1. The pigeons are talking with their mouths closed again

with the to-die-for Monet lavender flashing on their necks. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe one of them said were the pigeons not invited? Well anotherofum said, better Manet than no-place-to-alight Monet. Are we not distinct on our pointy-toed crinkly particular but not persnickety feet? Who’s our man, then, Manet or Monet? Manet for me the firstofum said but he could have been nicer to pigeons.

 

2. Like big Newfoundland dogs pinning smaller ones to the wall,

the shapes in French academic art leaned against the colors till which was stronger the colors or the shapes was an academic question. Then Manet the father of new fresh lightly-borne colors got them to relax on the surface where they gazed out calmly like his Olympia and breathed relief. It’s about time they are still saying looking unabashed in their sometimes soft to the touch skin. The pink blouse in Manet’s portrait of Irma Brunner orbits gauzily around her torso, while her tall black hat and not-to-be-messed-with perfect profile rein her in. And Madame Manet (in the same museum, Musée d’Orsay) floats like a lightweight doll on a sea-blue sofa in her buoyant white raft of a skirt. Her little feet in their black shoes stick out very like a doll’s indeed, and her expression is unreadable, very like a doll’s indeed. (The painting has humor.) Manet is nearly there, where Cézanne will soon be: where painting is no longer about the human, natural, or spiritual subject, as such, but about the transfigurative possibilities of composition, color, texture, and mood. Nearly there where arresting new arrangements seem to occur spontaneously through a shakedown performed by the aggressive exploratory unit of the brush. Art is now on the way to becoming the airiest and most light-filled of the materialisms, like the back of the woman in Manet’s “Before the Mirror” (1876), in the Guggenheim, that almost solid back with its dress of feathery blue and white strokes and its unconscious material joy.

      Of course other artists began to coax color to rise up off of seeming solids, to congregate and coordinate into new societies. Color was wooed by soft if insistent brushwork or percussed by daubs or harried by streaks or dizzied by swirls. An alliance between broad or broken brushing and liberated color arose; rosed; bloomed.

     In the new art, stroke-inventions and -interventions, quick, now, hastened and redirected matter’s heavy slow earthly unimpassioned kind of innovation. It was as if wind, air, and light had entered solids and given them through and through a lift. Moreover, in a paralla x shift, appearances were organized around the equivalent of Kant’s transcendental X or Lacan’s objet petit a, an invisible surplus-core.

     Pulling out the next color-stroke from the suggestion of the previous one, inquiringly, without an overbearing model, was all the enterprise; feeling the mutual attraction of the aggregate parts was the buzz of it. To paint so was to operate “in the emotional realm,” the realm of “reconciliation,” as Hegel said of the romantic artist, and under the banner of Frenhofer’s statement in Balzac’s seminal story “The Unknown Masterpiece” that “it’s not the mission of art to copy nature, but to express it.”  It meant what Mallarmé called extending “some interior state . . . in order to simplify the world”—or, for that matter, in order to complicate it so as to satisfy the subject’s experience of itself as force (indeed, as existing only as force): “I make . . . arbitrary use of color to express myself more forcefully” (van Gogh). It was even to anticipate what Clement Greenberg described in 1948 in the Partisan Review as “the contemporary sensibility,” namely “the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted.”

       Either way, if you are a modern, you pick the colors out of the color cache and often if not always distribute them with a reasonable memory of where reality itself has put them. Excepting Cubism’s sour tobaccoing of color—a corrective after Fauve’s gaudy romps—you are likely to hit on color’s own je ne sais qua,

which its concrete universal property makes possible, and which has no anecdotes, no roads, no end, yet seems to tell of something anyway, especially in rich mixtures, through what van Gogh called “the mysterious vibrations of related tones.” (Color, you could say, is now an immanence, but of what?) You are no longer a conformist of the palette in the ateliers of the rues of the schools. With your apparent taste for smudges (are you blind?) and your hastiness (have you no patience?), you have entered the positive modern realm of instantaneity, improvisation, and uncertainty, the subject’s discovery that it is security that is hasty.

 

 adopt Alain Badiou’s vocabulary: You have drawn away from the algebraic in order to investigate the topological, and this in the smallest unit of the painting. (The algebraic: the register of discrete elements, in which the “becoming of a process” is lacking. The topological: the register of movement and differentials.) Thus was born the new art, one implicit with a new temporality (the instant), a new subject (a force organizing a sensory dispersal), and a new orientation (the attraction to everything-at-once).

 

 

       What it meant, and what later art movements sacrificed, was a geniality of genius and a delicacy of the infusion of sensibility into a scene. Hegel might almost have been speaking of its workings when he said of “the silent, ceaseless weaving of the Spirit in the simple inwardnes of its substance” that it is comparable to a “silent expansion or to the diffusion, say, of a perfume in the unresisting atmosphere . . .which does not make itself noticeable beforehand as something opposed to the indifferent element into which it insinuates itself, and therefore cannot be warded off. . . . Consciousness . . . unheedingly [yields] to its influence.” This inward expansion “infects” memory, which “alone . . . still preserves the dead form of the Spirit’s previous shape as a vanished history.”

 

3. But what about van Gogh’s doctor’s orange wall?

Color is split into place, on the one hand, and its capacity for linkage, on the other. Van Gogh: ”Right now the whole area round Zweeloo is nothing but young corn, sometimes as far as the eye can see, the greenest of greens I know. With a sky above of a delicate lilac-white producing an effect I think cannot be painted, but which, as I see it, is the keynote one must understand in order to find the key to other effects.” The keynote is implicit in the painting, a present absence. In getting a “combinatory” going, Badiou remarks in Theory of the Subject, a cause vanishes but remains “consubstantial” with the consistency of the whole. Dominique Fourcade in Xbo:  “a wave is contained in the poem without appearing—it / would wash away the pumping stations themselves.” You know, “the wave of black honey contained in the poem with its bees.”

 

4. The New Art made a Substance of Style.

In the new styles, brush strokes are at once distinct and generic relative to both one another and the scenography, such as it is. They qualify copying’s strictures in the interest of lyricism, including light—color’s secret resisted love and quarrel (Cézanne: “light . . . does not exist for the painter”)—and of adventuring into differentials under the nonetheless continued reign of the Same. These new and in each case individual generic styles, these styles of the generic, set about generalizing without generalities. They balance erasures with a marked increase of local dynamics.

      One day, painting’s smooth-and-exact-all-over style fell out of one of Corot’s exquisitely scumbled trees—at 4:03 p.m., August 26, 1864, to be exact, in a memory of Mortefontaine, in a painting now in the Louvre. There it was, the liberation from a limiting exactitude in modern art’s joyously obscuring brush strokes. (Among a few others, Paul Huet had been edging that way earlier.) Henceforth, painting would be tempted to “mis”-see the object in proportion to an inspired drive to continuity, via the broadmindedness of the brushwork. The painting technique itself would become allegorical, the sign of a dialectic between difference and resemblance, in an air of visual equality—the same lingering-and-diffusing emphasis in each square centimeter of the picture. The result would be not a copy, but a salute.

         So it was that the new painting killed the old painting’s confinement to grand pastoral placidities, pre-approved “significant” subjects, exotic lands and peoples, and over-crowded, over-studied still lifes. It broke free through spontaneous impressions and the innovating extravagance of force, force being the courage of a subject who is otherwise the collective’s, or anxiety’s, puppet. You practically have to go all the way back to Fragonard and Watteau to find, in French art, something that hits you as right and wonderful in spite of its failure to be the modern art that you insanely love.

 

5. Style is equality

There is, then, an equalizing power and effect in these modern styles, style being anyway “the quality common to two different objects.” I quote from Gilles  De-  leuze, who states in Proust & Signs: “style is essentially metaphor” and metaphor “is essentially metamorphosis and indicates how . . . two objects exchange their determinations . . . in a new medium that confers [a] common quality upon them.” “Style,” in fact, “is essence itself,” and “essence is in itself difference.” “There is no great artist who does not make us say: ‘The same and yet different.’”

        Obviously, the equality in modern art is intuitive, discovered by genius. It was encouraged by the democratic ideals that issued elsewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, in Marx and Whiman, and stimulated further by modern physics. But as it replaced the academic art of heroism and singularity by attention to the field, it demonstrated its own unique range of temperamemts and affections.

 

6. But what about van Gogh’s doctor’s red-orange wall?

This new art thus distinguished itself through a style of, as it were, underdistinguishing, having in sight something beyond the in-place status of things. In Monet’s picture of a poppy field in the Musée d’Orsay you do not (and cannot) see the petals, you do not (and cannot) see the expressions on the faces of the two women and two children strolling through them. You see “poppy” and you see “people,” you see the whole, and, voilà, it’s a world. Monet’s style is allusive and the allusiveness is the vanishing (but not vanished) detail of the place. It is as if the whole painting asks to be seen simultaneously, as a single impression. (Peter Schjeldahl speaks of Bonnard’s “spirit of diffused attentiveness into fields of drenching color.”) The equal tug of each particle is the direct correlative of its lack of optical sharpness, as compared to the architectonics and points of salience in the visual field in older paintings, including, of course, many of Monet’s own.

        In effect, now, is what one French critic called “a sort of indifference to the relative value of objects.” Avoiding the old style meant painting everything as if it were a motif of everything else; meant linkages; meant sitting in the ferociously luminous heavy wooden orange rowboat in Vuillard’s astonishing painting Le Passeur in the Musée d’Orsay, a boat enlargingly cropped smack up against the frame at the left side, which would be too much of an isolating mass if the rower’s orange oar didn’t dip into the orange-yellow reflections extending from the four slender trees on the opposite shore, in a five-note fiery autumnal chord.

 

7. Monet is the limit-case of the lyrical tug of force against place, van Gogh the show-case of the dramatic tug of force against place

van Gogh’s force being lyrically dramatic, to be sure. With the arguable exception of van Gogh’s final paintings, we are not quite yet at the punitively distorting passions of Expressionism, force at an unforgiving degree. The held-out bull-baiting wall-cape and -scape in Dr. Paul Gachet’s garden (a wall of solid color, as it were) is cruel. Van Gogh was never to get over or around that wall. Force, or the excess of the subject over place, was his crisis even more than it was his song.

        For Monet, it was song, or rather the reedy sound made by blowing on a tickly blade of grass between the lips. He wasn’t driven to paint force as a quality, as van Gogh was. But when he did, it was not a threatening force everywhere, as in van Gogh’s horror-air of rising crows, but an exhilaration. In Study of a Figure Outdoors (Facing Left), one of Monet’s paintings of a woman holding a parasol on a hilltop, the figure’s wind-blown pink-shadowed white dress is a variant of the pink-tinged cumulous clouds rising over the summit behind her (dresses for some other, perhaps greater, life). The turbulence would all but sweep the slender woman herself into the air if it were not for the decided outline of her backlit, small, green umbrella’s rim, which helps anchor her to the earth. As for the flowers growing thickly at her feet, some of them also pink, they are at a toss and loss to be individual flowers, but they don’t care. They let the wind make a chorusing congregation of them.

 

8. Monet is the Problematical limit-case of the lyrical tug of force against place

Compared to, say, Alfred Sisley’s moderately equalizing painting of a woman working in her garden in fog (La Brouillard), which approximates naturalism even as it escapes its limits, Monet in his freer canvases changes the game: he liquefies, when he doesn’t mash up, solids. In the wilder of the late pictures of the garden and Japanese footbridge at Giverny, he mashes: style itself goes up in a shriek. Take the titles away and they are almost abstract paintings, though not good ones, choked as they are with extra-florid gestures.

        But in other of Monet’s later paintings there are two successful, if contrasting, styles. You find both in the Musée Marmottan Monet. On the one hand, there is a piquant pictorial style—as in the unbearably beautiful painting of high climbing rose branches boldly feeling their way out into space, or the painting of really perky lilies of the Nile, like geese stretching up their necks, or that of pancake-flat pastel blue-green water-lily pads under which white clouds in intact shapes lie like skates. On the other hand there is a style of sweet suffusion, in paintings where forms and surfaces are sacrificed to a non-representational, variegated tonal wash. Line is deluged in color.

         Of course, the great showpieces of this second style are the Nymphéas in the Orangerie. In them, generic representation dissipates toward abstraction. With the almost total erasure of forms in these paintings, what becomes of egalité? Does it survive the disappearance of anecdote, anchoring structure, horizon, the scales set by the Albertian optical cone? What is left to be linked together? And what sort of water world is this that has none of the pliant, glassy, glossy, dense, fluent, or other attractive qualities of water, no wetness at all? (Compare the water in Monet’s Bras de Seine à Giverny in the Musée Marmottan Monet.) A marvelous new baseless substance has been imagined, worked into being. “How empty it is,” cried Alexandre Benois on the occasion of the 1931 exhibition at the Orangerie—being, in this, no more or less perceptive than Michel Butor, who once said of the paintings: “we are in the presence of a whole system of signs.”

         If you look at these a-centered pictures from far back, they just keep to the fiction of linkage, even if there is nothing else so reduced to consistency in Impressionism. There is just enough detail to pique, here and there, a local interest, and so make linkage possible: in addition to some relatively gross, spinachy hanging willow images and now and again a starkly solid-seeming tree trunk, a few scattered suggestions of white, pink, or rose-yellow lilies.

      Viewed close up, however, the consistency explodes into a chaos of detached markings. Now, instead of an extreme scarcity of detail, there is a disturbed hornet’s-nest of it. Thus a remarkable turn-around from one extreme to the other. Here where you can smell the paint, the style is ugly and sharp with character and ugly with lack of character. The “lilies” and their “pads” are just crude circles and C’s. Rude bars of paint, like a house painter’s swipe to test a color, seem stuck in anyhow among looser series of strokes that are like schools of fish. You find bald spots beside scabby, broken patches of paint. Plus big-area clashes of overlaid colors: blue and purple, yellow and green, blue and green, rust and yellow, and so on. No blend, no lyricism.

      How astonishing that this disorder all falls together evocatively when viewed from yards, as if from worlds, away, slipping effortlessly toward the opposite kind of abstraction, via the representational, not the fragmentary. Presto, out of a riot of shouts, a whispered scene comes to you across the room. Ugliness is transformed into loveliness. (It is perhaps essential that one’s memory of water fields of lilies touches the canvas like a wand.)

       Monet thus stretches wide, to the point of the almost total blindness of each side to the other, the poles of a dialectic that is relatively tight in many of his earlier paintings, as also in those of Cézanne and van Gogh: the poles of gestural detail and representational effect, or of what is laid onto the canvas and of what the canvas proceeds to emote, so to speak, as a unity, regardless of the messy thicket of its material basis, and even more mysteriously because of it. In the Orangerie’s Nymphéas a seemingly senseless method produces, at length, the impression of, if not a place, then a plateau, in Deleuze’s sense: a “continuous zone of intensity,” a utopia, unfamiliar but at once so grand and delicately con- sistent, so founded in the conviction that it is a “work,” even a work of fond memory, that the viewer succumbs.

 

9. Equality is a mediation—an often desirable fiction.

Politics is in a structure of fiction” (Badiou). “The social relation and its momentary measure, condensed or expanded to allow for government, is a fiction, it belongs to the domain of Letters” (Mallarmé, “Safeguard”). Likewise, the linkages in modern art are structures of fiction. If algebra is conceived, topology is imagined.

 

10. But, another of the pigeons said, after a long pause,

we sort of sound like a Monet.

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