Body Language: “Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition”

On the first page of Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition, Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen explains that her project was “sparked by a simple formal observation: in European art in the decades before 1900, the body language in depictions of the human figure changed.” By “simple,” Butterfield-Rosen means that these changes would be perceptible to anyone strolling through a chronologically sequenced gallery of nineteenth-century art. Painters working in the earlier decades of the 1800s tended to maintain post-Renaissance techniques for portraying lifelike bodies, such as foreshortening, sculptural modeling, and ponderation (the body’s capacity to balance its weight through breaks or twists along its vertical axis). These naturalist conventions helped establish more convincing pictorial dramas, since they made it appear as if painted figures were subject to the same physical and psychological forces as an artwork’s beholders. Over time, artistic styles changed, but assumptions about how best to represent the human body persisted much the same. Then, toward the end of the nineteenth century, artists began to abandon these classical techniques. Depicted bodies looked different as a result. Human forms became flattened and stylized, sapped of animation, individuality, and physical heft. Art historians and art lovers will have already noticed this shift, but Butterfield-Rosen’s study represents the first concerted effort to explain why such a change in figural art occurred when it did, and to interpret the aesthetic and philosophical significance of this new bodily grammar.

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The book’s thesis is that the late nineteenth-century abandonment of bodily forms disposed within perspectival space “enabled the materialization of novel ideas about the human psyche,” which in turn called into question the prestige of the humanistic subject, and maybe even the concept of consciousness itself. To make her case, Butterfield-Rosen provides readers with a general introduction to the history of human disposition (both mental and physical) within the visual arts, followed by three studies of paradigmatic works by the Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat, the Vienna Secessionist Gustav Klimt, and the dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, respectively. Each chapter functions as a self-sufficient unit, but they are connected through a “structure of analogies,” which includes shared motifs and gestures or relevant contemporaneous developments in the fields of art history, archaeology, psychology, and evolutionary biology.

Out of all these intellectual resources, the book’s most important inspiration comes from the work of nineteenth-century Danish art historian Julius Lange, credited with coining the word “frontality” in the early 1890s. The concept of frontality gained currency in twentieth-century criticism of modernist abstraction, and Butterfield-Rosen aims to restore the “figural derivation of the word” in Lange’s pioneering research. According to Lange, frontality—or an artist’s fidelity to the represented body’s vertical axis and the avoidance of obliquity or torsion—was visual art’s “default condition,” since, he argued, archaic or so-called primitive art, irrespective of place or culture, shares this characteristic. With the rise of naturalism in Classical Greek statuary (think of the shift from the Archaic Kouros to the classicized Kritios Boy), art history experienced an epochal break. Bodies in art now appeared as actual human bodies might, arranged in postures that reflect a subject’s responsiveness to both external forces, such as gravity, and internal ones, such as intentionality. Lange named this Post-Classical figure le moi—the subject of reflective consciousness. During the Renaissance, this new sculpted figure found its footing within the illusionistic space of painting. In Butterfield-Rosen’s view, the primitivist return to frontality in later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art registers the increasing awareness of alternative, more ancient figural forms to the classical ideal, which modernist painters encountered in museum displays or art history textbooks, and then redeployed in order to represent new models of subjectivity.

Georges Seurat: Study for Poseuses, 1886–87, Conté crayon on laid paper, 8.86 by 11.69 inches. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Butterfield-Rosen’s Seurat chapter should be mandatory reading for students of nineteenth-century art. She provides original insights into Seurat’s manifesto painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte (1884), a pointillist depiction of Parisians enjoying weekend sunshine on the banks of the Seine, and she also develops the most comprehensive examination to date of the painter’s deadpan follow-up, Les Poseuses (1886–88), which depicts three nude artist’s models in three different poses—one dorsal, one frontal, and one profile—in the artist’s studio. With respect to this latter painting, Butterfield-Rosen notices an ambiguity in the meaning of the figures’ artful postures. On the one hand, the central front-facing model evokes an ancient figure of thought—or rather, a Classical sculpture in the collection of the Louvre of an ancient thinker, Demosthenes—such that this depicted figure seems to preside over the artist’s studio space as a substitute for the thinking artist, “half-defiant, and half-mournful, perhaps.” On the other hand, Seurat’s presence is perceived everywhere within his work. We see partial views of his earlier painting, La Grande Jatte. We can identify all the models’ individual poses as discrete art historical citations of ancient sculptural prototypes, and then also recognize a Classical source for their triadic arrangement: the Three Graces. Finally, we know from Seurat’s contemporaries that he was a bit of a control freak, allegedly leaving nothing in his work to chance. As a result, the central figure oscillates between appearing in an active pose she chose for herself and a more passive one that the artist selected for her. In either case, the viewer squares off with this model from the same position once occupied by the painter, thereby also functioning as a surrogate Seurat.

Detail of Gustav Klimt’s Beethovenfries at the Secession Building, Vienna, Austria. Courtesy Secession, Vienna.

Similar tensions surrounding artistic control and intersubjectivity recur in the work of all three of Butterfield-Rosen’s protagonists. Klimt, for his part, expected his viewers to “look at my pictures attentively and try from them to recognize what I am and what I am about.” This is no small feat for beholders of the Beethovenfries (1901), Klimt’s monumental decorative frieze and quasi-illustration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he designed for the Vienna Secession building. Klimt’s work is jam-packed with iconographic oddities. Butterfield-Rosen pays particular attention to its creaturely forms, its series of wiggly, hovering female figures, and, finally, the pair of simian-ish faces (aptly described as “golden emojis”) that levitate above Klimt’s now iconic kissing couple. By comparing the buoyant eroticism of Klimt’s Beethovenfries with the freighted contemplativeness of Max Klinger’s Beethoven (1902)—a massive sculptural tribute to the same composer, also exhibited at the Secession—Butterfield-Rosen teases out a series of critical inversions underlying Klimt’s vision. She views his Beethovenfries as a celebration of ornamental painting over the fine art tableau; free-floating unconscious states over brooding forms of thought; and Darwinian aesthetics over Kantian ideals.

Like Klimt, Nijinsky also made interpretative demands upon his viewers: “I know what an eye is. An eye is the theater. The brain is the audience. I am the eye in the brain.” In the case of L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912), the dance at the center of Butterfield-Rosen’s Nijinsky chapter, the choreographer composed a ballet of a faun’s frustrated seduction of a nymph in the style of an “archaic bas-relief.” In practice, this meant that his performers had to learn to restrict their movements so as to affirm their relationship to the dance’s relief-plane: the backdrop. For Nijinsky, the theatrical stage no longer functioned as a deep space in which dancers formed compelling relationships or broke out into exhibitionist turns. Rather, it served as a shallow band of ground sufficient only for stylized, schematic action. This too was an exhibitionist form of dance, but with a few differences. By preventing his dancers from arranging themselves in depth, Nijinsky diminished the presence of internal spectatorship within his dance, such as in banquet scenes of classical storybook ballets, in which corps members encircle soloists and principals as they pair up and show off. In so doing, Nijinsky, like Seurat, foregrounded “the primary relationship between the faun and the audience,” as opposed to that of the faun and the nymphs. Additionally, Butterfield-Rosen interprets the erotic content of L’Après-midi and its choreographic sublimation into artful poses of bodily stiffness through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic account of exhibitionism and dream interpretation.

Nijinsky as the Faun with Flore Revalles as Tall Nymph in L’Après-midi d’un faune, 1916, New York, New York. Photo Karl Struss/Courtesy New York Public Library

In short, all three protagonists in Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition were preoccupied with managing spectators’ attention, which they accomplished through archaizing techniques of figuration. Their frontally posed bodies did not sustain the Classical fiction of psychic depth, because they were too stylized and their poses alluded to too many other works of art. As a result, mindedness was displaced from the actions of represented figures disposed within a painting and onto the pictorial representation as a whole. Viewers had to interpret the thoughts and motivations of Seurat, Klimt, and Nijinsky, not those of posers, lovers, and nymphs. Given the apparent vacancy of all these flattened figures, Butterfield-Rosen argues that modernist forms of frontality ran parallel with contemporaneous shifts in the status of the human subject in fin-de-siècle philosophy and science. In her words, “postural antinaturalism can be seen as instituting naturalism of a different kind . . . a visual sign for acknowledging the ‘naturalization of mind.’” No longer an ideal medium of conscious thought, the mind became a purely physical thing: a brain.

Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition by Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen, University of Chicago Press, 2021; 352 pages, 30 color and 94 black-and-white illustrations, $55 hardcover.

It is here that readers confront one potential limitation to this impressive book. In her effort to elaborate her exquisite structure of analogies, Butterfield-Rosen occasionally neglects the possibility that this same stylistic shift could mean different, or even contradictory, things. Consider Maurice Denis’s polemical essay “Définition du néo-traditionnisme” (1890), which makes a cameo appearance in Butterfield-Rosen’s introduction. Denis sets off by reminding his reader that “a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or any given anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order.” Scholars often read this statement forward, as if Denis anticipated a future of total abstraction. Following Butterfield-Rosen, it will be clear that this reading is overly hasty. Sure enough, Denis’s essay sought to rescue the painted figure from the same Post-Renaissance naturalistic criteria that Seurat, Klimt, and Nijinsky also abandoned in their work, which is why Butterfield-Rosen quotes the following from Denis’s essay: “‘Art, it’s when things turn,’ another confused definition.” What is left out of Butterfield-Rosen’s citation, however, are Denis’s specific reasons for finding this classical concept of art misguided, which conflict with her interpretations.

For Denis, Impressionism represented the latest expression of the centuries-old naturalistic imperative, since it fostered an “eclectic and exclusive habit of interpreting optical sensations,” which meant that beholders were expected to judge a painting’s meaning and a painter’s identity (“l’ipséité du peintre”) by the same criterion. The Naturalist novelist Émile Zola captured this Impressionist sentiment best: “Art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament.” Denis rejected traditional naturalist orthodoxy—be true to external nature—and its post-Impressionist redefinition—be true to your true nature. Instead, he championed more aestheticized forms of figuration. “The grandest art, which we call decorative, of the Indians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the superior works of modern art,” he claimed, all shared a common aim: “the transformation (travestissement) of vulgar sensations—natural objects—into sacred, hermetic, and imposing icons.” Like Seurat, Klimt, and Nijinsky, Denis recovered models for new forms of “postural anti-naturalism” from archaic art, but he did so while rejecting the scientific picture of mindedness that Butterfield-Rosen argues her case studies affirm. Crucially, as Alison Morehead has documented in her important study of Symbolism, Denis developed this Neo-Traditionist project as a consequence of his interest in experimental science, not in spite of it. He was therefore an active participant in the art historical and intellectual transformations that Butterfield-Rosen’s book seeks to explain, but his project remains inassimilable to her thesis.

To the author’s credit, Modernism and the Remaking of Human Disposition never forecloses alternative explanations. Instead, Butterfield-Rosen concludes elliptically, which is to say that she concludes without any concluding chapter. One senses in this gesture an acknowledgment that the complex work of understanding her “simple formal observation” is still ongoing. Such is the effect of a breakthrough.

This article appears under the title “Body Language” in the November/December 2021 issue, pp. 32–36.