that salient detail

Uncategorized August 18, 2016

The House of Cards by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin

Chardin appears to have been struck precisely by the depth of absorption which those activities [games or frivolous amusements] tended naturally to elicit from those engaged in them. At any rate, he appears to have done all he could to make that depth of absorption manifest to the beholder, most importantly by singling out in each picture at least one salient detail that functions as sign of the figure’s obliviousness to everything but the operation he or she is intent upon performing.

-Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, 47

The absent ‘fourth wall’ of conventional realistic theatre tries to remind us that the actors onstage do not see us and do not need us. As in the absorptive painting that Fried writes about here, the medium of the theatre acknowledges us, while the subject of the portrayal does not; it says ‘I am seeing you’ even as this boy or this girl cannot. Yet this is not the ‘salient detail’ that Fried notes in the 18th century French painter Chardin’s eminently theatrical paintings. An open drawer or a bird that would distract but for the focus of the subject painted–these double over the mode of absorption so that we cannot be mistaken about the closure of this world depicted. In the theatre, we have the offstage space to pretend an extension of the theatrical beyond our own access.


The offstage pretends that there is a back to everything whose front we see. Many have noted that a chair onstage is no longer simply a chair, but has become the sign for a chair, the character ‘chair’. It becomes a mask and acquires a backstage of its own. So, too, a person need only step onto a stage to become purely frontal, to lose his backside and have it replaced with a backstage. It is a back room that he can never enter, but must circle endlessly.