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The Body as Medium and Metaphor
FAUX TITRE 312
Etudes de langue et littérature françaises publiées sous la direction de Keith Busby, M.J. Freeman, Sjef Houppermans et Paul Pelckmans
The Body as Medium and Metaphor
AMSTERDAM - NEW YORK, NY 2008
© Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (painting lost since WW II). ISBN: 978-90-420-2398-7 © Editions Rodopi B. Lukrezia und Judith. Information and documentation .New York. NY 2008 Printed in The Netherlands .V.Paper for documents Requirements for permanence’.. Amsterdam .Illustration cover: Lucas Cranach. Omslag ontwerper: Aart Jan Bergshoeff The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of ‘ISO 9706: 1994.
Imaging the Absent Subject: Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre The Autoportrait; Michel Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme Mimicking Mimesis: Francis Bacon’s Portraits
Textual Imagery: Visualizing the self in the writing of Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 113 From the informe to the abject: Shifting morphologies in the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 161 Conclusion Bibliography 201 205
To what extent do artists and writers still have recourse to the body to express their sense of self? In the wake of the postmodern dissolution and dispersal of the subject, we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in the re-presentation of the body. The body is the threshold of subjectivity, the point of intersection between the private and public, the personal and political, and the artist or writer attempting to represent themselves must negotiate the complex divide between subject and object roles. But the sphere of self-representation has evolved dramatically over the course of the twentieth century and traditional methods of self-expression would no longer appear to be applicable. The myth of an integral self that is identical with selfimage has been exploded, and we are left picking up the pieces. Today’s artists and writers must negotiate new means of expression. Focusing on the body in self-representation, this book demonstrates how, in an ongoing exploration, certain artists and writers have moved beyond a conception of the subject that is predicated solely on vision. Taking an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approach, I have pursued the theme of the representability of the self through the body in contemporary visual arts and French autobiography. The structure of the text is therefore comparative, contrasting the representation of the body through sculpture and painting with its representation through literature. In concentrating upon writers who are also art critics (Leiris and Noël) or artists (Prassinos), my work has been orientated towards the visual arts and how writers attempt to reconcile a visual consciousness with the written word. From Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre, through Louise Bourgeois’s part-objects, to Orlan’s sculptural surgery, my research has led me from the complete break with figurative and mimetic representation, initiated by artists and writers at the beginning of the century, to my last chapter, which focuses upon an unexpected contemporary revival of interest in semi-figurative or representational self-expression.
The Body as Medium and Metaphor
Autobiography as a genre has received substantial critical attention over the last twenty years but the sphere of selfrepresentation in the arts has been relatively neglected. Critical work that has previously focused upon this crisis in representation has been confined to the study of various movements or has had a single thematic approach. Mary Ann Caws’1 and Whitney Chadwick’s2 volumes on women and Surrealism examine self-representation and identity but are devoted primarily to visual art and are obviously focused upon fluctuations within a single movement. More recently, studies of self-portraiture by women have spanned the period of the twentieth-century3 while Joanna Woodall’s Facing the Subject4 includes critical analysis of self-portraiture and the understanding of the human subject from the Italian Renaissance up to the present day. Michael Sheringham’s comprehensive volume on French autobiography5 comes up to date in its examination of recent innovations in self-writing but does not expand into the realms of auto-fiction. The body has been the subject of a recent volume by Amelia Jones6 in her study of body-art while Hal Foster7 looks at the 1990’s phenomena of abject art and the return of the real body. However, none of these texts allow for the broad reach and rich intertextual nature of selfrepresentation that spans the divide between literature and the visual arts. None of them have considered the way in which visual selfrepresentation interacts with autobiographical writing: an interaction that is central to my argument. This book seeks to redress this imbalance by negotiating precisely such an interface, locating the body and vision as sites of constructive interplay between literature
Caws, M. A. et al (eds.) Surrealism and Women Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1991. Chadwick, W. (ed.) Mirror Images: Women, Surrealism and Self-Representation Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 1998. 3 For example, Borzello, F. Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits London, Thames and Hudson, 1998 and Meskimmon, M. The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century London, Scarlet Press, 1996. 4 Woodall, J. (ed.) Portraiture: Facing the Subject Manchester and New York, Manchester University Press, 1997. 5 Sheringham, M. French Autobiography: Devices and Desires Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993. 6 Jones, A. Body Art; Performing the Subject University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1998. 7 Foster, H. The Return of the Real The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
S. I adopt a critical framework through which I explore the problematics and the boundaries of self-representation. Peirce’s semiology in his fascination for the subjective traces of the artist in the work. between the self who is creating and the self-reflexive protagonist of the work. I examine the repercussions of this notion in an autobiographical text that de-authorizes the first-person utterance. imaginary synthesis and a dynamic. Butler’s theories . The body can be conceived in both a specular. I bring the same examination to bear on the confrontation between the subject and object in Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre. I am interested in the nature of subjectivity and how this may be expressed through the functioning of art in society in ways that are not bound up in the artist’s intentions. dispersed presence throughout a fragmented work. I navigate my way through critics of art and literature towards a new contractual genre: an intertextual practice of interpretation that arises from the interrelation between the reader/viewer and the text. although he also allows for a category of sensation that transcends the limits imposed by visible particularities. foreground the central issue of contemporary thought: the problematic status of the self. The contradictions inherent in self-representation. Michel Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme and in the performative autobiographies of Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos. The particularly self-referential nature of modern autobiography and self-portraiture posits the self as constituted solely in the act of creation.Introduction 9 and visual art that share these preoccupations in the endeavour to destabilize and redirect the reader and the viewer’s gaze. Francis Bacon’s portraits and the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan. Barthes’s reading of abstract painting is indebted to C. Lacan. Lacan’s theory of le stade du miroir has been the foundation for a wealth of metaphor and criticism applied to self-representation while remaining the essential theory behind the acquisition of selfhood through the transition from the Imaginary to the Symbolic stages. The theme of the body in self-representation involves a dual concept that has implications for the way in which autobiography or self-portraiture is interpreted. Through readings of Barthes. Bataille and Butler. Starting with Lejeune’s concept of the autobiographical pact. Mimetic description of the body or the first-person voice of the autobiographical text is no longer a guarantee of the presence of the creator. In this study.
the way in which it depends upon intersubjective relations with a reader or 8 I define intersubjectivity as the contingency of the self of the writer/artist upon the self of the interpreter: an encounter between two or more subjects. The ideology of self-representation has traditionally assumed that there is a self to express and the means with which to express it. I hope to avoid any reductive comparisons. perception and expression. themes and concerns that the artist and the writer seek to express in their different media. . chapter by chapter. Visual art and art of the text are not reducible to one another and by adopting a structure that juxtaposes artists with writers. reciprocity and intersubjectivity.10 The Body as Medium and Metaphor about identity formation reflect the challenges to corporeal morphology expressed in the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan. This juxtaposition will.8 The themes which recur and which connect these artists’ work are the themes that necessarily pervade autobiography and self-portraiture: time. rather the writer’s/artist’s subjectivity evolves in and through their work and at the point of encounter with the reader/spectator. however. while his thoughts upon l’informe allow me to connect Bourgeois’s work to the art of Orlan through Kristeva’s concept of the abject. nor seek to represent one. It will become clear that these artists and writers. The works I have chosen to comment upon neither express a subjectivity. allow me to bring to light the similar preoccupations. the way in which an identity is constructed over and in time. Thus the self becomes a process of invention. Bataille’s notions of the convulsion and breaching of the subject are recurrent in the writing of Leiris. The writers and artists incorporated in this book do not start from this stable perspective. performance. memory. The work under consideration shows a tendency to concentrate on the performance of subjectivity. Looking at the ways in which subjectivity finds expression in the work of my subjects. The possibility of performative self-representation does not allow for the premise of an originary self. I explore the nature of aesthetic reception by investigating how works of art are intelligible to those who read or view them. while straddling the historical or symbolic stretch of time that unites and divides modernism and postmodernism. are yet brought together by timeless concerns involving the nature of the self and are also progressively influenced by evolving theories of subjectivity.
it is only in the discovery of others and of the world that language is able to give rise to a subjectivity. Id versus ego. Paradoxically. this book adopts the inverse form to the form of the work I examine. Left floundering in the wake of Dadaism. the fragmenting of the self is reflected in the division of the sign and vraisemblance is lost to literature. Gisèle Prassinos and Louise Bourgeois are still reeling under the consequences of this revolutionary wave fifty and sixty years later. Francis Bacon. The importance of time in the structure and forms of memory and the vicissitudes of subjectivity is highlighted in each of my separate studies. which is the writer’s point of view on the world. Temporality. As knowledge is predicated on experience. Freud and psychoanalysis. self and situation. If for them. Bourgeois moves into real space with objects at once symbolic and interactive. Noël and Prassinos paradoxically undermines the possibility of empirical knowledge. while Prassinos creates anthropomorphic characters woven from fragments of subjectivity. or post-Saussure. signifier versus signified. sight and experience are inextricably linked. is also one of the objects in his/her world. in other words. perfect selfknowledge is an unattainable goal. Language is not at the origin but at an encounter between self and other. anticipated and amalgamated. that which is perceived is also experienced by and through the body. Knowledge of the self is continually deferred. I have chosen writers who demonstrate through an emphasis on vision how the symbolic power of language does not exist separately or independently of experienced or perceived phenomena. Michel Leiris and Marcel Duchamp attempt to come to terms with the shattering and irrevocable split of the illusion of a stable and centred self. Bacon treads the selfdissolving path between figuration and abstraction. reversed. Such performances highlight the vulnerability and the constructed nature of the self.Introduction 11 spectator. as a common vein running throughout these multiple self-representations. then the transcription of vision in their texts is necessarily fragmented and partial. as figuration is lost to the visual arts. The body. Language does not reveal an interior life or self. The emphasis on the visual in the writing of Leiris. Surrealism. contingent on intersubjective relations within the text and between the text and reader. is fragmented. The perception of time is . presence and sensation. as Bernard Noël fabricates a fantasy body whose world is based on vision.
the tumultuous interventions into time that are present in these works. an art that knows no physical or geographical boundaries. comes to stand in for the self of the artist/writer that can only take shape through it. this is not the static. it finishes with the return of the referential. is the return of the repressed. time becomes a network and flux of desire. stable sign that we once recognized. In order better to demonstrate the development of themes and ideas. process and self-division. While artistic Modernism. and the self of the spectator. I have chosen to juxtapose two contemporary female artists as they continue to make radical innovations in the sphere of self-representation. touching and touched. perhaps. Another aspect of Orlan’s work that exemplifies. depends more than ever on Duchamp’s legacy of the manipulation. However. Duchamp foreshadows in many ways the strategies of my last subject. embodied in the work. in all its various manifestations haunts the work of my subjects as the ontology of the work.12 The Body as Medium and Metaphor neither linear nor successive: the past becomes present in the process of remembering and the present reflects the future as intentions for the future influence and shape present behaviour. subversion and exploitation of the frame. Orlan. objectified the body while the “I” of the subject became the disembodied “eye. the return of the real body. To recall MerleauPonty. In the last chapter. However. However. after Cartesian philosophy. following the . If my investigation begins with the apparently definitive rupture with all forms of referential and mimetic art. nowhere has the frame been put to more radical use than in the work of Orlan. which will throw into further sharp relief. who demonstrates how even art of the technological.” distinct and transcendent of the body. my text takes a peculiarly cyclical turn. the performative self. this study has a chronological and linear structure. remaining faithful to my subjects. The body is the expressive space by which we experience the world. The work of Louise Bourgeois takes up where Duchamp left off. The gaze unites the seer and the seen – the body by which the gaze passes therefore assumes object and subject positions. the most radical turn of contemporary art. internet age. the confrontations between the self of the artist. its importance as an autonomous conveyor of meaning. and the insidious erosion of generic hierarchies. in the manipulation of the exhibition space. Framing. this is a referential vulnerable to change. the body is both seeing and seen. Therefore.
is no longer inherent or transcendent. In the work of these subjects. Bourgeois took fragments of the shattered body and remoulded them in ways to challenge the complacent self-presence of the spectator. At the start of the new century. Noël and Prassinos. Through his imaginary projection and identification with the figures in the painting. Leiris’s memories have. a body prone to change. as exemplified in the work of Duchamp. Leiris projected an absent self onto a pre-existing image of mythical bodies. the external image of Cranach’s painting of Judith and Lucretia. Bacon dissolved the physiognomy of his subjects and reconstituted them through the abstract folds and textures of oil paint. The body has never disappeared entirely from the sphere of self-representation but the body became other bodies. . it became the receptacle for sensory encounters. so form and content achieve a symbiotic relation and their inseparability allows the work to stand in for the absent body of the creator. a synaesthetic subjectivity that found its expression on the page or in images as moments of presence. the challenge to the conventional division between subject and object is mirrored in the subversion of the traditional dichotomy of form and content. Stripped of its mimetic signifying power.Introduction 13 postmodern dispersal of the subject. the body. reconstituted only in the imagination of the beholder. Leiris’s thoughts move from a perception of external phenomena to voyage inwards on sensual waves of remembered experience. from continuum to contiguity. as Leiris demonstrates. bodies of the Other. If memory is to be experienced. destruction and reconstruction but the body that demonstrates the shift from metaphor to medium. the body that grounds the artist’s attempts to express the multiplicity of her lived experience. As subject and object find their union in the intersubjective encounters between reader/spectator and the body of the text. Orlan presents us with the body of a survivor. Lacking physical substance. fragmented to return as an experiential void. it cannot remain an entirely visual process but it is through the visualization of the past that other sensory associations are evoked. as their catalyst.
and not the cause of. Art. The selection of Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre as my first line of enquiry allows me to introduce both the historical genre of self-portraiture and theories of autobiography and to demonstrate how literary criticism can be applied to non-literary subject matter without reducing the visual to the verbal or vice versa. In this chapter. as reality and experience exist in and through representation. In various ways. I . Subjectivity is heralded as being constituted in systems of codification that structure representation. I shall demonstrate how Duchamp’s conceptual approach towards art involved a breakdown of generic hierarchies and traditional value judgements. I shall focus first and foremost on the work under discussion but in situations where the private and public personae are inextricably and often confusingly intertwined.Imaging the Absent Subject: Marcel Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre Introduction In this first chapter. is always intertextual and does not refer to some transcendent model. as Le Grand Verre demonstrates. Within an art-historical perspective. I shall also include biographical detail in order to situate the work within the necessary context. as in the case of Duchamp and Bacon in particular. representation. Self-representation is the documentation of a performance whereby the private becomes public and each of the following artists and writers deal with this transition in highly diverse and individual ways. Duchamp’s approach to art and his own selfmythification are indicative and prophetic of the artists and writers whom I will discuss in later chapters. I will be introducing the themes that permeate my study and the framework of critical methodology that guides my approach to self-representation. Duchamp’s attitude anticipated the work of many poststructuralist theorists in his assertion that subjectivity was the product of.
the viewer). Lejeune’s theory of le pacte autobiographique and the way in which all self-representation is an intersubjective encounter. self-portraits have been subject to “tests” of truth or accuracy. and onto the reader and text (or. Duchamp also anticipates the poststructuralist shift of emphasis away from the producer and text. I shall open up perspectives upon the nature of the desire that propels an autobiographical text. Like the tests of historical verisimilitude. The “truth” of both self-portraiture and autobiography traditionally lies in the ability of the work to reveal the nature of the creative personality through the image. In introducing autobiographical theory. which pervade readings of autobiography.16 The Body as Medium and Metaphor shall define this approach with reference to distinctions between modernism and postmodernism. However. in the modernist logic that subtends much recent art history. Psychobiographical readings of self-portraits. Contextualizing Duchamp: Methodology and Definitions The historical construction of the artist as genius is perpetuated through the tradition of self-portraiture. composed so as to define the status of the male artist as a unique creative individual and to ensure the authenticity of his vision. in this case. like psychoanalytic readings of autobiography. I begin by situating the tradition of self-portraiture within a contemporary arthistorical perspective and expanding upon my methodology. I shall draw attention to this not only by looking at how the artwork signifies but also the way in which Duchamp creates a mise en abyme by incorporating the viewer’s gaze into the artwork and which operates simultaneously as both a modernist strategy of self-referentiality and a postmodernist subversion of the status of the artwork. which erupts with subversive force in the visual plane. the object is now often seen to . The self-portrait is a mediation of the self in social signification. The use of self-portraiture is a culturally defined and defining practice and artists have produced concepts of themselves as culturally dominant by employing certain visual tropes. These tropes have ranged from portraits of the artist as Christ to representations of the clothed male artist and his nude female model. I will demonstrate how the apparent hermetic autonomy of Le Grand Verre is dispersed and disseminated through its connection with Duchamp’s previous work and through the disruptive element of language. are intended to explain the psychology of the creative individual.
is championed by postmodernism in his perceived rejection of modernism.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 17 stand in for the author in an exchange of identities. such as Dada. 308). but to entrench it more fully in its area of competence” (Greenberg. yet is fully evident to itself. in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it. art thus searches for its origins. Modernist Painting: “The essence of Modernism lies. they can be unified into a meaningful narrative that fits into a larger teleological history. If objects can be identified with intentional subjects. explicitly political art. 1992. Greenbergian modernism has now become the outmoded “other” against which postmodernism defines itself as “new” and Duchamp. the readymades become Duchamp as he is recognized in contemporary culture – and come to signify postmodernism. in relation to postmodernism. Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Greenberg’s essay of 1939. Such a discourse suppressed inconsistency and difference of meaning in the figure of the author in order to ensure interpretative closure. as I see it. the artist’s significance is often seen to be identical to the significance of his work. In so far as the figure of the artist is condensed to an authorial label. The rigidity of Greenberg’s modernism is affirmed in his infamous lecture of 1961. Postmodernist . I define postmodernism in this context as the radical other that distinguishes itself in opposition to the modernism of Greenberg: modernism that promoted an art that was formally pure and autonomous in relation to the degradation of popular culture and of antiformalist. As mass-produced objects rendered art only by reference to their authorizing function. Modernist art history institutionalized the author as the basis for aesthetic value. particularly the readymades. opposes mass culture to antibourgeois high art and calls for an art of increasing purity and flatness that would be ensured by the artist’s disinterest in political concerns. inculpated by Greenberg. Through the voice of the critic. existing in a self-conscious relation to its own past. art is seen to become postmodern precisely when it is argued to be destabilizing the definitions of artistic purity and authority associated with Greenbergian modernism. In discourses of postmodernism. Duchamp’s significance is frequently conflated with the significance of his work. Art history discourse assumes a “Duchamp” as reflected through or represented in his works.
wire and dust on glass mounted between two glass panels. which are generated as the autobiographer “processes” memories. Within the context of autobiography as activity and process. I wish to build upon the work of critics such as Bryson and Lyotard who have opened up a new approach to visual art that combines these semiotic theories and that explores the nature of aesthetic reception by investigating how works of art are intelligible to those who view them. expository accounts by John Golding and Richard Hamilton. I am interested in the interaction of this theory with Barthes’s inquiry into how art functions and communicates through its encounters with different spectators. although he also allows for a category of sensation that transcends the limits imposed by visible particularities. Philippe Lejeune observes “écrire son histoire. même or Le Grand Verre is a multimedia work that combines oil. c’est essayer de se construire. varnish. Divided into two regions and separated by three fins of glass that are perpendicular to the plane of the work. I propose a critical methodology. As I have indicated in the introduction. lead foil.18 The Body as Medium and Metaphor discourse advocates an end to a belief in coherence and continuity and an end to the metaphysic of narrative closure. bien plus qu’essayer de se connaître” (Lejeune. which combines the semiotic theory of Roland Barthes with an awareness of recent autobiographical theory. seeking to justify this interpretation within the life of the artist. The autobiographical text is now seen not as the reflection . This work has been subject to innumerable art historical and critical discourses: psychoanalytic readings by Arturo Schwarz. La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires. 84). which acts as a structuring force in the elaboration of the autobiographical text. Barthes’s reading of abstract art is Peircean in his fascination for the subjective traces of the artist in the work. Recent critics of autobiography have sought to locate autobiographical truth not in the product but in the process of writing. This form does not construct a stable mirror image of the self. 1971. The uniformity of such critical analyses lies in their conflation of the work with the person of the artist. postmodern appropriation by Jean-François Lyotard and Dalia Judowitz and feminist interpretation by Amelia Jones. critics such as Lejeune and Sheringham refer to a quest for form. but a profusion of signs and traces of selfhood. which can be exported from text to life. they are described by Duchamp as belonging respectively to the Bride and the Bachelors.
Having decided that autobiography is as much a mode of reading as a mode of writing. as Barthes writes in La Sagesse de l’Art. outside language there is no self to express. The non-figurative nature of Le Grand Verre allows me to approach it through a poststructuralist informed perspective of autobiographical theory that allows for the production of subjective meaning within the work itself. In place of the closure of meaning. However. Lejeune’s concept of the pacte autobiographique places the emphasis of autobiography upon the énonciation. At the end of an article published two years after L’Autobiographie en France. Barthes draws upon Benveniste’s linguistics to illustrate how the self or subjectivity is held to be constituted in the exercise of language. Lejeune’s definition locates autobiography within textual reference rather than textual resemblance. But self-representation in art galvanizes an act of recognition that is a production. the act of narration. Lejeune renounces his previous attempts to find a definition of autobiography that would be coherent and exhaustive. and that transformation is perpetual: nothing can arrest it. an attempt to fix the flux of experience and to ground it in a single subjectivity. the polysemous nature of signs implies the free play of interpretation. Selfrepresentation is the effect of a constructed similarity between identity and language (or image). rather than a perception. Barthes notes that even autobiography cannot now assert a substantial identity between the je of the writer at the moment of utterance and the past self s/he claims to reveal to the reader. Self and self-image can never coincide in representation. His notion of a contractual genre dependent upon codes of transmission and reception relocates the problematics of autobiography as genre as an interaction between reader and text. of meaning. The autobiographical first-person pronoun. seeking to link past and present. to the interaction of the textual I and its extra-textual counterpart. Viewing is an activity of transforming the material of paintings into meanings. meaning sticks to man: . he looks instead to a history of autobiography that would be the history of the way in which autobiography is read.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 19 of existing images but for its capacity to dispel fixity as it engenders a sequence of provisional recognitions. In his critique of the authorial personality. can only refer to the speaker at the moment of énonciation and this founds his/her statement about the past on the present act of uttering.
c’est qu’ils veulent du sens. the signifier (the portrait) is conflated both with the referent (the sitter) and the signified (the sitter’s identity). artist and viewer. As I will demonstrate. explicit or implicit. portraiture assumes that identity is inseparable from the sense of presence achieved through mimesis. according to Lejeune’s concept of autobiography as a contractual genre. narrator and protagonist are one and the same. Duchamp’s life has. been well documented. Le Grand Verre Traditionally. In order to locate Le Grand Verre within the sphere of self-portraiture.. his interventions into the public arena and the projection of an enigmatic personality.] Si tant d’hommes (à cause de différences de culture) ont l’impression de “ne rien comprendre” devant une toile. He subverted the certainty of his artistic status by posing as a feminine author (Rrose . et que la toile (pensent-ils) ne leur en donne pas (Barthes. Duchamp constantly manipulated the authoritative role attributed to the creative artist. as far as possible. 1982. he often issued contradictory and confusing statements about his life and art. this problematizes the way in which the portrayed body can re-present the sitter’s identity. Therefore the viewer continually looks for signs within the artwork that will refer to some external referent. most recently in a biography by Alice Goldfarb Marquis. a viewer must look for indications.20 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Quand bien même veut-il créer du non-sens ou du hors-sens. however this may be defined. Duchamp complicates the viewer’s desire to identify the authorial personality by subverting this traditional mimetic paradigm of self-portraiture. because an external likeness no longer guarantees the expression of an originary identity. il finit par produire le sens même du non-sens ou du hors-sens [.. 169). that is. Through his work. the autobiographical nature of Le Grand Verre can only be sought within the context of the work’s evolution and the way in which Duchamp uses the piece to confront and dissolve the hierarchic relations between object and subject. that the author. Duchamp was an elusive personality who valued solitude and privacy and to confound the public’s appetite for personal detail. But if identity and body are opposed.
qui est intéressante. 70). . mais seulement intéressant en considérant l’homme qui a écrit cette interprétation. finally marrying at the age of sixty-three. Duchamp remained a bachelor for most of his life. The bride in Le Grand Verre is a forerunner of Duchamp’s female alias. Le Grand Verre. notably with Katherine Dreier. comme toujours ailleurs” (Duchamp. upon which Duchamp worked between 1915 and 1923. 13).Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 21 Sélavy1) and by reconfiguring his authorship through various signatory pseudonyms. Many of Duchamp’s contemporaries admired him for his embodiment of the Baudelairean ideal of the artist-flâneur. when he declared it to be definitively unfinished. although Duchamp betrayed no homosexual inclinations: “There is much evidence to suggest. He could be in a room with me and I still felt alone” (Tomkins. these were not sexually motivated relationships. 1967. Lyotard has identified both the figure of Duchamp and Rrose in the bride of Le Grand Verre. is widely acknowledged as his greatest work and furthermore as one of the most influential. that his enormous personal charm derived in no small part from an ability to reconcile. Although he maintained close friendships with women all his life. Duchamp acknowledged these readings but chose neither to confirm nor negate them. The longitude of their relationship came about through a mutual respect for each other’s solitude. a dandy. qui n’est pas forcément fausse. notably Robert Desnos. an observer of. 1997. ni vraie. and in the naked figure of Etant Donnés (a late work I 1 This pseudonym was taken up by subsequent writers and artists. remarking astutely: “Chacun d’eux donne à son interprétation sa note particulière. towards the end of her life: “Marcel is the only person I ever met who was not people. Rrose Sélavy. Mary Reynolds. 376). Arturo Schwarz has interpreted Le Grand Verre as the story of the incestuous love that Duchamp harboured for his sister Suzanne. rather than a participant in society. Tomkins observes that. without apparent conflict. however. yet most esoteric. the bride being stripped bare. the male and female aspects of his complex personality” (ibid. Mary Reynolds and Peggy Guggenheim. his long-term “mistress” said. Corps et Biens. works of the twentieth century. while other psychoanalytic interpretations have indicated a fear of castration or a desire for androgyny. according to the testimony of the women.
] changer d’identité et la première idée qui m’est venue c’est de prendre un nom juif [. 1967.] Je n’ai pas trouvé de nom juif qui me plaise [. if not more important. the ideas were as important. as we will see.2 is one of frustrated sexual longing that reveals the infinite interplay of eroticism and the elusive object of desire. Le Grand Verre is self-representation in so far as it embodies and re-presents Duchamp’s artistic career up until the conception of the work and during the period he was working on it. as revealed by the notes of La Boîte Verte. he disrupted the conventional collaboration between the cause and effect in art: a re-presentation of an original experience.22 The Body as Medium and Metaphor shall refer to in a further section).. The problem of the interpretation of self-presentation introduces a dichotomy: is the work autobiographical in so far as it represents lived experience. an idea. and as realities. it forms an important part of the complicated motifs of Le Grand Verre.. Duchamp strove for an art which should not only represent an object but be in itself. he termed them). and.] et tout d’un coup j’ai eu une idée: pourquoi ne pas changer de sexe! (Duchamp.. or as a metaphor for his continual artistic struggle. 111). Duchamp’s adoption of this female identity indicates a desire to cross gender barriers. In proposing a conceptual. even as the object represented might not be actual in the phenomenal sense but rather as a mental image.. Duchamp’s art abolished representational space and the concept of the picture as something remote from 2 The notes that accompanied the evolution and presentation of Le Grand Verre. . than the visual realization.. The work’s narrative. rather than a retinal art. or in so far as it is the re-presentation of artistic personae? For Duchamp. it forms an integral part of the intimate selfportrait that is Le Grand Verre. Duchamp was convinced that works of art are not imitations of the merely actual but are realities in themselves. Hence his insistence on La Boîte Verte as the necessary companion to Le Grand Verre. Duchamp’s adoption of a female identity was a radically subversive gesture in the 1920’s and one that he characteristically played down: J’ai voulu [.. the stripped bride. Whether a viewer chooses to interpret this as revelatory of Duchamp’s own sexual identity. there was no dichotomy between art and life. they are not only objects within the physical world but also objects in and of consciousness (cervellités.
or perhaps because of it. il passe ainsi plus tard à la postérité. interprets nor transforms the objects – they become different objects. For example. Duchamp’s position therefore undermines the dichotomy of the problem of self-presentation. Duchamp’s subjective experience is constituted by the dynamic. Autrement dit.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 23 lived experience. the contemporary viewer depends upon Duchamp’s authority to confirm the notion that he criticizes authority. he also experimented with strategies designed to manipulate public perception. sans que personne ne les voie. l’artiste n’existe que si on le connaît” (Duchamp. The Role of the Spectator Central to postmodern constructions of Duchamp are his statements concerning the role of the viewer in establishing the meaning of the work of art. 1967. il est reconnu par l’intervention du public. he renounces the sources of his pictorial constructions in Le Grand Verre and thereby neither represents. When . in kind as well as in intention. 1967. l’intervention du spectateur. Paradoxically. Le Grand Verre continues to resist definitive critical appropriation. Despite its visual transparency. On ne peut pas supprimer cela puisqu’en somme c’est un produit à deux pôles. L’artiste fait quelque chose. Je donne à celui qui la regarde autant d’importance qu’à celui qui la fait (Duchamp. 122). dispersed and heterogeneous components of Le Grand Verre. He is not attempting to re-present lived experience but rather to construct it as a reality within his work. 122). statements that perpetuate Duchamp’s role as radically subverting the modernist notion that the art object contains or transparently expresses the intentions of the maker. il n’existerait pas. Duchamp said about interpretation: Je crois beaucoup au côté “médium” de l’artiste. citing his own statements about the dependence of the artist on his audience and the way in which authorial identity is produced through the art-work as this work is interpreted by an audience: “Je considère que si un monsieur […] habitait au coeur de l’Afrique et qu’il fasse tous les jours des tableaux extraordinaires. un jour. Just as Duchamp subverted ideas of authorship. il y a le pôle de celui qui fait une oeuvre et le pôle de celui qui la regarde.
Théorie des effets optiques que présentent les étoffes de soie. Eugène Chevreul mentioned the space for the spectator that was central to the nature of abstract art. the ways in which a viewer is invited to participate in the representation. is. Ne pas faire un manifeste de peinture nouvelle de plus (Duchamp.” In the case of Le Grand Verre. is not a one-sided structure. The viewingsubject brings to the image his/her own cultural heritage thereby negating the possibility of any predetermined meaning. . A sign-event. perhaps. Duchamp was later to say about the incident: “C’est beaucoup mieux avec les cassures. or the production of meaning. 1967. The legacy of Dada provided Duchamp with a subtext in the extent to which chance plays a role in the development or completion of a work of art. the most relevant aspect of a semiotics of subjectivity. to some extent. L’idée d’ensemble. au fur et à mesure. This statement demonstrates. a phenomenon that Breton was soon to term “le hasard objectif. C’étaient des choses qui venaient. Duchamp’s statement repositions the significance of this work as a process. Address. c’était purement et simplement l’exécution.24 The Body as Medium and Metaphor challenged by Pierre Cabanne to provide his own interpretation of Le Grand Verre. 132). plus des descriptions genre Catalogue des armes de Saint-Etienne sur chaque partie. As early as 1846. Rather. C’était un renoncement à toute esthétique. 70). Duchamp replied: Je n’en ai pas parce que je l’ai fait sans avoir d’idée. C’est le regardeur qui fait 3 Chevreul. this was seen to occur as the glass was shattered in transit following its first public appearance at the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926. C’est le destin des choses” (Duchamp. dans le sens ordinaire du mot. 1967.3 Chevreul emphasizes the cultural position of the analyst within the analysis of an image that is part of the generation of meaning. Paris. In his reluctance to provide any explanation of his work lies a self-conscious awareness of the myth of the enigmatic Romantic artist. Duchamp claimed: “le chef-d’oeuvre en question est déclaré en dernier ressort par le spectateur. cent fois mieux. Firmin Didot frères. Duchamp’s selfmythification. 1846. Duchamp’s reluctance to provide an interpretation of his own work should not be understood as a refusal or as a sign of the work’s intelligibility.
” as Barthes calls it. The identity of what is represented is ceaselessly deferred. the subjectivity of the creator. 1967. By reactivating this split. the signified is always displaced and the analysis is endless but this infinity of language. has the two senses. evidence of the authorial body split in two. autobiography. echoes the split that occurs when the symbolic ruptures the imaginary unity within the self – a separation that marks the repression of desire and the subject’s recognition of sexual otherness. is precisely the picture’s system. 176). 1982. or this “leakage.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 25 les musées” (Duchamp. la fait parler en lui-même: une typologie des discours. comme discipline. Duchamp’s presence in the work. non l’oeuvre en soi. like that of his female alias – Rrose – is continually marked by the artist as a construct. in Lacanian terms. in the moment of creation. Duchamp marks the moment of the determination of sexual difference as potentially reversible. mais l’oeuvre telle que le spectateur. ou le lecteur. 70). The signature. pourrait être cette science qui étudie. or autobiographical selfhood. Semiology reveals that the picture is neither a real object nor an imaginary object. promised to the viewer through the signature. Barthes observes that: “l’esthétique. Duchamp undermines the authority of the authorial signature by indicating the instability of a single coherent authorial identity. is scattered and deferred. The image is not the expression of a code but the variation of a work of codification: it is not the repository of a system but the generation of systems. This difference or separation. male and female. Duchamp’s masculine identity. Mirroring Marcel The autobiographical intention (pace Lejeune) or the extent to which Le Grand Verre is self-representation is revealed in a preliminary drawing for the piece. might be envisaged as a leakage of subjectivity into art through the medium of style. In an analogous manner. . The self disclosed in autobiography is not only that of the creator in the present act of creation but that which through the “intentional act” of autobiography involves a mode of consciousness which seeks to apprehend. en quelque sorte” (Barthes. This drawing labels the upper portion of Le Grand Verre as MARiée and the lower portion as CELibataires.
the painting should conform to the logic of the mirror and . He writes: “Le continu à 4 dim. Its primary encounter with traditional selfportraiture lies in the internal rules of that genre which require the use of the mirror. mais leur incongruence est forte (célibataires) […]. According to these rules. Conventionally. Many of Duchamp’s notes refer to the function of Le Grand Verre as mirror: the mirror of a fourth dimension. Mutt. Lyotard observes how the mirror-like function of Le Grand Verre extends beyond the positioning of the viewer to the positioning of its own content. est essentiellement le miroir du continu à 3 dim” (Duchamp. Duchamp instead regards the mirror not as a duplicating machine but as a duplicitous machine. The absence of the “real” making subject represses the viewer’s desire to identify with the authorial I believed to exist in the work. Slim Pickens. The reflection itself represents a second stage in self-portrait production between the artist as the subject and the self-portrait as an objective imitation. He suggests that Le Grand Verre is a mirror with two faces: “Les deux espaces virtuels se réfléchissent donc (mariés). 1975. Marcel Douxami. 56). On this model. The mirror as a metaphor for painting is a significant one. reflected space is homogeneous to the space that it reflects. marking identity itself as contingent. Marcel consequently becomes just another alias. Il y a entre eux la même paroi qui conjoint et disjoint les discours antithétiques” (Lyotard. mirror images are read as accurate visual reflections of real objects so the way that the mirror mimetically reproduces these images is a model for the rules of aesthetic naturalism. it is expected that artists will produce accurate renderings of their features based on their reflection in the mirror. Duchamp’s adoption of femininity can be seen to be exposing the instability of gender as a continually shifting and socially constructed role.26 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Duchamp’s multiple authorial I’s indicate the continual shifting of identities in his oeuvre and in his self-presentation in the public arena. 1977. Le Grand Verre can be interpreted within a framework of interconnected traditions. However. Welch and R. His selfconstruction as a feminine subject (an object of his own making) exposes the masquerade involved in every act of self-presentation. where he identifies not only with the imaged “woman” but with various other aliases. George W. the specular operation is one that replicates and makes identical. including Dee. When viewed along with his other authorial strategies. Totor. 130).
the chronophotographic experiments of Muybridge and Marey. He mastered the techniques of anamorphic perspective (forgotten for three centuries) and drew upon. The two writers whom he found inspirational. acts as a metaphor for the construction of the subject. Duchamp was fascinated with the technical breakthroughs in the visual sphere. He drew on many non-visual sources. the frame constructs the image or the knowledge. The self is constituted as a whole in opposition to others in order to make sense of language and the society into which it is thrust. . The mirror stage is both an observed phenomenon of infantile development and. a process of infinite regression that explodes the frame and decentres the text. The power of painting to simulate reality is associated with the privilege of sight over the other senses in western philosophical discourses on knowledge. Embedding the mirror within the text produces an effect of mise en abyme. which might be broadly divided into literary and psychological. In psychoanalytic theory.4 The notion of the mirror furthermore pertains to the definition of the self. Le récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme. as in the philosophical. makes the logic of the mirror a cultural norm (see also chapter 3. In distancing his work from that of other artists. most notably in Nu Descendant l’Escalier. Representation is inextricably linked to the power of knowledge. significantly. the mirror also acts as a metaphor for framing images. page 81). Duchamp’s critique of the fetishism of sight provides an important counter-example to the Greenbergian construction of modernism. such as the stereoscope and devices of threedimensional illusion. Duchamp rejected the “frisson rétinien” of conventional art and. it is through the Lacanian stade du miroir that the infant’s undifferentiated psyche becomes part of the social fabric and acquires its identity as an individual subject or self. in its place he put an art that self-consciously undermined the primacy of visual form itself.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 27 it succeeds or fails in the extent to which it mirrors the likeness of the world. The privilege of sight. In addition to the issue of likeness. The frame places certain material into the centre of discourse and marginalizes others. In the aesthetic realm. Jean-Pierre Brisset and 4 For further discussion. as an “objective” sense through which the world can be “objectively” understood. see L. Dällenbach.
worked with the power of puns and anagrams. 1967. His disdain for pure opticality appeared not only in his introduction of linguistic frames and mediations but also in his preoccupation with the ways in which the desiring body enters the pictorial landscape. Le Grand Verre has sometimes been interpreted as a transposition of their method into a visual register. He remained determinedly on the periphery of Cubism. In Nu Descendant. 1984. from bride to wife. in Nu Descendant. “the life of vision is one of endless wanderlust. far from being an object of desire. the masturbatory gesture of repetition or anticipation. is decomposed and androgynous. In Le Grand Verre. The concept of ocular desire as described by Bryson. le mouvement c’est l’oeil du spectateur qui l’incorpore au tableau” (Duchamp.28 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Raymond Roussel. and in its carnal form the eye is nothing but desire” (Bryson. 209) is complicated in Duchamp’s work by unexpected contradictions. games that undermined the purely communicative function of language. 51). Stressing the complicated relation between titles and works and playing with the artist’s name and identity. Duchamp wanted to create “une image statique du mouvement. although revealing at times similar preoccupations to . he was the master of the unfinished work. The ocular desire Duchamp introduced into his work was never that of an erotic stimulation that produced satisfaction. the spectator’s active participation in the generation of meaning is demanded. Duchamp seeks to incorporate both the viewer’s eye and the viewer’s intellect seemingly to complete another transition: the depiction of physical movement has become the depiction of movement from one psychological state to another. But her form. the idealized nude of tradition is forced from her pedestal and down the staircase where she could be expected to arouse more explicitly erotic responses.” He acknowledged that “au fond. Duchamp problematized not only the representations of sensations (retinal art) but also that of ideas. For example. Dadaism and Surrealism and his work. Production of Le Grand Verre and the Deferral of Origin Duchamp resisted the formation of a single artistic persona by resisting any assimilation into groups or movements. Already. the painting mocks the viewer’s attempt to derive direct sensual pleasure from her contemplation.
his work often anticipates that of the Surrealists in its concern with the desires and repressions of a divided self. page 53). The Surrealist painters attempted to find a visual language for the fears and fantasies of the inner self. Artists such as Ernst and Miró developed the method of frottage that was the plastic equivalent of écriture automatique. This view was informed by their reading of psychoanalysis that claimed that otherness is inscribed within the self: the subject is not identical with itself but is the dialectic of self and Other (see also chapter 2. have observed how the upper and lower regions of Le Grand Verre represent the summation of Duchamp’s two divergent artistic practises. Both the Bachelor and the Bride regions are generated as reflections and projections of his previous pictorial works. There is an evident temptation to read a teleological pattern of causality into the evolution of Le Grand Verre yet the process by which the work came into being negates the very notion of origin. For the Surrealists. which in New York was announced by Duchamp’s activities later than in Europe. The Bachelor region has closer affinities with Duchamp’s production of readymades. which was to work through the symbolism and association of dream imagery. the technique of écriture automatique was understood as revealing the irreducible heterogeneity within the self. Self-representation operates at the intersection of personal and collective experience. Autobiography suggests the idea of connections.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 29 those of his contemporaries is always marked by a difference both in style and conception. notably John Golding. The activity celebrated in La Boîte Verte falls within the chronological limits of the Dada movement. to La Mariée of 1912. the irony is that Duchamp reproduces previous works. However. the process by . as I have remarked. Duchamp sought to move beyond the notion of self-expression and stated his intention to begin by eliminating la patte of painting. in 1915. as a compendium of his past. The Bride region has its origins in Duchamp’s painting from his earliest sketches. Several critics. Le Grand Verre consequently emerges as a corpus whose identity is defined through reproduction. Thematically. While Le Grand Verre radically breaks with previous pictorial traditions. and can be thought to have ended when he left Le Grand Verre unfinished in 1923. the perception of patterns and linkages in the disparateness of past experience. thereby defining Le Grand Verre. For Duchamp.
the “sex” cylinder is replaced by a reservoir of love gasoline. According to La Boîte Verte. In the painting La Mariée. La Mariée was Duchamp’s final painting in his Munich series (1911-1912) and still reveals Duchamp’s interest in Cubism. Here. The work is formed through a constant interplay with its past and present environment. he used lead wire to draw the silhouette which he painted in by using gradations of black and white in order to simulate a photograph. as a pictorial referent. . the sex cylinder dominates the centre of the composition. attached to the figure’s head (a device which foreshadows the displacement of the sexual organs in Surrealist art5). The concept of pictorial 5 The theme of mechanized sexual organs was also pursued in the paintings of Picabia. which is distributed to the motor. the motor emits artificial sparks which bring about the Bride’s threefold blossoming or stripping that is represented by the three draft pistons in the cinematic cloud. The Bride. See. for example. La Mariée of the painting has a semblance of anatomical legibility: shoulder.30 The Body as Medium and Metaphor which Le Grand Verre came into being was as significant as its iconographic content. one whose mechanical existence is simulated by her appearance as a photograph or engraving. The laborious manner in which he chose to reproduce his previous works emphasizes the uniqueness of the work in construction and problematizes the notion of a locatable origin. The use of such strategies to reproduce the bride. suggests that the iconographic content of the image was less important to Duchamp than the projection of the material and technical conditions of its production as reproduction. not in her original colours but as a black and white photograph. The implication that sexual fantasies are a form of intellectual as well as physical activity is explored in greater depth in Le Grand Verre. So Duchamp deploys techniques of delay and reproduction not only to challenge the generic conventions of art but also in order to undermine the notion of origin. When this technique failed to develop. Duchamp attempted to transfer the painted bride onto glass by projecting a negative onto the surface of the glass treated with a photosensitive emulsion. is undermined by her literal transposition onto the glass. arm and breast fall into place and allow the viewer to reconstruct the empty armature of the head. his painting Je Revois en Souvenir Ma Chère Udnie of 1914. Duchamp’s literal reproduction of the pictorial Bride on glass reduces her to a readymade. whose anarchistic humour was a significant influence on Duchamp.
He refers to the Bride’s cloud-like cinematic blossoming: Se greffant sur l’arbre-type – l’épanouissement cinématique (commandé par la mise à nu électrique). The notion of chance that subtends the mechanical operations of the Bride is further revealed by the Nine Shots. en général. l’auréole de la mariée. 1887 – 1968. Piston de courant d’air contextualizes chance events as a series of imprints that undermine pictorial modes of production. Il est. constitute both the subject matter and metaphorical subtext of the notes in La Boîte Verte. which has natural straight lines. a group of nine holes drilled into the glass. 6 Letter of 21 May. . 1915. reprinted in Gough-Cooper. dans tout cet épanouissement.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 31 uniqueness is undermined as the reproduction of the Bride presents her not as a unique but as a multiple entity. l’ensemble de ses vibrations splendides: graphiquement. When at rest. 1975. la peinture sera un inventaire des éléments de cet épanouissement. Duchamp’s graphic rendering of this épanouissement is literal to the extent that it is represented by the three draft pistons. The Piston de courant d’air of 1914 is a photograph of a plane of square gauze or netting material in front of an open window that assumes different shapes when moved about by draughts of air. So I used a gauze. 63). seulement plus claire. and use in my Glass the curves of the lines distorted by the wind. including engraving. Ephemerides on and about Marcel Duchamp and Rrose Selavy. Duchamp’s allusions to mechanical reproduction. éléments de la vie sexuelle imaginée par elle mariée-désirante (Duchamp. Duchamp explained: I wanted to register the changes in the surface of that square. Cet épanouissement cinématique est la partie la p. the gauze was perfectly square – like a chessboard – and the lines perfectly straight – as in the case of graph paper. Using a match dipped in paint and a toy cannon. photography and cinema.6 Embedding allusions both to chess and chance. il n’est pas question de symboliser par une peinture exaltée ce terme bienheureux – désir de la mariée. Duchamp aimed shots at a target point that corresponded to the vanishing point (in perspective). importante du tableau (graphiquement comme surface).
or parasols. Duchamp’s naming of the témoins oculistes also exemplifies the way in which his punning use of language complicates the signifying process (does étalon refer to a measure or the reproductive fertility of a stallion?).2. resemble cones used in seventeenth-century treatises on perspective and anamorphic imagery. Témoins oculistes and Trois stoppages-étalon. no. through a laborious process of scraping away excess silver.32 The Body as Medium and Metaphor leading each time (the process was repeated three times) to generating three points. In La Boîte Verte. Duchamp thus presents Le Grand Verre as a folding mirror that reflects back upon itself. Duchamp describes this section: Sculpture de gouttes (points) que forme l’éclaboussure après avoir été éblouie à travers les tableaux oculistes. 1975. Colour in this context emerges as a projection of time or a temporal delay. like a mirror. the Tamis are described as “une image renversée de la porosité” a pun on the dust that was allowed to accumulate on Le Grand Verre for a period of several months before being carefully graded in concentration and fixed with varnish. 93). which instead of mirroring external reality. connecting. The Témoins oculistes were created by multiplying three times a ready-made oculist chart and placing them one above the other. the upper and lower regions. According to Duchamp. reflect the very mechanisms of projection that structure the glass. The Tamis. allowing the dust to settle. The word témoin in this context signifies on different levels (evoking witnesses at a . the dust was to be a kind of colour. The rings were reproduced by working in the negative. The usual purpose of a sieve (le tamis) is here inverted in shape and function. The strategies of reproduction deployed in the Bride region are also pursued in the lower half of Le Grand Verre. on the reverse side of the glass. Duchamp reproduces Broyeuse de chocolat. suggesting that this miniature relief undermines the primacy of the colour of liquid paint. where their function was either to construct or correct visual distortion. chaque goutte servant de point et renvoyée miroiriquement dans la partie haute du verre en rencontre avec les 9 tirés =/ Renvoi miroirique (Duchamp. The transposition of the commercial eye charts emerge as mechanisms of projection. a looking glass where the viewer’s gaze is already represented within the work.
and the artist as a unique producer. repetition becomes depersonalization. 182). in the same way. Duchamp reproduces himself by producing replicas of his own oeuvre. the mechanization of sex and representation. The creative act is redefined as an act of dispossession. perhaps. Duchamp redefines both the meaning of art as product. . repetition intends the destruction of art but also proposes another conception of the human subject. to suggest. in this sense. 1982. en effet. the bride’s desire. 402). a realistic observer) and Duchamp multiplies possible meanings through the creation of a new term. For Duchamp. Duchamp imagines the encounter of the object and the public in the manner of this missed encounter [.. 1996. Reproduction or Repetition? Barthes writes about repetition as a feature of culture with respect to the mechanical processes of reproduction exploited by the Pop Artists. Duchamp as author is distanced from the original Duchampian objects. Duration. one that delivers the artist from the obligation of perpetuating the conventions of traditional painting.] the ocular witnesses focus the gaze of the bachelors and dazzle it into a sculpture of drops that will be projected via mirrorical return in the region of the nine shots where it will rejoin. the témoin oculaire who is an eye-witness.. Warhol’s images of Marilyn freeze the star in her image as star. Thierry de Duve interprets the role of the Témoins oculistes as a metaphor for the public reception of Le Grand Verre: They are simultaneously metaphors of the bachelors and the physician of their gaze [. However. is not defined linearly. This is an imaginary status as the star’s being is the icon: in this instance. témoin oculiste. By strategically redeploying the notion of painting through reproduction.. repetition generates temporality rather than identity. à une temporalité différente” (Barthes. Barthes concludes: “la répétition ouvre accès. In Pop Art.] The manner in which the ocular witnesses are depicted thus illustrates the manner in which the real encounter of work and viewers is represented according to Duchamp (de Duve.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 33 wedding. as well as perpetrating the myth of his or her own identity. the Témoins oculistes represent not only the viewer’s selfreflective gaze but also that of the introspective creator.. in a necessarily missed encounter.
As a reassemblage that reproduces Duchamp’s previous pictorial works on glass. Duchamp valorized the notion of reproduction as a form of production. Le Grand Verre has itself been reproduced.” Thus the reconstruction of Le Grand Verre also highlights the extent to which Duchamp employed the Surrealist concept of le hasard. notably by Richard Hamilton in 1965. the random firing of matches from a toy cannon clashes with the choice of the analytic vanishing point as target. the use of the standard oculist’s chart with its connotations of . By appropriating the logic of the multiple. one that brings together the artistic. a copy that was supervised and approved by Duchamp. Mechanical reproduction involves forms of impression whose multiple character challenges both the uniqueness of the artist and the unity of the work of art. Seeking to distance himself from art as a form of expression and refusing the privileged role of the artist. and how this can be seen to engage with the artist’s unconscious. For example. Duchamp discovered through mechanical reproduction new ways of envisaging creativity. in contrast with the depersonalization of mechanical reproduction. Implicit in this argument is Benjamin’s concern about the dialectic inherent in art “for art’s sake”: art can be a resistance to political doctrine and the kitsch of the culture industry. For Benjamin. or it can be a form of collusion with the forces of oppression and control. the deliberate techniques of reproduction involved in such a reconstruction emphasize the unrepeatable gestures or the traces of chance that contributed to the realization of the “original. social and economic realms. Duchamp refers to Nietzsche’s notion of the “eternal Return” to demonstrate that all appearance is re-presentation. a return to appearance. Le Grand Verre manifests the readymade character of pictorial representation. that is. Ironically.34 The Body as Medium and Metaphor since the past and future coexist. Duchamp’s technique of reproduction may be considered as an instance of the “eternal Return” to the extent that his concept of art is that of a field of readymades. mechanical reproducibility offers a democratic corrective to the unique value which bourgeois society accords to the “authentic” work of art. Walter Benjamin’s analysis of art in the age of mechanical reproduction argues that for the first time in history. mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitic dependence on ritual and allows it to be rooted in a democratic culture. In La Boîte Verte.
the visual and the verbal. Et la terreur consiste entre autres. allows him to scatter subjectivity in a transit between word and image. Subjectivity is constituted not through a narrative re-enactment of the past but in a process which encompasses past moments of the subject’s history and his present being in order to accommodate the disparate nature of subjectivity. makes visible the conditions of the possibility of art through the redefinition of pictorial conditions. as I will demonstrate in the following chapters. Le Grand Verre reflects neither the rejection nor the assimilation of artistic traditions. uncertainty and instability integral to the process of self-invention. Duchamp’s interference between semiotic systems. The memory inherent to autobiography is enacted in the visual sphere as a process of returning and searching. Duchamp’s “autobiographical narrative” requires the sanction of the Other. For Lyotard. The images never accede to autonomy as centres of interest before being assimilated by the over-arching narrative provided by La Boîte Verte.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 35 scientific precision is at odds with the fallibility of the art of hand engraving. Written autobiography. Monsieur Marcel se . The iconography of Le Grand Verre represents metaphors for the subject’s identity rather than its totality. A Gendered Identity Duchamp’s identity. the figure of Rrose is omnipresent throughout Duchamp’s work. scattered and deferred in the hermetic symbolism of Le Grand Verre. By superimposing a narrative upon his work. Contre cette terreur. unfolding in present and past time. Rather than retrieving a past identity. à identifier le principe de disfonctionnement avec la différence des sexes. he seeks to represent the differences. Duchamp reinforces rather than closes the divisions between the creating self and the past self. All self-representation is ultimately dependent upon an intersubjective paradigm. loses its foundation in the heterogeneity of the work. a case of mutual recognition in which the self I proclaims already acknowledges the scrutiny of the Other. He remarks: Mais les femmes sont aussi du ‘sexe’ masculin. Similarly. si toute la question passe par les femmes. expresses memory as a temporal process. but rather.
His fascination with the permeability of the borders of sexual difference is demonstrated by his role-playing as Rrose Sélavy and also by his notion of inframince. They are gas castings. Also entitled the Matrice d’Eros and forming the Cimetière des 8 uniformes ou livrées. a coherent subject. nevertheless. He wrote: “séparation inframince – mieux que cloison. whose position coincides with the Bride in the upper quadrant. policeman. However. et travaille les ’coupures. as well as absent. undertaker. the interdependence of self and other. 1977. masculine and feminine. On the left-hand side of the lower region of Le Grand Verre are the 9 moules mâlic. Absent from this group is the artist. The artist’s presence cannot be represented as a figurative mould as he embodies a plurality of social types and functions as a mirror to society. The inframince separation exposes the constructed and oscillating nature of the barrier between self and other on which the subject depends to negotiate his/her own identity. losing any but the most oblique and metaphorical connections to biologically gendered men and women. In suggesting that Duchamp passes beyond sex. 1983.36 The Body as Medium and Metaphor travestit en Mlle Rrose. he implies that Duchamp is an androgynous creator. which he insisted. The artist’s presence is represented by the components of his creation. The bachelor masturbates while the bride hovers above. parce que indique intervalle (pris dans un sens) et cloison (pris dans un autre sens) – séparation a les 2 sens mâle et femelle” (Adcock. the terms masculine and feminine become erotic functions. 56). As I have noted. Duchamp’s work activates problems of authorship and interpretation partly through his manipulation of gendered imagery. cavalryman. In Le Grand Verre. who remains. delivery boy. cannot be defined but only exemplified. 94). Duchamp’s image is absent from Le Grand Verre precisely because his exploration of sexual identities leads to the decentring of a stable self. Inframince indicates sexual identity both as difference and sameness. images. the nine moulds look like dressmakers patterns that outline three-dimensional form on a twodimensional surface. gendarme. busboy and stationmaster. beyond sex (Lyotard. et donc à leur réconciliation.’ Passant outre à l’importance donnée à la différence des sexes. Duchamp’s theme for Le Grand Verre was that of sexual desire and . empty vessels that parody social positions: the priest. il va au-delà. flunky. Subjectivity is disseminated through present.
As I have explained. is an elaborate case of torn papers covered with handwritten notes composed while Duchamp worked on the glass piece. The Bride hovers between innocence and experience. the female locus of the bachelor’s desire is an elaborate construct. 133). le long de leurs regrets. 76). By enunciating both masculine and feminine positions of desiring subjectivity. Similarly. Bride and Bachelors are seemingly independent yet it is their suspension in the neverconsummated relationship that determines the identity of each in his and her state of frustrated desire. 1983. In La Boîte Verte. c’est-à-dire la femme-épouse. virginity and fecundity.” Duchamp stated: “C’est surtout une négation de la femme au sens social du mot. entendraient les litanies que récite le chariot. etc” (Duchamp. les enfants. the bachelor. la mère. refrain de toute la machinecélibataire. Framing Le Grand Verre / Framing Duchamp Integral to Le Grand Verre and sharing its title (with the removal of one comma). Duchamp notes: Les moulages du gaz ainsi obtenus. the bachelors were intended never to achieve sexual fulfilment while the Bride was inspired to an autoerotic climax. Duchamp’s work demands the recognition of the eroticism of interpretation – the interdependence and interchange between object and subject of the interpretative gaze. rather than a representation of universal “woman.” In response to the idea that Le Grand Verre negated “woman. these notes . the 1934 La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires même.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 37 sexual frustration. Her role mirrors the element of reversibility in Duchamp’s terms: he imagined the Bride’s stripping both as an act of consummation and as the apotheosis of virginity. Like the Retard of the subtitle (Le Grand Verre is subtitled Retard en Verre). The bachelors are therefore hallucinations of masculinity. d’un miroir qui leur aurait renvoyé leur propre complexité au point de les halluciner assez onaniquement (Adcock. A masturbating figure of fantasy. sans qu’ils pourront jamais dépasser le Masque = Ils auraient été comme enveloppés. is contained in a subordinate position below the bar of Le Grand Verre. generally called La Boîte Verte. a barrier that signifies the vanishing point of the horizon as well as the Bride’s clothing. 1967.
C’était très logique (Duchamp. selon moi.38 The Body as Medium and Metaphor expand upon. Duchamp’s intention was to produce the box in an edition of three hundred. obfuscate ideas that are visually played out in Le Grand Verre. il ne devait pas être regardé au sens esthétique du mot. which is inaccessible to most of the public both conceptually. and literally. The . The notes. the notes undermine the standards of modernist aesthetics by refusing the separation of media into pure categories of formalist specificity. The spectator’s experience of Le Grand Verre is intended to be mediated by the notes. they act as self-authenticating objects which conflate the artist’s mark or signature with the author. Furthermore. Duchamp said: Je voulais que cet album aille avec le Verre et qu’on puisse le consulter pour voir le Verre parce que. Duchamp’s handwriting was printed in facsimile onto the paper bits. Therefore. the economic value of Duchamp’s ideas. interpreted from a Greenbergian perspective. Duchamp produced the boxes with the intention of marketing them. a conflation that validates not only aesthetic attribution but judgement as well. as mass-produced fragments authorized by the reproduced yet ostensibly unique handwriting of Duchamp. and relies on for its commercial success. which thus serve as fetishistic synecdoches of the artist himself. 71). elaborate. or more often. However. each of which would match the original as closely as possible. Merging the archival marks of the artist with the artist’s artworks. because of its signifying complexity. like the readymades. Il fallait consulter le livre et les voir ensemble. because of its physical immobility (fixed in place at the Philadelphia Museum of Art). La Boîte Verte in itself exemplifies Duchamp’s active representation of himself through his work in the public arena. the multiple examples of Duchamp’s boxed “ideas” operate to expose the cultural fetishization of authored objects as commodities. which Duchamp described as operating like a “Sears Catalogue” in relation to the object. La Boîte Verte asserts. La conjunction des deux choses enlevait tout le côté rétinien que je n’aime pas. also corrupt the integrity of Le Grand Verre as a self-sufficient object by inserting a literary intertext that supplements the significatory lack of the visual object. 1967. La Boîte Verte promotes these ideas beyond the esoteric Le Grand Verre.
but as a prototype whose function is to redefine through industry the very meaning of art. it also played with more traditional framing functions. However. three-dimensional world disclosed within and behind. creating a homogeneous enclosure. By contrast. When a frame performs a continuous isolating function around an image.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 39 conjunction of written and visual information disrupts the visual consumption of Le Grand Verre by interfering with its “retinal” character.7 Le Grand Verre literally embodies the theme of the shattered window. instead of receding into the framed space. The frame then belongs to the viewer’s space rather than the illusory. external and internal worlds.” Duchamp stresses the conditions of its production. foreground and background. As does the disparity between the perspectivalist or anamorphic lines etched on the glass and the “real” world visible through the work’s 7 Duchamp’s Fresh Widow (1920) anticipates many of the Surrealists’ visual puns. He redefines Le Grand Verre. painted black. the simple or unframed canvas enables the painting to stand out from the wall as an autonomous object. It defies the high modernist ethic of pure opticality. Often deploying it to suggest yearning for the beyond. “une somme d’expériences. The act of vision is contextualized. . The work is a set of miniature French windows. the frame sets the picture surface back into depth and helps to deepen the view. Le Grand Verre may be seen as prefiguring the Surrealist preoccupation on the theme of the window as a transitional plane between reality and imagination. The punning title highlights the notion of incommensurable spatial orders that are combined to challenge the viewer’s faith in his/her eyes. Lyotard observes how the use of perspective in the lower half of Le Grand Verre produces the effect of a virtual three-dimensional space. not as an object in its own right. The two sections of Le Grand Verre were rendered through two incommensurable spatial projections that refuse visual unity. it is like a window frame through which we see a space behind the glass. as the support is made of transparent glass. If Le Grand Verre expanded the notion of the frame conceptually. the eye paradoxically cannot traverse it to explore this virtual space. thereby redefining the aesthetic autonomy of Le Grand Verre. the Surrealists also used the window as an aperture through which a face could look into the shadowy room of the unconscious. By designating the box as a kind of manual or catalogue.
The eye becomes aware of its own activity without being able to lose itself in virtual objects. The Frame of Language Duchamp’s elaborate process of framing. the analogy of the painting was echoed in the analogy of the title. A viewer also becomes aware of the refracted gazes of other viewers who are themselves framed by the work. The title’s very specificity seems to invite an analogy that refuses to fit the work. the title initially appears to block access to an understanding of the content.” He observes how in classical painting. the window of the exhibition room of the Philadelphia Museum. Barthes refers to the title of a painting as “l’appât d’une signification. The result is a denial of visual plenitude. Duchamp exploits the viewer’s dependence on language. artificial status by denying the viewer’s desire for escape into the imaginary reality potentially represented by the artwork. for example. The (non)sense of the title pervades the work. The addition of même to the full title of Le Grand Verre disrupts the signifying process and prevents a narrative interpretation of the title. Duchamp. When the title of the work does not immediately appear to correspond to the subject of the painting. The disruption of the visual by the verbal subverts representation and thus exposes the arbitrary nature of the visual sign. . In Duchamp’s case. and which causes the viewer to incessantly return to the image in an interminable attempt to reread and reinterpret. As I have indicated.” When the viewer’s eye traverses Le Grand Verre. mediating and controlling the viewer’s apprehension of his work lends prominence to his chosen title.40 The Body as Medium and Metaphor transparent “canvas. This is an impenetrable code. In his attempt to wed the visual and the verbal aspects of representation. like the Surrealists. Le Grand Verre seems to be engaged against culture whose rhetorical discourse it abandons by establishing a hermetic code. exacerbated by the notes of La Boîte Verte. the discursive was allowed to undermine the self-sufficiency of the figural in radical ways. it encounters the real objects that are behind it. Simultaneously. often chose titles with the goal of disrupting or contesting the apparent meaning of the image. the work draws attention to its own constructed. which reinforces the pattern of endless sexual excitation and frustration explicit on a thematic level.
its framing. Like Nu descendant un escalier. Thematically. whereby it loses its utilitarian dimension but.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 41 constituting “le moment négatif de toute initiation” (Barthes. Duchamp believed in “nominalisme pictural. Barthes observes that with the readymade or real object. Duchamp chooses an industrial product and displaces it.” by which he intended that naming an object transforms it into something else. particularly Braque and Picasso. adopting a female name and character changes Duchamp into a woman. l’objet est si réel que l’artiste peut se permettre l’excentricité ou l’incertitude de la dénomination” (Barthes. 204). The readymade reveals precisely what functionalism denies: the function of the name. gains a function that is purely symbolic. Rather than an ontological view of art. The Cubists. art begins only at its periphery. 1982. The framing begins with the name: “Dans le ready made. By becoming Rrose Sélavy. the artist changes his name and his identity. 1982. The symbolic nature of Duchamp’s readymades lies partly in the incongruity of the title to the object. putting it to another purpose. Retard en Verre reflects Duchamp’s continued attempts to move beyond the notion of painting by refusing to assimilate this work to a picture on glass. The formal texture and polyocular vision wrenches the image away from traditional notions of temporal and spatial depiction. sought a similar effect in their collages where the disjunction of images introduces a temporal delay and the displacement of meaning. its museography. If titles are significant in Duchamp’s work. by the same act. Duchamp wishes to redefine painting as a process that includes temporal considerations. Duchamp introduces the notion of delay as a way of distancing himself from traditional pictorial conventions. 170). By the same process. the subtitle of Le Grand Verre (Retard en Verre) inscribes a temporal delay that attempts to interfere with the visual consumption of the image. The visual opacity of Le Grand Verre attests to Duchamp’s successful displacement of meaning away from the retinal and toward its active interplay with linguistic and poetic frames of reference. Calling a manufactured object a readymade imbued it with the status of art. this infinite deferral . this is because they no longer function as mere labels but instead as devices that reframe the retinal impact of images in terms of punning associations.
For Duchamp. The notion of deferral or postponement is characteristic of autobiographical narrative. Instead of being cast as the passive consumer of the image. Duchamp vicariously crosses the boundary that separates creation from reception and tries to anticipate and incorporate in advance the position of this Other. 1977. The Bride remains forever in the process of being stripped bare. 69). Autobiographical truth lies in the process (the journey) rather than in the product (the destination).42 The Body as Medium and Metaphor prevents any action from being triumphantly carried out. The Retard is imposed upon the viewer’s impatience to see/seize the object: “Il ouvre des intervalles et moments de délai. It involves not only an engagement or negotiation with the conventions of genre but also with an imaginary Other. where the artist dictates every aspect of the work’s reception from the peep-holes in the door. mais l’identité” (Lyotard. an interpolated subjectivity which receives and responds to the image with which it is presented. Self-identity is therefore always constituted through a relation to an Other. Duchamp’s declaration in 1923 that Le Grand Verre was to remain definitively unfinished demonstrates the impossibility of completing his own narrative. The dynamism of autobiography is driven by the contradictions of memory and desire. the viewer becomes the object of his/her own gaze. the redefinition of the medium itself in terms of a deferral. Self-narrative involves a dynamic process that is a double drive. this strategy of postponement or deferral does not involve the mere transposition of painting into another medium but rather. Deferral is symptomatic of selfdiscovery: not to get to the point is to put off definitive selfconfrontation and commitment. An anticipation of the viewer is made further explicit in Duchamp’s later work Etant Donnés. mirrored in the reflective surface. self-representation has an overt public dimension. Non seulement l’uniformité disparaît. to the . Confronted with Le Grand Verre. The “Subject” of the Work As I have observed. il démobilise le corps d’armée qu’est le corps de l’oeil. a passage that postpones the pictorial becoming of painting. il décomprime les coordonnées du centralisme. s/he is awakened to an awareness of the prevailing conditions of viewing. backwards and forwards.
and of images whose relationship to their backgrounds and to the space around them is occasionally irrelevant and always of secondary importance. . The viewer becomes voyeur. The installation subverts the traditional identification of subjectivity with either a monologic. Duchamp reduces the notion of pictorial background to a readymade.” its excessive realism. who were interested in the concept of objects embedded in a spatial continuum or flux that was as pictorially significant as the depicted objects. which suggests the possibility of reciprocity. an obscene diorama pawned off on a reputable museum because of the reputation of the “artist” and the brilliant literary apparatus lending it prestige” (Shattuck.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 43 cut-off perspective of the nude figure and his posthumous directive that the work was not to be photographed until twenty years after its installation. which turns the viewer into the object of the other’s look. more precisely. To be addressed by one’s own image is to be made aware of the manifestation of oneself as subject while being interpolated into Duchamp’s subjectivity who remains both subject and creator of the work that frames the gaze. spectatorial gaze or a dialogic specularity. This separated him from the Cubists. that act is put in quotation marks. Or. Rather than the picture returning the gaze of the viewer in the manner of previous nudes (for example. a fictive Other with whom the real reader can never coincide and who serves to frame the real reader by heightening their self-awareness. The referential relations between figure and background now emerge as no longer internal to 8 To its detractors. Duchamp creates a space for the viewer which accommodates a plurality of viewing positions. 291). Etant Donnés is little more than another of Duchamp’s hoaxes: “the ultimate bluff against art and its whole superstructure. one that changes with the position of the glass. By using the transparency of glass as a medium. The door. To others. Duchamp’s paintings reveal him to be a painter of images. the viewer becomes the uneasy object of a gaze from behind – that of those waiting to see the peep show. it represents Duchamp’s most profound exploration of the troubled confluence of vision and desire.8 Unlike the Other anticipated by the traditional autobiographical text. Now. that of figure/ground relations. 1984. is like the hinge of a chiasmic visual scene. because the problem with the scene is its “hyperreality. caught in the embarrassing act that underlies all visual pleasure. the beholder is directly turned into a scopophilic viewer. Duchamp denies one of the signatory marks of painting. The equation of the “I” with the sovereign “eye” becomes itself unhinged. Manet’s Olympia). which stages eroticism as a spectacle in the glare of artificial light. reviving the theme of Le Grand Verre where the témoins oculistes watch the bride being stripped bare. as Paz notes.
The act of looking-at a painting becomes an act of looking-through. The viewer is enclosed in Le Grand Verre and becomes part of the work. This brings about an inversion of the position of the terms that are seen to constitute creation and artistic contemplation: the artist’s subjectivity (or the viewer’s) and the work. Duchamp overturns the relationship between subject and object by revealing the subjectivity of the authorial I to be interchangeable with the subjectivity of the viewer.44 The Body as Medium and Metaphor the logic of the image but as a product of its chance encounters with the world and its spectators. the work implies a relativization of the space of meaning. By dint of gazing. whilst simultaneously opening up a multiplicity of viewing positions. In Barthes’s appreciation of Arcimboldo’s painting. the viewer’s eye is not allowed to rest. we might say that the individual viewer gets split there. . The glass. once the spectator falls into this viewing trap. Barthes observes that by asking the human subject to move. However. and the work of art. 405). Duchamp ensures that the viewer’s movement participates in the work’s status. chooses its viewers one at a time. whatever it is. 1996. Including the viewer’s gaze within the work. it is another viewer that he sees looking at him or whom he sees looking. by reason of its very transparency. Barthes also comments how in the verb to gaze. becomes an obstacle to the viewer’s vision. following Lacan. The reflections and images mirrored in Le Grand Verre cause a viewer to look at the work from different angles and distances which both incorporate and eliminate their own likeness. It is to another that his gaze is addressed and from an Other that it comes back to him (de Duve. Thierry de Duve observes: Art does not address itself to the masses but to an individual. he observes that the painting is mobile. There the viewers are always double. The painting dictates to its viewer by the obligation to come closer or to step back from the image in order to decipher it. which blends with the painted forms and reflections of the outside world. Gazing at Le Grand Verre. The transparency of the material also ensures that a viewer circles the work to look at the reverse view. Looking at Le Grand Verre therefore leads a viewer back to his/her own image. on which the composition is painted. one forgets one can be gazed at oneself. the frontiers of active and passive are uncertain.
However. moi (Barthes. But the contradiction is apparent rather than real: what we see are only moments and states of an invisible object. 1982. so it still resists critical appropriation.’ With the Large Glass. as it opens out or folds back. 1982. I have explained how traditional portraiture conveys an illusion of the uniqueness of the portrayed subject by presupposing a belief in the unity of the signifier (the “interior essence” of the portrayed) and the signified (the exterior form). qu’une apparence). 1978. stages in the process of manifestation and concealment of a phenomenon.’ cependant. is still a secret work: The Large Glass opens out before us like the image of contradiction.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 45 Barthes indicates in La Sagesse de l’Art that there is a useful lexical ambiguity to the term “subject. Séminaire XI.’ c’est bien sur. le ‘sujet. as a graphic description of the workings of a machine and the representation of an erotic ritual. physically and/or mentally. The subject of a work can refer to its “object” (that which it offers to reflection). c’est Twombly lui-même. so the same applies to Duchamp: Chez Twombly. As Le Grand Verre resists rational definition. c’est aussi celui qui la regarde: vous. 175). Duchamp alludes to the duplicity of his attempt: ‘Perhaps make a hinge picture (tableau de charnière).96. bien sûr. ce dont la toile parle. le sujet de la toile.70 . we face a hinge picture which. “Je vous regarde comme on regarde l’impossible”9 Despite its public character. 280 . 93). or the person who thereby represents him/herself – the implicit producer. ne s’arrête pas là: parce que l’art de Twombly semble comporter peu de savoir technique (ce n’est. Le voyage du ’sujet. other apparitions of the same elusive object (Paz. quoted in Barthes. mais comme ce sujet n’est qu’une allusion (écrite). With that lucidity which is no less unique in him because it is constant.” As Barthes concludes in the case of Cy Twombly. Le Grand 9 Lacan. toute la charge du drame passe à celui qui la produit: le sujet. Le Grand Verre. shows us other vistas. pp. as Octavio Paz observes.
refuting the notion of artwork as mimesis or mirror. je le vois me voir: je suis intimidé. 2) I see him seeing me. Duchamp dismisses the use of a sign system that refers iconically. where the Imaginary. Sans doute. d’une part je vois l’autre. He therefore prefigures the crisis of modernity that can be perceived in the recognition of the irreconcilable split between signifier and signified. 10 . je ne vois que lui. whether it is enlisted to validate the self by Orlan. si l’on peut dire. dans la relation amoureuse. one’s identity. the performative dimension of selfrepresentation. dans cette relation. sidéré. et d’autre part. The space of subjectivity that Le Grand Verre reveals is both theatrical and symbolic. with a subcurrent of outright antiretinalism that culminates in Duchamp. However. 282). n’est pas aussi retors. Le Grand Verre further subverts Lacan’s stade du miroir. the nature of intersubjectivity is closer to Barthes’s understanding of the lover’s gaze: Or. As soon as this unity is challenged. Martin Jay has described the history of modernist painting as a laboratory of postperspectivalist optical experimentation. il manque un trajet. Much contemporary portraiture renders a sitter’s presence through the indexical sign: similarity is outmoded. is a perfect example of this contemporary shift. le regard. becomes the realm of a coherent and stable self-image.46 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Verre undermines the optics of pure vision. 1982. However. constitué passivement par son regard tout-puissant. je veux percer le secret de ce corps que je désire.10 However. passes through the relay of the Other. in the viewer’s relation to Le Grand Verre. 3) he knows I see him. avec intensité. The viewer of Le Grand Verre sees himself blind in his/her own gaze. the homogeneity and the authenticity of the portrayed subject fall apart. associated with looking and being seen. contiguity is proposed as the new mode. Lacan defines imaginary intersubjectivity as a three-term structure: 1) I see the other. His painterly performance is systematically absent in the multiple reproductions of his work. The relation to one’s body image. Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre further problematizes any indexical association with subjectivity. et cet affolement est si grand que je ne peux (ou ne veux) reconnaître qu’il sait que je le vois – ce qui me désaliénerait: je me vois aveugle devant lui (Barthes. je le scrute. whom I shall discuss in my concluding chapter.
Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre
confrontation with others or to transform the self through the interpolation of the Other’s complicity, is inevitably constrained by other factors which threaten to expose it as nothing more than a rhetorical illusion; Duchamp refuses to constitute an image of himself for others. As Barthes explains: “l’imaginaire est ce sur quoi les autres ont barre” (Barthes, 1975; 85). In rejecting figurative art, Duchamp shakes off the remnants of the psychological realism that Barthes identifies as part of traditional character formation.11 The desire to elude definition lies in the need to maintain an unstable, creative identity. To impose an image on the self is to deprive it of certain liberties. As Barthes later observes in La Chambre Claire, the loss of the self is brought about because the objectification of the subject that bestows the experience of wholeness on it, is a discursive transformation that translates the subject into the terms of the doxa, the platitudes of public opinion (see also chapter 3, page 84 and chapter 4, page 151). One’s image is always cast in terms of the already-represented. Duchamp’s highly personal iconography resists oppression by resisting the images and concepts that reinforce traditional self-representation. Duchamp constructs a conception of subjectivity based on variety and diversity. Analogous to the decentring of the self in contemporary autobiography, Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre refuses to re-inscribe a unified subject. The interrogation of mimesis and the confrontation of the barriers between masculine and feminine challenge the notion of the image as a transparent representation of the “self” of the artist. By inscribing the notion of delay (Retard) into an abstract self-portrait, Duchamp also indicates his refutation of the Other’s perception of his self. Duchamp’s self is spatial, time is translated into space and difference is rooted in desire. The topology of subjectivity favours dispersal. Identity is unlocatable and involves displacement. It is what the artist is but what the Other perceives. If postmodernism signifies performativity, as Lyotard outlines in La Condition
11 See L’Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits. This essay observes that a “character” is a collection of semes held together by a proper name (or the je of the first person narrator). The justification of particular collocations is the compatibility of the meanings in relation to cultural (ideological) codes. Cultural codes depend upon stereotypes whose essence is pure repetition. The stereotype is a synonym for déjà-lu, déjà-fait and functions iteratively, like the sign.
The Body as Medium and Metaphor
Postmoderne, Le Grand Verre is a paradigm of postmodern subjectivity. In merging subject and object positions and deploying techniques of reproduction, Duchamp reveals the intersubjective formation of identity. Through the incorporation of male and female symbols, he indicates the interdependence of gender definition while the impenetrability of the visual and verbal semiotic systems and the cycle of sexual desire illustrate the impossibility of narrative closure. Le Grand Verre demonstrates how a genre can be liberated from its history so that it can become an arena for new significations.
The Autoportrait: Michel Leiris’ L’Âge d’Homme
Introduction Michel Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme is an exploration of the plasticity of memory. It is at once confession, catharsis, classic childhood memoir and representative of the avant-garde crisis in self-representation. If autobiography prior to Leiris and as opposed to autobiographical fiction (such as Proust’s enterprise) was regarded as a retrospective moulding and ordering of the past, in order to convey upon it a teleological coherence, Leiris reveals both the fallibility of memory and self-knowledge, and the mutual desire that propels an autobiographical text. Memory has traditionally been conceived as visual: classical mnemonic strategies for rhetoric (mnemonic deriving from Mnemosyne – goddess of memory and mother to all muses) depended upon a visualization of architectural or spatial structures. Much modern self-narrative draws upon the mnemonic power of visual imagery often leading the autobiographer to include photographs (see Barthes and Breton) or to adopt a fragmented text, analogous to a collection of snapshots (see Walter Benjamin). From the outset, L’Âge d’Homme reveals itself to be a highly visual undertaking. Leiris announces his desire in the introductory essay to group together the images that have contributed to his sense of identity. He draws constant analogies between his writing and the visual art of self-portraiture. He refers to “les traits qui [...] donnent sa ressemblance au portrait” (p. 29),1 “un tableau de moi, peint selon ma propre perspective” (p. 26), “une telle galerie de souvenirs” (p. 41).
All references to L'Âge d'Homme in this chapter are to the 1995 edition in the Folio collection by Gallimard.
The Body as Medium and Metaphor
In the prologue, Leiris commences with an intricate description of his physiognomy. In textualizing his physical presence, Leiris renders it as sign, and thus his body becomes a metaphor in the text, standing in for something that is not there. L’Âge d’Homme begins with an exterior vision of Leiris, the detailed description of his person and concludes with the interior visions of his subconscious, the dream descriptions. This framework represents the corporeality of existence, the external representation of the self, and the open-ended quest for an interior subjectivity. Leiris’s rule of composition reflects this symbolic framework: “Identité [...] de la forme et du fond.” He seeks simultaneity in the conjunction of interior and exterior vision. The conspicuous lack at the heart of L’Âge d’Homme is a material image of the autobiographer. This lack of an image – of the body that is a sign of desire and of agency in the world – places the emphasis of the writing upon the constructed nature of identity; how the presence of the writer is both evoked and dispersed throughout the text. L’Âge d’Homme and La Règle du Jeu have been subject to innumerable critical appraisals and analyses. Many of these investigations of the texts have focused upon the psychoanalytic elements of Leiris’s writing and the significance of both his experience of psychoanalysis and his position as a Surrealist dissident upon the style and structure of his writing.2 While these factors remain integral to a comprehension of L’Âge d’Homme, they do not concern my own exploration of the text. I wish to reveal how Leiris evolves a visual imagination by inscribing the visual into the verbal, the extent to which he develops a “plastic” self-retrospective and to what extent his identity is formed through pre-existing visual images or projections. In order to take account of L’Âge d’Homme as a partially therapeutic exercise, as indicated by Leiris, I shall discuss the links between Surrealism and psychoanalysis, the similarities between Lejeune’s definition of autobiography as transaction, which I discussed with reference to Duchamp, and the psychoanalytic notion of transference. This will enable me to elucidate the dialogical nature of Leiris’s enterprise in contrast to its interpretation as a cathartic outpouring of fear and self-loathing; the interpretation suggested by Leiris himself. Through a subsequent discussion of the fallibility of self-knowledge, I shall look at the way in which Leiris frames his
See, for example, P. Lejeune (1975), R. Bréchon (1973) and R. Simon (1984).
was drawn into the fray. portraiture had ceased to be a solely realist genre. Leiris was deeply involved in the visual arts both through his friendship with artists and the art criticism he wrote for various journals. one which was committed only to replicating physical likeness. It became a stage upon which was played out the tension of the drama between tradition and avant-gardism. and to which Leiris considered all art should aspire. in particular portrait painting. 3 . Since the advent of Cubism. Alberto Giacometti. the imagistic presentation of memories and the self-deception that results from a masking of desire. who did so in a Cézannist portrait of his mother I shall examine the traditional role of the portrait and the crisis it faced in the early part of the twentieth century in greater detail in the following chapter. I shall also explore the common themes that Leiris develops through his art criticism. Modernism versus Realism The Left-sponsored realism debates in Paris in the mid-1930s demonstrate that self-representation.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 51 narrative. Before embarking upon my analysis of Leiris’s archive of images. The artists found themselves trapped within a dialectic – modernism versus realism. As artists moved increasingly away from figuration to abstraction.3 A frequently cited case of an avant-garde artist reviving portraiture as part of a return to realism was that of former Surrealist. it is helpful to contextualize the narrative in relation to the cultural climate in which it was written. Louis Aragon’s address Réalisme socialiste et réalisme français was made in October 1937 and had a profound influence. as Leiris’s involvement with writers and artists at the time had a marked influence upon the evolution of his own aesthetic ideal. Representation and self-representation were at the centre of this dilemma. their relevance to L’Âge d’Homme and the concept of le sacré. He condemned modern theories for their neglect of the traditional humanist genre of portrait painting. It is therefore important to consider the position of figurative or realist art and the crisis it faced during the 1930s. the genre of portraiture held a problematic position in the hierarchy of artistic classification. which he developed with Bataille.
dans le sens de l’affranchissement de tous les hommes. Leiris considered his friend André Masson’s return to self-portraiture during the war years as the most effective way to come to terms with oneself and the current climate. de tout le poids dont il est si souvent oppressé. faute de quoi nul ne saurait parvenir à son affranchissement particulier (p. quelque chose de risible (voire que d’aucuns n’hésiteraient pas à qualifier d’odieux) dans mon obstination à poursuivre cette recherche sans rapport direct avec la crise pourtant tragique que le monde traverse aujourd’hui. Leiris still criticized his own self-absorption at this time of international crisis: Il y a.52 The Body as Medium and Metaphor in 1937. was aware of the difficulties for artists as his criticism of both Masson’s and Giacometti’s work reveals. The pressure on avant-garde artists of the period to submit to the political dictates of the prevailing realism put them under much strain. Leiris. However. Leiris’s exhortations on behalf of self-representation were not intended to be merely self-justificatory but conformed to his general convictions about the role of art in society. As regards the duty of the writer: Il resterait qu’il lui faut. se situant sur le plan intellectuel ou passionnel. He applauded the artist’s objective self-appraisal and his attempts at self-definition through portraiture (see Leiris. apporter des pièces à conviction au procès de notre actuel système de valeurs et peser. cultural and artistic demands with his own highly personal project. at the heart of this cultural upheaval. 198). 1940. similar pressures had helped to precipitate Picasso’s much talked about cessation of painting during 1935. they turned towards introspective self-examination. He was also preoccupied with how to reconcile contemporary political. As artists registered the dissolution of a once secure artistic identity.” Leiris was aware of the criticism he would receive regarding the apparent indulgent narcissism of his project and when he wrote the introductory essay to L’Âge d’Homme at the end of the Second World War. he sought to deflect such opinions. Leiris’s desire to make his work accessible to his reading public is revealed in his introductory essay “de lui faire découvrir en lui-même quelque chose d’homophone à ce fond qui m’était découvert. certes. 24). Mais n’est ce pas dans le moment même que tout est remis en question qu’on . A social realist agenda demanded not just a politically engaged art but also one that was accessible and in touch with reality.
200-201). if not more. serving as the link between self and the world. therefore. He describes Masson’s self-portraits as a mirror offered up to the artist’s conscience where the processes of consciousness itself are reflected. he envisages him as a matador. 1940. scrutant ses souvenirs avec le maximum d’honnêteté. Masson was the peintre-matador who incarnated the definition of tauromachic art. who in place of the painter’s palette and brush wields a cape and sword (see Leiris. il apparaît désirable que chacun. In his criticism. He saw them as establishing an intrinsic relation between the process of introspection and the external circumstances which prompted it. Leiris appreciated particularly in Masson’s portraits. 100). Leiris’s criticism reveals more about the critic. his preference for certain artists’ work over others. examine s’il n’y peut découvrir quelque indice lui permettant de discerner quelle couleur a pour lui la notion même de sacré (Leiris. Although Masson does not seem to have credited his self-portraits with any heuristic function. than the artist of whom he speaks. He looked to visual art not merely for the justification of his own likes and dislikes.1989. . If Leiris’s undertaking was to a great degree a quest for self-knowledge and self-definition. about his creative intentions and ambitions than does his self-commentary in his journals and critical essays. his exploration of the relationship between freedom and servitude as they are expressed in the referential space – the balance between reality and invention. For Leiris.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre éprouve. Leiris sought in Masson’s work the reflection and expression of his own artistic ambitions. it was also a search for the origin of artistic vocation: Si tant est que l’un des buts les plus ‘sacrés’ qu’un homme puisse se proposer soit d’acquérir une connaissance de soi aussi précise et intense que possible. In doing so. 1968. 53 In this perspective. his desires and intentions. le besoin de faire le point en soi-même (Leiris. he established a pattern that was to characterize his art criticism for the rest of his life. 74). Masson’s self-portraits become symbolic of Leiris’s own autobiographical project. avec le plus d’urgence. His art criticism reveals as much. Typically. Leiris regarded them as the mise en abyme of his entire oeuvre. but also for inspiration – for a surge of energy that remotivated his own work. le soi et le réel.
the memory of an incident will ‘make sense’ in the light of a network of associations uncovered (or supplied) in the work of analysis. Michael Sheringham has highlighted the similarity between Leiris’s narrative method and Freud’s case-histories: If. theoretical essays based on personal experience. The relevance of his anecdotes is tied to their structural position within the network of themes.33. 230).54 The Body as Medium and Metaphor The significance of le sacré and its consequences for L’Âge d’Homme will be explored in a later section.8. or thematically grouped anecdotes (see Journal. for Leiris it is the process of textual construction which engenders meaning. episodes from his life. Memory assumes a constituent importance for the work of art. L’Âge d’Homme proceeds not so much through causal development but rather by associations engendered by memories which bring to the fore a principle of discontinuous narration and thus highlight contrasts. Leiris uses a technique of thematic layering. Of L’Âge d’Homme. 1993. he imposed his tauromachic code – an undertaking to remain as objective and truthful to his past as possible. Leiris conceived L’Âge d’Homme not just as a work of art but also as a form of therapy. It is with this reader that Leiris establishes his dialogue in the prefatory essay. for Freud. Autobiography as Dialogue: Transaction or Transference? In L’Âge d’Homme. However. He envisaged a form of confessional literature. and therefore remain virtual and unofficial: it is for the reader to collaborate in the work of analysis (Sheringham. Leiris writes in his Journal that no other form of literature was possible for him at the time. in Leiris they are largely a function of the interplay of themes and structures. 24. In Freud. cathartic confession would not suffice for Leiris’s self-examination. 129). He wanted his friends to regard his autobiographical project as a form . In order to confer an artistic status upon his endeavours. meanings are assigned by the analyst. setting up frames within frames to create a context where minor incidents accumulate manifold meanings. for example. Such an undertaking requires the indulgence of an attentive reader. chapters and sub-texts. This produces a narrative whose progression is often grounded in antithesis.
The thematic structure of the book groups images that are linked through association rather than linear temporality. to paint a self-portrait that is apparently as objective as possible. Whereas these might be revealed during the act of transference in the psychoanalyst’s room. as his confessions would alter the way in which others perceived him. not complacency. Leiris seeks to provide neither interpretations nor explanations for the memories. certaines choses encore obscures sur lesquelles la psychanalyse.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 55 of liquidation. avait éveillé mon attention quand je l’avais expérimenté comme patient (p.36. leaves him vulnerable to interpretation and appropriation. 298). To claim. He hoped they would understand that the reason for his detailed and unflattering self-portrait was severity. Leiris’s desire to confess. Like the patient on the couch. élucider. Leiris chooses a method of revelation that is dependant upon the transaction between himself and the reader. that otherness is inscribed within the self is to assert that the subject is divided from the outset. It is first and foremost: Acte par rapport à moi-même puisque j’entendais bien. sans les rendre tout à fait claires.” One of the aims of Leiris’s autobiographical writing is therefore concurrent with the aims of psychoanalysis – to elucidate and identify repressed or suppressed aspects of his identity. He invites the reader to make associative links by the way in which the related incidents arise not in the course of a chronological narrative but through the thematic structure. The art of the self-portraitist and the art of the analyst initially appear to be . dreams and images that he relates. le rédigeant. 14). 7. and finally. as psychoanalysis does.1. To speak of Lejeune’s pacte autobiographique as that of a transaction between writer and reader is to insist upon the constitutive role of an intersubjective relation between self and other in generating identity. His awareness of this is revealed in the second act: “Acte par rapport à autrui. He describes it further as an act in relation to others. it represents his desire to break with or disassociate himself from the past (see Journal. grâce à cette formulation même. The subject is neither identical with itself nor with the imaginary portrait that the reader paints of the writing subject. as a literary act. Leiris’s explicit reference to L’Âge d’Homme as an exercise undertaken as a type of therapy forms a part of the three-fold act that is his autobiography.
4 However. the photographs of his aunt) Leiris reconstructs them in the narrator’s memory. Thus an autobiographical text becomes autobiography only in its transit through telling – highlighting the constitutive role played by the reader in the relationship. the notion of self-representation as a transaction implies a parallel with the psychoanalytic situation of transference. as we have seen. Ecrits (1966). Lacan consigns portraiture to the realm of the Imaginary.56 The Body as Medium and Metaphor diametrically opposed. and in which the autobiography takes form. for example. which only serve to further alienate the subject in an imaginary construct. a reconstruction of images in which the reader necessarily colludes.5 Lejeune’s relationship of trust recalls Derrida’s notion of otobiographie. he is fully aware of their power to frame and objectify. the recursive image on the tin of cocoa that reveals to him the mystery of infinity. 42. the pictures in journals and textbooks that contribute to his 4 5 See Lacan. and consequently. Bruss (1976) Eakin (1985) or Lejeune (1975). Derrida posits the ear of the Other as the place into which the autobiography is told. The transaction – transference analogy diverts attention away from the illusory unity of the ego and towards the more malleable concept of a subject-in-process. According to Lacan. Numerous scholars of autobiography have charted the ways in which the reader enters into such a relationship. Instead of reproducing the images which haunt him (the schoolbook illustrations. confident that the autobiographer’s tale will have relevance as well as referentiality. p. for example. with the autobiographer. ego psychology is misguided in its attempts to strengthen the ego defences. The art of the portraitist and analyst are thus pitted against one another in Lacan’s campaign against ego psychology. is that of a relationship that the reader enters into with the text. Leiris describes the power that images hold for him in the prologue as he sets out the metaphysics of his childhood. See. A Visual Memory As Leiris’s description of and references to images reveal. and refers to it only as a regrettable instance of those static imagos in which the subject seeks to alienate its desire. . Lejeune’s concept of le pacte autobiographique. therefore he attempts to resist photographic stasis in his writing.
. maturity and death. Rather than presenting an incomplete framework. In retrospect. he later admits. to grasp abstract concepts. This particular passage . that having presented the reader with a gallery of childhood recollections: Je n’attache pas une importance outrancière à ces souvenirs échelonnés sur divers stades de mon enfance. I contend that Leiris explodes the limitations of the temporal frame as the past confronts the present in the realm of subjective experience. Leiris explains the formative images of his childhood as due to the inability. le hasard doit apparaître dominé. the image on the cocoa tin also becomes a mise en abyme of Leiris’s autobiographical oeuvre: representative of the open-endedness of the quest for identity.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 57 understanding of ageing. retrospective gathering up of that past-in-becoming into this present-in-being” (Olney. the need to visualize these ideas in order to comprehend them. he associates the soul with a bauble or a trinket.. 1980. Through his associative method. théâtralement. he explains this association as his firm belief as a boy in the substantial existence of his soul that he could only imagine as something solid and identifiable (p. 31). parce qu’ils sont le cadre – ou des fragments du cadre – dans lequel tout le reste s’est logé (p. mais il est d’une certaine utilité pour moi de les rassembler ici en cet instant. Leiris expresses the desire. in laying down his tauromachic code. for instance. 241). This runs the risk of breaking the rigidly imposed stylistic framework of the narrative. 40-1).” However. common to most children. his metaphysics. for a “cadre rigide imposé à une action où. The emotional intensity with which Leiris reconstructs such images opens up the possibility for his subjective re-entry into the objectified past. 38). Visual memories from childhood reveal to Leiris certain mysteries of life and serve to shape his views.] it can be imagined also as the reflective. of the image that formed his notion of suicide: “cette association s’est tellement ancrée dans mon esprit qu’aujourd’hui encore je ne puis écrire le mot SUICIDE sans revoir le radjah dans son décor de flammes” (p. For example. So deeply ingrained in his memory are these images that he writes. James Olney reminds us that the integration of past and present represents a hallmark of autobiographical narrative: “Memory can be imagined as the narrative course of the past becoming present and [.
oral and sensual connotations that it holds for him: Il y a l’S dont la forme autant que le sifflement me rappelle. Confession. yet as L’Âge d’Homme reveals..58 The Body as Medium and Metaphor also reveals the extent to which these visual memories are synaesthetic. and consequently autobiography. The very word suicide is broken down by Leiris to expose the visual. un certain nombre de choses dont le poids m’oppressait. d’abord simple confession basée sur le tableau de Cranach et dont le but était de liquider. en les formulant. When we locate the pressure to tell the truth in the context of the fictive self that is accountable for producing the truth. U I. C I D E. The sense of the word is contained in the shape of the syllables and the experience of memory which it gives rise to. it is never as simple to confess as one might expect. most contemporary critics describe this self as a fiction. 41). qui intervient enfin pour tout conclure. The relational nature of the autobiographical pact depends on the authorization of the reader and the trust that the reader places in the “truth” of the autobiography. Leiris’s account of his childhood metaphysics and the catalogue of images which gave rise to them serves as an introduction to the image which he claims inspired L’Âge d’Homme: Cranach’s painting of Judith and Lucretia: De ces deux créatures – auxquelles j’ai attaché. comme le fusement du feu ou les angles à peine mousses d’un éclair congelé. mais la sinusoïdalité de la lame. is of a relational nature. Leiris perceives certain truths relating to his sense of identity within the Cranach painting.] Et de là m’est venu l’idée d’écrire ces pages. un sens allégorique – il y a quelques années la vue m’a bouleversé [. qui vibre curieusement et s’insinue. ensuite raccourci de mémoires.. vue panoramique de tout l’aspect de ma vie (p. This external representation gives the reader an opportunity to locate the “truth” of . Because the subject of autobiography is a self-representation and not the autobiographer himself. si l’on peut dire. arbitrairement peut-être. avec son goût acide impliquant quelque chose d’incisif et d’aiguisé (p. non seulement la torsion du corps près de tomber. the problematical alliance between fact and fiction in autobiography begins to emerge. 31). Leiris’s impulse to write a “confession” confirms his desire to write the truth.
il s’efforce de traduire la relation concrète que nous avons avec lui et implique donc une large part de subjectivité! ce que je nomme la ‘présence’ n’est peut-être pas autre chose que la capacité que cet objet d’art plastique ou d’écriture a de faire sentir avec force. to bring it into his own sphere of experience in an act of interpretative appropriation. with the failure of interpretation to appropriate the art-object itself. Leiris’s reading of the Cranach painting is a highly subjective one and is located in the eroticism of the image. The experience of difference is not only ever-present but also elusive and unlocatable. Loin de rejeter celui-ci dans la froideur d’une prétendue objectivité. As s/he interprets. . the work of art confronts the spectator and the reader with difference. Leiris’s transcription of Cranach’s painting. as in the work of his favourite artists. Leiris forms his relationship to the painting through what he perceives as the reality of the image as it relates to him: Le réalisme artistique ou littéraire ne ‘chosifie’ pas ce que de nos jours on appellerait le référent. the subject engaged in the process of remembering.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 59 Leiris’s subjectivity within a pre-existing material image. It is the authorization as well as the catalyst for the confession to follow.82. par le spectateur ou le lecteur. is his attempt to subsume the difference of the picture. there is a constant oscillation between form and formation. 23. 751). from the spatial sense of pictorial imagery into the temporal process of a written text. but is simultaneously bound by self-imposed rules of form and style. In Leiris’s writing. l’existence d’une telle relation entre l’auteur et son référent (Journal. it is caught in the dialectic of tradition and innovation and this tension remains unresolved. As his life becomes literature. He draws our attention to the process of writing. This passage not only reveals the nature of the relationship between Leiris and the painting but also what he perceives to exist between Cranach and his painting (thereby. the interpreter is confronted with a repeated failure and a continual desire to take possession of otherness and difference. In its production as well as in its consumption.1. also implicating Leiris’s relation to his own writing).
telle la virilité inexorable du violeur quand elle était entrée de force dans l’orifice béant déjà entre ses cuisses. Judith. qui pend. quelques gouttes de sang. entre deux seins merveilleusement durs et ronds (dont les pointes semblent aussi rigides que des pierres ornant au même endroit un gorgerin ou une cuirasse). doigts et cheveux mêlés pour une atroce union. possessing more masculine than feminine attributes. Devoid of feminine charm. – Judith placide et ne paraissant déjà plus songer à la boule barbue qu’elle tient à la main comme un bourgeon phallique qu’elle aurait pu couper rien qu’en serrant ses basses lèvres au moment où les écluses d’Holopherne s’ouvraient ou encore que. dont le froid autour de son cou voluptueux rappelle celui du glaive près de ses pieds. parée d’un collier aussi lourd qu’une chaîne de bagnard. du fin fond de Lucrèce pâmée ou expirante. un flot de sang. his use of adjectives evokes monsters of nature. – Judith. The act of penetration. douce plaie rose qui peu d’instants après restituait la libation à pleines gorgées. allusion and analogy. par un geste pareil.60 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Projecting Identity It is worth considering Leiris’s descriptions of Judith and Lucretia in some detail: la première. His . 142-3). et s’apprêtant à annuler l’effet du viol qu’elle a subi. à la main gauche de l’héroïne.” Far from an objective transcription of the painting. likens her to the instrument of death that she holds in her hand. Both descriptions reveal the horrified fascination with which Leiris perceives the two women. plus méchante aussi. lends a rhythm to the description that climaxes with the “flot de sang. ogresse en plein délire. her breasts described as hard and round. like the thrust of the dagger. la seconde. Lucrèce. elle aurait détaché du gros membre de l’homme aviné (et peut-être vomissant) d’un soudain coup de dents (pp. á la main droite une épée nue comme elle. comme le don le plus intime pointe à l’extremité d’un sexe. Leiris’s art appreciation comes closer to that of Baudelaire’s in its evocation of images. débris sinistre. no beguiling curves. mais peut-être encore plus enivrante – faite par le poignard laisserait jaillir. appuyant au centre de sa blanche poitrine. celui qui enfoncera dans une chaude gaine de chair et pour une mort sanglante l’arme bandée au maximum. la lame effilée d’un poignard au but duquel perlent déjà. exactement de même que la blessure – plus profonde. The first description of Lucretia. dont la pointe meurtrit le sol à très peu de distance de ses orteils menus et dont la lame très large et très solide vient de trancher la tête d’Holopherne.
This recurring comparison is first drawn at the conclusion of the prologue when Leiris describes himself as Holofernes. She is an “ogresse en plein délire” whose nudity. is infinitely more menacing than seductive. Similarly. Leiris imaginatively recreates and anticipates the past and future of the static image. compared to the sword she holds. the description of Judith recreates a woman whose deeds render her. a quest for an intensity experienced within the act of writing itself. lying at the feet of his idols. This is shortly followed by Leiris likening himself to Holofernes. the hero.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 61 subjective input is evident in the adjectives. perhaps vomiting victim. perhaps. unintended by the artist. such as sensual adjectives. He indicates that the subject of his autobiography could be summarized as how the hero. that the medium of paint cannot convey and that were. Leiris’s imaginative re-creation of the painting’s history involves the participation of Holofernes – a drunken. what is significant is how this parallel. Leiris’s self-exploration is always in part an extension of his Surrealist nominalism. barely human. This is also reflected within his art criticism. allows Leiris’s subjective entry into the painting that is the source of his inspiration. in Leiris’s eyes. Again. Leiris acknowledges his subjective interpretation of Cranach’s painting when he writes that his description leaves the women even more naked than they appear to be in the painting. re-animating the petrified heroine with the projective force of his imagination and lending attributes to the picture. similes and metaphors: the drops of blood on the tip of the dagger are like the gift “à l’extremité d’un sexe. graduates. Leiris’s use of adjectives reveals the multisensual nature of his pictorial appreciation: the necklace Judith wears is both heavy and cold. 42). and how this characterizes his emotional re-creation of visual memories throughout the book. with the inevitable mishaps. established from the outset. The psychoanalytic implications of Leiris’s identification with Holofernes have been commented on by previous critics and do not concern me here.” the stiffness of the dagger is the same as “la virilité inexorable du violeur. The horror of the act she has perpetrated is accentuated by the apparent nonchalance with which she holds the bloody head in her left hand. from the miraculous chaos of childhood to the ferocious virility of manhood (p. he .” In drawing this parallel between the act of rape and the act of suicide. Holofernes.
Leiris defines what it is he admires in Giacometti’s sculpture: Il n’y a cependant rien de mort dans cette sculpture. tout y est au contraire. The notion of an intersubjective relation between subject and object. Leiris seeks an art that appears to reconcile the objective or external expression of subjective longing with the evocation of that longing in the viewer. It is such a role that Cranach’s painting plays in L’Âge d’Homme.62 The Body as Medium and Metaphor admires artists who he feels share his aesthetic quest – the moment of tauromachic truth. Les Champs Magnétiques created by André Breton and Philippe Soupault writing in tandem with each other. c’est-à-dire ceux qui nous ressemblent et sont la forme objectivée de notre désir). prodigieusement vivant. As a Surrealist. where the technique of automatic writing was understood as fracturing an illusory unity of the self. tendre sphinx qu’on nourrit toujours. he was aware of the intersubjective components in the formation of identity. whether it be another or the self. au centre de soi-même (Leiris. 1929. comme des vrais fétiches qu’on peut idolâtrer (les vrais fétiches. confrontation with the self. The parenthetical explanation reveals what Leiris seeks in the art he admires – an objective expression of his own subjective desires. Portraiture sets up a perpetual oscillation between observer and observed. creates a representation that combines the dual positions of passivity and activity. prevents him from seeking to create the consoling fiction of an autonomous ego. The artist and his or her subject. – d’une vie gracieuse et fortement teintée d’humeur. Leiris was aware of the apparent heterogeneity of the self that écriture automatique was intended to reveal.6 Leiris’s knowledge of psychoanalysis combined with his experience of Surrealism. In an article of 1929. as a veteran of psychoanalysis. . The collaborative or interactive nature of the relation between analyst and analysand is reflected in the dialogic nature of Surrealist enterprises. makes possible the conceptualization of an interactive relationship – an oscillation that might eventually conflate subject and object. belle expression de cette ambivalence sentimentale. a drive against the void. artist and sitter. 6 At the origin of the Surrealist movement is a collection of automatic texts. plus ou moins secrètement. 210).
his desire to render his experiences present to the reader. de la forme et du fond mais. including himself. but unlike the automatic writing of his colleagues. discontinuity and disruption which Leiris retrospectively described as his règle tauromachique lead to a certain symbiosis of style and content: “Identité. Leiris’s subjectivity manifests itself for the reader through a series of provisional self-portraits. memories. this description of his technique is deceptively simple. It does nevertheless confirm Leiris’s desire for an impression of spontaneity. must be broken down and along with it. The onus lies with the reader to reconstitute both the self-image and the identity of the writer. . which the term “identity” presupposes. As I have observed. whether real or contrived. Leiris already subjected his writing to a “souci compositionnel. a common desire for a certain formal discipline where the work of imagination had to be dominated by formal beauty (see Leiris. Leiris realizes that the intimacy with one’s self. However. belying the stylistic rigour that Leiris brought to his writing. dreams and extracts. 21). Although Leiris rapidly disassociated himself from the Surrealist group. the cohesiveness of the self-image. plus exactement. Perhaps the most significant of these influences for the imagistic narrative of L’Âge d’Homme is that of the dream. his preoccupation with the unconscious and dreams. To create an “authentic” self-portrait. Such a specular subject belongs to the Lacanian order of the Imaginary. 1992. The Frame and le Sacré In the writing Leiris contributed to the Surrealist reviews is evidence of his Surrealist convictions. Lacan contends that formal stagnation marks all the portraits that the subject produces of itself in the Imaginary. for example. As a “photomontage” of images.” Leiris identified amongst those Surrealists who were to group around André Masson. si l’on y tient. Leiris’s technique of fragmentation undoes the tradition of self-representation within autobiography that attempts to represent the subject as a coherent entity. 219-229). The task of the analyst is to erase these false icons and to suspend the subject’s certainties.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 63 The techniques of thematic association. the impact of Surrealist techniques left their mark upon his work. démarche unique me révélant le fond à mesure que je lui donnais forme” (p.
which was for him. 19-20). Leiris tried constantly to define this sense of the instant. Il ne faut pas permettre que le rêve devienne le jumeau du poème en prose. mais en ayant omis de charger l’appareil de sa pellicule” (Barthes. the dialectic between tradition and innovation. . primarily pictorial. “le flash du haïku n’éclaire. ne révèle rien. In his journal. they represented the possibility for creating another separate. 1980. characterizes Leiris’s own writing.77. sans doute est-ce à cela que répond l’oeuvre entier de Bacon [. 186). Une Vague de Rêves (1924). According to Barthes. l’inemployable. Leiris celebrates paintings that seem to achieve what frustrates him as a writer – the possibility of 7 See Aragon.7. 30. tension [. but above all. voilà ce qu’il s’agit de défendre contre une nouvelle rage de ronds de cuir qui va se déchaîner. Leiris exalts above all the painter’s ability not only to be present (présent) but also to be contemporary (actuel): Recherche plus ou moins expresse d’un comble de tension. that it exists (see Journal.] entre tradition et modernité [. of presence.7 Similarly. 113).. le cousin du bafouillage ou le beau-frère du haï-kaï (Aragon. self-contained moment of reality. it could be contested that it was precisely the similarity between the dream and what Barthes has identified in the haiku that fascinated Leiris. In Bacon’s painting. Aragon was later to highlight the use of the dream for the Surrealists: La pureté du rêve.. the dream represented an instant of involuntary poetry – it was at the basis of Aragon’s artistic convictions. he describes this sense as présence and claims that whatever it is that is imbued with this quality does not need to signify anything. This very same tension.] de sorte que l’on pourrait croire le peintre avait – spontanément – fait sienne la phrase de Baudelaire assurant qu’un moitié de l’art est ‘l’éternel et l’immuable’ et l’autre la modernité ‘soit le transitoire. le fugitif. However. il est celui d’une photographie que l’on prendrait très soigneusement.64 The Body as Medium and Metaphor For the Surrealists.] Sur le plan thématique. 682).. l’inutile du rêve. for Leiris. it is sufficient that it is there. 1989.. le contingent’ (Leiris. The haiku for Barthes represents what the dream comes to represent for Leiris – a fleeting evocation of an authentic.. 1980.. autonomous reality. dreams were a source of imagery and escape.
to whose influence Leiris attributes his allusive and metaphorical writing style (p. 44). For Leiris. a space of animation that calls reality into question. pp. symbolizes a link. a bridge between illusion and reality. “lieu de la mort feinte” (Leiris. claiming for them a quality of authenticity that does not lie in any naturalism or rationalism but rather in their air of urgency or inevitability: “le tout est qu’il y ait nécessité” (Journal. 27. Paris. some visual art. seemed to mirror Leiris’s indefatigable and eternal pursuit of the réel and he claimed that Giacometti’s figures constituted an acte de présence. . sleeping and waking. the theatre. 1975. It is this stylistic influence. This is to be perceived not in the product but in the process of creation. Therefore these ideas held significant thematic implications for Leiris’s writing but they also held stylistic significance – representing the ability to escape a pre-ordained order. In his Journal. rather than its interpretation.12. allowing for disruption and discontinuity. The canvas or sculpture is never simply a blank screen across which images are projected but is above all a dynamic space. see Lejeune “Rêve et autobiographie” in Lire Leiris Autobiographie et Langage. 295). Giacometti’s sculpture. in particular. like the dream. Klincksieck. 44). 91-100.8 It was in the attempt to situate his writing outside the traditional concepts of space and time. Leiris’s chosen artists describe their relationship to their subject. “peupler le vide. placed as it is outside the continuum of the everyday.” Rendering reality for Leiris never involved a copy but rather a transmutation. comes to represent disruption and discontinuity.35.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 65 cancelling out absence. This relationship cannot be resolved in the past (of the subject) but only in the present (of the creation). On the margins of the quotidian. that interests me here. art is primarily a matter of authenticity and not representation – the trap to avoid is that of narrative. the dream or the work of art became a screen upon which were played out his fears about mortality and death. Like the stage of the theatre. to liberate it from the chronological transcription of the 8 For discussion of the relevance of the dream to Leiris’s autobiography. 1955. he writes about Picasso’s paintings. the work of art should express a new temporality – that of the instant. Thus for Leiris. Similarly. connected to Leiris’s use of imagery.
Leiris uses his past and his past personae in order to elaborate a new.” that Leiris turned to his Surrealist legacy. The act of cutting off an ear is compared with mutilations carried out in initiatory and other rites. Leiris’s type of associative or projective identification is the reverse of this: it becomes a forceful projection of the Subject outside of himself. Bataille argues that Van Gogh’s self-mutilation. published in Documents. Identification is usually conceived of as a process of incorporation. He contends that our lives are impoverished by the dominance of our instincts of self-preservation.” Bataille’s theory of le sacré which he evolved with Leiris derives from salient features of the visionary ideals of Surrealism: the rupture of the ego boundaries.66 The Body as Medium and Metaphor quotidian. During the 1930s. Leiris seems to have shared this scorn for bourgeois self-preservation. thus making the autobio- 9 For discussion of the concept of identification in psychoanalysis. becoming Other. was no less the expression of a social function. in spite of its basis in mental illness. Leiris’s dedication in L’Âge d’Homme acknowledges a debt of gratitude to another Surrealist dissident: “A Georges Bataille. in his account of masochism – slashing his body during his unsatisfactory love affair with Kay – but more importantly and more profoundly. .9 Object and Subject L’Âge d’Homme is purgatorial rather than redemptive. according to Bataille can only hope to achieve an incandescent intensity when it puts itself at risk. qui est à l’origine de ce livre. burns and consumes itself. and lacks a clear end-point. Through his projective identifications with Judith. present self. Leiris is able to become Other. the desire to rupture is expressed symbolically and stylistically. analogous to the physical ingestion of an object. the sacrifice of oneself. Life. where “le singulier devenu fragment de pluriel. literally. or introjection. see Laplanche and Pontalis Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse (1973). This argument is demonstrated in Bataille’s essay on Van Gogh. Lucretia and the decapitated Holofernes. both are said to spring from a desire to rupture limited being. 1930. Bataille returned repeatedly to the theme of loss over and against the modern norms of utility and conservation.
entretenant avec ceux à l’affection ou à l’estime desquels j’attachais du prix des relations désormais sans tricherie (p. . devait avoir une vieille robe de chambre passée sur sa chemise de nuit et sa natte pendant long dans son dos” (p. 65). .Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 67 graphical process a basis for future transfiguration of the self. Leiris recalls the text to its initial point of departure and closes the frame with his mother: “Ma mère.” Leiris frames the story of his sickness with the memory of his mother looking like a Roman matron. The fragmentation of the text. “Antiquité. The extent to which Leiris succeeds in conveying an impression of spontaneity and discontinuity is relative. For example. breaks up and offsets the imposition of a monolithic identity. layer upon layer. related in the past tense and overlaid by interjections from the narrator as to how the memory still holds true in the present. of how Leiris and his brother played with the stove before which he now sits.] de tout avouer pour partir sur de nouvelles bases. en m’aidant à prendre conscience. The significance of this transformation is stylistic in as much as Leiris plays down the gap between past protagonist and present writer by representing the past only as it is reconstructed in the act and process of writing. l’image d’elle qui me vient le plus fréquemment. in the section entitled “Le Génie du Foyer.] Envie [. 67). In such a manner. en chemise de nuit – une longue chemise de nuit blanche – et natte dans le dos” (p. Finally. The memory then develops.” He introduces the anecdote with his most familiar memory of his mother: “Quand je pense à ma mère. Although this sentence does not . brought to mind by the unfolding narrative. Leiris hopes that his autobiography: Me modifiât. The memory has been inspired by Leiris’s thoughts on classical themes. 14-5). the mechanics of memory unfold. c’est telle que je la voyais alors. Autobiography thus becomes the site of the formation of subjectivity through writing and the locus of the confrontation between a fragmentary self and a multivocal text. et qu’elle introduisît également un élément nouveau dans mes rapports avec autrui [. . Leiris controls the image-making process and attenuates the potential spell-binding fixity of self-images. Through writing. the multiplicity of the images. his visual memories are as carefully framed in the text as any of the static visual images to which he makes reference. très petite. The anecdote in question is postponed by yet another memory. .
on each occasion imbued with different layers of meaning. In the section “Mon frère ami. The interplay between object and subject positions is an integral point of exploration in autobiography where the self as subject gazes at the self as object. On the cliffs of Sainte-Adresse. the near repetitive use of vocabulary. At the same time. At the time. besides its relevance to the appearance of women from antiquity. the pity he felt for their poverty and the fear he imagined in anticipation of their possible fall. reveals to him how an involuntary subjective response to external events indicates the interaction of interior and exterior worlds: Je notai du moins une coïncidence.68 The Body as Medium and Metaphor conclude the section. later he recalls the emotions he experienced upon seeing the children and remembers the empathetic sensation of pleasure and pain of the children’s bare feet against the bark. followed as it is with a description of his father. Leiris observes a studious schoolboy walking with his brother and mother. impliquant un parallélisme entre deux séries de faits: ce qui se passait dans mon corps. provides a precise visual frame to the anecdote. The account of his first erection. Such moments of intense revelation constitute for Leiris the expression of a tauromachic truth – an interruption of consciousness. et les événements extérieurs. The initial account of his sexual awakening is interpreted as this intuition of the division between subject and object and the extent to which the self is formed through its responses to the external world. This memory recurs several times in the narrative.” Leiris describes such a moment of truth resulting from a simultaneous experience of positive and negative identification. “Le sujet et l’objet” forms one of the sections outlining Leiris’s childhood metaphysics. the clanging of a solitary buoy reminds him of a young prostitute he had met the previous evening: . dont je n’avais jusqu’alors jamais tenu compte en tant que se déroulant dans un milieu réellement séparé (p. which brings him face to face with himself in a heightened awareness of the present instant. experienced during a family walk when he sees poor children climbing trees barefooted. Leiris makes no connection between the scene he witnesses and his erection. 40).
This juxtaposition of narcissistic self-reflection and exterior vision is channelled into a feeling of pity which Leiris (relating back to the occasion of his first erection) expresses as an experience of sexual desire: “Revenu en ville. a mis fin à ses jours. According to Leiris. particularly his inability to surmount the fears and scruples which impede his devotion to the poetic intensity and authenticity he craves” (Sheringham. ce . demandant simplement qu’on l’entende et qu’on ait assez de courage pour s’y dévouer tout entier (p. Sheringham interprets this scene as confronting Leiris “with a mise en scène of his inadequacies. reine d’Egypte. je m’identifiai à lui [the schoolboy] – de par mon incapacité à mépriser certaines contingences matérielles telles que le confort – à des travaux scientifiques que je juge mesquins. 69 This experience of identification brings Leiris to a sudden awakening of consciousness. 128). qui crie tout seul [the buoy he associates with the prostitute].. sujet et l’objet.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre Dans une certaine mesure. and his admiration for the authenticity he perceives in the hardship of the prostitute’s existence. mâle et femelle. je suis frappé par le contacte de ces deux éléments: d’une part le serpent meutrier. provoked by his despised life as fonctionnaire. 1993. The death of Cleopatra represents to Leiris a kind of symbolic union of the Lucretia and Judith prototypes: Examinant les conditions dans lesquelles Cléopâtre. pour coucher avec la prostituée. et sans doute ai-je eu tort” (p. Sheringham’s exposition of the scene fails to observe that while Leiris’s projective identifications lead to the inevitable introspective self-examination. symbole mâle par excellence. j’eus un moment l’idée de retourner ‘à la maison close. – d’autre part les figues sous lesquelles il est dissimulé. image courante de l’organe féminin [. 128). tandis qu’au coeur du monde comme au large de cette crique il y a quelque chose de si brûlant qui délire. Je ne le fis pas.] je ne puis m’empêcher de noter avec quelle exactitude cette rencontre de symboles répond à ce qui est pour moi le sens profond du suicide: devenir à la fois soi et l’autre. they also turn his thoughts beyond himself and to the insights he has gained into the life of the prostitute.. Such a sexual union would perhaps have accorded Leiris the means with which to reconcile the opposition he senses: his self-pity. 133). the divide between object and subject can be traversed only in the act of sexual union or in suicide.
11 The pervasive presence of death in the sphere of self-representation is a theme that I shall elaborate upon with reference particularly to Francis Bacon and Gisèle Prassinos. à cause de la déroute de toutes les facultés qu’il implique et de son caractère de retour momentané au chaos. the inseparability of eros and thanatos. through a certain symbiosis of style and content. 87). Barthes maintains that death is omnipresent in the sphere of self-representation. La tristesse bien connu d’après le coït tient à ce même vertige inhérent à toute crise non dénouée. The annihilation of the self that is inherent to the notion of jouissance makes explicit the association between orgasm (jouir) and death. puisque dans l’aventure sexuelle comme dans la mort le point culminant de cette crise s’accompagne d’une perte de conscience. au moins partielle dans le premier cas (p. Barthes connects the representation of the body in photography with death. The implication of the dissolution of gender barriers (as well as the division between object and subject) in an act of absolute love or suicide. through both his I shall explore this concept further in relation to a multivocal text in my study of Gisèle Prassinos.70 The Body as Medium and Metaphor qui est tué et ce qui tue. dont on n’a jamais à proprement parler conscience. 35). the act of reading (like the act of love or suicide) comes to imply the dissolution of the subject/object divide.10 Textual Crises The theme of death. Jouissance appears essentially as an interruption of consciousness that shatters the static mirror world of the Imaginary (see also chapter 4. attraction and revulsion it inspires in Leiris. – seule possibilité de communion avec soi-même (p. page 138). 10 . seeks to suspend the reader’s sense of self as a unified subject (just as the author seems to elude definition). 141-2). particularly in the visual art of photography. therefore.11 This idea is present in Leiris’s vision of himself petrified and framed in the wooden oblong of an old daguerreotype (p. Leiris’s text. recalls Barthes’s notion of jouissance. aligning with Leiris’s concept of suicide: On peut dire que la crise de la mort est en analogie avec le spasme. is a recurrent one in L’Âge d’Homme. the fear and loathing.
the subject has no control over how others perceive it (this relates back to the fears expressed in Leiris’s prologue: his concerns about others’ misinterpretation of his intentions). 1984. that the text remains a rhetorical genre open to interpretation and therefore unable to guarantee the dispersion of the Subject (see also chapter 4.] deprives and disfigures to the precise extent that it restores” (de Man. A theatrical performance. Autobiographers do not write primarily for themselves. as it is always already a mask. photography has the capacity to impart to its subjects a mask-like fixity and the immobility of this mask represents death in person. The accumulation of anecdotes and the juxtaposition of memories and images dissolve the self into the Symbolic text. Similarly. . and the restoration of mortality by autobiography [. attempts to avoid this petrifaction. Leiris is aware and desirous of the possible therapeutic value of the autobiographical process but he still determines to challenge and confront his reader. the importance of the reader’s role in the autobiographical process is in no doubt. which permeates L’Âge d’Homme. Leiris’s autobiographical act corresponds to the theme of the theatre and the corrida. for de Man. a three-part act. However. the Subject is always already dead to itself. Photography embodies the illusion of le stade du miroir. The triumph of the Symbolic over the Imaginary. To experience the process by which the Subject becomes Object is to undergo a kind of mini-death. . evading the coalescence of the Imaginary. Leiris is aware. or the Imaginary over the Symbolic. the insistence upon the past reality of the object reveals a kind of punctum. However the body appears. Simultaneously. In the light of reader-response theory and Lejeune’s discussion of le pacte autobiographique. like any act (as I shall demonstrate in my final study of the performances of Orlan) requires . the lack of any material likenesses. The fragmentation and discontinuity of Leiris’s text. in the case of L’Âge d’Homme. Autobiography constitutes a kind of act. as he indicates in his prologue (“Acte par rapport à autrui”). death presides in autobiography: “Death is a misplaced name for a linguistic predicament. page 138). which may itself be in the past. Through the studium. The attestation of the past reality of a human being is also an attestation of their death at some future time. 70).Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 71 definition of the studium and the punctum. is dependent upon the reader’s interaction with the text.
wonders whether his associative method. They alert the reader to the fallibility of the autobiographer and the fallibility of memory. and the moment in the present. What constitutes the crisis is the temporal abyss between the moment in the past. The nature of autobiography involves the constant intervention of the past into the present moment. The account of the incident on the cliffs of SainteAdresse provokes a crisis in the writing of the text and Leiris. words. performance and existence becomes blurred. memories. the memory of the sensation. Similar crises occur elsewhere in the text and serve a dual purpose that is both stylistic and thematic. or the extent to which a present perspective can be accurately brought to bear upon a personal history. he is confined to an imaginative reconstruction of the past in which the reader is invited to collaborate. 128). his linking of memories. the reality of a sensation: the fact of discontinuity. les thèmes que j’avais cru primitivement distinguer se révélant inconsistants et arbitraires. a radical revolution of temporality. the borderline between stage and audience. le plan que je m’étais tracé m’échappe et l’on dirait que plus je regarde en moi-même plus tout ce que je vois devient confus. They also reveal the latency of experience: the way in which Leiris relives the experience at the time of writing. in which connections must be established and out of which something must be created.72 The Body as Medium and Metaphor the complicity of the Other (reader/viewer). In Leiris’s narrative. This apparent crisis in the writing of the text makes the reader aware of the present act of textual construction. noting how far he has departed from his starting point. Moments of intense revelation experienced by Leiris in the past and recounted in the present reveal how the instance of recall still has the power to render him vulnerable to the very emotion he tries to capture in writing. In the act of reading. comme si ce classement n’était en fin de compte qu’une sorte de guide-âne abstrait. Therefore what . the engagement with material. 44). voire un simple procédé de composition esthétique (p. has deteriorated to become no more than a matter of style: A mesure que j’écris. this has particular relevance as Leiris presents his memories as the visual performance of his past. current preoccupations. He likens the distance from which he views his past to watching scenes in a theatre (p.
he declares himself willing. 1983. In order that L’Âge d’Homme conforms to Leiris’s self-imposed tauromachic code. which I have mentioned above. . Leiris admires the artists’ ability to disrupt a sense of continuity and to shatter the apparent homogeneity of the quotidian. like the matador. 1. he writes about Bacon’s style of prophetic realism (Journal. 81). The significance of le sacré is explored in the 1929 Giacometti article: Il y a des moments qu’on peut appeler des crises et qui sont les seuls qui importent dans une vie. où le monde extérieur s’ouvre pour qu’entre notre coeur et lui s’établisse une soudaine communication [. joute sanglante dans . Il s’agit des moments où le dehors semble brusquement répondre à la sommation que nous lui lançons du dedans. 46). Above all. He describes his autobiographical enterprise as an attempt to shape his life into a solid block as a means of warding off the threat of mortality. at the same time.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 73 incites Leiris’s narrative crises is not the simple fact of remembrance but the intensity that is latent within the process of remembering. to risk everything. As I have observed. the intensity of experience revealed by Leiris in L’Âge d’Homme is most often related to an interruption of the continuum of consciousness brought about by the unexpected collision of the object/subject. The entirety of Leiris’s art criticism is united by a few specific essential criteria. or the vision of this ideal experience. Leiris perceives this sort of risk in the art of André Masson: Point crucial de l’art: guerre inexpiable du créateur avec lui-même et du sujet avec l’objet. In his Journal. 1929. In the sculpture of Giacometti. to present a challenge not only to the reader but also to the author. 21. dichotomie féconde.’ et seules comptent les oeuvres qui en fournissent des équivalents (Leiris. the paintings of Picasso. He acknowledges the paradox of this attempt as. it has to involve the taking of risks.] La poésie ne peut se dégager que de telles ‘crises. and its relevance to Leiris’s work is defined in his notion of le sacré. I shall explore how Bacon achieves this sense of disruption in the following chapter. Masson and Bacon. The importance of this experience. It is this sense of reality that Leiris seeks to convey by imposing his tauromachic code in an effort to communicate a truth that is as objective as possible. 209). the trait Leiris exalts in his art criticism is realism: “ce qu’est au vrai notre condition propre” (Leiris. .
trying to envisage and read the self from a distance imposed by the passage of time. remains an exertion of control over self-image. the reading of images from the past – be they fixed in an external materiality. like the dreams. the autobiographer must also stand apart from the self. a realism that is subjective because he is wholly engaged with his narrative. Leiris also seeks to imbue his autobiography with the sort of realism that he perceives in Bacon’s work. in writing the life. the writer “authorizes” the life because the identification between writer and text is explicit. Both his sense of self-identity and the narrative he recounts about the formation . constitutive relationship exists between image and identity in autobiographical writing. 1966. The Fallibility of Self-Representation Autobiography. 63). 15). Nevertheless. how the visual memory. or fluid in the mind’s eye.74 The Body as Medium and Metaphor laquelle l’individu entier est engagé. These readings are concerned with the act of interpreting visual memories in a way that becomes integral to the very construction of identity. as opposed to any form of static image. however fragmented or faithful to the discontinuity of experience. which. These pictures are all the more potent for their textual reconstruction. This notion of an art in which the artist is fully engaged – mind and body – is elaborated upon in the prologue to L’Âge d’Homme: “Il s’agissait moins là de ce qu’il est convenu d’appeler ‘littérature engagée’ que d’une littérature dans laquelle j’essayais de m’engager tout entier. are multisensual or synaesthetic in their evocations of the past. The visual manner in which Leiris evokes and reconstructs his past facilitates the technique of stream-of-consciousness memory association but it also allows the reader to enter into and participate in the pictures of his past. and a realism that involves the taking of risks because of the intensity of that engagement. In writing an account of his/her life. – is integral to Leiris’s construction of identity. such as the Cranach painting. Leiris’s fixation upon the Cranach painting unfolds in a series of readings of that image – readings that structure the text because the painting has come to structure Leiris’s self-identity. Au-dedans comme au-dehors” (p. ultime chance pour l’homme – s’il consent à y risquer jusqu’à ses os – de donner corps à un sacré (Leiris. L’Âge d’Homme reveals how a creative.
Mephistopheles warns him: “C’est de la magie. which expands and shifts as he returns again and again to read its significance. In the figures of Lucretia and Judith. Judith is the figure around whom are gathered the images of death and tragedy – principally. Leiris recognizes his alien doubles within the three images contained within the painting: the self-sacrifice of Lucretia. for an instant. the apparently contradictory facets of his character. In the attempt to represent and. 142). whom Leiris considers to encapsulate the qualities of eternal femininity in her ability to reconcile the characteristics of both Judith and Lucretia (p. pauvre fou. These passages. Thematically. the painting serves as the structuring pivot of the autobiography. “La Tête d’Holopherne” groups a series of recollections ostensibly inspired by the theme of wounded men. failed to recognize it as his own. Leiris establishes this distance between himself and the self in formation on the page through his projective identification with Cranach’s painting. 1953-74. the bloody bravery of Judith and Holofernes’s severed head. 43). The quotation that Leiris selects to head the chapter entitled “Tragiques” is indicative of the role that the Cranach painting plays in the construction of L’Âge d’Homme. car chacun croit y retrouver celle qu’il aime” (p. the figures in the painting become his alternative “doubles. underscore how the visualization of his memory is integral to the .” Freud. The image of Lucretia in tears gives rise to the section on wounded women. Leiris perceives the characteristics of the women whom he has known and loved. and he projects onto these women the entirety of his sexual history. recounts an incident that occurred on a train journey when he caught sight of his face reflected in a swinging glass door and. the tragic roles played by Leiris’s Tante Lise. 248).Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 75 of that identity are evoked in repeated attempts to fix and understand that image. perhaps reconcile. in the essay on The Uncanny. linked as they are to the Cranach painting. Leiris finally combines the names of Lucretia and Judith to write a chapter beginning with the tale of Cleopatra (mentioned above). Goethe’s Faust sees in the Medusa the image of his beloved Margaret. He recalls having a hearty distaste for the bearded stranger lurching towards him and wonders if his reaction was not “a vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the “double” (the mirror reflection) to be something uncanny (unheimlich)” (Freud xvii.
Both the subject of the book and his present subjectivity seem embodied in this image. The body of the Surrealist muse becomes a text upon which the male Surrealist reads his desire. as a path or line that leads to a centre. . The visual image is privileged over narrative. femininity is perceived as a reflective mirror in which the artist narcissistically recognizes himself. By reading his own subjectivity through a pre-existing image. Thus the painting not only evokes an experience of identification but also provides three divergent types of muse. their difference as well as their similarity to him. and consequently the very different associations that each of the characters hold. The logic of the Man Ray photograph – black ink on white skin. For example. of both the male and female sex. as if to imprint directly on the photographic plate. in so doing he makes autobiography a process that spawns self-estrangement as much as self-retrieval. The juxtaposition and layering of visual memories sets aside the story as narrative progression. If the image incarnates Leiris’s self. her inked forearm and palm raised. autobiographical desire in Leiris can also be interpreted as a desire to become other. However. The way is through the Cranach painting. in evoking three separate muses. rather. nonchronological way as evocations born of an image. the story evolves out of the painting that is its centre. this double function of the muse for the Surrealists is revealed in a joint venture involving Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. the phallic handle of the printing press obscuring the sex of the female subject – is a logic that disavows difference and otherness. what is required of him now in the autobiographical act is to read into this image a meaning and an identity. or.76 The Body as Medium and Metaphor formation of Leiris’s identity as he writes. Muses for the Surrealists always provided this double function: inspiration and a blank canvas upon which could be projected the desires and fears of the individual artist. The best known of these photographs shows Oppenheim posed naked beside the etching press. Leiris makes the reader aware of the inherent open-endedness of the quest for identity. Leiris orients his book around an image because the image evokes more about his life than a conventional autobiographical narrative might. exploits both the differences between the figures. Leiris. The reading of the image entails that self-representation becomes a form of self-analysis which turns on the retrospectively constructed meaning of an image. Event and identity unfold in a fragmented.
Goethe instructs the reader. a de grandes chances de laisser dans l’ombre certains détails qui. il y a sans nul doute des choses qui m’échappent. si maniaque que soit mon goût pour ce genre amer de contemplation. The risks inherent to self-representation. which like a Medusa. the risk of distortion. 185). The selfportrait therefore becomes the portrait of a moment of rupture. Leiris desires to reveal an “authentic” self or selves. It is as if. This is acknowledged by Leiris in a diary entry heading “Amours d’Holo- . beyond the grasp of recognition. images. as he acknowledges on the second page: Si rompu que je sois à m’observer moi-même. It is such a destructuring that Leiris pursues through his evocations of otherness. pour les autres. The risk entailed in exploiting such a perspective lies in placing the subject. Something similar is experienced by the artist. Leiris presents eclectic. by whose hands a colossal face is to be formed” (Gage. it imposes a sort of mask upon the writing subject. through a process of rupture and self-estrangement. in a concave mirror. meets your eye. and you will be terrified at the inanimate.Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 77 The Multiplication of Self In laying down his tauromachique code. manipulation and deception are evoked by Goethe in an essay on Leonardo’s Last Supper. peint selon ma propre perspective. et vraisemblablement parmi les plus apparentes. puisque la perspective est tout et qu’un tableau de moi. “look at yourself. Asserting that the human countenance is only beautiful if contained within strict parameters of size. doivent être les plus flagrants (p. of the destructuring of the self in an experience of otherness. in the words of Rimbaud. unmeaning monstrosity. is propelled outside of him/herself. at least temporarily. “Je est un autre. So Leiris is aware of his fallibility and aware that a single interior perspective can produce only an abstract self-portrait. The subject. sometimes contradictory. He is also aware of the risks that this entails as regards his relations to those around him. 26). In pursuing “authenticity” and reality. He is aware that he is unable to provide a perfect or complete portrait.” Whether this distorted perspective is intentional or unintentional. who alerts us to the potentially disconcerting aspect of a face viewed through a distorted perspective. 1980.
flashes upon the consciousness of the reader or writer and causes a kind of disassociative shock. Photography. The incorporation of images from the past. who is also the object of his/her own gaze. Leiris’s incorporation of diary entries. De Man contends that the act of textual self-construction works to create a new physiognomy through the agency of prosopopeia. detached . in his theory of autobiography. 1979. And. a dialogue. an aesthetic game. as I have indicated. 156). soit des lunettes déformantes” (p. has to be disposed of before the mask. Leiris acknowledges the risk of distortion and draws the reader’s attention to the unavoidable fallibility of self-knowledge. If portraiture or representation is of a relational nature. A picture of the past. provides a likeness which is then given over to the gaze of the spectator or reader. the meeting of object and subject. can be grappled with. The mask is both the mechanism for the arousal of desire and the impediment to its attainment. 67-82). This mask can be equated with the kind of defacement described by de Man in his essay on autobiography. the mask plays a crucial role in the interpretation of self-representation. as we have seen with regard to Duchamp. De Man’s notion of textually creating a new face aligns with the image of the mask. Leiris refers to his style as a sort of photomontage yet fails to include any photographs. whether verbal or visual. creates the effect of looking at the self as if the self were another – the photographed self. the place where desire is invoked. then self-portraiture or self-representation is also a complicitous act. The distortion of the subject imposes the aforementioned mask. Self-representation therefore becomes less about recognition than about desire: the mask is the catalyst for desire. therefore. Cognizant of the fact that any self-image construed in an autobiography must also confront the image of the self constructed elsewhere. material or verbal. self-exposure becomes self-deception. However. records of dreams. in turn. for example. to be recognized. here. thus disfiguring (transforming) the writing self (de Man. with its claims to authenticity and veristic representation.78 The Body as Medium and Metaphor pherne”: “Comment oserais-je me regarder si je ne portais pas soit un masque. the dream or memory self. The picture of the past. transforming our perception of the present reality. The subject. The search inherent to self-representation is that of the desire to recognize and. a play of signifiers. the mask becomes one more rhetorical strategy in the collusive process of self-representation.
which compose a text that is no longer continuous and linear. and superimposing the past upon the present. . ornant le dos du cartonnage d’un album édité à Epinal. a series of images paradoxically reveals to Leiris the temporal process of ageing: Je retrouve une image matérielle très précise qui contribua pour beaucoup à me donner la notion de la succession des stades de l’existence. an Enlightenment study on the inimical relationship between plastic and literary art. The spatial interpretation of a static image. analogies. que je veuille ou non. He perceives himself as belonging to these coloured categories. breaking the flow of (narrative) time. . Lessing criticizes allegory as a decadent form. perform as historical pictures. But in Leiris’s work. the photographic moment erases the distinction between past and present by interrupting time. The textual fragments. because it attempts an illegitimate crossover between narrative and picture. taking a frame out of its context for perusal in the future. represents a confrontation of the past with the present moment and the recognition of the relevance of the past to the present moment. existing as fragments. or rather. Lessing prescribes a sharp distinction between the spatiality of pictorial art and the temporal nature of narrative. images. The inclusion of such (textual) images within an autobiography involves a certain process of spatializing the narrative of a life. Il s’agit d’une suite de compositions que je vis tout petit. In Laokoon. 55). – technique mentale dont. de l’écoulement du temps . le présent écrit n’est qu’une application (p. le goût que j’ai de l’hermétisme procède du même mouvement que cet amour ancien pour les ‘allégories. Leiris speaks of his visual imagination in terms of allegory: Pour une très large part. et qui était intitulée Les Couleurs de la vie (p. If the mind is likened to a camera. E. 32). Leiris’s reactions to these images constitute his first experience of objectification. G. allegory’s spatialization of narrative has a special purpose and design. unable to outwit the inexorable progress of time despite his inclinations: “J’ai passé maintenant par un certain nombre de ces .Imaging the Absent Subject: Duchamp’s Le Grand Verre 79 from the course of history.’ et je suis convaincu qu’il faut rapprocher également de ce dernier l’habitude que j’ai de penser par formules.
80 The Body as Medium and Metaphor couleurs [. Imagination is contained in and by the remembered image.. . 51). The reality of the images becomes mythic in their status not as events but as catalysts for the unravelling of memory.. he feels. il y a à peine plus d’un an. 35).] je demeure encastré dans ces Ages de la Vie” (p. bref. y joignant l’observation de ce que je suis devenu depuis lors et comparant entre eux les éléments anciens ou récents que me fournit ma mémoire. Leiris admits the fallibility of his visualization of the past. The images are dispersed yet they take precedence in the memory over temporal moments and events. The teleological unfolding of events in a story is contrasted here with the more vivid and ever evolving images from Leiris’s past. car qui me dit que je ne donne pas à ces souvenirs un sens qu’ils n’ont pas eu. which lends to the imagination its very form and makes it specific to the self.] La couleur jaune – ou de maladie de foie – me guette et j’espérais. grâce au suicide. à la couleur noire [. After relating his memory of the Contes d’Hoffmann. ressuscitant ce passé d’une manière tendancieuse? (p.. Such self-doubts and questioning permeate Leiris’s text. échapper. les chargeant après coup d’une valeur émotive dont furent dépourvus les événements réels auxquels ils se réfèrent. Une telle façon de procéder est peut-être hasardeuse.. highlighting the distinction between the past self of memory and the present writing self. he writes: J’arrive à le reconstituer ici d’après mes souvenirs. best demonstrates the contradictory elements of his personality. thus attempting to breach the divide between past and present selves. Leiris uses Cranach’s painting as a sort of reference point to draw together his memories and classify them in a manner which.
Mimicking Mimesis: Francis Bacon’s Portraits Introduction According to Bacon’s friend and biographer Michael Peppiatt. It is necessary to take into account not only the biographical knowledge that we have of Bacon but also the critical attention that he has received. Enigma was the source from which he drew his greatest strength and inventiveness (Peppiatt. whilst simultaneously inviting the spectator to engage with an apparent narrative. from writers as diverse as Gilles Deleuze to Milan Kundera and Ernst van Alphen. one social level. the more likely he was to turn nasty or simply disappear – to go through a wall into a life where you could not follow. Peppiatt also reveals one of the most intriguing and therefore powerful aspects of the artist’s work: its evasiveness. and at being many things to many people [. What happens when the painter turns his gaze upon himself? Does the work reveal the knowledge of a coherent and unified identity. its ability to move and disturb . its ability to confound interpretation. In paying homage to Bacon the man. I shall be looking at this characteristic of Bacon’s work. He was a past master at slipping from one situation. in particular through his self-portraits – the extent to which they reveal or disguise the subject. or does it reflect Bacon’s multi-faceted public personae? To address these questions. Many of these critics have attempted to address what they perceive as the indefinable element in Bacon’s work. In this chapter. I shall adopt a partly art-historical perspective in order to look at the extent to which Bacon was consciously working within a tradition of portraiture and also working against.] The enigma that he sought in his work surrounded him like a protective cloak. allowing him repeatedly to break the mould of accepted thought and accepted behaviour. 1996.. Bacon was an enigmatic character who could not be pinned down: The closer you got to him. xviii). or subverting that tradition.. to another.
This text is the most relevant to my own enquiry into self-representation and I shall consequently extrapolate and engage with those aspects of Van Alphen’s text that are most pertinent to my own argument.. However.82 The Body as Medium and Metaphor its audience. There are certain technical similarities between Duchamp’s analysis of movement and Bacon’s distortions of the human figure but the difference between the artists’ objectives is considerable: Bacon does not seek to show successive appearance. to whom he was introduced by Sonia Orwell in the 1960’s was both beneficial to Bacon’s career (through Leiris’s criticism and the contacts facilitated by his art dealer wife. or so much. the great anti-retinal artist. the conclusions arrived at and decisively acted upon. which examines Bacon’s conception of self-identity and how this relates to his representation of the body. daughter of Picasso’s dealer. Louise. 51). . Duchamp. as we have seen. Bacon’s life-long friendship with Leiris. Duchamp was interested in process as a subject for painting. If Duchamp had both a social and artistic influence. The most recent of these critical texts is Van Alphen’s Francis Bacon and the Loss of Self. even if that structure is never revealed completely at any one moment in time. and the way in which a human body makes a coherent structure in movement. As John Russell explains: Bacon’s admiration for Duchamp is extended not so much to individual works [. Within the context of this thesis. 1971. Part of Duchamp’s “attitude of mind” was. but rather the superimposition of appearances. it was not only.] as to the attitude of mind behind them: the unfailing historical sense. and the disdain for self-promotion and the making of a ‘career’ (Russell. Before Duchamp abandoned easel-painting. his ambivalent attitude toward critics whose interpretations he sought constantly to deflect and which resulted in an effect of self-promotion and self-mythification. he created one of the most influential paintings of the twentieth century for the consequences it held for the portrayal of movement and the human body: Nu descendant un escalier. Among the few artists for whom Bacon expressed admiration. Bacon presents himself as the logical successor to both Duchamp and Leiris.. ironically drew high praise from this visual artist. Duchamp’s artistic legacy which impressed Bacon but the myth of the man as artist.
referred to the mirror not as a duplicating but as a duplicitous mechanism. which he brought to his entire oeuvre. finally. with his desire to exploit the sensual quality of his medium. John Russell quotes Bacon as saying: One thing I’d like to have is an enormous room lined with distorting mirrors from floor to ceiling. and popular imagery in the press? How does Bacon reconcile the figurative imperative. to what extent do his self-portraits question the very possibility of self-knowledge and the possibility for the artist of representing this self? I shall draw upon both the critical vocabulary of semiotics and contemporary feminist art criticism. the moment of le sacré. which he constantly sought to convey in his own writing. who. expressing his disdain for pure opticality. Distorting mirrors Just as Duchamp related Le Grand Verre to the tradition of self-portraiture partly through his references to this work as a mirror of the fourth dimension. Leiris’s concept of beauty. Similarly to Duchamp. in particular the experiments of Muybridge and Eakins. while Leiris found in Bacon’s painting. as I argued in chapter two. which is invaluable in its articulation of the problems inherent to the objectification of the self and negotiating the artist’s relation with pre-existing images. Bacon expressed his preference for the bizarre distortions provided by fairground mirrors as opposed to the apparent mimetic truth of conventional mirrors. was something Bacon related to his own aesthetics. Every so often . as we have seen. which he elucidated in much of his criticism. Bacon also engaged with this generic rule. Leiris’s L’Age d’Homme reveals the fallibility of memory and the nature of an open-ended quest for a self-identity which he seeks through projective identifications with pre-existing images.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 83 Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler) and influential in the degree to which the two men shared similar ideas and philosophies. If. and how is the materiality of oil paint understood to engage with the materiality of the represented body? And. as we have seen. I now wish to explore Bacon’s plastic identity through a similar investigative framework. How far were Bacon’s self-representations informed by his knowledge of images in art history? To what extent were the self-portraits influenced by his fascination for photography.
the internal focalizer (the figure).” This deals with how Bacon often employs the image of the mirror in his paintings and the extent to which it plays the role of a mise en abyme. C’est ce qu’on appelle l’hallucination négative.84 The Body as Medium and Metaphor there’d be a normal mirror inset among the distorting ones. Van Alphen applies this idea to Portrait of George Dyer in a Mirror. 1971. It is helpful to look at René Major’s concept of negative hallucination. 1968. Je pense à un cas précis de quelqu’un qui a retrouvé son image dans le miroir après avoir brisé la surface en jetant un verre. 28-31). employed by van Alphen. decorative effects of these trick mirrors that led to their fascination for Bacon but the way in which they offered him the scope to undermine and subvert the traditional conventions of mimetic portraiture. Is it the external focalizer (the inscribed viewer). Here. or whose defect it is. the literal representation of the mirror in Bacon’s paintings is not necessarily relevant to the way in which it relates to his self-portraiture. However. or does sense of sight deceive us? Do we see what .1978. However. This painting raises the question of sight by pitting the internal gaze of the portrayed subject against the gaze of the viewer. Major introduces this idea in an interview about Bacon: Il arrive qu’une personne se regardant dans un miroir ne parvienne pas à se voir. Van Alphen devotes a section of his book to “The Mirror Image: Deceptive and Deceived. or the mirror that defeats the representation of the visual experience? Is the sense of sight deceived. I shall pursue the observations I made in my first chapter on the mirror not only as a metaphor for painting but also for knowledge. It is this quality of distorted mirroring that has often been perceived in the twisted and contorted features of his portrait subjects. it is not only the superficial. People would look so beautiful when they passed in front of it (Russell. external to the picture. 90). Van Alphen observes how the focalization in the painting is ambiguous with regard to both its object and its subject: It is impossible to detect where the defect in looking originates. Le morcellement s’avère ici lié à l’impossibilité temporaire de faire apparaître une définition fixe et répétitive de son image (Major. L’image apparut d’abord morcellée avant que les fragments ne retrouvent leur unité habituelle.
referring as it does (in Major’s example) to both the temporality of display and the fractured reflection. 38). page 171). the figure has a demarcated identity. is at odds with the incoherent experience of embodied selfhood. unresolved or not. and the emotional response that this provokes in the viewer. However. and chapter 5. page 153. the infant is able to differentiate its polymorphous experience of its body from those of the mother and form a specular image of its whole self. Through seeing itself in the mirror with the mother. Identity becomes blurred when the mirror image cannot be identified as a mirror reflection (see also chapter 4. 1992. When the mirror image is stable. The problem of the instability of vision is inextricably related to the problem of the instability of identity.Francis Bacon’s Portraits we see. Such an observation indicates the very subjective content of Bacon’s painting. The rupture of ego boundaries implied by the destruction of the cohesiveness of the self-image not only invokes the artist’s unstable sense of self but also that of the viewer. 73). . or does vision (the mirror) make us see? (Van Alphen. autonomous self. its lack of objective contours. 1971. can the concept of negative hallucination still be applied when there is no narrative. The concept of negative hallucination. Self-representation. and when the mirror is absent from the representation? Major’s use of the mirror recalls us to Lacan’s stade du miroir. We may feel at such times that the accepted hierarchy of our features is collapsing” (Russell. as demonstrated. 85 Van Alphen demonstrates the way in which Bacon unsettles the viewer by questioning the apparent representational paradox of the painting. The reflected image identified with an ideal self whose integrity and consistency implies a unified. for example. draws attention to the fragility of a specular sense of self. How does the Other sanction a self-representation when a distorted or shattered image fractures the illusory unity of the self? Russell refers to the six heads that formed part of Bacon’s first show at the Hanover Gallery in November 1949: “What painting had never shown before is the disintegration of the social being which takes place when one is alone in a room with no looking-glass. as we have seen in the work of both Duchamp and of Leiris. requires the sanction of the Other. by Lejeune’s pacte autobiographique.
Duchamp tries to avoid casting his image in terms of the already-represented by deferring and diffracting the gaze of the Other while Leiris disperses a decentred sense of self through a fragmented and multi-layered text. Bacon explicitly tries to represent the experience of death and the process of bereavement and mourning through his series of paintings that commemorate George Dyer. the platitudes of public opinion. but in the distortion to bring it back to a recording of the appearance. 1982. but in becoming an image it is alienated from itself. a dependency on a unity-bestowing relation to the self-image is not desirable but mortifying. 40). The subject falls prey to a representation that constructs it in terms of stereotypes. The objective representation of death .86 The Body as Medium and Metaphor The Presence of Death As I have already observed. So. Bacon emphasizes the need for distortion in order to represent the “real” appearance of the portrayed subject: Bacon: What I want to do is to distort the thing far beyond the appearance. And I think that the methods by which this is done are so artificial that the model before you. according to Barthes. In his interviews with David Sylvester. in the portrait the subject is not confronted with itself in its essential quality. I illustrated this point by evoking Barthes and Lacan. that the process of painting is almost like the process of recalling? Bacon: I am saying it. Sylvester: Are you saying that painting is almost a way of bringing somebody back. the subject loses itself when it is objectified in representation. because it is assimilated into the doxa. The loss of self happens because the objectification of the subject that brings about an experience of wholeness is a discursive transformation that translates the subject into terms of the doxa. Bacon seeks to unsettle representations of the self that mortify self-experience by portraying the conflict between the artificiality of representation and the resistance of the subject to that artificiality. According to these theorists. inhibits the artificiality by which this thing can be brought about (Sylvester. in my case.
The power of facial disfiguration is partly semiotic in the disruption of the expressive repertoire. The portrait is the story of the life. decomposes and kills the subject. Bacon’s portraits with their facial variations often evoke metaphors of injury but Bacon himself resisted the idea: “Whether the distortions which I think sometimes bring over the image more violently are damage is a very questionable idea. To see the portrait as an instance of narrative implies that the viewer must distinguish two stories in the representation: the life-story that is condensed into one moment of that life. From this perspective. So conventionally. which will have preceded the sitter’s death. I don’t think it is damage.” However. the . However. the portrait claims to unravel a reality: the life-story. death is evoked not simply through the representation of the human subject but through the conflation of the living body with death. the description of that moment becoming a metaphor of the past and future in which the depicted moment is embedded. This kind of representation draws the viewer into the situation of death. Disfigurement becomes a mask. the motivation for the act of representation is the desire to transform the unacceptable situation of death into an event – an event in which death is acceptable because it is represented as absence. Traditionally. as we have seen. The contorted imagery deforms. the life remains unshaped and indistinguishable from death. the distortions and facial variations of Bacon’s portraits seem to produce the opposite effect. Death is made intelligible by portraying and fixing the life-story. The representation claims to unmask the truth about a person or life. that of masking the subject. Without the act of representation. to a great extent. the act of representation by means of condensation is the act that challenges death.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 87 is not the aim of these paintings as much as the representation of the presence of death. of portrayal. The disturbing impact of Bacon’s portraiture lies. Lacan and de Man implicates death metonymically in the representation of a living body. The mortification implicit in the act of representation as intimated by theorists such as Barthes. the story that has still to be formed and shaped by the representation of it. and the story of the process of representation. The death-to-come is indirectly represented as the opposite of the life-story portrayed. In the paintings of Bacon. in the damage he inflicts upon the faces of his subjects.
Shadows. Yet the heads are always instantly recognizable. Do these confusions and disruptions alleviate sensitivity with formal surface technique and optical arabesque? Or do they aggravate it by suggesting impossible but still imaginable extremities? The subjective impact of Bacon’s faces does not only lie in the disarrangement or fracturing of the features. singles or series of small heads and the occasional full-length painting. If a shadow is read metaphorically as a realistic representation. mimetical mechanisms. In sharp contrast to the almost theatrical nature of the paintings of the previous decade. It is to be found in certain kinds of unreadability. these heads came out of a need to reduce and simplify. with their emphasis on new visual metaphors. like photographs. In these self-portraits. in Bacon’s painting the shadows subvert the classical distribution of light in painting and . he was also engaged in a parallel series of self-portraits. submerging all but a few features. deliberately breaking down the pictorial register and becoming marks of loss.88 The Body as Medium and Metaphor images leave the viewer unsure. the identity of the figure is captured and represented by its shadow. George Dyer. This confusion is expressive. a mirror image of the subject or a repetition of the subject’s profile. supposedly confirming the identity of the subject through substantiating their presence. the background seems to be corroding into the figure. However. The fugitive blurs where the shaping of the flesh becomes insubstantial and untraceable have an obscure depictive purpose. are re-productions. Bacon’s use of shade and shadow in his portraits is unlike the traditional use of shadow in painting. or are transformed by blots and swipes of naked paint. In the early 1970s he concentrated almost exclusively on images of Dyer and himself. Traditionally. uncertainty and ambiguity. While Bacon was working on commemorating his lover. capturing the effects of suffering on his own face. the black background surrounds the artist’s face like a liquid. Their suggestions of modelled flesh that often seems to suffer injury and dislocation are at the same time dissolved into elusive smear-blurs. Bacon used for his own image some of the same expressive means he had found to portray his dead lover. and all the more vivid for the encroaching darkness. In one series. shadows are seen in relation to identity. Parts of the head are scalloped out or hidden by black brushstrokes of shadow. It is not the realistic projection of the figure.
a blur of confused movement. Duchamp encompasses memory in Le Grand Verre by making of it a sort of compendium or catalogue of his previous work. apparently ripped off the wall and left to float on the picture plane. The use of shadows in Bacon’s work demonstrates the invasion of the subject by external elements that lead to the deformation of the body. Simultaneous Memory Memory is inherent to self-representation. constituting in large part the knowledge or sense of the self. the instantaneous apprehension of a static image obliges the artist to incorporate temporality by different means. seated in the central panel. Reproductions such as those created by shadows. but here they have the particular poignancy of bereavement. He is flanked by a heroically muscled George Dyer and by Lucian Freud caught in a sudden contortion. painted in 1973 and entitled Three Portraits. which reflects and mimics to a certain extent the passage of time. The figures dissolve into their shadows and the shadows dissolve into the backgrounds of the paintings. is also rendered by the incongruity of the image. . Therefore the shadows lose their iconic function and become indexes of the depicted bodies. It is useful here to consider for a moment the way in which portraiture has traditionally dealt with this issue. the shadow is one of these extensions. Bacon portrays himself. The body is deformed into extensions. As we have seen. where the figure leans for support on a washbasin. The figure is no more real than its shadow. adding to the immediacy of its impact. The role that memory plays in figurative self-portraiture is much less obvious – how does the artist encapsulate in a single image the knowledge or sense of the past? As opposed to the temporal comprehension of a written text.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 89 undermine their mimetical function. The shadows in the portraits are not extensions of the subject but a part of its reality. In a large new triptych. 1973 records the artist’s deepening despair with the graphic detail of a diary: the emotional isolation conveyed by the painting. Self-Portrait. Leiris’s L’Âge d’Homme is composed around memories of childhood and adolescence. mirrors and cameras create visual identity by externalizing identity within framed visuality. Self-portraits remained a dominant feature of the artist’s output for the rest of his life.
It is also at this point. the emphasis is placed upon the temporal nature of the portrait transaction. The identity of the artist became as significant as the identity of the sitter and began to imply a self that was distinct from the abstract. Manet and the Impressionists began to interrogate this presumed identification between individualized physiognomy and a distinctive. A method of characterization was thereby initiated which still takes place in conservative portraiture and which depends upon the imitation of a recognizable iconographic type. interiorized identity and portraiture soon became more concerned with a lived intimacy between painter and sitter. the greatness of the subject was revealed in his/her features. challenging the normal politics of the portrait transaction. with the invention of the camera that we begin to identify the primary difference between photography portraiture and painting.90 The Body as Medium and Metaphor In the medieval period. to each mark or space set out on paper. the position and status of a nobleman was conventionally symbolized by his coat of arms. so the depiction of a sitter’s history became less important. physiognomic likeness was not the primary way of representing a person’s identity. At this point. Both painting and drawing are the result of consideration and transposition. artists such as Courbet. However. there is a recognizable shift in the emphasis on memory in portraiture. Generally speaking. Thus portraiture was not just a matter of rendering a likeness but also involved a narrative element. To say that a painting or a drawing is a translation is to say that each mark on the paper is consciously related to the appearances that are represented and equally. An implied historical narrative was therefore conveyed through conventional symbols contained within the painting. the decisive difference between photography and painting lies in their respective material relation to what they represent. for example. a belief in the scientific objectivity of the science of physiognomy led to the conviction that a person’s character could be deduced from the external appearance. Rather than encompassing entirely or solely the past of the sitter. In the nineteenth century. Portrait imagery was responsive to the social and political circumstances of the sitter and demonstrated this through the depiction of various symbols and prototypes. interior identity which justified orthodox public recognition. a process of .
62). and the penetrations involved can be as profound as anything in sexual relations: each partner gives himself. . Another Way of Telling. Modernist painters such as Braque and Picasso attempted to collapse 1 See John Berger. 13). . A photograph can render an instantaneous and apparently unconstructed reproduction of reality. it is the trace of the sitter. which I employed with regard to Leiris: the notion of intersubjectivity giving rise to an interactive relationship that seeks to conflate subject and object. The idea of time therefore becomes an essential part of the relationship between the portraitist and his/her subject. Such a metaphor belies the traditional assumption of the male as opposed to female artist but nevertheless conveys the sense of the relationship that evolves over the process of portrait painting. It is the very temporal nature of painting that opens up the possibility of a relationship between the sitter and the artist and creates a space for the intervention of memory. Photographic portraits therefore seem to close the gap between “external” likeness and the self of the depicted person: the portrayed body no longer represents the sitter. 1982. their figuration is not necessarily impregnated by experience or consciousness. Russell writes: We also know that the relationship between painter and sitter is charged with contradictory feelings and instincts as any other human relationship [. 1971. a progressive rather than an instantaneous appreciation of character.] portraiture can also be an act of love.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 91 making that requires time. Thus. p. The position of memory or the passage of time in portraiture is comparable to the transaction-transference metaphor. it is essentially weak in intentionality because the photographic message is simply given. Its being unconstructed or literal relies on the fact that on the level of denotation the photograph appears to be purely analogous. The relationship between painter and sitter has often been described in analogy to the act of making love. without reserve (Russell. The iconic identification between photograph and living reality was supposedly guaranteed by the passage of light waves from the sitter’s body to the photographic emulsion. Here we should remember that the very concept of modernism is temporal. to quote Barthes: the photograph is a “message sans code” (Barthes. in such a case. 93.1 Photographs on the other hand do not translate from appearances but quote from them. .
Bacon’s self-portraits were also painted. In his self-portraits. Bacon’s attitude to portraiture was unusual in many respects. and they remembered how de Gaulle. 107). that a portrait could deny and destroy them. never sat to a painter. Portraiture had become a gamble in which you laid your identity on the gaming-table and ended up as the loser (Russell.” Russell makes the observation that portraiture had a bad reputation in the 1960s: People still felt. This foregrounds the aspects of portraiture that depend upon specific notions of the human subject and of representation. the likeness of the sitter being one of those narratives. that subjectivity is equated with notions like the self or individuality and is . This reveals one reason. as Russell records “out of his head” (ibid. that is. I don’t want to practise the injury that I do to them in my work before them. unjustifiable but quite irresistible way. amongst others. the fact that Bacon preferred to work from memory indicates the extent to which his portraits are less about capturing physical likeness and more about representing the character or self of the subject. The complicity inherent to the act of portrait painting becomes apparent if the portrait is understood to be a series of narratives. 97). He disliked having the sitter in the room with him as he worked and preferred to work from photographs and memory. for which Bacon preferred to work from memory and not from direct observation when executing a portrait.92 The Body as Medium and Metaphor time and memory into a single image through the manipulation of perspective and the simultaneous apprehension of different views of the subject. I would rather practise the injury in private by which I think I record the facts of them more clearly. when in power. Also the majority of his portraits tend to represent friends and lovers. 1971. as in his portraiture. 1974. More significantly. Index versus Icon Linda Nochlin characterizes the originality of portraiture in the “meeting of two subjectivities” (Nochlin. Bacon depended more on the memory and experience of self than on the direct transcription of external appearance. He told Sylvester “If I like them. 29). in a primitive. They remembered how Winston Churchill had reacted when he saw Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him.
Gadamer exemplifies the semiotic economy of mimetic representation by assuming a unity between signifier and signified. the portrayer proves his/her artistic originality by consolidating the self of the portrayed. Therefore the portrait refers to someone.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 93 defined in its uniqueness. In Hans-Georg Gadamer’s text on the portrait. because the essential quality of the sitter can only be caught by the artist. he speaks not of an essential quality that is captured but of an increase of being that seems to be produced by the portrayer in the portrait. photography is not the traditional portrayer’s ideal but the failure of that ideal. The semiotic conception that underlies this view is based upon the idea that the sign in its unity must represent the singularity of the signified: thus the sign comes to represent authenticity. The portrayer enriches the interiority of the portrayed’s self by giving it exterior form. Therefore a portrait is more than a passive rendering of what was presumed to be already there (although interior and hence invisible). A camera can capture the appearance of a person maximally but the photographer has as many problems in capturing a sitter’s “essence” as a painter does. showing a loss of self . a presence outside the portrait. The portrayer gives this supposed interiority an outer form so that it can be perceived. but with a difference. He observes: “The portrait returns. Van Alphen observes how in twentieth century art the portrait has become a problematic genre precisely because from a semiotic point of view the crisis of modernity can be seen as the recognition of the irreconcilable split between signified and signifier. the portrait loses its exemplary status for mimetic representation. often choose the portrait as the genre to make their point. now exemplifying a critique of the bourgeois self instead of its authority. However. in assuming this unity – that of a straightforward relationship of identity between signifier and signified – Gadamer asserts the apparent essential homogeneity of the sign. He explains that as soon as the sign becomes split. Traditionally. who have made it their project to challenge the originality and homogeneity of human subjectivity or the authority of mimetic representation. In this sense. But artists. as an interior essence rather than as a result of a social formation. The portrayer makes visible the inner essence of the sitter and this visualizing act is creative and productive. the outer form becomes the signifier (expression) of the signified (the sitter’s interior essence). not by the camera.
the index functions on the ground of that existence. the threat he felt it posed to his 2 This idea is developed in Derrida’s notion of the trace: the indexical sign that refers by contiguity. Abstract Expressionist painting is the apotheosis of the indexical sign. 1997.94 The Body as Medium and Metaphor instead of its consolidation. it is not necessarily predicated upon the degree of “realism” of the image. It is the decision to suppose that the image refers to something on the basis of likeness that is the iconic act. is left in visible and textural brushstrokes. and a sense of specularity is its result.S. not simply to the past (the maker of the image) but more importantly. Such public derision. the reading of it. Peirce’s description of the index emphasizes its symmetrical opposition to the icon: while the icon does not need the object to exist. shaping the subject as simulacrum instead of as origin” (Woodall. dismissing all abstraction as essentially “decorative. This gesture is contained in signs that range from the recognizable “hand” of the artist. which may have encouraged him to become freer in his own application of paint. The flat bands of colour in many of Bacon’s later works clearly show that at some level he was influenced by the Barnett Newman colour-field canvases he had seen. Bacon was also aware of the gestural spontaneity of de Kooning’s brushwork. however. Bacon’s criticism of abstract painting indicates. did not prevent Bacon from responding to the Americans’ achievements and turning them to his own purpose. hence the importance attached to the individuality of the expressionist gesture. The index signifies by virtue of an existential bond or causal connection between itself and the object. many of his paintings verge on abstraction not only because of the distorted imagery but also through his exploitation of the sensual potential of his preferred medium – oil paint. C. While the icon signifies by virtue of a resemblance to its object. perhaps. . to the future. The evidence of the artist in his work. While Bacon remained resolutely a figurative painter.2 Bacon derided the Abstract Expressionists. the index. to the signature.” he was known to refer to Pollock as “that old lace maker” and to compare de Kooning’s Woman series to playing-cards. It uses the contiguity of the index to point back to the presence of the artist. Therefore. This tension between signified and signifier is evident in Bacon’s portraiture. either in shows or in reproduction. 242). he sometimes experimented with throwing paint on to the canvas and letting it drip.
The features that he focuses on in each portrait obviously depend upon his personal or intimate knowledge of the subject. The paint has to slide into appearance at every level. they embody a conflict between indexical and iconical signs. Bacon claimed not to be interested in showing people. there is apparently little to differentiate one portrait from another. in a challenging technical sphere. to remain within the area of the not-known. In other words.” What gives the pictures their desperate look. 1971.” he also remarked.” Bacon’s artistic imperative was. there’s nothing. such as Bacon: Portraits et Autoportraits introduced by Milan Kundera. Bacon’s paintings. 1971. in a state of nervous tension: I’m not a preacher. as is often done in critical works about the artist. I’ve nothing to say about the “human situation. On a preliminary viewing. while concentrating on sitters who were well-known to him. This stylistic tension becomes evident if his portraits are compared to photographs of his sitters. “because you’re asking chance to fall your way all the time. However. between a documentary painting and a very great work in which the documentary element is transcended (Russell. as is often supposed. which are devoid of any mimetic relationship to empirical reality and embody an indexical registering of traces. it becomes illustration. today. the accidents have to be all in your favour” (Russell. the way in which the materiality of the paint engages with the materiality of the flesh that combines to characterize his portraiture. therefore. It is the fragile balance between index and icon. unlike the work of purely abstract painters.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 95 own work. if they have one. 99). Deleuze uses the term figural in an attempt to describe this aspect of Bacon’s style. This reveals the degree to which Bacon was still . create a tension between the demands of figurative representation and an abstract engagement with the materiality of his medium. As I see it. it’s because I can’t get them out of the technical dilemma. 70). He also understood that taking a figurative image to the verge of abstraction gave it a compelling tension. Bacon observed about portraiture: “Once you know how to do it. “Portraiture is impossible now. a comparison between the photographic likeness and the painted portrait reveals the extent to which Bacon captured the physical idiosyncrasies of his sitters. is the technical difficulty of making appearances at the present stage of the evolution of painting. If my people look as if they’re in a dreadful fix.
which he made two years later. as Russell remarks. In the close-up heads of 1961. or an irreducible patch of hair. in relation to the self-portraits of the 1960s these take few technical chances. However. in both his first self-portrait of 1956 and the second one. Le Geste Brutal The initial impression of Bacon’s portrait heads is not so much that they are distorted as that they are contorted. the number of explicit accidents is comparatively small. As the 1960s progressed. These traces unmake the bodies resulting in the unbinding and dissolution of the subject. 1971. where the iconic image dominates the indexical marks of paint (for example. The indexicality of Bacon’s paintwork. while the image retains the likeness of the person portrayed (for example. or the deep cave of a nostril. yet the image and the paint coalesce in a way that demonstrates a harmony of index and icon. the nature of this reflexivity does not signify the making of the image but rather the unmaking of the body. The paintwork verges on abstraction in its dynamic and confident layering. 100). The painting of the body coincides with the perception of the body in a symbiosis of form and . Three Studies of Henrietta Moraes 1969). In the work of the 1950s. Three Studies for the Human Head 1953) and there are other occasions (as in several of the van Gogh series) when the paintwork looks overworked and has become almost detached from the image. leaving behind it an eye-socket.96 The Body as Medium and Metaphor consciously working within a Surrealist legacy with an emphasis on le hasard. as tokens that somewhere among the strong-willed chromatic smearing a named individual was commemorated” (Russell. In the case of Bacon. the human face would seem to disappear altogether in the “jewelled slime of the paint. there are times when the image seems to surpass the paint. the image is often twisted and the paintwork is vigorous and fluid. The painter’s hand is metonymically present in the textures of cloths and in the imprints of tools he has used to wipe away the paint that would have given substance to his subjects. the portrait heads grew consistently more abstract to the point at which. is often read as self-reflexive as it renders the process of image-making manifest: the painter and the act of painting are metonymically represented in the image. the processing of the paint which creates the impression of impasto and leaves the traces of the construction within the image.
. Bacon himself provided the best commentaries on his work in the course of two interviews. In this instance. ‘dans l’espoir de trouver. he continues. In the conflation of representation and perception. Mue par cet étonnement. Bacon’s work. with David Sylvester in 1976 and Archimbaud in 1992. 10). however. not only mosaic compositions but may often be structured through processes of mirroring and dialogic relations with cross-historical and . sur un visage. achieves a very different transformation: Chez Bacon nous sommes dans un autre monde: l’euphorie ludique picassienne (ou matissienne) y est relayée par un étonnement (sinon un choc) devant ce que nous sommes matériellement. la main du peintre [. en lui et derrière lui. Here Bacon identifies the principle characteristic of his own work. So how does Bacon.] se pose d’un geste brutal sur un corps. . physiquement. To what extent can a person’s likeness be manipulated and transformed for it still to remain recognizable? Where and what are the boundaries beyond which a self ceases to be that self? Bacon on Bacon Autobiographical voices are often thought of as deeply singular attempts to inscribe individual identity. It is here that Bacon observes Picasso exploring a domain that “n’a pas été exploré: une forme organique qui se rapporte à l’image humaine mais en est une complète distorsion” (Kundera. Kundera invokes the indexical quality of Bacon’s images – the hand of the painter that is revealed in this geste brutal. 9). Kundera describes this period of Picasso’s work : “chez Picasso. In both interviews he speaks admiringly of Picasso. le geste léger du peintre transforme des motifs du corps humain en réalité picturale bidimensionnelle et autonome” (Kundera. in particular his period between 1926 and 1932. 10). the body is unmade. maintain their recognizable characteristics? And the models are recognizable. quelque chose qui s’y est caché’ (Ibid. 1996.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 97 content. the triptychs and various series reveal the same people over and over again. However. They are. 1996. It could be said that Bacon’s portraits are investigations into the limits of the self. through the contortion of his models.
for example. infamously. Bacon was fascinated by the idea that a solitary image could summarize the self-destructive courses of a whole continent. . 1971. significantly the mouth. at Velásquez’s portrait of Philip IV of Spain. looked inevitable. Russell observes that the influence extended further than the mere borrowing of a motif. 46). normally the locus for the emission of language that differentiates human from beast. the image of the open mouth. derived many paintings from Velásquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X. Velásquez’s genius. Bacon himself claimed to have been haunted by the close-up of the screaming bespectacled face of the nurse in the Odessa steps sequence of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. has been attributed to several sources. Bacon was also impressed by the element of continuity in Velásquez’s work: his determination. Dawn Ades has linked some of Bacon’s imagery. wet with saliva.3 Bacon also. which in his hands. Bacon’s obsessive and recurring scream or cry.98 The Body as Medium and Metaphor cross-cultural others and thus may resonate with various sorts of “double” voicings. the representation of flesh and of the relation of clothes to the body within them” 3 One entry in the Documents’ critical dictionary is Bataille’s “La Bouche. Looking. he was struck by the fact that hidden within that great and complex image was a straightforward portrait. who according to David Sylvester. as far as Bacon was concerned. In so far as Bacon was influenced by Velásquez. serves in extreme moments as an orifice that emits bestial cries. Among other influences. In his text Bataille discusses how experiences of both pleasure and pain are physiologically expressed through the mouth and uses this to demonstrate the bestiality of man: the mouth. “taught him most about the handling of paint.” It is accompanied by Jacques-André Boiffard’s photograph of an open mouth. At other times he referred to the image of a screaming girl in Poussin’s Le Massacre des Innocents which he saw as a young man at Chantilly. the creation of volume. to images and photographs that were reproduced in Bataille’s Documents. to vie with the state-portraits of Titian and remake them in the image of Velásquez’s own time (see Russell. Bacon acknowledged Picasso and Rembrandt. for instance. an image that collapsed time and space into a single symbolic moment. lay in the deformations.
it was necessary for their role to be reinvented.. Their freedom from the “system” bestowed upon them the status of creative individuals that became a selling point for their art. Nevertheless. Art has always been informed by material circumstances.] in his turn must merchandize and sell himself. 311-312). As Carole Duncan points out. their effect was oracular. despite its claims to independence. He must promote (or get dealer or critic friends to promote) the value of his special credo. adopted the marginal position as one of power. and they. 1982. Sylvester’s Interviews with Bacon were quoted so extensively in the ever-increasing volume of Bacon scholarship that they became the prime sourcebook. Bacon was not only engaged with the work of his predecessors but also with their Romantic legacy: the mythological cult of the artist as genius. he was an autodidact in both the practice and the history of art. They became marginalized figures with respect to social institutions. It is important to examine here the historical construction of the myth of the artist as genius. producing for an art market rather than for a relatively stable system of patronage. he was very conscious of the tradition within which he was working. After decades of mystery enshrouding the artist and his work. not just via the anecdotal evidence of his biographers. on the open avant-garde market.] In acquiring or admiring such images.. His fascination with certain preceding artists is communicated to us.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 99 (Sylvester. Bacon was not only conscious of the power of the mythological cult of the artist but knew how to manipulate his own self-image to the extent that he became his own best publicist while still appearing to elude publicity. 1986. the respectable bourgeois identifies himself with this stance (Duncan. in turn. The power of Bacon upon Bacon grew to such a degree that it became . the authenticity of his special vision. in the latter half of the nineteenth century. but through the work itself. or an illusion of himself and his intimate life. Bacon did not receive a formal art education. which no longer financially supported them. 56). with specific reference to the overt sexuality of the male bohemian lifestyle and the art produced through it: The artist [. and – most importantly – the genuineness of his anti-bourgeois antagonism [.. When artists found themselves.. The genius myth valorized the economic marginality of the artist and turned that weakness into strength.
The Body as Medium and Metaphor
axiomatic that the artist himself was the greatest, if not the sole, authority on his work. Thus Bacon managed not only to create a corpus of images whose meaning could not be reduced to a particular narrative statement about the human condition, he also provided a guide to how they should be understood, which was, briefly stated, that they should not be “understood” at all. The images, as far as the artist himself was concerned, were to all intents and purposes ineffable. According to Peppiatt: “They were to be glazed, framed like Old Masters, then exhibited to the crowd. The passionate atheist, who would denounce the sham of faith in every bar, had made pictures for which he demanded the unquestioning acquiescence of religious conviction” (Peppiatt, 1996; 273-4). Bacon’s desire to control the way he himself and his pictures were interpreted did not diminish as he grew older and more respected. He continued to affect indifference to what was written on the subject, but in the last years of his life he took extreme measures to prevent several texts from being published about his life and work. Peppiatt relates some of the difficulties he faced as Bacon’s biographer and cites other examples, such as when the writer and editor Bruce Bernard put together a “scrap-book” juxtaposing extracts from articles with documentary photographs and reproductions. Bacon encouraged the project right up until publication, when he stepped in to block the book.4 An artist who becomes a legend in his own lifetime while limiting and controlling all the available information about his life inevitably attracts an avalanche of conjecture and revelation once he dies. New approaches to Bacon have been prompted not only by the discovery of unknown works or documents but also by questioning his own contradictory reading of his art. Peppiatt observes: “Rarely has the dictum not to heed what an artist says, only what he does, been more applicable.” Bacon suppressed as much biographical information about himself as he could, insisting that his work had to stand by itself, without reference to his life; yet, the life he lived and the images he made are intimately interdependent. Bacon proclaimed his distaste for narrative or literary painting, for any imagery that told a story. He insisted that his work, although replete with symbol and allusion,
See Bruce Bernard “About Francis Bacon” Independent Magazine, 2 May 1992.
Francis Bacon’s Portraits
“meant nothing.” Yet the mystique Bacon created with and around his paintings appeared almost to amount to a substitute religion. By assimilating hieratic images of the past, he seemed to be seeking to reclaim some of the mystery and power of great religious art. Although over recent time, poststructuralist theory and feminist interventions into art history have interrogated the paradigm of the Romantic genius, certain features of the myth are still pervasive in our society. A pertinent example would be the recent film about Francis Bacon: Love is the Devil by John Maybury. Scenes that involve the artist at his easel portray Derek Jacobi as Bacon thrusting paint at the canvas in an impulsive and spontaneous manner, usually characterized by an expression of concentrated anguish. The film leaves little or no room for the thoughtful deliberation and structuring of an image; Bacon wielding his paintbrush is analogous to a sexual demonstration of virility. Christine Battersby, in her book Gender and Genius, charts the chronological development of the concept of genius and its associations with both artists and maleness. As a feminist critic, she observes the consequences this held for women artists but makes a distinction that is worth noting here:
From its inception and up to our time, this notion of a genius-personality would trap women artists and thinkers. On the one hand – even before Freud – the driving force of genius was described in terms of male sexual energies. On the other hand, the genius was supposed to be like a woman: in tune with his emotions, sensitive, inspired (Battersby, 1989; 103).
As Simone de Beauvoir argued in Le Deuxième Sexe, the archetypal genius artist was Vincent van Gogh, whose legacy as a type has filtered down through the generations. Van Gogh represents the misunderstood genius of the avant-garde whose works are in advance of their time and are only vindicated for their innovation generations later. He was, biographically, a model of the suffering, alienated bohemian and became a paradigm for a generation of artists after him who would champion his work. The biographical film Love is the Devil not only reveals the extent to which the public still valorizes this romantic myth but also the enduring success of Bacon’s determination to fabricate and perpetuate his own legend.
The Body as Medium and Metaphor
Pre-existing Images Bacon used photographs as a source of inspiration for his work. His studio was constantly littered with black and white images, press clippings and documentary pictures. He observed about the influence of photography on his work:
I think of myself as a kind of pulverizing machine into which everything I look at and feel is fed. I believe that I am different from the mixed-media jackdaws who use photographs etc. more or less literally or cut them up and rearrange them. The literalness of photographs so used – even if they are only fragments – will prevent the emergence of real images, because the literalness of the appearance has not been sufficiently digested and transformed. In my case photographs become a sort of compost out of which images emerge from time to time. Those images may be partly conditioned by the mood of the material which has gone into the pulverizer (Russell, 1971; 71).
Bacon’s source material was eclectic and wide-ranging. Apart from pictorial imagery, he acknowledged the influence of literature, textbooks and manuals. Dawn Ades has investigated the extent to which Bacon could have been influenced by Bataille’s journal Documents: “Bacon possessed copies of Documents, and has talked specifically about the effect some of the illustrations reproduced in them had upon him, notably those of slaughterhouses” (Ades, 1985; 12). However, she continues, “It was not just the illustrations, but the whole context of ideas in which these illustrations were situated, that must have touched Bacon” (ibid; 12). The heterogeneous content and format of the journal, which adopted the principle of collage, isolating and juxtaposing disparate images and texts, was a familiar Surrealist device. It is a strategy designed to subvert conventional hierarchies, categories and identities, and to produce strangeness and incongruity. Parallels can be seen between the type and layout of illustrations in Documents and Bacon’s own disparate collection of visual sources. It is interesting to note that Bacon’s obsessive fascination with news photography was by no means an isolated phenomenon: picture journalism had just come of age, with the advent of small cameras, new printing techniques and magazines such as Picture Post. From the outset, Bacon was fascinated by the way images on film and in photography changed almost imperceptibly and then beyond
Francis Bacon’s Portraits
recognition from frame to frame. He particularly admired the studies in movement by Muybridge. Bacon himself preferred working in series. His imagination was stimulated by a sequence, with one form developing out of another; “images breed other images in me,” he said (Peppiatt, 1996; 87). Even in his earliest experiments as a painter he tended to execute variations in sequence on a specific subject. Apart from these working influences, Bacon also understood the potential of photography to perpetuate his own burgeoning myth. A photograph of the artist in his studio taken by Douglas Glass in 1957 shows the immaculate Bacon sitting in the midst of the chaos that always characterized his studio space. According to Peppiatt this aesthetic disorder reached a climax in the Reece Mews studio where the artist worked for the last thirty years of his life, claiming that he worked best amongst the chaos because it suggested images to him. He was also aware of the photogenic potential of these surroundings and how artists, since the end of the nineteenth century, had used images of their studios to publicize their work and enhance their image. Bacon was constantly aware of the legend growing up around him. Peppiatt confirms that Bacon created and manipulated the public image of himself and, by extension, of his studio:
It is less likely that the exhilarating mess actually ‘suggested images’ to him than that the wild disorder reinforced a certain notion of the randomness and spontaneity of his creative process that Bacon wanted to project. The confusion in the studio, like the ‘confusion’ of vision on the canvas, was willed [...] At another level the studio chaos suited the legend that was forming around the artist, partly at his instigation, partly beyond his control” (Peppiatt, 1996; 162-163).
Although he came from an upper-class background, Bacon deliberately cast himself as an inspired misfit from the wilds of an Irish stud farm. He used these public misconceptions of himself to perpetuate his outsider status and thereby link himself to preceding traditions. Bacon identified himself with Romantic misfits and Surrealist heroes, including Rimbaud, Lautréamont and Van Gogh amongst others. It was no coincidence that Bacon painted his first identified Self Portrait at the same time he produced his variations on a portrait of Van Gogh (around 1955). Bacon’s fascination with Van Gogh was clear from as early as 1951, when he was painting Head, which started
rapid brushwork and explosion of colours. According to Peppiatt. To be an “artist” was signified as much by lifestyle as by any aesthetic sensibilities or common artistic style. which was destroyed during the Second World War and consequently only exists in reproduction. in much the same way as. When self-portraits were set in the studio. making his way towards a motif in the fields of Provence. It shows Van Gogh. The features that have consistently been stressed throughout the century in the self-portraits of male artists include their isolation. Certainly. a dangerous anti-bourgeois place. . which in its turn is swallowed by the harsh yellows and reds of the road. their alienation and their uniqueness. Van Gogh represented the ultimate outsider. Bacon clearly felt a degree of identification with Van Gogh. that space was almost always conceived as being beyond ordinary domestic routines and even. by his own admission. in which Kirk Douglas plays Van Gogh to Anthony Quinn’s Gauguin. Bacon’s versions are uncharacteristic in their loose. and he returned to the theme less obliquely in 1956 with the first Study for Portrait of Van Gogh. Bacon’s interest in Van Gogh was quickened by seeing Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life. Bacon kept a copy of Van Gogh’s letters by his bedside and constantly reread them. Much self-portrait imagery was caught up in this artist mythology and certain forms became standard means to ensure that artists were perceived in the correct way. At the time of painting. he had become obsessed by Velásquez’s Pope. However.” as Artaud called him. the figure conveys a weight of loneliness and appears to melt into its own shadow. bars and brothels. possibly. finding many of his own convictions as an artist reflected in his predecessor’s insights. weighed down by outdoor painting equipment. This picture was directly inspired by The Painter on his way to Work of 1888. Many representations showed artists in marginal social spaces such as cafés. “le suicidé de la société. Thus links between life and art ensured authenticity as much as a signature could. in Bacon’s variations on the theme. the legacy of Van Gogh’s influence permeates Bacon’s work to a greater extent than this one series of portraits.104 The Body as Medium and Metaphor out as a pope but eventually turned into a portrait of the Dutch artist. Bacon was involved in an unhappy love affair and possibly empathized with the suffering reflected in Van Gogh’s solitary stooped figure.
it was the mythological cult of the artist himself. as well as his work that had a lasting impact upon Bacon. But he was also indebted to the overall reverberation of Giacometti’s oeuvre. of Giacometti’s artistic achievement: the need to take human appearance to the edge of dissolution by reducing it to its essence. He was conscious. In his search for a solution to the long-standing problem of how to articulate the pictorial space around his figures. having himself cut off part of it. filled with rubble and sculpture. Through employing such tropes. 1986. Bacon named Giacometti as “the greatest living influence on my work” (Farson. sometimes in pain. Bacon linked himself to a tradition of painting and also to a certain artistic identity. like his own. Giacometti’s obsessive adherence to the figure and devotion to the demands of his artistic vision was well known. Bacon paid direct homage to Van Gogh in his 1957 series of heavy impasto paintings but there are also oblique references in his self-portraits where he depicts himself with facial injuries. the artist is represented as a tortured figure. Bacon clearly borrowed certain formal devices from Giacometti. Bacon was clearly affected by Giacometti’s attitude to life and the chaos of his own studio no doubt derived in part from the older artist’s photogenic cave behind Montparnasse. The archetypal image of the tortured artist is Van Gogh’s Man with a Pipe of 1889. in which he portrayed himself with a bandaged ear.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 105 Tropes in self-portraiture that went beyond evocations of risqué settings also developed over the course of the century. had its roots in surrealism. 1993. 167). 74). above all. As in the case of Duchamp. The sculptor’s apparent indifference to financial success made a deep impression on a younger generation of artists. Most often. which. notably the cage-like structures the artist had used in early sculptures. such as the self-portrait of 1972 with a black-eye. Foreplay with forefathers For artists who pursued the path of figurative painting through the 1950s. The figure of the artist himself often used the concepts of marginality and alienation. Ades states: “Giacometti was of central importance to the generation of artists starting their career in the late 40s and 50s: his work and his ideas were brought to the fore in Britain by the critic David Sylvester (a close friend of Bacon)” (Ades. .
the artist’s image and position in society. His remarks about Beckett expose the degree to which he resented being classified as a particular type of painter and the need he felt to protect his work from cliché and categorization. on n’élimine jamais assez. 12). on laisse toujours trop d’habitude. He defended himself against a systematic explanation of his ideas on art in the fear that he would stifle the unconscious creative element in his work. Bacon’s attack on. Both artists were also concerned. through his self-portraits. mais chez Beckett j’ai souvent eu l’impression qu’à force d’avoir voulu éliminer. If it is possible to draw a comparison between Bacon and Beckett. in recognizing the tradition within which they work.. But he could not prevent critics from making comparisons between himself and other artists or writers. becomes in Bacon’s imagery a physiological phenomenon: “J’ai toujours été touché par les images relatives aux abattoirs et à la viande. in other words. 1996. it lies in their respective positions regarding the history of their art. in some way. il n’est plus rien resté et que ce rien en définitive sonnait creux” (Kundera. In Bacon’s interview with Archimbaud. the history of the western world..” He goes on to say. 1996. “En peinture. ethics. or dismissal of Beckett. 16). As we have seen. Bacon’s attempts to control his public image involved both the manipulation of publicity and the way he presented himself to the public in the context of his own work.106 The Body as Medium and Metaphor While all artists are influenced. et pour moi elles sont liées étroitement à tout ce qu’est la Crucifixion” (Kundera. and that defined contemporary art as existing in an autonomous epoch with its own set of values and criticism. Bacon resisted certain dogmatisms of modernism that created a division between tradition and modern art. I have demonstrated that Bacon was not only concerned with a painterly tradition but also with the tradition of the painter.] j’ai toujours trouvé que Shakespeare avait exprimé bien mieux et d’une façon plus juste et plus puissante ce que Beckett et Joyce avaient cherché à dire. For Bacon. which in the history of art has often encompassed the significance of religion. reveals much about his fears concerning his own work. he refers several times to the work of Samuel Beckett: “J’ai toujours été étonné de ce rapprochement entre Beckett et moi [. the . fearing also the risk of turning his art into narrative. that is. by the work of their predecessors. above all with the physiological materiality of the human individual. This is why even Bacon’s Crucifixion.
whose obsession with the open mouth had already been confirmed. Picasso produced one of his most disquieting images.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 107 non-believer. the source. whose activities he followed closely and whom he occasionally joined. However. as a young man. it is necessary to be cautious about seeing Bacon’s pictures as the product of various assimilated “influences. more significant than the specific ways in which Picasso influenced him was Bacon’s realization that the only way to make the human form once more central to art lay in distorting it. cleansed of religion and morality. Bacon remained throughout his life most particularly impressed by the period between 1927 and 1932. is presumed to have influenced the newer one. the later work actively produces the “influence” by choosing to respond to the older work. that both artists shape their work . is often perceived as detrimental to the received artistic authenticity of the newer work: the new work is perceived as the passive recipient of influence. Picasso was deeply interested in the fertility of the unconscious mind.” As Peppiatt among other critics has noted. as Van Alphen proposes. featureless head of Bacon’s figure in his Crucifixion of 1933 unambiguously recalls the one in Picasso’s Crucifixion. like all other twentieth century painters. However. Like the Surrealists. Bacon’s interest in the open mouth may quite simply date back to his first sexual experiences. the combination of sex and mouth. the notion of sacrilege did not enter into his work. The supposed hierarchy of influence. It is equally possible to consider. Leiris described his work as an art of demystification. even extending to hand-coloured illustrations of diseases of the mouth (see Peppiatt. focusing as he did upon a purely corporeal reality. According to Baxandall. or “vagina dentata” as the Surrealists named it. Another acknowledged master whose influence Bacon. he was also attracted to the dreamlike blend of the animate and inanimate in surrealist art. and why that fascination continued to haunt him. he was transfixed by Poussin’s cry when he chanced upon it in Chantilly. and that may explain why. Out of this new freedom to re-create the human form with the metamorphic fluidity of dream. whereby the older work. 1996. While remaining aware of the possible sources of Bacon’s imagery. Of all Picasso’s work. anger and fear intrigued Bacon. The knob-like. Michael Baxandall has proposed a reversal of this view. This metaphor of confusion. Certain stylistic similarities with Picasso are immediately apparent. 85). had to learn to assimilate was Picasso.
In Bacon’s portraits. The tenuous nature of some of the portraits’ iconic relation to their sitter exposes the essential contingency of identity and reveals notions of the self to be a constructed convenience. The recurrence of Bacon’s own image throughout his oeuvre is not an overt first-person narrative or a narrative of artistic failure or triumph. they provide a lateral autobiography. shadows and blurred features are perceptive pictures of the anxieties that shape our subjectivity. As with the act of looking into a mirror. The emotive content of the portraits. His self-portraits lack restraint and irony. and the emphasis is necessarily upon the process of this search. the spectator sees the documentation of the performative act of creating identity. explode the notion of a linear. an act of creation that demands the effort of recognition. the viewer participates in their creation. they attempt to resuscitate emotional content via the artist’s aesthetic. the way in which the apparent “ugliness” of the images is a possible consequence of both external and internal influences: .108 The Body as Medium and Metaphor through an active intervention in the assumptions and theories about the artwork and that understanding these interventions helps to understand their works in relation to the historical process in which it is shaped. ever-expanding self that constantly reveals facets of itself. from image to image. The fact that the facial images often appear to be distorted almost beyond recognition forces the spectator to enter into an interactive relationship with the image. as well as in the end product that is the image. chronological sense of life. represented in the artist’s evolving imagery. Bacon’s approach to his self-image creates an omnivorous. series to series. Philippe Sollers has written about the social aspect of Bacon’s portraits. Bacon’s self-portraits. Bacon confers identity with one hand and undermines fixed notions of it with the other. the artist’s images must be able to exist outside of his intentions. Each painting is a performance. and therefore. each painting involves a scrutiny of self-searching as the viewer’s eye traces the paintwork. Ultimately. the dark scalloped shapes. Eluding the doxa The distortions and contortions inherent in Bacon’s portraiture are analogous to the construction of identity.
beauté [. The gaze is dictated by the stimulus. 102)..] Les portraits de Bacon sont ainsi peints à l’arraché. pourris. The deformations Bacon inflicts upon his subjects problematize vision. According to Van Alphen. for a participation that hurts. This narrative does not tell the story of the picture but the story of an interactive encounter between viewer and image. 55). On les oblige (ils s’obligent) à être absurdes. Terriblement beaux comme ils le méritent.. ils sont beaux. In an apparently trance-like state. idiots. reminiscent of the gaze of a rabbit caught in a band of light. they theorize the need for narrative” (ibid.Francis Bacon’s Portraits Les individus sont constamment déformés par la broyeuse sociale et par eux-mêmes. In the same way as the portrait subjects appear to observe . Van Alphen concludes that what Bacon’s portraits theorize is a need for the specific: “for the sensational that is no other than itself. 54-5). for a process in which the viewer must participate. 57). social. deforms. intéressés. L’apparence au-delà de l’apparence. Bacon’s portraits propose that sight becomes a kind of touch. Van Alphen observes how the event of perception of visual stimuli is represented visually: The eyes of Bacon in all three panels [. doit dire en une seule fois. perceived and projected. menteurs. comme pour sauver l’essentiel d’un être humain avant sa disparition biologique ou son engloutissement dans le mensonge photographique. 109 From this perspective. déformation. Energie. rather he is dominated by the visual: “Thus the function of focalizer is detached from perception: the focalizer’s look is arrested” (ibid. Taking Bacon’s Three Studies for Self Portrait (1979) as an example. indisputable essence but rather as the result of an accumulation of factors. subjectivity is viewed not as an essential. The figure’s gaze is paralysed. not by the holder of the eye (Alphen.] express total susceptibility to visual stimuli. but happens. Van Alphen compares this with the portrait of Michel Leiris where the writer seems to be under the spell of something he sees. Voilà ce que le portrait.. repensé. a stimuli. he is no longer the powerful observer of the outside world. Et tout à coup. an act that is inflicted upon the body as a whole. 1992. boursouflés. appliqués. (Où les morts sont-ils plus morts que dans les enregistrements que l’on fait d’eux?) (Sollers. grimaçants.. 1996.
the observer tries to re-form the subject of vision. I contend. it is also the only signifier which keeps the idea of identity alive (ibid. Like an Impressionist painting that shifts into focus only when viewed from a distance. that it is precisely the process of perception involving the re-construction of the image by the viewer that conveys the sense of identity. structuring sense of perception that involves the viewer and the decomposing object in view. The process of perception that the work reflects upon and stimulates undermines the concept of self as an external image of the physical body in favour of the subjective or internalized experience of self: a self that eludes the fixity of vision and is constantly in flux. portraits and self-portraits have been representative of our attempts to understand ourselves through our own self-representation. the portrait promises to be an art of revelation. authenticating origin behind it. This is not a monolithic view of self-representation but an inter-active. This representation of the deformed body is not only the logical result of the violent process of perception.110 The Body as Medium and Metaphor the observer. Through focusing upon the contortions and smears of paint. Traditionally. extricating the ideal from the incidental. 81). Van Alphen concludes: The difference between the idea of an originating identity and that of a deformed identity provides the opportunity for a temporal re-establishment of identity. the portrait flatters our vanity. portraits have been judged to be “good” if they succeed in revealing the “inner” person. the viewer’s concentrated perception analyses and breaks down the image. under the gaze of analytical scrutiny Bacon’s subjects dissolve and evaporate into the materiality of the blurs of paintwork. Far from being only the record of appearance. In the same way. Fundamental to the construction and articulation of identity. as I have observed. . The distinction between object and subject disappears and leaves only the sensation of perception. however. not only as a record of beauty or a promise of immortality but also because the image describes an identity founded on the implicit assumption that there exists some stable. expunging the contradictory and the peculiar to reveal a unified and immutable essence that is thought to underlie the chiaroscuro of appearance. The deformed body is the only representation left of the missing identity. which it is the task of art to reveal.
projective images of self are sanctioned under the guise of having ceded control of identity. are all expressive of social interaction. Bacon celebrates the freedom that an elusive identity confers. Similarly. creating the need for the spectator’s interaction. an interface. Resisting identification. hinted at in the indexical marks of the painter in the image. between the self and the other. . Bacon’s self-portraits reveal the extent to which self-identity is constantly en procès.Francis Bacon’s Portraits 111 Bacon’s portraits reveal the extent to which any coherent notion of a permanent and stable identity is little more than a consoling and controlling fiction. the shadowed face insinuates a destabilized self. The strong shadows and lighting in the portraits suggest an actor caught in a stage spotlight. and the directly confrontational nature of some of the faces. the face becomes the site of a dynamic transaction. though isolated and tightly framed. The sensuousness of the visible strokes of oil paint emphasizes the fragility of the self as notions of an originary identity give way to an idea of subjectivity as a social construct. In basing his self-portraits and portraits on remembered perceptions. rather than offer themselves up as objects of contemplation. the heads imply proximity. So the distortion which creates the mask-like effect becomes the essential means to emphasize an awareness that identity is always constructed according to the distanced gaze of the Other. Rather than as a source of anguish. underscoring the idea of performance. The facial expressions. The heavy gloss of the varnished surface of the paintings insistently pulls the viewer’s eye back to the surface of the image. so that a person becomes little more than an assemblage of identities. much as his own art demonstrably celebrates the continual creative potential of painting. denying any illusion of access through depth. which seek to engage and challenge the viewer. the effect of which is to emphasize that identity flows rather than resides. the isolated features. rather than intimacy or revelation of character. the distortion of the image suggests the anomalous experiences and feelings that necessarily have no name or image. or a succession of faces. Like the actor. The disturbing abstract amorphousness of the face and head shifts the register of the image away from an external reality. To recall Kristeva.
even more clearly.Textual Imagery: Visualizing the Self in the Writing of Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos Part One: Bernard Noël Introduction: Autobiography or Autoportrait? According to Michel Beaujour in Miroirs d’encre. which highlights the distinctness and emotional potency of past memories. The clarity with which images are formed of the past. it is possible that the tension between different forms of memory. or. for example. the existence of narrative order commits autobiography to a monolithic view of memory which undoes the mechanisms or the process of remembrance. is hardly applicable to either the discontinuous work of Leiris. Therefore autobiography is perceived as a teleological narrative that recounts the contents of memory while the autoportraitist views memories as impersonal materials out of which to construct a present self in the act of writing (see Beaujour. associations which occur independent of chronology. the precision with which certain . however. This definition. 167). the contents of memory are repeatedly subordinated to the ramifications of his associative network: the way in which one memory gives rise to another or the way in which the present recalls the past. 1980. For Beaujour. autobiography is essentially opposed to self-portraiture: “L’anamnèse de l’autoportrait s’oppose à la réminiscence autobiographique. memories that evolve with the narrative and those that are overlaid and juxtaposed within the narrative. 252). 1980. are features of both autobiography and the autoportrait. the fragmentary. toujours fondé à quelque degré sur la croyance en la permanence d’un moi individuel dont l’intériorité est antériorité” (Beaujour. present-tense discourse of Noël. However. For Leiris. as I have already observed with regard to Leiris (one of Beaujour’s autoportraitists).
Although Noël makes no autobiographical claims upon his writing inasmuch as there is no specific autobiographical volume. fragments of a past. His life is perpetuated through language and vice versa. However. However. Through the juxtaposition of styles and genres. is no guarantee that a coherent picture will emerge or that a sense of continuity between past and present selves will be established. remembering remains a present activity but his narrative identity arises out of this temporal network that weaves together present and past. a sense of the profound intertwining of past and present. If Leiris reveals the extent to which an identity can be created only through the play of resonances and connections between past and present. Noël reveals the vulnerability of the self and memory as a performative act. seeks it also in the conjunction of past and present selves. Memory in Leiris is tied to the momentary and the singular. Writing for Leiris represents the attempt to rediscover the relevance of the past. This also applies to Leiris. Such writing is far from the vraisemblance of the traditional mirror of the social world. Leiris’s subjective retrospection is as important a component in the examination of his self-identity as the textual persona reflected in the act of writing. not Memory. 1993. 295).114 The Body as Medium and Metaphor moments are captured. as I have indicated. solely. he repeatedly clarifies the indissoluble link between his life and his writing. Leiris in L’Âge d’Homme although seeking a particular experience of self through the act of writing. there is throughout L’Âge d’Homme. to apprehend him/herself in the present through the act of writing. In this chapter. Sheringham observes with regard to Stendhal that the reader is “dealing with memories. I shall also extend my focus on self-representation . with a literary project. past and present. The autoportraitist’s desire for textual incarnation leads to the suppression of personal memory and the complete acceptance of the self as a montage of disparate images and materials. Beaujour claims that the autoportraitist (therefore Leiris) does not attempt to rejoin the past as s/he lacks confidence in a coherent self that is constituted through time and seeks. to accept that his narrative identity is a fusion of the textual and the historical. I shall be primarily concerned with the way in which Noël deals with the concept of vision and how he tries to reconcile a visual consciousness that inheres in the body. he attempts to avoid the stasis and fixity of language. not the Past” (Sheringham.
Le 19 octobre 1977. Nevertheless. Noël’s constant investigation of the possibility of sight and its transcription inevitably has a bearing upon his own art and this becomes explicit in the final pages of the journal: Qu’est-ce d’ailleurs que notre création? Un langage. 10). The intertextuality of his work. ne fait durer que l’absence de tout. n’a d’autre but que de perpétuer la vie. constitutes Noël’s work as an inseparable entity. donc parfaitement unis. lui-même. elements of repetition. In his poetry and novels. Noël’s Journal du regard is almost entirely dedicated to an exploration of the nature of vision and how this relates to painting. he refuses to dignify the body and often seems to emphasize its most base or ridiculous elements. apparemment. . Le Double Jeu du Tu La vie. In the texts I have selected. qui déchire l’espace où être et voir étaient identiques. Ainsi deviendrons-nous notre propre création dans un monde créé par nous. This metaphor is extended by Noël’s fascination with his own and others’ corporeal existence. peu à peu. a symbolic body standing in for the body of the writer. tout se passe comme s’il ne s’agissait que de perpétuer le langage – le langage qui. Mais. et pourtant. nous changeons l’apparence du monde pour lui substituer une surface artificielle de même nature que notre langage. c’est-à-dire un espace artificiel. Noël is ultimately concerned with a three-way relationship. notoriously Le Château de Cène. 124-5). dès que l’on parle. n’existe plus (Noël. car nous espérons retrouver l’identité en unifiant l’espace du monde et l’espace inventé derrière nos yeux. Noël explores the nature of physicality. 1998. Et tout cela par le travail du regard (Noël. dès lors qu’il est devenu un mot. Noël’s writing lends itself to the investigation of the links between a visual consciousness and self-representation through both his art criticism and his fiction. L’homme. and how it passes via his body to be translated into symbols on a page. the way in which he apprehends and perceives the exterior world. 1988.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 115 beyond the bounds of autobiography by looking at an epistolary text Le Double Jeu du Tu and I shall concentrate principally on Noël’s novel. re-examination and re-interpretation.
elle n’immortalise. If he is conscious of the fallibility of language. This severance does not. Ainsi. the way in which it gives rise to another self: J’écris. Autobiographical theory has in the past been brought to bear upon private letters. perpétuellement recommence. je me regarde écrire. autobiography is also writing. While acknowledging the apparent futility of literary self-representation. In drawing attention to the petrifaction of language. however. autobiography cannot exist only as the objective transcription of what happened to the writer in the past. lui. que la mise à mort” (Noël.116 The Body as Medium and Metaphor In other words. the impossibility of the text coinciding with the writing self. The text is interesting in the extent to which it reaches beyond the autobiographical genre. Un autre qui portera mon nom. Thus Noël draws the reader’s attention to the dangerous duplicity of language: “Tel est le double jeu de l’écriture: elle vous efface. as well as having been used to throw light upon published formal autobiographical works. ici et maintenant. as language is constantly regenerative. As a genre. journals or notebooks in the absence of an official autobiography. n’est-ce pas le langage en son entier qui est l’Autre auquel s’efforcent de s’identifier tous les Je qui s’écrient: Je est un autre? (Noël. language. Le Double Jeu du Tu is an epistolary text which Noël wrote in collaboration with Jean Frémon and it differs from a more conventional autobiography as the letters are written for a specific reader. Noël strikes at the heart of the autobiographical enterprise at the same time as examining his own motives for writing. Le Double Jeu du Tu is . dérisoirement. mais ne sera cependant pas celui qui. mais pour vous conserver dans le mouvement même de cet effacement qui. with all the elements of textual construction and self-reflexivity that I have observed this to involve. Noël highlights the physical and self-reflexive nature of writing while simultaneously recognizing that the object that is the creation is finally severed from the act of creativity. produce closure upon a text. Noël recognizes the inseparability of his life and language. he is also conscious of its autonomy. 9). D’ailleurs. the recipient of the letter. as it is usually understood. 1998. while predicated upon presence (the presence of the writer). écrit: Je. et que vois-je? Je me vois en train de me replacer moi-même par un autre. instantiates the absence of that present. 1998. 18).
Le Double Jeu du Tu demonstrates that it is not formal autobiographies alone that involve a construction of self. by the apparently private nature of the correspondence. In Le Double Jeu du Tu. a provisional self is proposed. . However. Neither of the writers make any claim for personal letters being a more “authentic” representation of the self than a more traditional form of autobiography and Noël. A notion of performance is always already present in the way the two writers issue challenges to one another and construct a space in which identities are formed and performed.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 117 interesting in the light of such studies because although the letters that comprise this book take the form of private documents. Nevertheless. it is not surprising to find an emphasis upon the reader’s role in the book. In the light of reader-response theory and Lejeune’s discussion of the pacte autobiographique. which contain the writers’ ambitions for their project. Instead of a formation of the self over and through time. in particular. which will be transformed through the effort of collaboration. a project that is both unpredictable and replete with obstacles and provocation because it evolves from a process of interrogation and response. defined and evolves through interaction with the other and in the present act of writing. the reader engages with a performance which is at once reactive and creative. No genre can be guaranteed of greater “authenticity” than any other as all texts involve textual construction and to posit a more authentic mode of autobiographical writing would be to propose that a form of writing exists which is unaffected by questions of reception. rejected. But different forms of writing involve different conventions and this serves to throw the emphasis back upon the reader and the expectations they bring to bear upon different works. without recourse to memories of the past. this is complicated. This juxtaposition of public performance and private exchange highlights the degree to which the writing constitutes a kind of act. A reading public is anticipated by the text in the first exchange of letters. or made more ambiguous. the enterprise was clearly always intended for publication. They state their desire to embark on a project together. the creation of an identity in and of the present. Noël demonstrates a type of performative autobiography. seems to be consciously rebelling against having any autobiographical associations made with the writers’ correspondence.
no specific idea of what they want to discuss. in its failure to be as transparent as possible. Frémon opens up the possibility of dishonesty in the dialogue and thereby acknowledges that the non-dit of the texts to follow will possibly hold as much interest or as much relevance as what is expressed. nothing with which to express. As correspondents. Frémon acknowledges that an element of cheating will be inevitable. The inherent duplicity of language. He thereby draws attention to the fallibility of the text.. se mettre mutuellement.] – écrire. Although one of their ambitions for their exchange is to be as uncensored as possible. which. un non-dit. perhaps despite the will of the writers.118 The Body as Medium and Metaphor observation and query. soi-même et l’autre. un problème mais dont on peut alors parler” (ibid. et inversement. in commenting upon expression in general. no desire to express. the words give form and expression to that identity. Dire également pourquoi nous allons cacher ce que nous allons cacher ce que nous ne manquerons pas de cacher […]. L’intérêt de tout cela? Ce que je te cacherai ne sera pas forcément ce que je me serais caché sans ce double jeu. renders the possibility of truth an unlikely outcome. 17). has a direct bearing upon the writers’ self-imposed task: “The expression that there is nothing to express. no power to express. Consequently. et se trouver forcé de dire pourquoi on ne l’aurait pas voulu. je me crie. et réciproquement (ibid. its potential manifold meanings. The writers recognize that one of their tasks is to create sense through language. the only origin is an obligation to respond to the other: “il me plaît de croire que je vous persuade.” The two writers have no starting point other than their agreement to write. 15). they have no narrative thread. à la question [.. Frémon introduces a citation from Beckett. one of the aims of the game would appear to be precisely a certain element of surprise and an obligation to respond to questions with the greatest degree of honesty. together with the obligation to express. nothing from which to express. Frémon envisages the enterprise as distancing the writers from their usual sphere of literature: S’exposer à la provocation. any text. the writers write for a specific reader who is well-known to them but they are still aware of the creative force of . As their letters become embodiments of their identities. et il me plaît de croire que cela me suffit grâce à vous je me crée.
while the form. Also implicit in the sense of jeu. and Frémon draws attention to this by indicating the duplicity of language or the fragility. vous m’avez répondu et je m’accroche à vous” (ibid. All that is required for the exchange to evolve is reception and response: “Votre écoute. Et dès lors plus rien n’est vide. of risk or false-starts as well as development. vos réactions. supposées. et il ne s’agit pas de gagner – de gagner un corps – mais de jouer (ibid. 18). As embodiments of their subjectivity. Noël re-evokes his metaphor of the body: Sans doute avais-je envie d’écrire un livre qui serait unique comme mon corps – un livre qui serait mon corps de papier. which is contained within the jeu. and the listener responds to this intention. the letters of Noël and Frémon are manifestations of their intention to speak and arise through the interpellation of mutual address. The apparently formal tone of the “vous” address that is employed at the start of the correspondence indicates that there is no false assumption of intimacy or pre-conceived familiarity. mais à la différence du corps. the book takes shape as it is written. as an integral and autonomous unit of meaning. The title of the collection makes explicit the intersubjective nature of the exchange. However. consciously or unconsciously. the collection of letters). The speaker feels the need to speak without knowing exactly what he will say. tendent à le combler (le vide). and that is constituted through the interplay with the tu. Noël and Frémon write to one another in the hope that the literary exchange will be both a self-discovery and a discovery of each other. The writers. the process of gambling. is the notion of indefinition. With the notion of indefinition co-exists the possibility of imprecision. Le Double Jeu du Tu implies the plural nature of the je. Noël draws attention to the book as object.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 119 language and the way in which their letters reveal and create identities. of the borders between truth and fiction. in place of the defined contours of a body. in performing for their . à le remplacer par un débat: le pourquoi de ce phénomène. constituted and interpreted by both writer and reader. is permanently in flux and forever subject to change and redefinition. 26). les livres se retournent […] On entre dans le jeu. the permeability. In place of the concept of the book existing as an impersonal space of a collection of texts (in this case.
he recognizes the difficulty of providing a textual backdrop to their discussions without resorting to self-revelation. The writers have issued themselves a challenge that lies in the creative expression of self and the avoidance of the complacent belief that there is a pre-existing. Noël is wary of becoming rhetorical. a metaphor for the accumulation of words and letters and asks where does the truth lie: does it lie in the process of accumulation that works towards the revelation of the truth? Or does the accumulated mass conceal the truth? Already he is expressing doubts about the revelatory potential of language. Frémon evokes the image of a rolling snowball. originary self that is waiting to be revealed or represented. He expresses his anxieties about the consequences of the correspondence for the writers’ relationship: Je me demande soudain si ce jeu entrepris depuis quelques semaines nous rapproche ou nous éloigne? Incontestablement. The nature of their exchange aims less to record a pre-existing self than to demonstrate an ongoing construction of self and a simultaneous examination of this process. claiming that there is no single true face. 43). A series of letters opens up the possibility for the reconstruction of that provisional self in the light of the response or reaction in the replying letter. creuser les différences. the writers highlight the ambiguity of the dialectical relation between the apparent freedom of self-expression and its simultaneous dependence upon the perspective of the Other. they wish at all costs to avoid the trap of autobiography. it is little surprise when Noël accuses Frémon of wallowing in autobiographical discourse. In acknowledging the imprecision of language. Despite his criticism. inventions and untruths. appropriation. proffering elements of an identity that are open to interpretation. Noël’s suspicion of autobiography reveals an awareness of the . However. sans que cesse l’amitié. qu’au contraire elle se trouve renforcée par le risque même qu’elle prend: le choix commun de fuir la complaisance (Noël. A letter is a provisional self. Consequently. Despite the obviously intended honesty of the texts and the authors’ claim to be writing personally. doubts that are constantly re-evoked throughout the text. creuser les résistances. me semble-t-il.120 The Body as Medium and Metaphor reader adopt masks. 1977. il précise des différences […] tout l’intérêt du projet est là.
44). de pervertir l’autobiographie (ibid. living for and through the written text. et du coup. moderne. Il va falloir faire table rase de cette distinction. At the same time. or to reduce it to the dimensions of individual psychology. Est-ce que devenir cet homme-médecine n’est pas la solution au dilemme: impossibilité de l’autobiographie – impossibilité d’autre chose.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 121 danger of becoming solipsistic and complacent. instead. nous viennent à présent d’outre-corps (ibid. il pense. The writers have set themselves the task of attempting to live out an autobiography. du tien reproche de te vautrer dans l’autobiographie […] J’en reviens à ce reproche: Qu’est-ce que l’autobiographie et quoi fait qu’elle est l’objet d’une censure particulière. au lieu de réfléchir. dis-tu. 52). en se baladant le long de la route. Cela change le niveau de la description. écrivait le roman. the process and exchange of writing and. the self-seeing “I” attempts a level of criticism from within subjectivity rather than observation from . nous avons avalé le miroir. Je pense au miroir qui. In response to Noël’s accusation. car toute est biographique. The risk is that of becoming narcissistic. to start recording the past. autrefois. on en découvre l’ennui. qui serait la complaisance réactionnaire. Et quelle est la cause de ce dilemme s’il existe? Tu as fort bien relevé un point: à s’exercer à l’examen de conscience. Eh bien. he recognizes that one of their primary aims was to write without self-censorship and so he questions the reasoning behind Noël’s apparent wish to stifle autobiographical inclinations: La seule censure pourrait venir. Est-ce qu’il n’y aurait pas lieu pour échapper à cet ennui et qui sait déboucher sur de l’inconnu révélateur. To which Noël replies that the problem does not lie precisely in writing or not writing autobiography but in the avoidance of complacency: Attention: il y aura une ‘biographie’ qui serait noble. et les mémoires. bien portée. Consequently. au lieu de nous venir d’outre-tombe. et une autobiographie. Noël reveals that he accepts the inevitability of the subjective nature of the writing but he hopes to change the level of description from that of retrospective reflection to an active demonstration of ongoing thought. of losing their grasp on the world. Frémon acknowledges that he has a tendency to individualize the debate.
Qui parle par ma bouche? Mon corps. pourquoi la parole a-t-elle perdu à peu près toute évidence physique? Pourquoi la nomination est-elle. sa conscience et son écriture – le trajet à travers mon corps (Noël.122 The Body as Medium and Metaphor without. 15). Mais si mon corps a besoin de parler. 30). So how does he reconcile this desire for the expression of a performative. Noël perceives his body to be the medium that apprehends and names reality. by focusing upon the representability of the body. Elle s’arrête. consequently. celui du langage (ibid. Objective vraisemblance has disappeared and. imaginary synthesis and the body as dynamic dispersion throughout a fragmented work. Noël’s insistence upon the physicality of language highlights the interdependence of the body and consciousness: Qui parle? Ma bouche. l’opération abstraite? C’est que le corps ne produit pas son langage: il apprend à parler. the ontological gap between the writing self and self-reflexive protagonist of the work. de se parler. evolving identity with the demands of fiction? Le Corps Noël draws attention to the central contradiction of the autobiographical text. Je la regarde. Already in Le Double Jeu du Tu. On lui apprend […] Un corps qui parle s’oublie dans sa parole. dis-je. Noël’s emphasis on the corporeality and the intentionality of language awakens the reader to an awareness of consciousness as incarnate in a body and inhering in the perceptual world. Et il y a devant moi cette main qui écrit. C’est un peu comme s’il entrait dans un autre corps – un corps abstrait. He explores this paradox via the body as specular. 1998. et donc ne s’arrête pas […] Cela pourrait servir de prétexte à une observation de l’observation. that is. The body is a dialectic that operates as the point of fusion and mutual suspension of subject and object: Le corps. Elle écrit qu’elle s’arrête. transforming perception into language. par excellence. language is the very tool by which we express this knowledge and thereby . ou peut-être le trajet de l’image entre sa réalité. et j’apprendrais à noter le décalage entre le regard et l’écrit. As the knowledge of language is incorporated into the body. the belief in the transcendent status of language.
However. the gesture of painting. he comes close to Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of vision in L’Oeil et L’Esprit : “C’est en prétant son corps au monde que le peintre change le monde en peinture” (Merleau-Ponty. Noël considers painting to be a more emotive.N. such as Journal du regard and Onze romans d’oeil. above all. 1986. the limitations of language in comparison to painting. 71). 97). According to Hervé Carn: “Pour B. He refers to his body as the chambre noire via which all thought must pass in its transformation into expression. In these texts. efficient and affective means of expression than literature (see Carn. Noël sets out to write what he terms “le premier monologue extérieur. So. I shall now look at his novel Le 19 octobre 1977. the way in which we apprehend images. 16). In order to look more closely at the way in which Noël attempts to reconcile the visual with language. The conscious and deliberate transcription of imagery is conveyed through the body. this physical transcription is not only the mechanism of representation. In Le 19 octobre.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 123 transform the impersonal abstract potential of language into personal expression. he also elaborates on his fascination for the physical interpretation of the visual. According to Carn.” The first part of the novel juxtaposes elements which gravitate around a certain malaise. similarly to . he is consumed with the inevitability of subjective vision. In other words. However. Through his analysis of le regard. which acts as a mediator between the interior and exterior worlds. Noël’s consuming interest in the nature of vision. Noël concentrates on the interdependency and metamorphosis of images that exist in reality and images that exist in thought. He describes the process of writing as a form of translation of vision that occurs in and through his body (see Noël. In this description. Le 19 octobre does not only demonstrate the power of painting but the potency of any visual image. is conveyed most explicitly in his writing upon the visual arts. 1998. Noël also credits the body with interpretative and creative faculties. c’est l’image qui est la matière privilégiée de la fiction” and this book demonstrates. plus que l’imaginaire. the hand that creates the mark on the page or canvas. that is. It is revealed that this malaise was provoked by reading Maurice Blanchot’s L’Arrêt de mort several years earlier and the profound distress experienced on that occasion has been re-evoked by a photograph that had been slipped inside a book. 1964.
de l’oeil à la main. Barthes writes: “J’écris: ceci est le premier degré du langage. 70). In the Journal du regard. de rapports. Noël highlights the physical process of writing. while rendering it impossible to anchor the utterances. In comparing the act of writing to the visual art of painting. unidentified snatches of dialogue. et de cette impuissance à dire ce que leur fixité met en circulation” (Noël. he observes: “Dans toute oeuvre visuelle. 1998. 28). lines of poetry. Barthes attempts to postpone the moment at which discourse thickens into stereotype by reinserting discourse into a situation of énonciation in which the énoncé no longer appears natural (see also part 2. Puis j’écris que j’écris: c’en est le second degré” (Barthes. 1988. Transcribing Vision The text of Le 19 octobre shifts between the voice of the first-person narrator. constantly drawing the reader’s attention to the act of transcription as the pen covers a blank sheet of paper with symbols (Noël. Noël emphasizes how both the . The text’s self-reflexivity holds thematic as well as stylistic implications. The narrator employs a similar technique to that of Barthes whereby the writer draws attention to the physical act of creation. marking each proposition with the process of its uttering.124 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Duras’ L’Amant. This dissolution of the authorial body forestalls the unification of the text under a single authoritative message. page 168). a visual image that is central to the text but never reproduced for the reader. 18). 1975. 14). the book begins with a photograph. The anonymous snatches of conversation serve to emphasize this level of indeterminacy. Cette visibilité voyage à travers le corps. 1998. puis elle entre dans le regard” (Noël. Both writers are attempting to shake off the remnants of the psychological realism that is identified as part of traditional character formation but Noël’s discourse introduces a further metaphor whereby the physical act of transcribing words onto the page is likened to the painter’s gesture on the canvas. The self-reflexivity of the text introduces a dramatic gradation of language and highlights the ambivalence of the referential status of je: “Où en suis-je à présent? Mais il ne s’agit pas de moi: il s’agit toujours de relations. literary quotations and the voices of characters that seem to articulate further the thoughts of the narrator. la visibilité est le résultat du travail obscur de la main.
Noël repeats this claim in a response to André Miguel that is collected in Treize cases du je. Ou les deux?” To which Noël replies: L’écriture est un travail. the narrator draws attention to the fragmented text. The verbal performance of the Journal du regard embodies the practice of this theory. what is fictitious in fiction. according to Noël. The text’s anti-linearity. in this sense. au centre. the text should reflect this.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 125 brush and the pen are tools that serve to convert reality into images and images into thought. à froid. 96). un temps. making a claim for its greater vraisemblance. in particular the Journal du regard. est-ce un travail intellectuel. The question posed concerns above all Noël’s poetry: “L’écriture fragmentaire. Authority. 1998. 31). que le fragment était plus près du vrai – plus près parce que l’à-pic sur lequel il s’achève est à l’image de la vie coupée net par la mort (Noël. Un travail pas seulement sur la langue. The fragmentary structure of the text displays an aphoristic tendency and the discontinuous paragraphs comprise a multiplicity of discourses. Barthes’s rhetorical question creates the notion of . telle que vous aimez. ou est-ce une révélation spontanée.’ mais sans doute ai-je cru. 96). challenging the reader to apprehend the text as a visual ensemble as well as a symbolic structure. In Le 19 octobre. seems to subvert the ideology of authorship. Je crois que l’écriture est la pensée du corps […] Mon écriture consiste justement à travailler à cette description […] Je n’aime pas plus une écriture fragmentaire qu’une écriture ‘globalisante. indicating that as thought processes proceed through fitful starts of inspiration. 1975. but also authority in all its forms. insofar as the author functions as an authority that is a barrier against interpretation (the text cannot signify beyond conscious authorial intent). Noël’s use of fragmented specular images recalls the question posed by Barthes in “Le cercle des fragments”: “écrire par fragments: les fragments sont alors des pierres sur le pourtour du cercle: je m’étale en rond: tout mon petit univers en miettes. quoi?” (Barthes. is precisely its quality of seamless continuity (see Noël. The fragmentary nature of Noël’s texts. is represented by any idea or agency that can be presented as the ultimate signified of a text. the blank spaces and fragments of poetry create a symbiotic relation between form and content. mais reste à savoir sur quoi. 1998. reminding the reader that its writer is also a poet. mais sur le corps.
the different ways in which we apprehend a visual image and a written text: Mettre en mots consiste à projeter le monde sur son intimité. discontinuous shifts in modality and perspective that are inherent in human experience and to ground them in a single subjectivity (the illusory stade du miroir). self-representation is the effect of a constructed similarity between identity and language. While Barthes’s technique stems from a desire to undermine traditional assumptions made about the meaning of a text and its origin. then to make this attempt is to confront the limitations of expression. on pense faire un objet visuel. In “Le fragment comme illusion”. mettre en images entraîne à projeter son intimité sur le monde. In his autobiography. If the centre conceals a void. he is constantly deploying strategies to diffract his narrative. are necessarily and inevitably reinscribed within the textual system. the nature of Noël’s fragmentary text resists the illusion of a centred self that language is sufficiently transparent to express. rather than its most profound effect. Noël acknowledges these limitations and attempts to resist interpretations of his work as a . 11). such a space can only be the unstable location of the text as writing. However. De Man asserts that the assumed referential status of autobiography reveals the fictionality of all referentiality and how autobiographers. the author deploys a fragmentary structure to negate the sense of linear progression. the text takes the form of a series of displacements from one mode of discourse to another. Noël’s technique also seeks to challenge the nature of vision. Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes. on fabrique du lisible. but the very symbolic system that both constructs and is constructed by the writing self. mais lui aussi sera lu (Noël. an attempt to cast in fixed terms the self-reflexive. Barthes claims that the fragment is an attempt to break out of the specular echoes of ideologized discourse. Dans le premier cas. as I have observed. in their attempt to escape the constraints of language. language is neither an external force nor a tool of expression. De Man’s critique suggests that the specular nature of autobiographical discourse tends to posit the self as the cause of language. If. dans le second. Like Noël’s Journal du regard.126 The Body as Medium and Metaphor images in a fragmentary space that resist the coalescence of a single image into the Imaginary. 1988. revealing subjectivity to be disoriginary. However.
At another moment. the book stands in for and creates the narrator. 35). un je. N’importe qui est un je (Noël.” When he is no longer able to see. quoi de plus impersonnel que le pronom le plus personnel. Noël highlights the ambiguity of the status of je. 67). The nature of Le 19 octobre as a monologue extérieur means that the reader never forms an external image of the narrator. Instead. He unravels characterization. où il y avait un je. Like Barthes. including his writing. a message straddling the code. j’ai senti l’intensité de cette liaison. a language. beaucoup de je. but it is also an index. He explains how his reality is a fiction as it only gains . Noël describes him as “simple figure optique. we experience the world through the eyes of je and are therefore confronted with a series of disjointed tableaux. Noël reveals his distrust of language. Oh! me suis-je dit. 1998. Il m’a poussé vers une image. mais qu’est-ce que je. Je is an element in a code. Je can be appropriated by any speaker of that language but its meaning can only be given as the addresser of the message to which it belongs. This is exemplified in Le 19 octobre by the status of the first-person pronoun: Est-ce le mot ‘signe’? C’est un mot glissant. the transformation of a material surface into imaginary profundity. Elle est alentour comme une liaison dans laquelle toute chose accède à un même rapport. revealing that identity is only an identity-effect. The narrator of Le 19 octobre has a sense of identity that depends solely on his relation with the objects and people that surround him. The irreducible nature of the pronoun means that it can never be the immediate expression of a subjectivity prior to the code. Le je s’y éteint (Noël. Je refers only to the person uttering it and is thus what Jakobson calls a shifter. et son intimité. Therefore je is not a conventional sign as it relates to a specific act of utterance. 1998. 1998. as in the following example. 51). Noël’s constant interrogation of language prevents the reader identifying with the source of the text. he loses his consciousness of self: J’ai plongé dans la nuit.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 127 composite sign: a signifier and signified already congealed into a finished meaning. he asks: “Je. In the absence of a definable physical presence. encore un je. sinon le garant de la crédibilité de tous les récits?” (Noël. Et dès que je me suis enfoncé dans l’immobilité qui me tient là. me dis-je.
as previously observed but also to a physical experience of language. but a point of dispersion for the affects that pull the unity of self apart. 30). 50). Similarly. He avoids a narration of the past because memory contains neither flesh nor blood. an autonomous system. 1998.128 The Body as Medium and Metaphor substance within the body of the text. The consequences of this for the reader involve an inability to identify with the text and therefore the reader’s sense of self as a unified subject is suspended. 1998. et à la fin on verra” (Noël. for there is no message and the reader cannot identify with the discourse. language is also an extension of the body. The narrator’s body. This relates not only to a formation of identity. it therefore exceeds representation. 89). 16). he can achieve a sense of reality only through writing: “A présent je me dis: ta réalité sera ce que tu écris. sinon la dissolution de la différence? A partir de là. ne cherche-t-il pas la même intimité? Et qu’est-ce que l’intimité. 90) and the text must become an experience like that of a lived moment. When the narrator states that his reality is a fiction and his girlfriend claims that his text lacks substance. The body for Noël as the subject of knowledge is not an assembly point for the unified totality of self. the reader has no secure identity. as the receiver of a message. pas l’espace vécu” (ibid. il ne s’agit plus de demander: où est le corps? mais où n’est-il pas? (Noël. The body is more process than image. The philosophy professor elaborates on this point: “Il y a rencontre entre le lu et le vécu des yeux comme si le livre était l’espace corporel d’un récit […] – Corporel? – Oui. Comment communiquer cette disparition à l’instant même où moi je disparais? Le lecteur. as there is no recognizable speaker. Noël writes in the present because “Il n’y a pas de corps dans le passé” (ibid. c’est-à-dire devient si réellement elle-même qu’elle ne fait plus rien d’autre qu’être. The multiplicity of textual voices multiplies the reader’s response and divides their subjectivity. The repeated criticism of his lover is: “Il n’y a pas de corps dans ton texte” (ibid. 94). Noël writes: Il faut écrire. à son tour. So the narrator of Le 19 . his body-image. mais le moment où j’écris est le moment où l’écriture disparaît. In Treize Cases du je. entrer dans l’écriture. this is less an attack on his literary skills than an affront to his reality. it is but words and images (ibid. If Noël recognizes that to enter into language is to enter into a symbolic body. Like the decentred self of the writer. is dispersed within the text he produces.
he notices its symbolic potency. writing seeks to become an experience of and through the body. a photographic framework: “Mon attention vient de se fixer sur un espace très restreint: une parcelle de sol pavé […] Je ne vois que cela. le pied et les pavés un petit volume transparent dans lequel les trois choses que je vois semblent enfermées. 1998. Seemingly in order to test this dual and microscopic power of language. Fixing his look upon three dead leaves moving across the paving stones.” His spontaneous creation of a nature morte within an invisible framework leads him to identify with and respond to the . like the use of light within a painting. Language versus Sight The second part of Le 19 octobre. he notices how his vision creates a frame. 66). extending the physical quality of vision. Here Noël is clearly foregrounding the idea of absence by placing it in upper case unlike the lower case of Mallarmé’s text. “Le travail du jour”. to encompass even the most quotidian scene. Like an image that appears to stop time with its evocative power (the photograph in part one). But while resigning himself to the limitations of language. en grossissant tel détail. which would be necessarily be a past image. à la manière d’une loupe qui. mais ils savent également produire une proximité inquiétante. 66).Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 129 octobre is defined not by any self-image. the narrator breaks into description. le rend plus que présent (Noël. the way in which it resonates through his body. and hopes that he will be able to exploit this potential. a luminous quality radiates from and appears to unify the three elements of his picture: “Je veux dire qu’elle (la lumière) forme entre les feuilles. The random designation of his use of space creates its own internal logic as. 72). begins with a crisis of conscience for the narrator who asks himself if he can continue writing. He recognizes a certain paradoxical quality in language: Il est vrai que les mots éloignent les pétales et l’odeur pour ne réaliser que l’Absente de tous bouquets. et la pointe d’un pied chaussé de noir” (ibid. but by the images of what he perceives around him in the present: he is a “simple figure optique” because “tout n’est que matériau de la pensée” and this material is “la pensée de mes yeux” (ibid.
the narrator foregrounds a fragmentation. amount to a new synthesis of the “real. while each one remains unique.” The representation of things is never total or panoramic. tout à coup. At times. l’espace devienne adéquat à l’identification. This recalls Noël’s description of his poetry. The narrator of Le 19 octobre is far from the role of the traditional omniscient. Imposing a framework on perception. Cela unit le regard à l’espace peint parce que les objets ont été disposés dans une harmonie. things into living beings. The monologue extérieur may be an attempt to inaugurate a paradigm of narrative multiperspectivism but it does not. The narrator is not only fascinated by the look or the . je me sens lumineusement libre et retenu” (ibid. The way in which vision is experienced and carries an emotional or sensual weight exemplifies how. In focusing the narrator’s vision in such a manner. now larger. omnipresent narrator. The narrator’s impression of being at once both free and constrained demonstrates the impossibility of sublating perspectives into one coherent construct. une allégresse au centre de laquelle. his vision is fragmented. dependant on the viewer’s position. Noël seeks to bring to his writing a similar set of aesthetics as he perceives to exist in painting: Or le problème du peintre c’est de mettre dans l’espace des objets qui font que. the description in the novel appears to be purely visual. for Noël. Et voilà. à les voir ainsi libres et retenues. à une circulation entre celui qui regarde et cet espace. strictly limited. fascinated by the insignificant detail and underscoring congruity and diversity in place of a homogeneous appearance. 1998). beyond which it is futile to try to see anything. now narrower.130 The Body as Medium and Metaphor vision: “j’éprouve. however. 66). the interplay of the senses. un équilibre […] Je me demande si le poème n’est pas la même chose: en écrivant on a affaire à un espace dans lequel on dispose des objets verbaux. It is fragmentary. as if by a fracture in the field of vision. all contribute to a single expressive space. fallible and incomplete. the reader is also reminded that perception is always perspectival. à mon tour. to a section of the real. but most often reduced. c’est tout à coup un poème […] à cause d’une certaine condensation d’énergie (Noël. Entretiens avec Dominique Sampiero. an explosion into aspects where energy is condensed: the narrator’s gaze turns living beings into things.
98). self-contained presence. the narrator metaphorically holds a magnifying glass up to his companion’s face and his look is indiscriminative: “C’est peut-être qu’ayant fixé les yeux. j’ai même l’impression d’être à l’intérieur de lui. his vision is held by her face and eyes. Therefore. plus mouillé. the gaze of other characters. the emotional effect they have on him: “L’oeil gauche me paraît plus étroit. qui me pique et me dérange” (ibid. un flottement: celui d’une légèreté encore hésitante entre le lâcher et la retenue” (Noël. alors c’est la débandade des certitudes. je n’ai plus un regard qui décrit. denies the fiction of unmediated.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 131 appearance of objects surrounding him. 105). as that of being aware of the oscillation between being the viewed object and the viewing subject: “Je vois son regard. “Je ne me connaîtrai jamais […] Parce que je ne peux pas regarder mes yeux au moment où je la regarde” (ibid. tout au sommet de moi. it is also this frustration that drives desire. As the philosophy professor observes: “Nous sommes fluides et changeants […] L’important est qu’une tête réelle puisse dire à une autre tête réelle: Je suis Toi. This concept is pre-empted in part two by the narrator’s companion who has a large . 74). The eye is not only considered to be in some way revelatory of the “I” of the perceived but provokes a subjective response in the beholder. consequently. The power of being held in someone’s look is also described as disturbing. If desire is provoked by sight and yet eternally frustrated at not being able to describe a vision or render it eternally present. 77). He describes her eyes and. With minute attention to detail. il est fuyant. Describing the appearance of his escort in part two. he is also intrigued by the look. l’autre est vif. Acknowledging the limitations of human vision. il est attentif” (ibid. of a self-identical moment which is removed from the temporal flux. et cependant il m’échappe sans que je puisse m’arrêter à un mot qui me dirait avec certitude: il est tendre. this is no longer a question of pure optics but again of the interrelatedness of the senses. plus tendre. 1998. the narrator’s refrain. The ultimate incompatibility of image and language is parallel to the impossibility of the seeing subject coinciding with the seen object. mais. The impossibility of deducing the self from its appearance is mirrored in the impossibility of the coincidence of the seeing and the seen: the eye meeting the “I”. la fin du corps considéré comme boîte conserve de l’identité” (ibid. avec un point de lumière au centre. 75). il est ironique.
m’obsédant de sa grotte où j’imagine d’incessantes métamorphoses entre la chair et l’odeur (Noël. Distractedly. 79). such as a description of the potent beverage in part two: L’effet est volatil. le palais irradient ensuite un froid odorant.132 The Body as Medium and Metaphor mirror above her bed: “Si je l’ai mis là. our attempt to recreate reality through language. 37). and in our pursuit of that presence. The writer runs the risk that the .” Paradoxically. as I have demonstrated. et je devine que je cherche moins un lieu où reposer ce qui m’anime qu’un détour pour lui éviter de tomber de mes yeux dans ma bouche. et il s’en suit que mes yeux s’étalent bientôt sur une concavité qui gonfle et gonfle. Here. that of being able to bring about the transformation of objects. Reality is diluted or rendered false in the transposition of representation from fact to vraisemblance: “Entre les mots et les choses. Words remain behind as the failure of what they were witness to. The pleasure the narrator takes in his visualization of the scene becomes frustration when he realizes that it will not suffice to hold his attention for long. is not limited to the sense of the visual. 1998. I would like to recall the task of the autobiographer and the way in which the attempt to render reality (vision or memory) shares this characteristic. la langue. 76). we are continually misled and deceived. this difficulty is compounded by the possibility that the lived reality of the individual past will have been eroded or contaminated by prefabricated elements taken from literary and cultural stereotypes. La bouche y gagne une présence envahissante au milieu de la tête. The description. et chacun me semble creusé de milliers de papilles brusquement ouvertes. he seeks another prop for his eyes to behold. trying to avoid the trap of description: “Du temps passe. The limitation of language is that it represents the loss of an original presence. However. c’est pour la raison un peu folle que je rêve de m’y voir en train de dormir” (ibid. The autobiographer attempts to circumvent a settled vision of the past. it extends to incorporate more synaesthetic moments but these are often concluded by a return to sight. the writer perceives verbal description as that which renders vision impure and thus he returns to the central theme of the novel: the failure or inadequacy of language. He realizes that words have only one advantage. Vision is the catalyst for other sensory experiences. il y a cet escalier sans marches auquel manquent même le limon et la rampe” (ibid.
autobiography involves the attempt to bring the extra-linguistic into language. As he walks. we can no more encompass time than we can circumscribe our life. 67). the narrator also recognizes their complementary natures and the presence of certain parallels: “J’ai compris – trop tard? – que le mouvement qu’articulent nos yeux ressemble à celui de la langue” (Noël. he forgets himself in the observation of the objects he passes: “Les yeux passent d’une chose à l’autre. et le regard les unit. This then poses the question. but exist as a living synthesis of all three. Time is a network of overlapping intentionalities. Noël demonstrates how. In Le 19 octobre. in seeking to avoid the artifice of vraisemblance. consequently. 68). formant récit” (ibid. Memory is heterogeneous and the material of memory lies largely outside language. acknowledges the limitations of language to represent a lived reality and through this acknowledgement. 1998. we can never be sealed into any single temporal dimension. a coalescence of the disruptive.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 133 reconstruction of past feelings is commandeered by the vraisemblance of convention and artifice. This can be linked to the failure of the autobiographical project. the narrator seems to want to deprive his lover of the power of vision: . aiming to record and simulate the resurgence of sensation. Noël’s fragmentary text exemplifies how time is neither undergone nor constituted by us and. a collection of fragments. is memory therefore incompatible with autobiography? I would argue that Noël’s writing. Paradoxically. our reflection on subjectivity is itself part of our subjectivity. Our reflection on time is itself situated in time. in essence. if autobiography is linked to an essential unity. Therefore. our past always remains potentially retrievable as temporality is not something we conceive or observe: it is the process of living our lives. which remains. Noël’s writing deals in the momentary and the fragmentary. discontinuous work of memory. we do not call up an idea or an image we re-open time and carry ourselves back to the moment when it was present. while recognizing the ultimate incompatibility of vision and language and the impossibility of the perfect transcription of sight. comes closer to expressing the multiplicity of lived experience. Similarly. just as vision’s perspective precludes the possibility of perceiving everything simultaneously. so the perspective of our temporal consciousness rules out an all-encompassing grasp of time. When we remember a past incident.
to the narrator’s possible death at the end of the novel (quoted above). muqueux. 81). the narrator refers to the female sex as the eye: “elle […] me regarde. In part three of Le 19 octobre. The final sentences of Le 19 octobre make explicit the association between orgasm and death: “Je vois l’âme de ton sexe. seule compte la chose regardée” (Noël. 1998. c’est voir la mort. There is a sexual metaphor in Noël’s description of the loss of self: “J’ai plongé dans la nuit […] Et dès que je me suis enfoncé dans l’immobilité qui me tient là. he binds her more tightly to him. If he renders her blind. j’ai couramment tendance à regarder l’organe féminin comme une chose sale ou comme une blessure. 95).134 The Body as Medium and Metaphor “Je veux te crever les yeux. c’est mourir. pas moins attirante en cela. The loss of vision accompanies the annihilation of self and the consciousness of difference. 122). themes of death and violence are omnipresent in Le 19 octobre. Aujourd’hui. pose un pied sur le lit. Earlier in the text. j’ai senti l’intensité de cette liaison. From the description of the photograph in part one. cambre son bas-ventre. his is the power of language. to the petition for the torture victims in Argentina. mais dangereuse par elle-même comme tout ce qui est sanglant. Ou peut-être était-ce: – Voir vraiment. Noël . a sense of self is surrendered. Leiris also draws a parallel between the female sex and the eye: La signification de l’oeil crevé est très profonde pour moi. This comparison is apparent in L’Âge d’Homme. The montage nature of Le 19 octobre and its anti-linearity are reminiscent of Breton’s Nadja. page 67). 67). Le je s’y éteint” (ibid. dis-je. A moins qu’il n’ait dit: – Le visible nous cache la mort” (ibid. ouvre son sexe des deux mains: -Mon oeil!” (ibid. se retrousse. as in the act of love. contaminé (Leiris. as I have already remarked. 1995. As a writer. when Leiris observes how the annihilation of self in death compares to the orgasm (see chapter 2. Et je meurs” (ibid. 22). et cuisses écartés. je me perds dans mes yeux. to the sacrificial tableau in part two. In the darkness.” He expresses admiration for her eyes and mouth but significantly the shape of her mouth. The loss of consciousness or self that death and orgasm entail is compared to the ability to hold a vision and to suspend other sensory experiences: “Il m’a dit: – Voir vraiment. et son intimité. 22). Noël extends the metaphor with his implication that pure vision involves the annihilation of the self: “pour la première fois. Je n’existe plus.
They undermine both the notion that it is solely through the sense of sight that we apprehend and comprehend the world and also the idea that the eye can be in any way revelatory of the beholder’s identity. 102). 99). Breton uses the same metaphor related by Nadja: Cela la fait penser à sa petite fille. il élimine puisqu’il n’est plus du visible. 1998. 1964. comme si je ne faisais que transcrire. The incident begins with a question: Tu crois qu’elles nous voient vraiment? […] Mais ce ne sont pas les vrais yeux […] Et si on regardait ce qu’il y a derrière? […] Elle prenait alors une des petites cuillères de son service à poupées. the narrator eavesdrops on a conversation where the speaker adopts the role of the writer’s alter ego. puis. or to recall the Romantics. 96). et d’autre part. plus j’écris avec acharnement pour que le lecteur voie. et qu’elle adore. ‘avec cette idée de toujours enlever les yeux des poupées pour voir ce qu’ il y a derrière ces yeux’ (Breton. During the conversation.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 135 relates a childhood anecdote in which a young girl rips out the eyes of a doll. the image inspires the words. avec des mots. Both writers are questioning the nature of vision and its tenuous relationship to a purely subjective reality. des fantômes de formes […] D’une part. saisissant l’un des bébés de la rangée. which inevitably cannot remain true to reality but in their turn transform reality and provoke other images: Le texte raconte ce visible en transformation. une enfant dont elle m’a appris avec tant de précautions l’existence. elle lui arrachait les yeux (ibid. mais des mots […] Plus ce que je veux représenter se perd dans ce que je fais. surtout parce qu’elle est si peu comme les autres enfants. Suddenly the emphasis upon the creation of images is displaced from . the expression of the soul. Qu’il voie ce que je ne vois plus (Noël. Imaging Identity In part three. le texte conserve ce que j’ai vu. it is explained from a writer’s point of view how images can be transcribed into literature.
However. L’écriture me fournit une image du monde. et je sais que ce silence est la chose que j’essaierai de faire entendre au stade final: un langage pacifié parce que tout voyant. 15). simplement en accord de telle sorte qu’il n’y a plus rien à dire (Noël. So according to Blanchot. Through focusing on the processes of production and reception. This moment can only be identified as that of the death of the writer as the writer both realizes and is realized through his work: “Dans les moments où je n’écris pas. ni pilleur de réalité. the anonymous talker explains: Il m’arrive parfois d’avoir un regard sans interprétation. c’est-à-dire qu’il a besoin de l’oeuvre qu’il produit pour avoir conscience d’eux et de lui-même. 100). In part 3. However. il les met en oeuvre. the work itself can only exist through the reader. Blanchot explains: Ses talents. non seulement il ignore qui il est. avant son oeuvre. the text itself or the interpretation of the text by the reader is a false enterprise. because the image is inextricably tied to . the origin of meaning. ne se réalise que par son oeuvre. it is deeply implicated in language.136 The Body as Medium and Metaphor the writer onto the reader. The identity of the writer is in perpetual transformation but while a writer can only exist through his work. Noël reveals the extent to which the writer’s identity as writer is situated within the texture of discourse. Rather than being. mais il n’est rien. Referring to the writer. for Noël. in humanist terms. je ne vois plus rien. 1981. Il n’existe qu’à partir de l’œuvre (Blanchot. he acknowledges that the attempt to associate the identity of the writer with either the person who produces the text. ni pilleur d’être. the defiance of the gesture is an illusion: a writer ceases to be a writer as soon as he puts down his/her pen. 104). et elle construit l’espace dans lequel je vis” (ibid. Noël writes that he has stopped writing and the words confront the writer as an impossible challenge. d’un seul coup le langage fait silence. the writer comes into being through language. 1998. This aligns with Noël’s observations on the impossibility of language coinciding with lived reality and how language becomes the Other that replaces the writer. L’écrivain ne se trouve.
et reconnaître dans ce qu’il voit alors ‘l’autre côté’ de sa puissance voyante. un passé et un avenir (Merleau-Ponty. 1964. narcissisme. il est visible et sensible pour soi-même. the seeing subject plays a role in perception but this is not the role of the . 19). an awareness of the intersubjective formation of identity can be indicated but never perfectly described. m’incorporer” (Noël. Il se voit voyant. L’Oeil et l’Esprit. il se touche touchant. 1998. This arises from the enigma that the body is both seeing and seen: Lui qui regarde toutes choses. pour vivre et voir par le biais de l’écriture une totalité. 1998. as well as his very inability to express what defines this experience of identity (Noël. So the body inhabits space not in the sense of position but in the sense of situation because the body is constituted through its rapport with the objects which surround it. without language we cannot participate in or incorporate ourselves into the reality we perceive: “j’ai envie de voir. en le constituant. he proposes that while the body is in the world forming part of the objects and substance that surround us. il peut aussi se regarder. seul monde où j’ose avoir des gestes. environment and relationships. mais aussi pour vivre. comme la pensée. C’est un soi. it is the capacity of sight that leads us to interpret the world as an extension of ourselves. or as a means of communicating his vision but also as the sole means of rendering his world visible and real to himself: “J’écris pour voir. an object amongst others. to conceive of the self as the centre of the visible world. en le transformant en pensée – mais un soi par confusion. c’est comme si je voyais de loin et sans pouvoir toucher. Sight does not suffice to constitute experience. inhérence de celui qui voit à ce qu’il voit. Noël explains that his (textual) identity arises as a consequence of his interaction with his surroundings.” And this work is perpetual. car si je vois sans mots. 14). non par transparence. For Merleau-Ponty perception is not an exact science. du sentant au senti – un soi donc qui est pris entre des choses. mais voir ne me suffit pas. In Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of vision and painting. The writer’s task is symbolic of the role of language within the fabric of society. de celui qui touche à ce qu’il touche. qui ne pense quoi que ce soit qu’en l’assimilant. 103). habiter. In other words. he writes not only to produce an identity to be perceived and interpreted by the reader. qui a une face et un dos.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 137 the word and vice versa.
and a single image has multiple verbal interpretations. c’est dire que je cours toujours derrière toi. 13). et cependant ce que je fais est voulu. In Le 19 octobre. therefore. Toujours en retard des mots parce que les mots retardent par rapport aux yeux” (Noël. a movement to-and-fro. The tension lies in the fissures or the fault-line of the text. bodily subject. et je n’en finis pas de désirer” (Barthes. skirts cover and expose the female sex. projects onto the perceived world its emotional repertoire. faces are confused with identity. mais voir la réalité la couvre d’une énigme […] Ou bien. The narrator explains that writing is his attempt to draw closer to the world or to reconcile himself with it through representation and expression. For Noël. 1975). reasoning subject. the locus of this desire is in the pursuit of the visible. the past is not . Noël states: “La mémoire est le roman. the tension created by the wish to reconcile or assimilate word to image and image to word. J’en vois bien la réalité. 13). time is a subjective experience. Seulement le désir” (Noël. If the linear nature of the text unfolding in time mimics a movement towards the future. 1998. Art is the product of subjectivity and therefore an imperfect picture of reality. / Qu’est-ce qui est possible? / Le désir. It is not the intellect that apprehends the world but the emotional. the narrator recalls a conversation: “Je ne veux rien. It is this movement towards the world that produces the tension inherent in writing. Le roman est le passé présent” (Noël. 42). The past is composed of images that are realized through words and render the past present. this is in contrast with the contents of Noël’s text. 103). At the end of Barthes’ autobiography. 19). which. Desire in Noël’s text is represented by a constant oscillation. just as the most erotic part of the body. there is a sample of Barthes’s handwriting. 1998. is “là où le vêtement baîlle” (Barthes. as time is a network of intentions. 1998. an indexical trace of bodily presence which claims “on écrit avec son désir.138 The Body as Medium and Metaphor calculating. The desire which propels the text is evoked in the narrator’s love-letter: “J’écris pour le désir et la violence. Similarly. est-ce que la pensée ne se trahit pas elle-même en prenant sa représentation pour sa réalité?” (Noël. 1973. according to Barthes. 1998. The subject is present only in regards to his/her future and past. In Le 19 octobre. The narrator of Le 19 octobre recognizes that his appreciation of reality is limited “il arrive qu’une chose se perde dans sa propre évidence. words reveal and belie images. 42). as the reality he wishes to apprehend seems to slip away (ibid.
It unsettles the reader and destroys the comfortable world of the Imaginary in the attempt to become a discourse of the body. self-referential discourse becomes experiential. And the body becomes the space of fictional dispersion. voluntary memory is structured as an archive of images. as discontinuous as imagery. in the present. et de soi-même. That cognition and perception are dependent upon the entirety of the sensory apparatus means that memory is irreducible to the operations of consciousness and therefore cannot be brought to light: to remember within the space of the remembering body is to remember without knowing anything. . vol. The narrator wonders if the relationship between a memory and its image is not the same as that between an image and its reflection but recalls that one is drawn out of the passage of time while the other breaks up into the ripples of Narcissus’ pond (ibid. and so on. the reconstituted image is an imperfect reflection of the original. Within the Proustian novel it is the body that registers or records memories and impressions. qui vive plus longtemps. The body in Proust. les bras sont pleins de souvenirs engourdis” (Proust. our narration of the past can only be told untruthfully and hence passes into the realms of fiction (ibid. which we then attempt to rectify with further descriptive language. Any objective retrieval of the past is as unlikely as looking past one’s own reflection in a mirror. avait perdu l'amour d'Albertine. and involuntary memory functions as past images intervene into the present moment. comme certains animaux ou végétaux inintelligents vivent plus longtemps que l'homme. la mémoire involontaire elle-même. le corps is analogous to the text. names a principle of articulation between writing. 3. The infinitely possible permutations of a single image that is evoked through language entail that the past can never be perfectly communicated. 1954. 26). The narcissism of gazing into images from the past does not escape Noël as he writes: “Se souvenir: on enfonce toujours la même porte ouverte. 91). pâle et stérile imitation de l'autre. The advantage of words in the evocation of memory is that they are “un miroir sans reflet” (ibid. in infinite regression (ibid.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 139 composed of language but language serves to re-evoke it.1 For Noël. 108). et l’on entre suivi de soi-même. In seeking to render language as immediate. as in Noël. memory and materiality that does not belong to the domain of knowledge. In Proust. for example: “Ma mémoire. the 1 The way in which moments of chance evoke past experiences that have been retrospectively masked by the intellect also recalls Proust. Mais il semble qu'il y ait une mémoire involontaire des membres. 16). Les jambes. 39). 699). Language modifies the image in such a way that it is re-evoked in the mind’s eye. the fragmentary. However. Consequently. et de soi-même” (ibid.
insisting on the materiality of language to evoke the materiality of a fragmented. The narrator of Le 19 octobre is never entirely co-incident with fragmentation but his use of fragmented images evokes the dispersed self. The body is an object that is always liable to congeal into a purely imaginary entity. which is . I will demonstrate how Prassinos fabricates a mulititude of surreal body images where consciousness and physicality are juxtaposed in disturbing and satirical ways. destabilizes subjectivity. perceptual subjectivity. I have sought to show how he brings a heightened visual consciousness to bear upon a linear. symbolic order. which appears to cohere into an Imaginary whole but is always subtended by the fragmentation of the dispersed self. The text. through a close reading of Mon Coeur les écoute. text. the self falls back into the Imaginary by writing but writing will always return to the fragmentary. created in 1975. In contrast to the absent body image of Noël’s text. If Noël posits the body as a dispersed presence. an experiential void. where no corporeal contours are attributed to the narrator. How does Prassinos manipulate the text and the incorporation of actual images to convey her particular vision of the body and challenge the reader’s preconceived sense of self? Part Two: Gisèle Prassinos Introduction Mon Coeur les écoute is a literary exploration of an unending search for identity. the moment of textuality affirms the fragmentation of the self. the following section will examine how Gisèle Prassinos creates a similar sense of self through a very different approach. Reading. like writing. Noël creates a rhetorical fragment of the Imaginary but the Imaginary is inhabited by the fragmentary. Like Barthes’ concept of jouissance that exceeds the frame of representation. It is the continuation of the self-portrait Gisèle Prassinos started in Brelin le Frou.140 The Body as Medium and Metaphor accusation brought by the narrator’s girlfriend (“il n’y a pas de corps dans ton texte”) indicates that the writer’s quest is perpetually doomed. The text reveals that self-representation is never self-same. In my examination of Noël’s texts. language is a shifting. if discontinuous.
All of the images portray the bodies that are the victims of Prassinos’s text. This uncertainty and indefinition that surrounds the body propels the workings of the text. familiar emotions. A confessional first-person narrative builds a relationship of warm intimacy with the reader. The images. the text displays paradoxical shifts in the narrative voice. at the side of the page or at the end of a story. What is the rapport between the speaking voice and the text? How many narrative voices are there? From what perspectives are they .Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 141 composed of short stories often resembling prose poems. which is stripped away in a subsequent story by a change of pronoun or a change of tone. The short stories. with the lack of any identifiable corporeal morphology within the stories. which have their past lives literally inscribed on their flesh or become mere tools of extraordinary conscious control. The images and text work together to the point at which the very notion of the body’s self-sufficiency becomes nebulous. Indeed. the body of the text also becomes troublesome and complex. Consequently. or fragments. become porous or abject. situations and recognizable occurrences from everyday life are pushed to the point of incredulity and incomprehension. shifts between the narrative voice of a je. they appear to interrupt the smooth linear perusal of the narrative and enhance the already thematically fragmentary text. sometimes female and il. which do not so much illustrate the stories but become ideograms of them. The stylistic devices that Prassinos uses to keep her readers from falling into a false sense of security are echoed by the themes of her stories. and replaces the sentiment of intimacy with one of confused alienation. bodies that undergo metamorphoses. The symbiotic relation of theme and style is reinforced and reiterated in the incorporation of Prassinos’s images within the text. on and moi et moi-même. prevent the reader from penetrating the text and extracting any given meaning or identifying any single narrator. A story with a plausible beginning accelerates into a surreal nightmare where all vraisemblance is lost. The playful and humourous sketches that at times derive their humour from tragic and bleak situations. therefore assume an almost episodic structure. sometimes male. nous. The images are inserted between paragraphs. The metamorphoses of the body are inextricably linked to the fluidity of the text. are included in the text in such a fashion that it is impossible for the eye to skim over or ignore them.
Prassinos’s autobiographical texts not only work their way back through an accretion of poetic texts and myths. By the end. As the story progresses. they are also a personal search for a narrative persona that is capable of shaking loose the shackles of her own literary history. the narrator awakes one morning to find himself invaded by un corps étranger. the possibility of any coherent narrative perspective is irremediably undermined. The playful sketches display a humour which is at different times fantastical. In Ce que je sais maintenant.142 The Body as Medium and Metaphor speaking? As the voices multiply. the narrator’s body accumulates these membranes and he observes them also on the bodies of other people. Gisèle Prassinos. clinging to the body as though it had become . he included the writing of a fourteen year-old poet. an almost transparent membrane that has attached itself to his face. it is also a search for self-knowledge and acceptance. André Breton recalls Freud’s definition: “L’humour a non seulement quelque chose de libérateur. In the preface to the 1939 edition of L’anthologie de l’humour noir. the images that are projected outwards and reflected back. Consequently. the narrator is covered by membranes which have. analogue en cela à l’esprit et au comique. although they are not visible to everyone. a humour that is mirrored in the pen and ink drawings. Mon Coeur les écoute is not only an exploration of the body and its manifold images. with the progression of time.” In this edition. become hard and brittle. trying to unravel and unwork the conventions of first-person narratives. What is less well known are the problems faced by the mature woman writer seeking a narrative voice of her own and attempting to shed the formative and restrictive influences of her teenage years. Her highly idiosyncratic use of humour is not merely a literary device used to prevent the text from cohering into an easily identifiable and generic whole. The Body The first story of the collection introduces some of the themes that permeate the text. self-derisive and double-edged. Prassinos’s literary debut is well known – the child prodigy and femme-enfant to the Surrealists. but also a personal quest into the possibilities of autobiography and self-representation via the medium and metaphor of the body. mais encore quelque chose de sublime et d’élevé.
1997 . 12)2. Useless to draw a definitive signified from a surreal text when the possible interpretations appear infinite. The critic Annie Richard3 has categorically concluded that this is an autobiographical text and the indications in the narrative to support this are 2 3 All references are to Mon Coeur Les Ecoute Paris. The humour that underpins Prassinos’s prose surfaces when she describes two injured boys. tantôt brutales. in that all the narrator now knows is the fragility and ephemerality of physical existence? The reader is ultimately left in the position of the narrator: “Inutile de dire où j’en suis maintenant moi-même et ce que je sais.” The first story already clearly demonstrates the thematic concern of the vulnerability of the body through a fantastical and symbolic exploration. Annie Richard. What do these membranes symbolize: the irrevocable and inexorable progress towards death. 1998. comme beaucoup doivent savoir sans oser parler. Le Monde suspendu de Gisèle Prassinos. 11). to enforce any of these frameworks onto such a playful text. evoked through metaphor and detailed description. the critic’s task is one of observation and comment.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 143 a mollusc (p. resorts to the more mundane image of a cabbage. cela ne change rien. Je m’observe chaque matin” (p. The movements of the boys are described in such detail that the reader envisages the scene in slow motion and they are described ludicrously as: “On eût dit deux danseurs costumés mimant la frayeur et le désespoir le plus intense” (p. The imagery in the writing. finding this too poetic a metaphor. She describes the membranes at first like rose petals then. L’une ou l’autre. In this reading. HB Editions. an attempt by the body to protect itself against the ravages of life? Or do they relate to the title Ce que je sais maintenant. I shall make use of such critical frameworks to elucidate her imagery and wordgames although I do not think it would be helpful. feminist or performative. elles se plantent dans nos chairs jusqu’à nous réduire et nous perdre. Calvisson. hit by a car. The narrator realizes that they do not constitute an illness but are a consequence of life: “Tantôt insidieuses et prenant leur temps. is enriched by the simple drawing at the end which depicts an anthropomorphic figure encased in a womb-like surround of what the reader assumes to be crusty membranes. rather limiting. 11). HB Editions. Prassinos’s text is a very knowing text and readily lends itself to a variety of readings: psychoanalytic. seeking to shake loose the membranes that seek to suffocate them.
She evokes common emotions: regret for time past. an old and infirm person? The text is uncertain as all the information the reader is given is that concerning the physical sensations of the protagonist’s current situation and the haunting he is subjected to by vague and indefinable memories. pleasures and dependency of infancy. that of the fallibility of memory. Ce que je sais maintenant is less a comment on the visible traces tracked onto the body by time as an observation by a mature writer on her current situation. the possible interpretations accumulate. following one of the suggestions of the previous story. laughter and voices. this text is far from the straightforward rendition of a life-story. before the sensuality resurfaces in a reference to masturbation: “Quant aux caresses des doigts entre mes jambes. Prassinos here raises what is to be another central theme of the collection. of a division or alienation between the je and the unidentified ils. entre celui-ci et la fin ou entre l’arrivée et le départ. comme on voudra […] une période plus essentielle ne se serait pas écoulée dont j’aurais perdu le souvenir” (p.144 The Body as Medium and Metaphor innumerable and undeniable. 14). as we shall see. In a concentrated and abstract form. which is expanded upon in later stories: the doubling or division of the conscious or cerebral self and the body’s corporeal existence. However. The reader is also made aware of the protagonist’s domination of the narrative voice. half-forgotten faces. These sentiments are contained within symbolic and economic prose: “En effet. The ambiguity that is initiated by the scenario in the first story is reinforced in the second. tortuous and messy (p. The sensual description of food (“J’aime la pâte tiède et molle des aliments qui vient se poser sur ma langue et mes gencives nues”) is followed by a womb-like image of the wool which keeps him warm. je devine au milieu de moi-même comme un amas de scories d’où se détachent. mealtimes become slow. Comme un amas de scories. This story concludes . des morceaux ravivés. as the stories unfold. is disturbed only by the nagging suspicion of a loss of better times: “Parfois je me demande si. The anonymous ils spoon-feed the narrator as left to him/herself. nostalgia. Is the narrative voice that of an infant or. 14). This physical bliss. Prassinos’s narrative expands like a sponge full of water. 15). durant certains de mes rêves nocturnes.” This story introduces the concept of doubling. a return to the innocence. ils ignorent que je les provoque en m’oubliant volontairement dans mon linge” (p.
in contrast to their maker. or rebellion against. he is preoccupied with the future when he will have no more space in his over-flowing apartment for more shreds of material and he will be obliged to give himself up to “la seule et mortelle pensée. sinon Il me dépasse. Unlike Ce que je sais maintenant.” In the third story. in keeping himself occupied. which are “des lieux de pensée. ensuring a ceaseless flow of production to prevent the formation of holes. the idea of time and the body’s resistance to. du moins dans l’étroite bande qui m’y est affectée. to a greater degree than its precedents.” The story concludes with a worrying thought. However. is more probably a reflection on the task of the writer.” This story. however useless. he avoids the trap of thinking. The central thematic concern is highlighted by the personification of time: Je dois aller avec le Temps. its inexorable progress is developed. as the narrator achieves nothing through his occupation save that of distraction. In the face of mortality. je le crois.” The concept of work as profitable and worthwhile employment is subverted. In order to avoid these holes. “toujours dans mes rêves. in this case. 18). les bras chargés de mes “oeuvres”. durable. entraînant la catastrophe. desire is stronger than reason and the creations are only required to be .Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 145 with a dismissal of the troubling psyche and a return to the pleasures of the flesh. Although the narrator succeeds in keeping himself busy for the moment. l’abandon dû à la faiblesse qui. Indeed. précède la plupart des morts véritables. il se forme des trous et je tombe (p. he realizes that the frenetic pace of work serves no purpose as the narrator creates objects that are useless: “sans emploi à notre époque. the protagonist is driven to create. He tries to achieve this inscription by continually working. involves “une lucidité aiguë. Even if his creations are redundant. where the body is shown to be impotent in the face of time. Thought.” The story’s irony runs deeper as the narrator is not creating but destroying objects around himself: “je fais de la charpie.” the narrator reacts and seeks to inscribe himself in time. The “oeuvres” are. this story introduces the narrator as struggling against the wave that threatens to engulf him. and not subject to the passage of time. non pas la sérénité. Les trous. Que j’arrête d’être laborieux et dans ce torrent de pierres endiablées. je sens une autre chair que la mienne s’ouvrir et s’épanouir sous ma main heureuse.
the division of mind and body becomes explicit. The discrepancy between the image and text highlights the reader’s role as interpreter. one of psychic projection in the register of the Symbolic. he is inevitably recalled to thoughts of mortality: “la seule et mortelle pensée. thus is banished. . The drawing depicts a figure with a heart that features prominently on his chest and curiously. the ambiguity inherent in these tales ensures that no one interpretation is infallible. “Le corps” is referred to as “l’esclave” with whom cohabitation becomes impossible. that is. The body is a sad. a detached left arm. which. after a certain time.” The humour that is omnipresent in these stories occurs cheekily in Mon bras droit where the narrator loses his right arm on a regular basis. the banishment proves to be no easy task. The device of personification previously used for time is employed to talk about the body as a demanding and annoying acquaintance. humbled version of its former self and the self fears that its reapparition is a reminder of “l’heure du rendez-vous. the tale is also an allegory of the mindless but necessary pursuit of manual labour. However. lost in a world of meditation and ecstasy. as the narrator discovers hitherto unsuspected connections between mind and body. However. returns repentant to its body. For some time. In this objectification of the body. For the infant.” Here again. Prassinos creates a reversal of these terms so that the body literally divides from its own identity. While in Lacan.146 The Body as Medium and Metaphor visible and tangible: to exist. so Prassinos elaborates on her themes. in and through the differentiated and differentiating use of speech. As the stories progress. free of corporeal concerns.” The narrator concludes that these puzzling physical manifestations are the body trying to rejoin the self. in a different form we are reminded of the vulnerability and ultimate frailty of our physical condition. despite the conscious efforts of the narrator. finally he is forced to admit the apparition of disturbing signs: “Quelque chose qui ne m’est pas étranger. he succeeds in living “seul” (without his body). the body in pieces finds its unity in the image of the Other (which is its own anticipated image). L’heure du rendez-vous. Once again. que j’aurais connu jadis et qui s’efforcerait de me rejoinder.” or in different phrasing “l’heure du rendez-vous. However. we are reminded of Lacan’s stade du miroir where any sense of bodily contour is articulated through a necessary self-division and selfestrangement. this involves an imaginary relation. In the fourth story.
How is it possible to be attached to something that is detached? The narrator is holding onto the arm that would normally do the holding. drawing represents a more direct mode of communication: it arrests the work of the reader’s imagination.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 147 Confronting the image. The instantaneous appreciation of a static image contrasts vividly with the temporal flow of discourse and apart from capturing and expressing a fleeting moment of description. This is also accompanied by an image. the adoption of lines in place of words demonstrates an attempt at specificity and precise description. Prassinos crosses visual and verbal modes of signification to allow for the possible expansion of interpretation. A similarly provocative humour emerges in Le matin which starts: “Le matin. the inclusion or reference to images in narratives of the self. insisting on the particularity of description. more explicitly provocative than the former and reinforces the theme of physical (and here. The accuracy of the image exists only within the gaze of the reader. it is the right arm that has been lost (whereas it is the depicted character’s left arm). When they do appear. interferes with the text’s temporality. The visual interruption of the text. 34). sexual) impotency. As opposed to the symbolic power of language. Similarly to Duchamp who seeks to expand the frame of Le Grand Verre and disseminate meaning through his interference between semiotic systems. in the relationship between reader and image rather than in the faithful depiction of a reality that might objectively precede this. also interacts with one of Prassinos’s thematic concerns that seems to play down narrative causality and to suggest. A play on words occurs in the last sentence “Est-ce que j’y tiendrais tellement à ce membre?” (p. Prassinos’s images do not serve as a catalyst for the text but they allow for a transit between word and image that becomes an essential rhythm in the text. Not all of the stories are illustrated and the images appear at irregular intervals throughout the text. . Leiris’s use of the Cranach painting prevents his narrative unfolding as a temporal process and it becomes instead a process of returning to and searching the image which acts as the catalyst for the unraveling of the skeins of memory. at least potentially. of the perusal of the linear narrative. an alternative sense of self and identity. il est mou” and is the first story to employ the il pronoun. it also slows the reader down to create a different experience of reading. As I have observed.
of the je. the narrator explains how this people could no longer accept the fact that every internal emotion was captured and revealed in facial expression: “Nous n’étions pas disposés à admettre plus longtemps que notre peau. as the person he is becoming has nothing to do with the person he once was. the difficulties of communication or the inevitability of emotional betrayal? In a parody of extremes. They perceive. The concept of an evolving identity is taken to the extreme where he is no longer recognized in his own neighbourhood and the narrator puzzles “Je ne sais qui je suis maintenant.” The past here takes a different toll on the self by achieving the effect of doubling the soi. through the visor. 35). continue à enregistrer des émotions ou sentiments que nous avions le droit de garder secrets” (p. the text gives rise to innumerable interpretative possibilities. forte de sa souplesse. The narrator decides that he must change his name. The picture here is a perfect illustration. any sort of revealing body language. the intellect is literally represented by the unrecognizable head: “Pour le moment. there remains one final inconvenience. Is this an ironic comment on an increasingly impersonal society. Du moi ancien et de l’actuel. eyes that well with tears. These are judged insufficient and develop to the point where they become an all-in-one body armour where any gesture of friendship or respect towards others. they are obliged to turn their eyes away from this indecent display of emotion (p. depicting an oblong case on wheels where the only signs of life are betrayed by two eye and nostril holes. Nevertheless. A Doubtful Identity While the first stories in the collection underscore the fallibility of the body. this time its emotional vulnerability. il s’agit de faire l’unité entre mon corps et ma nouvelle tête. . 52). qui est ou fut l’usurpateur?” (p.148 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Peuple fier again explores the vulnerability of the body. is rendered impossible. In the absence of adequate disguise. in a satirical tale of an imaginary tribe. J’ai du mérite raises the theme of the vulnerability of identity. The people devise a series of defensive disguises in order to hide their faces. Whereas in other stories the division occurs between the intellect and the body. in this instance. 54). Deploying the pronoun nous for the first time.
The title story is accompanied by a figure composed of a castle and the narrator elucidates for us: “Il y a en moi un château. Moi et moi-même explores this same division of self: C’est au coeur du mal que nous coïncidons le mieux. Moi et moimême. 94). but that self and body. In order to prevent this deterioration. the narrator dedicates his time to his own self-preservation. the past will not readily or easily disappear and the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a new head on old shoulders gives rise to comic situations. albeit reluctantly. or corporeality and discourse. If the replacement of one head by another indicates an evolution in character. 37). vieux à present et dont les ramparts menacent sans cesse de s’écrouler” (p. She undermines the material irreducibility of the body through her fantastical configurations and surreal scenarios. 46). so the narrator finds it necessary to order an entire new wardrobe. quand à l’instant d’agir nous renonçons à nous interdire quoi que ce soit. this tale is not without ambiguity. Characteristically.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 149 The old self is shed. ce sont les cris de détresse. then from where is the narrative voice speaking? Prassinos reveals that the materiality of the body is not the effect of discourse or vice versa. Puis elle en a fendillé la peau qui seulement demeurait. The end of the story presents the reader with the image of a personality that has evolved and changed as the consequence of a changed body: J’étais en harmonie avec ma première tête et depuis si longtemps. sans chercher à distinguer qui de nous deux est le vrai coupable (p. comme on fait de la coque d’un oeuf dur. however. are mutually determining. and a new self is symbolized by the new head. tailormade. As is common to all the stories. L’intruse me l’a sournoisement détruite et sans doute dévorée de l’intérieur. Ils profitent de ma . surgir et régner à sa place (p. closed off to the outside world and to the appeals of others. Despite his reiterated selfjustification for his insular attitude for which he supplicates the compassion of the reader. The new head does not have the same likes and dislikes as the first one. Notre unité atteint alors une plénitude telle que nous trahissons de concert. pour finalement l’écarquiller un jour. his conscience troubles him: “Ce que je supporte mal.
the autobiographical input into this collection is undeniable. However. try as he might. he must close himself off to the Other. are also the defences of the ego. how to maintain communication. The castle ramparts. as I have pointed out with reference to Leiris. the existence of the Imaginary depends upon the adoption of the perspective of the Other to convey this impression of wholeness. he would return to himself to find himself in ruins. ils n’ignorent pas que mon coeur. 105). always on the point of collapse. this is altogether a far too reductive reading of this text. for whom the problem is how to listen and respond to others. as the recognition that this identity is constantly in the process of self-renewal. quelque part dans le passé?” (Richard. In Lacan. pages 136 and 152). Nevertheless. the moment of . ego psychology is misguided in its attempts to strengthen the ego defences which only serve to further alienate the subject in an imaginary construct. 48). les écoute” (p. While. However. the narrator feels that in order to maintain the ego. Mon Coeur les écoute is a perceptive and allegorical reading on the nature of identity.” He realizes that were he to come to the help of all the plaintive cries of others. This apparently coherent self-image is delusive as it suppresses the diffuse. they cannot deny the heterogeneity or intersubjective nature of the self. in Prassinos’s text. he will serve as an example to encourage and console the others: “Car au fond.150 The Body as Medium and Metaphor distraction. he hopes that as long as he survives. The relation of the self to the Other is as necessary a part in the construction of identity. In other words. he cannot entirely block out the presence of the others. the ramparts of the ego remain an illusory and provisional defence. This short story has been interpreted by Richard as the key text of the collection. Aware of the fragility of the self. According to Lacan. he realizes that this task is in vain as selfmaintenance is a permanent process. the Imaginary is inhabited by the fragmentary. an autobiographical comment on the part of the writer. indeterminate sense of existence that is associated with the Symbolic. through the effort of selfpreservation. 1997. She concludes: “L’humour voile à peine le soupçon qui pèse sur la tâche de Gisèle Prassinos: faut-il continuer à se tenir dans cet ailleurs. it is precisely the Other that threatens the illusion of the Imaginary. lui. as I have observed. as I have indicated in my discussion of Noël (see part one. and. je n’ai pas eu la présence d’esprit de les couper pendant leur trajet et ils me sont parvenus […] Et je m’en veux. In Barthesian terms.
je suis victorieux. the notion that a life is impoverished by the dominance of the instinct of self-preservation which shores up the defensive ramparts of the ego only to confine and isolate the self. une phrase et plus souvent des figures.” This story highlights the importance as well as the fallibility of memory. If the body is an object that is always liable to congeal into a purely imaginary entity. However. The theme of memory resurges in Maintenant je suis le maître. Aujourd’hui je peux évoluer à l’aise d’un étage à l’autre. 49). The heterogeneity of memory and the associative process of remembrance render impossible the cataloguing of memory (this is. the resurgence of the past in the present is necessary for a current act of self-affirmation. passaient d’un temps à un autre sans que j’y prenne garde. Prassinos draws attention to the impossible.” However.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 151 textuality (the Symbolic) affirms the fragmentation of the self. un fragment de scène. an ironic tale on the power and unpredictability of recall. The . un visage du passé”). therefore the associative method of recall creates confusion: “un paysage. if desirable. The discontinous jumble of memories is so disruptive that the narrator determines to find a means to order and control them: “Chaque fois qu’une période de ma vie toucherait à sa fin. this system of isolation proves to be self-defeating as whenever the narrator wants to indulge in nostalgic reminiscence. je suis le maître. what Leiris attempts to demonstrate with his associative style of writing).” In this story. The narrator finds that his memories accumulate to such an extent that they become confused and overwhelming and he loses all sense of himself (p. je l’enfermerais sous une chape. je travaillerais à isoler les couches anciennes. He concludes triumphantly: “Enfin. Chacun de mes temps est prisonnier comme dans un livre. The image of the castle also. Rien ne vient plus confondre mon esprit ni l’offenser. J’ai les clés. The narrator has a fundamental need to indulge in reminiscing (“j’avais besoin de m’attendrir sur un corps. En même temps et par le même moyen. Thus he devises a system of trapdoors whereby he maintains the classification of his memories but can access them at will. recalls the reader to the theme of imprisonment which permeates these texts. the self falls back into the Imaginary by writing (as the text is open to the appropriation of the Other) but the act of writing will always return to the fragmentary. of course. nature of this fantasy. of course. he finds that his memories are inaccessible. memory is spontaneous and sometimes unreliable.
they will always be held to account (“On est malgré tout responsable”). . including Mon Coeur les écoute and J’ai décidé de ne pas grandir. La parole is an observation on language and its consequences. This dissolution of the authorial body forestalls the unification of the text under any single authoritative message. where the final word has no bearing on its original intended meaning. déplié feuilles et fleurs [. poussé tiges et racines.] Des étrangers en somme. It is useful here to recall Benveniste’s distinction between énonciation and énoncé that is used . The text shifts between the “autobiographical” je. The narrator observes that the word in thought and the spoken word are but distantly related. 55). in public it even presents a danger as it transforms itself. While the conclusion is ironic (the writer cannot be silenced). takes on manifold meanings. Il y a de quoi être émerveillé et méfiant” (p. the word is compared to a seed. . pour la plupart. s/he can always attempt an economy of style “sans proliférations” which is exactly what Prassinos sets out to achieve in a metaphoric economy of language. The undesirability of la parole is mentioned in several stories. In an organic metaphor. The narrator draws this conclusion: “Le mieux est de se taire. sans proliférations et de s’en contenter. The fragmentary and discontinuous nature of the writer’s own text reveals no trace of chronological ordering or teleological masterplan.152 The Body as Medium and Metaphor narrator’s comparison of his memory system to that of a book undermines the status of Prassinos’s text. which in the blink of an eye “a germé. réduit au minimum.” As Prassinos does not distinguish between the spoken and written word. this can also be read as an observation on the dangers of writing and misinterpretation. the novelistic il and the collective nous or on as if to detach the producer of the text from the subject of the work. The power of language is not to be underestimated. exercises untold influence and operates as in a game of Chinese whispers. Performing the Self Prassinos recognizes the limitations of self-expression with its unforeseen interpretations and seeks to resist any single perspective through a series of rhetorical strategies. The consequences of la parole are infinite: “Une unité lâchée n’est jamais perdue” but despite the fact that subsequent interpretations may have little or nothing to do with the writer’s intention.
Prassinos attempts to reinsert discourse into a situation of énonciation where the énoncé no longer appears natural. Barthes claims that the fragment is an attempt to break out of the specular echoes of ideologized discourse. 1975. Prassinos achieves the production of different levels through énonciation. with the process of its uttering while rendering it impossible to anchor the utterances. each story. which is a function of doxa. preventing an ultimate meaning being drawn from the text and arresting the interminable circulation of signifiers. 99). .Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 153 in autobiographical theory to refer to the subject of the enunciation (the present je of the narration) and the subject of the utterance (the je whose history is being recounted and who exists at a temporal and ontological distance from the narrating self). he is constantly deploying strategies to diffract his narrative. Prassinos prevents her discourse from cohering into the continuous utterance of a single subject. The pervasive humour in her texts also introduces a gradation of language that seeks to avoid the coalescence of the sign. Prassinos seems to resign herself to the inevitability of (mis)interpretation (“Le mieux est de se taire”) but while the text might run the risk of reappropriation. Aware of the far-reaching consequences of language. Similarly to Noël’s text. In Le fragment comme illusion. An effect of coalescence is the rush towards the signified. In so doing. je ne fais que regagner sagement le lit de l’imaginaire” (Barthes. Whereas linear utterance seems to suggest the unfolding of a single. the steady consumption of the mythic production of meaning. For Barthes. the writer continues to explore its possibilities. he is also aware that “en croyant me disperser. the refusal to follow the signifiers. definable message towards a pre-destined conclusion. the fragmentary structure keeps the signifier on top. the reality of the text can only be constituted through the process of utterance and not reflected in it from outside. The surreal situations in which the narrators find themselves also avoid the psychological realism that is the essential part of traditional character formation. Similarly. the coalescence of the sign involves the absorption of difference. The verbal performance of her text operates as a mirror-like reflection between form and content: the structure of the text is fragmentary (as I have indicated through reference to the images) and the stories become autonomous entities revealing no overall narrative development while they comprise a multiplicity of discourses. However. marking each proposition.
Similarly to the previous story. the narrator must remove himself from the interpretative gaze of the Other. therefore. here. like any performance. As Best and Collier have indicated. je joue mon rôle. here the true self of the narrator cannot be perceived in the presence of others by whom he remains “incompris. lorsque pour les autres le rideau est tombé” (p. as the least witness is an obstacle that prevents him from experiencing and. that is the interrelation of performer and spectator. he plays his role. indicates Prassinos’s recognition that the desire to recapture and replay or rewrite significant moments of our lives represents an attempt to possess our own subjectivity. The narrator rarely shows himself in public. like la parole of the previous story its consequences can extend beyond the event.154 The Body as Medium and Metaphor A different gradation of language becomes apparent in the following story where the concept of performance in identity formation is undermined and consequently displaced. Prassinos’s story undermines the possibility of reciprocity inherent to performance (theatrical or social) but restages it . requires the complicity of the Other. in the sense that it escapes meaning in its immediacy and can only be understood in retrospect” (Best and Collier. 58). Prassinos again reveals the falsity of an Imaginary and coherent self that is conveyed by the perspective of the Other. Theatrical performance traditionally concerns the staging of an event and. Lorsque le rideau est tombé explores the performative (and. 13). participating in the present (p. je deviens moi-même. The theatrical nature of the self is not only evoked in the image of the curtain but in the revelation that in order to become himself.” The paradoxical position highlighted by the narrator is that he would have to be seen in private to be understood which remains an impossibility as the private space would thereby become public. of seizing the experience of life in the present. 58). The fact that it is only in private and in retrospect that the narrator feels he can grasp reality. 1999. He feels that he is misunderstood and unknown. theatrical) aspect of self-identity and the impossibility. with reference to Barthes. where one of the consequences of language is that of misinterpretation. which is why the narrator is untrusting of the gaze of others. in order to find his identity. méconnu. perhaps for a writer. Although performance is inevitably an ephemeral event. “the experience of subjectivity is always traumatic. as he is unable to reciprocate the attentions of others: “C’est donc rétrospectivement et dans la solitude que je vis l’heure passée […] Pour tout dire.
and remains intersubjective.57). The narrative voice. upon finally entering the world. au moment d’agir. the narrator. the reader is privy to the temporal deferral of a narrative performance. comme tout le monde. The idea of the heterogeneity of the self is comically parodied in L’un ou l’autre and this leads to the effect of doubling and selfdoubt that occurs in many of the stories: “En vérité je ne sais qui je suis. je ne me sens pas le droit de supprimer cet homme. 59). Wondering if the face he sees is a hallucination. he constructs an invisible cage around his body. performance and existence. C’est moi que je venais chercher dans ce miroir et c’est lui que je vois” (p. The deferral of interpretation implicit to the consumption of a text is highlighted in the story: “Je reçois. 61). Prassinos passes from the desire to combat the force of time to the ultimate form of conscious control over the body. à rendre. he closes his eyes and turns away but returns to the mirror only to find again the strange face. le calme et . j’y apporte toujours du retard” (p. decides to keep the size and the appearance of a newly born baby. blurs the borderline between stage and audience.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 155 on a textual level. It is also a more direct commentary on le stade du miroir: “Non. Celui qui agit en secret ou l’autre qui. Origins In J’ai décidé de ne pas grandir. The texts undermine any preconception that the self is captured and reflected in an unchanging physiognomic likeness. This story makes explicit the womb imagery which earlier stories conjure up and suggests a reason for which the characters sometimes seem to seek confined or confining spaces: “Je désirais conserver au-dehors le loisir. In order to do so. Instead of the immediacy of a “real” performance. Having been inside his mother’s womb for ten years. The suicidal desire of the narrator is thwarted as he drops his revolver in surprise upon seeing the strange face in the mirror. The private and “real” space of the narrator does indeed become public as he performs for the benefit of the reader. despite its protestations. This personal or psychological misrecognition is also raised in Cela where similarly to J’ai du mérite. the narrator fails to recognize his own face. identity cannot be represented through mimesis or a literary vraisemblance. Que m’a-t-il fait? D’ailleurs je ne le connais pas. Quant à donner. s’aperçoit qu’on l’a déjà fait à sa place” (p.
76. author’s italics). des souvenirs. the narrator remains. she also feels in a state of pregnancy herself: “Je donne à flotter en rêve dans une eau que balancent des mouvements divers […] Celui qui m’habite éprouve la volupté que j’éprouve. time is inscribed on the body. 30). in a strange reversal of the mentally handicapped child in an adult’s body. des scènes de famille mais en mauvais état. This story is a virtual reversal of Les trous: instead of the narrator inscribing himself in time with his artifacts. The condition that the narrator experiences is double. halfway through the collection.” Amongst the things that the narrator finds disturbing in the real world. In this story. This story re-evokes the theme of the pre-nascent state in a description of happiness: “Quand je me sens au comble de bonheur.” The purity of origin or the desirability of the infant or preinfant state is again evoked in Je suis sale where the baby is represented literally as the clean slate or blank canvas: “un enfant si pur de teint à sa naissance qu’on ne pouvait le distinguer des draps de son berceau” (p. In a humourous twist. who have also become marked on his body. to outlive his mother and subsequent nursemaids. in an infant body which acquires “l’âme et l’esprit d’un vieux savant. je ne parviens jamais à être propre. des phrases essentielles mais transies et des têtes partout.156 The Body as Medium and Metaphor la protection totale que j’avais appréciés dans mon habitat original. j’en suis sure […] Ainsi me la . je sais très bien ce qui se passe […] J’ai réintegré ma mère ou bien. elle m’a reprise” (p. the body becomes the archive of memory. the body does not acquire membranes but cobwebs and other physical traces of the life lived. with his thoughts. In this way. including “des villes entières mais en ruine. In a frustrated quest for the cleanliness of his original state. nostalgique.” the negatives of life are printed on his body. the narrator changes gender and becomes female. as well as his best friends. plus mortes que les autres.” Similarly to the narrator of Le Visage. the days when she feels this luxurious womb-like state. he prefers to remain quiet and reflective.” With Emboîtements. he attempts to scrape and scratch away these physical souvenirs but in the end realizes the futility of his task: “Déjà bien qu’il m’arrive de travailler jusqu’à la tombée du jour. which literally stores the images of the past. the narrator finally finds it necessary to rid himself of his parents. he mentions “la parole que je jugeai superflue. In an allegory of life’s inevitable process of gain and loss. his calculations and his discoveries as his only companions.
It therefore becomes the task of his mother. In the beginning. Confronted with this choice. ce lieu public où se concentre et se répand tout ce qui remue dans l’obscurité de l’homme?” (p. à l’aube.Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 157 doublant. ma couche originelle. Unexpected details such as a smile or an idiosyncratic gesture serve to resituate his memory. je sais où je suis” (p. c’est là mon envers et mon endroit” (p. happily an artist.126). The narrators are imprisoned within their own frail bodies. The theme of pregnancy is again raised in Qui? which also returns to the idea of the face as the locus of an identity. he is confusingly offered resituation in two different timescales. c’est ému par l’odeur de ses mains qui combine celle de Javel et de la lavande. Although it is the seventh time the narrator has fallen in love only to be disappointed. tout me l’apprend. 70). he always opts for “les temps originels” where he rediscovers his mother: “Quand je reconnais ma mère. ce sceau. dans son lit […] Alors.” She experiences simultaneously both the sensation of returning to the womb and the sensation of being pregnant. me mettre au monde. In the final sentences. to a certain extent. 106). subject to the flux of . 81). the narrator concludes that it is not so much through frustrated desire for his mother that he seeks his beloved but that he is propelled by the original severance from her body that leaves him incomplete. j’en suis sûr. This becomes the central concern of La roue (p. where the narrator is born without a face. Ou bien. the metaphor of writing raises the question of whether artistic creation can take the place of procreation. mon verbe qui va s’accomplir. The notion of the doubling inherent in the infant’s detachment from the mother underlies La septième fois with the narrator’s frustrated search for the love of his other half. The theme of imprisonment recurs in the stories. The importance of the maternal relationship in the formation or affirmation of self-knowledge is raised in Où suis-je donc? The narrator suffers from a bad memory and at times loses the knowledge of where he is. je me mets à exister. Playing with the Oedipal theory. he concludes optimistically: “Il faut me l’avouer. upon the features attributed to oneself by the Other. C’est là mon temps. c’est là qui me double. The mother’s primary concern for the baby is what he would become if she hadn’t consented to bestow upon him a face: “Cet attribut. vraiment. This text reveals the extent to which identity is a construct that will always depend. with whom and when. to create his features.
158 The Body as Medium and Metaphor physical fallibility and often this gives rise to the impression of doubling. is nevertheless redeemed by the view that the narrator sees through the window. the register of the prose changes and gives way to poetic description. Insufficient space is again evoked in Un Frère. the narrator finds that he is unsatisfied with this new perspective and instead starts to gaze back towards the forbidden region of the sea. si réduite que je ne peux déplier les coudes dans le sens de la largeur” (p. where the protagonist’s projects and desires assume physical dimensions and occupy his living space until they take up the whole of his bedroom floor. 139). The notion of restriction or restraint not only occurs within the framework of the body but also within physical space. but more common is the idea that the characters are imprisoned against their will. as I have just indicated. towards the land. He is forced to . At this point. comme un mort qui respire. He is continually disturbed by a face that appears at the tiny window high in the wall. In La sentinelle. This flow is abruptly halted by the thoughts of the narrator who reminds himself: “A quoi bon m’exalter? Je continue à me taire. In Comme un mort qui respire. finding it impossible to ignore the intruder. he puts out his left eye and therefore looks in the other direction. as in Le visage. as in Les trous where the narrator’s creations threaten to overwhelm his living space. Frustrated by the limitations of his vision. The fulfillment of desire is frustrated by the glass barrier that separates the narrator’s self-image and the image of temptation.” The temptation represented by a window onto the world is again taken up in Le visage where the narrator has chosen seclusion and solitude in a cell-like space in order to dedicate himself to study. the je has always looked out towards the left where he sees the sea. when the sensation of imprisonment recalls the pre-nascent state of being in the safety of the womb. depicted also in the accompanying image. However. This claustrophobic situation. the narrator is entrapped within an impossibly tiny living space: “Mon logement n’a qu’une seule pièce. At first. Often the narrator seeks a confining space. The final story of the collection turns from the theme of origin to return to one of a final destination. the narrator is indignant and loses his concentration. sans mouvements. Finally the supplications of the disembodied head win over the narrator and he suffers the fleeting impression that a mask detaches itself from his face to kiss the lips of the intruder. The exception to this rule is. sans pensées.
Textual Imagery: Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos 159 return his attention to the external world when he becomes aware of the shadow of a large ship that is cast over the land. je ne pouvais échapper. Cette fois. Du reste. The unification of self. 155). j’étais déjà désigné. touché. the resolution of ambiguity can only indicate the inevitability of a final destination (“l’heure du rendez-vous”). Un mât de ténèbres projeté par l’imposant visiteur commençait à me pénétrer” (p. thereby uniting his two worlds and two visions. the reconciliation of difference. Or does the image represent the autonomy of a finished work of art? . Consentant ou non. The narrator acknowledges the implications of this unexpected unity: “Mon instinct de sentinelle me renseigna. The themes of division. sans aucun doute. discontinuity. on venait pour moi. fragmentation and uncertainty that underscore this text and its subjects finally seem to resolve themselves in an image of death.
I will look at how two women artists. Noël reveals not only the vulnerability of self through the performative act of memory but demonstrates the extent to which our visual apprehension of the world is influenced by our corporeal existence.From the informe to the abject: shifting morphologies in the art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan Introduction This chapter needs to be located within the context of this text. With reference to Bourgeois. to demonstrate how these terms are applicable to the subversive nature of their work and how they operate in the work’s encounter with the spectator. Noël credits the body with interpretative and creative faculties. I shall approach their work through definitions of the informe and the abject. In chapters one and three. In this chapter. He draws attention to the central contradiction of the autobiographical text. As we have seen. I have demonstrated the ways in which Duchamp and Bacon use self-representation to question the very possibility of self-knowledge and how they engage with and subvert the traditions within which they work. the ontological gap between the writing self and the self-reflexive protagonist of the work. a perspective that reflects back to my chapter on Duchamp. Louise Bourgeois and Orlan. and to . that is. Prassinos explores the possibilities for the representation of an identity through a surreal and explosive narrative where the body metamorphoses and reduplicates itself in a way that questions the certainty of interpretation and unsettles the reader. This chapter arises also in the light of my work on Bernard Noël and Gisèle Prassinos (chapter four). I will look at the framework of the art institution and how it affirms the role of the artist in society. by focusing on the (un)representability of the body. have also negotiated the subject/object dialectic through their work on the body in order to subvert the conventions of visual self-representation.
The now classic formulation from John Berger is still central to a consideration of the subject/object contradictions which face women working with the female body: A woman must continually watch herself […] From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. perceived as the object that is to be represented . an artist who makes use of media technology. Orlan. the fecund metropolis that was Paris at the fin-de-siècle.162 The Body as Medium and Metaphor investigate the possible ways in which the work of an artist such as Bourgeois has been an enabling influence on the artist I shall subsequently discuss. this problematic is magnified by the historical approach to woman. 46). For women artists. The resonances of that still pervasive myth are all the more pronounced for female artists working in the field of self-representation. for example. I will show how art has become less a matter of a single social environment. reappropriating or actively subverting them. As we have seen in chapter three. The work of Bourgeois and Orlan is preoccupied with the positioning of the subject and how this subject interacts with corporeal morphology. to evolve in a technological age where geographical borders no longer present a handicap to an exchange of influences and where the nationality of an artist is rendered obsolete in the eyes of an international audience. but it is not possible to launch into a discussion of their work without first drawing attention to the historical and critical contexts from which they emerge. 1972. He engaged with the tradition of the marginal artist through the conscious manipulation of his own myth and its perpetuation through the autobiographical content of his work. the Romantic myth of the artist is one that dates back to the nineteenth century. Bacon perpetuated the Romantic myth of the artist on the margins of society whilst simultaneously undermining the pre-existing traditions of portraiture and self-representation. And so she comes to consider the surveyed and the surveyor within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman (Berger. seer and seen. The problematic posed for artists in self-representation is that of being at once subject and object. Self-portraits by women artists of this century frequently intervene in these masculine artist myths and their favoured visual forms by engaging with previous visual tropes and parodying.
the perfect female body in representation became the cipher for masculine desire. Since the 1970s. offered women artists the scope to articulate a specifically female experience. 1 I am referring to how. as I have indicated. in the European tradition of the female nude.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 163 by the subject. it is difficult to find a form of representation which does not objectify the woman’s body but which represents the woman as subject. The concept of the surveyor and the surveyed. Stereotypical uses of women’s bodies as subject-matter occluded the representation in art of women's multifaceted experiences. which I shall refer to later. that of the artist and viewer. the male artist. The dichotomy inherent in self-portraiture is consequently multiplied when a woman artist is negotiating a space for self-representation. ownership is primary and the sexuality of the subject is not her own but that of the owner/spectator. and the ways in which this interacts with both the specular tradition of self-portraiture and the construction of a female identity has been commented on and investigated by women writers and critics as diverse as Virginia Woolf. Ways of Seeing (1972). reappropriation of the female body by women has never been an uncomplicated issue. The debates in the 1970s and 1980s about pornography and voyeurism raised the question of how the sexed body could be represented in ways which would avoid its framing by the traditional structure of the male gaze. Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray. this situation was particularly difficult to surmount. Studies in Erotic Art 1730-1970 (1973) and in Berger et al. This question has been explored in depth by critics such as Linda Nochlin in Woman as Sex Object. Performing the Subject (1998). several works have been published on women and self-portraiture. self and other. the confrontation between subject and object has been a common feature of women’s self-portraiture. including Marsha Meskimmon’s The Art of Reflection (1996). Therefore. “Woman” has been consistently evoked in western art while “women” were subjects that escaped representation. That is. In reflection of cultural and social relations between the sexes. Francis Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (1998) and Amelia Jones’s Body Art. the body has been a crucial site for feminist intervention in art practice as it was perceived to represent the exclusively male-dominated history of western art and. in the late 1970s and 1980s. . at the same time.1 It is imperative to take into account a feminist practice and critique of self-representation as. More recently. For the woman artist producing a self-representation. However.
and how does the spectator come to stand in as a surrogate artist to confuse and 2 The Turbine Hall is the site of temporary exhibitions and Bourgeois’ Towers have long been succeeded. The opening of the Tate Modern Gallery in London brought her suddenly to the attention of a largely unsuspecting British public and the appearance of her imposing. However. exiled herself from her country of origin (similarly to Duchamp). In the light of a feminist. I shall also look at the installation of her four sculptures in the Tate Modern in 2000 since Louise Bourgeois is a pertinent example of an artist who. psychoanalytically informed conception of subjectivity. . it has been in the United States that she received the closest critical attention up until the last ten years. Part One Informing the Margins of Modernism It is impossible here to do justice to an artist whose oeuvre encompasses almost the length and breadth of the twentieth century and on whom the secondary literature constitutes a secondary body of work almost as dense and often as elliptical as the work it comments upon. Moreover. in order to reflect upon her cultural and personal history.164 The Body as Medium and Metaphor feminism contributed a fundamental dimension to the conviction that identity is neither authentic nor essential but socially constructed. I shall discuss the works in situ. specifically her sculpture of the 1960s and 1970s. How does self-representation move away from an integrated surface image to emerge in part-objects and physical amalgamations.2 Here. I shall focus upon these two periods of Bourgeois’s work that best demonstrate how the representation of the body traverses her oeuvre in ways that unsettle gendered norms and undermine the idea of a single corporeal morphology that is identical to a gendered identity. I am here examining the ways in which the body in selfportraiture has become the framework through Louise Bourgeois and Orlan explore and expose identity construction. for the sake of this study. site-specific sculptures in the entrance hall to this national institution tacitly acknowledged her as one of the most important sculptors of her generation. I prefer to examine a cross-section of Bourgeois’s oeuvre.
houses the artist. As Bernadac writes: Louise Bourgeois has become a major phenomenon in the space of just a few years. almost in spite of herself. 1996. to what extent it evokes her repetitive themes and how it interacts with the intimidating space that houses it. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary or art-historical order to her work. Griselda Pollock has pointed out that there is a tendency with critics confronted by Bourgeois to conflate the artist and the work and perform a narrowly psychobiographical reading: “The problem with psychobiography […] is that it is both bad art history and bad psychoanalysis” (Cole. or to see it in the . 1996. Her place in art history is now so special that the legend around her occasionally tends to eclipse the aesthetic import of her oeuvre. It is difficult to side-line the intensely personal narratives that feed into Bourgeois’s work as the artist herself has indicated the relevance of her life history and especially. This shift in emphasis cannot be ignored by art history. the childhood memories that resurface throughout her oeuvre.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 165 conflate self-identities? I will examine the way in which the work in the Tate Modern connects with the long productive past of the artist. Yet it is also necessary to take into account the way in which her artwork transcends the particularities of a single autobiography to engage with the other subjectivities that encounter it in the gallery space and how this encounter creates the meanings that arise from the work. and consequently. Psychoanalytic criticism has moved away from its early limited focus on the author of a particular work and looks instead at the ways in which the work communicates with its reader. As early as 1975. The fate is typical of strong and charismatic personalities whose lives are tightly intertwined with the evolution of their work (Bernadac. 7). Lucy Lippard wrote: It is difficult to find a framework vivid enough to incorporate Louise Bourgeois’s sculpture. 88). Bourgeois’s life story is now as well known as her artwork and this has frequently led to reductive readings of her sculpture. The relevance of the spectator and the way in which s/he responds to an artwork and how the artwork itself interacts with its surroundings is imperative to a consideration of Bourgeois’s work.
. 17). yet Bourgeois has maintained an ambivalent and distanced attitude when questioned about it: People talked about erotic aspects. resin – can serve to define her own needs and emotions. 1989. Any approach – non-objective. or the heavier folds in Fillette. 1989. Bourgeois’s sculpture is above all a sensual art. Mary Ann Caws (Surrealism and Women) and Xavière Gauthier (Surréalisme et Sexualité). If they had. traditional marble and bronze. sexually explicit – awkward or chaotic. sex was talked of as a dangerous thing. Her work can be seen to interconnect with Surrealist preoccupations and it manifests certain of their themes. but they didn’t discuss the phallic aspects. have proved more or less irrelevant. One day he looked around and saw a woman student and suddenly he had an erection. or a glowing 3 Eroticism in Surrealist art and writing has been extensively investigated by critics such as Hal Foster (Compulsive Beauty).166 The Body as Medium and Metaphor context of one art group or another. While Bourgeois’s oeuvre remains a singular and idiosyncratic project as Lippard rightly points out. I would have ceased to do it […] Now I admit the imagery. paint. sexuality was forbidden […] At the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. to be so publicly exposed! We are all vulnerable in some way. 13). wax. about my obsessions. or a thin layer of peeling latex over bulbous plaster. cement. I was shocked. to reveal your vulnerability. Then I thought what a fantastic thing. Bourgeois left Paris in 1938 where she had been at art school and forged contacts with the Cubist artists and the Surrealists. Here Bourgeois touches upon one of the principle ideas that characterize her erotic works: the notion of bisexuality. Surfaces and textures are as integral to her work as the form or the concept. She identifies surfaces with her skin. we had a nude male model. One of these abiding themes is eroticism. it is nonetheless important to contextualize Bourgeois’s situation. and any material – perishable latex and plaster. seeing its position in relation to history and to the traditions from which she emerged. Rarely has an abstract art been so directly and honestly informed by its maker’s psyche (Weiermair. I am not embarrassed about it […] When I was young. and we are all male-female (Weiermair. wood. Lippard observes: It can be the cloth in Cumulous.3 The erotic content of much of Bourgeois’s sculpture has been a subject of focus for many critics. figurative.
The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan flow of dark resin totally immersing underlying forms. the intellectual evolution of an idea that cannot be contained or restrained. produced a work in 1934 entitled Number. It also occurs at the moment of encounter between the artwork and the viewer. In Arcane 17. within the artist) form and the formless are locked in constant combat (Weiermair. 1989. It is this idea that I shall now pursue with reference to Bourgeois’s part-objects and their expression of a gender duality. However. a slippage of meaning occurs in its evolution. forming part of her 1974 exhibition in New York. the myth of the androgyne became a celebration of spiritual procreation. this slippage does not only occur in the fabrication of Bourgeois’s objects. According to Lippard. having to do with identification with one or the other. Freudian connotations of the Oedipal stage are evident here but such work also taps into the Surrealist tradition of androgyny. the object does not signify as a finished autonomous work. the work re-presents the boundaries between masculine and feminine and subverts the orthodox notion of a single gendered self-identity. The Part-Object Bourgeois’s famous Self-Portrait of 1963-4 (figure 26) bears no resemblance to the body of the artist. 1989. Bourgeois sees such mergings of opposites as a “presexual perception of the dangerous father and the protective mother. 167 Certain sculptures. Breton clarified the need to resolve the inherent conflict between male and female principles. with merging and adopting the differences of the father” (Weiermair. the overall form represents the phallus. Within the art (as. vulvic folds and testicles). 17). the plaster dried the wood which then split its shell. Victor Brauner. As a glorification of spiritual fecundity. . 16). Armless. [The work deals with] the problem of survival. Lacking direct mimetic clarity. It could equally be understood as the artist literally breaking out of her skin. one suspects. legless and containing references to both male and female genitalia (breasts. The Surrealist painter. were made by placing wet wood inside plaster. This process of physical pressure can be seen as a metaphorical or creative equivalent for giving birth or as the eruption of sexual desire. It is in the process by which the object is made that its symbolism lies. which shows a boxlike womb. Therefore.
168 The Body as Medium and Metaphor attached to the ends of which are male and female sexual organs and in which a small sculpted figure resides. a union that blurred the distinction between the sexes in a celebration of love. Giacometti’s work first appeared in the publication of the Surrealists’ intellectual rivals. and therefore demonstrates the utter instability of meaning. Deleuze and Guattari engage with Klein’s discourse in L’Anti-Oedipe (1972) to demonstrate how the goal of Klein’s theory makes the part-object into a symbolic agent of intersubjective relations. Giacometti’s sculpture collapses definitions of distinct sexuality and therefore belongs within the operational sphere of the informe. while the wedge despite its phallic shape has a labial form. to attack the illustrative or the thematic. is presumably the active masculine element of the work although the sphere has a cleft removed that creates a vaginal shape. For Brauner. or “partobjects. 1997). They define this operation as a process that strips away categories and undoes the very terms of meaning and/or being. It is a Bataillean view of this work that is most relevant to my own enquiry into Bourgeois’s sculpture. The ball. as for other Surrealists. Thus Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of the part-object comes close to Bataille’s theory of the informe. The erotic reading of the contact between the ball and wedge also suggests phallus and buttocks. According to Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois in their reading of Bataille’s definition of the informe (Formless: A User’s Guide. Bataille’s Documents. They see the constantly shifting identity of the sculpture’s organs. They move away from its definition as symbolic to stress the incessant production of meaning and argue that the part-object is not the representation of the parental figure but part of a sequence of connections: a permutational operation that enacts change. Giacometti’s Suspended Ball of 1930 is sexually ambivalent. the metaphysical fusion of male and female into the perfect androgyne had a spiritual and physical counterpart in the sexual act. They refuse this interpretation in order to demonstrate how the part-object works within a chain of signifiers and changes its nature as it changes its function. 1968). before it was taken up and feted by the Surrealists. the reversal of this change. . Bataille describes the informe in the critical dictionary published in Documents (see Bataille. which swings over the blade of the wedge.”4 that is brought about by the systematic relationship between movement and permutation as a mechanism to resist meaning. 4 The idea of the part-object derives from the psychoanalytical work of Melanie Klein in which she describes how certain organs seem to detach themselves from the maternal body to produce scenarios of paranoia through which the infant enacts its desire or frustrated rage against the figure of the mother for whom these objects stand.
Like other of Bourgeois’s objects it is not mounted but suspended in the exhibition space so that the viewer confronts it. The Fingers (1968). alarmingly. The fragment became the vehicle of a symbolic truth. maintains the slippage of interpretation and meaning that characterizes the operation of the informe. curvaceous folds and suggesting associations with eyes or eggs. As with her Self-Portrait. Here I shall seek to show how Bourgeois’s erotic sculpture likewise displaces such oppositions and. organic shapes. “nothing so much as an outsized dildo” (Weiermair. The textural quality of this work arises directly from the combination of materials: latex and plaster.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 169 For Bataille. rather than resolving them into a dialectic. Germinal (1967). the part-object allows for a psychoanalytic dimension that creates interpretative space and allows for a process of intersubjective connections which refuses any single authoritative signified. Le Regard of 1966 has a squat spherical form with undulating contours and a vaginal split that reveals other indeterminate. 23). and body parts or organs came to stand in for the absent figure (columns to represent phalluses. However. and Soft Landscape II (1967) are made of bulbous protruding forms which suggest both the phallus and breasts while Cumul I (1969) (figure 27) resembles a lunar landscape again formed by protruding phallic shapes amongst soft. Fillette is a large phallus and resembles. It is the operation of slippage between readings or interpretations that renders them unstable. which undermines the need for any single perspectival view. where the title interacts with the sculpture to further displace meaning and the viewer’s expectation of a gendered self-identity. This also means that the viewer encounters the gently swiveling object from a number of viewing positions. breasts to represent the mother). the formless has only an operational and performative existence. The informe therefore displaces binary oppositions. 1989. at eye-level. Bourgeois’s Fillette of 1968 exemplifies the relevance of Bourgeois’s naming of her work to disseminate the signified. the informe is neither a stable motif nor a classification. Hanging Janus (1968) (figure 28) and Janus Fleuri (1968) combine phallic shapes to create oval hanging forms and Janus Fleuri . Modernist logic categorized the part-object as the “partial figure” whereby the body contracted into its synecdoches. according to Rosalind Krauss.
still shows the informe at work. Bourgeois’s early work of the 1940s already contains and manifests this interest. 1989. round forms. The artist transgresses categorical oppositions to produce morphological mutations where definitions of male/female. However. As we have seen. in Freudian terms. interconnecting with a network of signifiers. So she tries to take on the weapon of the aggressor […] The battle is fought at the terror level which precedes anything sexual (Weiermair. Bourgeois’s erotic sculpture manifests most clearly what I have identified in her work as the informe. In Femme Couteau. 1947-9 and is constructed of wooden stakes of human height that can be interpreted as figures in procession. One of her first sculptures is entitled The Blind Leading the Blind. non-erotic work. The sculpture could be equally understood architecturally as a double row of columns capped with lintels. dependence and independence. 16). the forms are not always so organic. The figural and architectural interpretations are not at odds but can also be combined so that the structure can be conceived of as . Bourgeois has always worked with a wide range of materials with different physical properties that lend themselves to a variety of metaphorical associations. finished. outsized breasts and a phallic point in place of a head. I will now look briefly at some earlier sculpture of very different thematic concern. Bourgeois’s sculpture combines elements of both aggression and vulnerability. each with their arms on the shoulders of the figure in front.170 The Body as Medium and Metaphor incorporates an explosive split where the texture of inner tissue is externalized and contrasts with the smooth. which nevertheless. It is a wrapped and folded marble blade which was described by Bourgeois. a pointed. in order to illustrate how the informe also permeates other. the destructive and the seductive […] The woman turns into a blade […] A girl can be terrified of the world. and object/subject are collapsed and provide no fixed position from where a meaning can be generated. Harmless Woman (1969) shows a female torso with assertive. However. as embodying: The polarity of woman. She feels vulnerable because she can be wounded by the penis. inner/outer. Another dominant preoccupation has been the way in which architectural structures become anthropomorphic or acquire psychological overtones. aggressive shape rises to form a pair of buttocks or a clitoris.
does not conform to Greenberg’s theory as he envisages sculpture as being independent of a particular place or particular human presences. in Greenberg’s terms. they refuse to be self-contained objects. In the 1940s. Her position as a foreigner in New York led to a relationship with her architectural surroundings that was one of fascination and alienation. the structures they inhabit or the spaces they occupy. sculpture is optical.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 171 enclosing or protecting the figures. Bourgeois’s two sculpture exhibitions in 1949 and 1950 included a series of totemic wooden sculptures called Personnages which were installed as an environment in the gallery and which could be rearranged from show to show. Her interests already clearly lay in the way people correspond or adapt to. sculpture that depends upon bodily presence becomes theatrical. Bourgeois was primarily a painter and her work often showed women with houses for heads or bodies. we see the informe at work. The unexpected metaphorical associations and juxtapositions demonstrate how Bourgeois’s early sculpture already operates in a similar manner to her later erotic objects. Other paintings and engravings show links between sculptural forms and psychological or emotional frustrations: ladders that are suspended from ceilings and rendered purposeless. Sculpture interacts with the space around it but does not own the space. a series of Femme Maison (the segmented nature of these images is reminiscent of the series of Surrealist drawings cadavres exquises). In chapter one. The space of theatre. appealing to the eyes and the intellect (it is intrinsically Apollonian) and does not require or rely for effect upon the viewer’s participation. The way in which the sculpture articulated the surrounding space and the very mobility of the sculpture made the exhibition into an event (a concept that also arises out of Surrealist practice). Here again in the slippage between definitions. The paintings demonstrate how architecture mediates relationships between the individual and the world. The installation of . which differs from everyday space as it is reserved for a performance. working to undo binary oppositions and produce a ceaseless flow of different readings. Bourgeois’s work has rarely conformed to the Modernist precept that art should or can only ever be about art. a balloon trapped inside a room by too small a door or houses with wings. the private and the social. Their mobility lent the sculptures an almost bodily presence and they are consequently irreducible to Greenberg’s purely optical criteria. we saw how in Greenberg’s definition.
installation art gears up to theme-park showmanship. Bourgeois exhibited work in a show called “Eccentric Abstraction” organized by Lucy Lippard at the Fischbach Gallery. staring up the inner shaft of I Undo. terrifying mirrors--each of us a cruel. as Warner points out. spatial formula for the exploration of body and environment. ‘Biggest ever’ permeates the room. At this time.172 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Personnages illustrates that the artist conceived of her work as functioning in groups. Yet the theme. which she called lairs. We wait in lines to climb to roller-coaster heights. We crane our necks. The different physical properties of the materials both bewilder and invite interpretation. and her duty to confront. These have often been interpreted. Spiraling Selves “Then it was done. In 1966. past and present (Bourgeois. mixing Spielberg-scale spectacle with the psychological symbolism of the surreal. becoming weak-kneed and vulnerable as we reach the top and find ourselves under those massive. physical and sexual relationships between people recurs throughout her work […] But it was not until the Cells that Bourgeois created a dynamic. 13). rejection. Here. Her work included open-fronted hanging forms in plaster. Again these have contradictory psychological overtones relating to the home nest and safety but also to threat and vulnerability.’ weds architectural forms to the cycle of nurture. with its jolting red glass ovals--a psychedelic model of the birth canal. self and past. as a meditation on memory: They are spaces which make evident the continuity of the past in Bourgeois’s present. Bourgeois was working in plaster and semi-soft materials such as latex and rubber. In the 1990s. re-enact and exorcise her experiences […] The use of architecture as a metaphor for psychological. It is out of this work that the Tate Modern towers developed and if the meaning of these sculptures appears momentarily to be more clarifiable than the previous works I have discussed. 2000. and reconciliation experienced between mother and child. elements that connected and operated within an undefined network. I will seek to show that the operation of the informe is still at work. Francis Bacon--like portrait in a sky-high theater of . Bourgeois made a series of works called Cells. harking back to Bourgeois's 1947 suite of engravings with text ‘He Disappeared into Complete Silence.
a fifth mirror that encompassed the entire scene. I Redo. and the three towers entitled. was made of two spiral staircases. one of which was compacted into the interior void of the column while the other wound about the outside. a small door allowed access to a cell-like space where a chair and a mirror faced each other. and at the centre of the platform was a wooden chair. Such ruthlessness and pity mingle easily with tenderness. I Undo. the sculptures in the Tate Modern and the artist’s accompanying text revealed one of the themes that dominate her output: parent-child relationships. The architects involved in the conversion of the building from power station to art gallery maintained the industrial connotations of the space by guarding elements of the existing machinery as well as the space’s uncluttered simplicity. However. Bourgeois referred to the towers as a “family affair” and originally imagined the conversation that visitors would engage in across the towers as being dialogues between father and son. 173 Entering the vast space of the Turbine Hall that is the entrance to the Tate Modern in the year 2000.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan clinical self-regard. This was surrounded by four circular mirrors. Similarly to the first tower. was constructed of a spiral staircase which wound around a central column and up towards a small. entitled Maman. I Undo and I Redo. the spectator was overawed by the immensity of the surrounding area. Indeed. I Do. secreted at the heart of each tower. Bourgeois remarks that the works ‘reflect the optimistic view that I feel today’--a view seen through the long lens of her eighty-eight years. The third tower. At the bottom of the tower. Old battles are reimagined and resolved. The first tower. For anyone familiar with Bourgeois’s work. as the . Approaching the four works of Bourgeois. railed platform. I Do. a spectator was first of all struck by the contrast between these huge organic shapes of curvilinear aspect and the industrial lines and angles that house them. around which was wrapped a second staircase. seemed to draw their material inspiration from their surroundings – giant steel constructions. just as the artist's mother-and-child dyads are. The four works. there was a platform encircled by mirrors on which were two wooden chairs and a steel-framed glass cabinet containing a double-headed sculpture. as if from a great height” (Steven Henry Madoff “Towers of London” Artforum Summer 2000). the largest in Bourgeois’s series of spiders. The second tower. was a cylindrical core with a spiral staircase in a square-framed steel skin. They’re caught like specimens under glass.
174 The Body as Medium and Metaphor sculptures that were housed in the towers suggested. One retreats into one’s lair to strategize. It may not be the final answer. the sculpture showed the bond between mother and child through an attached umbilical cord. the reparation and reconciliation has been achieved. the artist placed a small bell jar containing the sculpted figures of a mother and child that represented three different kinds of maternal relationship. described in Bourgeois’s accompanying text. but there is an attempt to go forward […] You have confidence again. the Provider. Marina Warner in the . In each tower. It’s a positive affirmation. There is hope and love again. It is the “I Love You” no matter what. I Do represents the good mother and featured a nurturing mother and child: I Do is an active state. the work finally became the manifestation of the maternal relationship. The towers created for the viewer a spatial experience that was encountered through movement and over time. recover and regroup. I am in control. It is the return of the repressed […] I am the bad mother […] The guilt leads to a deep despair and passivity. The towers encompassed the themes not only of the relationship between parent and child but also the relationship between architecture and sculpture. The torment that things are not right and the anxiety of not knowing what to do […] One is immobile in the wake of fear […] In terms of a relationship to others. I Undo represented the rupture of the maternal bond where the sculpture showed the infant reaching out towards the distracted mother whose breast disgorges useless milk: The Undo is the unraveling. it’s a total rejection and destruction. The maternal theme introduced Bourgeois’s personal narrative on an intimate level while the sculptures invited spectators to interact with them on a social level. In terms of relationships to others. and I move forward towards a goal or a wish or a desire […] I am the good mother […] the giver. In I Redo. Things are back to normal. which tied the floating infant to the mother’s body: The REDO means that a solution is found to the problem.
such as architectural structures associated with watching and warning: observation posts and watch-towers. the advancement towards self-knowledge or understanding. the double spiral embodies a process. a passageway between the public and the private realm” (Bourgeois. lighthouses and signal stations. places that afford different means of seeing and being seen. I Undo and I Redo contained two spiral staircases. I Do. I Undo contained a single chair and mirror in a cell-like space in the interior of the tower. She also observed that the spiral staircase is technically the most efficient way of providing vertical access within a confined space and simultaneously.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 175 Tate catalogue described the associations that the towers might hold for a viewer. conjures a vision of those most private spaces concealed within everyday structures. They also correspond to the subject themes indicated by the titles. rendering communication with others impossible. It does not express a moment past but the continuing evolution of the present – a process of growth. the way in which a painting “mirrors” the likeness of the world. The double spiral may represent the process of dialectical argument and its continuing debate or resolution. perhaps. Spiral staircases. I Redo had two chairs in place of the single chair at the top of I Do and therefore seemed to encourage dialogue of a private nature. the mirror also acts as a metaphor for framing images. The harmony of rhythm encapsulated in the double structure represents how time and movement are collapsed into the individual’s progress on the spiral staircase and becomes ceaseless movement. I have previously discussed the importance of the mirror as a metaphor within painting in my chapters on Duchamp and Bacon and it is worth recalling here. allowing the besieged to defend himself from above his attackers. 8). the chairs on the tops of the towers were intended by Bourgeois to encourage encounters and dialogue between the viewers on the towers. as Warner indicates. they are also associated with self-defense. In addition to the concept of painting as mirror. the single spiral staircase was the only means of ascent and descent. consequently controlling and limiting the number of visitors to the tower. In place of a static or complete structure. are an economical use of space. In the first tower. The frame constructs the image or the knowledge by placing certain material into the centre of discourse and marginalizing others. As I have observed. such as attics or cellars: “The stairway is thus a means of entry or escape. However. To . 2000.
Lacan’s interpretation sees the child moving from the Imaginary stage into the Symbolic order: the pre-given structure of social and sexual roles and relations which make up the family and . metaphors that can easily be applied to the maternal position or the situation of the child. In Freud’s Oedipal theory. was reminiscent of Bacon’s paintings. which inclined towards one another and inwards towards the platform to create the semblance of a private area. embedding the frame within the text produces a mise en abyme: a process of infinite regression that explodes the frame and decentres the text. as we have seen. The mirrors on the towers lent themselves to just such a framing function. I Undo could symbolize the infant’s move away from the mother as it develops its own sense of a gendered identity and a (false) sense of an integrated self-image. this process signals the transition from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. which often incorporate frames within frames. through the Lacanian stade du miroir. The infant of I Do depends upon the mother’s presence in a symbiotic relationship and identifies him/herself with and through her body. The figure is therefore isolated in representation while this self-reflective mechanism furthermore serves to highlight the artificial status of the work of art and undermines any pretensions to mimesis or the notion of the painting as being a window onto another reality. depending on the sex of the child. If the mirror stands for the construction of knowledge. the persons depicted are enclosed within a pictorial as well as a real frame. operating as a framing device. The self-reflection prompted by contemplation of one’s self in a mirror was invoked and subsequently undermined as the fifth mirror reflected back the narcissistic scene as a simulacrum of a real event. The final tower. it also stands for the construction of the self. The person who occupied the central chair found him/herself reflected in the four circular mirrors. The fifth mirror. The thematic sequence of the towers can also be interpreted as representing this stade du miroir. the fifth raised mirror encompassed and reflected the entire scene.176 The Body as Medium and Metaphor move the mirror is to alter the frame and thus to consider different subjects or knowledge. The towers were at once structures of isolation and fortification. can be equated with the child’s realignment within the family structure and a new sense of identification with the figure of mother or father. On the first tower. I Redo. As a literary device. from the enclosure of the family to society at large.
characteristically of the informe. when reflected in the fifth mirror. the participant encounters his/her own reflection and the sculpture becomes the site of encounter with another subjectivity.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 177 society. to look at the others below but because of the positioning of the mirrors found him/herself locked in self-contemplation. The integral position of the mirrors in Bourgeois’s towers aligns the infant’s progress more closely with Lacan’s view of the infant as it invests a sense of identity in its own self-image. the association of the towers with structures such as lighthouses becomes apparent: intended both as places to be seen and to see from. through the artist’s manipulation. In this case. In other words. page 40. footnote 8) where the spectator beholds the installation through a peep-hole in a door. thus the traditional relationship of an artwork with either a monologic gaze or a dialogic specularity (where the gaze is returned by the figure depicted) is undermined and the equation between the “I” and the sovereign “eye” is subverted. and became. The careful placing of the chairs and the mirrors in the towers set up a situation of controlled viewing which is rarely encountered in sculpture. the spectator’s experience did not remain a private one. changes its nature as spectators take their turn to climb the spiral staircases. the viewer is no longer in an anonymous position of authority but becomes. in this way. part of the artwork that is viewed by others. the museum visitor climbed the tower in order to look out. This again transgresses the Modernist principle of the autonomous artwork and serves to ensure that the artwork becomes less of an autobiographical narrative and more about the way in which self-representation can become the representation of any self. Also. The act of viewing becomes the uncomfortable act of voyeurism and the beholder becomes a scopophilic viewer. . an integral part of the sculpture. However. The viewer consequently becomes the uneasy object of a gaze from behind. The sculpture changes its function and thereby. s/he also became the object in the gaze of gallery goers on the first floor of the Tate Modern who could look down onto the sculptures – the participant was simultaneously object and subject. that of those viewers waiting their turn. Paradoxically. The work of art most noted for this concept is Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (see chapter 1.
They claim that in contemporary art criticism. They draw attention to an exhibition that was planned at the same time as their own (the exhibition for which this book operates as a manual). there is a danger that the two terms become conflated and they oppose the operational function of the informe to the static. the second artist in this chapter. frequently described as abject. informe. if remaining objectifiable. thus a matter of both uncrossable boundaries and undifferentiable substances. and demonstrates that what Mulvey perceives to be abject is. Krauss engages with Laura Mulvey’s interpretation of Cindy Sherman's recent work. in this account. and an object relation from which the definability of the object (and thus its objecthood) disappears (ibid. 235). it is in the domain of what is now understood as ‘abjection’ (Krauss and Bois. 237). I shall seek to demonstrate that in the work of Orlan. The title of the rival exhibition was to be From the Informe to the Abject.” This distinction will become clear in my discussion of Orlan’s work. her distinction between the condition “to be abject” and the process “to abject.178 The Body as Medium and Metaphor From Informe to Abject In Formless: A User’s Guide. the informe becomes abject. . which is to say a subject position that seems to cancel the very subject it is operating to locate. 1997. in their definition. semantic concept of the abject: The abject-as-intermediary is. Krauss and Bois take issue with the notion that the informe could ever be associated with the abject. I would like to propose that the abject can be as operational as the informe and. without wishing to confuse the terms. What Krauss and Bois choose not to highlight is the crucial slippage in Kristeva’s definition of the abject (they recognize that it is Kristeva’s and not Bataille’s definition of the abject that is currently employed) that is. and that the abject. depends upon the informe in order to be represented. A title that they claim clearly implies the belief that: If the informe has a destiny that reaches beyond its conceptualization in the 1920s to find its fulfilment and completion within contemporary artistic production. Here.
artists were attracted by the ephemerality of performance and installation art. in a site. it was also prompted by a growing sense of disillusionment with the art market. This shift was not without its historical precedents (I refer back to my chapter on Duchamp) but it arose out of a general crisis in representation. 96). there was a noticeable shift of emphasis towards what Rosalind Krauss has defined. However. However. and its lack of marketability in its stress upon action in time rather on the creation of a finite object. Bourgeois’s work became site-specific through her gallery installations that were conceived for a particular place. to the abject and the site-specific. however. it was a crucial site of feminist intervention. a pre-existing site or object. very divergent performances by 5 A distinction must be drawn here between the historical tradition of monumental site-specific sculpture and the innovations of the 1970s which led to sculpture that could more descriptively be defined as site-responsive. For example. on a body. One of the most important catalysts in the development and increasing prevalence of performance and body art was the influence of practicing female artists and a new wave of feminist criticism. but of the sexed subject” (Kelly.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 179 In the 1970s. in the light of much of the work that arose out of the 1970s. was not confined to feminist practice (indeed Krauss cites specific examples such as Gordon Matta-Clark who made cuts into derelict buildings and Bruce Nauman’s moldings of body parts and marginal spaces). The move to reground art was urgent in the wake of the serial objects of Minimalism. 1984. Mary Kelly remarked in 1981. if much feminist body art of the 1970s posed the question of identity in terms of sexual difference located in the body. Feminist body art seemed sometimes to dangerously run the risk of being reinscribed within old systems of viewing. in an attempt to characterize the pluralistic art of the decade. “has been to pose the question of sexual difference across the discourse of the body in a way which focuses on the construction. Much art became refocused on the indexical grounding of art in physical presence. indexical art. there was still the ever-present contradiction between the demand for a rigorous critique of existing codes of the erotic and the desire to produce new and liberating representations for women. not of the individual. This grounding of art in a real presence. Their art demonstrates a return to the body and the social. .5 As we have seen. simulacral images of Pop and demonstrations of Conceptual work. that the specific contribution of feminists. whether the body.
Even when the artist’s presence in installation or performance art is only referenced indirectly by association or allusion. artists also turned away from painting and favoured instead photo-texts. 968). with their emphasis upon the body in an attempt to control its objectification. One of the ways in which women artists have sought a productive space to investigate the re-presentability of the body is through site-specific and performance art. these “indexical” works insist on the need to situate the practices of making art in relation to a practice of viewing which is also positioned socially and symbolically. 6 This was also the consequence of attempts to unsettle other traditional binaries such as high versus low art.180 The Body as Medium and Metaphor artists such as Carolee Schneeman. For similar aesthetic reasons. The spaces and locations of art have been used to explore the relationships between absence and presence. were sometimes misconceived by critics who understood their work to be “essentialist. figuration and illusion in favour of textual strategies. many artists tended to deconstruct existing representations of women and simultaneously rejected narrative. Location and time become a means to narrate the self. if women were to be represented as active desiring agents “the great problem then is how to move on to ‘something new. fine art versus “domestic” craftsmanship. Because of this risk. Yoko Ono and Ana Mendieta. even if the narrator (the artist) is absent. .’ from creative confrontation to creativity” (Mulvey. which refused any easy identification between viewer and image. identity and experience. performance and “scripto-visual” media. 1992. Work that incorporates both spatial and temporal dimensions maps out territories where artists are able to explore the self as an ongoing process of construction in time and place through the operation of memory as well as in the present.” that is confirming the binary opposition within a phallocentric order by equating the feminine with the other term in the phallocentric regime.6 This artistic revolution was later termed “negative aesthetics” because as Laura Mulvey pointed out.
she ran a performance symposium with Hubert Besacier in Lyon. The relationship between sex and art. This is demonstrated by Wilson in the article that heads the catalogue Orlan: ceci est mon corps . and Wilson highlights the religious resonances of Pane’s work that evoke a “Franciscan attitude to self-abnegation and Sainthood. is not without precedents in the French tradition from which she emerges. . such as Antonin Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty. interacting . to Niki de Saint Phalle’s evocation of the power of the church. the sacred and the profane is at the heart of the matter. social and cultural questions.” the Viennese Actionists and American contemporaries like Chris Burden. 10). Sarah Wilson has remarked how: Synchronic. marking the caesura of the second World War. an aspect that is ignored by many critics. despite its contemporary radicality. Wilson indicates a lineage that stems from Germaine Richier’s sculpture that vilifies the western cult of female beauty. . Pane used serial photography and film to record these events. Orlan’s work.” Wilson notes that Orlan has also indicated alternative sources of influence. The way Orlan’s work reaches back within a tradition. She came to the attention of the international media in 1990 with her Réincarnation project that involves plastic surgery and whose ramifications raise philosophical. ‘postmodernist’ accounts of Orlan's work today omit its time-impregnated axis which situates it at the crux of the old and the new. her enthusiastic embrace of technology – ‘le nouveau trompe-l'oeil de notre temps’ as she calls it – is simply the obverse of her relationship with a long tradition (Orlan. Her first street performance was in 1965 and for five years. ceci est mon logiciel.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 181 Part Two Performing Orlan Orlan is a French artist who began her career as a performance artist in 1964. I shall look in depth at the Réincarnation project through a framework of the abject but first I would like to indicate the traditions from which Orlan arises and the way in which her early performance work situates itself as a natural precursor to her current projects. to Gina Pane. 1996. who in the 1970s and 1980s practiced her art on her own body.
that serves to define the body. 1990. Butler poses the question of whether there is a shape. London. indeed.8 which suggests that the very contours of the body are established through markings that seek to establish specific codes of cultural coherence. ed. In a move away from this Cartesian dualism of mind and body which is redescribed in the structuralist frame as culture and nature. History”. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press. History” in Language. Counter-Memory. Bouchard and Sherry Simon. prior to the emergence of vitalistic biologies in the nineteenth century. Judith Butler assesses the body in theoretical terms that are useful for a consideration of this argument with reference to Orlan’s early performance work. cultural values emerge as the result of an inscription on the body. In Gender Trouble. Genealogy. She takes issue with Foucault in his essay “Nietzsche.182 The Body as Medium and Metaphor with her precedents and how her work evolves as a consequence. 8 Mary Douglas. Donald F. For Foucault. cultural or political. prior to significance?” (Butler. but that the surface. She notes that in the writings of de Beauvoir and Sartre. 1969. Boston and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul. a mere facticity devoid of value. Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. allows me to indicate how the informe can be seen to react within the sphere of the abject. the body is figured as mute. Butler interprets Douglas as saying: That what constitutes the limit of the body is never merely material. Donald F. the boundaries of the “Nietzsche.7 who argues that there must be a stable and self-identical body prior to its cultural inscription. Butler also refers to Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. Purity and Danger. to which meaning can be attributed only by a transcendent consciousness. is systematically signified by taboos and anticipated transgressions. 1977). trans. Genealogy. The body acts as the medium or blank page that must be destroyed and transfigured in order for “culture” to emerge. 7 . and how the latter is not possible without the former. understood the body to be inert matter that either signified nothing or the flesh of the fallen state of mankind. 129). Therefore any discourse that seeks to establish the boundaries of the body naturalizes the taboos that serve to define what it is that constitutes the body. she asks: “How are the contours of the body clearly marked as the taken-for-granted ground or surface upon which gender significations are inscribed. She points out the Christian and Cartesian precedents. which. the skin.
Orlan intervened with placards that declared “Je suis une homme et un femme. already challenges the gendered contours of the body through exploring their social construction and by questioning the notions of inner and outer that Butler raises in her text. Orlan has sought to unsettle gender binaries. et dans le passé où j'ai pointé certaines de leurs inscriptions dans l'histoire de l'art. Mon travail a toujours interrogé le statut du corps féminin. via les pressions sociales. 84). 131). in a direct transgression of its traditional purpose. She became Sainte Orlan in 1971 and wrapped herself in costumes. undermine the western canon’s depictions of the female nude and challenge social expectations of conformist behaviour. mon corps de femme-artiste comme étant le matériau privilégié pour la construction de mon oeuvre. she . Orlan has written: J'ai toujours considéré mon corps de femme. bodily “pollution” (the meaning of which I shall explore later) and Kristeva’s definition of the abject to demonstrate how binary distinctions are constituted to define the contours of the body. How does Orlan’s performance work challenge the viewer’s preconceptions of the limitations and possibilities of the body? How does the artist not only play with physical boundaries but also ideas of “inner” and “outer” and gender constructs? I would like to propose that Orlan’s work prior to the Réincarnation project.” Her subversion of grammar already demonstrates the shifting possibilities of an unstable gender. she posed as a series of tableaux vivants. white leatherette and black vinyl. La déclinaison des images possibles de mon corps a traité du problème de l'identité et de l'altérité (Orlan. Butler pursues this argument with reference to AIDS. In 1968. parodying the Venuses of Manet and Velasquez. in other words. how the corporeal concepts of “inner” and “outer” consolidate and stabilize the socially inscribed coherent subject. which I will discuss later. 1996. Much of this work was based around the trousseau left to her by her mother which. the limits of the social per se.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 183 body become. within her analysis. Since her earliest performances. During French feminist action during the late 1960s and early 1970s. que ce soit au présent. A poststructuralist appropriation of her view might well understand the boundaries of the body as the limits of the socially hegemonic (ibid.
this performance involved Orlan showing her genitals to the public through a magnifying glass during menstruation. Entitled Etude documentaire: la tête de méduse. As the striptease progressed. exposing one breast that suckled a swaddled bundle. Freud’s text on the head of the Medusa was handed out to visitors at the exit. In 1977. Orlan shed her layers. museums and a convent. including the Pompidou centre. used in the washing. An ongoing performance involved the measuring of spaces (their physical and moral parameters) with Orlan’s body as the measuring standard. tenderness versus aggression. the swallowing and the visible descent of the money through a plastic tube and a plastic pubis that filled with the money. the washing of her soiled costume (created herself). along with their connotations of modesty. which she pursued in an exhibition entitled Art et Prostitution in Nice. with half of her pubic hair painted blue. It was also recorded in a triptych that registered three phases: the solicitation and the kiss. and exploitation. Video monitors showed the heads of spectators arriving. 85). Orlan was draped in the sheets of her trousseau. Wilson . Aix-la-Chapelle. until she was naked. she was recorded in a series of sixteen photographs performing a striptease. Confrontation with the spectator in order to elicit strong responses was foregrounded in a performance at the Musée S. sanctity. femininity and maternity.184 The Body as Medium and Metaphor used as a canvas to record sperm trails left by lovers that she traced with the “womanly” art of embroidery. art as commodity. Through highlighting the commercial nature of her gesture. which quoted “A la vue de la vulve le diable même s’enfuit” (quoted in Orlan. she offered the baiser de l’artiste (figure 33) to passing members of the public at a price of five francs. Starting with the image of a baroque Virgin (figure 34). Over the course of four years. 1996. This work also demonstrates the way in which Orlan’s work has always been theoretically informed. at the International Contemporary Art Fair in Paris. Ludwig. those viewing and those leaving. and the collection of the water. The sacred and profane have long been enmeshed in Orlan’s work. The ritual involved the process of measuring. she measured art galleries.) In an event in Lyons in 1976. Orlan evoked issues of prostitution. (This recalls not only Bataille but also Leiris and le sacré discussed in chapter two. which was then transferred to containers sealed with wax as relics.
de le mystifier à son tour / de s’approprier sa légende.’ the trial of measurement passes through filth: ‘L’épreuve de la mesure passe par la souillure’ (Orlan. de nouveaux exploits (il s’agit pour moi de changer de référents de passer de l’iconographie religieuse judéo-chrétienne à la mythologie grecque). As Orlan has explained. on her forty-third birthday. conceived ‘immaculately. Orlan wrote: “Volonté d’entrer en lutte avec le mythe / de se mesurer à lui. it is surely in the way she seeks to unsettle binary definitions. Orlan gave a performance that involved the signing of a declaration of intent for her project La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan. she both engages with the tradition and maintains a marginal . In 1990. j’en éprouve le narcissisme […] Passer du fait à l’être” (Orlan. 10).The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 185 has noted some of the connotations and reactions provoked by this performance: The Virgin. 1996. c’est-à-dire aux nouvelles technologies car je me suis fait une nouvelle image pour produire de nouvelles images (Orlan.’ without stain. The first indications of Orlan’s future Incarnation project appeared in an exhibition in Lyons where seven stuffed pillows were suspended from high-tension cables. the performance has two titles: Cette performance a deux titres: Le premier: La réincarnation de Sainte Orlan fait allusion au personnage qui s’était crée petit à petit en endossant les images religieuses de madones. Orlan now turned her attention to the Western canon. 1996. counters the tradition of the bride's display of bloodied linen after the wedding night. In parodying a phallocentric western canon. saintes. Her ‘measuring’ performances provoked violently sexual reactions: she was spat upon. high/low art. we are brought back to the central motif of the trousseau for Orlan. onto which increasingly large images of Orlan as Ingres’s Grande Odalisque were projected. the traditionally designated forms of art: male/female. 1996. insulted as a ‘woman of the streets. D’autre part ce titre fait allusion aux dites nouvelles images. En épousant l’oeuvre d’art référentielle. If the informe is to be found at work in Orlan’s performances. vierges. religious/profane. chose que je ferai après toutes les opérations. 86). In the same way as she challenged the hierarchical patriarchy of the church. Le deuxième titre: image-nouvelles images fait un clin d’oeil aux dieux at déesses hindous qui changent d’apparence pour faire de nouveaux travaux. 11). self/other.
she marries the mundane with the sacrosanct. Butler maintains that the construction of stable bodily contours relies upon fixed sites of corporeal permeability and impermeability and she suggests that those sexual practices that challenge the hegemonic order effectively reinscribe the boundaries of the body along new cultural lines. Butler insists that the notion of performativity must be kept distinct from the notion of performance (she refers to the performances of Vito Acconci). simultaneously interior and exterior to an acknowledged lineage. and through bodily invocations of an iconographic ideal of beauty (the Venuses and Odalisques). then any kind of unregulated permeability constitutes a site of pollution and endangerment” (Butler. the real with the ideal. challenging the heterosexual construction of gendered exchange “disrupts the very boundaries that determine what it is to be a body at all” (ibid. she injects religious icons with a direct transgressive sexuality. according to Butler (that is to say that the gendered body has no ontological status apart from the various acts that constitute its reality). 133). I would argue that this is one of the principal aims of Orlan’s work. and thereby temporal. The erotic mixture of the sacred and profane operates in a similar manner to her approach to the tradition of fine art. Her direct challenges to a gendered identity unsettle conventional expectations and situate her work on a fuzzy borderline of transexuality (she is un femme and associates herself with the transexuality of the figures of saints). 1990. With reference to homosexuality.186 The Body as Medium and Metaphor stance. then Orlan’s work represents a microcosm of coming-into-being. Therefore if identity is a construct that is performative. However. Butler discusses the vulnerability of bodily margins: “If the body is synecdochal for the social system per se or a site in which open systems converge. She exposes the interior of her “real” body to confound the assumption that identity can be associated with an integrated surface image and to present what has been unacceptable in conventional depictions of the female nude. rather than directly challenging the notion of compulsory heterosexuality. Starting with the blank canvas of the naked . 132). Performance presumes a voluntarist conception of subjectivity according to which we can all theatrically remake or restyle our bodies and identities while performativity contests the very notion of the subject. Orlan confronts the rigidity of binary gender and its policing of the body. Indeed. In stripping away a moral high ground.
the fragility of the spatial distinction between our insides and outsides as well as of the temporal passage between the maternal body (again the privileged realm of the abject) and the paternal law (Foster. indicates how: The abject touches on the fragility of our boundaries. This intimacy is characterized as overproximity and therefore produces panic in the subject. In other words. 133). her more recent work also explores notions of inner and outer but this time the work comes closer to Butler’s formulation of permeability and impermeability. Therefore. is “established through the ejection and transvaluation of something originally part of identity into a defiling otherness” (Butler. 1996.” The abject is not only alien to the subject but also intimate with it. abjection is a condition in which subjecthood is troubled and where meaning collapses. Butler uses the definition of the abject to question the validity of terms such as inner and outer.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 187 body. Abject Alienation If Orlan’s early work explores the possibility for the construction of an identity over and in time by exploring and representing concepts of inner and outer. 153). she exposes and undermines social expectations of its potential and re-inscribes its boundaries by changing its shape. revealing how they make sense only with reference to a mediating boundary that strives for stability. The “abject” designates that which has been expelled or discharged from the body and rendered “Other. La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan does not so much disrupt the boundaries of the body as much as render them obsolete. Butler concludes that the expulsion of the abject allows the subject to establish the contours of the body by constructing an alien Other. Hal Foster in The Return of the Real. Butler demonstrates how Kristeva’s formulation of the abject suggests the uses of this structuralist notion of a boundary-constituting taboo for the purposes of constructing a discrete subject through exclusion. altering its possibilities and consequently challenging our notion of the subject. 1990. as well as the distinction between internal and external. if we . both spatially and temporally.” She describes how the boundary of the body. the “not-me. deconstructing gender binaries and recreating sexed identities.
when the subject abjects what is unacceptable in order to define him/herself against an alien other. the operation to abject is necessary for the maintenance of the subject as well as society while the condition to be abject is corrosive and threatening. So is the abject disruptive of subjective and social orders. abject art became the oppositional art form of the 1990s. In other words. The abject.” “To abject” is to expel. the creation of the abject. become suspect” (ibid. In modernist writing. against which the subject defines its impermeable external border. Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art. or a confirmation of them? To what extent does Orlan’s project of the 1990s transgress binary distinctions and terms of symbolic difference. is what interests me here as it threatens to explode this binary definition. the meaning and necessity of these terms becomes vulnerable to displacement: “If the ‘inner world’ no longer designates a topos. the subject is colluding in a fantasy that maintains that a coherent subject is a viable and desirable possibility. merely offer provocation that allows the viewer to walk away. the informe is always already at work on the margins of the abject. as for Butler. the informe is present when form and borders are at the point of dissolution. consolidates this fantasy by constructing an alien other. the internal locale of gender identity. or in its horror-filled content. According to Butler. we constitute a binary distinction that stabilizes and consolidates the coherent subject. As I have already indicated. reassured and reconfirmed in their coherent subjecthood? Abject art does not only belong to the domain of selfrepresentation but. “to be abject” is to be repulsive. 134). When the coherence of the subject is challenged. covers many social and cultural preoccupations. indeed. Kristeva views abjection as conservative. according to Butler.188 The Body as Medium and Metaphor accept the terms of inner and outer. the moment of expulsion. the crucial ambiguity in Kristeva’s formulation is the slippage between the operation “to abject” and the condition “to be abject. Her example demonstrates that even writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Céline sublimate and purify the abject. as the inner literally becomes the outer. It encodes the traditional stance . to get rid of what is unacceptable to the self. even defensive. However. unsure of one’s coherence as a subject. as the Whitney Museum exhibition on abject art demonstrated in 1993. then the internal fixity of the self and. For Kristeva. According to the authors of the museum catalogue.
Il oscille entre défiguration et refiguration. hair. In this. using flesh and blood rather than canvas and paint to create a likeness. and rotting food in order to confront taboo issues of gender and sexuality. Le corps devient un ‘ready-made modifié’ car il n’est plus ce readymade idéal qu’il suffit de signer” (Manifeste de l’Art Charnel. which positions itself outside the mainstream and seeks to flout artistic and social conventions: Although ‘abject art’ is a play on ‘object art. which also . Il s’inscrit dans la chair parce que notre époque commence à en donner la possibilité. and its connotations with a sort of social sadomasochism and corporeal alteration. Orlan’s project since the beginning of the 1990s involves repeated operations of plastic surgery that are intended to shape her body in ways which conform to her sense of her own identity. menstrual blood. mais avec des moyens technologiques qui sont ceux de son temps. In her manifesto. her present work has clearly evolved from her early performances.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 189 of the avant-garde. Its very classification as the oppositional art form suggests its accepted and necessary position in both the art world and society as the rebel that reconfirms the hegemonic order through its oppositional stance. Now I would like to turn to an analysis of La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan. She thus becomes a living portrait. dead animals. As I have demonstrated so far. Orlan’s early performance work marks a move away from the figuration of identity as an integral whole. where abject art offers an interesting and powerful critique is in the domain of self-representation and the ways in which artists are currently seeking to present a self or identity. she calls her work carnal art and situates it within the tradition of self-portraiture: L’Art Charnel est un travail d’autoportrait au sens classique. a project that combines notions of the temporal and performative in her identity construction with an emphasis on the abject in the literal manipulation of her bodily contours. dominant culture (Levi. 1993). However. often uses violent imagery that elicits strong emotional and physical responses. This work also includes abject subject matter – that which is deemed inappropriate by a conservative. Internet). Orlan’s work.’ the term does not connote an art movement so much as it describes a body of work which incorporates or suggests abject materials such as dirt. published on her website. excrement.
Orlan has stressed that this is not a project in the search of beauty. Rosemary Betterton has observed: Like the story of the ugly sister in Cinderella who cuts off her toes in order to fit the slipper or the Little Mermaid who walks on knives in Hans Andersen’s story.9 However. There are many problematic ramifications to Orlan’s project that are significant to debates about women artists and the representation of female corporeality and which have been commented on by critics. 147-8). by enacting rituals of pain on the body through cutting and dismemberment. Ideas about cyber-feminism refer to the potential for future spaces. Since the beginning of the 1990s.151-163.190 The Body as Medium and Metaphor sought to bring about direct psychic and emotional responses in the spectator. that we have the freedom to transform our bodies as given in nature. that such self-mutilation inscribes a cultural ideal (Betterton. New York and London: Routledge. Technology. 1996. indicating a loss of any sense of a natural or essential body. Its shock value derives from the sight of a woman who “remodels” her face and flesh through her own action or by surgery. mutilation of the flesh stands as a powerful negative message that female desire can only be achieved through pain. and on the other. the surgery that Orlan has undergone alters her facial features to conform to a composite of images from the Western art canon of five famous Renaissance and post-Renaissance representations of idealized feminine beauty. . Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science. pp. on the one hand. Her use of plastic surgery both alludes to a cultural norm of feminine beauty (through its conventional associations and purpose) and transgresses it. Orlan’s recent project appears to confirm rather than destroy gendered distinctions as her self-image relies upon a variety of western icons of female beauty. Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. She claims to have chosen the five beauties as much for their 9 See. Cosmetic surgery is ambivalent in its assertion. opened up through science and technology. for example. Orlan’s work has been associated with cyber-feminism because of its links to the technologies of plastic surgery and the way she has packaged herself as a product in CD Rom form. in which images of femininity and masculinity would be so altered as to be devoid of binary meaning. 1991. and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians.
social taboos. rather. La Réincarnation de Sainte Orlan. the historical and mythological connotations remain important iconographic issues. As Philip Auslander has pointed out. rather than revealing the subject. of an effort to conform to canonical models of beauty is an irony that cannot be ignored: “The work’s critical edge derives from the failure of the subject to become the desired image” (Auslander. Orlan has eliminated the distance between artist and object in representation and undermines many of the senses of self-portraiture that depend upon this critical distance by using her own body as the blank canvas and confronting in the most direct way possible the concept of woman as an object in representation. private and public domains. the fact that Orlan’s unconventional physiognomy is the result not of defiance of her culture’s standards but. a discursive construct. in itself as well as its various forms of documentation. by rendering herself redundant as practising . especially since the forehead implants that were intended to replicate the appearance of the Mona Lisa’s brow. she chose the nose of a sculpture of Diana because the goddess was aggressive and refused to submit to the will of gods and men. Currently. Each operation that Orlan has undergone is expected to change a specific feature of her physiognomy. Although Orlan thereby refutes any narcissistic investment in her project. the limits of art and self-portraiture and the commodification of women. the combination of five “beauties” has resulted in the creation of a grotesque mask. her appearance is in defiance of cultural codes of beauty. 1997. However. Paradoxically. and that are commonly referred to in the press as Orlan’s horns. she chose the forehead of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because of its androgyny and the chin of Botticelli’s Venus because of her desire for love and spiritual beauty. Sculpting Identity The project.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 191 particular mythological or historical importance as for their physical attributes. That her features are drawn from different styles and periods effectively demonstrates that the concept of “natural beauty” is a question of history and fashion. 131). For example. operates as a masking or a masquerade of identity. and she generates computer images for the surgeons to follow. highlighting the way in which physiognomy. is open to multiple readings in relation to questions of femininity.
While she cannot reverse the power relations that necessitate her being the object of the surgeon’s knife. in particular the doctors who operate on her. Therefore she objectifies herself with regard to them by offering up her flesh as the raw material from which they fashion an image of femininity. Orlan herself has stressed that these are not masochistic performances but interventions into the technological reworking of the human body. Orlan’s refusal to play the role of the passive patient is important and undeniable. her work is little more than a radical restaging of the traditional disempowerment of women in our society (Meskimmon. this control could be similar to the pathological control which is akin to eating disorders and other self-damaging behaviour that is undertaken by disempowered individuals struggling to maintain some sort of selfcontrol. If. . She is an active participant and the surgeons are as much performers in her theatre of operations as she is the object performed upon. Meskimmon observes: The issue of control in the Orlan project is crucial because it alters the subject/object relationship in the work. it could be a dynamic response to the technological possibilities available to people in the late twentieth century and the concepts of excessive femininity as masquerade. Orlan has demonstrated her own investment in the images of female beauty that have been enshrined by the western art tradition and has established a form of control over her own self-image which allows her to accede to the power of that image and her investment. she places the medical establishment. Her project. however. 1996. the surgeons are as inscribed in her artistic discourse as she is inscribed within the medical discourse. in the position of artists by proxy. 127). If she can be said to control the project. As Marsha Meskimmon has indicated. in all its complications. Orlan is the material of surgeons and the art establishment. re-emphasizes the difficulties of women artists who attempt to come into self-representation through reappropriating femininities which operate within a patriarchal system.192 The Body as Medium and Metaphor artist. The way in which her work is documented (her operations are shown on video screens in galleries and exhibited in photographic format) also does not exclude her from objectification with regards to the art market and its audience. By engaging in this project.
. Orlan uses the technology of plastic surgery in ways that challenge the rhetoric of the stable self. permeable and impermeable. Contrary to the conventions of plastic surgery where surgeons display images of before and after to persuade potential clients of the perfect transformations they can achieve. and that is. Orlan’s use of plastic surgery exposes a self for which identity is mutable. despite a career that has spanned thirty years) is perhaps not to be understood as a result of the critique she is making on plastic surgery. martyrdom and religious relics.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 193 While Orlan’s project demonstrates very literally Butler’s theory of identity as performative (action and transformation with their material consequences are clearly in process). blood-soaked gauze is exhibited alongside photographs of Orlan in the stages of recovery. therefore. images of Orlan during and post operation refuse the notion of an image frozen in time and space and suggest instead a definition that foregrounds process and change. feminine beauty or identity but in the effect it has on its spectators. The surgeon’s publicity images allude to a hidden process which produces a static result. it has no stated goal or end-point (she does not know how many operations she will undertake and has envisaged further identity-changing processes that will extend beyond the physical element). It is a performance whose fault-line lies in its incorporated knowledge of its own constructed nature. Butler suggests that gender identity is an impossible goal that can never be fully realised.” In Bodies that Matter. Rather than being the means by which an inner identity achieves its appropriate external manifestation. Orlan’s project is interminable. suspended. the inner and outer. The reason that Orlan’s project has gained so much media attention (that rarely makes any reference to her work as a performance artist prior to the 1990 project. it also comes close to demonstrating Butler’s refinement of her theory as explained in Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex. The time in between operations is dedicated to exhibitions derived from this performance: reliquaries are made out of bottling the fat that is extracted from her body during liposuction. intrinsic to surgical discourse. which are screened worldwide in various galleries. This ties in with her early work and its references to religious iconography. This effect derives precisely from Kristeva’s observations on how morphology is constituted. the ideal self that cosmetic surgery is advertised to reveal. en-procès. Central to Orlan’s project are the video projections of her operations.
1996.194 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Sarah Wilson has indicated the religious implications of the operation performance. Orlan reveals the informe becoming abject. It was a Passion Play for our times. It doesn't matter. Parveen Adams has written: What is important is not meaning but articulation. extracts from Michel Serres. l’artiste travaille sur la representation” (Manifeste de l’Art Charnel. Artaud’s Corps sans organes. equivalent to forty exhibition days (Orlan in the wilderness) plus a final face created with morphing software. the borderline between inner and outer. and Dr Cramer’s operating outfit–a displaced. mystery and anxiety generated by surgical procedure. La Robe. These texts are important to Orlan’s performance as they frame it within a literary. As she explains in her manifesto: “L’Art Charnel transforme le corps en langue et renverse le principe chrétien du verbe qui se fait chair au profit de la chair faite verbe. recorded in the photographs: The Sandra Gering gallery exhibited forty one pairs of computer composite photos paired with photos of recovery. to the voice that maintains a monologue throughout the clearly painful operations. establishing the control she exerts over her project and situating it for her viewers. the contents of the texts have often been denigrated by critics who attach more importance to the act of reading. with all the drame. During her operations. and in addition reliquaries of human flesh in resin. 13). In a sense her reading is a resolute turning away from the body at the very moment when it is critically involved in . By filming the process by which her physical image changes. and partly due to the necessary importance of her role as conscious agent. Orlan’s voice carries on through all the vicissitudes of the operation. This is partly due to Orlan’s claim that she feels her voice captures and expresses her “self” better than her physiognomy ever did. empty shroud. a site of intervention. and the well-known passage from Kristeva’s Pouvoirs de l’horreur on what constitutes the abject. seule la voix d’Orlan restera inchangée. Perhaps neither she nor the spectator actually follows the meaning. psychoanalytic and theoretical exploration. followed by the triumphant resurrection of unscarred Flesh (Orlan. However. Orlan reads from carefully chosen texts: a passage from Lemoine-Luccioni’s book on dress. Internet). Orlan challenges the logic of a system (western art) that privileges form over matter.
. I would argue that in Orlan’s performance. 1996. The shudders of . However. which masks the horror of abject matter. It is the hypnotic quality of the voice and not what it is saying that matters (Orlan. The nature of her work exposes the body as a problematic site that disrupts normative assumptions about self and identity. Orlan’s operations embody the slippage of the abject as they reveal the division between surface allure and its concealed horror. The disturbing power of Orlan’s work lies in its ability to have an impact on more than the cerebral register. The video installations of Orlan’s operations and the exhibition of the work which results from them demonstrates how the fetishized surface of the female body is opened to reveal its disturbing interior. In a recently published paper. From the tradition of the fine art nude where the unregulated sexual body is repressed in order to maintain the unity and integrity of the viewing subject (that is. If this use of the voice works. wherein lies the meaning of her work. both to Orlan’s body and to the aims and implications of the Réincarnation project. . the work demonstrates a progression from the exterior. to the interior of the body. 1999. 66). The texts are an integral part to the performance in the same way as the question and answer sessions that she holds with her video audience or the importance of the costumes. Kristeva’s in particular. the perfect female body representing the object of desire for the heterosexual male spectator). 195 However. worn even by the surgeons. It is a way of ignoring her body . and the all-pervasive element of the carnivalesque (see figure 36). Kate Ince observes that Orlan’s readings refer doubly. I believe that Kristeva’s text is crucial to an understanding of the audience’s response to Orlan’s show. She demonstrates how Orlan’s readings are performative. it is because it divorces her from meaning and designates her.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan surgery. 69). indicate the reasons for which her performances are so difficult to behold. I contend that the passages that she reads. referring to Butler’s claim that “there is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (Butler quoted in Ince. Orlan’s work has evolved in a way that does not so much elude the objectifying gaze as expose its profoundly fetishistic structure. no element takes precedence over another nor can be separated from the spectacle as a whole.
horror and fascination that her work incites in her audience are violent physical responses. l’Art Charnel ne désire pas la douleur. that the body can no longer be understood as representing the self. the body is the material with which she is working and the content of her work is in its very process and progress. it does however run against the tradition in body art. This is a point that she emphasizes in her manifesto. Orlan describes what she experiences as discomfort and claims that it pales to insignificance beside the pain of childbirth. L’Art Charnel ne s'intéresse pas au résultat plastique final. because . The face no longer projects an illusion of depth and in revealing that behind the image there is nothing. Orlan denies that she experiences any pain during her operations. ne la recherche pas comme source de purification. mais à l'opérationchirurgicale-performance et au corps modifié. anticipation. That Orlan denies any pain is ambivalent and perhaps unsettling in the context of a defence of her work as feminist. gradually the face becomes pure exteriority and the camera shows the red bloody mass behind the skin (see figure 35). Orlan insists that the operation is shown live as it is the moment at which the body is cut open. The denial corresponds to Orlan’s desire not to represent the body’s material presence as irreducible but rather contingent and malleable. devenu lieu de débat public (Manifeste de l’Art Charnel. her face is partially detached from her head. despite only having a local anaesthetic for procedures which usually require a general anaesthetic. a tube is inserted to separate the skin from the flesh and the surgeon’s finger follows. ne la conçoit pas comme Rédemption. It also serves a further purpose when Orlan turns to her audience and says – you are about to see videos which will make you suffer. claiming that it distinguishes her Art Charnel from Body Art: Contrairement au ‘Body Art’ dont il se distingue.196 The Body as Medium and Metaphor disgust. Orlan’s work undoes the work of representation. Internet). or the face as being the locus of identity. During the operation. Orlan displaces her pain onto the suffering of her audience. Orlan disturbs one fundamental illusion about the inner and the outer. where performers have emphasized the pain they undergo in performances in order to stress their artistic credibility.
In referring to those moments when the spectator is forced to look away. during this process. the place where the sight/site can no longer be endured. designed to keep the abject at bay. 1993. 10 . The meaning of Orlan’s work lies in the process of continually destroying and rebuilding her identity. her body becomes permeable as the surgeon’s knife manipulates its contours. Her operation destroys the distinction between inner and outer. The subversive power of her performance lies in her simultaneous personification of Kristeva’s two terms. including the bodily matter that I have described previously. Conclusion In this chapter. it becomes inert and consequently less threatening. Barbara Creed has drawn on Kristeva in an analysis of horror films. This simultaneously calls into question the identity of the viewer. the place where pleasure in looking is transformed into pain and the spectator is punished for his/her voyeuristic desires. anxiety and lack. 137). Orlan abjects matter that is difficult to behold. as the spectator is constructed in the place of horror. 1996). Confronted by the sight of the monstrous. can safely be qualified as a form of abject art. she becomes abject. It is precisely in the collision of the process of abjecting with the abject figure that lies the subversive potential of Orlan’s live performance. collapse (Creed. threaten to disintegrate. the viewing subject is put into crisis — boundaries. it puts the viewing subject’s sense of unified self into crisis. I have tried to demonstrate the way in which two very different artists have come to terms with self-representation.10 In her exploration of this fragile borderline. The psychoanalytic implications of Orlan’s project. dealing with issues of inside and outside and relating them to Lacan. Yet once this matter is detached from the body. she writes that in this instance: Strategies of identification are temporarily broken. The artefacts that Orlan places in exhibitions of her work. In the eyes of the audience. is explored in Parveen Adams’s “Operation Orlan” (Orlan.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 197 the face is an appearance without essence. Confronting the abject incites panic in the viewer.
Orlan’s performance work demonstrates how an artist moved away from the fascination with surface to concentrate on the construction of an identity through time. In Bourgeois’s part-objects. in popular culture. were marshalled against the imaginary world of a fantasy captured by consumerism (Foster. Then. there is disillusionment with the celebration of desire as an open passport of a mobile subject – as if the real. on the other hand. the artist becomes an absentee authority that challenges the experience of the viewing subject. repressed in poststructuralist postmodernism. 166). The way in which Orlan’s performance work revels in the sensual potential of the body testifies to its historical context but. He also relates this interest to recent social phenomena such as AIDS. I would argue. the destroyed welfare state. 1996. Hal Foster has indicated some of the reasons for this preoccupation in the work of contemporary artists: There is dissatisfaction with the textualist model of culture as well as the conventionalist view of reality — as if the real. and in this psychologistic register: “the subject. focused in on the human body. He also indicates the danger of designating the abject body as the site of truth as it risks becoming a point of alterity pushed to nihilism. poverty and crime. the subject is evacuated and elevated at once” (ibid. Orlan’s project witnesses the return of . suggesting that the self must be destroyed in order to be represented. rushes back as witness. Nevertheless. Her work.198 The Body as Medium and Metaphor Bourgeois’s sculpture manifests the interruption of binary distinctions and a new mapping of gendered morphology that frees up relations between artwork and viewer for an alternative construction of identity. If Orlan’s recent work seeks to tackle two contradictory imperatives. dismissed by a performative postmodernism. too. it also exemplifies a strange rebirth of the author. testifier. that contiguity rather than mimesis represents the contours of the self. trauma is treated as an event that guarantees the subject. had returned as traumatic. then. survivor […] In trauma discourse. deconstructive analyses and identity politics. 168). also betrays the move back towards the indexical sign and an attempt to ground the referent in a temporal reality. it also paves the way for much contemporary art which is situated in the real. a current “real” that is situated in the abject or traumatized body. however disturbed. He observes that the diseased or damaged body is the evidentiary witness or testimonial to certain truths.
coherent subject and search for a means of expressing the multiplicity of their lived experience. . process and change. This is not the referential as we knew it. these artists expose the falsity of a naturalized. which contests the very notion of the self and how it is to be represented. By tracing the fault-lines of the self through reference to the informe and the abject. static and authoritative. Bourgeois and Orlan have contributed to a body of work that rethinks the morphology of the subject.The Art of Louise Bourgeois and Orlan 199 the real converging with the return of the referential. this referential is subject to metamorphosis.
the body must be conceived of as an unmediated reflection of the self. For those who wish to privilege self-representation for its merging of art and life. While self-representation is not the only arena where this shift has been manifested. The body. between artwork and viewer. instantiates the decentring and dispersal of the Cartesian subject of modernism. The work I have chosen to focus upon exemplifies instances of this profound shift in the conception and experience of subjectivity that has occurred over the last century. I have shown how self-representation problematizes the ontological coherence of the body. as represented in these works. The Cartesian tradition taught us to juxtapose thought and body. self-writing and self-portraiture are necessarily paradigmatic of this change as the originary subject was. rather than revealing a subject. Rather. I have sought to show how the work that I have chosen. text and reader. The relation to the self entails reciprocity and contingency as an embodied experience . who envisage the unique body of the artist as self-contained in intention and authority. The selfrepresentations I have examined propose that the subject comes about always in relationship to others and the locus of identity lies elsewhere.Conclusion Throughout this study. and to purge them of all ambiguity – in abandoning this tradition we reinstate the embodied subject as one who is always already intentionally related to the world in some measure. which I defined in the introduction as an insistence upon the contingency of the self of the artist/writer on that of the interpreter of the work. creates and constructs that subject. presumed to be revealed by the work. and often still is. is not an unmediated repository of selfhood or subjectivity. I have highlighted the position of the body as the locus of this dispersed self and as a marker of the subject’s place in the social and artistic arenas. the intersubjectivity of these encounters. it only acquires meaning through its contextualization within certain codes of identity: interventions and interactions by and with others. As I have demonstrated. I have referred to the intersubjective nature of self-representation.
I do not propose that the works that I have drawn on. these self-representations enact narcissism as contingency. the body is no longer objectified or fixed (indeed. subjectivity is always produced at least by the interaction between the “I” of the work and the “you” this “I” addresses. for example. However. while Butler has indicated that the narcissistic imaginary by which the subject constitutes itself. 1985. 197). according to this theory. produces the body as the image of the other: “The specular image of the body itself is in some sense the image of the Other” (Butler. interconnecting the internal and external self as well as the self and other. Leiris’s misgivings expressed in his preface to L’Âge d’Homme or Orlan’s fixation on her own body. Instead of assuring the pre-social coherence of the self or subjectivity. in Le 19 Octobre 1977. or assume to have. 1993. display and interpretation. simultaneously. I have sought to show how the apparent narcissism of selfrepresentation. The narcissism of self-representation is a projection of the internal structures of identification outwards. Duchamp’s self-portrait implicates the viewer. Rosalind Krauss has argued. as do Bourgeois’s autobiographical Towers. both object and subject. Meaning is located not only in the dialectic . while these works seem to describe the destabilization of the subject and the interconnectedness of self and other. As Noël. Subjectivity is neither decorporealized or made transcendent but is enacted through the body. The work that I have focused on splinters rather than coheres the self. However much autonomy a particular reader/viewer may have. subjectivity remains embedded in the materiality of the body. in terms of reception. 76). the body no longer exists as a set of definable contours but as a sensory receptacle) but enacted through particular relations of production and reception. is. can be seen to mean anything or everything. while Leiris projects and formulates an identity around pre-existing mythological figures and Bacon interacts with a tradition of historical selfportraiture. in front of a painting/text. but rather that these texts and images have a range of potential meanings that are linked and relative to the contexts of their production.202 The Body as Medium and Metaphor of subjectivity involves being. “identity […] is primarily fused with identifications (a felt connection to someone else)” (Krauss. Prassinos and Orlan demonstrate. while remaining an exploration of the self. dependent upon an exploration of the other.
as “posthuman” (Jones. While technological and media innovations are rapidly and more clearly absorbed into the sphere of visual arts and are sometimes slower to appear in literature. Orlan paradoxically seems to be disembodied via high-tech media. to produce herself. as Amelia Jones describes. Amelia Jones observes how this apparent contradiction characterizes much contemporary art: Seemingly paradoxically. 315). He observes. inevitably spill over into textual form. the photograph is an emanation of the real and how it can be used to circumvent or to . and engaging with audiences in increasingly interactive ways (Jones. While refocusing attention back onto an embodied subjectivity. as multiplicitous. Michael Sheringham looks at recent innovations in autobiographical writing and examines how certain writers have incorporated the visual aspect of memory into their texts. 239). 1993. using the artists’ own body/self as both subject and object. Orlan’s body is experienced both by herself and her audience in and through technology. particular. My concluding study of the work of Orlan is exemplary of the way in which artists are now enacting the dispersed subject of the contemporary era and indicative of the future directions that selfrepresentation may take in the visual arts. 1998. Marguerite Duras and Paul Auster. “For a majority of Westerners in our time photographs are the most telling and evocative tokens of the individual past […] photographs have come to play a prominent part in modern autobiography” (Sheringham.Conclusion 203 between artwork and viewer but also in the dialectic of the past and present of the work. the consequences of these innovations and the implications they hold for the ways in which we conceive of our subjectivity. Orlan constructs herself through technologies of representation as well as medical technology. 227). given the conventional association of technology with disembodiment and disengagement from the world. recent body-oriented practices have increasingly mobilized and highlighted this reversibility. and unfixable. 1998. for these writers. either through the literal use of images or their indirect transcription. Looking in particular at Roland Barthes. Severing the link between bodily appearance and self-identity. Sheringham examines how. In the last chapter of French Autobiography.
204 The Body as Medium and Metaphor highlight the vulnerability of the process of remembering by making it manifest within the text. partly by concentrating on writers who are driven by a visual aesthetic. the Surrealist legacy of le hasard. but also the interplay between genres that this thesis has attempted to encapsulate and express. Leiris perceived in Bacon’s painting the moment of le sacré that he desired to capture in his writing while Bacon was aware of and responded to. Noël and Prassinos demonstrate how a visual aesthetic can be brought to bear upon a text. the extent to which visual art and the written text are motivated by mutual concerns. amongst other interests. Leiris and Bacon demonstrate clearly an exchange of influences. contemporary autobiographers are turning increasingly towards a visual aesthetic in order to inscribe their identity. uses words and text to expand and diffuse the frame of her visual art. These artists and writers locate the body and vision as sites of interaction and interplay between literature and visual art in ways that destabilize generic hierarchies and continue to call into question the nature of the subject. While visual arts and literature remain distinct art forms with their own set of internal and generic rules. My comparative approach has been an attempt to highlight the profoundly intertextual nature of self-representation. resulting in the instigation of radical innovations in prose writing. as Sheringham observes. then this goes some way towards demonstrating. not only the concerns surrounding the problematic status of the self and how this can be expressed textually. . similarly to Duchamp. Orlan. If. I have revealed here.
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