What Remains of the Photographic beyond Photography | Sophie Berrebi | Thursday, 28.03.2013

Another Threshold

Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Emile Zola, from 1868, currently on view at the Royal Academy in London in the Manet: Portraying Life exhibition is usually interpreted as a testimony of the friendship between the artist and a writer who was one of his strongest supporters in those years. The painting shows Zola seated sideways at his work table, surrounded by papers, objects, and pictures that point to this relationship, and, it has been noted, to Manet’s own tastes: a decorated screen on the left, a pamphlet bearing Manet’s name on the desk, and above, in the top right corner of the picture, a Japanese print and a lithograph of Velasquez partly concealed by a reproduction of Manet’s own Olympia. It is to these last three objects I would like to direct my attention, in order to think about a technological and aesthetic threshold a century-and-a-half back that may or may not serve as a model for the relationship between analogue and digital photography today.

Two of the documents in Manet’s painting have been identified as a Japanese woodblock print of a wrestler by Kuniaki II and a lithograph after Velasquez’s 1628-29 painting The Drinkers (Los Borrachos). The third picture is subject to more debate as to its medium, but, considering its smooth texture and overall deep tones and light grey highlights, I side with Theodore Reff who proposed that it shows a photographic reproduction of Olympia.1Even though, as Reff noted, its size corresponds to no known contemporary photograph of the painting. Theodore Reff, “Manet's Portrait of Zola,” The Burlington Magazine, 117 no. 862 (January 1975): 39. Together, these three pictures represent what Walter Benjamin identified in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as the three most important steps in the development of the technical reproducibility of art. The woodcut, he explained, was the earliest form of reproduction of graphic art while lithography introduced a swiftness of execution and production that made it possible to include images alongside text in newspaper publication. “Within a few decades of its invention,” however, Benjamin writes, lithography “was surpassed by photography.”2Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, (New York: Schocken, 1969), 219. Some critics have pointed out the historical inaccuracy of Benjamin’s history. See Jacquelynn Baas, “Reconsidering Walter Benjamin. ‘The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Retrospect,” in The Documented Image: Visions in Art History, Gabriel P. Weisberg, Laurinda S. Dixon, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), 337-347.

Reading Manet’s painting through Benjamin, we might say that those three pictures in the frame above Zola’s desk write a short history of the mechanical reproduction of the work of art. Such an interpretation is an invitation to imagine Manet’s relationship with these mechanical forms of reproduction as they inserted themselves into the practice of painting.

In this context, we might see his transformation of Olympia into a black and white portable document in the Portrait of Emile Zola as only one episode in the rubbing against photography, or more generally reproducible images that occur elsewhere in his work. Such a friction appeared more boisterously a few years earlier, in 1864, in his Combat of the Kearsarge and the Alabama. This painting responded to a recent news item: the confrontation between Union and Confederate warships off the French coastal town of Cherbourg. The engagement ended with the sinking of the CSS Alabama by the USS Kearsarge on June 30, 1864. The story made the headlines in European newspapers and drew crowds of visitors to Cherbourg. Having just missed the event, Manet painted his version of the scene, relying on the lithographs that were promptly produced and widely circulated in the press, and his Combat of the Kearsarge and the Alabama was on show in the window of a Parisian gallery a mere two weeks after the battle. Recent scholarship has suggested that Manet responded as much to the challenge of depicting history in the making as to the more personal one that was posed by one of his contemporaries, a lithographer and painter who within days of the event had produced and circulated his own, largely academic lithographic rendering of the subject.3David Degner, Juliet Wilson-Bareau, Manet and the American Civil War: The Battle of U.S.S Kearsarge and C.S.S. Alabama (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003). If that is indeed the case, the speed at which Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama was conceived and executed suggests that Manet was taking on the kind of subject matter that was becoming the stock and trade of lithography and would in due time become that of photography. At the same time, it suggests he was also challenging the documentary exactness and rapidity of diffusion of lithography by proposing an updated version of history painting, a news painting that added an epic breadth to a traditional academic genre and thereby showed the resourcefulness of painting in the face of reproducible images.

It may be this bold gesture that Manet sought to repeat in 1867-1868, when began painting the first of several works representing the execution of Maximilian, the short-lived emperor of Mexico who had been put in place four years earlier in a controversial colonization enterprise launched by Napoleon II. As news of the execution reached France in early July 1967, Manet set out on what became a long-winded enterprise that included three paintings, one oil sketch, and a lithograph. It occupied him over the following two years. The photographs that he relied on for these works depicted not the moment of Maximilian’s death, but its immediate aftermath: the firing squad, the location of the execution, and gruesomely, the demised emperor’s clothing. His frock coat and waistcoat were photographed, eerily, as if floating in mid-air, and his white starched shirt was shown pinned to a door, creased and stained by bullet holes. Several of these photographs were by Francois Aubert, who had accompanied Maximilian to Mexico as court photographer. They were described at length in press articles in France and, distilled through heavy censorship, circulated in the popular carte de visite format. Art historian Juliet Wilson-Bareau has argued that the gradual influx of documents and information concerning the event could explain Manet’s development of the subject matter across a series of works over several years, as if he were attempting to keep up with the pace of the news.4Juliet Wilson-Bareau, Manet: The Execution of Maximilian (London: National Gallery Publications, 1992). Rejecting this interpretation, John Elderfield proposed that the last versionmay be read as an allegory of “photography shooting painting,” by drawing attention to the sense of suspension and isolation of different parts of the painting, the insistent pose of its protagonists, and to the painted smoke evoking the complex flash system of early photography.5John Elderfield, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006), 153. Comparing the painting to the photographic documents that have survived, a sense of competition certainly emerges, but not necessarily in the direction indicated by Elderfield. Aubert’s photographs and especially those that single out the dead emperor’s clothes have the unequivocal quality of legal exhibits. Yet their indisputable power is also the mark of their limitations as documents: they present factual evidence but none of the drama. In constructing a representation of the event, Manet’s paintingsretained something of the photographic documents he used. And yet absorbing and selecting different documentary sources, for their informational content as much as for the particularities of the visual conventions some of them displayed, Manet integrated the formal characteristics of documents without following their logic. In other words, Manet’s Maximilian paintings pose the question of what a painting could do differently than photographs. If the reproduction of Olympia in Portrait of Emile Zola hinted at the fate of painting to be turned into visual documentation and the Kearsarge proclaimed instead its vigor in the face of the less thrilling lithography, the Maximilian paintings suggest an interchange between painting and photography, a exploration of the limits and possibilities offered by one medium in relation to the other. If Manet’s engagement with photography suggests that painting was not shot by photography, can we not similarly see the digital and analogue as two mediums rubbing against each other?