Painting, Self, and Society at the Cusp of Abstraction: Comments on Art and Comparative Cultural History

By Silverman, Debora | French Politics, Culture and Society, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Painting, Self, and Society at the Cusp of Abstraction: Comments on Art and Comparative Cultural History


Silverman, Debora, French Politics, Culture and Society


It is very gratifying, at the end of the long journey this book entailed, to have responses generated from two fields and from some of the scholars whose writings have inspired me along the way. What I'd like to do in my comments is not to rehash material in the book--I hope those of you who haven't yet will get a chance to read it. (It is now available in a paperback edition.) Rather, I'd like to raise some broader issues for our future work relating to the position of navigating between the disciplines of art history and cultural history as we try to write in the links between biography, society, and style in specific national contexts, and the particular benefits of comparative analysis as we do so.

Taken together, the essays highlight the different disciplinary habits and priorities of art historians and historians, exemplifying some of the dilemmas I wrestled with as I was writing the book. The first approach is poised to go deeper into the life, ideas, and forms of the individual artist and to discover a language that adequately describes the technical procedures and stylistic practices that uniquely define a given artist's pictorial structure and creative process. The historian's approach, by contrast, is poised to move broadly across a particular culture and to identify patterns and pressures that artists share with others of their generation outside the domain of art and style. Here painters are considered as social agents, who absorb, express, and transform the broader tensions of their societies and may illuminate broader historical problems. Analysis of particular visual forms expands to an interpretation of art and artist as carriers of cultural history in the crucible of modernity.

The two art historians' essays I will comment on--those of Belinda Thomson and Kenneth Silver--share an emphasis on intention and interpretation. They try to tease out the issue of motive in the making and meaning of particular works of art for the artists producing them and raise questions about the interaction between the life course and artistic creativity in the case of two modernist pioneers, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. While they mobilize different kinds of evidence and sources, both Thomson's and Silver's essays prioritize visual objects and their genesis and significance for the artists producing them, with Gauguin's Vision of the Sermon (1888) at the center of Thomson's inquiry (and also the subject of an entire exhibition under her curatorship in Edinburgh in 2005), and Matisse's Chapel of the Rosary at Vence (1947-1951) the site of Silver's ruminations. The exploration of these objects by the two scholars deepens the possibilities and promise of reemphasizing the role of religion in modernism, which was a primary effort of my book, and suggests new and nuanced ways of approaching this intricate issue.

Historian Jerrold Seigel's essay, by contrast, proceeds in another direction from that of the two art historians. Rather than focusing on particular objects and artists, Seigel is interested in moving from discrete cases to developing a general framework for understanding modernism, the avant-garde, and modernity over the longue duree. Seigel finds the divergent forms of expressive consciousness defined by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to be applicable more broadly as shared avant-garde responses to the tensions and contradictions within modernity, and its discovery of the unprecedented condition of unfettered subjectivity. Rather than examining synchronic networks of social relations and visual sources, such as Thomson's discussion of Gauguin and Camille Pissarro or Silver's analysis of craft textiles and Moorish influences in Matisse's Chapel, Seigel reaches back and forward in intellectual history from Fichte to Kristeva to link the stances of van Gogh and Gauguin to the fundamental transformations of self, society, and language that liberated the avant-garde artist as they also crystallized a profound crisis of knowledge and communicability.

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