Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat’s choice of a title for her book echoes that of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological examination of the relations between reflection, dialectic and intuition (1964) and also that of Krzysztof Pomian’s study (1978) of the mediation between the visible and the invisible in collecting and language. Instead of taking these approaches to Dutch painting, however, her titular terms denote two quite literal characteristics of seventeenth-century Dutch genre and history painting. Part I, “Sichtbares wird unsichtbar: Geschlechterkonstruktion bei Rembrandt” (“The Visible Becomes Invisible: Gender Construction in Rembrandt”), is explicitly situated within the context of gender studies. It demonstrates the invisibility, though not disappearance, of the male protagonist in depictions of sexual encounters, such that the female protagonist’s body becomes the site and the apparent subject of sexuality. Focusing on scenes of seduction, coercion, sexual intercourse, and desirous expectation in Rembrandt’s paintings – Susanna, Bathsheba, Lucretia, Danaë, a woman in bed, and Potiphar’s wife – the author argues, in partial agreement with Mieke Bal and others, that Rembrandt granted his female protagonists interiority and subjectivity; some of them positively valued sexual desire. However, she also emphasizes that such granting necessitated Rembrandt’s replacement of the male protagonist by the mere indication of his presence as disembodied light, notably in the Danaë. She links this “invisibility” to a patriarchal gender economy framing and containing female subjectivity such that it produces a gendered mind/spirit-body hierarchy and a model of masculinity guarding the patriarchal order. Such a model persisted, as Hammer-Tugendhat has argued elsewhere, all the way to ca. 1900, when Gustav Klimt early in his career absented the male figure from his art henceforth dedicated, in continually controversial ways, solely to the female subject.
Especially in Part 1 Hammer-Tugendhat relies on a Panofskian interpretative practice made applicable to seventeenth-century Dutch art – which, except for the Danaë, he avoided – by Eric Jan Sluijter and Eddy de Jongh, whose recent scholarship she reflects in terms of art historical gender studies. Throughout her book she expands this critical approach through her insightful attention to what she calls “aesthetic staging” (“ästhetische Inszenierung”). Vehemently arguing not only against the outdated notion that Dutch art imitates life in the nineteenth-century Realist sense, but also against any mimetic function in Dutch painting at all, she nevertheless assumes a referent in the world, as aesthetic staging then was the staging of something pre-existing. Arguably, this is one model of mimesis. In addition to “aesthetic staging,” Hammer-Tugendhat often uses the phrase “signalisieren.” She asserts that a painting, or one of its aspects, “signals” (not “signifies”) something, such as a cultural context, an ideological bias, a judgment, a meaning. Signaling suggests an intention, in addition to a function, and it would have been helpful to her readers, had Hammer-Tugendhat defined this critical term.
Part 2, “Unsichtbares wird sichtbar: Malerei, nicht Mimesis” (“Something Invisible Becomes Visible: Painting, not mimesis“) is devoted to subjectivity such as that which becomes visible in Dutch genre painting of the last third of the seventeenth century’s. In this part’s middle chapter Hammer-Tugendhat explicitly attends to questions of methodology, now grounding her stance on mimesis in the task to overcome the word-image opposition without demoting either’s importance. It is in this context that she defines painting’s specific mediality (“Medialität”), another term she uses throughout her book, as a material mediality. Accordingly, art historical methods primarily binding paintings to text sources or a linguistic sign structure cannot claim to encompass how painting communicates meaning and sustains or even produces realities such as gender constructions. A cognitive grounding of paintings via text-dependence and mimesis is equally wrong and together these present false alternatives. Is “signaling” then an aspect of “mediality”? Yet Part 2 is not devoted to painterly handling or other material qualities of painting, their experience as language, or their role in what she calls the “pikturalen Diskurs” (246). Rather, it explores genre paintings by Frans van Mieris, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard ter Borch, Johannes Vermeer and Samuel van Hoogstraten that show or imply the presence of women and include motifs such as the picture-within-the picture, the mirror, and letter reading and writing, the last offering a counterpart to her discussion in Part 1 of Rembrandt’s Louvre Bathsheba. On Hammer-Tugendhat’s account, in all these paintings the represented women stand in no positive or negative mimetic relation to such motifs. Thus, in Frans van Mieris’s Woman before the Mirror (1670), she sees two versions of the same woman, one, the mirror image, showing her demure with folded hands as in conventional half-length portraiture, the other, the full-length Rückenfigur, facing this mirror image provocatively posed with arm akimbo.
Acknowledging the scholarship of Daniel Arasse, Ivan Gaskell, Christiane Hertel, Victor Stoichita and Bryan Wolf on Dutch painting’s self-reflexivity, Hammer-Tugendhat argues that these genre paintings contributed to the production of modern subjectivity. Surprisingly, given her earlier conclusions about Rembrandt’s representation of women’s subjectivity within the Dutch Republic’s patriarchy, now this subjectivity seems to transcend gender construction, for she carefully synthesizes scholarship on the intellectual “Klima” (214) in which Vermeer and others worked, which she believes resonated with them. Her particular attention is directly to Spinoza’s concept of immanence and to Descartes’s treatise on the passions. What interests her here is the emergence of not-rhetorical and largely not-theological concepts of affect, emotion, and imagination, so as in turn to understand depictions of women’s domestic lives which neither matched social reality nor presented either positive or negative exempla. Thus, Hammer-Tugendhat’s detailed demonstration, for example, of ter Borch’s and Vermeer’s feminization of introspection, and of letter writing and reading, entails that by the end of Part 2 the reader is presented with gender-neutral early modern concepts of subjectivity. At the same time, Part 2, unlike Part 1, opens itself to the interpretive indeterminacy, ambiguity and multi-valence of artistic representation.
This book offers a wealth of observations, connections, deeply knowledgeable iconography (often going back to the Middle Ages and occasionally to Rome), and interpretations based on an impressive, comprehensive bibliography of especially German, Dutch, and American scholarship. It introduces discourses and studies not widely known, such as on affect theory, gestural language, and Dutch baroque drama. Regrettably, Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare looses some of its positively challenging momentum whenever a certain kind of judgmental “Streitkultur” (culture of debate) distracts from the author’s primary goal to tease out, often brilliantly going against convention, the historically possible, thinkable, imaginable and imagable in art. We do not always need to know who “zu Recht” thinks or argues as she does, let alone whom Hammer-Tugendhat
failsdismisses as absurd (Leo Steinberg and Margaret Deutsch Carroll on the Louvre Bathsheba) or trapped by art’s reality effect (Svetlana Alpers on A Woman in Bed). Nor is she wise to proclaim herself the first to raise a question or make an argument. It is not true, e.g. (48-49), that the construction of gender in Lucas van Leyden’s Susanna and the Elders and the treatment of Susanna and Bathsheba in prints have gone unexamined (Susan Dackerman, 1993, 1995; H. Diane Russell, 1990), and it seems unnecessary, e.g., to emphasize the originality of her observations about Van Mieris’s Woman before a Mirror, only to acknowledge in a footnote that Stoichita has said something very similar “in a few sentences” (177), as indeed he has (Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image, 1997, 189). In fact, Hammer-Tugendhat shares more in common with others than she perhaps can see. Her important point about painting’s material mediality resonates with several methodological approaches that consider the entirety of a given painting, such as phenomenology, reception aesthetics and certain practices of semiotics and psychoanalysis, all of which by now have feminist practitioners attending to the material and corporeal in art.
Das Sichtbare und das Unsichtbare ends somewhat abruptly with a brief “Coda” to Part 2 and its two parts are not quite as closely connected as one might have expected. Hammer-Tugendhat leaves it to the reader to mediate her discussion of the Dutch group portrait, group identity, power and masculinity in Part 1 with her discussion of women’s interiors, interiority, and “Affektwissen” in Part 2, and thus also the relation between collective gender construction and individual subjectivity in Dutch painting, apart from Rembrandt’s oeuvre. While she rejects simplistic moralizing interpretation of female figures in paintings as “verkürzt” (stunted) or arbitrary, she nevertheless does not consider the Protestant theology of the image (as opposed to that of a given representation). Might doing so enhance an understanding of the role of gender in painting’s mediality as such? Throughout the book, Hammer-Tugendhat often points to very specific opportunities for further research and exploration. Before this can happen, however, one can only wish that her book will have the readership it deserves and that generally more of her work will become available in English.
Bryn Mawr College