Book review / A regard for feelings

Eyes of Love: The Gaze in English and French Paintings and Novels 1840-1900 by Stephen Kern Reaktion, pounds 22.50
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The Independent Culture
The recent coincidence in time of two exhibitions - Cezanne, the father of modern art, and Lord Leighton, that polished exponent of the tail-end of the Renaissance tradition - drew attention to two seemingly antipodean contemporaries. But a different conceptual filter can change the way we look. Stephen Kern focuses our attention on eyes and the meaning they convey. This simple idea, here brilliantly developed, uncovers patterns of composition which unite the French Impressionists with late Victorian artists. A courtship scene by Manet is mercifully free from the sticky sentiment found in John Horsley's "Blossom Time". But both artists make use of the interrogative gaze, and similar pictorial conventions, to pose the age-old question: "Will she or won't she?''

The term here coined - "proposal compositions'' - proves apt. Kern shows how artists, when positioning a man and woman in amorous relationship, consistently gave the eyes of the woman greater prominence. Frequently, the man's face is shown in shadow or in three- quarter view. As often, the woman, turning slightly away from the man, is shown full face, her eyes conveying a mixture of emotions, including reserve, doubt and moral reckoning. Whatever is being proposed, be it marriage, sexual seduction or blackmail, the woman seems to have the wider view. Likewise, in novels of this period, women's eyes receive more attention than men's. Flaubert's Emma Bovary, for instance, has "an open gaze that met yours with fearless candour'', while her husband Charles has merely "a timid look''. In Daniel Deronda, George Eliot devotes much of the opening chapter to the analysis of a glance, that which in Gwendolen Harleth first caught Daniel's attention.

One of Kern's achievements is to make the reader look differently at familiar paintings. Renoir's sun-dappled "The Swing", hitherto a delightfully easy portrayal of leisure, becomes a complex document in human relations. The man standing with his back to the viewer looks at the woman holding the ropes of a swing. She leans slightly away from him, the side of her body pushing against one of the ropes, and instead of returning his gaze she looks aside, as if lost in reverie. As Kern observes, "her minimal activity is full of subtle resistance''. Similarly, Kern turns "The Umbrellas", one of the best-loved Renoirs in the National Gallery, into a psychological minefield, again chiefly by making us look at those expressive signals, the eyes.

As a Research Professor at Northern Illinois University, Kern brings to this book abundant and up-to-date scholarship. He is aware that his emphasis on the dominant role played by women in these pictures will, ironically, annoy certain feminists. For any discussion of "the gaze'' plunges us straight into ocular politics, and one central tenet of feminist art history has been the notion that females, especially nudes, are objectified, reduced to passive, powerless objects by the male gaze. Traditionally, the film critic Laura Mulvey argued, images of women connote "to-be-looked- at-ness''. This awkward praise, lifted by others, has done much to encourage a great deal of pre-conceived looking from which Kern now offers release.

Kern does not deny that women in the late nineteenth century lived in a gender- imbalanced world. But in both art and literature he finds them, not objectified and dispossessed, but resonant with subjectivity. In many instances, he shows how females garner considerable power through their eyes. He also argues that their moral superiority in the realm of love provided a necessary balance against male privilege elsewhere. His arguments are provocative, though some of the images he analyses may be more ambiguous than he admits. In some instances, he fails to allow awareness of aesthetic purpose to modify his iconographic readings. For instance, J.S. Sargent's "A Dinner Table at Night" is offered as an image of deadlock in wedlock. But the compositional arrangement is less the product of estrangement than the strangeness which is also found in others of Sargent's informal portraits in shadowy interiors.

This quibble does not detract from the conviction that steadily accrues to Kern's argument. Even Degas, often tagged a miso-gynist, is here shown to contribute a positive view of women. His bathers, seen as if through a keyhole - as the artist himself admitted - are in Kern's view secure in their sense of privacy. In the same way that Degas in his day disconcerted male critics, more accustomed to seeing women posed to be seen, so Kern will ruffle the established notion that women are usually portrayed as victims in male art.