Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 8, 2019
Hollis Clayson and André Dombrowski, eds. Is Paris Still the Capital of the Nineteenth Century? Essays on Art and Modernity, 1850–1900 London: Routledge, 2016. 306 pp.; 67 color ills. Cloth $160.00 (9781472460141)

There are times when divergent academic and ideological interests come together unexpectedly; these events can yield new scholarly insights even as they lay bare disciplinary antagonisms. A 2009 symposium at the Clark Art Institute was just such an occasion. Its interrogatory title Is Paris Still the Capital of the 19th Century? signaled the conveners’ interest in the legacies of Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and T. J. Clark for the writing of nineteenth-century art history. Less clear was whether the title was meant ironically or in earnest. Were the conveners purposely begging the question? The publication of a related collection of essays now provides some answers. Edited by Hollis Clayson and André Dombrowski, who jointly organized the symposium, the volume includes essays by eight of the original speakers, augmented by contributions by five additional scholars.

Clayson and Dombrowski take pains to assure readers—in both their introduction and afterword—that the symposium’s name was intended to be playful and open-ended as well as provocative, one speaker’s “mischievous” suggestion. Yet this evocation of an approach to nineteenth-century visual culture that has heroized masculine creativity and spectatorship, normalized stereotypes of gender and sexuality, and relied on a Francocentric cultural geography weighed heavily on the proceedings. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of speakers addressed easel painting, sent an unintended message: “In retrospect, we wish we could have done things differently: a focus on both Paris and painting now seems clearly too much of a double-provocation to a field so accustomed to chiding the apparent monolithic status of both” (287). “Apparent” is the operative word. Dombrowski and Clayson insist that neither painting nor Paris should be understood empirically; “painting” and “Paris” are implicated in the mythmaking of cultural capital and disciplinary authority.

That the editors mean to interrogate the mythic status of both terms is apparent in their respective contributions. Clayson subsumes painting within the “multi-media modernist enterprise absent a medium hierarchy” tacitly ascribed to Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Clark (273). This lack of hierarchy allows artists like Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt to mobilize the unique qualities of printmaking in response to the aesthetic demands of modernity. Central to Clayson’s argument are several intaglio prints by Cassatt that seem to fixate on changing lighting technologies in Paris. Discrete states also allow special access to the creative process; printmaking thereby may facilitate a distinct, even superior, mode of Impressionism.

For his part, Dombrowski complicates the reputation of Second Empire Paris as the “café of Europe” through a close reading of Edouard Manet’s On the Balcony (1868) in relation to a new law prohibiting newspapers from reporting on citizens’ private lives, a legal maneuver intended to protect Napoleon III’s regime. Viewed in this context, the painting can be seen to participate in an ongoing negotiation between “individual freedoms and collective restraints.” Paris, then, functioned more as a crucible than catalyst for artistic experimentation insofar as the repressive social policies of the Second Empire “came to occupy the same place and purpose that longstanding academic rules governing painting once did, providing the grain against which to react” (251).

Among the speakers in the 2009 symposium, Tamar Garb confronted most directly the mystifying habits of nineteenth-century art history. Her presentation was given over in part to screening Alibama, a 2008 video work by the South African artist Berni Searle that intersperses evocative panning shots of Cape Town’s Table Bay, including the infamous Robben Island, with scenes of Searle teaching her young son to sing an Afrikaaner folk song, “Daar Kom die Alibama.” The song is believed to have originated with a visit to Cape Town by the Confederate warship CSS Alabama in 1863. The fatal encounter of that ship with the Union sloop USS Kearsarge off the Normandy coast, famously painted by Manet the following year, links avant-garde practice to South African history and cultural memory: “as ‘subaltern’ subjects in the far-flung reaches of the world gain agency,” Garb argues, “so the received histories of place and peoples are overturned” (126). Garb’s decision to cede her voice and authority for several minutes to a South African woman artist was a powerful gesture documented (but inevitably tempered) in the publication.        

Garb’s provocative intervention was rivaled perhaps only by Aruna d’Souza’s “Pimping Out Painting: Courbet, Manet, and Cézanne in the 1860s and 1870s,” whose absence from the anthology is all the more salient. Ting Chang’s contribution unsettles familiar paradigms, ingeniously deploying Baudelairean/Benjaminian associations between travel and modernity to interrogate attendant assumptions regarding European masculinity and Japanese artistic practice. Mary Roberts, whose essay was not first presented at the symposium, likewise expands Impressionism’s geographic and cultural terms with “Osman Hamdi Bey and Ottoman Aestheticism,” which introduces two key concepts to the anthology’s reconsideration of the terms of modernism. Orientalism, Roberts makes clear, can no longer be blithely quarantined from histories of modernism; avant-garde artistic practices were as subject to and productive of colonialist and imperialist ideologies as were academic ones. The related concept of the “decorative” is crucial: Roberts neatly shows how Ottoman decorative arts could resist modernist aesthetic hegemony even as they were dragooned into serving European economic and political interests.

Other new contributions strengthen the volume’s engagement with Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Charles Rice finds in Benjamin’s account of the transformation of nineteenth-century Paris—especially his interest in the capacity of perception to reshape the built environment—a metaphor for the discipline of architecture itself. Peter Soppelsa looks at how the Haussmannization of Paris in the 1850s and 1860s became a model for modernizing cities around the world, with deleterious and beneficial consequences. These two essays rely on powerful metaphors of destruction and haunting, suggesting that modernity is as much a cataclysmic condition as a generative one. More in keeping with Benjamin’s interest in Paris as a place where new forms of sociability, commerce, technology, and self-presentation were constitutive of modernity is Jacob W. Lewis’s essay on Charles Nègre’s photographs of the early 1850s. Nègre’s images of Parisian laborers caught mid-stride or between rapid movements, Lewis argues, rely on conventional pictorial codes even as they demand from photography technical capacities that were not yet available. The photographer’s anticipatory merger of studio techniques with camera work resulted in the production of “an image in search of a practice” (229). Instantaneity was, within modernity’s aesthetic logic, a pictorial necessity before it was a technical possibility. Similar tensions are addressed by Hélène Valance, who takes up the discussion of artificial lighting where Clayson leaves off: “White City vs. La Ville lumière: Electrical Displays at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893).”

These essays add ballast to the corrective aims of the anthology, joining excellent chapters by senior scholars including Anne Higonnet, Marc Gotlieb, Margaret Werth, and Paul Smith. Their participation in the symposium contributed to its initial reception as an occasion for serious disciplinary stock-taking, though the organizers did not intend a wholesale reassessment of the field. Theirs were the more modest goals of “revisiting, and perhaps revising, the disciplinary histories and legacies of studying the painting of modern life” (287). That stated, they also acknowledge that Is Paris Still the Capital of the 19th Century? was always understood as a bellwether. “The conference was held 150 years after Baudelaire started writing ‘The Painter of Modern Life,’” they write, further noting that 2009 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life and the seventieth anniversary of Benjamin’s “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century.” As they explain, “these are milestones worth recalling, both for art history and the study of French modernity and modernism especially now that art history’s field of gravity has decisively shifted toward the study of post-1945 art” (288).

The year 2009 also heralded the passing of the new millennium’s first decade—an epoch that began with an unprecedented assault on the putative capital of the twentieth century that marked the end of both the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Clayson and Dombrowski acknowledge this, perhaps inadvertently, in their afterword. “We end this section with an excerpt from Barthes’ reading of the Eiffel Tower, the metonym of the City of Paris, because, we would argue, his text exemplifies a grasp of the fluidity of Paris as a global signifier at the heart of our volume’s mission” (287). In the excerpt cited, Barthes writes that the Eiffel Tower is “according to the appeals of our imagination, the symbol of Paris, of modernity, or communication, of science or the nineteenth century, rocket, stem, derrick, phallus, lightning rod or insect, confronting the great itineraries of our dreams, it is the inevitable sign” (287). The World Trade Center had replaced the Eiffel Tower in this symbolic economy; its destruction on September 11, 2001, has haunted art history ever since. Under attack was, among other things, a symbol of world capitalism, of European expansionism, of consumerism, and of nationalism. Historians of nineteenth-century art still traffic in these symbols. It will take more publications like Is Paris Still the Capital of the Nineteenth Century? for the field to reorient itself to art, history, and historiography.  

Elizabeth C. Mansfield
Professor and Head, Department of Art History, Penn State