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Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance. (Reviews).

Harry Berger, Jr., Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance.

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000. 32 color pls. + 51 b/w illus. + 624 pp. $85 (cl), $39.95 (pbk). ISBN: 0-8047-3323-6 (cl), 0-8047-3324-4 (pbk).

In this brilliant performance, three hallmarks of Harry Berger's approach are abundantly in evidence: an inexhaustible capacity to take up diverse strands of contemporary theory and redirect them toward his own highly focused analytical goals; an ability to reconstitute a field by engaging in in-depth conversations with the writings of key critics; and an uncanny perceptiveness in picking out visual details that cumulatively generate new interpretations of individual works of art. The three qualities are interrelated: the first two components provide crucial resources that inform Berger's method of close interpretation. Yet, in the end, the third element is the most permanent part of his achievement. One need not accept the spin he puts on each observation to realize that Berger raises the ante by greatly increasing the number of details for which analysis must account. Although Berger's humor as a self-confessed "Bad Boy" at age 76 makes his method look easy, his skill at detailed seeing cannot be replicated .

The key terms in Berger's definition of portraiture -- "pose" and "fiction" -- introduce layers of complexity that expand the scope for interpretation. This model becomes a vehicle by which Berger exposes the ideological moves implicit in Kenneth Clark's valuations of the nude and the naked, and reverses the positive and negative valences attaching to this contrast (430-42). The shift from the nude as a genre to the field of portraiture entails an adjustment: while the rendering of flesh in the facial features of portraits (470, 477) provides a literal point of continuity, full application requires a metaphorical understanding of the nude-naked dialectic. The translation of fine versus rough styles into the stances and values of the "Good Boy" and "Bad Boy" (368) is shown, for example, in the segue from the Portrait of Maerten Soolmans (278-80) to Rembrandt's 1632 self-portrait (383-88), in which the ironic dimensions Berger discerns in the former are transferred to the latter.

The greatest challenge is that Rembrandt's self-portraiture concerns two distinct forms of nakedness corresponding to the division between the earlier fancy-dress self-portraits and the later self-portraits as an artist. The first, by placing Rembrandt in the roles of both sitter and painter, enacts an elaborate exposure of the conventional system of patronage. The second, though equally constructed and performative, involves more direct self-exposure. It is difficult to specify in the same detail the resonance of the latter's versions of nakedness. One measure of the difficulty is that, in the final three chapters on the late artist self-portraits, Berger's practice of giving each image a sprightly allegorical moniker is partly suspended; two self-portraits are retroactively assigned the uninflected, undifferentiated title of "the Louvre and Kenwood Painters" (510). The book ends with the Cologne self-portrait, affectionately nicknamed the Joker, but this perhaps suggests the artificial finality of a particu larly dramatic instance. It's worth asking to what extent this choice skews the overall picture of the late self-portraits and whether the missing London self-portrait of 1669 should be included to provide the balance of a more representative, mote muted, example.

I want to register two minor reservations, admittedly tangential to Berger's main argument. The section heading "The Embarrassment of Poses" signals the use of Simon Schama's 1987 study. Apart from the undeveloped reference to Heinrich Wofflin's "racism" (448), Berger avoids the role of African attendants in Dutch portraiture and is thus subject to the criticism Susan Buck-Morss makes against Schama in "Hegel and Haiti" in Critical Inquiry (Summer 2000). Also, Berger underestimates the possibilities for irony in Van Dyck's portraits, though his case for Rembrandt's complexity does not require that Van Dyck be seen as a straw-man foil.

In conclusion, I would like to point to the connection between the present book and "Second-World Prosthetics," Berger's contribution to Early Modern Visual Culture (2000); the latter's coda on Kenneth Clark's nude-naked distinction makes the overlap clear. However, I want to call attention to the opening paragraphs in which Berger describes his rejection of the second-world concept on which his career had hitherto been based. Only in this ancillary essay is the depth of Berger's opposition to the Italian classical norm of "nudity" fully expressed; the essay thus provides more substantial indication of the driving force behind the need for the positive alternative offered by Rembrandt's construction of "nakedness."
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Author:Erickson, Peter
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:745
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