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Diacritics 30.3 (2000) 13-27

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David Painting Death

Didier Maleuvre

Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limit.

—Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


It was the "terrible year." The Revolution was in danger, the enemies of France marched on the borders, the Reign of the Terror had begun. There lay Marat in his blood bath, a letter in his hand dated July 13, 1793, the day he died. There he still lies, in his sacrificial tub, behind a yellow panel etched with the revolutionary calendar date, Year Two, the year Marat the martyr rose to historical sainthood. There, in the depth of the image, Marat lay in 1793, a revolutionary murdered in his bath; here, on the canvas, still lies the cluster of paint and brushstrokes suspended in Year Two of his painted embalming. There, in 1793, Marat died; here, in the mythic year of the historical image, Marat remains dead. This "remaining dead" is the time of the painting, its date and signature: "À Marat, David. —L'an deux." The tablet, like a tombstone, is what remains standing in the wake of death. An ex voto, the painting offers itself to the dead man, to his memory. In so doing, however, the painting calls attention to itself, as though making sure we understand it devotes itself to the task of taking us to Marat. It says, "this is a painting 'à Marat', 'for,' 'to' or 'toward' Marat, 1 on the way to him, a painting that makes us see Marat and thereby gives Marat the gift of being seen."

Oddly, the patch of painting that beckons to Marat also lays out the spot where the canvas signals it is made of matter: a slab of yellow paint, an obtrusive plane emphasizing that there is paint, that painting is taking place on this Proustian "petit pan de mur jaune." One way to understand this contradiction is to say that the headstone displays the twofold nature of seeing an image: on the one hand, the flight of spellbound vision that goes to ("à") Marat, dead and risen, back from the year 1793; on the other hand, the object-bound perception that stays at the canvas level, the paint, lines, and brushstrokes, the corporeality of paint shaped ceremoniously for ("à") Marat. In short, the event of seeing occurs on this headstone to and for Marat: 2 the eye hits the material slab of canvas, where miraculously, it stumbles into the netherworld of representation where (where?) it catches a glimpse of a wooden box, a bloody bathtub, a dead man. One cannot help marvel at this conjurer's trick that makes the human eye see more than what it is given. And part of marveling at this sleight-of-hand entails wondering why, in David's Marat, the trick of representation calls attention to itself specifically on a tombstone: plainly put, the question is to understand what death has to do with seeing images, with this sudden leap of faith whereby we casually trust there is more to a [End Page 13] canvas than meets the eye, that there is something beyond paint (where?), in the hereafter of images, a corpse in a bathtub. Miraculously.

When the image appears, in the leap, the painting dies in the flesh and is reborn as idea, as appearance, the waxen figure of a dead man. Thus the painting dies for Marat, it sacrifices itself for ("à") him. Correspondingly, it erects its own yellow tombstone to commemorate the sacrifice: see what I am doing, I am opening myself up to ("à") Marat. A painter in the grip of revolutionary zeal humbly lets the subject of his painting (the heroic, tremendous Marat) take precedence over the painting that enshrines him. The painting is both glorious and humble: glorious inasmuch as it calls on the tribunal of history to see the martyr; humble because, to do so, the painting must bow before the historical fact. On the yellow tombstone, on its own gravestone, the painting sacrifices itself, vanishes as physical object so that Marat may live forever in the image. For there to...