In his influential essay Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry from 1766, the German poet Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781) distinguished the spatial art form of painting from the temporal art form of literature. Since then, the media-specific distinction and the relationship between image and text have remained major topics within aesthetics.
A promising event debating this topic is the two-day conference Modern Sensibilities, taking place on 23 and 24 March at Oslo’s Munch Museum. The Dutch curator, writer and filmmaker Mieke Bal has invited art historians, cultural scientists, literary scholars and philosophers to explore and reflect on text-image relations in Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary (1856) and in the pictorial works of Edvard Munch.
The conference builds upon the Munch Museum’s current exhibition Emma & Edvard – Love in the Time of Loneliness. Curated by Bal, the exhibition weaves a dense web of connections between Flaubert’s novel, Munch’ pictures and her own adaptation of Flaubert’s novel, Madame B, presented as a multiscreen video installation dispersed throughout the museum.
Caught in the final rush of putting together the conference, Bal found time to talk to Kunstkritikk about the upcoming event, her exhibition and her position on the relationship between text and image.
Can you tell us a bit about the title of the conference, Modern Sensibilities? How do you understand the term?
I titled it thus to bring in a historical perspective, but one based not on linear chronology but on subtle cultural changes that pertained to Flaubert’s and Munch’s time. Issues such as gender relations, the search for love and its difficulties, anxiety, and the search for a new aesthetic that frees art from the burden of tradition. New sensations occurred and became experienced in the wake of the industrial revolution and other social transformations. Although these innovations in the bodily sensations of people were barely talked about, they did modify how people experienced art and literature and, conversely, how artists and writers approached their readers and spectators by means of a renewed focus on the materiality of their mediums. This was their way of sensitizing their audiences to their art.
The conference is embedded within the exhibition Emma & Edvard – Love in the Time of Loneliness, which you also curated. How are these projects related? Where do you see thematic connections between the two?
The conference was requested by the Munch Museum to explore in depth the issues that the exhibition brings up. This does justice to the integration of intellectual and artistic thinking I had pursued with the exhibition. I am not an academic dabbling in art; I am a “thinking artist” and “creative intellectual”. To persuasively make this integration I have selected works by Edvard Munch that stimulate visual thinking; works I call “theoretical objects”. This concept (coined by Hubert Damisch) indicates how artworks – visual, musical, cinematic – make such a powerful impression on the viewer, including with enigmatic aspects, and entice their audiences to reflect theoretically. Specifically, I have attempted to establish parallels between our videos and Munch’s paintings as mutually illuminating the aspects of “the cinematic”. Moreover, both Munch and Flaubert develop experiments with what we now call “abstraction”. These are all elements of the “modern sensibilities” that the conference explores.
The programme of the conference covers a wide range of approaches, from feminist and psychoanalytical readings to perspectives gleaned from culture studies and the history of ideas, to aesthetics and literature. In the exhibition catalogue, which reads more like a monograph including elaborate theoretical reflections, you offer your own account of the relationship between art and literature (and film). How would describe your position on this quite traditional question within aesthetics?
The range of speakers is meant to not go in all directions, but to demonstrate the connections between these fields, theoretical conceptions and art forms. They all develop a strand of what the exhibition puts forward. It is not so much a wide range as a multi-tentacled unit, with, as the body of the octopus, the exhibition to pull it all together. About my own position, I hope the exhibition and the publication clarify how I put forward that art, literature, philosophy, moving and still images, and more, are best not separated, isolated – for “culture” integrates them all. The book is what you call a monograph, not a catalogue. This seemed an appropriate shift of focus from the traditional format. You call this question traditional, and then you ask which theorists and schools I follow. That is how you make the question traditional. I follow no theorists or schools, but in this domain, too, I integrate. I have been inspired by Derrida to undermine binary oppositions; by Deleuze to see abstraction as the promise of new forms, rather than the rejection of forms; by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas to think through the notion of the “unthought known”. And the speakers have been selected also for their contributions to the thinking that underlies the exhibition.
It is apparent in the exhibition and in the catalogue that you seek to challenge traditional interpretations of Munch’s art. Do you see the conference as a further contribution to this re-evaluation process, and if so, in which way?
I don’t particularly seek to challenge specific interpretations but rather to estrange visitors from the habitual. Recognizing what you (think you) know prevents a fresh look; a truly visual encounter with the art. This is also why I have insisted on benches in front of many paintings. I wanted to encourage contemplative looking; not the quick fixes of recognizing works. The conference as a whole will promote such a fresh look. I think Munch deserves more than the reiteration of the same. It is the constant experimentation with styles, combined with obsessively repeated motifs, that I find so challenging and enriching.
It appears that you like to keep ontologies flat: art and life; painting, film and literature; curating, scholarship and artmaking – these disciplines and fields all seem to permeate each other in your practice. Why is this important to you?
Because the culture we live in, share, and thrive on is not based on divisions such as these. As an art worker, my domain is the social world. I work to assist people to approach, encounter, and be enriched by art; not to continue dividing the world into such oppositional fields.
How did you select your speakers for the conference panel? Which criteria were important to you?
I selected colleagues of whom I knew they had innovative contributions to make to the understanding of the exhibition and the art in it. There were only a few slots; so I tried to make sure they would not repeat one another. Griselda Pollock is a brilliant pioneer of feminist art history; she also has a great specialized knowledge of van Gogh and the subsequent modernist tradition in art. I knew she would combine these two domains. Ernst van Alphen combines a historical sensibility with a keen eye for details in texts and images, which he then integrates into the broader picture. Jonathan Culler is a master of clarity without simplification; I consider him the best Flaubert scholar around. Kristin Gjesdal knows the philosophical Munch; her analysis of the sensibilities of Munch and Ibsen to issues – positive and problematic – of love will illuminate these outside of the standard view. Miguel Ángel Hernández Navarro is a keen scholar of modern and contemporary art who also writes novels; he connects this exhibition to the following, which seemed a useful way to make sense of the Munch Museum’s long-term programme. And Patricia Berman, who will lead the final discussion, is one of the finest Munch scholars. As you can tell from this brief presentation, they converge; but I don’t follow any of them in particular.