Manet and the Family Romance / Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth Century Painting

By Brettell, Richard R. | The Art Bulletin, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Manet and the Family Romance / Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth Century Painting


Brettell, Richard R., The Art Bulletin


NANCY LOCKE

Manet and the Family Romance

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 232 pp.; 98 b/w ills. $55.00

SUSAN SIDLAUSKAS

Body, Place, and Self in Nineteenth Century Painting

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 230 pp.; 8 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. $115.00

I cannot imagine either of these books in American academic art history being conceived, written, or published a generation ago. Each straddles disciplines in the humanities and social sciences with real determination. Each attempts new "readings" of canonical works of art that stray far from the "traditional" interpretative methods of art history that rely on iconography and iconology. And each manages some grounding in the social history of 19th-century French art without being in any important sense dependent on the work of Robert L. Herbert or T. J. Clark, the most important strategists of that subdiscipline of art history in the last generation. The bibliographies and indexes of these two learned books reveal a range of intellectual "sources" including psychoanalysis, philosophy, architectural history, literature, literary theory (more even than "literature" itself), cultural studies, sociology, and many other fields only loosely related to "the history of art."

Yet, in spite of the evident methodological openness of these books, each is anxious to contribute to the interpretation of specific works of art, most of them famous and much debated in the critical and historical literatures. Given this interpretative focus, it is a little odd that neither author seems to have invaded the art museum itself with much persistence. Professor Sidlauskas of the University of Pennsylvania has dealt in physical detail with Edgar Degas's Interior, which is housed nearby at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And certain of the technical discussions necessary for Professor Locke's arguments come from published sources or from the most intensely "physical" of all historians of Manet, Juliet Wilson Bareau. While I know how difficult and frustrating it can be for the nonmuseum art historian to gain access to 11 primary material" in the museum, it is a pity that more effort was not expended in this direction. I suspect that these very richly nuanced readings would have been sharper had their authors done even more "hands-on" museum research.

It also must be said that both of these studies emerge from dissertations that have been extensively altered and adapted to become books. Each benefited from the advice of a wide range of readers and from constant "testing" in seminars and professional meetings. While this process has removed a little of the speculative zest of the dissertations, it has produced readings of specific works of art that. are layered, multifaceted, and, occasionally, problematic. In each case, the scholarship situates the works of art in contexts not normally associated with the art world-that is, private and institutional collecting, exhibitions, and museums. Instead, the context for Sidlauskas's reappraisal of modernity is the concept of "interiority" and its numerous analogues. She is fascinated by the contributions that artists make to a cultural discourse of privacy, family, and sex within the enclosed spaces of the domestic interior. Locke, too, is obsessed with issues of family but, rather than casting her net as widely as her colleague, focuses her attention on the oeuvre of one artist, Edouard Manet. Thus, both books deal with the "family secrets" that inform the artist and his world. Although both books concentrate exclusively on male artists, in many important ways they succeed in feminizing the discourses surrounding those artists.

Manet and the Family Romance is one of the most important attempts to reread Manet, the "modern" artist more than any other at the center of the troubled discourse of "modernism." Locke is well prepared for her task, having studied with T. …

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