Since Michael Fried published ‘Thomas Couture and the Theatricalisation of Action in Nineteenth-Century French Painting’ in Artforum in 1970, the history of history painting has been shaped by his idiosyncratic terms, ‘theatricality’ and ‘absorption’. The first tracks art’s necessary address to a spectator, on which history painting thrives, while the second suggests a sublime unity of viewer and artwork that makes the latter autonomous. In Fried’s writings on David, Manet, Courbet, and Menzel, the terms converge and come apart in a Hegelian dance of opposite that is supposed to drive modernism in art.
Our panel seeks to reopen the case for broad conceptual analysis of history painting. As the depiction of human action, history painting makes psychological and anthropological claims of being able to picture interior states, accounting perhaps for its frequent absurdity, but also for its fascination and its affinity with theatre. At its best, in the work of David or Fuseli, of Barry or Goya, history painting may be as close a view of ‘other minds’ as any sensual discipline affords. At the same time, the link between mimetic art and theatre has been used to critique both, and society as well, in texts ranging from Plato to Guy Debord. Is the vocabulary of ‘theatricality’ of use to art historians in their descriptive and normative ventures? Are other categories, like the dramatic, imitation, spectacle, illusion, etc., more informative? Must mirror neurons enter the picture? We invite novel theoretical accounts and acts of close looking.
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