Siegel on Butterfield-Rosen (2021)

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen. Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition. U of Chicago P, 2021, pp. 352, ISBN 978-0226745046

Within the compliment sandwich that is the academic book review, the middle typically chides the author’s failure to address X, Y, and Z. In Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition, there are many relevant things that Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen does not discuss. Yet that is what makes her book uniquely valuable. Because its topic is so ambitious, its analytic framework so clear, this study should spark thoughts about subjects far afield of her stated scope—helping us to think for ourselves.

The book begins with Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Or, rather, with its inclusion in foundational art historian Aby Warburg’s bulletin-board “‘inventory of [the] pre-coined classical forms’ that had shaped the representation of bodily gesture and movement from the European renaissance forward” (14). Surrounded by examples of these venerated sources, Manet’s citations revealed “the complex endgame overtly at stake in the painter’s recycling of ‘pre-coined’ poses” (17). Tacked to the board like a pinned butterfly, the Déjeuner embalmed figural strategies no longer adequate to the task of art.

But why, after hundreds of years, should these poses suddenly lose their power? Was it an internal exhaustion of painterly traditions? Or was it an external recognition that old figural types were no longer responsive to a modern social world, in which, says Rainer Maria Rilke, “the gestures of humanity … had changed”? (18). To answer, Butterfield-Rosen offers three rich cases: Georges Seurat’s Poseuses (1888), the Vienna Secession’s Beethoven Exhibition (1902), and Vaslav Nijinsky’s production of L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912). Her approach is primarily a cultural historical one. She marshals a diverse set of contextsfrom toy soldiers to embryological illustrations to psychoanalysis (both pre- and post-Freudian)to excavate new meanings from these very canonical artworks.  

More surprising is Butterfield-Rosen’s pursuit of painted citations, a tactic for which I was taught the pejorative “source-hunting.” She makes it feel novel, however, not because she posits new sourcesthough she does do thatbut rather because these connections become motors for larger interpretations. For instance, the author traces the central figure in Seurat’s Poseuses to Polyeuktos’ Demosthenes (280 BCE), a citation she interprets as an intertextual commentary on the artist’s Un Dimanche à la Grande Jatte (1884–6). Critics had lambasted the former for its figures’ stiffness and axial disposition, which seemed to deprive them of mind and soul. As J.K. Huysmans exclaimed, “not enough life!” (43). By citing the Demosthenes type in Poseuses, juxtaposed with the later painting depicted on the wall behind, Seurat invoked the orator’s embodied reflectiveness to restore the cognizance lacking from Grand Jatte.

This example typifies Butterfield-Rosen’s core preoccupation: a dialectic between legible signs of subjectivity and their artistic subversion. Thus, the next chapter pits against one another Max Klinger’s and Klimt’s respective contributions to the Beethoven exhibition. In Klinger’s sculpted portrait, the composer’s head seems pulled down by the weight of his thoughts, his ruminations manifesting an exaggerated pensiveness. In Klimt’s allegorical frieze, the weightlessness and seriality of ornamental bodies manifest something closer to a somnambulist’s unconscious. Butterfield-Rosen accordingly opposes the two artists of the exhibition according to their modes of figuring subjectivity, Klinger’s privately withheld interiority versus Klimt’s publicly available instincts and drives.

The final chapter continues the same dialectic via Auguste Rodin’s extraordinary watercolors of masturbating womenwhose writhing and contortion evoke a centrifugal expressiveness from mind to bodyand the stenographic staticness of Nijinsky’s choreographydeliberate, calculated movements coordinated to a centripetal gaze, the dancers imagining their movements “from the outside” (195). Notably, both poles probe unconscious sexuality. But Butterfield-Rosen shows that, whereas Rodin used autoeroticism to suggest waves of organic pleasure vivifying the body, Nijinsky portrayed sex in mechanistic terms, such that psychic drives ultimately “motorize the human subject” (235).

Throughout, Butterfield-Rosen unites Seurat, Klimt, and Nijinsky via a common formal tactic: frontality. In her introduction, she traces this mode to late-nineteenth-century art historian Julius Lange’s discussion of the stiff, symmetrical poses in “primitive art”this phrase denoting an incoherent hodgepodge of artifacts from Easter Island and Vancouver, ancient Sumeria and Egypt, as well as, most critically to his argument, from preclassical Greece. For Lange, when the Greeks transitioned from static, blocklike Kouroi to Polykleitian contrapposto, they not only developed signs for representing the human mind, they discovered the mind itself. Butterfield-Rosen, however, turns this argument on its head. When Seurat disposed nearly all his weekenders either parallel with or perpendicular to the picture plane, when Klimt made his allegorical figures continuous with their supporting surface, and when Nijinsky reduced dance to elemental, quasi-hieroglyphic poses, they resuscitated preclassical frontality to evince a mode of being-human for which signs of humanity had lost their convincingness.

But frontality has another meaning too. For while Butterfield-Rosen emphasizes how the term marked (in Warburgian terms) the end of one model for conceiving subjectivityas an inner self-consciousness expressed outwardly in bodily gesture“frontality” equally marks the beginning of a new oneas a mode of relating artist to beholder via the mediating surface of painted canvas. The page that sticks most in my memory, which arrives early in the introduction, reproduces the cover of Rosalind Krauss’s Artforum essay “On Frontality” (1968), bearing abstract paintings by Kenneth Noland (28), which defended Clement Greenberg’s claim that painting would increasingly be characterized by frank exhibition of its flatness and frontality. Yet while the author acknowledges her belief that “bodily posture is a site where we might identify most clearly a shift from mimetic to symbolic or non-naturalistic representation,” she insists that her book is “not a prehistory of abstraction,” and that she is less interested in frontality as an origin story for subsequent strategies than “as a formal strategy responsive to a widely felt aesthetic imperative to modernize the presentation of psychic interiority” (27–8).

Despite her protestations, this possible genealogy is one of the book’s most tantalizing contributions. For, once we have Butterfield-Rosen’s account in mind, we can see how that later shift, not from one mode of figuration to another but away from figuration at all, itself quested after pictorial means for convincingly rendering modern subjectivity. In the process, I speculate, the destabilization of poses that she traces expanded from the artwork to the artist, prompting a self-conscious reckoning with how painters hold their bodies as they paint (I am thinking of Jackson Pollock’s dances or Helen Frankenthaler’s pours), and beholders as they look. It is a testament to the intellectual generosity of Butterfield-Rosen’s text that it arms us with the analytic tools to see such developments as part of the historical genealogy that she sets before us.

Harmon Siegel
Harvard University