Science of Art and Scientific Art
Delestre is at once a central character and an eccentric figure. This
is so in contemporary historiography, because this once famous “scientist”
is today forgotten. But this is also true in the history of the ideas
of his time, of which he appears retrospectively as one of the exemplary
figures at the same time as one of those who fosters a rethinking of
boundaries and definitions.
is an exemplary figure because this artist, who pursued an aesthetic
project (he was a painter) at the same time that he aspired to elaborate
a scientific norm (physiognomy), fits a form of nineteenth-century “tradition”:
that of the confrontation, even the fusion, of art and science. In the
course of the century, that tradition went in two main, and apparently
opposite, directions: on the one hand, toward the scientistic dream,
Seurat, of rationalizing art with a ruler; on the other—and this
is the Romantic utopia—toward an attempt to “reenchant”
science, which was deemed too materialist, via the establishment of
a connection with the artistic sphere.
the start, however, with his project Delestre upset this classical opposition.
Or, more precisely, he brought out the points where one might pass between
these two reputedly antagonistic paths. A physiognomist, he is right
in line with Lavater, who published in German between 1775 and 1778
a work entitled Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der
Menschenkenntniss und Menschenliebe, a text that marks the rebirth
of an already venerable practice to which Lavater attempted to give
a new legitimacy in light of the scientific progress of his age. This
is “a Science that is true in itself, grounded in Nature,”
a science bound to become “the Science of Sciences” which
Lavater wanted to build here through the alliance of science and religion.
The basic postulate, the one in which Lavater’s approach finds
its grounding and its justification, is that “God created Man
in His Image.” Man is therefore “Symbol of God &
of Nature.” Thenceforth, it is a moral duty to offer men
the bases for a “natural science” that would allow one to
rediscover the trace of the invisible in the visible, of the divinity
in man. Natural is to be understood here as that which proceeds
from nature, in opposition to the sciences invented by man. Indeed,
it is God Himself who has willed that nature, qua sign, guide man toward
his origin, so that he might not remain in ignorance of his Creator.
“Man would be reduced to knowing nothing of the objects surrounding
him as well as of himself, if in all of nature, each force, each life
did not reside in something perceptibly external. The Physiognomonie
is an attempt to establish a general semiotics in which all the parts
of nature are restored to their dignity as signs, a semiotics that operates
on a network of correspondence between inside and outside: “Physiognomy
would therefore be the Science that teaches one to know the relation
between the external and the internal, between the visible surface and
that which encompasses the invisible, between animate and perceptible
matter and the unperceivable principle that imprints this character
of life upon it, between the manifested effect and the hidden force
that produces it.” Here, the visible becomes the index of the
Concentration and Eccentration
Lavater, and Delestre
after him, break down the barriers raised by neo-Classicism, thus emptying
the traditional opposition between inside and outside of its meaning.
That opposition merely manifests, in another way, two opposing late-eighteenth-century
world views—reputedly those of classicism and romanticism. Jean
Starobinski formulates this opposition between the “concentric”
and “eccentric” world views in L’Invention de
la liberté, 1700-1789 (Paris: Skira, 1964; Paris: Flammarion,
"To this conception of a nature that tends, imperfectly,
for each object, for each species, toward a central type which art will
be able to become perfectly, the thought of a Diderot or of
a Buffon opposes the image of a nature understood quite to the contrary
as a power of variation, of divergence, of individuation. It is no longer
concentric effort, it is a “continual flowing movement”
that is characteristic of nature’s work: a diversifying expansion
in which the energies and the original obscure fermentation of matter
develop. Thenceforth, it is not the ideal type that will testify
to the creative intention of nature, it is the individual;
it is even, paradoxically, the kind we would consider a “monster.”
Nature is no longer conceived as an intention that aims at stabilizing
“central forms”; it appears as a dynamism that has the power
to create all possibilities, all the chains of the great chain of beings,
through the unfolding of an infinite time. Nature wants to create differences
and individual nuances, not specific types. Life is the deployment of
a power of differentiation, the ever new resultant of a bundle of determinisms.
There is no Creator superior to the creative power of nature"(1).
Author of a Tableau
synoptique d'un cours de philosophie de la peinture d'après une
théorie fondée sur la concentration et l'excentration
and of an Iconographie pathologique, Delestre continually oscillated
between a will to highlight the singular (the sick patient becomes here
the object of an aesthetic experience) and an attempt to grasp what
is lasting in the form and immutable in the character of human beings.
A search for the center and a taste for the periphery, an attempt to
determine a “type” and a temptation to represent the “monster”—these
are so many swings that no doubt explain why this man was so famous,
but also why, in an age that claims to believe in the principle of noncontradiction,
he is a bit forgotten.
Jean Starobinski, L’Invention de la liberté, 1700-1789
(Geneva: Éditions d’Art Albert Skira, 1987), p. 118.