When Maurice Denis published his proto-formalist manifesto, the ‘Définition du néo-traditionnisme’, in August 1890, he deployed the rhetorical conventions of what Martha Ward has called the ‘aesthetics of normality’ to devalue academic and naturalist practices by branding them pathological in comparison to what he termed neo-traditionism. Using the words ‘hallucination’, ‘perturbation’, and ‘anomaly’ to describe the minutely detailed work of trompe l’oeil specialists such as Ernest Meissonier, Denis reserved the words ‘pure’, ‘true’, even ‘normal’ for the painting of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. In the ‘Définition’, the word déformation appeared on the side of naturalism as a false and diseased doctrine. Meissonier had embarked upon a ‘deformation’ of the Dutch tradition, while a mania for mimesis had ‘deformed the eye of the Academy’s teachers’.
But one year later, Denis made deformation central to his symbolist visual practice and soon, as my epigraph suggests, his modernist theories. In 1891, Denis exhibited a highly distorted female nude enigmatically entitled Décor, positioning the painting to court the attention of symbolist critics, to rival other modernist nudes, and to function as a corollary to the ‘Définition’, a visual demonstration that a painting, ‘before being a battle horse, a female nude, or some other anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered in colours arranged in a certain order’. In a letter to a critic that he surely anticipated would be published, Denis proclaimed the work to be a ‘study in subjective deformation’. But while the ‘Définition’ proved a success, an apparent licence for modernist abstraction, Décor failed to find many admirers. Denis withdrew it from the public realm (it remains untraced) and by and large tamed the distortions of his painted female bodies. When Denis salvaged deformation for his symbolist theory, he argued that symbolist painting was ideally a balance between the extreme ‘subjective deformations’ exemplified by Vincent van Gogh and the ‘objective deformations’ manifested by Paul Gauguin. This manoeuvre, underpinned by Denis’s education in positivist philosophy, revalued deformation’s pathological associations, providing deformation with a scientificist cast, which in turn eased modernism’s discursive tendency to separate form from content.
Conserving as it does some chimerical notion of right, correct, or true form, deformation has been identified as a false problem for modernism. Richard Shiff, approaching this ‘inherently evasive subject’, argued that déformation, which he translated as ‘distortion’, was a widely deployed strategy of the late nineteenth century that functioned largely as a guarantee of artistic sincerity. His argument deflates critics who denigrated modernism by comparing its visual language to physiological deformity. But in normalizing modernist deformation as a sign of authenticity, Shiff also neutralized it, eliding the conjunctions at play between deformation, pathology, and the body in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alongside concerns over socio-cultural degeneration, those associations tightened at the fin-de-siècle at the same moment that critics and artists were increasingly debating deformation as an artistic strategy.
The critical dispute exacerbated by the exhibition of Décor centred on whether deformation of the human body, and especially the female nude, could ever constitute the basis for a viable symbolist art practice. Many critics, including Alphonse Germain and Yvanhoé Rambosson, said that it could not, arguing that deformation could never be anything but a dangerous sign of pathology. Others avoided the issue, perhaps aware that deformation could only too easily be mobilized to denigrate representations of a body unpalatable to particular tastes and ideologies. Denis offered the first modernist solution to this problem by placing deformation at the very centre of his understanding if not his execution of symbolist visual form, but only after revaluing pathology and thus diminishing its pejorative connotations. He did this by instituting a continuum between subjective and objective deformation effectively modelled on nineteenth-century positivist assumptions about the essential, continuous, and useful relationship between the normal and the pathological.