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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 1-21

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Orifices Extended in Space

Daniel Cottom

At the center of the painting, or at once everywhere and nowhere, geometry is mortified.

IMAGE LINK= Hung ever so slightly off kilter, its right wing curling toward the viewer, the diamond of the rayfish has been slashed open. In place of its smooth, pale, bilaterally symmetrical ventral surface, we are shown gaping hollows and ungainly, blood-tinged internal structures. It is as if a curtain has been yanked aside in the theater of this creature, which greets us as a tragicomic mask. Its surface conflates genres just as the entire painting, a still life, presents itself also as a caricatural portrait and as a mock-historical treatment of martyrdom. No less compellingly than Pablo Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), the canvas in question here embraces seemingly incompossible moments, forms, and teleologies of representation.

Directly below the ray, two open-mouthed fish repeat the dumb grimace of its mouth, above which we see its tragic "eyes," which would in fact be the gills of this fish. In the lower right quadrant of the picture we see a knife, which conceivably is the very one that gutted this lozenge, this fish, this face, this body--this thing of generic ambiguities. The handle of [End Page 1] the knife is offered to the viewer, its blade half covered (but only half- covered) by a fold of a napkin. The length of this knife is crossed from above by the handle of a pan, over the side of which another fold of the napkin is draped as if to obscure--and thus ironically to emphasize--all the imaginable connections among the activities of cutting and cooking and painting, on the one hand, and viewing and eating and understanding, on the other. In fact, the right side of the canvas shows three handles--of skimmer, pan, and knife--poking out at different angles, contributing to the sharp diagonals of the composition, which are accentuated by the light coming from the upper left. Through these lines a pressing assemblage of human intentions frames the martyred form in the center, which the pot at the right seems poised to swallow. The weight of all these lines is balanced, even as it is jostled, by the cat entering at the left and stepping into one of the opened oysters scattered on the counter between the fish and the scallions. A trick of its coloring, a dark slash under its nose, draws attention to the mouth of this animal, which is borrowed for this work from its familiar role at laden tables in Dutch and Flemish still lifes. [End Page 2]

Thus grounded on the lines, planes, and forms of geometry (with the diamond and diagonals set against the rough-hewn rectangles of the stone wall and accompanied by the oval, circular, and spherical figures of plate, mortar and pestle, pepperpot, oysters, and vessels), the rectangle of this canvas might have been expressly designed to prepare us for Paul Cézanne's most famous remark: that the artist should get a handle on nature "by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective" (qtd. in Reff 46). Cézanne, as it happens, was an admirer of Jean-Siméon Chardin; and in this dictum he would seem to have been reiterating an artistic practice founded upon the mathematized space of Renaissance art, among whose inheritors Chardin must be numbered. And yet just as this dictum may seem inconsistent with all that is most striking in Cézanne's own practice, so does this painting that Chardin cut out of a household interior direct our attention beyond the balanced surfaces and volumes of geometry toward disturbing openings in these forms. It does so not only through the mouths of the ray, the fish, and the cat, but also through the vessels standing at the right--one corked, one half-covered, and one fully open, with the systematic logic of a textbook diagram--and most notably, and centrally, through...


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