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Alison Goodyear

Published date
19 Jun 2018

Privileged, Unique and Temporary: Interpreting Aesthetic Experiences of the Painter-painting Relationship through an Address to and from Practice

Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon

This practice led research engages with the legacy of debates on the theory of aesthetic absorption and the painter-painting relationship.

It specifically focuses on an axis of thought and practice on absorption that includes Michael Fried, Denis Diderot, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. This axis, I claim, unlocks the questions that Fried was only able to speculate on concerning the painter-beholder.

Fried highlighted absorption in his art historical text ‘Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot’ (1980) drawing on the writings of one of the first major art critics, Denis Diderot. The central thesis Fried put forward, a concern particular to painting of this period, was regarding how internal absorption of the subjects within a painting encourages external absorption of the beholder.

This combined with Diderot’s paradoxical notion that painting should be constructed so as to ignore what Fried calls the ‘primordial convention’ (p.93, 1980) that all paintings are made to be beheld. Otherwise, argued Diderot, there was the risk of a mannered or theatrical approach where a painting addresses or faces the beholder and as a result impedes absorption by reminding the beholder of their position, that of standing in front of a painting.

Within his text, Fried speculates that the artist Chardin possibly found in his process ‘a natural correlative for his own engrossment in the act of painting and a proleptic mirroring of what he trusted would be the absorption of the beholder before the finished work’ (p.51, 1980).

It is this key phrase that I suggest points us in a new direction for research concerning the relationship of aesthetic absorption. Fried is only capable of examining the painter-beholder through interpreting the compositions of painting.

My practice led research considers that there is another perspective yet to be examined in order to fully appreciate the concerns and intricacies surrounding absorption and theatricality. It differs from previous studies insofar as its focus is not the painting-beholder relationship, but rather the painter-beholder relationship.

It analyses hypotheses on aesthetic absorption from the perspective of practice, from the position of painter-beholder during the process of painting. It aims to open up a new dialogue, and add to a greater comprehension and articulation on the concept of aesthetic absorption, interpreting its role in contemporary painting practice.


Professor Malcolm Quinn

Dr Daniel Sturgis