Making Meaning with Mistakes
Introduction: Mistakes and Meaning
One of the most perfectionist literary writers, Gustave Flaubert, made “mistakes”. He was unorthodox in his grammatical uses of verb tenses, the refusal of a plausible proportion of direct discourse, and the deployment of incongruous comparisons. I will argue below that he wilfully made mistakes in order to shake up the automatism with which readers presuppose transparency in their routine use of language. This is especially remarkable in the case of such a meticulous word artist. But other artists, including great ones, working in different media, did similar things. Below I will call on modernist painter Edvard Much to argue he also made such wilful mistakes. The meaning of mistakes goes farther, become more complex, when we consider relations of difference between media. For, there is more to this artistic behaviour than a self-reflexive attention to their own medium. In a triangular conversation, I will analyse some of such mistakes that seem typical within the use of the medium of each. Moving between literature, painting and film, I will examine if and how such effective mistakes can find their equivalents in other media without translating them and thereby distorting what each medium allows. Thus, an intermediality emerges that is not a one-sided adaptation of one work into another, nor a translation of one artistic language into another, but a dynamic I would propose to call an intermedial conversation. Nor is the discussion limited to formal issues. Instead, I hope to make the case for the intertwinement of formal aspects such as the mistakes in question, and their political and aesthetic effects.
This inquiry is part of what is now commonly called “artistic research” – research of which the working method or mode is doing, making, that about which one has questions. Attempts to bring academic analysis closer to artistic practice have been around for decades, but it remains somewhat problematic to avoid hierarchical thinking, which is unfortunately stimulated by the requirement that artists, if they wish to be teachers in art schools, earn a PhD. Without endorsing the formal issues of diplomas, I have been involved in this, from the moment I realised the surplus value of making art as a form of analysing cultural issues. Inevitably, in artistic research, the researcher, when an academic, also participates as an artist. Hence, I participate myself in this inquiry.
As it happens, without being aware of this as an artistic issue, Michelle Williams Gamaker and I, when making Madame B (2013), have also made wilful mistakes, initially simply because they occurred, and we liked the effect, began to see the meaning that emerged from them, and thus the idea of examining mistakes more in general and in depth, began to dawn on me. Retrospectively, in the endorsement of mistakes – different, of course, since our medial position was different – we realised we were being loyalto Flaubert’s novel, in a specific sense: loyal to its aesthetical and political positions. Nevertheless, rejecting the idea of making an “adaptation”, we flaunted our indifference to “faithfulness” – to personality traits of characters, even their age; similarity of events, and other elements usually considered in terms of faithfulness.
Like the other arts, cinema also has its rules, even if, as an intermedial art form, producing multi-modal texts, it must by definition stay away from the “medium essentialism” that has plagued the study of art for so long now. One example makes this clear: in documentary, it is crucial that the interviewee does not look into the camera but slightly to the side. This is a rule so strong that it is often the first critical remark I get when showing my films. Thus, the invisible interviewer is indicated but not seen. The point is that the “subject” is the person represented. I have always found this a false modesty, insincere, and the resulting image seemed to be turning the interviewee into an animal in the zoo; objectified, instead of a participant in a dialogue with the viewer. The viewer is rigorously kept outside. Let’s face it: this is (epistemically) false and (ethically) wrong.
Instead, in my installation Nothing is Missing, I attempted to achieve the opposite goal: a very personal interaction between interviewer and interviewee, which I wished to make coincide with that between the speaker and the viewer. In that project, mothers of migrants talk about their child who left in migration; an obviously emotionally loaded topic. I have made the wilful mistake of showing the mothers looking straight into the camera, while the interviewer, often the migrated child who is visiting her, or another intimate person, is positioned behind it. Thus, the person looks at the viewer, for affective contact, and at the interviewer at the same time. (fig. 1) That in this installation the interviewers are intimates doubles the effect of the mistake. The dialogue is a real one, whether or not the interviewer needs to prompt the mother to talk. My mistake, according to the classical rules, had meaning. What is more, the effective making of meaning depends on this dispositif.
From this and other experiments with breaking the rules of documentary, I have learned the meaningful deployment of “mistakes”: aesthetic decisions that go against habits or rules, which are forms of imperfection. Here, the issue was primarily one of communication, on the level of affect. The face of the speakers – the mothers with their ambivalent emotions, the pain of missing the children and worrying about them, yet the support of their determination to get a better life – become strongly semiotic, meaningful, precisely due to the mistake of making them address the viewer directly. It is as if the position of the camera vis-a-vis the two speakers, and the composition of the image, participate as much in the conversation as the words spoken and the facial expressions.
In Nothing is Missing this was a decision made beforehand. But quite often, it is only in the editing, when I notice a mistake, that I decide to keep the wrong footage in and place it so that the montage gives it meaning. This experience served me well in the large project Madame B.An example from my fiction films (“theoretical fictions”), is the opening sequence of that film, a feature film made concurrently with a series of video installations responding to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I have written about this project and the stakes that motivated making an audio-visual work that places Flaubert’s contemporaneity – his fierce critique of his time – into our contemporaneous culture of “emotional capitalism”, a cultural economy that instils in people the unfulfillable desire for constant excitement. This is a contradiction in terms; excitement is by definition temporary. But capitalism needs to cultivate the illusion that it is not, or at least, that it is possible to replace one form of excitement by another. Slightly shifting the critical focus from “bêtise” (stupidity) and “idées reçues” (clichés) to a stronger focus on emotional capitalism was a way of being loyal not in spite of, but through being unfaithful.
Beyond, and in support of the importance of the novel’s content and the exploration of its relevance for today, including that necessary unfaithfulness, the present paper adds to this focus on the contemporary social critique, an aesthetic one. Here I am interested in Flaubert’s “mistakes” as intentional imperfections, and cinema’s potential for different but somehow, equivalent mistakes. Most conspicuous are his grammatical oddities, especially with verb tenses, the idiosyncratic use of the conjunction “and”, and unsuitable, bizarre comparisons. All these are forms of activating readers. If I am interested in his “mistakes”, so strange in a novel known for its perfection, it is also because of an academic “mistake” I have been wilfully making since 1999. I see in these a pre-cinematic form of “cinematism”. The cinematic quality of Flaubert’s writing is generally recognised, and critics are not worried about the anachronistic feature, since Flaubert pre-dated the invention of cinema.
But rather than claiming some vaguely prophetic stylistic talent, I want to allege this is an argument for what I have termed “preposterous history”. This seemingly astonishing property of Flaubert’s writing, in other words, solicits a reversal of the usual chronological view, according to which the technical invention of cinema has influenced artists and writers. While this is doubtlessly true, I argue that the opposite also holds. Artists creatively imagined and “imaged” situations that called for the invention of cinema. Instead of tracing the influence of cinema on art, therefore, I take the term “the cinematic” not as a concept that causally explains the paintings, but as a frame; as an entrance into a discussion of looking at images – still as well as moving – as a mobile relationship between image and viewer.
Double Movement, Montage, and Incoherent Space
One form of anti-chronology is the said opening of the film. There, Emma stands alone in, and in the end of the credit sequence, falls out of a ruined house. This image is narratively functional; it predicts the unhappy ending, thus undermining narrative suspense through anachronism. But it does more. The “mistake” it contains is an deployment of the narratological device of focalisation that is unorthodox in cinema. You see Emma in the ruined house that stands for her ruined life – an implicit comparison; or a metaphorical image. (fig. 2) But the mistake is that the image is ever-so-slightly wobbly, indicating a hand-held camera. Why not use a stable tripod, and make a perfect image? That typical cinematic “imperfect” feature usually signifies a claim to authenticity – which is a standard I have no understanding of in art. It can also be the consequence of the presence of others, but here, no other are to be seen. I was actually criticised for this unmotivated wobbliness. A stable image is like a “third-person” narration: a ploy to suggest objectivity. An unstable image, suggesting the opposite, must be justified by the visibility of the focalisers.
Here, however, the barely visible movement has a double meaning. It “metaphors” Emma’s instable position. I turn the noun metaphor into a verb to underline the dynamism, the activity of process. And it points to the presence of invisible, anonymous others: focalising witnesses. These others, whom we do not see in the image but only in that slight movement, witness Emma’s ruin. The question that the camera movement raises whereas a stable image would not have done so, is: do those witnesses look on with empathy, or with relishing, as the neighbours do in the novel? We see this anonymous but far from neutral witnessing several times later in the film, when Emma is alone, including at her own wedding. There, as we will see below, a second mistake supports this primary one: the blur.
Thus, the movement of the camera doubles the movement of the profilmic reality to which, in a perfectly shot image, it is limited, to include the movement of the camera as the personified engine of making the figure the object of an act of seeing by others. The not-quite-stable image hints at spying, meddling, or possibly empathizing others, compelling the film viewers to realise their own affective response. The hand-held camera creates the audience as a “nous”, the “us” from Flaubert’s opening sentence. “Nous” is the novel’s very first word, even though after a mere few pages, this witnessing “nous” disappears. This mistake by omission is a meaningful decision on the part of the novelist. After involving readers as witnesses, the “nous” can be left to the readers. It sets the tone, distributes the roles, and can be dispensed with further. In the same vein, in loyalty without emulating the medium of literature, because we as viewers are “with” the moving camera, no viewer of the film, in 2013 and after, can claim that the mid-nineteenth century does not concern us.
When, in 2015, I was invited by the Munch Museum in Oslo to curate an exhibition from their extensive collections and to include the exhibition pieces of Madame B, I had an opportunity to reflect more on cinematic and narrative imperfections, as well as on painterly ones, and see the differences among the three media. It turned out that Munch was, like Flaubert, a master of meaningful mistakes. Here, I limit myself to imperfections in the rendering of space.
In the wake of the long tradition of linear perspective, it is the royal road to perfection in the depiction of three-dimensional space in the two-dimensional medium of painting. Munch drew attention to this tradition by making mistakes against it. He would exaggerate the depth of field, making perspective overly steep. Or he would deploy it but at the same time, break up the unity of the field perspective construes. He did this most emphatically in his masterpiece Workers in their Way Home, from 1913–14, where three central figures each emerge from a different “take”, one filmed frontally, one from above and from the side, and one cropped to indicate he is on his way out of the frame. On both sides, an excessively high perspective positions the smaller figures that together constitute the mass of workers.
Something like this breaking up of the space happens in the lesser-known painting Uphill with a Sledge (fig. 3), but then, quite differently. Less appreciated than Workers, the wilful mistakes in this painting have not been discussed prior to my analysis as far as I know. The snow is painted in heavy white, grey, and sometimes bluish impasto in curls and waves. The man in a green suit is situated closer to the picture plane than the sledge puller, if we think in spatial terms; as if he is just passing by without paying the slightest attention to the heavy work of the other man. That main character has no face, no eyes, really just something like a snout, and only one leg is visible. The coloured shape at the left top of the painting seems closer to the mountain, as if it is even larger – small as it is – than is plausible to the realism-seeking eye. The different volumes of the hill are made of blue, green and dark brown lines, with their own shadows. One sees volumes better from some distance than close up. That the central figures takes more space of the picture plane than the cityscape down at the fjord is a normal effect of distance, but the imperfect perspective makes that discrepancy ambiguous in this case.
The painting’s spatial effect comes from an exaggerated perspective, this time even more emphatic than in Workers, but one that is not unified. It is not simply elongated but tilted, or dipping. On the left half of the image is something without the presence of humans. This is a view from above that emphasises the steepness of the hill and makes the shape below (in the depicted scene) or above (on the flat image) entirely flat. At first, appropriately, I made a mistake of interpretation. I thought this was a cargo boat. It was as if I was seeing it not just from the top of the hill, but from a bird’s eye view, straight above it. This view is only applicable to that portion of the picture plane that I saw as a “boat”, however. It makes the painting spatially incoherent enough to attract attention to its status as a painting – both image (what we see) and picture (what it depicts). But on closer inspection, I saw that my misreading was caused by another spatial particularity. If it is a protrusion of the land into the fjord, it still has a deceptive shape at both ends that had me fooled. In that case, it offers a mirror image of houses and their reflection in water. But more relevantly, the row of houses would be filmed from a straight vertical, bird’s eye position. This is in tension with the rest of the painting.
The larger left part of the image is shot from above but not straight up; a bit more obliquely, not from a bird’s eye view nor from the frontal position, which would be the two opposed views of either my misreading or the realistically correct one. The scene seems to have been shot from the top of an adjacent hill. But this is not a single “take” either. The picture of the man pulling the sledge makes him more sharply diagonal than is humanly possible without losing one’s balance. Hence, he must have been shot from an oblique position, which emphasises his struggle with the steep height and the heavy burden he is pulling. The man in green, in contrast, although right next to the sledge-puller in the flat image, is standing straight up, walking effortlessly, as if on a flat plane. This must be a frontal take of his side from eye level. But he seems smaller, narrower, as if more distant, than the hard-working sledge puller. The spatial organisation makes the painting look more like a collage or multiscreen film than a single image. This gives the viewer the task to reconcile these different positions physically.
These incongruities in depicted space originate in the cinematic, but also pre-cinematic devise of editing, or montage. Most famously, in his book Film Form (1949) Russian avant-garde filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) reflected on the aesthetic effects of various strategies of montage. Perhaps surprisingly, the key example he alleges is Flaubert’s pre-cinematic Madame Bovary.Of the many instances one can point out in the novel, however, Eisenstein cites not a visual but an audio example of montage. He explains his ideas about it through the famous scene of the Commices agricoles, the annual market during which Rodolphe seduces Emma and becomes her first lover. Eisenstein analyses the discourses that intermingle, of the officials and the would-be lovers, a hotchpotch that many Madame Bovary films have taken on board, as an audio montage (12-13). For him, montage is conflict.
The concept of montage, with the discrepancies montage creates, also helps us understand the aspect of mistakes in Munch’s painting. This aspect has been noticed but not further examined in its consequences for, in particular, the political tenor of, especially, Workers on their Way Home. The key decision Eisenstein made in alleging an audio image rather than a visual one implies a clear statement on the intermediality of cinema. The double movement of the wobbly image, the self-affirming exaggerated perspective, and the montage of different takes within one frame of the paintings, or in a single scene, as in the novel, all make the works moving, in more ways than one. They move viewers and readers into asking questions, and thus questioning their routine ways of reading and looking.
The most important opponent, in this, is realism: the assumption that what we have before us corresponds to reality, including a fictional world, by means of smooth representation, or depiction. Thus, whereas Flaubert’s novel is, supposedly, a classical example of realist literature, the mistakes militate against this assumption. And Munch, who was trained in the tradition that, in Norway, was called “naturalistic”, denaturalized his scenes, turning depictions into images, to be contemplated in a questioning of the possibility, and the desirability, aesthetic and political, of the naturalism the art academies of his day took for granted, and as the norm.
Double Effects: Mistakes Against Realism
“Mistakes” are characteristic of Munch as well as Flaubert. And different as they are, while targeting the media in which they work, the simple fact that they both deploy an aesthetic of mistakes brings these two artists closer together. They both undermine cliché views of realism. The devices I discuss here are mistakes in relation to a norm of technical perfection, but according to the standards of realism only. This is remarkable, in view of the tenacious interpretational tendency to turn Flaubert’s novel into a model of realism. The work of Jonathan Culler is crucial in its revision of the conception of realism in Flaubert (2007). Instead of the aim of transparency as realism is supposed to pursue, these devises attract attention to the medium itself. Inducing viewers to make reading mistakes, such as my mistaken identification of the left of Uphill with a Sledge as a boat, is one way of drawing attention to the ambiguities of painting. On the part of the artist, shifts, errors, glitches, blurs, bad cropping, and mistakes in perspectival drawing are all examples of a movement from one image to another that deploys the technical elements of the medium to make a change.
Artists have always cultivated the boldness of daring to make what would be considered mistakes by, for instance, the conservative judges of the art academies and art criticism – what I have mentioned above: habits turned rules. Such mistakes can have an avant-gardist flavour. Wilful mistakes make viewers consider the medium and its lack of transparency. Calling them cinematic is my way of bringing together the kind of mistakes Munch makes in his paintings, Flaubert in his writing, and Bal & Williams Gamaker in the videos. The property of cinematic mistakes is that they have double effects; one self-reflectively medium-oriented, and one specific, generating meaning for the work at hand. I would like to insist that the one is meaningless without the other.
A wonderful “mistake” in Munch is the gleaming reflection in the lorgnette of the figure in the Portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell (1885). Øivind Storm Bjerke writes succinctly about this reflection: “It functions both as an eye-catcher and to emphasise the significance of observation in a visual culture that is dominated by the sense perception of surfaces” (2007: 51). He integrates the two sides of the double meaning. The conjunction of the motif of observation by the figure and the viewer makes their gazes meet in that visual culture. The surplus value of Munch’s “glitch” is the attention to surfaces; both as the root of “superficial” as an ideological criticism, and as the proliferation of the presence of reflections, prominent in the then relatively new phenomenon of shop windows (Friedberg 2006). It is a well-rehearsed criticism of (post)modern visual culture that the multiplication of surfaces promotes a superficiality of social and individual life.
Munch’s glitch in a painting where it can so easily be avoided points to a desire to bring painting and cinema closer together. A cinematographer who were to capture the gleam in an eye glass would risk being scolded for such a blatant “mistake”, but it can easily happen. A painter must make a special decision to achieve the gleam. Munch’s brush is speaking to a colleague painter, and probably considering the latter too conservative, too realistic, encouraging him to be more daring. Used tongue-in-cheek, the word “mistake” makes visible how traditionalist judges censor innovations, while making their judgements appear self-evident and without the possibility of questioning them. Thus, they confirm Foucault’s statement on invisibility as a key property of fiction, and its usefulness for cultural critique: “Fiction consists … not in showing the invisible, but in showing to what extent the invisibility of the visible is invisible” (1994: I, 524).
In Flaubert, this kind of strategy of errors often uses verb tense incongruities to shock readers into paying attention to the texture of the work and the limits of language – his equivalent of the attention to flatness, reflection, and dis-unified spaces in Munch. In Munch’s painting, the cinematic quality can be enhanced by the fact that the image quality seems due to a camera that limits depth of field. It is almost as if we see camera movement and change of focus – two notorious “mistakes” in filming that, along with cropping, can also be used to enhance certain aspects and meanings. Below I will have more to say about these three mistakes. In this respect the painter is freer than the cinematographer. He can, and does, vary with sharpness and blur regardless of how the depth of field justifies it, whether it is shallow or deep. This is most radical in Uphill.
An example of a verb tense irritant in Flaubert’s novel comparable to Munch’s variations of “camera handling” in Uphilland Workers is the first sentence of chapter 5 of the third part of Madame Bovary. Emma has just begun her liaison with Léon. She has plotted a way of seeing him weekly, pretexting piano lessons (III, 5). This is our scene 7 of the video installation, Loving Léon. It is installed as a single-channel, large-screen projection in a dark space with rows of red-velvety chairs, meant to suggest a (romantic) cinema theatre that at the same time has the dimension of a homey living room. “C’était le jeudi” (It was Thursdays), begins Flaubert’s chapter that described the liaison. The verb tense indicates routine. The detailed narration of the small events that precede the encounter with her lover, all in the imparfaitof routine, are plausible enough as iterations.
The passage ends, however, with the following sentence that, in isolation, would be considered a grammatical mistake: “Puis, d’un seul coup d’oeil, la ville apparaissait.” (Then, in the blink of an eye, the city used to appear; my translation). The suddenness implied in the adverbial clause is contradicted by the tense of routine. Normally, an indication of suddenness can interrupt a routine description, but not the other way around. Routine, by definition, cannot interrupt; it lacks temporal agency. Yet, using the passé simple of interruption would also have been awkward, since the entire passage describes what happens every week, on Thursdays. There is no “correct” way to say this. Flaubert constructs a temporal equivalent to Munch’s broken spaces; an incongruity that constructs a strong focus on an aspect that matters, but that could otherwise have remained unnoticed.
Preceding this sentence is a clause that “explains” the apparent contradiction: “… afin de se faire des surprises, elle fermait les yeux” (… in an attempt to surprise herself she used to close her eyes). Rather than a simple mistake, this is the use of language to irritate and thus alert readers. In self-deception and captured in emotional capitalism’s lure of permanent excitement, Emma tries desperately to recover the thrill of a liaison that already, we can gather, bores her. Closing her eyes is a Flaubertian form of “looking sideways” (my concept for the exhibition is Oslo). In other words, this is Emma’s avoiding to face others, and reality. Also, it is an example of Flaubert’s prediction of the tragic ending by means of subtle indications.
How to be loyal to this without being faithful – in other words, how to convey a similar sense of self-deception without attempting to imitate the play with verb tenses? To account for this play we have attempted to make this self-deception tangible by filming reiterated beginnings of the amorous meetings in the same hotel room. In this series of beginnings the images show the difference between the initial excitement and the subsequent boredom on Emma’s face. Using her face as a projection screen is our way of rendering the subjectivity of the narrative prose. The change, from desire to boredom, in just two consecutive sequences is our way of doing what the writer did with the verb tenses.
Double Meanings: Telling Imperfections
The mistakes in literature, painting and video I have so far pointed out all do more than self-reflect on each of the mediums. While seemingly anti-narrative, they contribute to the meaning of the narrative itself; they give it, to use the word tongue-in-cheek, more depth. They make the story into literature, the picture into an image; the film into a tool to show without telling, or telling otherwise, and thus to avoid explicit statements. In our video installations we have also, in addition to camera movement, deployed the mistakes of blurs and excessive cropping to enhance the social isolation of the main character, and her being looked at by invisible others as a response to her own “looking sideways”. This is clear, for example, in scene 3, Wedding, where observing and gossiping guests surround Emma with contempt. The sense of isolation, resulting in loneliness, is not so much the consequence of her looking sideways in a literal sense, but of an avoidance of dialogue, which amounts to the same. Her insecurity is expressed by an excessive cropping of the image of her face when she is getting ready for the wedding ceremony, asking the friend who is making her up if she looks all right (middle frame of fig. 5).
In Uphill with a Sledge,both the man pulling the sledge and the figure in green are barely readable, blurry figures, consisting of stains of paint rather than clear brushstrokes. The main character, a patch of blue and brown paint, has a snout by way of a face, which makes him look like a wolf in human clothes. This is one of the effects of the overly steep perspective indicated by the path that runs up from his body to the upper right. His legs are molten into a single one, his left arm also seems to be missing. The bright suit of the man on the right may have been coloured for chromatic effect of contrast, rather than for pro-filmic reasons. The contrast between their colours attracts so much attention, drawing attention to the rough brush strokes – hence, distracting from the narrative of the effort the left man is making – that it makes the painting almost abstract. Abstraction, like everything else in looking at art, is in the eye of the beholder.
Colour is one of the aspects that painting has in common with cinema, although not yet generally in Munch’s time. The artist used colour not only to transgress the boundary between picture and image, and in the wake of that distinction, between figuration and abstraction. He gave colour synaesthetic functions by means of allusions: in a medium that serves the sense of sight only, he “argued” through painting that sight is never alone; that the other senses participate in sense-perception. This brings us to another form of inter-ship: what has been called multi-modality.
Flaubert deployed sound and colour-coding for political effect. An instance occurs in the seduction scene during the Commices agricoles, the prime example of montage for Eisenstein. A bent-over old servant who receives a medal for fifty years of service in subaltern, abject subordination is dressed in blue, white, and red, as a mute protest of the lowly against the lie of the French flag (de Biasi 2009: 245). There is even a closer connection between Munch and Flaubert in their inclusion of “sound tracks”, when we consider how, according to some scholars, The Scream also has a soundtrack. In that motif, colour is used to suggest sound; not to colour-code the political message as in Flaubert, but to colour emotion. If viewers “hear” the scream in the colours, both are instances of synaesthetically-working signs that transgress the boundaries of their respective media. The comparison, or framing of the one through the other, shows both the similarity – synaesthetic signification – and the differences – the use of colour, political in Flaubert, emotional in Munch.
In Munch’s art, the moments that the figuration is confused – almost erased – by abstraction are key to our understanding of the ambiguity that is his primary political issue and position. Frequently, it is in the blurring, the emptying out, or the lack of focus of the depicted eyes that the limit of figuration becomes the site of resistance to the relentlessly persistent romanticism that is presented; not shaped but, precisely, left unshaped. Areas of unclarity in paintings of love scenes, for instance, point to another side of the figuration of love. From physical movement, then, the work guides us to considering movement as persuasion, but not solely intellectually; moving us to change, to act, or to refuse. Unclarity of colour in realistic terms is also couched in uncertain colour in Flaubert’s novel. It is well known that the colour of Emma’s eyes varies between blue, green, grey and black, depending on who is looking at her.
Munch declares the line between figuration and abstraction non-existent; an ideology that traps us with a binary opposition where continuity is subtler and more complex. While the horse in his Galloping Horse(fig. 6) has sharply distinguishable features, and an eye that signifies the fury of the wildly running animal, its driver and the children on the right are again barely readable blurs. Nevertheless, the child-like figure facing the viewer – some spots of red in a white patch indicating her facial features – looks terrified. Why do we seethat terror in those vague blots? Preposterously responding to Foucault, Munch “argues” that visibility does not depend on sharpness.
Flaubert, the makers of Madame Band Munch deploy their art in “mistakes”, enhancing the medium itself. The blur and variation of depth of field tell us that we are not watching a transparent depiction of a pro-filmic reality, but a crafted image. Similarly, the uneven application of paint of which Munch was a master keeps us aware that what we see is not a real-life situation, but something that is more disturbing rather than less, because it is so double-edged. Instead of avoiding the realistic illusion by eliminating figuration altogether and moving towards pure abstraction, the artist keeps the figuration in sight while emphatically showing how it is made, using abstraction to do so. Mistakes can be a mediator between the false opposition of figuration and abstraction. Bjerke sees abstraction as the consequence of “a loose painterly treatment of colour where the references to specific objects almost dissolve” (2008: 52).
Art historian Nils Messel recalls that “mistakes” had always been Munch’s strategy – and the target of conservative criticism. He writes: “In Munch’s art the naturalistic critic saw and cherished what Frits Thaulow once called Munch’s “astonishing ‘courage de défauts’ [dare to make mistakes]” i.e. “his audacity to accept that art was not to copy nature, but to give a highly personal, subjective impression of it” (2008: 166). Rather than the word “impression”, I would use “fusion” here, as in “subjective fusion” – a term I borrow from De Biasi’s analytical biography of Flaubert. It is what Culler drew attention to when he argued that frequently, narration and focalisation positions – the two forms subjectivity takes in narrative – remain undetermined, undecidable. Such subjective fusion renders the ambiguity that Munch’s mistakes also foregrounded.
The moment when, in the Wedding scene of the video installation, Emma and the priest supposedly talk together without having anything to say to each other, is rendered in an exceedingly blurred image. This is a literal rendering of subjective fusion, where the fluid image shows two people without in the last foregrounding subjectivity. The composition shows Emma from the back, hands holding her purse behind her back, the Priest consuming a piece of the wedding cake. It suggests a schoolgirl being either scolded or seduced by someone who has power over her. See the first image of fig. 5.
Subjective fusion is at stake in all those passages where, as Culler has so persuasively argued, it remains unclear if focalisation must be attributed to Emma or to the narrator, so that the reader must make autonomous decisions. One reason for this is the wish to solicit compassion for Emma, who is caught in boredom. Culler describes this state as a process with double meaning astutely as:
… a literary category of the first importance; it is the background against which the activity of reading takes place and which continuously threatens to engulf it. The strategies of reading and interpretation must be understood as attempts to avoid boredom, and, on the other hand, boredom itself is a literary device whose usefulness modern literature has increasingly forced us to appreciate. To recognize the potential sources of boredom in a work and the different rhythms of reading which can be used to neutralize them is to discover important facts about its structure. (1974: 19)
When we travel with Emma from Tostes to Yonville, we enter the small town after a long shot of the river and the first houses, then a second shot still distant but from above. After two pages, the description begins to sound ominously wrong:
The thatched roofs hide the top third or so of the low windows like fur caps pulled down over eyes, and each windowpane, thick and convex, has a bull’s-eye in its centre like the bottom of a bottle. Some of the plastered house walls with their diagonal black timbers are the background for scraggly espaliered pear trees; and the house doors have little swinging gates to keep out the baby chicks, who come to the sill to peck at brown-bread crumbs soaked in cider. (II,1)
Not only is the detailed description after the view of the roofs an implausible close-up – what we render, in the wedding scene, as excessive cropping; see the middle image of fig. 5. But also, the personifying comparison of the roofs to caps recalls Charles’s ridiculed cap on the second page of the novel. This comparison flips scale, makes the houses both impenetrable and closer, and due to the personification, even slightly threatening. It also reiterates what makes Charles boring, and thus predicts the failure of his attempt to distract Emma by a change of location – the motivation of this move.
Culler observes that these two sentences “violate the basic principles of composition”–quite a formulation for the idea of a mistake. The end of the first one has nothing to do with its beginning. The second one begins at a very different point of focalisation. Moreover, it only describes what happens “sometimes” – another transgression, this time of the rule that distinguishes description(of static objects) from narration (of dynamic events). And it dissipates “as it runs down towards the minute and the trivial” (Culler). The impression of reading a geography book is halted and replaced by futility. Moreover, the rhythm of the two long sentences neither narrates nor expresses, but performsboredom. They demonstrate, almost physically, how language is a terribly problematic tool to show what the narrator nevertheless wishes to show: not the look of the houses, but their inhospitable “character”. By means of the lack of narrative and syntactic logic, the description draws attention to language as inadequate. The reader bangs into it, as into a brick wall. This is the medium-oriented performativity of the passage.
Comparable to those fur caps, which brings the distant view into an excessively close cropping, is the image in the Wedding scene, when Emma is being prepared, “made beautiful”, and driven to insecurity (see the middle frame of fig. 5). Here, her subjectivity is not fused but eliminated. As a bride, to be handed over from her father to her husband, she is completely objectified. In the third image of fig. 5, when the beggar woman – an unfaithful version of the blind beggar in the novel – takes over and ridicules Emma in her song, this party-spoiler is cropped, while her sharpness pushes the bride and groom back as small blurs.
Eisenstein’s choice for an audio image as the key example of montage is not as surprising as we might think once we realise that Flaubert was obsessed by the sounds of his words and sentences. The rhythm of reading and the sounds of the text mattered to him, so much so that he strolled through his garden saying his sentences out loud, as if tasting them. In the installation sound also performs the boredom. In most of the scene where Emma is at home, bored out of her skull, not a word is spoken, while a clock is ticking relentlessly. Solitude and boredom merge into a single, exasperatingly durational state. We see Emma arrange dry flowers, remove a spider, pick up a tea glass and gazing at her own reflection in the teaspoon. (fig. 7)
Meanwhile, the young neighbour Léon appears, in turn in an over-the-top, unmotivated close-up. But without motivation, such a mistake is not meaningless. This incongruous close-up that makes no sense outside of Emma’s desire, suggests he may be interested in Emma, even stalking her. After some time, she gets up from the couch, starts washing the dishes, and sees Léon, long after the viewers have seen him. She goes to the door, opens it, and they look at each other. This mutual look initiates a new phase. If something is bound to happen, it is due to that silent mutual gaze. Flaubert describes Emma’s perception of Léon’s passing by, his craving for her, yet incapability to do anything about it, their mutual longing without contact. Short as the take is, it stretches out time while nothing happens (in chapter II, 4).
Later, we see the two as they walk in the forest. This insinuates, or for those who know the novel, recalls what in Flaubert’s text is an over-the top exalted conversation. Condensing this episode with that of Emma’s pregnancy and her wish to have a boy because “men at least are free”, the image is implicated, in its performativity, in the incomprehension between the two would-be lovers. In our version, Emma suddenly sees a baby boy playing in the sand. Moved, she rushes up to him. Léon, walking by her side, sees nothing. The spectator sees the baby – and making the vision more plausible, the baby shouts with delight; a sound that, like the ticking clock, we hear “with” Emma. Only then, in the next take, Léon and the viewer see the empty patch of sand. The baby is a ghost, a vision; an expression of Emma’s desire to have a boy, which in turn betrays that she is pregnant.
Because they are subjective, the two images are incompatible. But because of the time-based medium, they succeed each other in linear time. The spectators see and hear the baby too, even though the idyllic forest-scape and the fairy tale sunset de-realise the scene. Only after seeing the baby they see the empty area. In the mirage of the baby boy the two characters are put on the same level of “hysteria”. Emma hallucinates; Léon tumbles from his romantic cloud into his failing imagination. The dilemma of whether it is mad to expect happiness or to be unable to imagine it dawns on the viewer, who cannot at first make out the logic of the scene. The mistake in narrative logic, again, activates the viewer, and reflects on the medium with its relentless linearity.
Jumping from one artform to another, as I have done here, mistakes begin to take over, and bring art to life. Artworks that faithfully follow the rules and their predecessors will remain flat, even when made with perfection. The episode of the first, failed infatuation with Léon, ending in the birth of Emma’s daughter, has the Flaubertian rhythm of long durational thoughts and brief, instantaneous (non-)events. In the middle of a chapter follows a brief “The baby was born one Sunday morning, about six o’clock, at sunrise. – It’s a girl! cried Charles. She turned her head away and fainted” (II, 3). Hours of labour, the information, the reaction: all this in a mere twenty-one words; the tension between duration and instantaneousness is at work. In the video, this takes the form of a scream that interrupts a pedantic and anachronistic conversation (which nevertheless responds to Flaubert’s staging of that between mother nursing versus hiring a whet nurse) about home versus hospital childbirth, between Charles and Homais, immediately followed by the new-born’s crying. That Emma faints upon hearing that the baby is a girl, not the hoped-for boy, is telling. The baby’s crying metaphorically connects to Emma’s deploring her status as a woman, always disappointed, confined, unable “to taste the pleasures of the world”. Is this a bad mother or an oppressed housewife? The viewer is drawn in to reflect on this issue.
Conclusion: Mistaken Identities
The examples of mistakes as symptoms of imperfection I have discussed here all have as their primary characteristic the double meaning they produce. They signify an element of the narrative or the scene, and in this sense, they are integrated in the work as a whole. But they also de-naturalise the medium of the artwork. The mistakes tell us what the medium is that the artist deploys, but also make us question its homogeneity – what would become the medium specificity. This questioning leads to a loosening of the boundaries between media, but also to a “discussion” between media, a genuine intermediality. And it facilitates an awareness that the artwork is more than a transparent rendering in some medium of a story, an event, a person, a thing. The self-identical nature of each medium is thus undermined. The media can communicate among themselves, but more importantly, this communication can only happen with the help of the reader or viewer.
The relevance of such intermedialities for our communication in general and our interaction with art becomes emphatic when a plurality of media are involved. This is the case with a contemporary artwork, an installation not yet finished, by Dutch artist Jacomina van Loon, titled Mona Lisa Chanel. It consists of two rows of three relatively small paintings, hung in a corner; some larger paintings, and a video on a small screen. The first thing that struck me when I entered the studio was the thick black lines that seem to frame the six paintings. That, I thought, is a mistake; you don’t frame paintings on the canvas itself, and not in black, and if so, not so thick. The lines turned out to be the canvas surface, the coloured pictures painted on it, with visibly rough edges. Another mistake, or an allusion to the materiality of paint? Hung vertically, they become frames of an obsolete celluloid film. Why would an artist in 2018 make her paintings look like film strips? Only then did I notice the image itself, with theatrical scenes, sometimes doubled, overlaid with colours in blocks, rectangular or square, that make harsh lines over faces; doublings, and elements that mean nothing; symptoms of abstraction.
Soon, my understanding of the installation’s intermediality went viral. Film, yes; but based on a video recording of a theatre play, remade by the artist into an experimental video. The play, Fashion is a Tirant(Mode is een tiran) written and directed by Yve Dubois, performed by Monalisa Toneel Amsterdam, stages Coco Chanel and her band of women friends. Theatre as an already intermedial and multimodal art form lets Chanel as a fashion designer contribute her own medium – drawing, textile, fashion shows. Show, then, receives a crucial, central status. The artist, van Loon, plays herself in the play, and is visible in one of the frames – significantly, the doubled one, bottom right, where the symbolic rainbow is foregrounded.
The colour effects are speaking to video and its post-production tricks; experiments with form, when lines in primary colours, or whirling semi-circles, come to disturb the figurative image. Tall vertical mirrors (middle frame on the right) add the distorting effect of mirrors on fairs, which not only deform the figures but also their scale. The small screen that shows the video Van Loon made on the basis of the recording of the play by BubbleEyes, editing an editing and adding colour to a colour video, or taking out colour (bottom left) to suggest a photographic negative: it is as if the installation seeks to explore the entire history of media, with the sole purpose of confusing our assumptions about them. The play between the black box of film and the white cube invoked through its opposite and through the materiality of painting, includes the space of exhibiting in the questioning of mediality. The idea of the photographic narrative confuses us yet again: if this is reversed, the borders would be white, as in the white cube!
With the increasing, turbulent forms of intermediality, the possible mistakes also multiplied. But more than things artistically “not done”, social issues pop up. The distorting mirrors bring in the popular, non-elitist fun fair, in a serious artwork, at a time art is unsuccessfully attempting to interest working classes; the allusions to the rainbow flag (bottom left) introduce the social issue of homosexuality, which make us realise that all players are women, and that a lesbian tone can be seen and heard. And over all this, the text of the play itself addresses the divide between wealth (those who can afford designer clothes) and poor who remain unseen. Meanwhile, the painter, critically probing all such divides along with the artistic ones, shows her complicit hand, literally, in the portion in the middle frame right, where a towering Karl Lagerfeld (played by Monique van Miltenburg) clutches in a shiny leather-gloved hand something that looks like either a chic scarf or a bunch of feathers, depending on who looks at it, painted great ambitious precision. It is in fact a toy dog, with the price tag still hangs on it. That this is the frame where the distorting mirror entice figures, artist and viewers into self-reflection, is surely no coincidence.
This is the way mistakes also undermine the autonomy of the artwork according to the formalist conception. But denying art a different kind of autonomy would jar with the use of mistakes I have outlined above. The impossibility of defining art ontologically, to say what it is, and the need to resort to considering it as an act, saying what it does,comes from the dual, paradoxical status of art. Both its relative autonomy, which resides in its agency, and its sociality are crucial aspects of its status in the world – not of what it is but of where it must function. “Art cannot live, qua art, within the everydayas the everyday,” writes British philosopher Peter Osborne, quoting from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (255). “Rather, it necessarily disrupts the everydayness of the everyday from within, since it is, constitutively, both ‘autonomous’ and a ‘social fact’” (Osborne 2013, 140). The disruption Osborne mentions is the one mistakes operate. The “the everydayness of the everyday” consists, in the case of art, of the routine assumptions from which we consider the respective media both as tightly distinct and as tools, instruments at our disposal. It is those assumptions that mistakes undermine. And in doing so, they enforce a different, more active attitude in which viewers and readers recognise their indispensable participation.
There are many excellent studies on adaptation, but here I want to draw attention and pay homage to the argument of the great specialist of adaptation studies, Thomas Leitch, who published an article in 2003 ominously titled “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory”. Needless to say, the normative concept of “faithfulness” is high on his list.
On the position of cinema between media and the resulting methodological issues, see, for example, the collective volume edited by Jørgen Bruhn and Anne Gjelsvik (2016). On a conceptual discussion of intermediality and multimodality in the two wider perspectives of semiotics and communication, see Lars Ellerström’s contribution to the volume Meanings & Co (2019).
For an analysis of this project, see Bal (2015). For more on my experimental documentaries, as well as fiction films, see http://www.miekebal.org/artworks/films/.
See Illouz 2007 for this illuminating concept, defined thus: “Emotional capitalism is a culture in which emotional and economic discourses and practices mutually shape each other, thus producing what I view as a broad, sweeping movement in which affect is made an essential aspect of economic behaviour and in which emotional life – especially that of the middle classes – follows the logic of economic relations and exchange.” (5) Prophetic as usual, Flaubert describes the syndrome explicitly in chapter II, 5: “Then the desires of the flesh, the longing for money, and the melancholy of passion all blended into one suffering, and instead of putting it out of her mind, she made her thoughts cling to it, urging herself to pain and seeking everywhere the opportunity to revive it.”
With apologies for citing my own work, which I do to avoid the two academic mistakes of self-plagiarism and repetition, I refer for the conception of history in what follows to my book on the subject (1999).
For a very clear and illuminating reference to the cinematic quality of Flaubert’s writing, see de Biasi (2009, esp. 319-21). That author examines the way Flaubert took notes for possible “sets”, visited actual sites, and studied possible “takes”. He also draws attention to the fact that Flaubert called his outlines “scénarios”. These scenarios, or scripts, have been published in a belated complete edition of all the drafts, versions (of which there were many) and preparatory notes (Flaubert 1971). This publication is my primary source. If the cinema had existed, one could easily see a film director at work. (Flaubert 1971). See also Sreena K (2014).
This and the other “mistakes” I will analyse are primarily the work and initiative of cinematographer Christopher Wessels. When filming the ruined house sequence, he had a tripod with him but chose to film the sequence both with and without using it. As the film’s directors, Williams Gamaker and I decided to use the take that contained mistakes, rather than the perfect one.
Among Munch scholars who mention the cinematic is Arne Eggum who calls Workers on Their Way Home a “study in movement” (1984: 253). The catalogue for the exhibition Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye(Lampe and Chéroux 2012) pays serious attention both to the cinematic aspect of the works and the photographic activities of the artist. The break-up of the field of vision is not really discussed. What follows is a spin-off from my analysis of this issue. I have analysed Workers in the book written for the exhibition (2017: 27-32).
Playing with spatial organisation is more than a protest against the domination by linear perspective, see Verhoeff (2016). Her commentary shows how Werner Herzog’s 3D film A Cave of Forgotten Dreams both espouses the natural walls that support the millennia-old cave paintings, and designs a “cartography of time” that brings the long-gone past to life in an animation. Her analysis demonstrates the cultural relevance of the self-reflection of the medium of 3D film, the moving image more in general, and exploration in time and space together. Verhoeff examines the layeredness of time and space in the moving image, and as such, her article can be considered a fundamental theorisation of the movement of images (2016).
On Eisenstein’s view of montage as conflict, see Campany (2007: 30). This conflictual nature of montage does justice to the wilful incongruities, both in Flaubert’s transitions in “takes” in his descriptive passages, and to Munch’s spatial dis-arrangements.
A good starting point of self-reflection of mediums is Rosalind Krauss’ widely-read book (2000). Janna Houwen (2017) discusses the contested concept of medium specificity with great subtlety (2017) in a discussion of differences between film and video. On mistakes, which he calls glitches, as an artistic device, see Betancourt (2002).
Realistically, the colour of the suit might refer to the oilcloth-wearing fishermen. Munch painted a fisherman in a yellowish suit in 1902, also depicted out of context, there against a green background. I thank the in-house co-curator of the Emma & Edvardexhibition Ute Kuhlemann Falck of the Munch Museum for this information.
There was actually an extensive use of colour in early cinema, as shown in a book edited by Giovanna Fossati (2015). Scholars have commented on Munch’s use of colour to express sound in The Scream. See Ydstie (2012
, esp. 259). Colour is also an important element in Jay A. Clarke’s close analysis of The Sick Childfrom 1885-86 (2006). On colour in relation to abstraction, see the last chapter of Bal (2013).
This beggar (played by Lila Köngäs-Saarikko) shows up as early as Emma’s wedding, whereas in the novel the blind beggar comes in during the affair with Léon. In both works they are coming around during the death scene.
To Michael Fried, instantaneousness is one of the characteristics of Manet’s modernism (1996: 291); the two temporalities are material qualities of the painted surface. Instantaneousness suggests that the painting can be seen in one glance. I don’t believe it ever can. To me, the temporalities are more important in “cinematicity”, subjectivity and its fusion, and experience.
©Mieke Bal, 2018
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