Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 14, 2018
Dalia Judovitz Georges de La Tour and the Enigma of the Visible New York: Fordham University Press, 2018. 25 color ills.; 4 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9780823277445)

Some of the most inspiring contributions to the study of early modern art have been made by scholars not trained as art historians and not institutionally working in that discipline. Marc Fumaroli and Leo Bersani, to name but two examples, could not be more different in mindset, intellectual context, or political perspective, but both are literary historians who formulated profound, groundbreaking insights on the art of, respectively, Guido Reni and Michelangelo Merisi, also known as Caravaggio. Turf wars, and claims that one has to be an art historian in order to meaningfully talk about the visual arts, are, needless to say, damaging and misguided. However, Dalia Judovitz’s new book on Georges de La Tour is a problematic, complex case that raises precisely these sorts of questions.

Judovitz is a professor of French and a prominent scholar of French culture, who has published on a range of topics, including important studies on René Descartes and Marcel Duchamp. She is thus an authority both on early modern French culture and on aesthetics in general, but not a specialist of seventeenth-century painting, French or otherwise. As the above-mentioned examples show, this shouldn’t be a problem per se; but in Judovitz’s case, I think the author’s status as a disciplinary outsider does create some obstacles and complicate an otherwise interesting account of a fascinating painter.

The relatively short book—109 pages of text—surveys the whole career of an artist who is still, a century after his rediscovery by art history, very much a riddle. Judovitz mentions a few times the biographical lacunae in La Tour’s career, and wisely avoids trying to hypothetically fill them. Her book seeks instead to propose an explanation for the painter’s artistic achievement, taking as its main body of evidence the paintings themselves. So far, so good.

But the art historical work on La Tour—with which Judovitz is well acquainted—and the studies on other contemporaneous painters—with which she seems to be less familiar—already go well beyond facts and dates. Indeed, issues of visibility and knowledge, alternative sensorialities, looking and reading, and corporeal spirituality—some of Judovitz’s principal topics—are at the heart of current work being done on seventeenth-century art. Caravaggio is of course still the scholarly mainstay of these discussions, and he is mentioned many times by Judovitz, but without taking into account much of the recent scholarship. Other caravaggisti, such as Artemisia Gentileschi and, more and more, Jusepe de Ribera (whose life span was, incidentally, almost identical to La Tour’s) also emerge as a prominent focus of epistemological, theological, and aesthetic issues in current art historical research, but are absent from this study.

As many monographs tend to do, this book attempts to present the artist it studies as a special case: an original innovator whose art resembles no other. This could be convincingly argued about La Tour—he is, indeed, a particular, not to say peculiar, artist—but the arguments proposed here for his artistic originality could just as well be used for a number of his contemporaries. It is here in particular that the author’s lack of familiarity with some recent art historical work is problematic. Other, more general, art historical omissions are regrettable, too: the insightful discussion of iconoclasm (chapter 5) could profit from a similar argument made by Amy Knight Powell in her much-discussed 2012 book Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum; and an even more surprising absence is the work of Mieke Bal, another literary scholar who became an inspiring, and controversial, writer on seventeenth-century visual arts and whose celebrated book Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition tackles very similar issues to those at the center of Judovitz’s third chapter, “The Visible and the Legible,” while analyzing the work of an artist who was a quasi-contemporary of La Tour. The tone of Judovitz is sometimes reminiscent of Bal, but the latter is never mentioned in the book. Bal’s complex account of artworks that are “read” could supplement Judovitz’s sometimes reductive identification of reading with iconographical deciphering, which she opposes, not always convincingly, to simple viewing, or the purely visual interaction with paintings.

An extra-disciplinary background might also explain the fact that the author ignores some of the specifically La Tour–centered literature, especially exhibition catalogues—none are included in the bibliographical list, as far as I could see. To give the most notable omission, it is a pity that the author does not cite in her own book, published in 2018, the most recent and extremely helpful catalogue of the La Tour exhibition held at the Prado in Madrid in 2016. That catalogue includes, among much other up-to-date information, a rich discussion of the painter’s hypothetical journey to Rome, an unproven possibility that has always haunted La Tour studies and that Judovitz mentions, albeit briefly.

The book’s argument is coherent and consistent, so much so that it sometimes becomes slightly repetitive. “Georges de La Tour’s works,” we read in the conclusion, “open up within the visual experience of painting a visionary space where sight gives way to spiritual insight, thereby promoting, along with religious sentiment, a meditation on the representational limits of painting” (108). This idea, fascinating and certainly valid, is not exclusively applicable to La Tour. Moreover, the visual analyses, often insightful and detailed, do not always explain how the painter’s pictorial strategies specifically create such a dépassement. Indeed, some visual elements receive a rather cavalier treatment. One example is the issue of color and in particular the variance in shades between different versions of the same composition. The question of whether these discrepancies are the result of varying conservation conditions is not raised, and the explanations provided by the author are not always convincing. The issue is thorny and problematic, so one does not expect a definitive answer, but, since Judovitz chooses to address the topic, the reader does hope for a clearer argument. The same goes for the fascinating idea that one of the versions of Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene was made to be reminiscent of fresco paintings, the painter thus making a veiled reference to “the plight of religious images under the Reformation” (100). This is tantalizing, but not argued in sufficient detail to be historically convincing. Another insight that deserves more development is the author’s observation that represented drops of blood are also, and emphatically so, drops of red paint. This argument could be a fruitful way of thinking about the materiality of painting and its relationship to spirituality, but when not pursued further, it seems to be generally applicable to any kind of figurative painting.

The opening “within the visual experience of painting” of “a visionary, affective space where sight gives way to spiritual insight” is attributed here particularly to the genre Judovitz calls “devotional nocturnes” (49). The author makes a clear-cut distinction between nocturnal and diurnal scenes in La Tour’s oeuvre, a very interesting issue in early seventeenth-century painting in general, but perhaps not as unambiguous as Judovitz seems to believe. Actual daylight is in fact strangely concentrated in La Tour’s “diurnal” scenes—one assumes that they take place indoors—to the point that the conditions of (limited) visibility resemble those of the painter’s more numerous nocturnes. A similar disturbing ambiguity is omnipresent in Caravaggio’s works. 

Judovitz makes good use of her literary background when she gives us precious information about certain early modern French verbal expressions and puns whose meanings are fruitfully put in dialogue with the visual images. Similarly, the author’s familiarity with twentieth-century cultural theory contributes useful insights, the exception being the somewhat gnomic use of Barthes’s punctum, by now unfortunately a humanities cliché (98). “This compelling and poignant detail (the single drop of blood visible on Saint Sebastian’s skin) constitutes the painting’s punctum,” she states, and then explains the term, but not its usefulness for the case at hand. Moreover, it seems to me that attributing so affirmatively a punctum status to a specific detail goes against the subjective nature of Barthes’s concept; indeed, Judovitz herself recognizes the necessarily personal character of the punctum, but does not pursue this issue in her analysis.  

This study is, all in all, a promising research proposition replete with useful intuitions, rather than a full-blown account of La Tour’s work. It does discuss a broad selection of works from the painter’s output, but it leaves many aspects in need of more detail and substantiation. It also calls for a more sustained critical engagement with the important work of art historians, a task for which the author’s external point of view on the discipline could make her particularly well equipped. 

Itay Sapir
Associate Professor, Department of Art History, Université du Québec à Montréal