Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 2000
Ewa Lajer-Burcharth Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David After the Terror Yale University Press, 1999. 374 pp. Cloth (0300074212)

The Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 has brought in its wake perhaps the most thoroughgoing reassessment of a major artist in recent art historiography, namely Jacques-Louis David. In that year David was the subject of what must be by the same token one of the most productive conferences ever, David Contre David. Since then a flood of articles has been supplemented by a major biography by Dorothy Johnson, Thomas Crow’s Emulation, and now Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s long-awaited Necklines. For all the focus on death and dying in David’s work, this particular artist refuses to die.

Lajer-Burcharth’s distinctive contribution is to focus critical attention on David’s work after the Terror, that is to say, from the fall of Robespierre in 1794 to the rise of Napoleon in 1800. These years in the artist’s biography are often elided in favor of the more dramatic periods of the twilight of the monarchy, the dramas of the Revolution and then the heyday of the Napoleonic court. Lajer-Burcharth dramatically redresses the balance in her intense and complex book that is often illuminating, occasionally inspiring and at times infuriating. She presents David as an artist struggling with trauma and loss that he often represented in terms of gender and gender ambiguity. Hers is a David for our time, a man desperately searching for Prozac avant la lettre. In the lineage established by Lynn Hunt, Dorinda Outram and Mona Ozouf among others, the body is the key arena for the representation of this psychological drama.

However, rather than treat the body in general, Lajer-Burcharth emphasizes “an unresolved tension within the individual body” (5), namely that of the artist himself. Thus she is neatly able to reconcile traditional art historical formalism, social art history and psychoanalytic criticism into a new whole, substituting the artist’s body as the key focus rather than the artist’s work. David’s work is placed in conjunction with popular prints, medical literature, fashion and psychoanalytic interpretation. However, she stresses that: “[f]or David it was the revolutionary situation that coagulated his subjective and artistic identity through an extraordinary historically and aesthetically specific process” (303) [emphasis original]. The aesthetic is here redeemed as the locus of social and personal histories. Consequently, her emphasis is above all on detailed interpretations of David’s artistic production in her chosen period, giving as much weight to his drawings, medallions and sketches as to finished canvases. The result will change many perceptions of David’s work.

The book opens and closes with two tours-de-force of close reading. The first details and describes David’s work in prison after the fall of the Terror, using careful archival research to provide a dramatic and convincing portrait of the life of an artist fallen from grace and in imminent danger of losing his own life. Here the Terror functions as “a shadow of historically generated non-meaning” casting David’s attempt to envision the heroic Republican male body into relief. If Lajer-Burcharth’s style here is often reminiscent of T.J. Clark’s recent work on David, it is none the worse for that.

At the end of the book comes a remarkable reinterpretation of the portrait of Madame Recamier (1800), read intertextually with the Marquis de Sade, Cabanis’ theory of the body, Directory fashion, the performative aesthetics of the group of David’s students known as the Primitives, and contemporary gender theory. Among many fascinating details, Lajer-Burcharth disposes of the myth of Juliette Recamier’s frigidity, reading her instead as a “figure of seduction par excellence” (258). In this scenario of desire, Recamier comes to signify “a figure of displacement in the aesthetic universe of David,” thereby functioning not only as “an impossible portrait but also—and for that reason—an impossible self-portrait” (304). These sections are remarkably compelling reading, introducing a David who is uncannily not familiar and all the more interesting for that. In between these essays comes Lajer-Burcharth’s well-known reading of the Sabine Women, although in this version it is a rather more historical than Lacanian account. “She uses historical sources successfully to show that a large mirror was in fact placed opposite the painting during its first showing at the Louvre.” Though these are familiar, canonical paintings, readers will not look at them again without thinking of Lajer-Burcharth’s work.

Lajer-Burcharth’s intent is that her book should mark a shift away from what she calls “sociocultural mediation” in recent variants of social art history, especially that concerning David, towards “the psychocultural nature of mediation, that is, the historically specific subjective dimension of the relation between art and society” (138). On the surface, her method is inspired mostly by Lynn Hunt’s psychohistory of the French Revolution. Careful elucidation of the notes shows that her methodology is further informed by Diana Fuss’s theory of identification as the process by which history and culture enter the subject. Yet at the same time, she also draws inspiration from the antihistoricist psychoanalytic criticism of Joan Copjec, without ever quite making it clear how the different approaches can be reconciled. This methodological shortcut is perhaps the only aspect of the book that is to be regretted. Clearly the author has a precise agenda but in only hinting at its application, she may well leave the less than expert reader wondering what was said. Readers also need a more than passing familiarity with the history of the French Revolution and its impact on the arts to get the most out of the book.

It might also be worth mentioning that it seems to have taken Yale University Press an inordinate length of time to get this book into print. The text suggests that the writing was completed in 1995 but the publication was not until four years later. One cannot help but wonder how Lajer-Burcharth might have engaged with Mary Sheriff’s Lacanian feminist approach to the period in The Exceptional Woman, for example, or how the newer variants of queer theory by critics such as Lee Edelman, D.A.Miller and José Muñoz might have influenced her thoughts on masculinity. These encounters will have to wait. For now, we have a powerful and challenging book that has done what we might have thought to be impossible—force us to look yet again at David and realize that we still don’t quite know this work.

Nicholas Mirzoeff
SUNY Stony Brook