A black and white photograph, in all likelihood taken in 1898. I found it in a book I bought in 1988, published the previous year. I saw it the first time I opened the book – it is the first image shown – and I have never forgotten it. It is clearly a reproduction of an existing paper print: the corners of the damaged original are rounded; a diagonal tear in the top right corner emerges from a scrap that is half torn out and folded over; and another, almost horizontal tear can be seen right of centre. There are various stains. Tears and stains combine to form a distinct pattern, which seems to have belonged to the image from the start: not just part of the image as I see it now, but as the photographer had intended it.
The photo presents us with part of a facade, very likely that of an ordinary family house. The plaster applied to the natural stone is flaking off where puddles of rainwater have splashed up time after time. We see the lower part of a two-sashed window frame with single-glazed panes; its wooden frame is painted white, but seems soiled. Reflections make it impossible to make out the details of the interior of the house; the gutters throw two horizontal shadow lines across the front of the house; a natural stone window ledge juts out a few inches to the left and right of the window. There is a wooden shutter on the left, but not on the right; it hasn’t been fastened to the hasp, which hangs loose, the weather must have been mild when the photograph was taken. It’s easy to imagine how light would filter into the space through the two oblique slits of that one shutter when closed. If the archetypical facade of the time is anything to go by, it is not hard to guess at the arrangement of the room beyond. Below the window, a rectangular part of the plasterwork has a slightly different colour than around it: does it conceal a sloped former entrance to a cellar? The pavement in front is cobbled, the rounded stones separated by a sandy grout.
In front of the facade a wooden chair sits on the pavement, its ornate structure finished with a glossy varnish. The legs in front are the fruit of intricate woodturning; the back legs are squared, tapering towards the end; the seat of the chair has been fastened by large-headed nails. Only a small bit of the equally ornate and carefully varnished backrest is visible. The chair isn’t supposed to be there: it is not a street bench; it belongs inside, in the best room of the house, and was only brought out to the street for the taking of the photograph.
Placed in front of the window, the chair is occupied by a man supporting two children on his lap. He sports a cap with a peak throwing a strong shadow across his forehead. The top part of the cap is light-coloured, the bottom is dark, black perhaps. In between the cap and one of his large ears a small bit of neatly cut hair is visible, his nose is big and angled, not unlike that of a character in a comic book. He wears a moustache, but the stains on the photograph partially obscure what could be a goatee. The man is dressed in his Sunday-best clothes: a three-piece suit with big buttons, a white shirt and tie. A white piece of cloth juts out from under his thighs. Somebody put it on the chair before the man took his seat.
Of the two children, the youngest – maybe one year old – sits on the man’s right leg; an older child sits on his left, both are looking at the camera, unlike the man, whose body and face are turned at a below-45-degree angle away from the lens – putting his wide-open left eye exactly on the vertical axis in the middle of the photograph, along with the gleaming buttons of his jacket, and the areas where we know his navel and crotch to be. It seems as if the man is listening to the camera. The smaller child on the left – just grown out of the baby stage – has his fingers clenched into near-fists and his toes are tensed up, he seems unhappy and scared. The older child of about eight seems far more at ease and is smiling, unfazed: the boy who can handle anything. The scene could be read as a representation of domestic bliss: a father with his children on his lap, peacefully seated in front of the family home. But then again, on account of the man’s stiff posture and expression, one might just as easily imagine that the photographer had asked the children to pose on a statue.
This particular configuration brings to mind the Pietà genre in painting and sculpture, that of Mary, the Holy Virgin, cradling the dead body of her son Jesus in her lap. The figure of Mary in Pietà scenes differs from another classical depiction of Mary, that of the Sorrowful Mother: the Pietà Mary is more peaceful and accepting. The photograph inverts the idea of the Pietà in many ways. What we see is not a mother, but a father; there are two sons instead of one: one happy, one not very joyful at all. Rather than dead, the sons are at the very beginning of their lives. The small child is Georges Bataille (*1897). Next to him is his brother Martial (*1890). Their father on the chair is Joseph-Aristide Bataille (*1853). At the moment the picture was taken, Joseph-Aristide was already infected with syphilis – he was ill with it before Georges was even conceived – and it had blinded him. At the time of Martial’s birth there were no symptoms yet. So here the Immaculate Virgin is replaced by an unsightly, blind, incontinent – no doubt the reason for the white cloth on the chair – father, riddled with syphilis, the disease of the whoremonger.
His piercing eye, at the centre of this photograph, was the inspiration for his son George Bataille’s famous book, Histoire de l’œil, written in 1928 under the pseudonym Lord Auch: ‘Je suis né d’un père P.G. (paralytique général) qui m’a conçu déjà aveugle et qui après ma naissance fut cloué dans son fauteuil par sa sinistre maladie,’ and also: ‘…Le plus étrange était certainement sa façon de regarder en pissant. Comme il ne voyait rien, sa prunelle se dirigeait en haut dans le vide, sous la paupière et cela arrivait en particulier dans les moments où il pisait.’ 1
The Immaculate Virgin is replaced by a Gilles de Rais-type figure, someone I can imagine luring children to danger. The painters and sculptors of Pietà scenes most likely admired the accepting Virgin with her dead son, but here we can’t really imagine the photographer being guided by a similar sentiment: his camera is positioned higher than the eye of Joseph-Aristide; the photographer seems to look down, cynically and condemnatory, on the syphilis sufferer and his offspring. The vanishing point fixed by the camera is higher than l’Oeil Cave that was later described by Bataille in Le Petit, published in 1943 under another pseudonym, Louis Trente. Not until 1961, a year before his death, in an interview with Madeleine Chapsal, did Bataille indirectly admit that he was in fact the author of Histoire de l’Oeil and Le Petit, and that the descriptions in those two publications are about his father. His brother Martial, the cheerful child, vigorously denied this.
The photographer looked into the ‘dead’ eye of Joseph-Aristide. He was able to do so by looking through his camera, with an indirect, removed kind of observation. In his films Alfred Hitchcock often invites us to look from one space, through another space at the action in yet another. He perfected this technique in Rear Window. From the vantage point of his apartment, Jefferies (James Stewart), spies on his neighbour, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) across the courtyard in between. It is no coincidence that Hitchcock, in a climactic scene, has Jefferies look through the long lens of a stills camera, and at the moment when Thorwald enters Jefferies’ apartment – the moment when the action enters the voyeur’s own space – has Jefferies fire the camera flash several times.
We look at this photograph and we are not unmoved: we know it depicts Georges Bataille and his brother on the knee of their father. We don’t look into the father’s eye, but at a photographic representation of it. We, weak observers, look through the dark room of Bataille’s literary work, at the depiction. We are piggybacked by his writing. The photographer needed his camera, his room in between, Bataille needed the life of a writer.
1 ‘I am born of a paralytic father, who conceived me when he was already blind, and who after my birth was confined to his wheelchair by his sinister disease’, and ‘… The strangest was definitely the way he looked while urinating. As he saw nothing, his eye was moving up in the void, under the eyelid. This happened especially during the moments when he urinated.‘
Wim Cuyvers (°1958) is a Belgian architect who works as a forester at Le Montavoix in the French Jura. This text is a translation of the commissioned original, written in Dutch.