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To Destroy Painting.

In most of its current forms, art history seems destined to have fewer and fewer points of contact with contemporary art and criticism. As art historians develop better and more sophisticated ways to embed works of art in their original circumstances, their very success tends to pull the art of the past away from the present. Things were not always this way. In the bad old days of art history, when formalism was king, the past weighed less heavily: since Form was supposedly timeless, an object from whatever time or place could still feel contemporary. But from the moment that Context replaced Form as the new art history's center of gravity, the pastness of the past took over. Art historians had less and less to say to the contemporary scene.

One notable exception to this rule is the great French cultural historian Louis Marin, who died in 1992. In Portrait of the King, his study of Louis XIV, Marin's mastery of the artistic and intellectual history of the period was everywhere evident, but what made the book electric was the contemporary emphasis: Louis' court as the ultimate society of the spectacle, a monarchy based entirely on powers of simulation, the king as the dazzling body of artifice. Like Michel Foucault, Marin wrote history in reverse: he began with the present and then worked out how on earth we got here. The result was less the history of art than its genealogy.

To Destroy Painting begins with the high-Modernist moment when painting had withdrawn from the task of representing reality ... in favor of an increasing preoccupation with problems intrinsic to painting" (Clement Greenberg). How did painting get to that point? When and how did metapainting begin? Marin traces its genealogy back to the 17th century, to Poussin and Caravaggio. Both artists, Marin argues, are centrally concerned with mapping the system of painting itself; concerned, that is, not just with making an image but with making the image reveal, inside itself, the nature of the system that produced it. In the case of Poussin, the system of painting devised in the Italian Renaissance is now seen as something that "walks by itself," an ensemble of rules and protocols that are utterly impersonal - a system that no longer has anything to do with the painter's actual or living perception of the world. Indeed, Pussin's highest values (disegno - composition, textuality) require the extinction of the painter's sensual and visual experience, his flesh-and-blood engagement with things.

The focus of Marin's discussion is the pastoral landscape of Poussin that centers on a tomb inscribed with the words Et in Arcadia ego. At the level of the painting's story, each of the scene's figures reads in the inscription the fact of his own death. But at the level of the painting's system, this "death" is the system's own hostility to the flesh and to carnal immediacy. It is a visual regime that requires the sacrifice of one's own body and the body's experience of the world (a sacrifice that, for Poussin, is always noble). And the means of sacrifice is representation itself, this visual machinery that humans operate but that they cannot enter as bodies or as individual selves.

As it happens, Poussin is reported to have loathed Caravaggio: "Poussi could not bear Caravaggio and said that he had come into the world in order to destroy painting" (Andre Felibien). Marin presses on this hatred of one artist for another to discover just what kind of threat the work of Caravaggio posed. In terms of technique, the two were obvious opposites: Poussin sketched and planned every move in advance, but contemporaries recorded that Caravaggio dispensed with preparatory sketches, painting directly on canvas what was before his eyes. This difference in technical approach was a symptom of something deeper, Caravaggio's desire to tea down the edifice of all the instituted rules of decorum and erudition whose sum, for Poussin, equaled painting itself. Each of those rules acted as a screen between the painter and his lived world, and Marin argues that only by destroying them all - by destroying what painting had become - could Caravaggio portray the truth of vision, which is to be always locked onto the world.

Judith Beheading Holofernes is a case in point. Caravaggio arrests the action at the instant when Judith's sword has sawn precisely halfway across her victim's neck; the spurts of blood are freeze-framed into mesmerizing jets, spikes of crimson glass. You can persuade your eye to wander about the rest of the canvas, but you cannot resist the tremendous magnetic pull of the grisly details of decapitation. In that irresistible pull of the eye, Caravaggio portrays vision as locked into the world and held there, like it or not, by the image's powers of fascination. Against Poussin and academies, Caravaggio portrays painting as literally a trap for the eye. Hence so many of his effects - for instance, the intensification of light/dark contrasts. This effectively abolished disegno, the line that the mind casts round things in order to contain them, and instead increased the force and violence of Caravaggio's colors. Hence, too, the come-and-get-it eroticism of his Bacchus and St. John, works that frankly equate painting with visual seduction.

Marin's text is immersed in the critical language of the period: disegno, color, line, idea, imitation. But in his framing of these historical debates you feel his constant engagement with his own milieu, and with the thought of Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, and Roland Barthes. It does no violence to Marin's discussion to hear forgotten debates of the 17th century replayed in the language of our own time. Poussin, painter of the symbolic, and of the price paid by the body for its entry into discourse, reason, history; Caravaggio, painter of the real, and of the image's convulsive life in the real. Marin's brilliant and passionate book makes Poussin and Caravaggio our own contemporaries.
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Author:Bryson, Norman
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1995
Words:982
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Next Article:Finding Art's Place: Experiments in Contemporary Education and Culture.
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