Friday, April 30, 2004

The Functional Role of the Artist in the Works of Daumier and Cameron

In his essay The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire defines modern art (in both subject and method) as a balance and interaction between the dual principles of the ephemeral and the eternal, as well as to the material and spiritual, modernity and history, from which one can access eternal (historically accepted) beauty only through the particulars of material details and ephemeral moments of time. Through capturing the ephemeral details of the present, the artist both places them in history and validates their passing presence. Since through the act of representation the artist invests value in a subject (through his choice to portray it) and defines his relationship to his environment (through the manner of his portrayal), Baudelaire’s suggestion to represent the particular acts as a means of negotiating the problems of modernity. The anonymity of the masses, materialistic excess, and the passing of time with its promise of death for each trend, gesture, and person can be counteracted by the artist’s eternalizing act of depicting the specifics of those people and things around him.

The practices of caricature and photography, two rising mediums of the mid-nineteenth century, present the viewer with two contrasting views of modernity. In regard to detail description, caricature and photography parallel Baudelaire’s duality of general and particular: in one the artist’s discrimination of specific details individualizes, while in the other a “multiplicity of details” overwhelms and destroys harmony (16). Likewise, Baudelaire argues that photography cannot reconcile, but instead actually exemplifies and engenders modern problems by standardizing and mechanizing representation while objectifying and deindividuating the subject, as in the equating of subject with product in the commodified carte-de-visite portraits. This would lead a viewer to understand his environment as comprised only of material objects. Caricature, on the other hand, individuates through exaggeration of physiognomic detail while likewise retaining both the physical mark and the subjective, moralizing view of the individual artist.

However, in the examination of two specific artists, acclaimed caricaturist Honore Daumier and amateur photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the opposition between the mediums is replaced by tendencies to portray content antithetical to their medium. While Daumier uses his spiritual ability to “distill from [the present] the mysterious element of beauty” along with non-mimetic drawing techniques to portray material social reality, Cameron manipulates a cold, mechanical medium based in the material to portray internal spiritual values. In departing from the norms of their medium and fusing ephemeral and eternal in their choices of subject and medium, both artists suggest a departure from Baudelaire’s strict definition of the modern artist. In attempt to react to and reconcile the problems of a new society through the examination of details, Daumier’s work models a disconnected material view of the subject, while Cameron’s suggests connection and transcendence.

Honore Daumier’s work, usually made for magazine or newspaper distribution, presents social reality translated into caricature, utilizing a detached view to comprehend modernity. By translating the whole realm of observed reality into the exaggerated language of caricature, he creates a one-to-one correlation between signifier (the drawing) and signified (the society). The viewer learns to follow this language, though the world of the signifier takes on a reality, with its fully developed repertoire of characters and situations. Baudelaire commends this distance between worlds: “The external world is reborn upon his paper, natural and more than natural” (12), suggesting the world of the drawing is complete in itself, independent of and, indeed, better than its depraved original.

Whether actively translating Daumier’s characters back into reality or leaving them in their own world, the viewer sees, through the artist’s semiotics and perspectival placement, a disconnection from the environment. This disconnection manifests compositionally and contextually, separating the viewer from the image, as the audience from at the theatre stage. The viewer is, like the audience, simultaneously transfixed by and separate from the actors, as they inhabit different representational worlds. Daumier’s painting The Drama (1878) sets up this relationship between audience and art. Instead of framing just the play or just the audience, Daumier includes both, compositionally drawing attention to the difference and separation between spectator and actor. The group of five spectators, in clumsy dress and manner, watch in suspense, mouths open and eyes wide, fixed on the dignified hero and damsel, who counter their inappropriate behavior. While the spectators’ movements are uncontrolled and awkward (they stand up, clap, and even shout), the gestures of the actors are choreographed and constrained. Likewise, the painting hanging on the set reflects a further separation between viewers and artwork, separating the action of the play and the calm control of what is most likely a traditional family portrait. Following this system, the viewer finds himself watching the audience members, in order to see his difference and feel his separation from their exaggerated features and behavior. The distorted and over-reactive spectators, grotesque with their gaping mouths and bulging eyes, are both physically closest to the viewer, sharing his seating, and the only details clear to him. So the viewer, distracted by the ridiculous spectators and unable to make out the drama, and finally directed into the empty space of the theatre above the heads of the audience, finds himself separated from the painting spatially and thematically though placed within it. This position of disconnected observer who watches not the play but the audience exemplifies the role of flaneur, which Baudelaire champions as the fundamental role of the modern artist. Daumier directs the compositional focus onto the spectator through the receding lines of the stage, as well as the strong gesture of the male actor, teaching the viewer how and where to look in such a public occasion. However, the gaze of the flaneur does not insure individuality for the subject. In his painting, the spectators are grouped together symbolically and spatially; because they look the same, act the same, and occupy the same cramped space, the spectators give up their individuality to the isolated flaneur.

Just as exaggerated details separate and constrain Daumier’s viewer, they attract and intrigue Cameron’s. Instead of functioning as a signifier for translation into another world, details act as a threshold between multiple worlds, connecting Cameron’s mechanically recorded reality to mythical history and eternal spirituality. In leaving most details out of focus, Cameron defies Baudelaire’s criticism of photography as a measured standardization, allowing a hazy subject in order to call forth a more general, universal, even Platonic form determined not by the machine but by the viewer’s imagination. Lacking the sharpness of image equated with mechanical measurement, the out-of-focus treatment of the individual nevertheless seems to support photography’s accused ability to steal one’s individuality, either through reproduction and sales or by taking a layer off of your livelihood to preserve on the metal plate, as Balzac thought. Due to the universally understood process of photography as a generally direct representation of reality, Cameron’s work can maintain its connection to experiential reality while simultaneously elevating and opening the image to signify multiple realities. In her emphasis of detail through selective focus, Cameron’s photographs train the viewer to search out intermediary details in reality, and explore it with the same curiosity as one would in a photograph.

Cameron’s use of focused detail as a connecting principle in her otherworldly works is only one of a range of methods that simultaneously draws the viewer into the photograph while asserting its roots in the material. In Cameron’s 1866 photograph Madonna & Child, a few locks of the child’s hair act as the intermediary between the Virgin Mary and Cameron’s parlor-maid Mary Hillier. The lock of hair as a meeting place between the material, physical Mary and the spiritual, allegorical Madonna subject takes root in its technical place as a visual convergence of two fields of focus, both equally out-of-focus, though occupying different spatial proximities to the camera. This detail provides the viewer with a clear frame of reference to his own experience, while simultaneously drawing him into the middle focused ground of the print in a reality other than his own. Working off the connection suggested by the focused lock, the viewer searches the rest of the composition for connection. The soft focus lends to the features of Mary and the Child the same smoky quality as DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Likewise, the same desire to connect to the mysterious other drives the viewer psychologically closer to the subject. Composition provides a spatially closer connection to the subject, using close-up shots and tight cropping around the figures to hold the viewer’s gaze. The empty space above the stage in The Drama that allowed for the viewer’s eyes and mind to roam is not provided, and what appears black does not signify empty space, but rather a flat plane, that keeps us close to the subject. In Cameron’s photographs the viewer is directed not out towards material spaces, but into the subjects themselves. The vast interior realms of the subjects, accessed through the mystery of the Madonna’s downcast eyes, invite the same “luminous explosion in space” as the negative space around a caricature (18). In Cameron’s work, however, the viewer himself explodes into the picture instead of just watching caricatures explode through Daumier’s expressive line.

Daumier’s withdrawn focus out and Cameron’s connected pull in reflect each artist’s respective realm of didactic function. As Daumier occupies himself with primarily public, social concerns, an exaggerated material reality allows for a clear expression of these reactionary views. Cameron, on the other hand, addresses personal spiritual concerns accessed only through the portrayal of and the viewing by the individual. However, at the same, both artists make comments about the other realm: Daumier’s materialism comments on a general lack of spirituality and Cameron’s spiritual understanding of a new scientific medium demonstrates her refusal of the intellectual trends of the time.

In presenting the observed details of formal and circumstantial life, Daumier addresses himself to the viewer’s material life and modern problems. However, his presentation of the viewer’s detached relationship to artwork expresses a lack of faith both in his ability to transcend beyond the material in portraying the public, and the public’s ability to understand beyond the material. Though Daumier solves the problem of accelerated time by recording each trend in society as it comes, eternalizing it for the future before it passes unnoticed, he can address anonymity and material excess only through its representation in the context of society. Because he cannot escape the context, his solution to modernity’s problems lies simply in the distance created between the viewer and the environment, protecting him from anonymity by separating him from it. Daumier provides no artistic model for an active approach to changing conditions of modernity. Rather, he provides the viewer with a consciousness of his state, which only instills the guilt of original sin and an existential awareness of the futility of attempted change.

Daumier’s frequent representation of the misunderstanding of art confirms the futility of solving the material societal problems through a spiritual visual medium. In his lithograph The Amateur of Engravings (1878), he cites the proliferation of images in a society that does not appreciate them for their aesthetic or didactic value, instead equating art with material wealth, status, and distraction from the spiritual. Daumier quotes the gesture and composition of Quentin Massys’s The Moneylender and his Wife (1515) to emphasize society’s equation of art with money, identity, and mindless spectacle instead of spiritual internality. The wife’s distracted gaze and careless page flipping with her left hand sets the pose for the Daumier’s man on the right, while the man on the left is, respectively, consumed with admiring his potential profits. By substituting engravings for both money and the holy book, Daumier equates them with both great spiritual meaning and material value. However, like in Massys, the didactic meaning of the bible and the art is lost in the distracting spectacles of wealth and representation. Like the over-enthusiastic spectators in The Drama reacting only to the sensational and never the sublime, the two amateurs lose themselves in the materiality of the print before understanding its transcendental qualities. To emphasize the tactile, material quality of potentially transcendent artwork, Daumier maintains through defined line the same nimble fingers as Massys. Like the Moneylender couple, the amateurs define themselves by their possessions, which consist of not a variety of objects and books (as in Massys), but simply a wealth of paintings, ignored and unreadable, though gorgeously framed, neglected as dusty objects left upon a shelf. Again, through portraying the interaction between art and audience, Daumier puts forth the viewer’s lack of understanding for and distance from the work. He comments that in modernity, representational art, like the Wife’s illuminated bible, cannot attain transcendental ideas through physical forms, as the viewer will always become caught up in luminous details. Though Baudelaire is himself caught up in the “incomparable mastery of artificial forms,” art must nevertheless involve a crossover to the spiritual in order to have meaning. Though he relates this event of 19th century society to 16th century art, forcing his viewer into a moment of historical consciousness, it is nevertheless a consciousness of failure. The process of the artist becomes both a way of looking at the world and a tactile activity to distract him from the awareness of his entrapment within it.

Conversely, Cameron uses the connective detail description of her scientific medium to address modernity’s lack of spirituality. Springing from to the fabric of the living material world and signifying eternal characters of Shakespeare and the Bible, Cameron’s work has the ability to attain the spiritual through the material while solving problems of modernity through escape into the spiritual and emotional. Through her work she counteracts the modern viewer’s anonymity, mortality, and materialistic oppression by granting to the model individuality, perpetual life throughout history, and separation from the material realm. As just a friend, stranger, or handmaid of the photographer, occupying the same material world as everyone else, the viewer, substituting himself for the model, receives the answers to his problems. In using her servants and strangers as signifiers for the eternal, Cameron bestows upon the working class a spiritual significance. For instance, Mary Hillier, Cameron’s sitter for the Madonna & Child, came to be known as “The Island Madonna” on the Isle of Wight where the Camerons lived, showing the work’s ability to transform physical reality into something closer to her photograph.* Instead of seeing a “more than natural” portrayal of his society in a realm of exaggeration, the viewer sees a “real impression” of a person who is not only allegorically portrayed as, but really looks like a vision of the eternal. This satisfies both a modern need for connection and spirituality and while maintaining a basis in the age’s scientific material reality.

Though approaching modernity from opposite directions in an attempt to promote individuality, both Daumier and Cameron, in the end, share the fault of organizing people into typical roles, either as caricature or literary archetype. In Daumier’s The Drama, for example, the theatergoers both watch the archetypal hero, damsel, and dead lover, and themselves enact the stereotypical role of the working-class barbarians. Likewise, because his amateurs of prints occupy the same class and materialistic mindset they are grouped into a stereotype, robbed of their individuality. Though Cameron, too, typecasts her models, she has the intention of validating rather than of diminishing her individuals by casting them as eternal personages. Her celebrated portrait, Iago, Study from an Italian (1867) typecasts the individual even in the title, suggesting that all Italians share the traits of Iago. However, at the same time, the title suggests a merging of realities, and the darkened eyes Iago’s downward gaze invite the viewer to exploration a specific face in search of general, archetypal traits. Nevertheless, she and Daumier, in their selective treatment of detail, find it necessary to enter into another, more simplified realm in order to necessitate the negotiation of modernity’s problems.

If, as a viewer, one looks to artists to suggest ways of relating to the world that best responds to problems of the time, the nineteenth century presents two paths: alienating consciousness or uniting escapism. In the intellectual climate of the 1800s, with the rise of Realism, artists’ attention to the details of reality was crucial, leaving the conscious detachment of Daumier popular and effective. The tendency to classify ran rampant in the age, as seen in Honore Balzac’s Comedie Humaine, a sociological catalogue of the many species of Parisian society, for which Daumier was commissioned to illustrate. Though Cameron, too, falls to the trend of classification, her stereotypings are divorced from both socio-economic class and material decoration. In physiognomy and stature (the medium of the caricaturist) she saw the Madonna and King Arthur, using details not to constrict individuals within a social sphere, but to open them out into other realms, classifying them out of their context. This vision of the individual comes to the artist in reality and is recreated for the viewer in a photograph, from which one recognizes her devotion to Nature, on which she prided herself. Though working in the framework of a scientific medium with the human body (scientific ground since Darwin’s publishing of The Origin of Species in 1848), Cameron defied the constrictions of her medium and intellectual time. In her photographs, the eternal rises from the ephemeral, meaning rises from fact, art rises from science, and she demonstrates how to manipulate the language of the opposition in order to express, ironically, just those things that it denies.

Cameron’s reactionary impulses not only provide an effective model for dealing with societal progression, but also exemplify the artist’s ability to comment on his or her situation through integrating it into a language instead of direct criticism. While her work is less straightforwardly representative of her time, Cameron’s treatment of details as intermediaries between the present and the past or future places her work in time, without alienating her viewer or needlessly stereotyping subject. While the flaneur sits in observance of his time, stealing the individuality of his subjects to foster his method of historical classification, Cameron exemplifies Baudelaire’s connection of the real and the allegorical, in both subject and process. Not directly a representation of her time, Cameron’s work extends beyond her sphere to resurface, forever contemporary, as a historical demonstration of how to invest things with meaning even in times of futility.