- The Case for Intentionality: Matisse and Bergson in Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism
In a 1914 interview with the Parisian daily Le Journal, Henri Bergson paraphrased a contemporaneous comment by Auguste Rodin to observe that “the cinematograph taught the painter that photography was wrong.”1 Todd Cronan’s Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism works a latency discernible in this statement to argue that the ‘affective formalist,’ apparently Bergsonian orientation of influential assessments of Henri Matisse have actually suppressed the significance of a complex interrogation of the status of representation for the work of the painter and the philosopher. Pushing against the grain of a long affective turn that has understood Matisse as the exemplar of a physiologically-based aesthetics of sensation, this book returns to an inaugural moment of modernism in an effort to demonstrate a more irreducible backstory.
Matisse has been read relative to Bergson since the early 1910s, but Cronan’s aim is to provide evidence—via sustained close readings of visual and philosophical texts in context—of a dialectical, often contradictory oscillation between the desire for intentional signification and the fantasy of ‘direct’ communication in the oeuvres of both Bergson and Matisse. Situated at the nexus that connects questions in art history to continental philosophy and aesthetics, the value of this argument lies in its interventionist recovery of a concept of artistic intentionality that remains pertinent to the subtending approaches of fields as diverse as affect theory, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology, art history, literary criticism, film and media studies, and the art world.
What is affective formalism? While the stakes of modernism are central to the argument of this book, Against Affective Formalism turns to Deleuze to answer this question. Cronan observes that the year 1988 saw the simultaneous publication, in English, of a new edition of Bergson’s Matter and Memory (1896) and a first translation of Gilles Deleuze’s Bergsonism (c.1966). Deleuze’s centrality as Bergson's interpreter within the postmodern Anglophone academy visibly inflects the approach of contemporary affective formalism: a critical framework within which the effect on the beholder generated by the material properties of a work of art—form, color, visual rhythm in painting, say—is granted priority over cognitive questions ranging from the artist’s conscious or unconscious intent, to the beholder’s identification with the artwork in question. All aesthetic judgments are based in a viewer’s affective response to a work of art. But ‘affective formalism’ might be characterized as an interpretive approach that foregrounds a description of the viewer’s response to the materiality of the medium over an evaluation of the facts surrounding the artist’s intentional deployment of that medium as the ground of a materialist expression.
Affective formalism does not begin with Deleuze, and Cronan’s first chapter is devoted to its historicization. Tracing the origins of the affective approach in an anti-representationalist discourse beginning in the nineteenth century, and fully realized by the French Symbolists, Antonin Artaud, and Paul Gauguin, he describes an essentially unbroken tradition organized around the gravitational centers of the ‘first’ and ‘second’ affective turn. Key to the modernist discourses of affectivity was an interest in the possibility that form might be made to signify independently. From the very beginning of a Matisse criticism, for example, an affect-oriented approach to the artist found evidence for its claims in Matisse's own fascination with the agential capacity of line and color to impose unmediated sensorial and emotional effects on the viewer. Matisse’s forceful paintings were described as playing on the viewer like an instrument, unleashing a percussive forcefield of visual rhythm. In this reorientation of critical attention toward the beholder’s embodied experience of the work of art, the first affective turn constituted a significant re-calibration of existing models of spectatorship.
By comparison, the second affective turn involved a shift in critical attention from the viewer to the medium itself. The Matisse criticism of the postmodern period tends to...