Biological Metaphor

Skeletal Classicism: Zoological Osteology and Art-Historical Method in Early Twentieth-Century France

by Todd P. Olson

In this essay Todd Olson follows an art-historical method, from a formalist analysis of French Classicism derived from the natural sciences to the nineteenth-century biological discourse that identified hidden analogies rather than visual similarities among different specimens, whether they were animals or paintings. Olson shows how an ambivalence to the use of biological metaphors in North American art history may be traced back to this theoretical genealogy.

The essay begins:

A constellation of numerals is superimposed on Nicolas Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète. The numbers 35, 20, 26, 12, 23, 34, 22, 36, 59, 60, 62, 33, 9, and 3 are scattered across the surface of the canvas. The numbers may indicate a caption, or, more likely, since the numbers range from 3 to at least 62, they refer to an index. One may also infer that the numbers correspond to motifs in an attempt to provide an iconographic catalog. Yet, the repetition of 20, 23, and 59 reveals a lack of correspondence between number and depicted object. Although 23 refers to the flesh of two putti, 20 marks both rock and tree trunk; 59 indexes two patches of sky.

The transparent paper overlay with the numeric system on the photographic reproduction is one of several in Otto Grautoff’s Nicolas Poussin (1914), a major catalog of the French seventeenth-century painter’s oeuvre. Paintings were numerically compared to one another. Poussin’s L’Inspiration du poète was linked to Les Bergers d’Arcadie: the shoulder of the woman among shepherds and the garland-bearing putto’s skin, the tomb and the patch of rock. The cloth falling over the knee of Apollo and a bacchante’s drapery in the London Triumph of Pan share the number 36; aside from “36,” L’Inspiration du poète and a bacchanal have nothing in common.

The clue to the pattern of numbers cross-referencing the fields in individual paintings with other pictures by Poussin is offered by a chart (Farbentafel) in the back of the book, where sixty-two brushstrokes of oil paint were applied to sixty-two printed rectangles. Grautoff made it possible to analyze Poussin’s palette through systematic chromatic separation, numerical hue assignment, and graphic indexing.

Grautoff and his publishers were caught between the age of engraving and the era of color photography. In the first years of photographic reproduction, black-and-white prints may have sufficed for the analysis of iconography. Ten years after the publication of Grautoff’s book, Aby Warburg famously began creating a photographic archive to display the iconographic specimens in his Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg traced motifs through time and across geographies, such as the Mithraic mystery cult’s “world-spanning range and force” from the Roman Empire to the Hopi kiva. By contrast, Grautoff’s numbers attend to the formal characteristics of a single painter. Nevertheless, the color analysis of Poussin’s paintings registered the patterns of a complex system. Things, regardless of their shape or function, were sorted out and made commensurate under another differential visual order. The painter’s palette entered a chromatic archive.

Grautoff provided the basis for scientific analysis without regard for iconography. The numerical register of colors reminds us of the diagrams used by the anthropologist John Layard in the 1930s to analyze the impersonal cultural patterns shared by Malakulan dance and graphic art. It would appear that by 1914 a similar rigorous formalism was already in place, which Grautoff was able use to organize the dispersed easel paintings of the seventeenth-century artist into a coherent oeuvre in the absence of documented provenance.

The study of the systematic distribution of color lent itself to the kinds of formal analysis found in the German art-historical tradition of Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin. In Walter Friedländer’s contemporary folio edition Nicolas Poussin (1914) we find the most explicit association of Poussin with Classicism. Following his teacher Wölfflin, Friendländer established an opposition between the Classical and the Baroque in his analysis of Poussin’s painting. For Grautoff and Friedländer, culture is an impersonal operation.

The author was dead, yet, “Poussin” was hard to kill. Much of the appreciation of the artist in France followed from Honoré de Balzac’s short story Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu, in which the character of the young Poussin sacrifices his lover, Gillette, in the service of art as Frenhofer’s model. The artist would continue throughout the nineteenth century to be the central organizing principle of the discipline of art history in France. Émile Magne’s Nicolas Poussin, for example, was published in the same year as Grautoff’s and Friedländer’s books. Magne drew on the recent publication of La Correspondance de Nicolas Poussin, edited by Ch. Jouanny, to construct a work of biographical criticism, which complemented his other major work on seventeenth-century French literature, Scarron et son milieu (1905). In this work, Magne sets the classical Poussin as a foil to Paul Scarron, the author of the burlesque Virgile travesti. Many have rushed to Poussin’s correspondence to underscore this opposition: “My nature compels me to seek and love things that are well ordered, fleeing confusion, which is as contrary and inimical to me as is day to the deepest night.”

Based on a reading of the major German publications of 1914, it would appear that Poussin was securely associated with the discourse of Classicism and a formalist account in art history. While Grautoff’s numerical system may now seem anachronistic, his formalist project premised on the dissociation of color from iconography would have a lasting effect. Similarly, Friedländer’s formalist approach to the problem of Classicism was influential in twentieth-century art-historical scholarship in the English language. Wölfflin’s binary of the Classical and the Baroque would hold sway over the association of Poussin with Klassizismus.. By contrast, Magne’s approach to archival research resonated with the study of l’art classique in France, but it did not offer a rigorous theoretical foundation for that scientific project. It would seem that the identification of Classical art with Poussin’s painting was deeply rooted in a formalist approach that based its model of transformation on German rather than French philosophical traditions.

Yet, if we look to the French publications surrounding the acquisition of L’Inspiration du poète by the Musée du Louvre in 1911, a different theoretical lineage of Poussin’s Classicism emerges. While Magne’s archival and biographical approach continued to have a lasting impact on scholarship in France, an important latent French formalist discourse independent of the German tradition was in an early stage of development. In the prewar period, French literary modernism and the natural sciences were aligned, offering a formalist discourse for the criticism of painting that was paradoxically ambivalent toward vision. Form was hidden. Continue reading …

TODD P. OLSON is Professor of Early Modern Art in the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations.. He is author of Poussin and France: Painting, Humanism and the Politics of Style (2002) and Caravaggio’s Pitiful Relics (2014). His current book project is Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652): Skin, Repetition, and Painting in Viceregal Naples.

Natural Histories of Form

Natural Histories of Form: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetic Science

by Ian Duncan

Arguing that aesthetic preference generates the historical forms of human racial and gender difference inThe Descent of Man, Charles Darwin offers an alternative account of aesthetic autonomy to the Kantian or idealist account. Darwin understands the aesthetic sense to be constitutive of scientific knowledge insofar as scientific knowledge entails the natural historian’s fine discrimination of formal differences and their dynamic interrelations within a unified system. Natural selection itself works this way, Darwin argues inThe Origin of Species; in The Descent of Man he makes the case for the natural basis of the aesthetic while relativizing particular aesthetic judgments. Libidinally charged—in Kantian phrase, “interested”—the aesthetic sense nevertheless comes historically adrift from its functional origin in rites of courtship.

The essay begins:

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin sought to write the definitive version of an experimental genre of philosophical anthropology, the “natural history of man,” pioneered—and disputed—in the late Enlightenment by the Comte de Buffon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, and other major thinkers as the realization of a universal science of man. With the delivery of human species being to secular history and geography, the old question of human exceptionalism had come to bear with a new urgency on the point at which, and means by which, the human emerges from animal life and comes into its own. Friedrich Schiller’s treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, 1795) forged a crucial link between this philosophical anthropology and divergent traditions, scientific and humanist, of nineteenth-century aesthetic inquiry. Where the history of man splintered among competing disciplinary claims on scientific authority, Schiller’s reframing of its main question, human becoming, as a project of individual development—an education—established a program for the modern humanities or liberal arts. The humanist legacy of the Aesthetic Education is well studied. Less so is its anticipation of Darwin’s key idea, that the aesthetic sense is the medium of a specifically human evolution, in The Descent of Man. More is at stake in the comparison between Schiller’s and Darwin’s conjectural histories of human emergence than an accounting of possible influence. Scrutiny of their common concerns and differences illuminates the originality of Darwin’s own contribution—still insufficiently appreciated—to nineteenth-century aesthetic theory.

On the Aesthetic Education of Man posits an instinct or faculty Schiller calls the “play-drive” (Spieltrieb), which affords the full realization of human nature through the aesthetic apprehension of form. The last letters of the Aesthetic Education sketch a conjectural natural history of this coming-into-humanity. The play-drive originates in animal life, in the body, in the “sheer plenitude of vitality, when superabundance of life is its own incentive to action.” Overflowing physiological function, the life force manifests itself as play. In the case of humans, it springs beyond the determinations of biology (need) and anthropology (custom):

Not content with introducing aesthetic superfluity into objects of necessity, the play-drive as it becomes ever freer finally tears itself away from the fetters of utility altogether, and beauty in and for itself alone begins to be an object of his striving. Man adorns himself. Disinterested and undirected pleasure is now numbered among the necessities of existence, and what is in fact unnecessary soon becomes the best part of his delight. (211) 

Torn from the fetters of utility, beauty in and for itself alone: Schiller’s conjectural history yields the dominant conception of the aesthetic in nineteenth-century writing—a crux, as we shall see, in recent accounts of sexual selection, the agency Darwin identified as shaping human evolution, by historians and philosophers of science.

Commentary on the Aesthetic Education of Man has downplayed Schiller’s late turn to natural history, in which the aesthetic apprehension of form marks the transition from the animal to the human state. Discussions of the work’s Victorian legacy tend to prioritize one of the terms of Schiller’s title over the other, the aesthetic or education. The aesthetic education provides a disciplinary program for what Herder called a Bildung der Humanität, a “formation of humanity” or evolutionary perfection of human species being, in his most ambitious of late-Enlightenment philosophical anthropologies, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas for a philosophy of the history of mankind). Pedagogical projects to foster and direct “the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature” in the individual person—constituting “our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality”—supply the precondition for projects of social and political reform in the best-known Victorian version of the aesthetic education, Matthew Arnold’s. In Culture and Anarchy Arnold pays tribute to Schiller’s legacy in the educational system bequeathed to the Prussian state by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Later Victorian affirmations of the aesthetic reacted against its conscription into didactic programs and regulative systems. Schiller’s Twenty-Second Letter became a “locus classicus for Victorian aesthetes,” according to Angela Leighton, as they sought to repatriate aesthetic experience to individual sensuous life. “In a truly successful work of art, the content should effect nothing, the form everything,” Schiller wrote, defining “the real secret of the master in any art: that he can make his form consume his material” (155–57). The Oxford editors of the Aesthetic Education note that the biological metaphor implicit in Schiller’s word vertilgen, “consume,” that is, digest, metabolize, disappears in Victorian reformulations, which “make it sound as though Schiller wants to empty art of subject-matter if not of content” (267; clxxvi). “To make form obliterate, or annihilate, the matter will be the difficult, sometimes guilty, sometimes provocative, aim of Schiller’s aestheticist followers,” Leighton comments, citing Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

The triumph of form over content or material in order to constitute it as the proper object of aesthetic attention points behind Schiller to Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, which prescribes form’s purification from contingent sensuous interest. More decisively than Schiller, Kant wrested the aesthetic away from its earlier modern meaning of “sensitive cognition” or “sensuous knowledge” (Alexander Baumgarten’s term), by positing sensuous intuition (the imagination) and cognition (the understanding) as distinct faculties, to prescribe the alignment of subjective perception with universal norms of judgment. German idealism broke with a largely British empiricist tradition of scientific aesthetics, developed in eighteenth-century medico-physiological treatises, which grounded aesthetic effects in sensation and the body—in William Hogarth and in Edmund Burke, the sexed and gendered body. The empiricist tradition, with its conception of aesthetic form as “a concordance between the human mind or body and the order of nature,” continued however to flourish in nineteenth-century Britain. Scholarship “has continued to under-estimate the importance of physiological and evolutionary aesthetics in shaping discussions of art and beauty in the 1870s and 1880s,” writes Jonathan Smith, citing John Ruskin’s late work Proserpina. Benjamin Morgan recovers the links between canonical writers on aesthetics, including Ruskin and Pater, and Victorian scientific materialists, whose “aspiration to uncover a formal patterning in nature eventually extended to an interest in a physiological patterning of the body and the nervous system, whose attunement or non-attunement to nature’s forms provided one explanation for the experience of beauty or ugliness.” Continue reading …

IAN DUNCAN is Florence Green Bixby Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations. His books include Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge, 1992); Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, 2007); and, most recently, Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution (Princeton, 2019).

Radio Communism

“A Good Communist Style”:

Sounding Like a Communist in Twentieth-Century China

by M. Paulina Hartono

In this essay Paulina Hartono focuses on the history and politicization of radio announcers’ vocal delivery in China during the mid-twentieth century. She explores how Chinese Communist Party leaders used internal party debates, national policies, and broadcasting training to construct an ideal Communist voice whose qualities would ostensibly communicate party loyalty and serve as a sonic representation of political authority.

The essay begins:

Shortly after the Communists took power in China, three of the most famous radio broadcasters in their respective countries met together to discuss their experiences: Yuri Levitan and Olga Vysotska of the Soviet Union and Qi Yue of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Vysotska stated that the duty of their profession was “to find the shortest route to the people’s hearts.”[i] The idea that one ought to use one’s voice to move people was not lost on Qi. Radio broadcasters played a major role in the nation-state, both as the literal mouthpieces of the party and as transmitters of a carefully crafted sound. In an environment where political campaigns were pushed into a visual landscape of posters, banners, illustrated leaflets, and the like, an auditory world of early-PRC socialist political culture was taking shape. Radio broadcasters’ pronouncements were significant not only for their discourse—what they said—but also for their representation—how they sounded.

This essay examines the construction of a particular way of speaking in the People’s Republic of China by studying its most notable mouthpieces—its broadcasters. Directed to make their announcements “accurate, fresh, and lively,” these radio broadcasters were encouraged to be engaging to listen to, and, given the very audible platform they occupied, they also became national models of how to speak. Compared to the number of visual studies of Cold War China, sound studies are relatively few and focus mainly on the 1960s and 1970s. By contrast, this essay looks at China during the 1940s and 1950s during the early Mao period. Unlike the radio voice of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the voice of the PRC was less an index of class or education than a symbol of political belief. These particular and constructed vocal qualities were formalized and reinforced by radio announcers and propaganda officials following major national events, including war, national linguistic reform, and targeted political campaigns.

One of the difficulties of studying aural cultural production is synesthetic, as it is a slippery task to describe sonic qualities in discursive forms. Mladen Dolar once called voice the “remainder which cannot be made a signifier or disappear in meaning; the remainder that doesn’t make sense, a leftover, a cast-off . . . of the signifier.” Recent developments in the emerging field of voice studies reveal a rich and diverse range of research methodologies, including voice as a physical phenomenon (for example, laryngeal dynamics), as a sensory perception (cognitive processing of sound), and as a mediation through technology (such as the Auto-Tune processor). Moreover, as a political act, voice can map and reproduce an intricate system of coded power relations between speaker and listener, including those evident in class conflict, race relations, and gendered politics. As Miyako Inoue has argued in her deconstruction of Japanese women’s language, when culturally accepted notions of vocal qualities are ascribed to groups and not denaturalized, they can project static traditions and archetypes where dynamic cultural and political forces are actually present.

From the earliest years of the People’s Republic of China, officials saw radio as a tool for political and ideological education. The sounds of broadcasters’ voices were themselves exercises in a political education. They projected an imagined voice of the nation by using the national standardized accent and a sonic affect to project affinity with ordinary citizens, or “the People,” vaunted in Chinese Communist Party (CCP) culture and propaganda. Warmth, strength, and confidence were qualia that were closely associated with the voice and what it signified. Ultimately, and especially during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, radio announcers’ vocal qualities became synecdochal with their political personhood, purporting to reveal their own internal thoughts and feelings. Announcers needed to deploy the right pronunciation, energy, and emotion in order to express the full embodiment of the true believer in delivering radio content. In the eyes of propaganda department officials, failure to communicate properly could reveal a lack of commitment to the party.

Beyond China, the vocal styles in Soviet bloc radio seem to have shared a “socialist soundscape”: in the USSR, radio broadcasting grew out of a tradition that held the accent of the Moscow proletariat as its standard; even recently, in North Korea, the famed newscaster Ri Chun-hee has become well known for her emotionally charged broadcasts. Whether in China or elsewhere in the bloc, radio announcers were supposed to represent the voices of socialist-realist heroes, demonstrating that language ideology could convey more than discourse, grammar, and content. Continue reading …

M. PAULINA HARTONO is a scholar of Chinese science and technology, history, and media cultures and a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research examines the history of radio broadcasting and reception in twentieth-century China.