Disfiguration, for Michael Fried, at least begins with technique. Foreshortening, ellipsis, blur, scalar mismatch — “obscurity” most phenomenologically. But also, perhaps surprisingly, trompe l’oeil. Tricking the eye may stand as realism’s most exemplary technique — where its mimetic impulses are at their most felicitous. Yet the “illusionistic gleam” is also a kind of material insolvent on the picture plane — so lurid it jumps out and becomes a compositional focus, and thus ceases to belong strictly to what it represents.

Merely describing what impinges on a visual surface may, as in the Dutch mapping impulse, turn perspective on a horizontal axis. Eakins obsessively iterates versions of the same horizontal/vertical “tension.” The inverted horizontal — exemplified by the sketch of the Gross Clinic made over inverted rowers, plus by the “UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL” imprint on another surgery scene — brings the vertical closer to the surface.


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