“Chaque jour a son poison et pour qui sait voir, son antidote.”

Dans votre précédent livre vous écrivez : “Chaque jour a son poison et pour qui sait voir, son antidote.” Quel est l’antidote au poison des jours ordinaires et comment apprendre à le voir ? Car là est le vrai problème : comment reconnaître le miracle lorsqu’il arrive.

Quand le miracle arrive, vous le savez. Si vous me demandez quels sont les vrais trésors aujourd’hui, à l’heure qu’il est, à cette époque de ma vie, je répondrais : la patience et l’humeur bonne. Oui : une bonne humeur. J’ai entendu, il n’y a pas longtemps, un plâtrier siffler, mais – comment dire…? – il avait mille rossignols dans sa poitrine, il était dans une pièce vide, il enlevait un vieux papier peint, il était seul depuis des heures à cette tâche et il sifflait. Et cette image m’a réjoui et j’ai eu comme l’intuition que cette humeur-là rinçait la vie, la lavait, comme si cette gaieté de l’artisan réveillait jusqu’à la dernière et la plus lointaine étoile dans le ciel. Ça, vous voyez, ce sont des riens, des moins que rien, des micro-événements, des choses minuscules, mais ce sont ces événements qui fracturent la vie, qui la rouvrent, qui l’aident à respirer à nouveau. Lorsque de tels événements adviennent, croyez-moi, vous le savez. Vous le savez parce qu’une sorte de gaieté vous vient. C’est sans valeur marchande, la gaieté, sans raison, sans explication ! Mais c’est comme si, tout d’un coup, la vie elle-même passait à votre fenêtre avec une couronne de lumière un peu de travers sur la tête.

Christian Bobin interviewed by L’Express.

Henry VIII’s French.

“Helas madam cel qe je metant,
soffre qe soie voutre humble svant;
ie seray a tousiours e tant que ie
vivray alt n’airay qe vous.


We gather from Henry’s spelling of French that he had learnt the language chiefly by ear.”

Kathleen Lambley, The Teaching and Cultivation of the French Language in England during Tudor and Stuart Times, 1920

Of Cinema’s Tableaux Vivants: Guerín

We finally got around to watching José Luis Guerín’s Dans la Ville de Sylvia after adding the movie to the “must see” list years ago when it came out. It’s a wonderful movie, visually appealing and perfect for those of us who like to spend time people watching, Rohmer addicts who don’t mind quite a bit less of dialogue, Ozu static transitions aesthetes and art lovers in general. There are a few nods to some masterpieces of western painting – nothing new here, these tableaux vivants abound in art house cinema – but I found particularly appealing the reenactment of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère which I suspect to have been inserted not just out of artistic whim but to make a point about perspective. A point which particularly pleases me as I am a fervorous adept of the Occam’s Razor School of Art History.

Dans la Ville de Sylvia screenshot and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère which is housed at the Courtauld Institute in London.

When Manet’s painting was exhibited at the Salon in 1882, a chorus of critics objected to the flawed perspective. What was considered (and ridiculed) at first as ineptitude became fertile ground for academic theoretical speculation – at least for those art historians who intransigently believe in artistic intentionality. There had to be a reason for the apparently impossible mirror reflection.

1882 cartoon by Stop in the Journal Amusant correcting Manet’s perspective or Une Marchande de Consolation aux Folies-Bergere (from the University of Dayton digital archive): “A mirror reflects her back; but undoubtedly due to a momentary distraction of the painter, a gentleman with which she chats and whose image we can see on the mirror is not in the painting. We believe it is our duty to correct that omission.”

T. J. Clark, writing in 1985 on his Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, gave it a political spin and interpreted the inconsistent reflection with a need to represent the instability of the social interaction between barmaid and dandy brought about by the emergence of social classes resulting from the commodification of leisure. In reaction to interpretations of the barmaid as being a prostitute who is being propositioned by the man, academic papers have been written about the gender implications of the impossible reflection. In 1995, Ruth Iskin hypothesized that the reason for the “spacial incoherence” of the image was due to it being painted from a multiplicity of points of view – the mixed gender crowd in the back being key – and marking “a shift of pictorial codes of representation from an exclusive male gaze to an accompanying female spectatorial gaze and a new paradigm of crowd spectatorship that includes some women alongside men”[1].

In 1997 Thierry de Duve[2] reacting to the ideological and allegorical interpretations of the previous decades, tried to explain the painting’s construction technically – even if not immune to the intentionality bug. Analysing the perspective geometrically, what seemed to be a straightforward mathematical investigation (summoning the “laws of optics”) turned out as a result an improbable “One image, Two moments” sort of result. Manet’s testament to posterity is supposed to be this new type of picture he had invented – his own absence from the scene being significant. It is the representation of an interval of time, a composite image resulting from the shift of the man in the top hat from the front of the barmaid to the right accompanied by the shift of the mirror which pivots obliquely on the second moment. We, the observers, never change our position from directly across the barmaid. If we don’t see the man in front of us when he is himself directly facing the barmaid, it’s because Manet is following the Albertian convention which posits that “only what lies beyond the picture plane belongs to the painting”. Otherwise the man would be blocking our (and the painter’s) view.

Finally, in 2001, Malcolm Park wrote a doctoral dissertation, Ambiguity, and the Engagement of Spatial Illusion within the Surface of Manet’s Paintings, where the conundrum was solved. There is one point from which the observer can verify that Manet’s painting is technically accurate and, furthermore, the reflection is cleverly obtained precisely because it contradicts the immediate scene that springs to mind of virtually anyone who tries to make sense of it: the barmaid and the man in the top hat are not facing each other.

Diagram of Malcolm Park’s and Thierry de Duve’s solutions as published by De Duve[3]

In one of those classic academic kerfuffles, Thierry de Duve responded, not without humour, objecting to the trapeze-shaped bar counter which would be at odds with reality and to the improbable fabrication of the illusion that the man is facing the barmaid:

“Please forget that I’m utterly biased in this affair and bear with me: the question really is not what model is going to win the competition. Of course it’s mine, but that’s irrelevant, it’s not the subject. The theory issue, which is the real subject of my talk, is what court is qualified to pick one model over the other. (…) for us to judge, we must first, or by the same token, elect the legitimate seat of judgment. To the one that I elect, I give the name: aesthetic intuition. I feel genuinely sorry for Malcolm Park that he made my case so easy by systematically choosing the counterintuitive path (…)”

Meanwhile, Guerín is saying “Look, it’s possible that the painting’s perspective isn’t brilliant but maybe there wasn’t only one continuous mirror behind the counter and it so happens that the second smaller mirror on the right was simply at an angle”. Hundred and thirty years of polemics and creative criticism done for as far as my version of aesthetic intuition is concerned.


(click on footnote number to return to post)

[1] Ruth E. Iskin, Selling, Seduction, and Soliciting the Eye: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, The Art Bulletin , Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 25-44
[2] Thierry de Duve, How Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” Is Constructed, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 136-168
[3] Thierry de Duve, Intentionality and Art Historical Methodology: A Case Study, l’Université de Lille, published on onsite.org

Reading Émile Mâle

Philosophy (Liberal Arts) at Stained Glass Rosette at Laon Cathedral, France

“While I was thus mutely pondering within myself, and recording my sorrowful complainings with my pen, it seemed to me that there appeared above my head a woman of a countenance exceeding venerable. Her eyes were bright as fire, and of a more than human keenness; her complexion was lively, her vigour showed no trace of enfeeblement; and yet her years were right full, and she plainly seemed not of our age and time. Her stature was difficult to judge. At one moment it exceeded not the common height, at another her forehead seemed to strike the sky; and whenever she raised her head higher, she began to pierce within the very heavens, and to baffle the eyes of them that looked upon her. Her garments were of an imperishable fabric, wrought with the finest threads and of the most delicate workmanship; and these, as her own lips afterwards assured me, she had herself woven with her own hands. The beauty of this vesture had been somewhat tarnished by age and neglect, and wore that dingy look which marble contracts from exposure. On the lower-most edge was inwoven the Greek letter Π, on the topmost the letter θ, and between the two were to be seen steps, like a staircase, from the lower to the upper letter. This robe, moreover, had been torn by the hands of violent persons, who had each snatched away what he could clutch. Her right hand held a note-book; in her left she bore a staff. And when she saw the Muses of Poesie standing by my bedside, dictating the words of my lamentations, she was moved awhile to wrath, and her eyes flashed sternly. ‘Who,’ said she, ‘has allowed yon play-acting wantons to approach this sick man—these who, so far from giving medicine to heal his malady, even feed it with sweet poison? These it is who kill the rich crop of reason with the barren thorns of passion, who accustom men’s minds to disease, instead of setting them free. Now, were it some common man whom your allurements were seducing, as is usually your way, I should be less indignant. On such a one I should not have spent my pains for naught. But this is one nurtured in the Eleatic and Academic philosophies. Nay, get ye gone, ye sirens, whose sweetness lasteth not; leave him for my muses to tend and heal!’ At these words of upbraiding, the whole band, in deepened sadness, with downcast eyes, and blushes that confessed their shame, dolefully left the chamber.” (from the The Consolations of Philosophy by Boethius)

Cited in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century by Émile Mâle.

Worlds in your Mind

“For God hath made you able to create worlds in your own mind which are more precious unto Him than those which He created;”
Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations, II.90

quoted in Second World and Green World: Studies in Renaissance Fiction-Making as being Harry Berger’s words of choice to illustrate the Renaissance’s attitude of questioning knowledge and faith to make room for interpretation.