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The Subject in Art: Portraiture and the Birth of the Modern

The Subject in Art: Portraiture and the Birth of the Modern

by Catherine M. Soussloff
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Challenging prevailing theories regarding the birth of the subject, Catherine M. Soussloff argues that the modern subject did not emerge from psychoanalysis or existential philosophy but rather in the theory and practice of portraiture in early-twentieth-century Vienna. Soussloff traces the development in Vienna of an ethics of representation that emphasized subjects as socially and historically constructed selves who could only be understood—and understand themselves—in relation to others, including the portrait painters and the viewers. In this beautifully illustrated book, she demonstrates both how portrait painters began to focus on the interior lives of their subjects and how the discipline of art history developed around the genre of portraiture.

Soussloff combines a historically grounded examination of art and art historical thinking in Vienna with subsequent theories of portraiture and a careful historiography of philosophical and psychoanalytic approaches to human consciousness from Hegel to Sartre and from Freud to Lacan. She chronicles the emergence of a social theory of art among the art historians of the Vienna School, demonstrates how the Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka depicted the Jewish subject, and explores the development of pictorialist photography. Reflecting on the implications of the visualized, modern subject for textual and linguistic analyses of subjectivity, Soussloff concludes that the Viennese art historians, photographers, and painters will henceforth have to be recognized as precursors to such better-known theorists of the subject as Sartre, Foucault, and Lacan.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822336709
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/04/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Catherine M. Soussloff holds the University of California Presidential Chair in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of The Absolute Artist: The Historiography of a Concept and the editor of Jewish Identity in Modern Art History.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-3670-9

Chapter One


Today, the words portrait and portraiture are used interchangeably to designate a genre of art. Before the twentieth century, portrait referred solely to an image or material object, such as a relief sculpture, and portraiture usually denoted the action of portrayal or depiction that resulted in an image of a known person. Two apparently discrepant claims about the genre of portraiture both distinguish it from other kinds of art and signal its significance for the larger question of how human beings understand their world in visual terms. We might call these discrepant claims the functional dialectic of the portrait representation. The truth claim of an indexical exteriority, or resemblance, to the person portrayed simultaneously coexists in the genre with a claim to the representation of interiority, or spirituality. Both of these are said to reside in the portrait representation itself and in the eyes of the beholder.

The truth claim relies on the assumption that the portrait depicts an identifiable individual. However, likeness to a historical person is notequivalent to absolute identification, meaning it cannot be strictly maintained in the genre. Passport photographs purport to depict in a very empirical and obvious way the person named and shown, yet they may be forged or use falsified photographs. So, too, a lack of identification may be found in other portraits, such as paintings of sitters whose resemblance to actual persons can never verifiably identify them, because any reference to their names has been lost. Likeness, as in the visualized physical aspects of a singular human being that correspond to an empirical reality, often exists in portrait representations, but many portraits said to be of particular individuals may not necessarily be congruent with a perceived exterior reality. Recognition, which is less precise than identification, will often be used as a primary indicator of depiction in general, and becomes of great importance to the concept of portraiture precisely because it turns resemblance into a matter of viewing, rather than maintaining that a standard of likeness resides in the portrait itself. The standard of likeness cannot be maintained in the object portrait with any consistency, but the expectation that we can potentially or actually recognize an individual in the portrait makes the genre what it is. Thus, studies of anonymous portraits rely on the assumption that these depictions resemble historical people, often without any way of ascertaining that they do.

The expectation of the truth claim of portraiture has allowed artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, to use effacement of physical characteristics as an effective means of highlighting the contingency of resemblance and, consequently, of emphasizing the other pole of the functional dialectic of portraiture, interiority. Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein documents both in its overworked brush strokes and its hieratic, seated composition (see figure 1). After numerous sittings in which Picasso wrestled with the problem of exact resemblance, he finally painted out Stein's face and substituted the conventions of an African mask for her features. Even with this erasure and substitution, we have long "recognized" Gertrude Stein in the portrait. Or, as Gertrude Stein herself said, "He painted in the head without having seen me again and he gave me the picture and I was and I still am satisfied with my portrait, for me, it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me."

Warhol's lithograph series of portraits, Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century includes a picture of Gertrude Stein, which, like the other likenesses of twentieth-century figures he provides, plays with the limits of resemblance necessary for the identification of the historical person (see color plate 1). Each one of the lithographs in the series references a photograph of the well-known person, thereby giving photography as the documentary proof required for identification of the individual. Photography upholds the exteriority and truth claim of the portrait genre.

Because referential representation is a central aspect of the documentary aesthetic, the portrait lays claim to the historical, particularly to historicist approaches that use literal correspondences between the portrait and the subject to interpret both character and events. As "one of the typologies [of art] most intimately connected to the social sphere," portraits have most commonly been considered in the history of the family, or its immediate circle. The intricate interpretations provided by art history for Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait illustrate this point clearly (see figure 2). Indeed, the large number of paintings that exist in the generic subcategory of "wedding portraits," "marriage portraits," "companion portraits," or "conversation portraits" from the fifteenth century to the present, gives strength to the typological casting of such pictures that reassert the social relations between individual, spouse, family, the institution of marriage, and class. Portraits are, therefore, pictures particularly indicative not only of an individual, but also of kinship and social status. Beginning in the nineteenth century, portraits became an essential part of the decoration of the home of the rising bourgeois. Since the Roman period death masks, or posthumous portraits, had ensured the continuation through the generations of an emphasis on kinship in portraiture. So, too, the fidelity to an exacting resemblance in this form of the portrait signifies that the sociality of the genre relies historically on upholding the idea of the singular individual in relationship to others for whom recognition is essential.

The other side of the functional dialectic of portraiture contrasts with the indexical, or factual, resemblance. It relies on an understanding that the portrait gives us more than itself, for example, that the portrait is not only about adherence to an exterior reality. This excess to resemblance in the portrait resides in the projection of interiority onto the depicted person, and it may be called iconic. Projection comes from within the viewer(s), although it has often been said to be inherent to portraiture itself. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the face was commonly held to be a window to the soul. The portrait had long been seen as the tangible representation of this belief. In 1901 the Berlin philosopher-sociologist, Georg Simmel wrote about the face in terms of its status as the synthesis of the ideal view of representation in both political and aesthetic contexts. He concludes "The Aesthetic Significance of the Face" with the following words: "The eye epitomizes the achievement of the face in mirroring the soul. At the same time, it accomplishes its finest, purely formal end as the interpreter of mere appearance, which knows no going back to any pure intellectuality behind the appearance. It is precisely this achievement with which the eye, like the face generally, gives us the intimation, indeed the guarantee, that the artistic problems of pure perception and of the pure, sensory image of things-if perfectly solved-would lead to the solution of those other problems which involve soul and appearance. Appearance would then become the veiling and unveiling of the soul."

In the Western tradition, the term for a foundational mimetic image is icon, understood also as a portrait image of a holy being. In the history of European art this central term situates the portrait in the context of the dominant religion, Christianity, where the icon purported to be the invisible God made visible. In the Christian icon the resemblance is not merely to a physical being, but rather to immanence, that is, the image gives the sign of the God within. Unlike other visual images, icons do not merely portray or narrate; instead they are in the deepest theological sense holy. Thus, the inscription on the medieval icon of the Christ Pantocrator from the Kahrieh Djami in Istanbul refers to the image as chora-land, space, or container (see figure 3). The image is "the land of the living," "the place of the living," or "the container of the living." The presence of the icon in the Western tradition illustrates most clearly how the physical object, for example, the portrait, can warrant full veneration. The icon demonstrates most clearly how the history of portraiture necessarily entails a viewer who projects his otherwise invisible God, onto or into the portrait, yet, in this same tradition that sees man as created in the image of God, the believer also inevitably projects himself onto the image.

To be sure, in the early modern period the theology of the image in the religious context began to dissipate, particularly with the rise of Protestantism. By the time of the Enlightenment, Christian religious art no longer bore the full weight of the burden of immanent sacredness. Images could represent the quotidian and the real. Yet, in the case of portraiture, the lingering cultural belief in the immanence of the subject's presence remained.

In recent times the work of art, much like the medieval icon in the Christian context, has been understood to give "an intensified illusion of having unmediated access to meaning." Extending this idea to the secular context of art history where we find the portrait of the historical person, the view of the capacity of that portrait to be more than simply a material artifact or resemblance has been called an aesthetics "informed by theological conviction." Using the terminology of the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, we might prefer to call this understanding of the portrait "a metaphor that is meant." This terminology admits of the dialectic function of the portrait in the human imaginary, for which I have been arguing. The photographic portrait, to take the best example from the genre of portraiture, is in part indexical. Optical processes that depend on the coincident presence in time of apparatus, subject, and photographer in part determine its resemblance. On the other hand, we could say that painted, and most sculptured, portraits are iconic because there is nothing about their appearance that is necessarily determined by that which they represent. Yet, the iconicity of every portrait image, its ability to be, will be alluded to even when indexicality, or a physical connection to the referent, appears the more visible means of understanding. We will see in subsequent chapters that the portrait of the historical individual predominates in visual representation in Vienna around the beginning of the twentieth century. A key monument in the history of both portraiture and the visualized subject in art at this time is the portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, painted in 1909 by the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka (see color plate 2). In its generic form of the conversation or marriage portrait, in the recognizable faces of two individuals, in the overt gestures and gazes of the figures depicted in the painting toward each other and toward the viewer, and in the artist's own "gestural" handling of the paint material and its expressionistic color effects, this portrait exemplifies the dialectic function of portraiture to simultaneously give both interiority and exteriority. The portrait of the Tietzes makes us aware of them, of the artist, and of the subjectivity of the response to viewing entailed. In this complex example of the portraiture genre, the secular human subject may be said to have replaced the religious icon in its ability to give both interior, subjective access while maintaining its fidelity to exterior appearance. We will see that Kokoschka's painting demonstrates that the portrait's function in society at this time extends to relationships among the subjects portrayed, the viewer(s), and the artist, producing a new subject in art.

The emergence of the modern subject into visual representation and art-historical writing in Vienna around 1900 serves as the foundation for a later, more complex theory of the modern subject that began between the world wars in Continental philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The significance of the philosophical strains of this investigation of the subject resides in Alexandre Kojève's thinking through Hegel, in Jacques Lacan's "mirror stage," in Jean-Paul Sartre's book on the imagination, and in Judith Butler's genealogy of postmodern subjectivity in the political sphere. The interpretation of portraiture offered here provides major conjunctions with a vital intellectual genealogy that has, until now, eluded art historians.

Modern and Postmodern Ideas of Resemblance

Jean-Paul Sartre was the first to describe the fallacy of thinking "that the image was in consciousness and that the object of the image was in the image" by calling this belief "the illusion of immanence." In his 1940 study of imagination and the imaginary, The Psychology of Imagination, Sartre pointed to the venerable philosophical tradition beginning with Hume in which "the radical incongruity between consciousness and this conception of the image has never been felt." Although Sartre's argument is a general one about consciousness, it can be applied to portraiture. According to Sartre, dominant views of the image from Hume to 1945 contradicted common sense. Importantly, Sartre gives portraiture as the exemplary genre, or site, with which to illustrate this radical incongruity between what we "know" about the image of someone and what we know: "When I say that 'I have an image' of Peter, it is believed that I now have a certain picture of Peter in my consciousness. The object of my actual consciousness is just this picture, while Peter, the man of flesh and bone, is reached but very indirectly, in an 'extrinsic' manner, because of the fact that it is he whom the picture represents. Likewise, in an exhibition, I can look at a portrait for its own sake for a long time without noticing the inscription at the bottom of the picture 'Portrait of Peter Z."'

In effect, Sartre argued here that the history of portraiture relies on a theoretical structure in which lies a basic dilemma in the concept of portraiture, one between desire and effect. This dilemma between desire and effect creates what I have called the functional dialectic of the portrait representation. For Sartre, the viewer must complete in his imagination a picture of a whole person to whom the portrait refers if the basic desire for resemblance is to be satiated. At the very beginning of his study, Sartre indicates that completion is an active process, just as his understanding of consciousness "designate[s] not only the unity and the totality of its psychical structures, but also 'a function.'" Accordingly, we might say that the person depicted may be made whole in the consciousness of the viewer. (This assumption of wholeness through consciousness, indicative of Sartre's view of the subject, contrasts drastically with the thinking about the subject found in Lacan.)

Applying Sartre's argument, the portrait would be the visual instantiation or material evidence of the desire for resemblance and connection, of the very function of the imagination. If we take this thought further than, perhaps, Sartre would have done, we can say that the status of the portrait as the primary instantiation of exacting representation in modernity is a desire on the part of sitter, artist, and viewer(s) for social connection through visible means. The portrait makes visible what we imagine of others. This consciousness of the other displayed in the genre of portraiture gives rise to the useful understanding of portraiture as social engagement, a now common way of speaking of the genre.


Excerpted from THE SUBJECT IN ART by CATHERINE M. SOUSSLOFF Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Subject in Art 1

1. A Genealogy of the Subject in the Portrait 5

2. The Birth of the Social History of Art 25

3. The Subject at Risk: Jewish Assimilation and Viennese Portraiture 57

4. Art Photography, Portraiture, and Modern Subjectivity 83

5. Regarding the Subject in Art History: An Epilogue 115

Notes 123

Bibliography 149

Illustration Credits 163

Index 167

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