Coming Into Language

I’m back from my third visit to look at The Reading by Henri Fantin-Latour at the Beaux-arts Museum in Lyon. I’ve finally located whats been puzzling me in it. The listening female figure isn’t really listening, she’s hearing the reader but her sentience is as mute as her silhouetted dress.

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We enter our studio living space from the street through the middle of a 12 metre long wall of glass. The standing height sections are frosted while the clear panes above and up 4 metres show a tangle of branches from the plane trees in the park opposite.

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The footpath outside the door gets a lot of use, its on a good slope directly into town and the park across the way is elevated providing an open space that lights the glass with daylight and lamplight . A pale light enters the room, heels click just outside amplified by stone and glass. Vague grainy figures are caught and hover across the frosted surface.

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Listening to shoe soles following one another in succession becomes an exercise in imaging runners, patent leather shoes, heels, boots, pairs of legs pivoting at the hip, core muscle efforts, bodies in motion.

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I’ve been trying not to imagine these things, trying to let it go for a more structured space while I draw. If one locates a sonic environment in which heel-clatter, vocal exchanges and car noises dwell together, one might find an ambient space of some autonomy and order, of interval and sound. I hear sentences blurted out in breathy bursts or loose gaggles of word sounds floating among the slapping of footsteps. A voice caught rising on a vowel and a distant electric grinder peeling off it.

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Sonic space has its own register of attention or inattention, noise that I hear when I’m not really listening.

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The Reading draws me in with an undulating line stretched and tensed by the figures it contours. It’s a painting in which vision is provided with terms that convey personality and relationship. The reader’s face is chiselled with brush marks in warm hues while the woman on the left is treated with a transparency; the brush has retraced it’s movement as blue enters the shadows with cool pink bringing an evaporative quality to the face.

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I read a comment online from someone who found it hard to tell whether the listener is distracted, or bored from sitting so long for the painter.

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It doesn’t seem to matter whether the spell of fiction is broken, there’s an expression in the paint that includes the painter in the architecture of the experience. It’s a three dimensional but shuttered visual space and the artist and his production are together within a tense and somewhat fragile web of relations.

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These aspects are reinforced in a work of Fantin’s hanging nearby. His flower paintings are known as flower portraits.

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In The Reading there are linkages between the women, the book, the woven cloth and the flower that exchange meaning. The different visual treatments given to the flesh and objects is made to carry meaning in the absence of obvious iterative references.

There’s a term that was used in the Lyon silk trade to denote the cloth weavers activity: Bisclack, the word derives directly from the noise of the loom at work, a soft BIS sound of the pedal frame then the CLACK of the shuttle flying through the separated warps.

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The Bisclack of this painting is a study in suspended action, the women held by the line travelling over the canvas. The relationship between the book and the cloth bringing to mind the shuttle and the loom which in classical legend represents a coming into being of language.

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About nameerdavis

I'm drawn to the crowd and the culture it foments.
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4 Responses to Coming Into Language

  1. Jill says:

    Thankyou Nameer for letting me see this painting in so much detail, and through your reading of the work. I have never really looked at Fantin-Latour’s work before, and this leads me to look more closely – but all online of course. So I really appreciate the close-ups in your post. I liked too the comment about the young woman in the painting looking as if she is bored by the time required for the sitting – a very appropriate response for the work of a painter known as a realist. And the immediate thought is that she-the young woman- reminds me of Whistler’s mother in his 1871 Arrangement in Black and Grey, where I think it is usually assumed that his mother, long-suffering sitter, is present essentially as an element of the painting rather than the subject.
    A couple of other things bother me about the image-the reader doesn’t look as though she is reading aloud, though perhaps she is in a pause between sentences or paragraphs… but here’s another reading of the work. Perhaps she is reading silently to herself, and the younger woman has also been reading, has finished her book and thrown it onto the table – Bisclack – and she is now in that strange lost internal space after a book is finished, between being part of a story that has just ejected her and not yet knowing what else to do. In truth the way one woman turns towards the other seems to contradict this reading. But I have found alternate names for the painting – it is either called La lecture, or Reading. I haven’t found it referred to as The Reader online, and of course we all known that internet sources are never inaccurate! Fantin-Latour painted women reading or sewing or weaving several times, presumably to get that space of self-absorption in a sitter.

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    • nameerdavis says:

      Hi Jill
      Thanks for your correction, it is known as La lecture. The isolation and complicity in relationship is an enquiry the painter develops in several group portraits, it interests me a lot. Bridget Alsdorf has recently written on the male fraternity, and the depicted fragmentation of the social and individual self in19th century French art, particularly focusing on Fantin-Latour’s hommage series. These have a strange mix of realist situation and flattened portrayal which are also fascinating for the territory they cross.

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  2. sally says:

    This post reminded me of John Cage – ” There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot”.

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    • nameerdavis says:

      Thanks Sally, hmm John Cage… referred to as pugilistic in Empty Words, a dogged performance he gave in the seventies in Milan(?), where he was heckled severely while reading a random cut up he’d made from Henry David Thoreau. I listened to a recording of some of it last week. You hear him uttering single phonemes erratically amid jeers and boos giving an impression of the work absorbing the audience sounds into the performance.

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