More Musings on Memory

July 27, 2009

An interesting series of events occurred in mid-nineteenth century France: Lecoq’s discovery of a systematic way to develop (human) visual memory to a high degree of accuracy followed perhaps ten years after the French Academy of Sciences recognized the patent application of Louis Daguerre and his Daguerreotype. Surely Lecoq was not unaware of the early stirrings of photography, it would have been blasted over the newspapers and fully discussed in the cultural circles of his time. What is interesting rather, is to consider why it seems his discovery received the little recognition that it did – both then and now.

One possible reason could be the explosion of Impressionism: one year after the 1862 publication of Lecoq’s revised edition of L’Education de la mémoire pittoresque was the famous 1863 Salon des Refusés, which marked the beginnings of Impressionism. It’s readily acknowledged historically that the advent of photography provided the impetus for Impressionism and the art forms which it engendered: Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Da-Da, Expressionism, Pop-Art, Hard-Edge, Color Field, Minimalism, Symbolism, etc… all moving further and further afield from a realistic rendering of external reality and towards an abstract vision of an inner, subjective reality (whatever it may be, using whatever means may be available, which may or may not have any relationship to the external world).

I humbly submit that by losing (through devaluation) the various tools and techniques which artists have used for centuries for rendering personally significant reactions to the external world in and around themselves humanity has lost an essential relationship. An essential mirror of itself. I would not argue against abstraction, and conversely, I would not argue for realism, as both languages can be exceptionally powerful or exceptionally vapid, depending upon their spokesperson, but I would argue for integration. The physical absorbed into the metaphysical; the metaphysical rendered meaningful through the physical. In this powerful inner dialog (which essentially comprises a human life), experiential memory plays an essential role. Kinda exciting to consider that, isn’t it?

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In 1848 the art teacher Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran wrote a treatise called L’Education de la mémoire pittoresque for his students. That treatise was revised and republished in 1862. Later, he wrote two other small texts for his students which were published in 1876 and 1879, respectively. Many notable 19th century artists passed through his atelier: Fantin-Latour, Legros, Rodin, Lepère, Lhermitte among others. Subsequently through Legros, many other artists, like George Innes and James MacNeill Whistler were influenced by his ideas.

Although the mainstream current of twentieth century art has moved away from imitative or realistic interpretations of the world around us, the role of personally significant memory has never been greater. It is with that in mind that I have finally located, downloaded and printed out this text. The translation, which was done approximately one hundred years ago, appears to be a fine one, well researched among the still extant students of LeCoq at that time.

I’m posting this link as information for anyone else who may be interested in exploring Lecoq’s work. The Training of the Memory in Art and the Education of the Artist, Translated by L. D. Luard. Et l’original en français: L’éducation de la mémoire pittoresque, de Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran. Yesterday, for 14 Euros and an hour of my time, I located the link, downloaded the file, burned a CD, took it to a local print shop, for the which I received a simple, black and white, plastic coated, spiral bound edition. I now have a copy of a book that I have searched twenty years for. Hooray for the internet!!!