Estelle Zhong Mengual, winner of the 2022 EcoloObs essay award

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The jury was good, the selection was even bigger, but it was easy enough that it came off learn to see » (Southern Acts), Estelle Zhong Mengual, both the uniqueness and the depth of this book are significant from the first pages. That is why the art historian receives the prize for the essay EcoloObs, which was first awarded by the editors of “l’Obs”. This may seem strange for an award for work on environmental issues. But all the interest is there. Proof by example.

Come and visit the EcoloObs 2022 award ceremony

At the end of the second part, Estelle Zhong Mengual analyzes Albert Birstadt’s Storm in the Rockies, Rosalie Mountain (1866). In this painting, the artist, a member of the Hudson River School movement, depicts the landscape before the storm broke out. The sky is threatening, but crossed by wide sunlight. The rocks give the impression of rolling down from high mountains. In the background, Native American riders are chasing a horse. A broken tree trunk on the ground floor.

make us vultures

But the author draws our attention to detail: a bird of prey, which soars in the center of the picture in the sunlight. She gives a masterful analysis of this: this bird is not, she explains, an American eagle that would symbolize a nascent nation, as critics often say. It’s more of a vulture, and it probably means nothing but itself.

How thought put man in place (among animals)

Why then does the artist depict this? Observing the position of its wings and its location relative to the mountain, Estelle Zhong Mengual concludes that it flies upwards, and gives his interpretation: Albert Birstadt has no purpose other than: “To make us feel the rise of the raptor, to make this thing so hidden that it is a change in temperature and at the same time the movement of air and the bird it generates” ; the artist invites us to adopt “aerial view”to make us vultures.

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Only this analysis tells the program of the book. His ambitions are high: to offer a new way of writing art history that would become “Environmental History of Art”. how ? By “Suspension of this desire for symbolic interpretation” to which we have been subjected at least since the Italian Renaissance. Because very often and for a long time, “fracture” in the picture a “view” an artist who does not earn a living as he represents “Support of the human story”, but transmits “Something like the point of view of these living beings, something like their own meanings. » This is it, “learn to see”.

For Estelle Zhong Mengual, the problem is not only in aesthetics. It is also political. Because as well as a symbolic image of nature “Favorable conditions for the relationship of domination and exploitation of the living world, which were created from 16and century in Europe »changing our view is a condition for establishing another “attitude to life”a relationship that is abstracted from the “great division” between nature and culture that we inherited from the Enlightenment and that very often prevents us from considering living as it is.

Police investigation

How to make ? The art historian offers a method: “In a sense, seeing the living is part of a police investigation, except that it’s not about knowing who killed whom, it’s about finding out who someone is, that is, telling them how they live. » The author applies this method of research to herself (in beautiful personal passages, where she talks about her own evolution), to her book (which is presented as a series of studies that makes reading very enjoyable) and offers it as a life ethic. And this arouses desire, which is a great advantage of this book.

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This makes you want to be a naturalist, like the women whose portrait Estelle Zhong Mengual paints in the first part of the book. Because “learn to see” it was not only the work of artists, it was also the practice of those bourgeois women of Victorian England and New America who during the nineteenth century.and century, began to observe the nature that surrounded them, describe it and publish today somewhat forgotten and at the same time necessary books.

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For example, Mary Trit, who for years watched everything that happened in a circle with a diameter of 45 meters, which was her garden. Or Francis Theodora Parsons, who saw in taxonomy so criticized her way of coldly classifying the living by nomenclature, the way ” learn “ with him. These women are not distant adventurers, they do not see in nature a challenge and an opportunity to succeed: they consider scientific knowledge necessary, but do not consider it the only goal.

We are called to change

Interest in the living is an interest in ” relationships : We love the time we spend doing it, and we love who we become when we do it. Because for these women a form of emancipation (including clothing and body) has been played out and will undoubtedly happen to anyone who takes this view of the nature around them: we ourselves are called to change.

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The part that Estelle Zhong Mengual dedicates to these women (but there are also men, starting with Darwin, who had such a relationship with the living) is as fascinating as her analysis of the paintings. And everything convinces us that what is happening now in the human sciences, “Take into account as objects those that have hitherto been considered only as context” – which we regularly report on our pages – not only some of them have practiced this for a long time in their work and their work, but, above all, young researchers – here researcher – continue to do so today Today This is what we pleases. This is something we are happy to reward.

“Learn to see. A living point of view », Estelle Zhong Mengual (Actes Sud, 256 pages, 29 euros). The EcoloObs Awards Ceremony will take place on Monday, May 9 at 7pm at La Recyclerie (83, bd Ornano, Paris-18and). Register here.

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