Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 1999
Victor I. Stoichita The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 345 pp.; 131 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (0521433932)

Victor I. Stoichita is one of the most imaginative younger art historians in Europe, and has recently burst into English-language publishers’ lists. His books Visionary Experience in the Golden Age of Spanish Art and A Short History of the Shadow appeared with Reaktion Books (London) in 1995 and 1997. The book under review, also published in 1997, is a translation of L’Instauration du tableau: Metapeinture a l’aube des temps modernes (Paris: Meridiens Klinksieck, 1993). Each of these books is brimming with striking examples and lively, highly original arguments.

The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting is about reflexivity in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century painting, mostly northern European. That is to say, it is about the ways that paintings themselves commented on representation, on the techniques and signifying strategies of oil painting, and on the emerging conventions of collecting and displaying pictures. Some paintings performed this commentary by depicting paintings within the fictional spaces they described. In Vermeer’s Woman with Scales in Washington, for example, the woman holding a small scale for weighing gold or jewels stands near a framed painting of the Last Judgment. Vermeer’s canvas almost diagrammatically questions the function of traditional religious painting in an increasingly secular society. Other paintings comment on the new culture of connoisseurship and collecting, for instance the gallery portraits popular in Flanders in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where high walls stacked with Old Master canvases loom over tables crowded with statuettes, medals, globes, and seashells. In other works—in Velazquez’s Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, and Las Meninas, or El Greco’s View of Toledo, with Map, to take three of Stoichita’s many Spanish examples—mirrors, views framed by windows or doors, or maps play the role of the “painting within the painting.” A key class of reflexive images are the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century religious paintings with medieval icons embedded in their surfaces, hybrid artifacts that directly confront the modern tableau with the model it replaced.

Another major topic of the book is the self-portrait, particularly the self-portrait insinuated into the painting through a narrative pretext (such as the studio scene) or by an illusionistic device (such as a hidden reflection): what Stoichita calls the “contextual self-projection.” In still other cases, striking trompe l’oeil effects call attention to new conventions of signing, framing, and hanging canvases, for example, in works by Jan Porcellis, Cornelius Gijsbrechts, and other mid-seventeenth-century Dutch artists. These curious works were able to point to paradoxes and blind spots in the new institutions and practices of oil painting. Stoichita, in The Self-Aware Image, introduces dozens of examples of this sort and subjects them to intense structural and rhetorical analysis, frequently invoking the literary-theoretical terms “intertextuality” and mise en abyme.

The announced chronological boundaries of his study are 1522, the year of the iconoclastic furor in Wittenberg, and 1675, the date of an ingenious trompe l’oeil by Gijsbrechts, a painting of the back of a painting, now in Copenhagen. This is a span in the history of art that older curricula and historical accounts tended to treat as a period of triumph and relative stability. Renaissance and Baroque art, in those accounts, was art that seemed to have found its maximally effective means and techniques, and its valued place within society. But upon closer inspection, the painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is an art form in conceptual disarray. The art industry in the early sixteenth century had been severely shocked by Protestant iconophobia and what Hans Belting in his book Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst, 1990 (translated as Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, Chicago, 1994) described as the “Machtergreifung der Theologen” (“seizure of power of the theologians”). The icon was toppled, and the tableau the Gemîlde, the “easel painting” had not yet been invented. The invention and emergence of this quintessentially modern Western artifact, a piece of furniture safely beyond the reach of theology and in principle of all established power, is the real theme of Stoichita’s book. The examples of pictorial reflexivity he has assembled can be read as symptoms of conceptual confusion and rapid adaptation to new conditions of existence. The book can be read as the sequel to Belting’s magnum opus.

It is unfortunate that The Self-Aware Image was not better translated and edited. Many sentences are simply not written in English. One is not sure whether to lay this at the door of the translator, since Stoichita’s preface implies that he did some of the translating himself, and indeed that the translation was in some sense a group effort. There is no excuse, however, for the high incidence of spelling and typographical errors, especially in proper names.

Not all readers will take to Stoichita’s brilliant but rather exhilarated and unsystematic mode of argumentation. The text makes many assertions that turn out to be hard to prove. Quotations from contemporary theorists and other sources do not always say what they are supposed to say. For example, in connection with The Eavesdropper by Nicolaes Maes (c. 1655), a complex painting with both a “commentator” figure and a trompe l’oeil painted curtain concealing half of the surface, Stoichita quotes Roger de Piles to the effect that “True Painting…attracts us by taking us by surprise.” (p.63) The quotation from De Piles, taken completely out of context, jolts us abruptly far beyond and out of the range of the entire discussion of the Maes painting. Stoichita’s references to sources and contexts outside art and art history are especially tenuous. A passage from the Logic of Port-Royal (1683), quoted twice within eleven pages, is applied forcefully to a discussion of maps and mirrors in painting (pp.173, 184). In fact, the passage in question is not about iconic representation, but rather about the way we use the copulative “is” to mean “signifies” in certain sentences. Moreover, the passage does not mention mirrors at all. Stoichita ends his book with the claim that Gijsbrechts’s Painting Turned Around is the pictorial expression of the “De nihilo” paradox, the “quasiobsession” of the seventeenth century, namely, the notion that “to discourse on nothing is to accept that nothing is something.” But he also mentions, as if it were a well-known fact, that Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is “the most important literary manifestation of this debate,” a peculiar reading of the play, to say the least (pp.275-276).

There are many other instances like these that will irritate the well-intentioned reader. But if there is no method in Stoichita’s book, it is not madness either. In the end, one is extremely grateful for the many fascinating examples, the dazzling spray of cross-references, the rapid twists and turns of argument. The most enduring concept of the book will perhaps be the dichotomy between “curiosity” and “method” as the key to the distinction between the Flemish mode of painting, exemplified by the Antwerp “gallery portraits”—and the Dutch mode—exemplified by the paintings-within-paintings by Buytewech, Vermeer, Metsu, and others. This opposition is vaguely but convincingly linked to a pivotal point in intellectual history, the “crisis of curiosity” that provoked Descartes’s neo-idealist turn to method.

The book’s most serious deficiency is its unwillingness to advance historical arguments. After only a few chapters one begins to long for explanations of a more or less materialist sort. There must be reasons why the art market in Holland and Flanders in these decades was willing to support these endless rounds of pictorial recombinations and cross-references. Historical explanations of northern painting’s self-commentary and self-transformation need not be reductive nor clash with the intense analysis of paintings, as Bryan Wolf’s new book on Vermeer, The Invention of Seeing: Vermeer, Painting, Modernity (Chicago, 2000) will demonstrate, and Daniel Arasse’s L’Ambition du Vermeer (beautifully translated by Terry Grabar as Vermeer: Faith in Painting, (Princeton, 1994)) already have.

Stoichita does not offer a diachronic perspective on his topic, either. He says nothing about the extensive late medieval roots of early modern “meta-painting.” From time to time he alludes to intertextual or reflexive works by earlier northern painters like Jan van Eyck or the Master of Mary of Burgundy. But such cases were far from rare. From the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, French and Flemish book painting, Flemish and Dutch panel painting, and German painting and printmaking all sustained traditions of pictorial commentary—on conventions of framing, signatures, illusionism—of the greatest ingenuity and orginality. There is something historically distinctive about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century “meta-painting,” and to describe it Stoichita might have looked to the extreme symptoms of self-consciousness and self-doubt in contemporary literature: neo-Latin satire, the picaresque novel, Elizabethan theater and Jacobean court masque, the Metaphysical poets, the German allegorical drama. Reflexivity in each of these traditions registers a violent, incessant search for stable literary forms and modes in a rapidly changing world.

Christopher S. Wood
History of Art, Yale University