Signac makes explicit the politics of the divisionist aesthetic in an undated manuscript on 'Justice and Harmony' probably written in 1902: 'The anarchist painter is not the one who will create anarchist pictures, but he who, without concern for wealth, without desire for recompense, will fight with all his individuality against bourgeois conventions' (Signac 1966: 125). The political weakness of so much of bohemian modernism is apparent in this impressionist contradiction between the scientific objectivity with which it is to subject itself to nature on the one hand, and on the other a profound dependence on the existence of a bourgeoisie against which it can rebel. This relation reproduces the distinctive individualism of bourgeois society. As authors have argued since Castagnary's article of April 1874, the new painters can be called 'impressionists in the sense that they render not the landscape but the sensation produced by the landscape' (cited in Schiff 1986: 61). For Pissarro the process hinged upon two aspects of the artist's work: 'sensation', which included both the perception of nature and the ability to transcribe it, and 'synthesis', the process of abstracting from sensation in such a way as to make a painting, a process deeply marked by the personality (Thomson 1990: 10). So he is committed equally to the opposing tasks of objective and subjective accounts of light and its effects, a contradiction producing a strange amalgam of rough-and-ready sketching in oils with elaborate under- and over-painting; of commitment to the instantaneity of perception clashing with constant revisions of the landscapes in front of him; of technical devices, as time-consuming and premeditated as any used by their academic forebears, deployed to give the maximum effect of spontaneity and immediacy (cf Bomford et al 1991).
The divisionists, to whom Pissarro was drawn in an attempt to overcome his dilemma, called for a newly scientific method that would further reduce the interference of the hand with the fundamentals of the eye and of academic training with the the meticulous fragmentation of vision into atomic instants of colour. In Fénéon's account of Seurat's La Grande Jatte in 'The Impressionists in 1886', 'whatever part of it you examine, unrolls, a monotonous and patient tapestry: here in truth the accidents of the brush are futile, trickery is impossible; there is no place for bravura -- let the hand be numb, but let the eye be agile, perspicacious, cunning' (Fénéon 1966: 110). You can hear the voice of mechanical perception struggling to be born: the unrolling, the photographic sense of recording without flamboyant and 'expressive' paint handling, the mechanical agility of the eye, an exit from the impasse of Romantic individualism, marked not by cunning but the speed of perception: a speed soon enough to be standardised at 24 frames per second. Seurat's note on technique in a letter of 28 August 1890 gives an even stronger impression of an artist waiting for a medium: 'Given the phenomenon of the duration of a light impression on the retina, synthesis is an unavoidable result. The means of expression is...the optical mixture of lights and of their reactions (shadows) in accordance with the laws of contrast, gradation and irradiation' (Seurat 1978: 19). Already prevailing theories of persistence of vision and the use of contrast as the key to sense of depth, mass and movement, cores of the invention of cinema, are brought to bear on the problem of representation, at the very moment at which the moving image is about to become reality, and on the brink of that next shift in the history of art, in which painting will devote its entire attention to expression, leaving the problem of perception behind: one might add -- for the cinema to take up. To maintain itself as painting, painting had to turn towards the individual, even in the moment that it most sought to reconcile itself to science, to the modern world and to the renewal of social vision. It was left to the cinema to continue the unfinished dialectic.
When Louis Lumière premiered, with his brother Auguste, their first film on March 22nd 1895 at the Société d'Encouragement pour l'Industrie Nationale, the main part of the presentation was concerned with their experimental work in colour photography. The Autochrome process, finalised in 1904 and introduced to the market in 1907, drew on the colour theories of Charles Henry (who is also quoted in the first manifesto of the Symbolists [Rewald 1978 pp.134-5]), Charles Cros, the poet, a friend and portrait subject of Manet, Gabriel Lippman and Louis Ducos du Hauron, the latter two correspondents of the Lumières (Rittaud-Hutinet 1995): the same authors who had inspired the divisionists. The granular make-up of the red, green and blue aniline dyes in autotchrome transparencies imitates the building of form from fragments of perception as meticulously as Seurat's painting, according to the same understanding of optical mixing. It achieves the mechanization Seurat had dreamed of and that Gauguin rejected clairvoyantly when he described the divisionists as 'little young chemists who accumulate little dots ... [which] leads straight to colour photography' (cited in Broude 1978: 163). Departing from the figure of individual perception, painting began a major work, in France and rapidly across the landscape of modernity, of synthetic vision. The cinema and colour photography meanwhile, as industrialising movements, reconfigured mass vision as fragmentary, the flickering in and out of existence of the elementary particles of light and its record. This is the genealogy of the pixel, and it is still the principle of the charge-coupled device (CCD) at the heart of digital image capture.
While many of their own autochromes look like academic exercises in modelling and chiaroscuro, some Lumière family portraits are startlingly evocative of Impressionist works like Caillebotte's Portraits in the Country of 1876, and others of the all-over compositions, anti-psychological portraiture and figures in worked landscapes of the divisionists (Rosenblum 1989: plates 342-4). As with the autochromes, we should not be too hasty in presuming the banality of the subjects of the earliest cinematographs, which presume the hard-won right to portray bourgeois modernity. They have also learnt with the impressionists the importance of a novel composition of the space within the frame. Peter Galassi argues that photography emerged at the same time as an explosion of oil-sketching across Northern Europe in the early 19th century, enabling 'a new and fundamentally modern pictorial syntax of immediate, synoptic perceptions and discontinuous, unexpected forms. It is the syntax of an art devoted to the singular and contingent rather than the universal and stable' (Galassi 1981 p.25). These are qualities developed by the Impressionists, who took the form of the oil étude as the model for the kind of moral and aesthetic authenticity which was to be their rallying cry. Likewise, the Impressionists deflected attention from the 'natural' centre of the composition to insist upon the importance of every element of the painting, all the way to the corners of the canvas. Watching the Lumière Barque sortant du port of 1895, with its double foci of interest and its fascination with the play of light on water, it is as difficult to find the centre of the image, the vanishing point of the perspective, or the compositional heart of the frame, as in the best Impressionists. It is only in a film like L'Arroseur arrosée that 'good' composition concentrates and controls the audience's interests. Even in Le repas de bébé, according to Barry Salt, audiences were still as captivated by the shimmering leaves in the background as by the antics of the family at breakfast in the fore (Salt 1991 np). The British Journal of Photography's reviewer of the first London presentation delights in the way that several of the 'views' 'baffle description' (Coe 1981, p.71): not photographic reproduction of illusionary space, but the sheer and distracting quantity of events that seem to occur without rational ordering.
If, in cognitive positivism, the world of perception congeals into a
world of objects, and the darting fluidity of the eye converts to a dull
continuity of expectations and their fulfilment, then the eye becomes the
slave of the objects it perceives. The precision of both Seurat's and Pissarro's
brushstrokes or the Lumière shutter belongs not so much to the record
of vision as to an analysis of the forms vision might take if freed from
the calculating eye, from the 'what' of sight to the 'how'. Both make the
world respond to a vision which refuses to accept the solidity of the world
as object, a mechanical renewal of perception which prefigures an immanent
and utopian future. These girls caught leaving the Lumière factory
at the end of their labour, in an innocence of movement that never after
could recur in front of the camera, these careless boys on their bikes,
these never to be repeated familiarities, all at the edge of a leisure
that cannot be remade or recorded: these are as much visions of futurity
as Pissarro's sleepy Jeune fille à la baguette of 1881, the
peasant so indistinguishable from her land, living out an anarchist utopia
of rural leisure. The very halt and judder of the early 'flickers' severed
the stills from one another and emphasised the distinctive quality of each
moment at which the shutter opened to seize its split second of light.
The physical processes of perception were both beneath the threshold of
sight and just visible at its edges: the anarchy of light that makes the
positive construction of objects positively unthinkable. As the workers
take their leave of the brothers' factory and set off for their own, unregulated
pastimes, we are invited to recognise the moment of liberation from work
in a medium likewise liberated from formal composition, theatrical staging
and the unifying and artificially coherent vision of technocratic and academic
visuality. A cinema of attractions (cf inter alia Abel
1994: 59-101; Burch 1990; Gunning
1986, 1989; Balides 1993), it emphasised the
engines of vision rather than their control. The workers leave the screen,
the last who were innocent of cinema: with them an innocent perception
fades. Soon enough, cinema would redefine itself, lenses redesigned to
guide attention to core actions, property rights invested not in images
but in narratives (Gaudreault 1990). The public
subject would find itself only momentarily in the dispersion of fragmented
vision, soon to be reconformed as the unitary grid of a unified mass. But
in its birth, the moving of the image is utopian: in the making of machine
perception lay the unmaking of the world.
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