Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. By W.J.T. Mitchell. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. 445. ISBN 0-226-53231-3. $34.95 (hb)
The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923. By Johanna Drucker. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Pp. 298. ISBN 0-226-16502-7.
Picturing Modernism: Moholy-Nagy and Photography in Weimar Germany. By Eleanor M. Hight. Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press, 1995. Pp. 257. ISBN 0-262-08232-2. $39.95
Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word. By Michael Davidson. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. 273. ISBN 0-520-20739-4. $35.00
Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles. By John C. Welchman. New Haven & London: Yale UP, 1997. Pp. 467. ISBN 0-300-06530-2.
What we see is what we are not. The metaphorics of luminosity and optics are fundamental to modernity and to the enlightened distinction between subject and object. There is a story to be told about the development of objective standards of evidence and knowledge and the development of ocular technology: eye-glasses as the prosthetics of cognition. Such a project may have been initiated by Patrick Trevor-Roper's The World Through Blunted Sight: An Inquiry into the Influence of Defective Vision on Art and Character (1970). Trevor-Roper, an ophthalmologist, is largely concerned with artists, especially those such as Rodin and Cézanne, who though severely myopic refused to wear spectacles. He does not address the question of thinking as such, quickly assuming that blurred vision leads to blurred thinking, notably of 'mystics and religious leaders':
a blurred view of the outer world is no impediment to their inner vision: perhaps these will all become fewer, as commercial enterprise and Government subsidies commit a greater part of the population to wearing the spectacles which, in homogenizing the sight, may also shackle the spirit. (Trevor-Roper, 1970, 16)
One would like to know whether any philosophers have displayed resistance to spectacles, though it would seem unlikely. Those thinkers credited with the practice of philosophy are inscribed in a project of reason, and the homogenization of thinking can only be advanced by the homogenization of vision. We might say (wondering only at Foucault's neglect of the optic topic) that the forces of technology and rationality combined to impose homogenized vision, the hegemonic 20/20 view of the world which is obligatory for motorists, and to turns subjects into instruments of sight. The other senses are not so tampered with, nor considered in terms of defective, corrective and prosthetics. Sight is in modernity less of a sense than an instrument, and an instrument not of the subject so much as of the society that aims to keep that subject in his or her place.
Eyeglasses were invented c. 1300, in Florence. There is presumably a connection between that invention and the development of linear perspective in the same city over the next century. Perspective assumes a point-of-view, and that point-of-view is ideal, therefore common to all viewers. It supposes that an image is to be looked at: we find it difficult to view frescoes high on walls or in domes, especially in daylight, or sculptured figures on a cathedral facade. Without optical prosthesis one would not even try, but simply understand that these images and figures (if one can detect them at all, as blurred shade or outline) are not meant to be seen.
As soon as images are made to be seen, those who cannot see are judged to be defective. A shift is signalled around 1600 when Shakespeare's Othello demands of Iago: 'Give me the ocular proof.' (Act 3, scene iii) In forensics as in the natural sciences, the authority of the eye begins to usurp both written authority and sworn testimony.
Subsequently, in modernity, cognition and understanding are increasingly predicated on visual competence, and on ocular agreement. Yet in this narrative we encounter a singular paradox: the Reformation, the ideological power behind the technology of modernity, is against images, and insists on the supreme value of hearing the Word.
Martin Jay cites the continuing iconoclasm of Protestantism evident in a theologian such as JacquesEllul, whose book, The Humiliation of the Word (1981) 'reads like a summa of every imaginable religious complaint against the domination of sight.' (Jay, 13) For Jay, that complaint against sight is present in a great many of this century's leading thinkers, especially in France. Downcast Eyes is a long polemic in support of his proposition that 'a great deal of recent French thought .... [is] imbued with a profound suspicion of vision and its hegemonic role in the modern era.' (Jay, 14) It is regrettable that Jay's claim should be so extreme, and especially that it should be formulated as a charge against a particular national tradition of thought. The villain, it transpires, is Bergson, in whom, for the first time, 'the rights of the body were explicitly set against the tyranny of the eye'. (Jay 191-2) But if Bergson is the villain, Descartes must be the hero: his La dioptrique of 1637 is an elaboration and a systematization of Othello's demand, and an apology for the development of visual prosthetics. A putative inventor of eyeglasses has on his tomb of 1317 in Santa Maria Maggiore, 'God forgive him his sins' (Trevor-Roper, 52); Galileo was condemned in 1633 for holding beliefs based on the evidence of the telescope. Descartes well knows the power of optics: 'since sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest of the senses, there is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be.' (cited by Jay, 71)
Descartes of courses privileges the mind over the body, and does so by making sight a property of the mind rather than of the body. It is the 'disembodied eye' (Jay, 81) which makes possible such an investment of optical metaphors in the Enlightenment, éclaircissement, Aufklärung, and the naming of what preceded it as the Dark Ages (a term introduced in the late seventeenth century).
We may attempt to resolve the paradox posed by the Reformation, and propose that philosophy and Protestant theology diverged as disciplines and vocations in the early modern period precisely around the valorization of sight as an agent of Descartes' ‹me, mind or soul. For Protestant theology, the Word of God is to be heard, and hearing is the sense -- especially that inward hearing, the interior discourse -- which gives us access to the divine. Protestant theology rejected Descartes' move to make sight a mental faculty, to consider ideas as images in the mind, and tried to create a world without images, a world made of solely acoustic space.
Jay's polemic finds itself assimilating, through 'anti-ocularcentrism,' certain French thinkers, most eminently Levinas and Derrida, to Protestantism. This is what comes of an attack on the Enlightenment: Jay is one of those who believe with Habermas in the unfinished project of modernity, in the yet-unrealized powers of illumination. Yet in choosing modern French thought as his target he finds himself having to oppose Merleau-Ponty, whose interest in visual perception and painting is hardly matched by any other philosopher. Having disposed of Merleau-Ponty, Jay has little trouble exposing the 'anti-ocular' agendas of Bataille, Derrida and Levinas:
Like Bergson, although without acknowledging the similarity, [Bataille] rejected a materialism based on a visual image of matter in favor of one derived from the bodily experience of materiality. (Jay, 228)
Jay's argument is consistent only in its tendentiousness; the very same passages from Bergson, Bataille, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, might be adduced in favour of the contrary reading, that modern French thinkers have been the first 'philosophers' in modern times to think about vision not as a sense or as a given but as a predicament, even a predicament with a history.
What is significant about Jay's polemic is less its ideological purport, than the fact that an ideological argument should be conducted at the level of the eyes, on behalf of seeing. One of the constitutive moments of modernity, precisely of the aesthetics of modernity, is Lessing's Laocoön of 1766, in which are defined, rigidly, the separate semiotic codes of painting and poetry. Horace's 'ut pictura poiesis' (at best, an elaborate abuse of Horace) is exposed by Lessing as a conceptual error through analysis at the level of the sign:
If it be true that painting ... makes use of entirely different means and signs from those which poetry employs; the former employing figures in space, the latter articulate sounds in time -- if, incontestably, signs must have a proper relation to the things signified, then coexistent signs can only express objects which are coexistent ... but signs which are successive can only express objects which are in succession. ...It follows that bodies, with their visible properties, are the proper objects of painting... [and] that actions are the proper object of poetry. (Lessing, 1766, ch. XVI)
W.J.T. Mitchell made clear in his Iconology (1988) the importance of Lessing's essay to all our debates about the plastic and articulate, the spatial and temporal arts: the boundaries between the arts have been set, and even our 'disciplinary appreciation' respects those boundaries. In his project of undoing the work of the Laocoön -- disentangling Laocoön from the serpents -- Mitchell assails semiotics -- a discipline that has grown out of Lessing's postulates, and that is therefore incapable of conceptualizing them and making a critique. Insofar as semiotics treats an image (Peirce's icon) as a 'natural sign' it is enslaved to 'the fetish or idol of Western culture' (Mitchell, 1988, 90). One of Mitchell's aims in Iconology was 'to show that semiotics ... encounters special difficulties when it tries to describe the nature of images and the difference between texts and images.' (Mitchell, 1988, 53-4)
In Picture Theory Mitchell stages a series of confrontations between 'icon' and 'logos' to show up the inadequacies of the discrete codes by which each is interpreted. The idea of the natural sign is not unrelated to the mental image: we can say that the tradition of philosophy in modernity has been postulated on the natural status of images and the conventional status of words. Structuralism has resumed a pre-modern and classical tradition that language is 'natural' to man as the 'speaking animal', and that images are conventional. Mitchell draws on both the constitutive role of language in the constitution of subjectivity, according to structuralism, and on Panofsky's 'exposure' of the 'natural' status of the image, in that long-suppressed text -- unwanted not only by art historians -- Perspective as Symbolic Form [reviewed in SRB, Vol. (May 1992)], to assert the limitations of both lines. Panofsky writes: 'The ultimate basis of the homogeneity of geometric space is that all its elements...are mere determinants of position, possessing no independent content of their own outside of this relation, this position which they occupy in relation to each other. Their reality is exhausted in their reciprocal relation: it is a purely functional and not a substantial reality.' (Panofsky, 1991, 27)
According to Mitchell's narrative, modernity asserts the naturalness of the image by ascribing it to primitive and simple stages of civilization; Descartes' mental image is thus an axiom of human consciousness. Language, as a conventional semiotic system, must develop later, and is therefore the mark of progress. To some undefined purpose Mitchell cites Lyotard without context: 'Words are not, then, proof against a relapse into images'. (Mitchell, 1994, 64) And Mitchell continues to insist that 'semiotics privileges textual/linguistic descriptive frameworks.' (Mitchell, 1994, 99 n. 31)
'Iconology' is not for Mitchell what it has long been for art historians, 'the science of images', but rather that which does not insist on a separation of word from image, icon from logos. (In fact the term 'iconology' as used by Aby Warburg, as early as 1912, is close to this: the necessity of using textual sources to understand 'images that would otherwise be incomprehensible' in contrast to a formalist aesthetic that insisted on the self-sufficiency of the image (Ferretti, 1989, 50-1).) Mitchell's argument is that the very distinction between texts and images is unstable, and ideologically determined. In the terms of his theoretical project Mitchell is admirably resistant to what he calls 'the pictorial turn', the attempt among some of those happy to be called post-modern, to reduce words to images, to insist on the iconicity of all writing. Mitchell pays much attention to the calligram (a term invented by Apollinaire, not by Foucault as Mitchell supposes, p. 70), and to those repeatedly offended-against victims of theoretical harassment, Velasquez' 'Las Meninas' and Magritte's 'La trahison des images' (universally known by the pipe that it is not).
Lessing is always upheld as the one who formulated the distinction between the plastic and temporal arts, and who insisted on the theoretical propriety of that separation. Yet in another essay, 'On the Epigram', Lessing specifically addresses those signs which inseparably combine text and image: 'the inscribed writing refers to and is not to be thought of apart from that into which it has been properly inscribed.' Herder subsequently (in Marc Shell's summary) describes the epigram as 'a genre in which the inscription and the inscribed thing are to be thought of as two theoretically inseparable parts of the same whole.' (Shell, 1993, 105, 170) Herder ought to give us a clue to the Saussurean sign, and indeed to expose the fallacy, or atleast the misappropriation of the Saussurean sign as a linguistic sign. Saussure inscribes in his text an image of the sign, and in that image is another image, of a tree, or a horse. The two-part sign can be constituted by the combination of two of (normally, in our culture) three elements: the written word, the acoustic pattern, the image (mental or otherwise).
The epigram, the coin, the medallion -- recognized by Lessing as anomalies within the economy of aesthetic and semiotic modes -- are thus brought into the centre of our debate. A poet who in his day -- contemporary with Lessing and Herder -- refused to an absolute degree the distinction between text and image, William Blake, now becomes exemplary. Despite his most devoted labours, Blake's creations have of course been divided into texts, to be considered by literary critics, and images, to attract the notice of a few art historians. The interest in the composite, inseparably integral Blake was an interest almost exclusively of aesthetes and bibliophiles until very recently: only the theoretical critique of the Enlightenment's rules of aesthetic engagement has made Blake accessible. Mitchell's Blake's Composite Art (Princeton, 1978) has of course played an important role in this recuperation.
Within the humanities today, a practice of semiotics is normatively to be found among instances anomalous within traditional modes of analysis: Blake, Klee, William Morris, Apollinaire. Yet one must wonder at the ability of semiotics to define itself outside the Lessing-ordained disciplinary boundaries: linguistic semiotics, pictorial semiotics, social semiotics and so forth. Can we, in short, conceive of a sign that precedes either a linguistic or a pictorial state: an archeseme? One trusts in a negative answer. For Saussure's sign is precisely that which cannot be reduced to one, which is split, doubled, that cannot be less than two: one half of the sign has no validity except as a half. Semiotics and structuralism are modelled on binary oppositions, and attempts to reconstitute a non-binary sign, a sign of wholeness and objective reference, are obviously of no interest. The project is rather to reconstitute the terms of opposition.
William Warburton in his pioneering treatise on the origins of writing, The Divine Legation of Moses (1738) cited Augustine: 'signa sint verba visibilia; verba, signa audibilia'. We continue to play on the axes generated by such polarities: looking/hearing, text/image, figure/ground. Titles routinely encapsulate the polarity as a paradox: 'Textual Pictures,' 'Pictorial Texts,' 'Visible Language' (all sections of Mitchell, 1994), Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts (C. Gandelman, 1991), ...The Visible Language of Modernism (J. McGann, 1993), The Visible Word (J. Drucker 1994), ...The Material Word (M. Davidson, 1997), Invisible Colors (J. Welchman, 1997); there must somewhere be 'acoustic image/iconic word'. The problem is that each of these titles proposes a paradox which fails to be resolved in an order either of logic or semiotic. This may not be a problem: failure has its own methodological integrity, and shows up the spuriousness of those who succeed without resort to conceptual transgression. But paradox becomes tedious unless it reveals another order, a new taxonomy in which paradox becomes coherent. However, it is never as tedious as those scholars and critics who complain that Apollin-aire's calligrammes, despite being avant-garde and a Modernist good thing, are hard to read; Roger Shattuck, for example, introducing a volume of Apollinaire's writings: 'But the lines are unreadable; thus sprinkled about the page, it is not a poem' (cited in Drucker, 265 n. 67). Michel Butor thinks it necessary to point out, with regret, that in some of the calligrammes 'figuration is often at the expense of their readability.' Butor, we learn, 'even suggests it might have been better had Apollinaire not "disposed the text along the schematic lines of his image" but had merely drawn the picture and left the text a separate entity' (cited in Drucker, 155).
The taxonomy that would move us beyond paradox is slow to emerge. Each of the monographs under review gives us ample evidence of the inadequacies of present borders and controls, and the temptation is to accumulate evidence. Johanna Drucker promises to build 'a theoretical model of materiality which would be adequate for the interpretation of typographic signification.' (Drucker, 2) Her attention to typography is motivated by 'its refusal to resolve into either a visual or a verbal mode' (Drucker, 4), and her first chapter, 'Semiotics, Materiality, and Typographic Practice' is a brave and conscientious attempt to address the problem. Her counterpointing of the development of semiotics alongside that of experimental typography, from Mallarmé to Apollinaire, from Zdanevich to Marinetti, strengthens her case at the historical level. Her theoretical anxiety is precise: that one cannot talk about matter and 'the materiality of the signifier ... without a metaphysics of presence lurking inevitably behind' (Drucker, 39).
Oddly, in spite of her frequent recourse to Derrida on writing, and on writing as trace, Drucker does not consider typography in terms of trace. For typography leaves a special kind of trace, one which is (in Peircian terms) an index of the agent of its production. Whereas writing is a trace of a hand and an instrument that have moved over the surface, typography is the trace of a form that has been placed in contiguity with the entire surface at one time. Typography announces the absence of a form identical toitself in size and configuration, the only differences being those of mirrored/inverted images and the fit of negative/positive. Typographic writing is not the inorganic trace of an organic action, nor the insentient trace of a sentient action, nor the material trace of an immaterial thought, nor the mute trace of a spoken word.
What sort of trace then is typographic writing? If we allow for the two conditions of mirror and fit -- minimal conditions of differentiation -- we can say that typography is the trace of itself -- its own trace. There can in fact be no two-part structure without differentiation in either fit or image. Without differentiation there is simple repetition, and no two instances of repetition (e.g., two identical copies of a text) can form a structure or a signifying whole. There appears then to be a morphology between typography and Saussure's sign. Typography and semiotics fit. One of the general insufficiencies of theory has been an unwillingness to address its own historical determinants: it is therefore worth asserting that the Saussurean sign bears the imprint of the technology of typography. Drucker is correct to insist on the simultaneous or synchronic development of semiotics and typography, both in the Renaissance and in the early twentieth century. From a trade journal for the advertising business, La Publicité, Drucker cites some advice given in 1904:
The judicious use of the space available in an advertisement is just as important as the phrases themselves, because the logical placement and presentation determine how the sentences strike the eye. (Drucker, 99)
This not only displays continuity with Mallarmé; it knows already, in its solidly pragmatic way, what Saussure is teaching about difference without positive values: positionality instead of positivism; and what Jakobson and Trubetzkoy will make of the marked and the unmarked in a differential structure: the white space signifies as much as the black characters.
There is a semiotic coherence between the printed page and the mode of printing: the relationship between space and letters is the same within the one printed page as that in typography between the page and the form: differentiation by fit and reversal of image. Drucker's account of the negative spaces in Apollinaire's calligram 'Pablo Picasso' is exemplary: the negative spaces have the shapes of the typical objects in a Cubist still-life: 'Thus the visual presence of the painting referred to as the absent signified of the text is here made literally absent as a blank "presence" in the textual field. The absent signified is the replete image, here presented as a blank, visually and literally absent.' (Drucker, 151: it is always good to see the word 'literally' used literally.)
Michael Davidson's Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, extends the narrative from Drucker's limit of 1923 up to the present; there are chapters on Gertrude Stein, George Oppen and Susan Howe, Pound and Olson, Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, Charles Reznikoff and Muriel Rukeyser. Davidson's book affords some sort of challenge to Drucker's assumption that sometime in the mid-1920s occurred 'the demise of typographic experimentation'. (Drucker, 223) Davidson's variation on the familiar paradox is the coinage 'palimtext'. The particular value of this term is apparent in his treatment of Pound, Olson and Duncan. The quotation is given the same status as the ideogram, or rather, the ideogram is the normative quotation; whether in Chinese, Greek, Latin or English, a quotation interrupts the text, and as an interruption it is muted, and imaged. Pound's obsession with currency is thus to be figured as a fascination with coins, and we are reminded of Lessing on the epigram:
... a ruler is his image, especially when that image is represented on a coin -- a fact made graphically clear by the way Pound balances the Latin phrase ... against his two leaders., Heraclius and Chosroes. (Davidson, 104)
The more attentively we read Pound so we find no word that is not a quotation, a palimtext, no word that does not interrupt our reading. The interruption here is not of the text/image sort (as with the Calligrammes ) because Pound never gives us images on the page: he does not mix concrete poetry. But there is still an interruption of the linearity of reading. Words in concrete poetry either signify or present; words in Pound either signify, or point to citations of their own histories and etymologies. A linear reading of a concrete poem is entirely occluded by the image. The linear reading of Pound fades in and out, though of what, exactly, is hard to say. Let us try to say, the word means until, losing its'transparency,' it is realized as a word, an acoustic, lettered thing. Davidson links this to the coinage, and finds Pound warning us against the use of any word in a 'straightforward' 'literal' referential way:
... words being passed on are the literal coinage that keeps the flow of information circulating. Words taken for granted, not subjected to lexical scrutiny ... would be counterfeit. (Davidson, 105)
This is difficult terrain to map theoretically, and Davidson is distracted by no great ambitions to do so. If we were to invoke Jakobson's deployment of Gerard Manley Hopkins' observation that the principle of poetry is repetition, we may ask whether that repetition has to be linear, as it obviously is through the structuring of repeated sounds in alliteration and assonance. Jakobson himself resisted Saussure's insistence on the linearity of semiosis, and we might suppose that in Pound's poetry every word is present already, on its first occurrence, as a repetition, a repetition of uses elsewhere, an instantiation of its own etymon.
Davidson's title is an appropriation from Wallace Stevens that is, for once, appropriate. And that fading, from the marked to the unmarked, the pre-marked, the de-marked and dis-marked, seems to mark the continuation of experimental typography beyond its 'literal' 'demise' in the 1920s. A narrative that could chart and negotiate the status of text and image from Mallarmé through Apollinaire to Pound would be instructive, at least as instructive as each of these books. In their evidential and documentary interest, these and other studies challenge semiotics to develop ways to negotiate exchanges between verbal and visual signs, or to set up quite different sets of binary opposition.
Apollinaire's resistance to the obvious and the normative continues to show us how to read images and see texts; those now familiar crossings were part of his critical response, of his programmatic insistence on the inappropriate, the irrelevant. Drucker cites this from Apollinaire:
In the handwriting of Cézanne, the t's are crossed with a very long bar, he uses the double s which Restif de la Bretonne wanted to suppress from typography; and which was finally eliminated by the Didots.... The signature of Cézanne is decorated with swashes which surround the P on the left and underline and surround the entire name (cited in Drucker, 153).
Title and signature conventionally stand as textual 'other' to the image. Here Apollinaire notes the pictorial quality and value of the signature, treats the signature as part of the pictorial field.
It is remarkable how little attention has been paid to the semiotic status of the signature, and especially to its peculiar placing, within the pictorial field but seldom of its space. The signature is on the canvas, rather then on the frame, or on the back of the canvas, but it is seldom incorporated as a pictorial element into the space of the image. The most carefully constructed perspective can be 'interrupted' by a signature, flagrantly unaware of the vista that it is blocking. It is worth remarking that in the history of European painting, the pictorial field has almost always contained a text. In Byzantine and medieval painting, that text is the name of the saint or event depicted; the development of perspective in the Quattro-cento demands the removal of the text from the newly-coherent space; the text has nowhere to go, no space reserved for what is not image. Yet almost at once a text is reinscribed, prominently, in the form of the signature. If we took proper note of the signature, we might have to count even paintings as epigrams.
John Welchman's concern in Invisible Colors is with titles, though he attends to J.M. Whistler's signature, a monogram made of the superimposition of his three initials, two of them symmetrical and angular, which gradually emerges as a butterfly. Welchman begins with some theoretical reflections, and then embarks on a narrative which stretches from Monet and Gauguin to Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. It is a remarkably detailed and surprising account, from the extraordinary paintings by E. Hiernault, 'Still Life of a Back of a Painting with...' of the 1760s -- the very decade of Tristram Shandy -- to the Album primo-avrilesque of Alphonse Allais (1897): a uniform red rectangle is entitled 'Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea'; a white/blank rectangle, 'First Communion of Chlorotic Young Girls in Snowy Weather'. Such epigrammatic extremes provide a context for, and even mitigate the wit of Whistler's remark that, had he titled a painting not 'Symphony in White/Grey/ etc.' but 'Father, dear father, come home with me now', he would have enjoyed huge commercial and critical success. (Welchman, 387, n6)
Purists and formalists like to mock those visitors to an art gallery who spend more time reading the labelsthan looking at the pictures. Welchman's argument suggests that we have not looked with sufficient care at those labels; the book endorses the anti-formalist line that 'pure looking' is a fiction, or (to invert Mitchell's citation from Lyotard) that 'images are not proof against a relapse into words', that we always need a 'textual/linguistic descriptive framework'. Welchman's book has its origins at the Courtauld Institute, within the orbit of Sir Ernst Gombrich, and Gombrich's essay, 'Image and Word in Twentieth-Century Art,' is invoked at the outset. Gombrich's fight against formalism and 'pure seeing', against the ideal of 'the freedom of the image from the intrusion or indeed the contamination of words' (Gombrich, 1991, 162) is not distinct from his scholarly practice of iconography: the one insists on the presence of words in the viewing of an image (even the word 'abstract' will be triggered by an aniconic field), the other insists on the necessity to resort to documents (not ignoring titles) to understand images. In the work of his students, the coherence of Gombrich's project becomes increasingly apparent.
Welchman takes the title for his own work from Duchamp, and in a most straightforward way: Duchamp described the title of a painting as an 'invisible color', which, with an echo of Stevens, we might gloss as ghostly chromatics. Welchman happily avoids speculating about the particular effect that a title might have on our 'reading' of a painting. His interest is in the status of the title, and in the painter's control over the designations of his work. Or lack of control: there is no evidence that Cézanne ever gave a title to any of his works.
Welchman provides an excellent account of the process by which the painting of 1907 known to Picasso as 'The Philosophical Brothel' is known to us as 'Les demoiselles d'Avignon'. This was first pointed out in 1972 by Leo Steinberg, who remarked on the 'repression' that had silenced the 'correct' title for so long. Welchman finds no less remarkable the continuing silence of the twenty-five years since Steinberg's intervention, a silence that would seem to indicate that a title is still a mere designator, and that art historians remain formalist fundamentalists. Welchman carries on the polemic of Mitchell in his attacks on Alfred Barr and Clement Greenberg whose 'unyielding "Laocoönism" in the face of any intrusion of textuality' (Welchman, 286) is blamed for stifling critical debate about modern art. The same point is made, inevitably, about the title of Magritte's non-pipe, which could perhaps hereafter be renamed 'La trahison des titres.'
Though he nowhere mentions epigrams, coins or medals, Welchman in his 'anti-Laocoönism' certainly privileges those artefacts which most insist on their impurity as either text or image. His treatment of Whistler, Monet, Signac, Gauguin, Redon, Magritte, Mondrian and many others is rich in anecdote (the apt word for whatever has been repressed) and in novelty of vision. One wishes that the historical range had been extended back to the Renaissance, for Welchman would surely contribute valuably to our understanding of the emergence of Dürer's monogram (by which Whistler's was inspired), and of Vasari's account of Michelangelo's incised signing of the Pièta, most indiscreetly along the Virgin's girdle. One senses that the time may be ripe for an epigrammic aesthetic, and for a revised history of the Renaissance, one which would be dominated by the figure of Pisanello, the greatest of all designers and strikers of coins and medallions.
In such a survey as this one feels obliged, at some point, to notice the materiality of the books under review. Drucker is herself a practising typographer, and her book eschews experimental-ism in favour of understated quotation and tribute. Welchman's cover contains and mimics Gauguin's huge painting whose long title 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?' fits quite inconspicuously into the top-left swag, while the top-left swag of the cover itself manages to contain only the book's main title, in large capitals, the sub-title being found in the top-right swag: the jacket itself functions as an allegory of the ostentation of publishing. Welch-man also leaves it to the reader to see in the 1933 photograph of Mondrian in his studio (Welch-man, 90) -- an emblem of austerity -- that Mondrian holds one hand on his hip and thus forms a lozenge of light framed by his dark suit (what other painter wore a dark formal suit in his studio?) -- which responds to the lozenge-shaped painting on the wall behind.
Most extraordinary is that in each of these books -- each one designed with obvious care -- that so insists on our awareness of typography, materiality, the ground that bears the figure, the shape of letters, we may search the copyright page -- known to bibliographers as the 'limitation' -- and find no indication of the type in which the book is set. The one exception is Eleanor Hight's Picturing Modernism, set most elegantly in Helvetica. This study of Moholy-Nagy's photography illuminates an aspect of his work that has been largely neglected or subordinated to his sculpture and painting; moreover, Hight uses his 'abstract photography', rather than his sculptures, to rescue Moholy-Nagy from the easy labels of formalism.
It is quite wrong, Hight argues, to suppose that Moholy-Nagy's opposition to what the Russian avant-garde knew as faktura -- the evidence of the painter's hand and brush at work on the canvas -- was motivated by formalism. To use spray-paint rather than a brush is to make a painting approximate typography as a trace. Moholy-Nagy was an advocate of machine-art, not because of a formalist aesthetic but -- though these are not the terms of Hight's claim -- because he wanted pictorial art to enjoy the same 'semiotic status' as the printed page. A series of printed designs in 1921-22 was entitled 'Glass Architecture': the title pays tribute to Paul Scheerbart and Bruno Taut, who were realizing the importance of glass not as an absence but as a substance, a substance that bears no mark of its maker, and hardly any mark at all. (Hight, 20)
Moholy-Nagy's turn to photography was prompted by no interest in recording or representing the world: he was fascinated by the photographic plate, as he was by the celluloid of the cinema. In 1922 (the year of Ulysses) he decided to make photographs without the use of a camera, 'by placing objects on photographic paper that was then exposed to light'. In 1925 he named these made things 'photograms' and in that name one would like to hear an echo of Lessing's epigram. In Hight's explanation:
Up to this point ... photography had been used only to reproduce objects from nature. He suggested that the medium should now be explored in terms of its inherent characteristics, that is, the reaction of light-sensitive materials to a manipulation of a light source (or sources). Such experimentation means ...that the actual photographic process determines and ultimately becomes the content of a photograph. (Hight, 49)
Moholy-Nagy hoped that his work with photo-grams would lead to the development of abstract cinema. He made one such film, in 1930: Lichtspiel schwarz-weiss-grau. If there were to be representational films, Moholy-Nagy proposed that they should be projected simultaneously, overlapping and intersecting in a 'poly-cinema'. (Hight, 183) Moholy-Nagy wondered why photography, having helped to liberate painting from its bondage to perspective, should choose to enslave itself to exactly the same traditional means of representing 'the real'. Eighty years later, photographers and film-makers continue to record and rearrange the signs of the world. Meanwhile, those of us without 20-20 vision are still awaiting the cinema that we could enjoy without our spectacles. Moholy-Nagy's photograms are the most startling images in all of these image-laden volumes, and they too, like Picasso's title, have been repressed throughout the century of so-thought 'Modernism'.
Man Ray adopted the idea of the photogram to his own purposes, in order to 'transform the everyday object into something mysterious' (Hight, 70), and Man Ray enjoys continuing fame. Moholy-Nagy was remarkably close to Walter Benjamin's sense that glass had the potential to free the work of art from the 'aura', the mystique of mystification, and Benjamin was disappointed to see to what hieratic purposes glass architecture had been put. Moholy-Nagy commented on his disagreement with Man Ray: 'The optical miracle of black into white is to result from the dematerialized radiation of light without any literary secrets or secret associations, through the elimination of pigment and texture.' (Hight, 70)
This modest book makes its claims very quietly, but it does ask that we rewrite the history of modern art, and that photography rather than painting be treated as the medium in which the possibilities of sight have been most radically opened. We could at least take seriously Moholy-Nagy's own judgment that one of his photograms (in which the black had become all white) was more important than Malevich's 'White on White' -- because the 'pure form, color and emotion [of the Malevich] ... was blemished ... by the subjective imprint of the artist's hand.' (Hight, 194)
Again we see the aspiration to a semiotics of typography that would include both texts and images indifferently, as marks, traces of light and dark: the aspiration of art to the status of an epigram, or a photogram. Painting has been conceived since the time of Cézanne in terms of an opposition or an alternative to photography. Photography has endorsed Renaissance perspective, and has bestowed on its mere convention the authority of natural and documentary truth. There is no perspective without homogeneous eyesight. Cézanne, Monet and many others rejected eye-glasses and made paintings which represent what is seen by the unfocussed eye, paintings which can themselves be enjoyed without benefit of focus. To see a signature we must draw close, we tend to squint: we defy the perspective by which the pictorial field normally demands to be read. From Cézanne onwards, there is not always that disparity between the optics of the pictorial field and that of the signature. The epigram serves as a figure for the reading or seeing of both text and image in maximal proximity: we do not switch optical codes between the lettering and the image but rather extend the one gaze over both: we admiring the way in which text and image fit on the one surface, as they have been formed by the one type.
Only by the reciprocity of trace -- both within the image and between the image and that which strikes or impresses it -- can the illusion of reference be controlled, and a semiotic aesthetics be developed : one that would put an end to those axiomatic polarities -- word/image, icon/logos, visual/acoustic -- and all the cute paradoxical slogans on which our contemporary discourse believes itself to thrive.
Gombrich, Ernst, Topics of our Time. London: Phaidon Press, 1991.
Lessing, G.E., Laocoön, tr. J. Phillimore, London, 1874
Mitchell, W.J.T., Iconology. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988
Panofsky, Erwin, Perspective as Symbolic Form, trans. C. Wood, New York, Zone Books, 1991
Shell, Marc, Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era, 2nd ed., Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1993
Trevor-Roper, Patrick, The World Through Blunted Sight: An Inquiry into the Influence of Defective Vision on Art and Character. London: Thames & Hudson, 1970
Charles Lock is Professor of English Literature at the University of Copenhagen.