The public perception of Bill Brandt is based largely on a few hundred photographs which have been reproduced again and again, principally the images in the second edition of Shadow of Light (1977), his personal choice from his photography of the previous 46 years. Through judicious retrospective selection of pictures, most of which had originally been taken for magazines, Brandt controlled the body of work by which he was to be recognized as a photographic artist. Much of his work for a wide range of magazines including Minotaure, Verve, Weekly Illustrated, Picture Post, Lilliput, Life and Harper’s Bazaar, most of it uncredited, remains hidden in archives . Despite working on a number of fashion assignments for Picture Post, for instance, he excluded this aspect of his photography from his artistic portfolio ...
Preview of an exhibition at Hackelbury Fine Art June 2013. Follow this link for examples of Saul Leiter's painting and photography. Also of interest: information about and a trailer for a recent documentary film about Saul Leiter 'In No Great Hurry' )
Saul Leiter: A Life in Colour
text by Nigel Warburton
‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’
Sometimes words screen us from what is in front of us. In the face of abstraction it is easier to fall back on biographical references, on artists’ statements, on art historical contextualization: these can be alternatives to engagement, ways of avoiding what is in front of you. There is, of course, no innocent eye, no pure retinal experience of painting, but focusing on fact, meaning, and source can undermine rather than enhance the joys of looking.
"I have personally not cared about the emphasis on the personal because I think that what matters is the work you do. When an artist talks about his own work he’s not very often discussing the work, he’s discussing quite possibly what he’d like it to be, or what he thinks it is. What can you do? The work itself outlives what people say about it"
Saul Leiter’s paintings have an unmistakable beauty. They burst with colour – yellows, turquoises, violets, reds. If you give them a few moments they will draw you in. Saul will tell you how much he enjoys the act of painting, how unlike some artists he doesn’t suffer when he paints - far from it. He is openly seeking a particular kind of beauty, and the enjoyment in the process is as obvious as it is in his photography. But you should be able to see this. No one should have to tell you. It is in his use of colour, the variety of marks, and in his sheer exuberance in painting that this emerges. The temptation is to try and explain it all in terms of something else that it isn’t, something more complicated or more personal. There may seem to be a horizon, and a sense of landscape or cityscape in many of these – though perhaps not. Everything in his painting is what it is.
"I have a great weakness that I’m ashamed to talk about. I have a great secret. I love painting! When I wake up in the morning and I’m depressed I got into the front room and pick up a brush and I feel much better"
This delight in colour and in brushstrokes is visible and contagious. It is there in the exuberant choice of hue, in the free marks, in the asymmetrical compositions – a wonderful expression of Leiter’s personality, his intelligence, wit, and pleasure in life.
There are echoes of his photography in his painting - and of his painting in his photography. The ochres and reds of a passing taxi, the patterns of out of focus lights in Times Square, such details often find their equivalents in both the colour and form of particular paintings. Equally the delight in multiple layers of paint and texture can be seen in many of his exquisite street shots, which frequently use windows and mirrors to frame, veil, and abstract. In both media his sensibility has been shaped by his first loves: the paintings of Renoir, of Matisse, and above all, of Bonnard. He began as a painter, and it is painting that still inspires him.
"Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I reach over to one of my 30 books on Bonnard…if I can’t find the one I want, I go out and buy another copy"
Leiter works on an intimate scale, often on scraps of cardboard and paper, sometimes almost translucent paper. An old returned envelope or a photographic print provides a surface for painting as readily as does a notebook of watercolour paper. For one series he used discarded book covers from his father’s library; for a more recent one he has been collecting the slivers of cardboard that wine stores place between bottles to stop them breaking. Many of the marks he makes are self-consciously calligraphic. They are both delicate and direct. One of his favorite books is of Zen brushwork, that tradition of immediacy flowing from a clear mind.
"The brush is one of the greatest inventions of mankind. Even if I don’t always use it correctly, I aspire to a kind of quality in the marks I make"
Built up from layers of gouache and watercolour, his paintings are palimpsests. He returns to earlier work that he finds in the stacks of sketches that fill his apartment, adding a light stroke here, improving, reworking, layering. This is a highly personal way of working, but it has no secret private meaning. It is not a diary, not a confession. If it brings joy to those who look at it, that is more than enough.
"In a very imperfect world it is good that something you’ve done gives pleasure to people"
There is a story, of course, of how he came to be as he is. Leiter’s father, a distinguished, scholar and rabbi, cried when Saul had his first exhibition, literally cried: ‘Now everyone will know’ he lamented. Saul’s artistic career, he jokes, began in adversity. Some seventy years on, this is still poignant. That’s where it all comes from. He wasn’t meant to be an artist, but, as he puts it, with a shrug in his voice, ‘What can you do? I preferred looking at paintings to sitting in a synagogue praying to a god I wasn’t sure was listening to me.’
Leaving Pittsburgh for New York, in part to get away from a life that others were planning for him, he took a different path. There he fell in with painters and photographers, worked as a fashion photographer, read, looked at paintings, enjoyed friendships, built up a personal portfolio of colour street photography that has only recently been fully appreciated and collected. But always he kept painting. Not every day, but most days, finding beauty and joy in brushstrokes when he wasn’t finding it in the street through his photography. Painting is at the core of his being. Despite the pressures to earn a living, he sidestepped attempts to show his work until he was ready. He quietly got on with what he wanted to get on with, living his own life, resisting the Siren calls of the art world. The resulting paintings, in portfolios and boxes, surround him in his New York home, like Saul himself, not seeking attention, but amply rewarding the interested observer who takes a step closer and stops awhile.
Today, his work is in major collections, is the subject of retrospectives and a recent television documentary, but that sort of attention and fame was never what drove him – his independence allowed him to do what he has done in his quiet and focused way. While his contemporaries were painting large-scale canvases for museum spaces, he carried on creating intimate abstractions on torn cardboard. Franz Kline once said to him ‘If you worked big, you could be one of the boys’. That wasn’t a choice he wanted to make, and he doesn’t regret it. Working small has brought different, purer rewards.
But don’t take all this as an explanation. The point is not to interpret, but to enjoy, to look at what is there. As he told me when I said I wanted to write about his art:
‘You’re going to write about my work? Really, and I mean this, the less said the better.’
For Press information regarding Saul Leiter: A life in colour please contact Amy Barder at Four Colman Getty email@example.com or 2030239025.
A version of this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, March 15th 2013.
review by Nigel Warburton
Although he thought of himself as a painter, posterity celebrates Man Ray (1890-1976) as a creator of Dadaist objects and as an experimental photographer. Yet for much of his early life he worked more prosaically as a studio portraitist, photographing his contemporaries on commission. His interest in photography ebbed and flowed over a career that lasted five decades and as he moved back and forth across the Atlantic, but he nevertheless bequeathed an impressive portfolio of portraits of the artistic, musical, and literary avant garde, many of which are included in this National Portrait Gallery exhibition, the first to show the full range of his portraiture. In this chronologically arranged parade of stars Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Picasso, Braques, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Eric Satie, Stravinsky, Bernice Abbott, Lee Miller, and even Catherine Deneuve all feature. Portraits of the famous are interspersed with those of more obscure contemporaries and friends, together with nudes, fashion photography, and self-portraits. The 150 or so prints, mostly vintage, are simply framed, minimally captioned, and presented in 5 rooms that tell the story of Man Ray’s periginations: ‘New York 1916-20’, ‘Paris 1921-8’, ‘Paris 1929-1937’, ‘Hollywood 1940-50’, and ‘Paris 1951 – Later Years’.
Man Ray loved women. No one visiting this exhibition could fail to realize that. In his experimental, affectionate and erotically-charged portraits of lovers, his artistry and originality are unmistakable. His portraits of men, in contrast, are more formal, less inspired, frequently cold, and occasionally stiff: their main interest lies in their sitters’ subsequent fame. Few fulfill the photographic promise of his early portrait of his friend Marcel Duchamp in a wicker chair (1916) – a remarkable image by any standards that would still hold our interest had Duchamp remained an unknown.
There are previously unseen portraits on display here, and visual discoveries to be made by those prepared to jostle and move in close enough to appreciate the smaller prints, but it is the familiar and iconic images that stand out, enhanced by juxtaposition with other photographs of the same sitters. Although the ‘Violon d’Ingres’ (1924), that picture of Kiki de Montparnasse’s naked back with the ‘f’ holes of a violin superimposed, is now a cliché (and scarcely a portrait), its presentation here alongside others of Kiki allows us to see it as of a specific spirited individual rather than of ‘a woman’s back’. The title doesn’t simply allude to the woman-into-violin Surrealist joke, or to the pose and patterned turban reminiscent of an Ingres nude, but also to Ingres’s habit of playing the violin to visitors to his studio: from this ‘violon d’Ingres’ came to mean any favourite pastime for which the person in question was less known, a second string to one’s bow, as it were. Man Ray’s ‘Violon d’Ingres’ combines a visual, an art historical, and a linguistic pun, and, perhaps, too, a more private message about his relationship with Kiki, and with women in general – a literal objectification, woman as instrument. As Marina Warner points out in the exhibition catalogue, the 1920s were unenlightened times, and the notion that women might become playthings for men a given. Yet Man Ray’s attitude to representing women was more complex than many, driven as it was by Surrealist notions of Eros and a willingness to explore the near dream imagery of desire and fantasy.
In another familiar photograph, ‘Noire et Blanche’, which is of Kiki with her head resting on a table next to the African mask which she props up with her hand, her pose as if asleep, is reminiscent of, and possibly inspired by, Brancusi’s sculpture ‘Sleeping Muse’. Originally captioned ‘Visage de nacre et masque d’ébène’ (mother of pearl face and ebony mask), it first appeared in Vogue in May 1926. In the exhibition it is displayed near a less familiar variant from the series in which Kiki stands cradling the mask against her cheek. Also in the exhibition – and easily missed - is a small and intimate portrait of Adrienne Fedelin (‘Ady’), Man Ray’s later companion. Ady was a dancer from Guadelope, and hers is one of the few non-white faces included. In this snapshot-like photograph from 1937 she is standing in a dressing gown, smiling, facing the camera, her hand resting on a white bust of Man Ray’s head echoing Kiki’s in ‘Noire et Blanche’. The naturalness of Ady’s smile contrasts with the controlled closed-lipped pose of almost every other woman depicted, reminding us of the degree to which Man Ray directed his sitters and controlled their poses.
The highlight of the exhibition is a remarkable solarized portrait of Lee Miller in profile from 1929 which has the calm beauty of a Renaissance painting by Baldovinetti that hangs a few hundred yards away in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Miller was Man Ray’s assistant, lover and model, before leaving him to become a photographer and journalist, subsequently working on the frontline in the Second World War, and documenting the liberation of Dachau. The serenity of the Miller portrait belies their tempestuous three-year relationship that, when it ended, left Man Ray with a suicidal energy that he eventually re-chanelled into his art: Lee Miller was the inspiration for ‘Indestructible Object’, the famous metronome with a photograph of an eye attached to its arm, that the viewer was encouraged to attempt to destroy.
Man Ray left Paris for the States in 1940, settling in Hollywood with his new partner Juliet. There he made portraits of film stars, including Ava Gardner,, before returning to Paris in 1951 where he continued to photograph until the late 1960s. But as this rich and varied exhibition reveals, it was in the artistic crucible of Paris in the 1920s and 30s in the Golden Age of Surrealism, living among the artists, writers and composers who were to become the founders of modernism, that he reached his apogee as a portraitist. [ends]
These notes are from the Tate Modern course Mind-Body-Art (course now finished)
Sorry for the delay in posting these notes for sessions 4 and 5. Look out for further courses at Tate Modern or possible Tate Britain.
Picking up on the previous week's discussions about power and sexuality in relation to particular images, we began Session 4 by discussing Thomas Nagel's ideas on sexual perversion. His view that 'normal' sexual desire involves escalating reciprocity (in a kind of interaction which gets its power from the individuals' arousal at being found arousing as well as from the arousing caused by the partner) gave a way of thinking about the relationship between artist and subject in some of the more overtly sexual paintings and photographs we had examined the previous week.
Nagel's paper is included in his book Mortal Questions.
It is important to recognise that Nagel was not using 'normal' and 'perversion' as moral terms, but rather as descriptive: just as someone who preferred to eat pictures of food above eating food itself could be said to exhibit a perversion, so someone who engages in forms of sex that lack the recriprocity that he thinks normal may not be doing anything immoral.
In the exhibition A Bigger Splash we looked at a range of images that involved expressive bodily movements in various ways, from the film of Jackson Pollock in action ('I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them'), rhythmically applying paint in his trademark style through to Yayoi Kusama's 1968 hippy film 'Flower Orgy' in which a group of naked young men and women covered in painted spots cavort and squirm together. The film was part of her deliberately provocative protest campaign to stop the Vietnam War on the grounds that human bodies were 'too beautiful to be killed in that way' (see a recent interview with Kusama)
For the final session of the course we began by considering some of Erving Goffman's (1922-82) insights about role playing and the self. Goffman, a social psychologist, is famous for giving a dramaturgical account of human interaction - one that takes seriously the idea that 'all the world's a stage'.
People give performances. They act roles to each other, idealized roles that in part embody how they think others want them to behave, sometimes using props to draw attention to their roles. We read non-verbal cues very quickly and accurately. We look for symptoms, the impressions people give off, and we are sensitive to anomalous role playing. For Goffman, in his classic 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life there is no underlying 'true' self, just a series of masks or roles. (There are brief notes on the key features of his work here)
Returning to the Bigger Splash exhibition, we focused on a several images and videos in the room Transformations, including a series of self-portraits by Cindy Sherman. This review of a retrospective of Cindy Sherman's photography draws attention to an important feature of her approach: although she is taking on a series of roles, and implicitly commenting on the expectation of roleplaying for women, she is never so far into the role that she herself is unrecognizable - she combines being in the role with drawing attention to th fact that she is playing a role in a manner akin to the eager student in the front row of a lecture that Jean-Paul Sartre describes who is so intent on giving off the sense of being a good student that it actually interferes with listening. With Sherman's work, there is an uneasy sense that she is both in role and directing our attention to the roleplaying itself. If you are interested in Cindy Sherman, there is a superb online catalogue of her images on the MOMA website here (you can scroll through images from the retrospective and click on individual ones to enlarge them).
There is an interesting video here of Cindy Sherman discussing roleplaying in her self-portraits:
For this session we focused on 3 paintings and five photographs in Poetry and Dream, Level Two West, Tate Modern, examing how the body was represented and the issues that emerged from thinking about these images. Previously we have been moving from general philosophical issues to specific illustrations; this week we reversed that and explored a range of questions that arise from consideration of specific works of art.
Key issues that emerged:
I've included some links for those who want to find out more about the particular works.
You can get a better sense of this artist's recurrent themes from the Paul Delvaux Museum website, (the museum that Simeon mentioned in our discussion)
Barkley L. Hendricks Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) (1974) - not illustrated
See the video below for more context: it is about a retrospective of Hendricks' portraiture and includes comments by the artist. The emphasis on individuality in portraiture and the artist's connection with his subjects that emerges here is very relevant to the discussion we had in the gallery: 'He's representing her in terms of her attitude, her style..'
We also looked at five nudes by Manuel Alvarez Bravo (images unavailable from Tate) in Room 11, including his famous 'Good Reputation Sleeping' (1938) - click on the photograph's title on the MOMA site) You can read an interesting short essay about Bravo which explains how 'Good Reputation Sleeping' came to be made.
You might enjoy John Berger's musings on the female nude from Ways of Seeing (1972):
These notes are longer than usual (i.e. don't expect me to write 2,000 words of notes each week - and after this you may think less is more). I want to try and pull the different elements discussed lat night together online here and to suggest further reading, listening, and viewing for anyone interested in exploring these ideas further.
For notes and links on Descartes' view of the mind and on Frank Jackson's thought experiment 'What Mary Knew' and on qualia see last week's notes. We began by reviewing this topic. Below is a short video that illustrates and discusses the Knowledge Argument, Frank Jackson's thought experiment which he originally intended to undermine physicalism and support dualism (he's since changed his mind on that, but the thought experiment raises interesting questions about the 'feely' aspect of our conscious existence, and how mysterious and as yet inexplicable that is). In the video the philosopher John Searle emphasizes the importance of the question raised:
'The answer to this question ‘What is consciousness?’ is the answer to the question ‘What sort of beings are we?’ And it’s the different definitions of ourselves that’s at stake when we try to get a theory of consciousness.’'
The qualitative experience that is essential to consciousness lies right at the heart of our experience of the visual arts - both in terms of the artist's experience, the role art has in our own self-definition, and that of the viewer (indeed, one theory of the nature of art, R.G. Collingwood's, which I mentioned in passing, suggests that the process of making art is a process of grappling with an inchoate notion of our own experience - art brings into sharper focus the particularity of the artist's feelings, expresses these, and thereby allows the viewer to experience a similarly precise and individualised emotion - more on R.G. Collingwood's theory of art.)
The new topics for this week were the related ones of Crying and Sentimentality:
On Crying and the Meaning of Tears
Crying is a physical visible emotional activity that is largely involuntary (though can be resisted to some degree) and as a result can be a mark of sincerity (though, of course, some people can will themselves to cry - there are some fascinating advice pages on the Internet such as this one that pass on actors' tips on how to cry at will - typically drawing on the actor's actual emotion and memories rather than using artificial means such as onions).
In art depicted tears can provide evoke a direct and even visceral response. In Picasso's Weeping Woman, for example, the depicted tears communicate instantly the intensity of a mother's grief at the loss of her child, despite the highly sylised and abstract nature of the depiction. There is undoubtedly a contagious element that encourages empathy triggered by seeing another person crying or even an unrealistic depiction of someone crying.
Of course not all crying is indicative of grief or distress: there can be tears of joy, laughter, embarrasment, humiliation, rage, and much more. From the outside, the context of the crying determines how we interpret the emotion. Perhaps this is true from the inside too: one - somewhat crude - theory of emotion, the so-called James-Lange theory, suggests that we don't cry because we're sad, but unexpectedly, we're sad because we cry: we have a physiological reaction due to some aspect of our environment, and the emotion is the secondary interpretation and feeling of that physiological change - we feel something and then search around for an explanation of that feeling and the resultant emotion that we feel is not governed by how the original physiological change feels to us, but rather by how we interpret that in context.
The issue of what crying is has been little discussed by philosophers, though the philosophy of the emotions has always been important in moral philosophy since the Ancient Greeks (even for the Stoics who were for the most part keen to control emotions as irrational and essentially useless responses to reality that interfered with doing the right thing).
Further Reading/Listening on Crying
Read this fascinating discussion of tears and their meanings by Thomas Dixon (in the online Aeon Magazine). He has also made a 45 minute radio programme 'Margaret are you grieving? A cultural history of weeping' which is focused on crying and the arts. Definitely worth listening to. (You might also be interested in this History of the Emotions blog that he contributes to)
There is also a short audio clip about the nature of crying here (frustratingly the Radio 4 programme from which it was exerpted is no longer available).
The art historian and theorist James Elkins has written a book about people being moved to tears in front of paintings Pictures and Tears: a history of people who have cried in front of paintings. The implication is that the tears are symtoms of an intensity and sincerity of emotional reaction, a kind of reaction that is not encouraged by art historical study. You can read his Chapter 5 on his reaction to the beautiful Bellini St Francis of Assisi that is in the Frick collection in New York. He reproduces the picture here on his website.
Philosophers are rarely depicted as crying. There is one exception though. The philosopher Heraclitus is sometimes called 'the crying philosopher'(because he couldn't step in the same river twice?): in this Renaissance painting by Bramante he is shown alongside the laughing philosopher Democritus:
There are contexts in which crying is socially inappopriate and can betray a degree of sentimentality. Crying typically reveals strong emotions (perhaps triggered by something deep in an individual's psyche, personal associations, unresolved conflicts, or hurt) - when these seem indulgent and to some degree disproportionate we may label the individual as guilty of sentimentality. But what is sentimentality?
Sentimentality can mean inappropriate emotion, in the sense of an excess of sentiment that is overblown, or of the wrong kind given the trigger event or context. The word is used almost exclusively in a pejorative way now, though historically 'sentimental' was a word that described one who relied on emotions, and 'sentimental value' is a concept that does not have negative connotations. To label a person or attitude as guilty of sentimentality though is to draw attention to a shortcoming, a failure. It is a judgement - perhaps a moral judgement and depends upon the thought that some emotions are appropriate to a context and others not (and as such must be to some degree culturally or even subculturally relative since cultures differ considerably in expectations about emotional expression and response). The person who is absolutely overwhelmed with emotion at the cuteness of a kitten, or who idealises a lover to the point of nausea is guilty of sentimentality. Someone prone to sentimentality has inappropriate and often gushing responses to the world, and typically uses this as a strategy of avoidance, a way of refusing to confront unpleasant truths (such as that the kitten has worms, or the lover's bad breath).
Sentimentality is a fault, not a virtue since it involves avoiding unpleasant truths (and in this respect links to kitsch). It is a common psychological block to clarity of thought that often involves wishful thinking in that the sentimental person is unwilling to confront facts, but rather is much happier in a soft cuddly world of their own imagination. Sentimentality can even involve blindness to the way things really are. It can be a kind of magical thinking that involves reacting to the way the individual would like the world to be rather than to the way that it is. Oscar Wilde famously declared a sentimental person one ‘who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.' In James Joyce's Ulysses has Stephen Dedalus echo this when he sends a telegram that reads 'The sentimentalist is he who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for a thing done.' Sentimentality is somehow unearned, or unpayed for - a kind of indulgence in feeling that doesn't fit the situation.
For example, the mother of a child who has been caught bullying another child may simply refuse to believe that her son could be a bully. In her eyes he remains this sweet innocent child who could never harm anyone else, and she experiences nothing but warm and comforting feelings in his presence. How could he possibly be the culprit? There must be some mistake. This is a sentimental reaction, a way of avoiding the unpalatable truth that her son is a bully. It is a kind of dishonesty, or at least self-deception (which may be largely unconscious and is considerably easier to spot in others than in oneself).
Sentimentality and Art
In art the accusation of an artist's sentimentality usually involves a judgement of the implied attitude of the artist towards his or her subject matter - an endorsement of a kind of unearned emotion rather than a distance from the depiction of that emotion. The artist invites us to share this attitude and our revulsion, or feelings of discomfort amount to a critical judgment about taking this stance to this subject matter. It is possible to depict or explore sentimentality without endorsing it or inviting a sentimental attitude to a work.
A viewer's reactions to art can be sentimental in a pejorative sense even if the artist has not displayed sentimentality in the sense just outlined. The viewer who responds to a kitsch Jeff Koons puppy with tears welling up at the cuteness of the depicted animal would be guilty of this and certainly of misunderstanding the nature of the object as work of art which has an ironic stance on sentimentality and is far from an endorsement of it (in complete contrast with Picasso's implied stance toward the woman's grief in Weeping Woman, 1937).
Further Reading on Sentimentality
There is an interesting philosophical paper online about sentimentality and art by Nado Gatalo here that touches on a number of these issues. You might also be interested in Theodore Dalrymple's (irritating) polemic on the alleged toxic effects of sentimentality on British life which furnishes several interesting examples.
In the gallery
We looked at several paintings from the early 1960s by Roy Lichtenstein in the current Tate Modern exhibition.
These are among the best known of Lichtenstein's painting, and are icons of Pop Art. They were made by selecting frames from comics that implied a story, in many cases simplifying the image. Perfectly coiffeured idealized women in apparent emotional turmoil about their relationship stand in contrast with with macho men firing rockets or otherwise being strong and active. The emotions of the comic book women for the most part seem sentimental, and to some degree indulgent 'I don't care! I'd rather sink than call Brad for help!' The comics seem to endorse a sentimental and stereotyped view of romantic passion and women's dependence on their men for happiness and fulfilment - it is today hard not to read Lichtenstein's stance on these women and their turbulent emotions as ironic, cool, and antithetical. Surely he saw the comic book depictions as sentimental. But...
Watch this fascinating short video from a Tate exhibition of Lichtenstein's work in 1968 - some of the images we disucssed were on show there. Towards the end of the video Lichtenstein talks about how he liked the idealized images of women he found in comics. There is no hint of an ironic highlighting of a sentimentality about romantic love and women whose happiness always seems to depend on their man's attitude to them. Perhaps in reality Lichtenstein was not so critical of the comic-book view of women. In 1972 in the televison series Ways of Seeing and the book that came out of that John Berger wrote as if women had a fundamentally different way of existing in the world from men:
'Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight'
This was his take, roughly, on how women had been depicted in art and advertisements, but also on this (socially constructed) male gaze generally...The exagerated role contrasts in Lichtenstein's depictions were, perhaps, typical of his time...and he was perhaps holding a mirror up to it rather than presenting a critical angle.
The aims of the course
Week by Week Topics and Rooms:
25th Feb. Mind and Body in Philosophy (Transformed Visions)
4th March Bodily Communication (Lichtenstein)
11th March Form and Desire (Poetry and Dream)
18th March Bodies in Action (A Bigger Splash)
25th March Roles and Representation (A Bigger Splash)
Week One: Mind and Body in Philosophy
Throughout the history of philosophy there has been a great deal of philosophy of mind, but hardly any philosophy of the body.
An important starting point for modern philosophy was René Descartes' Meditations (first published 1641).
Descartes wanted to find something about which he could be certain. He had accepted many views on trust, and was aware that many of his beliefs were erroneous. His method of Cartesian Doubt involved subjecting every knowledge claim to very close scrutiny: if there was room for the slightest doubt then Descartes rejected it.
He recognised that although much of his knowledge came via the five senses, these senses sometimes mislaid him: a straight stick looks bent in water, a round tower in the distance can look square, and so on. Consequently he rejected sensory information as a wholly reliable source of knowledge. But surely he couldn't be mistaken that he was in a room, now? Descartes at this point remembered that he had had dreams in which he'd thought he was awake when in fact asleep in bed. How did he know he wasn't now dreaming? Well even in dreams 2+3 = 5, doesn't it? But what if there were an evil demon systematically deceiving him about this? Unlikely, but it might conceivably be having (or it could be that an evil scientist is manipulating the electrodes sticking in to your brain in a jar and that you are nothing more than this brain in liquid nutrient). This is Descartes' nadir: he seems to have argued himself into a whirlpool of doubt. But he extracts himself by means of his famous Cogito argument (from 'cogito ergo sum'): even if there is an evil demon, the fact that he, Descartes, is having some kind of thought or experience proves that he must exist...assuming that thoughts have thinkers).
The important point here is that Descartes is more certain of his own subjective experience even than the fact that he has a body (something that requires sense experience to ascertain). This prioritization of the subjective over any experience of the world was extremely important and influential (far more important and influential than Descartes' constructive phase in which he argues for God's existence and the notion that clear and distinct ideas must be true...and ends up more or less where he started in terms of his beliefs). Descartes believed that for human beings mind and body were distinct and interacted (he quaintly located the point of interaction as the pineal gland).
Listen to my overview of Descartes' Meditations (from Philosophy: The Classics)
For a related argument used by Avicenna many centuries before Descartes,
Although much 20th Century philosophy of mind assumed a physicalist standpoint and ridiculed Cartesianism as 'the myth of the ghost in the machine' (Gilbert Ryle's phrase), physicalism is not without difficulties. That doesn't mean that we need to adopt Descartes' approach, but the question of how consciousness arises out of physical matter (if indeed it does) is a tricky one. Thomas Nagel's famous paper 'What is it like to be a bat?' emphasized the difficulty of explaining 'qualia' the experiential nature of consciousness, as did Frank Jackson's famous thought experiment about Mary (who is brought up in a black and white world, is an expert on the neurophysiology of seeing, and then gets to see something red - does she learn something new? If yes, where does that come from on a physicalist account?).
Taking off obliquely from the discussion of subjectivity and conscious experience, we examined a number of works in Transformed Visions, asking questions about the weight given to the subjective viewpoint of the depicted individuals vs the viewer's viewpoint, and the viewpoint of the artist. So, for example, with Giacometti's Man Pointing (1947) there is an interesting question of whether the viewer is encouraged to identify with the viewpoint of the man pointing or see him as other from either the viewpoint of the actual viewer or an implied one who is part of the imagined scene. The fact that Giacometti originally conceived the work as having another figure, with the pointing man's left arm around his shoulder, suggests that we could see the implied viewpoint as the one of the absent person standing next to the pointing man, looking with him at the subject of his pointing, complicit with the judgement of the pointing man...
Part of the point of such activities in the gallery on this course is to look at perhaps familiar works from a fresh viewpoint and see them differently. For further examples of this approach applied to different topics/works of art, see my notes from a previous course 7 Ways of Thinking About Art or notes from a range of previous Tate Modern courses (you need to click on 'next' at the end of pages to scroll back through them all), and also an earlier post on my experience of teaching at Tate Modern.
Next week...Bodily Communication
The Museum of Modern Art New York is staging a Bill Brandt exhibition opening on March 6th 2013 which is to include images of London in the Blitz alongside their original sources in Lilliput and other magazines. Bill Brandt had a pictorial sense of photojournalism and was not always scrupulous about the descriptions he gave of what was photographed - for him the image was more important than how it was made (many of his famous shots of Londoners in the East End and elsewhere were staged using friends and relatives playing the parts of East Enders, for example - a fact that is now well known). Less well-known is that some of his classic images, ostensibly of deserted London streets in the blackout published as a series in Lilliput magazine ('Blackout in London' Lilliput Dec. 1939), were actually reversions of images he had already published elsehwere, this time, though, with the lights artifiicially removed in the darkroom. I gave a talk about this, using the examples of alleged blackout images, at the Brandt symposium in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004 (the event was recorded and there is audio available British Library National Sound Archive), but haven't seen any discussion of this in print. It will be interesting to see if the MOMA exhibition highlights this feature. To some extent Brandt shaped our understanding of Englishness, and most people assume that his pre-war and wartime photography was reliable as photojournalism, yet his use of models to play parts, and his tendency to recycle and rework images giving them new life with new captions, means that these were far from straightforward documentary images.
Some of the Lilliput 'blackout' pictures that are certainly reworkings of pre-war images are
'Bermondsey in London' (= Shad Thames - in his 1938 book A Night in London)
'Mayfair' (= 'Late Lights in Mayfair' in his 1936 book English at Home In the 'blackout' picture, the upstairs lights have been dodged out in the darkroom).
'Westminster' (= 'Westminster in darkness' from A Night in London 1938. In the Lilliput image the silhouettes of the Houses of Parliament have been blacked in and cropped differently, but it is clearly the same image doctored rather than a new one).