“Normally, of course, semblance is not misleading; a thing is what it seems . . .” (Susanne K. Langer)


The Red Shawl, Claude Monet, c. 1870.

Yesterday I saw the exhibition, Monet: The Early Years, at the Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX. The exhibition included “The Red Scarf,” which I do not remember ever seeing even in art history books. The painting’s affect is so great that I’m sure I would remember it although it is an early work and does not have a lily pad anywhere near. In fact, the scene is a snow scene.

The painting has all of the formal composition elements we expect of a Monet: the frame (an actual window frame), the light (no direct sun, but the contrast of indoor shadow with the pure white snow outside), and the focal point (Camille’s red scarf surrounding her face).

Early this morning I wanted to see the painting again (I had refrained from buying the exhibition catalogue because I am getting rid of books, not accumulating more) and could not find a satisfactory online image.

Because I want to see Camille’s face.

All of the formal and painterly aspects of the painting are here, in my view, for the purpose of giving context to Camille’s face. The haunting reality of the painting is that her face has almost no details – lovely oval shape, eyebrows, eyes, nose, mouth. If the face were isolated and reproduced at its actual size and shown close-up, a viewer might not recognize it as a face. I don’t know enough about the techniques of painting to determine if Monet used more than about half a dozen brush strokes to create the face, but it looks almost that simple.

And yet I am haunted by the face 18 hours later.

My thinking about art (the arts) is guided by ideas that I suppose are academically passé these days. I read, think about, and quote the writings of Susanne K. Langer from the 1960s and ‘70s. I’ve read Wittgenstein and Baudrillard and Lyotard and Butler and Irigaray, and I keep going back to Langer, probably because I think I understand her writing.

In this literal sense a picture is an illusion; we see a face . . . and know that if we stretched out our hand to it we would touch a surface smeared with paint. . . . To present things to sight which are known to be illusion is a ready (though by no means necessary) way to abstract visible forms from their usual context. Normally, of course, semblance is not misleading; a thing is what it seems.  But even where there is no deception . . . . [an object may arrest] one sense so exclusively that it seems to be given to that sense alone. . . there is such a concentration on appearance that one has a sense of seeing sheer appearance—that is, a sense of illusion. . .  The semblance of a thing, thus thrown into relief, is its direct aesthetic quality. . .   [It is] a rarefied element that serves, in its turn, for the making of something else—the imaginal artwork itself.  And this form is the non-discursive but articulate symbol of feeling.
Langer, Susanne K. “The Principles of Creation in Art.” The Hudson Review (II. 4). Winter 1950, 515-534.    Source.

Our world is so saturated with images that it is virtually impossible to remove ourselves from them. You did not find the link to this posting on “Ideabook” but on “Facebook.” We are apt to share our thoughts about politics in “Memes” rather than in essays.  If a person need an explanation for this icon,men_582-e1430362472737-001
or this icon, just-do-it-nike
or this icon, starbucks
or this icon, thinkdifferent
they most likely do not have TV or internet connection whether or not they live in the United States.

The image of Camille’s face – on the surface – is wistful, almost sad. She appears to be longing, perhaps simply hoping to be inside where it is warm, perhaps feeling some momentary sadness, perhaps a general existential weariness. It is not possible to say, and Monet gives no clue by the title, “The Red Scarf.” Camille’s face, even with such sparse detail, expresses a kind of longing that we all know, and perhaps know too well.

But the riddle of the painting lies neither in deciding what Camille’s facial expression means nor in interpreting why the viewer is certain that those few brush strokes mean anything at all, least of all something emotional. Langer says the artist has “. . . present[ed] things to sight which are known to be illusion . . .”   What Monet presents us with becomes more than simply a “picture” of Camille. It becomes “something else—the imaginal artwork itself.”

The artwork is “non-discursive but articulate symbol of feeling.” It’s almost as if the art tricks us into thinking we are having one experience whereas we are experiencing something else. We do not feel melancholy at Camille’s melancholy. We do not feel longing at Camille’s longing. We do not feel loneliness at Camille’s loneliness. We may decide we are having one or all of those emotions, but we cannot feel a specific feeling because Monet has not told us which of those feelings Camille is experiencing. Even if Monet had written a description to say how Camille is feeling, there is no guarantee that is what we will feel.

I think, and this is my peculiar understanding of Langer, we are not feeling those feelings directly, but the work of art – any work of art in any medium – is a symbol, an almost palpable symbol, for how it feels to have those emotions. We do not respond empathetically  to Camille’s look of longing, but the entire painting prompts us to have the experience of feeling.

That is the difference between Monet and the Marlboro Man. Monet informs our inner life, exposes our inner life to ourselves, gives us insight into what it means to be a sentient and conscious being. The Marlboro Man plays on our feelings, manipulates our feelings in order to trap us, overpower us, take from us what he wants.

When I stand in front of “The Red Scarf,” I expect to understand more fully for a moment how being human feels, perhaps even more fully how it feels to be myself. I’m not going to get bizarre and mystical here, so I will be very circumspect in saying simply I expect to feel a connection with that other human being, Claude Monet.

When I see an image designed for advertising I expect to have a moment of my humanity taken from me through manipulation. There is no riddle. There is nothing to feel or understand or contemplate. If I have my wits about me, I will turn away.trump-ad-jamiel-facebookjumbo-001


2 Responses to “Normally, of course, semblance is not misleading; a thing is what it seems . . .” (Susanne K. Langer)

  1. Jerome Sims says:

    Gee, I miss the D/FW museums. And Tex-Mex. That’s about it.

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