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The frame that suffocates the image

On one of the prints he designed in support of the 1968 student protests in France, Asger Jorn scrawled: “break the frame that suffocates the image.”

Follower of Jacques de Gheyn III, <em>Allegory of the Demise of Painting</em>, early 17th century. Pen and ink, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Grisebach Auction (Berlin) 25-26 October, 2018, lot nr. 6.
Follower of Jacques de Gheyn III, Allegory of the Demise of Painting, early 17th century. Pen and ink, 11 5/8 x 8 1/4 inches. Grisebach Auction (Berlin) 25-26 October, 2018, lot nr. 6.

An unusual 17th-century Dutch drawing suggests that the easel painting was haunted from early on by the worry that it might be strangled by its own constraints. A female personification of Painting hangs from a gnarly tree, the tools of her trade at her feet, including a canvas, one of whose dark edges is exposed to our view. She is asphyxiated, her air cut off by a rope, her body twisting in the wind. This lonely scene, with a ladder leaning against a tree, is a suicide. It is violent but nonetheless fitting for Painting to hang herself. Paintings are meant to hang. And maybe they’re also always a little suffocated by their own edges.

That, at least, was one of the concerns that drove the Impressionists outdoors. Defender of Courbet and Impressionism, the radical critic Edmond Duranty lamented that, in “an age like ours . . . we suffocate under the weight of the creations of past centuries.”1 The Impressionists took up plein-airism as a means of escaping the limits of academic art, abandoning the convenience of their studios to go outside, paint box in hand, as if, there, they might be able to get inside the very effects of light and air they wanted to paint. Male painters, for the most part, that is. Social constraints on the free movement of women limited when and where they could work.

Impressionism, I would argue, was a form of (male) hysteria: “Hysteria: a nervous disorder . . . characterized by convulsions, by the sensation of a ball rising from the womb into the throat, and by suffocation.” 2 It was sometimes said that the womb itself suffered suffocation, more often that it was the agent of suffocation, wandering up to the lungs or throat, where it caused coughing and the fainting that made it necessary for a lady to carry smelling salts in her purse. Edgar Degas’s Portrait of a Painter in his Atelier (1879) is an allegory of this shortness of breath. As the painter tries to back up into the fresh-air fiction (the plein-airism) of his own unframed and unfinished déjeuner sur l’herbe, the tools of his trade along with Painting herself, that strangulated manikin—dead studio model for the woman reclining against a tree in the painting on the left—fill the cramped space of the atelier from which he tries to escape.

Edgar Degas, <em>Portrait of a Painter in His Atelier (Portrait of Michel-Lévy)</em>, c.1878. Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 11 inches. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.
Edgar Degas, Portrait of a Painter in His Atelier (Portrait of Michel-Lévy), c.1878. Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 11 inches. Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon.

With its splashes of orange paint to match the savage orange of the strangulating scarf, the apparatus of the painter’s box looms in the foreground. Behind it, another “box,” wearing a pink dress, slumps to the floor: the female body reduced by a misogynistic metonymy to the “box” that Freud explains in his case study of the hysteric Dora is a “substitute for the shell of Venus, for the female genitals.”3 Hysteria is a female disorder in which the body is strangled by its own “inverted” and therefore airless sex. Understood since Galen as a scrotum turned inside out, the womb threatened suffocation just as the vagina, which was said to be an inverted penis, represented castration. Hysteria becomes the male painter’s problem when this “wandering womb” threatens to strangle his creation, the easel painting, from within. Made by a man, the easel painting is like a woman, stuck at home, wearing a corset that makes it hard to breathe. Too enclosed within the edges of her domestic interior and her clothing, she cannot undertake what in the late 19th century appeared to be painting’s now necessary heroic outing into the great airy, edgeless, and unframed outdoors.

  1. Louis Edmond Duranty, “The New Painting: Concerning the Group of Artists Exhibiting at the Durand-Ruel Galleries.” (1876), reprinted and translated in The New Painting: Impressionism 1874–1886, ed. Charles S. Moffett (San Francisco: The Museums, 1986), 42.
  2. Sander Gilman, Helen King, Roy Porter, G.S. Rousseau, Roy Porter, and Elaine Showalter, Hysteria Beyond Freud (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 13.
  3. Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 69.


Amy Knight Powell

Amy Knight Powell is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (2012) and Picture Box: A Small History of the Easel Painting (forthcoming).


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2020

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