Academic Session 14: Reading 2013
39th Annual Conference and Bookfair
University of Reading
11-13 April 2013
‘Action Painting’: The theatrical and the dramatic in narrative art
Since Michael Fried published Thomas Couture and the Theatricalisation of Action in 19th-Century French Painting in 1970, the history of history painting has been shaped by his idiosyncratic terms, ‘theatricality’ and ‘absorption.’ The first tracks the necessary address to a spectator, on which history painting thrives, while the second posits a sublime unity of viewer and artwork that makes the former superfluous. In Fried’s writings on David, Manet, Courbet, and Menzel, the terms join a Hegelian dance of opposites driving modern art. Yet this subtlety of combination suggests not two phenomena, but one experience described twice, from the inside, as one’s own, and from the outside, as that of a critical bystander.
This panel reopens the case for conceptual analysis of history painting. As the depiction of action, history painting hopes to illuminate motives, feelings, and other inner states, accounting for its frequent absurdity, but also for its fascination. At its best, in the work of David or Fuseli, Barry or Goya, it may be as close a view of other minds as any object affords. And yet this mimetic link between artwork and person, and between both and theatre, has been used to criticise art as duplicitous from Plato to the Situationists. Is the vocabulary of ‘theatricality’ of use to art historians empirically and theoretically? Are other categories, like the dramatic, imitation, spectacle, illusion, etc., more informative? Is a certain psychology of art, or of persons tout court, implied in the critical vocabulary?
Paul Duro (University of Rochester) Diderot and the Paradox of
18th-Century (History) Painting
Nina Lübbren (Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge) Theatrical absorption, or How to perform contemplative immersion in 19th-century narrative painting
Jeffrey M. Brown (Columbia University) Painting Actors: Arresting history in the paintings of Ellen Terry
Natasha Ruiz-Gómez (University of Essex) Metamorphoses of a History Painting: André Brouillet’s Une Leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière