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Title: The Disposition of Persons: Conventions of Pose and the Modernization of Figural Art, 1886-1912
Authors: Butterfield-Rosen, Emmelyn
Advisors: Doherty, Brigid
Contributors: Art and Archaeology Department
Keywords: Georges Seurat
Gustav Klimt
human figure
Vaslav Nijinsky
Subjects: Art history
Issue Date: 2015
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: “The Disposition of Persons: Conventions of Pose and the Modernization of Figural Art, 1886-1912” examines the emergence of new conventions for posing and positioning the human figure in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European art. Organized as a sequence of studies on the painting Poseuses (1886-1888) by the French Neo-Impressionist artist Georges Seurat, the Beethovenfries mural (1902) by the Austrian Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt, and the ballet L’Après-midi d’un faune (1912) by the Russian dancer and Ballets Russes choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, the dissertation argues for the significance of correlations between shifting aesthetic approaches to corporeal presentation, and new conceptualizations (scientific, sociological, psychological) of the human disposition. The decades around 1900 witnessed a remarkable departure from some of Western figural art’s most enduring conventions for posing human figures, as artists working in various European contexts, and in diverse media, began to abandon techniques of pose that had been standard for several centuries up through Impressionism—the foreshortening and ponderation of bodies, for instance, and the variation of postures and gestures among discrete figures. By eliminating lateral torsions along the body’s central vertical axis, aligning bodies “frontally” (directly parallel or perpendicular to the support, in the case of works of visual art, or to the viewer, in the case of theatrical performances), restricting flexions and extensions of limbs, and often presenting multiple bodies in identical positions, turn-of-the-century artists broke decisively with inherited paradigms of figural mimesis, effecting a formal rupture that destabilized prevailing visual codes for signifying the existence of the inner life of the human subject. Focusing on three works that engaged these new strategies of figural presentation in distinct ways and to varying ends, “The Disposition of Persons” interrogates the motivating circumstances and theoretical significance of this formal development, addressing the ways in which the appearance of new types of figural poses in modern artworks staged aesthetic and epistemological challenges in turn-of-the-century European culture to many deeply held assumptions about human consciousness and the human being’s privileged status in the world. As a whole, the dissertation argues that the repudiation of inherited conventions of pose across Poseuses, the Beethovenfries, and L’Après-midi d’un faune both reflected and participated in the reconceptualization of the human disposition that took place in the later nineteenth century in the wake of the two major intellectual developments Sigmund Freud described in 1917 as the “biological” and “psychological” blows to “human narcissism;” namely, the recognition by the new field of evolutionary biology of the animal descent of the human species, and the recognition in the modern disciplines of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis of the unconscious dimensions of human mental life. The dissertation situates Seurat’s, Klimt’s, and Nijinsky’s works in dialogue with concepts of sexual instincts, of hypnosis, of somnambulism, and of dreams as articulated in writing by prominent period thinkers including Charles Darwin, Jean-Martin Charcot, Gabriel Tarde, and Freud. These are by no means unfamiliar intellectual contexts to bring to the study of modern culture around 1900. This study aims to isolate some very concrete ways in which these new forms of knowledge about the human subject impacted upon aesthetic traditions of figural representation, destabilizing and transforming the enduring enterprise of presenting the human being in artistic form. In doing so, the dissertation also identifies visual forms that enrich and complicate our understanding of new concepts of subjectivity that emerged as central to a range of discourses in Europe in the decades around 1900.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Art and Archaeology

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