Academic year 2007-08


facture and theory building

Thursday 29 May, 10.00 - 12.00, Research Forum South Room

Texts: Joseph Koerner, “Factura,” Res 36 (1999): 5-19; Michael Baxandall, “Material” and “Period Eye,” in The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (London: Yale University Press, 1980), 27-48; 143-163.

Present: Matthew Hunter, Francesco Lucchini, Joanna Woodall, Caroline Arscott, Liz Reissner.

After reading over the synopsis of the previous meeting, we began our discussion of Joseph Koerner’s “Factura” and two chapters from Michael Baxandall’s Limewood Sculptors. FL explained his choice of these two pieces as proximate to his won interest in the question of how to make theory out of facture—to make meaning out of making—while also observing that he thought the Baxandall was much more successful than the Koerner. This launched a discussion of what Koerner really means by factura. JW suggested that it was close to Latour’s notion of mediation. Others noted how he seems to sketch, if not really articulate, how accounts of facture might move beyond the connoisseurial and ultimately nostalgic lure of proximity to the artist’s body. It was generally agreed that working from the data of making was important but insufficient to art historical interpretation broadly speaking. MH asked if the kind of contextual framework offered by Baxandall in his appeal to the kinds of mercantile skills first introduced in Painting and Experience really constituted a convincing matrix with which to forge factura into larger interpretation. While FL said that it was precisely this point (i.e. “The Period Eye”) that felt most Baroque or overwrought to him, CA suggested that we see this book as actually loosening its grip. What we see here, she urged, was Baxandall emphasizing the disjunction between the complex sculptures he’s analyzing and the grids or formulae set out in Painting and Experience. This led back to the question of the examples used by Koerner in his text: are they deeply generative of their theory as they seem to be in Baxandall? Or are they merely emblematic of perhaps entirely independent ideas? MH proposed an account of the metaphorics of factura in the two texts; while, as thematized around his reading of factura as “noise,” Koerner’s text might be seen in relation to the metaphors of the playing of a vinyl record where the pressure between image and materiality or object and beholder creates the frictional action of factura whereas in Baxandall what’s interesting in factura emerges through metaphors of wood and cellular growth—from the inside out. CA offered a very compelling reading of Koerner’s work—and this piece specifically, with its focus on the Ghent altarpiece—that stressed the importance of the tension between the heavenly and the embodied, fallen experience of beholding. So CA claimed, Koerner’s argument is that what is interesting about painting ca. 1400-1850 is the tension or conflict between the ambition to illusion and the intractable fact of embodied vision. Factura for Koerner is a relation to the body, which changes from the premodernity of Van Eyck to the modernity of Menzel (his two key examples in this text). The strapped binocular case depicted by Menzel then became key to our discussion. Is it a fetish? Or does this whip-like arabesque and the receptacle to which it is connected signal a new kind of relation of thing to the modern body—insofar as (a la Jonathan Crary) it is a technology of vision that brings the spectator out of their internalized, camera-obscura regime of visuality and into a distanced, fragmented model of modernist embodiment? The debt of this claim to Heidegger was considered; is Koerner trying to negate Heidegger’s model of the thing while celebrating things in a very Heideggerian way? JW proposed that we see a shift in factura from Van Eyck to Menzel as a movement from object to viewer. This led to a discussion of factura as manifested in painters like Titian and Cezanne with LR raising the question of exactly what differentiated the marks of making in the two painters. Recalling Koerner’s discussion of Rembrandt’s late canvasses and their proximity to shit along with Philip Sohm’s reading of Titian’s “stains,” MH suggested that whereas premodern facture—with its implication of the body—always risked becoming abject, the modernist discourse of faktura positioned it as an instance of liberation, transcendence. CA revised this, saying it was less that modernist facture was transcendent than that it was purely material because somehow detached from the fragmented modernist body. However, it was collectively agreed that such arguments might or might not be entirely convincing when confronted with a Jackson Pollock. We concluded the session by trying to reconcile what we had learned about factura with the earlier discussions of technology, traps, and enchantment. Could it be said that a clever object discloses some but not all of its making? Or, that it shows itself in a way that reveals its dazzling intelligence to the viewer while nonetheless continuing to trap or overwhelm the beholder—to work as an agent—rather than allowing the viewer to escape and see it as mere despicable trickery (i.e. the BL trompe l’oeil)?