Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 3, 2017
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Beate Söntgen, eds. Interiors and Interiority Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016. 498 pp.; 25 color ills.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $140.00 (9783110340433)

Is interiority a place or a state of mind? According to Ewa Lajer-Burcharth and Beate Söntgen, the editors of Interiors and Interiority, we are wrong to pose the question as “either-or”; even “both-and” is an insufficiently capacious answer. Backed up by twenty-two essays, mostly by German and U.S. scholars, Lajer-Burcharth and Söntgen argue that the relationship between interiors and interiority is not limited to private spaces and individual psychology but engages just as ineluctably with complex dynamics of performativity, cultural mobility, technology, and material agency. Such an encompassing topic must hold, at the same time, an uncertain status, as it implies neither a single academic subfield nor a unitary set of theoretical commitments. A glance at the index gives a sense of the remarkable disjunctions in this book: “Aesop” cozies up to “Akerman, Chantal,” and “Cassavetes, John” to “Cats”—not, in this case, the entire family of felines, the domestic (or interior) animal par excellence, but Jacob Cats, the seventeenth-century Dutch poet. Are these juxtapositions throughout the volume instructive, or merely odd? Do they transcend the unexpected to become truly revelatory? In many ways, the organization of the book reflects the instability of natural categories for the overall topic—which is just another way of saying that reading across the five sections established by the editors allows alternate discourses to come into relief. Each reader will no doubt find distinct patterns of affinity among the essays and may well privilege different points of emphasis than those called out in this review.

Lajer-Burcharth and Söntgen have found a welcome balance between masculine and feminine spaces, not allowing the domestic interior to be cast, as cliché would have it, as always or necessarily feminized. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Paul Cézanne, and Louis XV are just some of the surprising men who appear in this book’s interiors. Indeed, even the biological discourse that pervades certain contributions to the volume is not exclusively feminine. While readers do get their share of women as reproductive vessels—notably in Söntgen’s essay on Pieter de Hooch’s Mother at a Cradle (1659/60), in Holger Kuhn’s essay on Quentin Massys’s Gold Weigher and His Wife (1514), and in Katharina Sykora’s piece on Birgit Jürgenssen and skin—male metabolism comes to the fore in Wolfgang Kemp’s virtuosic and eccentric reflection on creative destruction and heat/energy conservation in 1840s paintings of artist interiors.

Media permeability, another strong theme of the volume, emerges in Brigid Doherty’s lengthy meditation on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Rodin lecture. While it might be tempting to think of the cross-media phenomenon as being largely dependent on recent technical advances in film and video, the Rilke example offers a low-tech version. Given without slides, his lecture on Rodin made an apparatus of the listener’s body, with the eyes serving metaphorically as the lenses of a magic lantern. In short, Rilke’s audience became, collectively, a medium—at a time when Rodin’s sculptural work was widely disseminated through photographs, and when the slide lecture was already standard in university art-history courses.

Psychological metaphors surface most prominently in Johannes Grave’s essay on Goethe’s “thing-based and image-based culture of remembrance” (80) at his home in Weimar; in Julie Park’s positioning of Margaret Cavendish’s work as an overlooked source of “novelistic interiority” (120); in Anne Hemdenkreis’s essay on Vilhelm Hammershøi’s deserted interiors; and in Lajer-Burcharth’s piece on Akerman’s Là-bas (2006), in which the camera’s point of view, discontinuous with that of the filmmaker, destabilizes the notion of the “self-same self” (446) according to a principle Lajer-Burcharth calls “internal othering” (452). The latter example in particular serves as an acute reminder that the question of being oneself at home—or making oneself at home—is never anodyne. By custom, the interior has often been assumed as an authentic space, one in which our need to fashion elective personae for public display can go off duty, as it were. (This brings to mind a friend of my grandparents who always made a point of showing up to their house unexpected, uninvited, so he could see how they “really” lived—i.e., when they were not having company.) Stefanie Diekmann’s piece on theater backstages in film addresses this issue head-on: “If you want to know what is inside (or: what goes on inside) go to the dressing room” (97). As the site of breakdowns, confessions, and dramatic character revelations, the theater backstage does boast a quasi-mythic status in cinema. Yet even within this conceit of an acted drama, the film camera, by the very fact of penetrating an off-limits space, has already compromised the authenticity it purports to reveal. In similar fashion, the German photographic interiors that Franziska Brons discusses, from the early years of the twentieth century, became framing devices unto themselves, “cast[ing] considerable doubt on the assumption that a person’s inner dispositions would exist independently of the devices developed and used to render them exterior. Instead interiority would figure as at least partly produced and effected by the media employed to communicate it” (276–77). This conundrum bedevils many of the supposed windows onto the interior self—not unlike Hammershøi’s opaque glass panes—that must ultimately be exposed as fictions.

Although that theme echoes throughout the volume, its most urgently contemporary sting comes in Katrin Grögel’s piece on Andrea Zittel’s Small Liberties (2006). Zittel’s confining interiors, designed to enable new forms of individual empowerment within a severely limited living space, become subject to a different set of pressures when they migrate to public gallery spaces. But the transformation of these environments into museum exhibits is just the first step along the way to what Grögel describes as a fully despatialized mode of self-narration. In the now all-too-familiar social-media landscape, Zittel’s PowerPoints, diaries, and web-based documentary practices threaten to render the “true” interior life unknowable even as they ostensibly dissolve the boundary between interior and exterior. In direct analogy to the mirrored wall in Dan Graham’s Alteration to a Suburban House (1978), Zittel’s photographic diary claims to make visible an interior that is in fact mere backdrop to self-fictionalization. (Indeed, mirrors hold one of the starring roles in this volume, as a kind of ultimate metaphor and throughline.)

Other “designs for living” discussed in these pages—baths (in Mimi Hellman’s essay), the grotto at Trianon (in Etienne Jollet’s)—remind readers that the impulse to transform, manipulate, or otherwise renegotiate the relation to one’s lived environment was already alive and well in the ancien régime. Or perhaps dead and well is the more apposite phrase in the case of Catherine Girard’s astonishing essay on the “massacres”—deformed stags’ antlers, both painted and real—that adorned Louis XV’s private rooms and courtyard at Versailles. Among the surprising absences in the book, however, is any example of crowded interiors. Throughout, interiority is mostly synonymous with solitude, apart from Charles-Antoine Coypel’s Louvre studio as an instance of sociability gone wrong (the subject of Katie Scott’s essay); few couples or families make an appearance. A notable exception is Robin Schuldenfrei’s intimate portrayal of daily life in the Tugendhat House designed by Mies van der Rohe, an architect who envisioned the domestic interior as a private retreat from the rough-and-tumble modern city. But what about slave quarters and tenements as counterweights to Mies’s haut-bourgeois dwellings and Marie-Antoinette’s grotto? Surely such omissions are not meant to suggest that there is no interiority there?

Only one essay seems to lie plainly outside the rubric—and that is Benjamin Buchloh’s, a richly layered reflection on Gerhard Richter’s Tisch (1962) that one would not want to see disappear. All the same, some resonances among the essays go underexploited. Despite the double reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman at a Window of 1822 (in Hemdenkreis and Lajer-Burcharth), neither analysis engages with, let alone acknowledges, the other. Minutely symptomatic of this same pattern of non-dialogue are the separate index listings for “Alighieri, Dante” and “Dante, Aligheri” [sic]. In a volume that grew out of a two-part conference—Radcliffe in 2011, Berlin in 2012—essays might be expected to talk to each other more directly than they do. Certainly the editors are right to rely on readers to draw connections on their own, but disclosing some whispers of debate between the various authors could have enriched the reader’s experience yet further.

Still, the semi-introverted quality of the essays, most of which amount to close readings of single works, is compensated for overall by the powerful claims to topical urgency. It is not just the insights offered into how we got here—“here” meaning the gloomy present, in which people hold forth on cell phones in subway cars and sidewalks full of strangers as if in a private living room, or post moments of once-private life for public (even anonymous) consumption. These scenes from contemporary life are by now so routine as to have become banal. More crucial may be the realization that the interior is no longer that special place we go to in order to feel safe and secure from the “outside” world. On the contrary, the interior seems to be everywhere. And yet—this generous and original book suggests—as our digitalized, globalized selves scatter, pulverizing traditional notions of place and identity, we seem less and less certain how to find our way back inside.

Anne Leonard
Curator and Interim Senior Director of Academic and Curatorial Initiatives, Smart Museum of Art; Lecturer, Department of Art History, University of Chicago