Review of Michael Fried’s ‘French Suite: A Book of Essays’

By Christian Kile

http://www.sehepunkte.de/2023/01/36992.html

This book of essays by Michael Fried covers a selection of the painting and literature of France, focussing on the nineteenth century and Impressionism together with an argument about the evolution of French art which led to it. The ideas of Denis Diderot, a long-time influence on Fried, are central in this collection. For it is in the philosophe’s art criticism that a key criteria of French painting became defined: a will to isolate itself from, or even deny the existence of its viewer or beholder – a rejection of what Fried terms “theatricality”. To achieve this, a method of “absorption”, depicting figures engrossed in their situation and an emphasis on “dramatic unity” to achieve “a compositional effect of closure vis-à-vis the beholder” became prominent (326-327). [1]

In the first chapter it is Louis Le Nain’s group of peasant paintings which come under study with their often “strongly frontal, not to say self-presentational orientation” of figures – works which form part of the “‘classical’ turn” initiated by Nicolas Poussin (25, 36). A number of these would be to hand for Édouard Manet “at the very moment, the outset of his career as a painter of major ambition, when he could best make use of them” (48).

In 1767, Hubert Robert, mostly remembered for his paintings of classical ruins, “provoked a seriously brilliant discussion” about his Salon submissions by Diderot, then said by Fried to be at his zenith as an art critic (51). Offering an alternative to the absorptive approach, Robert’s work is conceived as “pastoral”: bridges, walkways, tunnel like spaces and differing vantage points are all utilised; an approach that encourages a viewer to enter a picture (57).

It is that Romantic icon, Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault in which the theme of absorption is intensified. Fried describes the painting as having been the artist’s sole attempt at a career defining achievement, and even then, one that apparently for the artist “fell painfully short” (114). Like Keats who died a few years before him, the Frenchman would die convinced that he had not fulfilled his promise. In the Raft the shipwrecked men or naufragés are desperately baying at a distant ship on the horizon away from the beholder. Fried goes further and speculates that judging by the men’s “actions and orientation” their rescue would result in them passing from the viewer, “as if we, in our capacity as beholders, were the ultimate cause of their predicament” (105).

Along with Flaubert, Baudelaire is one of the writers allotted a chapter. Fried focusses on the latter’s Salon of 1846 where the poet-critic’s great criterion of “memorability” and its “assumption that those works of art are best that leave the strongest and most lasting impressions on the memory” is considered (118-119). Good art, for Baudelaire, eschews explicit citation of past art: “only the experience of a ‘unified’ work in the present would sufficiently recall – would lend itself to being supported by memories of – ‘unified’ works from the past” (127). Therefore, according to Fried, it is curious that Baudelaire championed Delacroix whose works often bore “unconcealed relation to famous prototypes in earlier art” (151).

Manet’s two paintings, The Luncheon in the Studio and The Balcony, are seen to mark a highly significant shift in the artist’s work in which the presence of a viewer is acknowledged with a new force. Essentially, they are portraits of Manet’s stepson Léon Koëlla and close friend and fellow painter Berthe Morisot. They signal the abandonment of Diderot’s near century long theory of absorptive criteria to produce an effect of “radical facingness”, so achieving a new way for a painting to face its beholder and bringing an end to the antitheatrical project (212). [2]

Leaving aside the landscape paintings, Fried considers the lesser known figurative works of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: usually women, the models are painted in various poses; reading, playing instruments, perhaps ruminating, contemplating, or just bored. Corot continued the tradition of portraying figures absorbed in actions or thinking even though, as Fried suggests, Manet’s interventions had already established that “absorption was no longer unproblematically available for antitheatrical purposes” (260). This thinking is in line with an early decision Fried took “to become an art historian of a particular kind”, developing a highly specific narrative of art from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, based on the principles laid out in his early essay, Art and Objecthood (1967) (12).

According to Fried the work of Charles-François Daubigny is the most “seriously misunderstood” of significant nineteenth century French painters, the result of a tendency to view it firmly through the lenses of Barbizon and Impressionism (278). The “sensation” aspect central to the latter is not prominent in his work (280). Rather he is seen by Fried as closer to Courbet, his paintings regarded by some contemporaries “as evoking an extraordinary range and intensity of sensory, which is to say bodily, impressions” (305).

Pushing on into “The Moment of Impressionism”, by far the most enjoyable chapter, Fried seeks to challenge the general consensus that this movement forms one more part of French paintings continuity. He argues instead that the shift to Impressionist landscape painting marks a “fundamental break” from the antitheatrical aim (326, 341). It would be in the 1860s that the question of “neutralizing of the beholder” became untenable, with Manet’s revolutionary figurative works ending the absorptive phenomenon, which began in the mid-eighteenth century according to Fried’s model (327).

In the case of Olympia, this new shift, combined with its prostitute subject, provoked particular notoriety. In response to a used-up tradition of “absorption” Fried makes his most striking claim, that Diderot’s antitheatrical and figurative theory is superseded by a “linked series of ‘formal’ issues and demands that had no single master critic or theoretician” (351). It was Manet’s monopoly on “facingness” that led to the momentous change of representation in the Impressionist landscape, altering the course of major painting.

For Fried this switch ushers in a great shift away from ambitious figure-painting – a phenomenon which to the present has “escaped comment by students of Impressionism” and led to a new kind of unity, achieved with smaller canvasses and raising “the issue of touch, along with that of finish, to a new degree of perspicuousness” (346, 351).

Having spent much of his “critical and art-historical career” discerning his own views from those of Clement Greenberg, one of the most prominent and plainly written twentieth century art critics, it is a shame that Fried, having acknowledged his predecessor’s essays on Cézanne, amongst others, as “incontournable” found himself “defeated” at the challenge of including an essay here on the artist’s painting Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Château Noir (Bridgestone Museum, Tokyo) (10, 356).

Fried goes into great depth about the “formal” aspects of paintings, characteristically drawing rigorously on responses from contemporary critics of his chosen period and “The Moment of Impressionism” in particular presents some fascinating ideas. While the claim that it is through landscape painters that “Impressionism has come popularly to be understood in our own time” may be true it is worth pointing out the importance of other genres within Impressionism and beyond, such as Renoir’s crowds and interior scenes, Cézanne’s still lives and peasants, and much of Caillebotte and Degas (351).

Complimenting and drawing extensively from Fried’s trilogy on the relationship between painting and beholder: Absorption and Theatricality, Courbet’s Realism and Manet’s Modernism, French Suite does not suffer too much from ‘jargon’ but when the prose does get heavy it makes Diderot’s enraptured lines all the more welcome: “One never tires of looking. Time stands still for those who admire. What a short time I’ve lived! How brief was my youth!” (63). [3]


Notes:

[1] Michael Fried: Absorption and Theatricality. Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Berkeley 1980.

[2] Michael Fried: Manet’s Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s, Chicago 1996.

[3] Cf. [1], [2] and Michael Fried: Courbet’s Realism, Chicago 1990.

One thought on “Review of Michael Fried’s ‘French Suite: A Book of Essays’”

  1. Congratulations on an intelligent, interesting review, Christian Kile. It’s regrettably rare to read such a thoughtful, well-referenced article in the WordPress.com Reader. For yours to come up in my feed was a delightful surprise. Hopefully you will gain many more followers for your art reviews. Best wishes…

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