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This is Not Just a Painting

Bernard Lahire

ISBN: 978-1-509-52871-4 April 2019 Polity 450 Pages

Description

In 2008, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon acquired a painting called The Flight into Egypt which was attributed to the French artist Nicolas Poussin. Thought to have been painted in 1657, the painting had gone missing for more than three centuries. Several versions were rediscovered in the 1980s and one was passed from hand to hand, from a family who had no idea of its value to gallery owners and eventually to the museum. A painting that had been sold as a decorative object in 1986 for around 12,000 euros was acquired two decades later by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon for 17 million euros.

What does this remarkable story tell us about the nature of art and the way that it is valued? How is it that what seemed to be just an ordinary canvas could be transformed into a masterpiece, that a decorative object could become a national treasure? This is a story permeated by social magic  the social alchemy that transforms lead into gold, the ordinary into the extraordinary, the profane into the sacred.

Focusing on this extraordinary case, Bernard Lahire lays bare the beliefs and social processes that underpin the creation of a masterpiece. Like a detective piecing together the clues in an unsolved mystery he carefully reconstructs the steps that led from the same material object being treated as a copy of insignificant value to being endowed with the status of a highly-prized painting commanding a record-breaking price. He thereby shows that a painting is never just a painting, and is always more than a piece of stretched canvass to which brush strokes of paint have been applied: this object, and the value we attach to it, is also the product of a complex array of social processes – with its distinctive institutions and experts – that lies behind it. And through the history of this painting, Lahire uncovers some of the fundamental structures of our social world. For the social magic that can transform a painting from a simple copy into a masterpiece is similar to the social magic that is present throughout our societies, in economics and politics as much as art and religion, a magic that results from the spell cast by power on those who tacitly recognize its authority.

By following the trail of a single work of art, Lahire interrogates the foundations on which our perceptions of value and our belief in institutions rest and exposes the forms of domination which lie hidden behind our admiration of works of art.
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction. Unravelling a canvas
  • Flights into Egypt: trajectories, rivalries and controversies
  • Breaking away from legends
  • Categorised and classified paintings and retrospective illusions
  • The real: between material continuity and social discontinuity
  • The objects of research: status, values and modes of behaviour
  • Pulling on a loose thread
  • Coda
  • Book 1. History, domination and social magic
  • Chapter 1. Self-evident facts and foundations of beliefs
  • Chapter 2. Domination and social magic
  • The objective forms of domination
  • A problem hidden beneath the fragmentation of points of view
  • Capital or symbolic effects?
  • Outline of a general theory of the magic of power
  • Chapter 3. Linked oppositions: dominators/dominated and sacred/profane
  • A history of the linked transformations of power and the sacred
  • Magic and power in stateless societies
  • Magic and power in State societies
  • The high and the low
  • Political fictions or how man created God in his image
  • Struggles for the appropriation of the sacred
  • Secularisation, sanctification and the sacred foundations of all society
  • Book 2. Art, domination, sanctification
  • Chapter 4. The expansion of the domain of the sacred: the emergence of art as an autonomous domain, separate from the profane.
  • Poets and artists, sovereigns and demiurges
  • The history of a collective sanctification
  • From relics to works of art
  • The separation of art and life
  • Admire first, interpret later
  • Beneath admiration, domination
  • The magic of paintings
  • Fables and hoaxes
  • Copies and forgeries
  • Chapter 5. Authentication and attribution
  • Where to look for scientific truths?
  • The expert: doing things with words
  • Performative act I: the catalogue raisonné
  • Performative act II: the exhibition
  • Attributions and disattributions: controversies and changes of opinion
  • The history and logic of attributionism
  • Science in the service of the sacred
  • Taking the ‘obvious’ out of the authentic
  • Book 3. On Poussin and some Flights into Egypt
  • Chapter 6. Sublime Poussin: master of French classicism
  • Journey of an artist against time and tide: independence and creative freedom
  • Painter-philosopher and artist
  • On Poussin’s success
  • To art, a nation’s gratitude
  • Chapter 7. The fabulous destiny of paintings attributed to Nicolas Poussin
  • Links, associations and changes in status
  • Histories of paintings
  • The painting of a great painter whose talent is declining
  • On the trail of an admirable painting
  • Three canvases resurface
  • A growing controversy
  • The comparison test
  • The behind the scenes activity of the gallery owners
  • The first public recognition of the ‘Pardo’ version
  • New developments: the request for the annulment of the 1986 sale
  • The acquisition of a national treasure
  • In search of sponsors
  • The magic of a masterpiece
  • The end of a controversy
  • The conditions of enchantment and disenchantment
  • A version without an expert
  • Chapter 8. Poussin, science, law and the art market
  • Poussin in the laboratory
  • Analyses of the ‘Piasecka-Johnson’ version
  • Analyses of the ‘Pardo-MBA de Lyon’ version
  • Poussin in court
  • Erreur sur la substance
  • A determining precedent: the case of Olympos and Marsyas or the ‘Saint-Arroman case’
  • The trial of the ‘other Poussin affair’
  • The price of a painting
  • Chapter 9. How each person plays their game
  • Art historians: who has the eye?
  • Sir Anthony Blunt (1907-1983)
  • Sir Denis Mahon (1910-2011)
  • Jacques Thuillier (1928-2011)
  • Pierre Rosenberg (1936-)
  • The gallery owners: playing (and losing) the game
  • A museum director playing (and winning) her game
  • Conclusions
  • Working outside the fields
  • At the root of beliefs
  • Exposing the invisible monster
  • A fragile learned game
  • Post-scriptum. The conditions for scientific creation
  • Notes
  • Summary of information sources consulted
  • Bibliography
  • Supplementary Bibliography
  • Index
"Few books can truly claim to be a tour de force. This is not Just a Painting by Bernard Lahire is truly one of those rare works. Beginning with the account of a purchase of a controversial work by Nicolas Poussin by the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, Lahire develops a creative and innovative approach to sociological theorizing, weaving together culture, politics, and social psychology as the basis for understanding how societies operate. The book is operatic in the breadth. Building on the intersection of magic, dominance, and the aesthetic, Lahire has presented a set of ideas that demands close attention and intense dialogue. Paintings are never just paintings; they are tools through which society conceptualizes itself."
Gary Alan Fine, James E. Johnson Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University; author Talking Art: The Practice of Culture and the Culture of Practice in MFA Education.

"Lahire’s wide-ranging and profoundly scholarly book digs deeply into the meanings sociology can find in and attribute to works of art. He puts his knowledge of art history and aesthetic theory to good use in the exploration and deepening of sociological investigations, nowhere better than in his discussion of the work of Poussin."
Howard Becker, author of Art Worlds

“Gloriously eccentric… thought-provoking and original” 
Catholic Herald