“I looked at the studios with the painter’s interest in mind. Whenever I saw a significant detail that enhanced my knowledge of the artist and his method of work, I recorded it. To document the creative act I had to observe it without altering it by my presence. To gain the confidence of an artist, so that he could work as if I were not in the studio, took several years of patient visits.” (Liberman 1960: p. viii)

[Alexander Liberman 1960, 1988: The Artist in His Studio. London: Thames & Hudson. p.viii]

The Artist in His Studio capitalizes on this claim to authentic insight, which is presented as a large appeal of both the book and the studio visit in general. Liberman supports his claim by doing two things. First he explicitly acknowledges the risk of his presence altering the creative act, and explains how he has mitigated against this risk by patiently fostering personal relationships, allowing each artist to work “as if I were not in the studio”

The second thing he does is more surreptitious: he uses his first-person narrative account to incorporate himself into the tableau of the studio. This covert strategy stops up the patent gaps in his claim to have observed the creative act “without altering it by my presence”. Through the author’s introduction and the laudatory cover notes Liberman himself becomes one of the great characters of the book. He presents a compelling image of himself and his project:

“When I first began this quest, I was a curious young painter trying to pierce the secret ways of the creative process, to discover how the great masters lived and worked, and to report this for future striving artists. The camera was the pretext to enter the privacy and stillness of their studios, witnessing, photographing, and documenting their involuntary mannerisms and, perhaps, their unwitting communications. […] The days, months, years spent on this endeavor were among the most rewarding of my life. I came out of this soul-searching experience humbled by the knowledge of the difficulty of attaining a radiant goal despite the rejection that often greets the new.” (p. ix)

As a friend of the artists—a “twentieth-century Vasari”—and hence just as much of a character in the story as the artists themselves, he presents no risk to the authenticity of the studio visits described in the book because he is part of what we, as readers, are here to visit. The author is not outside the tableau of the studio, he is part of the scene itself.

Absorbing the visitor into the studio visit is one way to address the tension between absorption and theatricality in the studio visit: between the ‘authentic’ creative act and the presentation/observation of that act. Liberman makes clear in his introduction that his observations of the artists are “a series of impressions” and that the book is best approached “on this subjective plane” (p. viii). But his own presence turns out to be a crucial part of this series of impressions, and this subjective and persuasive rendering of himself is essential to the book’s central claim for authenticity.

Questions arising:

  • How does Liberman’s incorporation of himself into the studio tableau relate to Diderot’s incorporation of himself into the painted tableau? This would imply parity between the beholder of a studio/artist and the beholder of a painting; which would in turn imply parity between the site of the studio/artist and the site of the painting.
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