Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubble, 1733 (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Michael Fried writes:

In the Soap Bubble the transparent, slightly distended globe at the tip of the young man’s blowpipe seems almost to swell and tremble before our eyes; in the Card Castle the youth placing a card in position appears on the verge of drawing back his hand; while in the Game of Knucklebones a single moment has been isolated in all its plentitude and density from an absorptive continuum the full extent of which the painting masterfully evokes. Images such as these are not of time wasted but of time filled (as a glass may be filled not just to the level of the rim but slightly above). Whatever their iconographic precedents or even their actual symbolic connotations, they embody a new, unmoralized vision of distraction as a vehicle of absorption; or perhaps one should say of that vision that it distills, from the most ordinary states and activities, an unofficial morality according to which absorption emerges as a good in and of itself, without regard to its occasion; or perhaps it is simply that Chardin found in the absorption of his figures both a natural correlative for his own engrossment in the act of painting and a proleptic mirroring of what he trusted would be the absorption of the viewer before the work.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Card Castle, 1737 (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Michael Fried writes:

By virtue of fronting the beholder and what is more opening toward him, the drawer serves to enforce a distinction between the beholder’s point of view and perception of the scene as a whole and the quite different point of view and limited, exclusive focus of the youth balancing the cards. There is even a sense in which the contrast between the two cards — one facing the beholder, the other blankly turned away from him — may be seen as an epitome of the contrast between the surface of the painting, which of course faces the beholder, and the absorption of the youth in his delicate undertaking, a state of mind that is essentially inward, concentrated, closed…

Chardin’s paintings of games and amusements, in fact all his genre paintings, are also remarkable for their uncanny power to suggest the actual duration of the absorptive states and activities they represent. Some such power necessarily characterizes all persuasive depictions of absorption, none of which would be persuasive if it did not at least convey the idea that the state or activity in question was sustained for a certain length of time. But Chardin’s genre paintings, like Vermeer’s before him, go much further than that. By a technical feat which virtually defies analysis… they come close to translating literal duration, the actual passage of time as one stands before the canvas, into a purely pictorial effect: as if the very stability and unchangingness of the painted image are perceived by the beholder not as material properties that could not be otherwise but as manifestations of an absorptive state — the image’s absorption in itself, so to speak — that only happens to subsist. The result, paradoxcially, is that stability and unchangingness are endowed to an astonishing degree with the power to conjure an illusion of imminent or gradual or even fairly abrupt change.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Game of Knucklebones, 1734 (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Michael Fried writes:

The special character of Chardin’s achievement is perhaps the most evident in his depictions of children and young people playing games or engaged in apparently trivial amusements — for example, The Soap Bubble, The Game of Knucklebones, and The Card Castle. This is true despite the fact that it is not at all clear to what extent Chardin himself intended such paintings to be seen as Vanitas images, as has been suggested by various scholars on the strength both of an earlier tradition in which genre scenes and still lifes were invested with symbolic significance and of the moralizing verses that were often appended to contemporary engravings after Chardin’s canvases. Other scholars have resisted the suggestion, seeing in Chardin’s art the liquidation rather than the continuation of a moralizing tradition and insisting that the cast of mind at work in the verses is alien to the paintings themselves. However one resolves this question in one’s own mind, and there is much to be said for both positions, two observations seem to me of crucial importance. First, it is impossible to distinguish the least difference in Chardin’s attitude toward his subject matter between the pictures of games and amusements on the one hand and ostensibly more serious or morally exemplary scenes on the other. And second, far from seeming to have wished to characterize the activities depicted in the former as shallow pastimes or mere distractions, Chardin appears to have been struck precisely by the depth of absorption which those activities have tended naturally to elicit from those engaged in them. At any rate, he appears to have done all he could to make that depth of absorption manifest to the beholder, most importantly by singling out in each picture at least one salient detail that functions as a sign of the figure’s obliviousness to everything but the operation he or she is intent upon performing. Thus in the Soap Bubble our attention is caught by the tear in the young man’s jacket; in the Game of Knucklebones by the upper corner of the young woman’s apron that has become unpinned; and in the Card Castle, in the immediate foreground, by the negligently half-opened drawer containing a pair of playing cards.

Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks on Don Quixote, the unfinished film by Orson Welles. The excerpt from the film, which Giorgio Agamben has called “The Six Most Beautiful Minutes in the History of Cinema,” rolls from 4.29.

Giorgio Agamben writes:

Sancho Panza enters a cinema in a provincial city. He is looking for Don Quixote and finds him sitting off to the side, staring at the screen. The theater is almost full; the balcony — which is a sort of giant terrace — is packed with raucous children. After several unsuccessful attempts to reach Don Quixote, Sancho reluctantly sits down in one of the lower seats, next to a little girl (Dulcinea?), who offers him a lollipop. The screening has begun; it is a costume film: on the screen, knights in armor are riding along. Suddenly, a woman appears; she is in danger. Don Quixote abruptly rises, unsheaths his sword, rushes toward the screen, and, with several lunges, begins to shred the cloth. The woman and the knights are still visible on the screen, but the black slash opened by Don Quixote’s sword grows ever larger, implacably devouring the images. In the end, nothing is left of the screen, and only the wooden structure supporting it remains visible. The outraged audience leaves the theater, but the children on the balcony continue their fanatical cheers for Don Quixote. Only the little girl down on the floor stares at him in disapproval.

What are we to do with our imaginations? Love them and believe in them to the point of having to destroy and falsify them (this is perhaps the meaning of Orson Welles’s films). But when, in the end, they reveal themselves to be empty and unfulfilled, when they show the nullity of which they are made, only then can we pay the price for their truth and understand that Dulcinea — whom we have saved — cannot love us.

Henri Matisse, Face (Claudie), 1949 (Private Collection).
Giorgio Agamben writes:


…Iranian angelology… gives the guardian angel its most limpid and astonishing formulation. According to this doctrine, an angel called a daena, who has the form of a very beautiful young girl, presides over the birth of each man. The daena is the celestial archetype in whose likeness each individual has been created, as well as the silent witness who accompanies and observes us at every moment. And yet the angel’s face changes over time. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, it is imperceptibly transformed with our every gesture, word, and thought. Thus, at the moment of death, the soul is met by its angel, which has been transfigured by the soul’s conduct into either a more beautiful creature or a horrendous demon. It then whispers: “I am your daena, the one who has been formed by your thoughts, your words, and your, deeds.” In a vertiginous reversal, our life molds and outlines the archetype in whose image we are created.

Henri Matisse, Face (Claudie), 1949 (Private Collection).

Giorgio Agamben writes:

…Iranian angelology… gives the guardian angel its most limpid and astonishing formulation. According to this doctrine, an angel called a daena, who has the form of a very beautiful young girl, presides over the birth of each man. The daena is the celestial archetype in whose likeness each individual has been created, as well as the silent witness who accompanies and observes us at every moment. And yet the angel’s face changes over time. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, it is imperceptibly transformed with our every gesture, word, and thought. Thus, at the moment of death, the soul is met by its angel, which has been transfigured by the soul’s conduct into either a more beautiful creature or a horrendous demon. It then whispers: “I am your daena, the one who has been formed by your thoughts, your words, and your, deeds.” In a vertiginous reversal, our life molds and outlines the archetype in whose image we are created.

Chaim Soutine, Portrait of a Boy, 1928 (National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Giorgio Agamben writes:

To some extent we all come to terms with Genius, with what resides in us but does not belong to us. Each person’s character is engendered by the way he attempts to turn away from Genius, to flee from him. Genius, to the extent that he has been avoid­ed and left unexpressed, inscribes a grimace on Ego’s face. An author’s style — like the grace displayed by any creature­ — depends less on his genius than on the part of him that is deprived of genius, his character. That is why when we love someone we actually love neither his genius nor his character (and even less his ego) but his special manner of evading both of these poles, his rapid back-and-forth between genius and character.

Chaim Soutine, Portrait of Paulette, 1924 (private collection).

Giorgio Agamben writes:

The life that maintains the tension between the personal and the impersonal, between Ego and Genius, is called poetic. But the feeling that occurs when Genius exceeds us on every side is called panic — panic at something that comes over us and is infinitely greater than what we believe ourselves able to bear. For this reason, most people flee in terror before the part of themselves that is impersonal, or else they seek hypocritically to reduce it to their own minuscule stature. What is rejected as impersonal, then, can reappear in the form of symptoms and tics that are even more impersonal, or grimaces that are even more excessive.

Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait II (after the Life Mask of William Blake), 1955 (Tate Modern).

Giorgio Agamben writes:

It has been said that spirituality is above all an awareness that the individuated being is not completely individuated but still contains a certain non-individuated share of reality, which must be not only preserved but also respected and, in a way, even honored, as one honors one’s debts. But Genius is not merely spirituality and is not just concerned with the things that we customarily regard as higher and more noble. Everything in us that is impersonal is genial. The force that pushes the blood through our veins or that plunges us into sleep, the unknown power in our body that gently regulates and distributes its warmth or that relaxes or contracts the fibers of our muscles­ — that too is genial. It is Genius that we obscurely sense in the intimacy of our physiological life, in which what is most one’s own is also strange and impersonal, and in which what is nearest somehow remains distant and escapes mastery. If we did not abandon ourselves to Genius, if we were only ego and consciousness, we would not even be able to urinate. Living with Genius means, in this sense, living in the intimacy of a strange being, remaining constantly in relation to a zone of non-consciousness. But this zone of non-consciousness is not repression; it does not shift or displace an experience from consciousness to the unconscious, where this experience would be sedimented as a troubling past, waiting to resurface in symptoms and neuroses. This intimacy with a zone of non-consciousness is an everyday mystical practice, in which the ego, in a sort of special, joyous esotericism, looks on with a smile at its own undoing and, whether it’s a matter of digesting food or illuminating the mind, testifies incredulously to its own incessant dissolution and disappearance. Genius is our life insofar as it does not belong to us.

Gerda Taro, Onboard the Jaime I, ‘the Spanish Battleship Potemkin,’ Almería, 1937.

Bertolt Brecht writes:

Our concept of what is popular refers to a people who not only play a full part in historical development but actively usurp it, force its pace, determine its direction. We have a people in mind who make history, change the world and themselves. We have in mind a fighting people and therefore an aggressive concept of what is popular.

Kathe Kollwitz, The Volunteers, 1921-22 (MOMA).

Bertolt Brecht writes:

Realistic means: discovering the causal complexes of society / unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power / writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up / emphasizing the element of development / making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it.