Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Ina Blom reviews The Brain-Eye

Éric Alliez. The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting. Trans. Robin Mackay. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016. 446 pp.

Review by Ina Blom

And what if the story of modern art was not one about increasing attention to the act of seeing—from impressions of nature to urban spectacles to painterly surfaces as such? What if the famous liberation of color was not primarily vested in such a phenomenology? A strange proposition for art historians who, like myself, have grown up with the narrative of an optically oriented modernism—including one that, in Rosalind Krauss’s account, also discovers its libidinal dimensions.[1] Yet, this is the proposition that runs as a red thread through the six case studies that make up Éric Alliez’s The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting. Alliez, of course, is not an art historian but a philosopher who pays exceptionally close attention not just to paintings but also to the wealth of primary and secondary sources that surround them, including their wider discursive context: in short, the tools of art history proper.  But what he brings to the table is also a broadly Deleuzian and distinctly materialist concept of thinking that undoes more traditional notions of mental activity as a form of representation. Thinking, here, is simply the contractions or events of matter that takes place across the board—in the neuronal activity of the brain as well the color modulations of painting. What the case studies bring out is in fact a specifically modern complicity between painterly and neuronal forms of thought, a complicity that bypasses the primacy of the eye and its production of images, along with the subject/object divisions that inform even the subtlest phenomenological accounts of the intertwining of subject and world.

In this account, Maurice Merleau-Ponty is no longer the go-to authority on the immobile yet strangely restless motifs of Paul Cézanne and the plethora of reflexive visualities they seem to engender. The pivotal figure is the historian and critic Hippolyte Taine, whose interest in the scientific approach to aesthetic experiences found in Hermann von Helmholtz’s Physiological Optics and Gustav Fechner’s psychophysics led him to give primacy to the relation between sensation and affective states—in other words, the constant modulation of the neuronal apparatus—rather than to perception.  As a result, he came to understand all seeing as a form of hallucination, an effect of brain constructions that undermine any idea of a given, ordered relation between subject and world. Taine’s influence in the artistic milieus in late nineteenth-century France underpins the discovery of the works of French nonimpressionist painting (Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, and Cezanne) as privileged sites of such hallucinatory construction. But more is at stake here, for with this discovery, they also appear as genuine operators of the event-logic of a modernity that is still very much with us—a perspective that contrast with formalist readings that enclose such works within a series of historically delimited modernisms or a social art history that sees them as reflections of and on the disruptions of the modern world.

However, before getting to this point, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is presented as a transformative figure, since his color theory, which is founded on the differential and hence endlessly creative realm of color (of which the rainbow is just one particular instance) refuses not just the objectivism of Isaac Newton, but also Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that the world can only be accessed through representation. The color events that “blossom in the eye” are part and parcel of the sensible, multiplicitous, emergent nature that Goethe also theorized with his idea of the Urpflanze or archetypal plant.  From this vantage point, the romanticism of Delacroix takes on a distinctly asubjective aspect; in his depictions of human and animal struggle, color and paint, released from the strictures of local color, operate as independent vital forces and produce on their own terms the violent and continuous torsion of their motifs. Hence Théophile Gautier, inspired by medical inquiries into subject of hallucination, sees Delacroix as “the first of the modern school”—a painter whose colors have passed through his brain before they arrive at “the eye at the end of his brush.” Alliez’s contribution is to draw out, in close encounters with paintings, diaries, letters, art criticism, and biographical incidents, the many different forms of painterly thought at work in this modern school. In the work of Manet, it takes place through the free operation of painterly planes where vision itself appears only as a synthetic cutout montaged onto the canvas—a cerebral revolt against all ideas of natural perception. In Georges Seurat, a new and strangely subdued painterly granularity (so different from Paul Signac’s postimpressionist color program) seems to mime the phantom-like productions of the photographic apparatus. The machinic “threat” to painting is in other words at work inside painting itself.  In Gauguin, color intensity is a matter at once cerebral and earthly, a clay-like substance that has become vitrified and “real,” part of a new nature. And Cezanne’s constant labour, his inability to ever really finish a work, is just the outward sign of the fact that in his paintings, the “construction after nature” actually presents nature itself “after construction” or “under construction.”

In my view, this is art history at its best: close to the sources and empirical in the sense of transformative encounters whose implications are at once explained and experienced. Robin Mackay’s translation from the French is impressive in its effort to convey both dimensions, all the better to support what is perhaps the key lesson of the book: That the modern event work far exceeds the self-consciously performative art practices of the late twentieth century. 

[1] Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).