ART CRITICISM, THEORY AND HISTORY

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Valiz/vis-à-vis

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Paperback, 6.5 x 9 in. / 160 pgs / 30 bw.

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Catalog: FALL 2018 p. 101   

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ISBN 9789492095565 TRADE
List Price: $24.95 CDN $33.95

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VALIZ/VIS-à-VIS

The Trade of the Teacher

Visual Thinking with Mieke Bal

By Mieke Bal. Edited with text by Jeroen Lutters.

Image above is Rembrandt's "Bathsheba at her Bath" (1654), reproduced from <I>The Trade of the Teacher.</I>

Over a number of meetings, the theorist, critic, video artist and occasional curator Mieke Bal (born 1946) engaged in a conversation on the art of teaching with the cultural analyst Jeroen Lutters. Looking for a dialogue that would also touch on the role of visual art, Lutters brought in paintings by Banksy, Rembrandt, Marlene Dumas and George Deem as "teaching objects"—one for each conversation. Lutters asked Bal what these paintings might have to say about teaching.

The result is this publication: a personal, meandering and precise account of Bal's pedagogy. She reveals her way of thinking through visual art and literature and her ways of exchanging ideas. How do objects speak, and how can we use them? How do they teach us to find answers to important questions, just by looking, listening and reading within the relationship between student, teacher and teaching object?


Image above is Rembrandt's "Bathsheba at her Bath" (1654), reproduced from The Trade of the Teacher.

The Trade of the Teacher

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FROM THE BOOK

Excerpt from the chapter, "Narratology: A Mode of Expression"

Multiple Perspectives
The present consists of multiple perspectives. Can I show you an image? Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at Her Bath. We see that she crosses her legs. Now, try to do this. Try to cross your legs and put your feet the way she does. You can’t do it! Because the foot is on the far side of her knee while the calf is on this side of her knee. This is physically impossible. Now, what does that mean? It is generally assumed to mean—if people notice it at all—that Rembrandt made a mistake, or a later copyist made a mistake, or whatever. No, Rembrandt was no sloppy painter. In my view, Rembrandt is making a point about narrative. The spectator looks from the front and sees a nude, really a nude. She is a bit shy so she looks sideways, but it is a nude. You get to see her body and you can think, hum, I wish I had that body at my disposal. Which is exactly what the other, barely visible character in the story, King David, is thinking. He is another focalizer. But there is also this other woman who is a servant, and who is cleaning Bathsheba’s foot—that foot that is logically in the wrong place. Making her ready. In fact, she is making her ready for royal rape. King David is about to rape Bathsheba. And so, this is a bad story, a story of abuse. But how can you make a story of abuse so that the spectators get it in their present, not to imitate the abuse but to reflect on it? So, what Rembrandt did with the foot that doesn’t match, the foot that is on the wrong side, is not a mistake. Imagine he is making a collage of two paintings. One is the nude that entices people to desire her. The other is the narrative—which is in the direction from her to the servant and the guy who is spying from the roof—this is what the story is going to tell. It is going to end badly because she is going to be prepared like this, to be taken to the king to be raped. What she has in her hand is a letter. That letter has no direct bearing on the story, other than being an allusion to the letter that the king has sent to the head of the army to say "put her husband in the line of danger." In the biblical story Bathsheba never sees that letter. But, with the crumpled letter and the melancholy look, she is already in a sort of subjection and acceptance that her life is going to change. Her husband is going to die and she is going to be taken by the king. It is a completely different story from the one we see at first sight, of a nude woman presented for your pleasure, but one that you, as the spectator who lives in the present and sees this nude body and can have appreciative responses to it, are also compelled to acknowledge, at least if you really look at her and recognize the oddity. Then you notice that, because of the foot directed to the left and behind where it should be, she is not there for you. Then you can come to the conclusion that she is basically in that nasty narrative. So, there are two stories in the painting, two "takes" if you see it as a film: one take from the front and one take from this side, in a montage that combines them. That tells you that there are multiple focalizing positions.

Awareness
It is up to you whether you want to abuse Bathsheba, appropriate her, exploit her, or protect her against the danger that is about to happen. You are made aware, you can even "feel" it, that there are not one but at least two images, two stories; two genres even. It is also a play on the genre of narrative. That is, for a smart artist like Rembrandt, you can assume he must have had his tongue in his cheek. For the teacher, the question is, how do you get students to be sensitized to this?"

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