Visuality in the Works of Siri Hustvedt

by Corinna Reipen (Author)
©2014 Thesis 249 Pages


This book analyzes Siri Hustvedt’s three novels The Blindfold, What I Loved and The Sorrows of an American with a focus on visual art. Siri Hustvedt is one of the most popular American writers today and her work is predominantly concerned with art historical and psychological themes. The author of this book investigates the function of paintings and photographs in Hustvedt’s novels and conceives of verbal representations of artworks as extended metaphors. Her analysis includes verbal descriptions of Giorgione’s The Tempest, Chardin’s Glass of Water and a Coffee Pot and Goya’s Black Paintings as well as various verbal forms of fictitious paintings and photographs. Based on this analysis the author shows how the American novel has moved from postmodernism to post-postmodernism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Vorwort
  • Table of Contents
  • 1 Introduction to the Author: Siri Hustvedt
  • 2 The Development of a Theoretical Model
  • 2.1 Text, Picture and Image
  • 2.1.1 Picture and Text
  • 2.1.2 Picture and Image
  • 2.2 Image-Text-Relationship
  • 2.2.1 Image and Text
  • 2.2.2 Siri Hustvedt: Selected Novels
  • 2.3 Ways of Seeing Visual Arts
  • 2.3.1 The Intersubjective Encounter of Artwork and Observer
  • 2.3.2 Art and Empathy: Experiences in the Body
  • 3 Dimensions of the Visual Image
  • 3.1 Who Sees? The Eye of the Narrator
  • 3.1.1 Location in Time: Telling in Retrospect
  • 3.1.2 Location in Space: New York City
  • 3.2 Forms and Functions of the Visual Image
  • 3.2.1 Real Painted Image: Existing Paintings as Text
  • 3.2.2 Painted Images: In-Between Painting and Narrative
  • 3.2.3 Photographic Images: In-Between Photography and Narrative
  • 4 The Blindfold (1992)
  • 4.1 Research Reports and Reviews
  • 4.2 Who Sees? Iris Vegan
  • 4.2.1 Location in Time: Fragmented Memories
  • 4.2.2 The Setting: New York City Wrapped in Language
  • 4.3 Forms of the Visual Image
  • 4.3.1 Real Painted Image: Giorgione’s The Tempest (1504)
  • 4.3.2 Real Painted Images: Giorgione’s The Tempest versus Wiertz’s The Novel Reader
  • 4.3.3 Photograhic Image: George’s Photograph of Iris
  • 4.4 Conclusion: Postmodern Fragmentation
  • 5 What I Loved (2003)
  • 5.1 Research Reports and Reviews
  • 5.2 Who Sees? Leo Hertzberg
  • 5.2.1 Location in Time and Space: The mental flâneur
  • Painted Image: Leo and His Wife Erica
  • 5.2.2 Leo’s Narrative
  • Real Painted Image: Chardin’s Glas of Water and a Coffee Pot
  • Real Painted Image: Goya’s Black Paintings and Los Caprichos
  • 5.3 Painted Image: William Wechsler’s Self-Portrait: “a fierce geometry among us”
  • 5.3.1 Violet: The Woman in Men’s Clothes
  • 5.3.2 Lucille: The Woman Walking Away
  • 5.3.3 The Shadow of Men
  • 5.3.4 The Yellow Cab
  • 5.3.5 The Bruise: Boundaries of the Body
  • 5.4 Other Works by William Wechsler: Art that tells a Story
  • 5.4.1 Missing Men (September 1979)
  • 5.4.2 Hysteria Constructions (October 1983)
  • 5.4.3 Fairy Tale Boxes
  • Hansel and Gretel (1984)
  • The Changeling (Summer of 1987)
  • 5.4.4 O’s Journey
  • 5.4.5 Door Installations (October 1994)
  • 5.4.6 William Wechsler in the Changing Zeitgeist of New York’s Art Scene
  • 5.5 Teddy Giles’ Art and His Complicity in Capitalism
  • 5.5.1 Photographic Images
  • 5.5.2 A Deconstructed Painted Image
  • 5.6 Conclusion: Post-modern Art in a Post-post-modern Narrative
  • 6 The Sorrows of An American (2006)
  • 6.1 Research Reports and Reviews
  • 6.2 Who Sees? Erik Davidson
  • 6.2.1 Location in Time and Space: The Year of 2003
  • 6.2.2 Erik’s Narrative and his Family of Writers
  • 6.3 Visual Images: The Analysis of Others
  • 6.3.1 Painted Image: Miranda’s Drawing of a Monster
  • 6.3.2 Painted Image: Miranda’s Portrait of Eglantine
  • 6.3.3 Painted Image: Eglantine’s Drawing
  • 6.3.4 Painted Image: Miranda’s Dream Drawings
  • 6.3.5 Photographic Images: Jeffrey’s Stalking
  • Four Polaroids
  • Photographic Portrait of Miranda
  • Seven Photographs
  • Hundreds of Photographs
  • 6.3.6 Photographic Images: Jeffrey’s Exhibition
  • 6.4 Conclusion: The Self as Narrative
  • 7 From Post-Modernism to Post-Post-Modernism: Revelations of the Visual Image
  • 8 Works Cited

1  Introduction to the Author: Siri Hustvedt

Siri Hustvedt was born in 1955 in Northfield, Minnesota, the eldest of four daughters to a Norwegian-American father, a Professor of Norwegian language and literature at St. Olaf College, and a Norwegian mother. In 1972, she spent a year with her aunt and uncle in Bergen, Norway, where she attended high school. Later, she got a Bachelor Degree in History at St. Olaf College, Minnesota (Hustvedt, “Yonder”).1 Her first publication was a collection of poems called Reading to You which she published in 1983. After finishing her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia University in New York in 1986, she turned to writing fiction and began work on her first novel, The Blindfold, which was published in the United States in 1992. The first part of the novel was also published in Best American Short Stories 1990 with the title “Mr. Morning” and the third part of the novel was published in the same collection in 1991 entitled “Houdini”. In 1996 she published her second novel, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, which was followed by What I Loved in 2003, The Sorrows of an American in 2006 and The Summer without Men in 2011.

She also published four collections of essays: Yonder in 1996, Mysteries of the Rectangle in 2005, A Plea for Eros in 2006 and Living, Thinking, Looking in 2012. With the publication of her essay collection on visual arts, Mysteries of the Rectangle, Hustvedt established herself as a popular art critic in the United States. Her reflections on paintings by such artists as Francisco Goya, Gerhardt Richter and Joan Mitchell are noticed for a novelist’s elegant prose and an art historian’s scholarly knowledge. Her first essay on art, “Vermeer’s Annunciation”, which was first published in Modern Painters in 1995, was her breakthrough as an art critic. As a literary scholar, she brought a new viewpoint to the work of Johannes Vermeer and his painting “Woman with a Pearl ← 11 | 12 → Necklace” by claiming that the painting demonstrates an Annunciation rather than a Eucharistic image. By solidly arguing in favor of her interpretation, she altered scholarly perceptions of Vermeer’s painting.

She has also written catalogue essays for Richard Allen Morris, Kiki Smith and Gerhard Richter, and she published essays on Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager for The Guardian, which have later been published in Living, Thinking, Looking. Her increasing reputation as an art critic even brought her the position of Schelling Professor of Art at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (The Academy of the Visual Arts) in Munich in January 2010 and the experience of it resulted in a small book called Embodied Visions: What Does it Mean to Look at a Work of Art?2 What distinguishes her work from classical art-historical publications is her primary interest in the phenomenology of looking at art and in the interactive process of “the silent encounter between the viewer ‘I’ and the object ‘it’” (Mysteries xix).

Closely connected to the experience of art is Hustvedt’s other field of research: psychology and, more recently, neuroscience. In her essays “The Bostonians: Personal and Impersonal Words” Hustvedt describes the interrelation between the visual arts, the art of fiction and psychology as follows:

But in art, knowing isn’t everything – the unknown often pushes its way to the surface. In recent years, neuroscience has demonstrated that Freud was surely right in this sense: A huge part of what the brain does is unconscious. And every novelist can tell you while writing, things happen. You don’t know why the characters or their words appear to you or where they come from, but there they are, and often these peculiar ghosts and their voices, rising up from nowhere, are exactly the ones that are most crucial to the story. (A Plea for Eros 155)

Hustvedt emphasizes the importance of thoughts and how the possibilities our inner lives offer access to the world: she also states that art reflects these internal – mostly unconscious – processes while psychoanalysis helps to explain them. She claims that all art forms are related in their revelation of the subconscious and that looking more closely at art reveals hidden motives, themes or desires. ← 12 | 13 →

While at first she was mainly concerned with psychoanalysis – especially Freud – she has become increasingly absorbed by neuroscience and the recent research on the brain. She attended the neuroscience lectures at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and the Mortimer Ostow Neuro-Psychoanalysis Discussion Group led by Mark Solms until 2006 or volunteered as a writing teacher at the Payne Whitney Clinic at New York Hospital where she taught writing classes to patients in order to extend her knowledge in that field. Her research resulted in her non-fictional book The Shaking Woman or a History of my Nerves, which was published in 2008, in which she elaborates on her own seizure disorder, which she had developed after the death of her father. From her personal point of view, she assesses the history of psychoanalysis and the development of neuroscience on the basis of her own suffering which manifests itself in a shaking of her body every time she makes a speech in public. In 2008, she contributed two short essays, “Arms at Rest” and “Lifting Lights, and Little People” to a Migraine blog for The New York Times online which were later published in Living, Thinking, Looking entitled “My strange Head: Notes on Migraine”. She also contributed “Bipolar Epidemic” to the online blog of Psychology Today. Hustvedt intensified her studies in neuroscience in a dialog with Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Southern California, and she focuses on questions concerning biological realities of what we think of as consciousness and how this idea relates to our contemporary thinking about the brain and the mind.3

Her interest in Freud and her extended knowledge of psychoanalysis and neuroscience resulted in her delivering the annual Freud lecture in Vienna in 2011. With her speech, “Freud’s Playground: Some Thoughts on the Art and Science of Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity,” Siri Hustvedt now stands in line with the psychoanalyst Mark Solms, who delivered the lecture in 2007 about “Freud’s Dream Theory,” and the art-historian Ernst Gombrich, who lectured in 1981 about Freud’s thoughts on visual arts (Living, Thinking, Looking 196–219). Even within this scientific environment, she draws ← 13 | 14 → connections between visual arts and psychoanalysis, and hits a nerve that inspires intellectuals from both academic disciplines. The academic relevance of her writing for American Studies in Germany is expressed in her status as the key lecturer at the annual conference of the German Association of American Studies in 2012.

Focusing on her interest in and knowledge of visual arts, and basing my discussion on an analysis of her three novels The Blindfold, What I Loved and The Sorrows of an American, I will answer the following research questions: What function does the description of visual arts in her novels fulfill? And what additional interpretive value can be acquired by analyzing these visual images in her novels?4 By means of the visual image I will be able to outline a development in the history of American fiction beginning with The Blindfold followed by What I Loved and finishing with The Sorrows of an American that demonstrate characteristics that qualify her first novel as post-modern and the two latter as post-post-modern. As a consequence, the varied forms and functions of the visual image help to identify literary characteristics that not only allow a close reading of the three novels but also reveal contemporary developments in the American novel. ← 14 | 15 →


  1  In her essay, “Yonder”, Hustvedt tells many stories about her family and early life. It is published in Yonder – Essays and A Plea for Eros: Essays.

  2  The book is also reprinted in Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking.

  3  „Zwischen Psychoanalyse und Neurowissenschaften: Im Gespräch Mit Siri Hustvedt und António Damásio,“ Scobel, Gert Scobel (3Sat, 6 Oct. 2011). Television.

  4  Visual is used here as a synonym for visual artifacts: a general non-descriptive term for patterns on surfaces taken in by the eye. In connection with the image, the collocation of the visual image refers to texts that arouse visual artifacts. The prerequisite for the following analysis is that images are originated in texts (or pictures) as will be explained later in more detail.


2  The Development of a Theoretical Model

2.1  Text, Picture and Image

In order for us to understand how descriptions of visual art works unleash their power in the literary text, the terms “pictures” and “texts” and their relationships must be clarified on a rather general level before developing a concrete model. The following brief excursion into history demonstrates the manifold relations between text and picture. For centuries texts (mainly poetry) and pictures (painting) were regarded as ‘sister arts’, following Horace’s ‘ut pictura poesis’ (“as is painting so is poetry” or “as in painting so in poetry”); pictures (painting) and texts (poetry) were granted the same characteristics. In the Renaissance, Leonardo’s notion of the paragone described a similar relation between visual arts and literature, even though Leonardo – being a painter – strongly believed in the priority of the visual sense over all the other senses. Still, Leonardo’s paragone initiated an interest in the investigation of possibilities and limitations of the various arts and their medial form. This discussion is taken up again in the eighteenth century by Lessing, who forays into the topic of intermedial relations in his Laocoon and concludes confidently that poetry and painting are two different domains and should not be mixed. Barely a generation later, however, Blake brilliantly belies Lessing’s claim – not in theory but in practice – in his illuminated manuscripts demonstrating that writing and painting have a point of convergence: namely the material two-dimensionality on a paper sheet.5 ← 15 | 16 →

With the advent of photography and film in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this discussion of picture-text relationships slowly turns into a discussion of intermedial relations and takes on a new and much broader dimension. Gradually, with the increasing importance of the press, motion pictures and radio, the mass media established themselves and the relationship between the medium and the message exploded once more against a different background. The medium was no longer two-dimensional, but turned into a technological device that not only interacts with the message it conveys but actually very powerfully influences the production. The interpretation of new media and its content are discussed in depth in the sixties with Marshall McLuhans’s Understanding Media. McLuhan’s discourse on technology sees the penetration of media into psychic structures and social relations as an “extention of man.” For McLuhan new technologies do not penetrate the body cognitively as much as they extend it “electrically” (McLuhan 5, 51, 108, 203, 357). On the whole, McLuhans’ study makes discourses into cultural studies based on changes in technological developments that hardly refer to differences in the human perception of pictures and texts. He mostly elaborates on new technologies in which the impact on psychic and social structures based on mixed forms of media are concerned and hence, his definition of the medium is a broad one that does not provide a suitable ground for defining the term medium here. Thus, I will narrow the term medium by referring to the two media picture and text only. In order to make clear distinctions between the terms “text” and “picture” and finally differentiate the term “image” from the term “picture,” I start with definitions of the terms “picture” and “text” and then explain why I chose the term “image” over the term “picture” in my analysis.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
Intermediality Photography Malerei Intersubjektivität Postmoderne Visual Art
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 249 pp.

Biographical notes

Corinna Reipen (Author)

Corinna Sophie Reipen, born in Hamburg, received her Diploma in English Literature and Business Administration from the University of Mannheim. She also studied in London and worked as a teacher of English literature.


Title: Visuality in the Works of Siri Hustvedt
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251 pages