This is Not Just a Painting
This is Not Just a Painting
Introduction: unravelling a canvas
Introducing a book by beginning with a description of the conditions in which the work was conceived is certainly the simplest and the most honest way of addressing the reader, as well as the clearest. Research, and the books which emerge as a result, do not appear out of nowhere and are always the result of a subtle mixture of coincidences and opportunities and of scientific and personal imperatives.
This particular investigation owes its origins to Sylvie Ramond, director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon. It was she who, in 2008, suggested I should take a close look at the recent story of a version of The Flight into Egypt by Nicolas Poussin, a painting recently acquired by the museum. Initially somewhat sceptical, as is often the case for researchers anxious to protect their independence, I finally agreed to take a look at the press file put together by the museum. It was at that point that I became caught up in the intrigue of this curious tale, which read rather like a detective story with plot twists, cliff-hangers and a cast of colourful characters, and began to identify a number of ways of approaching a problem which was gradually taking shape before my eyes. In spite of what may seem like an initial departure from the core focus in an effort to understand its broader meaning and to explore what this story could reveal about the structure of our societies, their historical foundations, and about the relations of dominance and the acts of social magic constantly at work within them, I hope that all those who have so generously opened up their archives to me and assisted me on numerous occasions with the process of my research will find food for thought in these pages.
The social, political and scientific context in which I have carried out this research, and gone on to write this book, is a significant element in the regressive approach I have chosen to adopt here, a process which consists of stepping back into the past in order to understand the present. Indeed, it seemed to me imperative to produce a work which sets out to shine a spotlight on a certain number of self-evident facts and foundations or bases of beliefs which, though virtually invisible, have a deeply significant influence on the way our lives are structured. Equally urgent was the need to reiterate the importance of relations of domination in this objectivized history which nevertheless quietly reveals so much about our current behaviour. This research therefore sets out to ensure that history in all its forms - whether structural and long term or individual and biographical - like the facts of domination, is not forgotten, either in a political or scientific context.
As someone who has campaigned for many years to ensure that sociology on an individual scale finds a legitimate place within social science research, 1 I have also always defended the need to vary the scale of contextualization depending on the nature of the questions to be asked or of the problems to be resolved. 2 There will therefore be no shift in my position in the course of this project, which often disregards individual singularities in order to focus instead on the great cultural foundations on which individuals play out their roles. Social issues, unfolded, that is to say examined from an outside perspective, in different societies and in different eras, are not incompatible with 'folded' or more internalized social issues embodied within socialized individuals.
Flights into Egypt: trajectories, rivalries and controversies
In 2008, the arrival in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon of a painting entitled 'The Flight into Egypt' (1657-1658), and attributed to Nicolas Poussin, was announced in the national press as an event which was, on a number of different levels, exceptional. Exceptional because of the reputation of the prestigio