- Picturing Art and History
Picture this: in the first section of John Berger’s collaborative Ways of Seeing (1972), in a photo essay crediting Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the co-authors present a black and white copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows.” The painting seems familiar enough: a rectilinear, yet swirling, turbulent rendering of bent grass in a field—for some reason, Berger et al. call it a “cornfield”—featuring what is possibly a road, with a flock of dark birds dispersing out of the center of the canvas. The image is introduced following a rousing defense by Ways of Seeing of the “simultaneity” of any individual painting—that is, its power to thwart the critical drive to break it into separate parts for analysis. After strategically positioning “Wheatfield with Crows” at the bottom of one page, the authors then instruct the reader to turn to the next, where he or she finds a second copy of the painting. But now it appears with a caption of handwritten script underneath: “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.”1
This radical juxtaposition of text and context, painting and biographical data, visual and verbal media, is of course central to Ways of Seeing’s demonstration that contextualization causes any image “to become part of an argument which has little or nothing to do with [its] original independent [End Page 162] meaning” (28). And indeed, the effect of this particular juxtaposition is quite unshakable, leaving me to wonder whether it would ever be possible to return to a putatively innocent reading of Van Gogh’s painting. Nevertheless, lately, I have come to feel that my own worry, and Berger’s exemplum, are both a little off the mark. It is virtually a critical truism that Berger’s case reproduces the very notion it would seem to debunk, that of a pure reading existing outside of prior interpretation(s). The fact is that many viewers have already imbibed, from elite or popular culture, a Cliffs Notes, condensed version of Berger’s juxtaposition; many are already predisposed to think “suicide” (or, perhaps, “ear cut off”) when they see “a Van Gogh.” With a reduced canon of paintings yoked to soundbite biography, readers are pre-scripted: we are already uneasy about those crows.
It is an acute sensitivity to such cultural scripting, and an often relentless drive to problematize it, that defines the modus operandi of David M. Lubin’s ambitious Picturing a Nation. Less a survey of nineteenth-century U.S. painting than a provocative, knowledgeable, wide-ranging, and witty set of six essays focusing on often-neglected paintings from across the century, Lubin’s self-described “arhythmic pastiches” (xvi) are full of moments like Berger’s example: startling juxtapositions of American paintings with biography, social history, psychoanalytic speculation, and an often bewildering array of literary texts and visual images. Each essay is strategically designed, meanwhile, to overturn conventional notions about major painting genres in this century—history and myth painting, landscape, genre painting, portraiture, and still-life. Furthermore, Lubin sets as his task the recovery of the way rival social “groups of nineteenth-century Americans pictured themselves in their art” (x)—and thus envisioned their nation—by making paintings, reading them, and resisting them. For the sheer range and versatility of its approach, its curiosity about the noncanonical, and its rebellious embrace of the relevance of the particularizing drive of the “new” social history, Picturing a Nation is an invaluable cultural resource.
In ways not very easily synopsized, Lubin’s individual essays exhibit a postmodern critical mind chastened if not corralled by the recent insistence on race, class, and gender as constituents of cultural meaning. For example, John Vanderlyn’s overtly classical Ariadne Asleep on the Isle of Naxos (1809–1812) is described as a post-seduction tale saturated with modern Anglo-American political relations and covert, if unstable, identification with Native...