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The University of Southampton
Winchester School of Art

Research project: Modes of Address

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This project is concerned with the ways in which a constructed image (painting, photograph) takes up a ‘mode of address’ in relation to the viewer.

This project is a cross-disciplinary collaboration, encompassing the disciplines of Fine Art Practice, Art Theory and Experimental Psychology. The research focuses on exploring the relationship between historical and theoretical notions of modes of address (defined as the ways in which relations between addresser and addressee are constructed in an image or text) and psychological explorations of the act of spectatorship in pictorial art. Using an innovative combination of art practice and experimental and statistical techniques from visual cognition, we are investigating modes of address in pictorial artworks by making their impact on spectatorship explicit.

The aesthetic context for the research is one which was initially theorised in 18th century France, in particular by art historian and critic Denis Diderot. The Salon texts by Diderot, written in the 1760’s, introduce the issue of the relationship between painting and beholder, an understanding of which was of vital importance to the pictorial enterprise and the evolution of painting in France throughout those years and the decades that followed. This context has been developed since the 1960’s in a series of texts by art historian Michael Fried whose work recognises that these continue to be key issues for pictorial practice and spectatorship into the present. Fried has established a theorisation of the structure of the visual, and proposes a formulated aesthetic regime, drawing upon Diderot, in which the basic distinguishing principles are those of ‘absorption’ and ‘theatricality’.

While the objective structure that underpins ‘absorption’ and ‘theatricality’ has been theorised, there has been no work on the actual visuo-cognitive responses made by spectators to pictorial art exhibiting these properties. The disconnection between our understanding of objective structure and spectatorship is, to date, an omission and one which vision scientists have the tools and methods to investigate. We are using portable eye-trackers and a range of qualitative and quantitative methods to test responses to different pictorial modes of address through selected key works in situ in the museum, and again in relation to new works made by the artist-researchers.

Aims:

  • To contribute to knowledge and understanding of modes of address and spectatorship in the pictorial arts
  • To contribute to the development and exchange of ideas within experimental psychology, art practice and art theory through innovative collaboration.
  • To produce a range of outcomes which will be of interest to scholars and practitioners in all of these fields, as well as to the wider public interested in visual art and scientific enquiry.
  • To work with high-profile partner institutions to give broad public access to the project’s findings, for example in an interactive exhibition incorporating historical works, new works, and computer displays of scientific data.


A pilot study was conducted on Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere at the Courtauld Gallery in March 2011 using 8 participants (4 experts from WSA and Courtauld, and 4 novices from Psychology.) This painting is seen as a pivotal example for study as it incorporates both absorptive and theatrical modes of address. Produced at the start of the modernist period, the painting problematises the role of the spectator by utilising devices of both modes, and introducing a ‘mutual facing’ (Fried, Manet’s Modernism, 1996), which unsettles the conventional relationship of painting and spectator. The pilot data is currently being analysed and results will form the basis of a larger project bid involving practice-based researchers later in 2011, outcomes will include exhibition and publications.

In Stage 2 of the project, in partnership with The British School at Rome, we will develop a further project to analyse Modes of Address in works designed for in-situ viewing as opposed to Salon viewing. We plan to study Caravaggio’s three works in-situ at the Church of St.Luigi in Rome and for comparison, one of his museum pictures displayed in London.

References:

Fried, M 1980, Absorption and Theatricality; painting and beholding in the Age of Diderot, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.
Fried, M 1996, Manet’s Modernism; or, the face of painting in the 1860’s, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.
Fried, M 2008, Why photography matters as art as never before, Yale University Press

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