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Spring 2009

On Forsaken Favorites

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T. J. Clark

I don't see the point of playing this game unless I make it a variant on the one where everybody owns up to the book he or she is most ashamed never to have read. The fallen idol whose fate leaves me by far the most uneasy—uncertain, that is, whether the fall is his or mine—is Manet. It keeps happening without my being wholly aware of it. This spring in Chicago, for instance, I realized at the end of a morning in the Art Institute that I had spent long minutes absorbed in the naiveties of a Delacroix lion hunt—wondering at the way the absurd wish-fulfillment called "North Africa" managed to focus and concentrate the painter's energies, producing a green and blue like nobody else's—and I'd never looked, for more than a moment or two, at Manet's street-people on the opposite wall of the gallery. "Velazquez kitsch," I found myself murmuring when I did. Whereas what Delacroix had done with Rubens!

I think the process began some years ago in Munich, where Manet's Luncheon in the Studio hangs—or did then—next to an early, simple-minded Cézanne called The Railway Crossing. I remember feeling a little guilty at the depth of my boredom with the Luncheon, and then abandoning myself, guiltless and gleeful, to Cézanne's preposterous piece-by-piece assembly of a world. The various items in his "landscape" by the sea (and the word has to be put in quotation marks, for never has an outdoors been more obviously a dreamscape brought to life by a regressing child) do not even pretend to belong together in space. But who cares? Sheer vividness—the feeling of a necessity whose motives may elude you but whose power has you by the throat—wins out. Vividness is what French painting in the nineteenth century had to offer. Not elaborate plotting. Not grown-up investigation of the bourgeois psyche. Not enigma. Not even modernity. It is because the weight of these latter themes—these preoccupations and responsibilities—lies heavy on the Luncheon that the painting creaks and freezes. Its central weird spotlight, trained on the noncommittal youth, is too obviously deployed to save the rest of the stodgy stage-management from going gray.

Is this just me getting tired of an artist I have studied too long? Maybe. Is it me reneging on one vision of the art of the nineteenth century—the image of the people and painter of modern life vision, say—in favor of an older, more tired and limited one? After all, what is "vividness" but a code word for Impressionism—or at least, for the kind of teleological history of French painting that has the whole thing be an arc directed toward pure sensation and the painting of light? And aren't "plotting" and "stage-management" just substitutes for "literary" and "anecdotal," which when I was young were held to be what stopped painting, in the long twilight of the academy, from discovering its true nature? I may convince myself that my moments of negative affect come out of the blue, but my very choice of new love objects gives the game away. Delacroix and Cézanne are heroes of the old story. I am just rewriting Signac's D'Eugène Delacroix au néo-impressionnisme.

Perhaps I am—but the enthusiasms and demotions still seem to me to happen naturally, and be events I have to trust. And these intuitions, by the way, are not of a kind that I think will, or even should, lead to writing. My nineteenth century has always been oriented round Corot, Pissarro, Van Gogh, and Cézanne as much as Géricault, Courbet, Manet, and Degas. The fact that the first four now tend to edge out the second does not make saying why any easier. (With Cézanne it still may be possible.) I have never read anything illuminating on the effect of a Verlaine lyric, while a propos Mallarmé I am in many critics' debt. Corot will never find his Baudelaire. And Manet, of course, will do very well without my adulation. I keep wondering what it will be like to stand in front of the Déjeuner sur l'herbe again. (For maybe my whole de-cathexis has to do with my finding the Musée d'Orsay such a dismal mausoleum that the years go by without my returning to its marble cells.) There in the Déjeuner, as I remember it, is distilled all the pathos of nineteenth-century art: the dream of immediacy and escape intertwined with the not-knowing-who-or-where-one-is that was the dream's very motor. It must be the case that this pathos survives—that I shall find it again in the touch, in the color. Well, either I shall or I shan't. Paintings are different from thought-experiments: this at least I am sure of. They stand or fall by their form and substance: otherwise Wright of Derby and Gustave Caillebotte and the early Marcel Duchamp would be the major artists some think them.

T. J. Clark is the author of Farewell to an Idea, The Sight of Death, The Painting of Modern Life, and other works of art history and criticism.

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