Figures of History
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In this important new book the leading philosopher Jacques Rancière continues his reflections on the representative power of works of art. How does art render events that have spanned an era? What roles does it assign to those who enacted them or those who were the victims of such events?
Rancière considers these questions in relation to the works of Claude Lanzmann, Goya, Manet, Kandinsky and Barnett Newman, among others, and demonstrates that these issues are not only confined to the spectator but have greater ramifications for the history of art itself.
For Rancière, every image, in what it shows and what it hides, says something about what it is permissible to show and what must be hidden in any given place and time. Indeed the image, in its act of showing and hiding, can reopen debates that the official historical record had supposedly determined once and for all. He argues that representing the past can imprison history, but it can also liberate its true meaning.
the canvas asserts itself at the expense of the scale of the representation's grandeur. Diderot stressed this dissocation in his Salon of 1769. Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the painter who could make an example of any domestic scene, making people's bodies and gazes stretch out towards the dying father, the prodigal son or the well-behaved wife, no longer had any idea how to give Caracalla the grandeur that a Roman emperor, no matter how villainous he may have been, should manifest in his attitude.
of exemplum and historia will, in the twentieth century, allow painting to play around with its ideological programmes. Greuze's inability to represent history in all its majesty will be met with the ability of this or that Fascist or Soviet painter to serve his cause by concentrating exclusively on the composition of volumes and the distribution of light. This is what Alexander Deineka does in his Kholkozian Woman on a Red Bicycle, the vibrancy of which absorbs any colour symbolism; it's what he
It also involves all the work on emblems of history: the red horizon – red carpet of the same Boulatov; the American flag painted–unpainted by Jasper Johns; emblems of the French Revolution reduced by Sigma Polke to articles publicizing the Bicentenary; the history painting perverted by Larry Rivers, pointing up the iconic weirdness of Washington Crossing the Delaware through the play of blocked perspectives. The same Larry Rivers turns the photographic trivialization of The Last Civil War
fence, waiting to take his place: emaciated and feverish faces glued to the bars of the fence in which we might already have recognized, Farocki tells us, the figure of the people shut away in the camps that the Allied soldiers couldn't yet make out in 1944. Does the revelatory power of the image, then, ever record anything other than the already given parcelling out of the visible and the invisible, the audible and the inaudible, being and non-being? In 1829, at the dawn of the socialist era,
Pierre-Simon Ballanche rewrote the old story of the secession of the plebeians on the Aventine Hill, in the light of the then present day. Ballanche turned the episode into a conflict over the plebeians' visibility as speaking beings. Disarmed before these plebeians who persisted, against all the evidence, in granting themselves a right to speak they did not have, the patrician hit them with the ultimate argument: ‘Your misfortune is that you don't exist and that misfortune is inescapable.’ After