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Rather unengaging and unfulfilling exercises on ‘The imaginary spectator’ Ex. 2.2, 2.5.4, 2.6.1 Tintoretto, Chepstov, Clark on Manet

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 14 Dec 2018, 09:49

Rather unengaging and unfulfilling exercises on ‘The imaginary spectator’ Ex. 2.2, 2.5.4, 2.6.1 Tintoretto, Chepstov, Clark on Manet

One of the problems for me in these exercises is that they seem set up to elicit a 'correct' and rather limited answer. I haven't therefore been as full as I perhaps would had I thought what any learner had to say mattered. I think in this style of teaching, it doesn't matter and I respond along those lines.

Looking at Susannah or Elders A844 Ex 2.2

There is an obvious sense in which the fullness of our view of Susannah is contrasted with the restrictions on viewing her of all the internal observers – the 2 elders by complex looking positions which confront barriers and distance as an issue, whilst Susannah herself must have an unseen and occluded view. However, I don’t agree with Edwards that our subject-position can be summarised thus:

Regardless of our actual age or gender, it provides us with a particular place from which to look: that of an older man spying on a naked woman. Tintoretto invites us to adopt this imaginary position, binding us into complicity with gendered power.

Cannot our view be that of Susannah on herself. Hers is a more privileged even if limited one but it is openly enjoyed. In this case I’m not sure we are cast into the role of rapist or even voyeur, given the openness of the space immediately next to the picture plane. That’s openness is stressed by the contorted viewing position aspired to by the elder in the lower left.  Surely the point is that we are given alternatives or choices in our viewing position that sometimes does not render the image of woman into that of a victim.

 Ex 2.5.4 Who is the imaginary spectator here? Chepstov

The spectator is at a position below the stage and therefore looking up the ‘actors’ in the Communist meeting, although we are also pointed visually to a coffin like structure that is pushed towards the picture-plane. Whilst the vanishing point can take us no further back than a closed door, our vision is also pointed to lighter margins, especially to the after-sight of an intrusive vision from an open door to the right.. The sense of frames within frames is important and places us as an aware audience.

Does this make too many assumptions however:

Regardless of your class or politics, Cheptsov’s painting invites you to occupy this subject-location as the rural recipient of the communist ‘good news’. This can be called ‘propaganda’ as long as we are prepared to see the effects of capitalist mass media and advertising as ideological interpellations too.

Ex 2.5.5  Caillebotte

Clearly the atmosphere is light – where a couple of lovers or spouses or …. Whatever feel familiar although the viewer looks up (literally) to the man who is very much in control.


Now read an extract from T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1985, pp. 239–55).

·       Consider Clark’s claim about the subject position of the viewer and pay attention to the evidence he assembles for his argument.

·       What makes this image an exemplary modern artwork for him?

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Clark places the painting’s inconsistencies and incongruities at the heart of his description. He begins from the contemporary criticism: the figure was badly drawn and insubstantial, the mirror and reflection ‘botched’, the light ‘indecisive’. The cartoonist Stop highlights these oddities (Clark, 1985, pp. 240–1). He focuses on Manet’s attention to glitzy surfaces and ephemeral fashion; the barmaid’s blank, expressionless gaze; the odd orbs of light; the loose paint handling and the trapeze artist’s socks. For him, Manet’s bar ‘is a painting of surfaces’ and a display of painting as surface (Clark, 1985, p. 248).

Clark highlights the dislocations and spatial complexities, taking them as symptoms of a significant ideological disturbance. Is it a mirror? Can we be sure, he asks, the rear view of a woman, so far to the right, is the barmaid’s reflection? If this is her reflection then the male figure in the top hat is the viewer staring back: ‘we must be where he is’ (Clark, 1985, pp. 249–50). The picture creates a subject location for an imaginary bourgeois-male spectator. Irrespective of whether the actual viewer is male or female, s/he is placed imaginatively in his shoes. At a time when it was known that these barmaids sold sex as well as beer or champagne (guidebooks to Paris and novelists were clear on the point), Clark suggests, the reflection in the mirror indicates a man in the act of soliciting this woman (Clark, 1985, p. 243).

Manet’s picture may be superficially similar to Tintoretto’s in inviting you to occupy the position of a masculine viewer looking at a woman as an object of desire. However, the bar creates a viewing position that foregrounds the unseemly aspects of middle-class life. In fact, Clark suggests that this painting is more disturbing. The oddities and dislocations don’t allow this position to become definite or fixed. We are, simultaneously, in his place and yet not there.

Manet doesn’t completely reject the ideology of bourgeois-masculinity in this painting, but he doesn’t affirm it either. The position we are offered involves looking askance, with a cool and contemplative gaze, at something alien and strange. The subject position the picture constructs enables us to watch ourselves looking at a woman as an object of desire. We see ourselves chatting her up or propositioning her, but from somewhere else. This out-of-body experience involves a dandyish detachment, rather than radical critique. However, that dislocation allows us to mark our distance from prevailing ideology.

Many readers who have engaged with Clark’s argument have focused on this question of masculine viewing (often forgetting the bourgeois component), but for him this is only one dimension of what makes Manet’s picture an exemplary modernist artwork. As I indicated, he attends to the discontinuities, oddities and jarring effects. Most of all, I think, he focuses on those elements that fail to add up; the points where the viewer is unable to decide what they see. He has much more to say than I have indicated here; for instance, he offers an important account of the woman’s blasé detachment as a symptom of modernity (Clark, 1985, pp. 253–5). In his description of this picture, the points of indeterminacy provide homologies for experience in conditions of capitalist modernity.

The argument might not be easy to grasp, but I think Clark is suggesting that Manet found a way to employ pictorial uncertainty that raised questions that capture the pervading sense of insecurity and ambiguity in modern society. There is no stable viewing position in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, and hence no place of moral certainty for the beholder.

I have to say when I read this discussion I abandoned my own readings, feeling quite pushed by the whole section into a very limited reading – this one rather than the more nuanced one in Clark. The comparisons feel forced – especially that between Tintoretto and Manet where I feel that there are many more factors to take into account.

On the whole I’m less than enthusiastic about Section 2 as teaching, although I enjoyed reading many parts of it.

It is power for the course that I feel so patronised by: "The argument might not be easy to grasp,...". This is a course at Masters level.

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