Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Adversity and Practices of Painting: Merleau-Ponty, Monet, and Joan Mitchell

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Adversity and Practices of Painting: Merleau-Ponty, Monet, and Joan Mitchell

Article excerpt

If Merleau-Ponty was perhaps less than sympathetic to the emergence of abstract painting and sculpture in the mid-twentieth century, his prominent focus, in both the 1954 lecture course on Institution and in "Eye and Mind," on the transition from the spherical perspective of antiquity to the planimetric perspective of the Renaissance and on Cézanne's painterly engagement therewith, may be a factor motivating his disinterest in pure abstraction.1 As he notes in Institution, the ancient modality of the pictorial expression of space involves a sense of its non-substantiality and non-measurable fluidity, whereas Albertian perspective is a precise mathematical construct (even though the practice of individual artists still allowed it to function expressively).2 His sustained engagement with the pictorial expression of the spatiality of nature (which he does not clearly distinguish from sheer pictorial space that may characterize even an abstract or monochrome painting) leads him to focus predominantly on Cézanne's painterly involvement with spatiality or depth (la profondeur). In the painter's late work, he diagnoses a "global locality" or a deflagration of being from which identifiable dimensions are at best abstracted, and which can be expressed through color no less than through form or line (thus undercutting the classical distinction between disegno, prized in Renaissance Florence, and color, prized by the Venetian school).3

Merleau-Ponty's interest in Cézanne, however, is also importantly trained on the question of the freedom of artistic creation in a context of adversity, as searchingly explored in his 1945 essay "Cézanne's Doubt."4 Adversity is not, of course, limited to the readily identifiable traumas of history and politics, nor even to the travails of an artist's personal life or psychohistory. It is often without nameable identity, as expressed perhaps by Cézanne's pronouncement, cited by MerleauPonty, that "life is frightening" (c'est effrayant, la vie).5 Even in less than overtly challenging situations, artistic creation must face up to the imprevisibility and fragility of life and does not constitute a self-assertion of surpassing freedom.

Notwithstanding the power and importance of Cézanne's work, however, it cannot claim a unique privilege among the articulations of a pictorial world that come to function as "principles of expression."6 These articulations are multiple and in no way exclude one another. This study proposes to explore, in the framework of Merleau-Ponty's understanding of institution, an avenue of approach to twentieth century abstraction in the work of an artist whom, surprisingly, Merleau-Ponty never mentions: Claude Monet, and further to explore certain strands and transformations of Monet's artistic legacy in twentieth century art.

Merleau-Ponty's disregard for Monet (who deeply appreciated and was appreciated by Cézanne) is rather surprising, given that some of the artist's late pictorial concerns echo issues in Merleau-Ponty's own aesthetic analyses. These include a shift of focus from the seen motif to the act of seeing, an exploration of seriality (which constitutes, for Merleau-Ponty, a characteristic trait of institution and indicates that a guiding project "knows itself only in its partial realizations"), a concern for pictorial unity and for a "réalisation"based on, yet surpassing nature (a quest shared with Cézanne),7 as well as the elision, in Monet's late work, of the framing structures and horizon that traditionally define the articulation of space. There is, moreover, a certain affinity between Merleau-Ponty's thematization of the elementality of flesh and Monet's focus on the elemental powers of nature, particularly water, but also fire and air, manifest as color and light.

The intensity of Monet's painterly quest was at times severely checked by adversity, which was not only personal (such as the deaths of his first wife, Camille, in 1879, and of his second wife, Alice, in 1911, or his struggle with cataracts that threatened near-blindness), but also socio-political, including the FrancoPrussian war and the First World War. …

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