy of Rimbaud's language will
also appreciate Picasso's definition of cubism as "a sum of destructions."
Rimbaud, like Gauguin, may have felt impelled to flee to the ends of the
earth in order to experience freedom. What is significant to me about Cendrars,
and in turn Picasso again, is that both found the interior space for such
freedom, loosening traditional forms and at the same time responding to
the closure of distance as a result of the way technology uncannily shrinks
time and space.§
In this sense, as in the case of Seurat, Picasso's visual language performs
a task that is socially and individually necessary: it creates a space
wherein one is free to express desire and anxiety. You will find these
ideas developed on the Picasso pages at this site.
Frascina, Francis. Art in Modern Culture.
Peter. Modernisms: A Literary Guide, Berkeley: U Cal P, 1995.
Herbert, A Concise History of Modern Painting: Revised Edition. NY:
Thames and Hudson, 1988.
Rimbaud: Collected Poems, trans. Oliver Bernard (Hammondsworth: Penguin,