Holzapfel lectures on sight and perception in realism movement

Professor Holzapfel presents as part of the Faculty Lecture Series.
Professor Holzapfel presents as part of the Faculty Lecture Series. Photo courtesy of Christian Ruhl/Photo Editor.

Last Thursday, Associate Professor of Theater Amy Holzapfel gave the fourth address in the 2014 Faculty Lecture Series at the College. Holzapfel’s talk, titled “Acts of Seeing: Art, Vision & Realist Theatre,” explored how sight, perception of reality, artistic representation and the stage intersect in the realism movement.

Helga Druxes, professor of German, introduced Holzapfel by describing her work at the College in the theater department. Druxes pointed to Holzapfel’s most recent publication, Acts of Seeing: Art, Vision and Realist Theatre, as an example of her ongoing scholarship of the modern stage.

Holzapfel then introduced her topic by giving the audience a sense of the historical and theoretical backdrop for her analysis – namely, the evolving opinions about seeing as a “chaotic act of the body” and “inner subjective sensations and the outside world” in late 19th century Europe. Between 1848-1900, emerging theories of vision challenged existing ideas about how seeing connects to knowing, recapitulating both as “relative processes limited by a physical body.” Holzapfel explained how her study dissected acts of seeing, or “paradoxical instances of formal or thematic consciousness toward vision that betray the relativism and dynamism (subjectivity) – not the infallibility and reliability (objectivity) – of the modern observer.” Looking at this category of visual experiences, according to Holzapfel, would help revise the way realism has been thought merely to produce life on the stage.

With a theoretical framework in place, Holzapfel then delved into some of the major historical, scientific and artistic points of her talk. She explained how her lecture would look at 19th century visual culture at large and provide two brief studies of dramatists Henrik Ibsen and Émile Zola. Holzapfel first considered Zola, arguing that seeing was a high status act of revealing for both the playwright and for France at the time. She contextualized Zola’s “emerging theories of naturalism in the arts” and “living portraits on the stage” within a cultural environment of “experimental methods of seeing.” Many of these methods claimed to represent objectivity, like photography, but still engaged the “staged tableau” as a way to “represent observable realities and manipulate them.”

Holzapfel examined this impulse to stage a reality depicting psychological subjects within the burgeoning fields of science and documentary photography, but then moved to Zola’s play Thérèse Raquin and its attempt to present “encounters between its characters as battles of nerves.” Zola’s “acts of manipulations as dramatist” could be read within “a medical-scientific context,” as his protagonist Thérèse continually “sees things that just don’t exist.” According to Holzapfel, much in the same way that scientific and photographic fields at the time looked to represent visually previously invisible realms like the mind, the realist artist tried to convey the fluctuating experience of seeing.

Holzapfel next turned to Ibsen, placing his work against a backdrop of the cultural reaction to the “imperfection, limits and disturbing fluidity of human vision” during and after the late 1860s. At the time, Holzapfel suggested, the major questions of science and art approached the issue of whether seeing corresponded with knowing. “How do we tell if what we are seeing is real?” she asked the audience. Holzapfel suggested that Ibsen provided a “dramatic version of ocular realism” that embraced the inconsistencies of seeing, much in the same way that the Neo-Raphaelite painters of nineteenth-century England tried to translate reality into a representation that “approximated the artist’s point of view.” Holzapfel pointed out how the partial truth of “point of view” is both ideological and physiological, gesturing towards the discrepancies between and synthesis of what each eye sees individually. According to Holzapfel, “Ibsen presents a turning point in realism’s relationship to modern theories of vision.” Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, for example, examines how characters see the protagonist Nora and the “fluctuating viewpoints toward her” over the course of the play. Holzapfel argued that Ibsen explores the “way various observers see or fail to see objects as they appear before them in the world.”

Holzapfel broadened her argument to consider how realism and seeing connect to contemporary theater. Holzapfel suggested that the phenomenon of “embodied vision” as it emerged in the nineteenth century, or the notion of seeing being connected to a body, prefigures contemporary ideological revolutions like postmodernism. Holzapfel concluded by arguing that acts of seeing, and by extension acts of knowing and thus eventually evolve over time.

“It’s not so much that seeing changes,” Holzapfel said. “It’s that what we can see changes.”