BY Quinn Latimer in Opinion | 20 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

Private Views

Literature versus art history

BY Quinn Latimer in Opinion | 20 JUN 13

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781. Courtesy: © 2013 Detroit Institute of Arts / The Bridgeman Art Library

‘There are many theories of what the devil sitting on the woman’s chest connotes, but my own is that it is a symbol of her privacy.’ I paraphrase. But the gist of Andrei Pop’s assertion sat heavily on my own chest. It hit my heart, as it were. I loved his ‘reading’ of Henry Fuseli’s infamous 1781 painting The Nightmare immediately, both for the implicit feminism and the literary quality of his analysis. The devil was a figure of privacy. It sat ‘heavily on her chest’ like a thought, like ‘thinking’ when we figure it in metaphoric language. As the young, Basel-based art historian continued his lecture at Witte de With in Rotterdam in March, I stared at the image projected above him of the oil painting, with its strange gathering of the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’. The woman and her nightmare, on one surface, in one room, in one painting. The incubus’s horse offers its awful head in the corner. The female protagonist’s sprawled, supplicating body is a pale odalisque, bright as a moon, yet darkened by the demon perched demonically atop her. Like a proto-Pop painting or a cartoon of a light bulb – that metaphor for private thought – hanging brightly above a figure’s head, manifesting the lower figure’s interiority in the airy space of the exterior, The Nightmare takes care to address our private imagination as a subject worth limning, by bringing it out of the mind’s shadows and into the world of the seen, the ‘real’. In this it engendered two centuries of art-historical arguments about what the nightmare was doing exactly, outside of the female body dreaming it, and why that dream (or privacy) should be so important as to necessitate being depicted at all.

That’s not for me to argue, however. Though I was listening to Pop’s wonderful presentation as a fellow participant in a symposium on iconography entitled ‘Between Seeing and Believing’ – organized by curator and writer Adam Kleinman – the event itself featured two distinct groups of lecturers. There were the art historians, of whom Pop was a member, and then there was the literary group, or the ‘fictive corps’, as a bad (though quietly spectacular) translation from the Dutch first called us in the various press materials. ‘See, we’re not really here,’ Maria Barnas, one of the other writers, said to me upon our introduction, laughing. Angie Keefer, our third member, smiled. We would be ghosts, imaginary fig­ments, moving among the scholars. As the day moved forward, lectures by the historians on disparate his­torical images were interspersed with readings by we three writers on a single image, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, from around 1826, famously the first landscape photograph. Like The Nightmare, it is also an image in which privacy figures deeply. After all, a view from a window only points to the spectral body and mind experiencing it, hovering in and haunting that window and thinking that view, its landscape, into being. Privacy, then.

Still, the symposium’s back-and-forth movement between ‘history’ and ‘literature’, the exterior and the interior, the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’, as figured by its two groups of participants, worried some in the audience. At the end of the day, as all the historians and writers gathered for a question-and-answer session on our various talks, an audience member said it had been ‘strange’ moving between fact and fiction all day. Did that disturb us, too? We considered the query. It seemed a pretty private question. And yet neither The Nightmare nor View from the Window at Le Gras was wholly, uniquely, a dream or a document; they were works of art.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, View from the Window at Le Gras, c.1826, the first landscape photograph, captured on oil-treated bitumen. Courtesy: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin

Likewise, the private, poetic fictions I spun in my long essayistic poem on Niépce’s View... were no more imagined or fictive than Pop’s very personal and poetic analysis of Fuseli’s heroine’s symbolic imagination or ‘visualized’ privacy. Further, all day I had noticed how the historians present had used literary strategies to describe the images that were their ostensible ‘historical’ subjects, while we writers had often dressed our fictions in a uniquely critical and academic language, perhaps to give some sort of scholarly or ‘factual’ credence to our standing, or perhaps just because such language can be beau­tiful and persuasive and pointed in equal measure. So, I found myself unsure whether the privacy of my work was any more present than that found in Pop’s and the other historians’ presentations. Nor which shore – fact or fiction – I stood on, nor they. The water was dark and it looked the same.

With that demon sitting heavily on my chest, I began thinking: How is it that privacy is so often a figure or symbol of the fact–fiction divide? And why do images of privacy – which ‘image’ what privacy might look like – have such a literary or allegorical tenor? Consider, for example, another genre of images that, like female nudes, are representations of privacy par excellence: photographs of people reading. A book is a kind of daytime dream. Held in the hands, head bent low, it is an exterior symbol of interiority, it is an objective correlative of the mindful, imaginative activity going on inside. But reading and dreaming often move along parallel tracks, just as fact and fiction do. Consider, then, the genre of literature that is most often queried for its hazy borderlands of fact and fiction: the literary memoir, or the novel masquerading as memoir. If one’s private, personal experience is the very material of memoir, then issues of privacy in the medium are in no doubt.

To that end, what of the late W.G. Sebald, contemporary master of the literary novel-cum-memoir-cum-travelogue? His celebrated use of enigmatic, degraded, black and white images – so reminiscent of Niépce’s View... – throughout his books is oft discussed. For though they seem to point to the writing that accompanies them as a kind of document or ‘record’, the images are often, in fact, simply material. They stirred Sebald’s writing and imagination forward; they did not ‘evidence’ its factual basis. More importantly, however, the hazy, poignant, dry images, as much as his elegant writing itself, conjure a specific kind of privacy – one where the narrow interstices of fact and fiction swell into an ocean. Like Fuseli’s demon, Sebald’s images ‘image’ what privacy or dreams or writing itself might look like in the exterior world. They make interiority visual, whatever that might mean.

But why this interest and investment in privacy, of all things? Why did Pop’s analysis so strike me, his demon sinking so heavily (or lightly) into my chest? So much recent visual art, and the practices that produce it, concern themselves with access to and the circulation of information. Networks, circuitry, reception, participation, transpar­ency; all interesting and yet ... On the back of Chris Kraus’s 2012 novel, Summer of Hate, another tour-de-force from the fact–fiction borderlands, the blurb tells of the book’s hero: ‘He was highly intelligent […] but he had no information.’ What did he have then? Privacy. As a writer and a reader who works in the art world, who deals daily with the world of images, I cannot help but continually wonder what exactly thinking, writing and dreaming look like. What does privacy, so integral and so ignored, look like? Is it a demon? Is it a spectral black-and-white photograph of a view from a window? Is it a man without information? Is it a woman?

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).