Menzel's Realism: Art and Embodiment in Nineteenth-Century Berlin
London: Yale University Press, 2002. 320 pp., 70 color ills., 100 b/w. $55.00
When I was a child, the pond where I spent many summers was alive with small orange salamanders. When I return there now, the salamanders no longer appear. I don't know that they are actually gone. It may well be that I am simply no longer in any position to see them, in which case "position" would evidently mean two things, clearly intimately interlaced but nonetheless separable. On the one hand, there's the brute fact of my being twice the height I once was--too far from the ground I once shared with the newts (but the fact here is not simply height; it's a complicated matter that includes, say, my feet no longer being within natural hand's reach, my coming to sit on rather than in chairs, or of "falling" coming to name a different kind of accident, a new constellation of balance and overbalance, stability and vertigo, and so on). On the other hand, there's the cultural fact of no longer being a child, of having reoriented my self to the distance and frontality of projects and interests (idling, my eyes unfocus toward the horizon and no longer track the immediacy of my limbs). The artistic noticing of these things is a hallmark of Romanticism, most pronounced in its English and literary incarnations but nonetheless still there for the feeling in, say, John Constable or Caspar David Friedrich.
Probably the simplest way to begin noticing Adolph Menzel's pictures is by making oneself alert to how fully they remain answerable to the general physical shape of the child's embodiment, where, for example, "under-foot" is always also essentially in sight rather than passed over, forgotten, or elided by a gaze aimed essentially elsewhere. But if we can pin this much to Menzel's freakish physical fact--"gnomelike, with a huge head on an undersized body--he was four foot six or seven" (p. 5)--nothing in his art or life lets us imagine him as actually a child, so one way to put the question of what Michael Fried un-equivocally identifies as his "Realism" would be to ask how a participation that Romanticism can grasp only in various shapes of mourning and nostalgia might nonetheless find its adulthood. And just as the noticing of Menzel's pictures repeatedly pulls us out of our habits of painterly vision and obliges us to explicitly remark such nearly physical facts as our active shifting of attention among multiple centers or a new orientation to--perhaps the discovery of a new weight to--the bottom of the picture or page (so that the reader will inevitably be struck at one moment or another by the physical orientation Fried's book and pages shares with so many of the pictures presented in it or on them), so also the book's larger argument asks in no small part about our ability and willingness to find other, novel or unaccustomed, postures within our adulthood--about, for example, our capacity to take what we often call our "alienation" as something not to be defeated (to be overcome, denied, or refused) but as a condition only ever to be assumed.
With Manet's Modernism, or The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), Michael Fried completed a trilogy on the origins of modernism that clearly took a considerable part of both its motive and its interest from the terms and judgments of his controversial criticism of the 1960s. (1) Menzel's Realism in effect completes a second trilogy that intersects the first at right angles, offering an exploration of Realism as an artistic mode bound in various and complex ways to the artist's and viewer's embodiment, as well as the broad historical ground on which the 19th century brings such embodiment to a problematic centrality. While the trilogy on French painting had the shape of a distinct project from early on, the three Realism books--including the 1987 Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane alongside the studies of Gustave Courbet and Menzel--are more nearly the product of an interest emergent across the course of their writing, with the result that a significant portion of Menzel's Realism is given over to measuring the ground traversed and trying to formulate its underlying sense. Among the notably shared features of the three books are a relative suspension of questions of painting as such as well as of medium more generally (Realism, Writing, Disfiguration takes up Eakins in relation to writing, while Menzel's primary medium, drawing, in Fried's treatment spills easily over into both painting and printing) and a renewed focus on the vicissitudes of "absorption" as it works apart from the French tableau's harnessing of it to theater (to this extent, the Menzel book--and the Realism trilogy over all--aligns well with Fried's recently evidenced interest in aspects of contemporary photography). The picture of two series of books intersecting in Courbet is undoubtedly a little too tidy: the Eakins book posed itself in its initial presentation partly in relation to the problematic category of "literary impressionism" (and Fried is explicit in the Menzel book about his...