Darwin considered that letting out one’s emotions was something inappropriate for “civilized” men. Instead, crying was proper for weak personalities, that is, women with a hysterical tendency, senile old men and children, as well as “primitive” people.
But, in spite of his andro and Eurocentric blindness, Darwin study of the phylogenetic transmission of behaviors and expressions influenced a thinker who would revolutionize the way of reading images and approaching the history of art, Aby Warburg.
Warburg defined himself as a psycho-historian because he discovered in the images “pathologies of time”, emotive impressions configuring a common substrate over the centuries. He discerned antique “pathetic” gestures or “pathos formulas” (pathosformel) as a kind of visual heritage migrating and transforming themselves.
The exhibition Poetics of emotion in Caixaforum Barcelona traces the heritage of pathos in artistic expressions from different eras. Curated by Érika Goyarrola, it brings together religious pieces and contemporary artistic manifestations, paying attention to the current latencies of immemorial emotional residues.
The route by the museum reveals the polarities between suffering and acting, between the inner turmoil and the collective passion. Thus, from the individual body as a seismic container of emotion, we will turn to the conversion of private weeping into a political gesture, from individual joy to the festive event. On the other hand, architecture and landscape will be “affected” by affections.
The “mourners” represented in funerary monuments of the High Middle Ages prefigure expressions of mourning whose influence reaches contemporary languages so different as video art (Bill Viola) and photojournalism (Enric Folgosa). The pain encoded by exaggerated gestures such as pulling the hair or scratching the face confronts us with the paradoxical encounter between the convention of the gesture and the authenticity of the feeling.
But there is no contradiction because the passional choreography is also a language, a means to communicate the state of mind, so that their pre-established codes do not detract their sincerity.
However, artists interested in the constructions of the Ego and its fallacies have managed to caricature the affectations related to certain stereotypes, for example, those associated with women or with the melancholic temperament of the artist.
In the photograph series Strangeness, pain and a long etc (2013) Esther Ferrer transforms her face with histrionic gestures showing a broad spectrum of sufferings, which reminds us of Darwin’s comment about the elderly senile.
The photographic and video self-portrait with parodic intentions was also explored by Bas Jan Ader, who in the video piece I’m too sad to tell you (1971) cries in despair facing the camera. We do not know what happens to him, he is “too sad” to tell us. This was neither the first nor the last melodramatic gesture that this peculiar artist elevated to an aesthetic category.
We find also the humor as a subversive tool in Pipilotti Rist‘s video I’m the girl who misses much. She sings over and over a fragment of a Beatles song gradually speeding up. Gesture and voice are distorted and they become pure squealing in a disjointed body. The grotesque neckline and the lack of control of the movements resemble an inflatable doll in a trance state.
The hysterical pantomime is to Rist a form of resistance, almost an exorcism, an explosion of pleasure. Something similar happens to the singer of Turbulent (1998), a video work of Shirin Neshat. Facing an empty auditorium the woman improvises an ecstatic song using guttural sounds. On the adjacent screen, a man sings a Sufi melody in front of a full audience.
The singer is possessed by an inner turmoil that leads her to break with the canons of Persian music and with the rules imposed by Islamic law that prohibits Iranian women from entering theaters and singing in public.
The etymology of the word “e-motion” translates the idea of movement outward. An emotion is entrenched inside one’s body if it does not flow in some way towards the outside. It is evident in the rebellious gesture that Neshat choreography, or in the mothers (a pagan version of the Dolorosas) that from the lament for the death of their son happen to raise their fists (Julio González), becoming part of the inherited archetypes of the people in arms.
But if we listen to Spinoza it is not sadness but joy that unites us and makes us free, because happiness increases the power of action. When Iván Argote transforms places of transit as a metro elevator (Birthday) into ephemeral spaces with a sense of community, he aligns with Guy Debord’s claim: “we create momentary living environments to transform them into a superior quality of passion”.
The duende incarnated in the gypsy dance (Colita) shares with the raves in Thatcher’s England (Jeremy Deller) a feeling of community that, from the marginal, combines celebration and dissent. By inviting a band to play an acid house theme, Deller associates a counterculture born of industrial ruins with the preceding union struggle. The euphoria of the ecstasy in the dilapidated sheds and the commitment of brass bands with the working class share the same genealogy.
The desire emerges when the appetite (in body and soul) becomes conscious, and is as strong as weak is the sadness and fear, easily manipulated by priests and rulers, wrote Spinoza. Baroque painting, at the ecclesiastical service, displayed an unprecedented dramaturgy of suffering.
The iconography of martyrdom, devoid of its indoctrinating purposes, has served artists like Gina Pane to awaken us from mental anesthesia. The stigma inflicted on one’s own body is a testimony of war or gender violence (Psyche Action).
Finally, when emotion is projected into space, when the passionate universe blurs the limits of the subject, different phenomena can occur. The ruinous architectures in which Francesca Woodman was photographed, mimicking her flesh with the peeling of the walls, refer us to the “instinct of abandonment” of which Roger Callois spoke when studying the psychotic mimicry with the environment (“psychasthenia”).
The emotional impression on the space is very different in Carla Andrade‘s photographs. In her white landscapes, the form cannot be grasped and reality is a veil, is a delusion. Geometry of Echoes (2013) expresses a time without a course and a void full of a kind of potency of being.
With regard to Aristotle’s Rhetoric, without pathos the art of persuasion is not complete. Throughout history, the easy manipulation of other’s emotions has been abused, and paradoxically they have been undervalued for centuries (passion is a disease of the soul, Kant affirmed). Now that the magnetic resonances confirm the intuitions of Spinoza, it is surprising that we need to see the brain inside to accept that without the “raisons du coeur”, as Pascal well knew, there is no understanding.
Poéticas de la emoción is part of Colección “la Caixa” de Arte Contemporáneo and has the collaboration of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, MNAC.
Organized and produced by “La Caixa”
Curator: Érika Goyarrola
in CaixaForum, Barcelona
until 19th May 2019
Other artists included in the exhibition: Ramón Padró Pijoan, Manolo Millares, Darío de Regoyos, Perejaume, Günter Förg, Joan Miró