art history

Evolution Made Easy: Henry Balfour, Pitt Rivers, and the Evolution of Art

by guest contributor Laurel Waycott

In 1893, Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, conducted an experiment. He traced a drawing of a snail crawling over a twig, and passed it to another person, whom he instructed to copy the drawing as accurately as possible with pen and paper. This second drawing was then passed to the next participant, with Balfour’s original drawing removed, and so on down the line. Balfour, in essence, constructed a nineteenth-century version of the game of telephone, with a piece of gastropodic visual art taking the place of whispered phrases. As in the case of the children’s game, what began as a relatively easy echo of what came before resulted in a bizarre, near unrecognizable transmutation.

Plate I. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

In the series of drawings, Balfour’s pastoral snail morphed, drawing by drawing, into a stylized bird—the snail’s eyestalks became the forked tail of the bird, while the spiral shell became, in Balfour’s words, “an unwieldy and unnecessary wart upon the, shall we call them, ‘trousers’ which were once the branching end of the twig” (28). Snails on twigs, birds in trousers—just what, exactly, are we to make of Balfour’s intentions for his experiment? What was Balfour trying to prove?

Balfour’s game of visual telephone, at its heart, was an attempt to understand how ornamental forms could change over time, using the logic of biological evolution. The results were published in a book, The Evolution of Decorative Art, which was largely devoted to the study of so-called “primitive” arts from the Pacific. The reason that Balfour had to rely on his constructed game and experimental results, rather than original samples of the “savage” art, was that he lacked a complete series necessary for illustrating his theory—he was forced to create one for his purposes. Balfour’s drawing experiment was inspired by a technique developed by General Pitt Rivers himself, whose collections formed the foundation of the museum. In 1875, Pitt Rivers—then known as Augustus Henry Lane Fox—delivered a lecture titled “The Evolution of Culture,” in which he argued that shifting forms of artifacts, from firearms to poetry, were in fact culminations of many small changes; and that the historical development of artifacts could be reconstructed by observing these minute changes. From this, Pitt Rivers devised a scheme of museum organization that arranged objects in genealogical fashion—best illustrated by his famous display of weapons used by the indigenous people of Australia.

Plate III. Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, The Evolution of Culture, and Other Essays, ed. John Linton Myres (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906).

Here, Pitt Rivers arranged the weapons in a series of changing relationships radiating out from a central object, the “simple cylindrical stick” (34). In Pitt Rivers’ system, this central object was the most “primitive” and “essential” object, from which numerous small modifications could be made. Elongate the stick, and eventually one arrived at a lance; add a bend, and it slowly formed into a boomerang. While he acknowledged that these specimens were contemporary and not ancient, the organization implied a temporal relationship between the objects. This same logic was extended to understandings of human groups at the turn of the twentieth century. So-called “primitive” societies like the indigenous groups of the Pacific were considered “survivals” from the past, physically present but temporally removed from those living around them (37). The drawing game, developed by Pitt Rivers in 1884, served as a different way to manipulate time: by speeding up the process of cultural evolution, researchers could mimic evolution’s slow process of change over time in the span of just a few minutes. If the fruit fly’s rapid reproductive cycle made it an ideal model organism for studying Mendelian heredity, the drawing game sought to make cultural change an object of the laboratory.

It is important to note the capacious, wide-ranging definitions of “evolution” by the end of the nineteenth century. Evolution could refer to the large-scale, linear development of entire human or animal groups, but it could also refer to Darwinian natural selection. Balfour drew on both definitions, and developed tools to help him to apply evolutionary theory directly to studies of decorative art. “Degeneration,” the idea that organisms could revert back to earlier forms of evolution, played a reoccurring role in both Balfour’s and Pitt Rivers’ lines of museum object-based study. For reasons never explicitly stated, both men assumed that decorative motifs originated with realistic images, relying on the conventions of verisimilitude common in Western art. This leads us back, then, to the somewhat perplexing drawing with which Balfour chose to begin his experiment.

Balfour wrote that he started his experiment by making “a rough sketch of some object which could be easily recognized” (24). His original gastropodic image relied, fittingly, on a number of conventions that required a trained eye and trained hand to interpret. The snail’s shell and the twig, for instance, appeared rounded through the artist’s use of cross-hatching, the precise placement of regularly spaced lines which lend a sense of three-dimensional volume to a drawing. Similarly, the snail’s shell was placed in a vague landscape, surrounded by roughly-sketched lines giving a general sense of the surface upon which the action occurred. While the small illustration might initially seem like a straightforward portrayal of a gastropod suctioned onto a twig, the drawing’s visual interpretation is only obvious to those accustomed to reading and reproducing the visual conventions of Western art. Since the image was relatively challenging to begin with, it provided Balfour with an exciting experimental result: specifically, a bird wearing trousers.

Plate II. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

Balfour had conducted a similar experiment using a drawing of a man from the Parthenon frieze as his “seed,” but it failed to yield the surprising results of the first. While the particulars of the drawing changed, somewhat—the pectoral muscles became a cloak, the hat changed, and the individual’s gender got a little murky in the middle—the overall substance of the image remained unchanged. It did not exhibit evolutionary “degeneration” to the same convincing degree, but rather seemed to be, quite simply, the product of some less-than-stellar artists. While Balfour included both illustrations in his book, he clearly preferred his snail-to-bird illustration and reproduced it far more widely. He also admitted to interfering in the experimental process: omitting subsequent drawings that did not add useful evidence to his argument, and specifically choosing participants who had no artistic training (25, 27).

Balfour clearly manipulated his experiment and the resulting data to prove what he thought he already knew: that successive copying in art led to degenerate, overly conventionalized forms that no longer held to Western standards of verisimilitude. It was an outlook he had likely acquired from Pitt Rivers. In Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1892), a handbook circulated to travelers who wished to gather ethnographic data for anthropologists back in Britain, Pitt Rivers outlined a number of questions that travelers should ask about local art. The questions were leading, designed in a simple yes/no format likely to provoke a certain response. In fact, one of Pitt Rivers’ questions could, essentially, offer the verbal version of Balfour’s drawing game. “Do they,” he wrote, “in copying from one another, vary the designs through negligence, inability, or other causes, so as to lose sight of the original objects, and produce conventionalized forms, the meaning of which is otherwise inexplicable?” (119–21). Pitt Rivers left very little leeway—both for the artist and the observer—for creativity. Might the artists choose to depict things in a certain way? And might the observer interpret these depictions in his or her own way? Pitt River’s motivation was clear. If one did find such examples of copying, he added. “it would be of great interest to obtain series of such drawings, showing the gradual departure from the original designs.” They would, after all, make a very convincing museum display.

Laurel Waycott is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University. This essay is adapted from a portion of her dissertation, which examines the way biological thinking shaped conceptions of decoration, ornament, and pattern at the turn of the 20th century.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics

by guest contributor Emelyn Lih

The work of Swiss literary critic, hermeneut, and historian of ideas Jean Starobinski can be characterized by its dedication to depth and diversity: diversity of periods explored (from Montaigne to Baudelaire to Claude Simon, to say nothing of the eighteenth century), of genres and mediums studied (from poetry to art to political philosophy to opera), of objects analyzed (from melancholy to acrobats to hermeneutics itself to the idea of liberty). Many of these strands twined together during his stint at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1956), where he engaged with such luminaries as the literary critic Georges Poulet, historian of medicine Owsei Temkin, and Arthur O. Lovejoy, founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Starobinski himself (Babelio)

Jean Starobinski

The recent conference at New York University’s Maison française devoted to Starobinski’s œuvre represented this diversity and paid tribute to the depths his myriad studies plumbed. Most immediately, the publication last year of a new collection of Starobinski’s writings La Beauté du monde (2016) under the direction of Martin Rueff (Université de Genève) prompted the day-long exploration of his work “High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics.”

Denis Hollier (NYU) introduced the first half of the program. Hollier began by commenting on the choice of Titian’s The Andrians for the conference poster, quoting Starobinski’s expressions of admiration for the painting, discovered in the summer of 1939 when the masterpieces of the Prado were evacuated from Spain and exhibited in Geneva. Hollier traced Starobinski’s treatment of the theme of the oppositions and transitions between life and matter, vitalism and mechanism, through various literary and artistic manifestations, including several representations of Pygmalion and Galatea. Here, as elsewhere, Starobinski proved acutely aware of the risk presented by art springing too readily to life. Pygmalion’s gesture was not a true encounter with the other, but a narcissistic fusion with the sculpture he has himself created. In criticism, this facility must be avoided: it is difficult to accurately present another writer “in his own words,” according to the principle of the Écrivains de toujours collection to which Starobinski contributed Montesquieu par lui-même, his first published book (1953).

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Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Philippe Roger chose a different point of entry into the question of the appropriate distance between the critic and his or her object. How can the critic shake free of the text’s paralyzing fascination without allowing the work to lose its power of enchantment? In a careful reading of the 1974 article « Le texte et l’interprète » (reprinted in La Beauté du monde), Roger explored the complex balance of power between a text and its interpreter as theorized by Starobinski, a relationship in which distance and intimacy do not prove mutually exclusive. The duty of the critic is to consolidate the object in its autonomy and specificity, to make it (in an apparent paradox) more resistant to analysis and thus to appropriation. This close reading then widened into a consideration of the roots of the ethical considerations discernible in the origins, margins and ending of Action et réaction: vie et aventures d’un couple (1999), in which Philippe Roger finds a return to the relationship between poetry and resistance identified in Starobinski’s first published texts, which came out during the Occupation. The strange conclusion to Action and reaction, where Starobinski quotes Valéry in a way that appears to invalidate the entire book’s objective, in fact proves a way to reintroduce value and thus an ethics into the dangerous infinite regression of actions and reactions. The critical relation can thus be read as a critical reaction and an assumption of critical responsibility.

The question of the appropriate distance from and sympathy with the object of one’s study ran through the day’s presentations, and prompted many speakers to interrogate their own relationship to Starobinski. Laurent Jenny (Université de Genève) evoked Starobinski’s preface to Jenny’s book La Parole singulière. His talk explored various means suggested by Starobinski of parrying the risks represented by the absence of a metalanguage that plagues the relationship between the hermeneut and a textual object: the interpreter’s gaze must seek to be gazed back at in return (« Regarde, afin que tu sois regardé » / “Look, so that you may be looked at in return,” as Starobinski advises in L’Œil vivant), a position that Jenny linked to Merleau-Ponty and to Cassirer. The object must be apprehended as visible, not as merely a fragment of language to be commented on in language. Starobinski’s appreciation of Leo Spitzer’s stylistics stems from this drive to identify (and indeed, to introduce) layers of opacity and silence between the text and its commentary.

Lucien Nouis (NYU) also discussed Starobinski’s relationship to Spitzer, as one of a series of three critical « égarements » – wanderings, detours, wrong paths taken – that Starobinski retraced both in deep sympathy with his subjects and in the desire to construct what one might call methodological cautionary tales. The hermeneutic circle may at any point collapse into a tautological circle, by bringing the text back to the interpreter, from alterity to sameness. Spitzer, for example, despite his opposition to Georges Poulet’s critique d’identification, treats the text like a woman to be seduced (a desire itself often prompted by the presence of a critical “rival”), with a passionate and jealous attention where the man is more present than the scholar. Nouis brought out the quasi-religious high fidelity required to watch steadily over a beloved writer’s shoulder even as he (Spitzer, Saussure, Rousseau) lapses into narcissistic mirroring.

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Conference participants (from left to right): Martin Rueff, Julien Zanetta, Laurent Jenny, Anthony Vidler, Joanna Stalnaker and Richard Sieburth (author’s photograph)

Richard Sieburth (NYU) introduced the second series of four presentations by describing a personal connection to Starobinski’s Geneva. The first panelist, Joanna Stalnaker (Columbia) used the motif of the bouquet and its cousin the florilegium or anthology – a bouquet of texts – to retrace Starobinski’s interpretation of the late Rousseau, beautifully punctuating her reading with other floral gifts: pages from Rousseau’s herbarium, late poems by Mallarmé, bouquets and scattered flowers as painted by the poet’s friend Manet. A bouquet is what holds things together, whether it be a bunch of flowers or the social order; in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s faith in the possibility of such cohesion falters, and in Stalnaker’s reading, Starobinski gives new voice to this worry, lending it ecological overtones.

Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union) ended his own talk by alluding to the rich potential for environmental analysis offered by such texts as Action and reaction; he focused, however, on Starobinski’s importance for historians and theorists of architecture as early as the 1950s and 60s. Read from a spatial perspective, La Transparence et l’obstacle helped imagine and interpret eighteenth-century French architecture, including the utopian fantasies of Revolutionary writers like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (who elaborated a particular version of Rousseauist architecture) and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Vidler explained how this fertile cross-disciplinary reading continued with the publication and translation of L’Invention de la liberté and 1789: The Emblems of Reason, two “masterfully a-art-historical” works whose approach to symbolism, to the notion of the event, and to the translation of political and social traumas into collective aesthetic norms nonetheless provided architectural historians with precious analytical tools.

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Plan of the ideal city of Chaux by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Since Julien Zanetta, co-organizer of the conference, had entirely lost his voice, Laurent Jenny read his paper. It focused on Starobinski’s readings of Paul Valéry: the strong affinity between the poet and the critic was evident as early as Starobinski’s undergraduate thesis on self-knowledge in Stendhal, inspired in part by Valéry’s 1927 preface to Lucien Leuwen. Zanetta compared their readings of Stendhal, in that preface and in « Stendhal pseudonyme » (the last chapter of L’Œil vivant). Where Valéry critically situates himself behind Stendhal’s gallery of masks, Starobinski faces these multiple masks, examining their different functions. Both texts contain discreet nods to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, he who observes « à distance de loge » (literally, from the vantage point of a box at the theater), an image that serves as a powerful metaphor for a hermeneutics poised between fascination and clear-sightedness. In Zanetta’s view, Valéry’s desire to “impersonalize” himself through his valorization of text over author is in the end not so different from Stendhal’s histrionic role-playing; Starobinski sees Valéry and Stendhal as equally Protean, both masked and demasking.

The day’s last talk was given by Martin Rueff. After a detailed explanation of Louis Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice, he set about justifying the parallel he proposed between aspects of Starobinski’s and Althusser’s thought, which might at first appear surprising since Starobinski’s method – and more generally, what Rueff called the Swiss brand of French theory – is so rooted in practice and in constant, concrete confrontation with the text, and so wary of systematization and overarching structure. By identifying similarities in the two writers’ attitude toward theories in history of science and of medicine (in Starobinski’s case, especially in three articles from the early 1950s, on Speransky, Sigerist and Canguilhem), Rueff arrived at a definition of Starobinski’s method as a hermeneutical theoretical practice (« une pratique théorique herméneutique »).

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La Beauté du monde (Gallimard, 2016)

The conference concluded in a lively discussion, much of it centered on Martin Rueff’s statements about Starobinski’s relationship to philosophy (that he is one of the last thinkers to refuse to give in to its prestige) and to history (that it represents, for him, the ultimate horizon of the real). Many of the presenters underlined the profound continuity of Starobinski’s thought (with Philippe Roger sketching out some of the differences between the Swiss critic and Roland Barthes), and how this continuity allowed for important convergences between the day’s presentations, despite the diversity of discipline and approach. The challenge of combining sympathy and distance, affect and rigor, adhesion and lucidity, ran through the day’s presentations, producing the sense of a renewed commitment—I am tempted to say a vow, as in taking vows—to the highest fidelity in critical practice.

My own first encounter with Starobinski was in the context of his article « La journée dans Histoire », in which he mobilizes his lasting interest in the shape, order and occupations of the day as a signifying structure to explore its expression in Simon’s beautiful and difficult novel Histoire (1967). The shape of the day or « la forme du jour », which Starobinski has explored in a multitude of instances, from antiquity to the Nouveau roman, seems apt for capturing the well-ordered, polyphonic and coherent progression of this Friday in February devoted to his work. All eight presentations had clearly been inspired by Starobinski in multiple ways: for the group of speakers coming together from Paris, Geneva and New York, this occasion served as an invitation to return to Starobinski’s own favorite objects of study; to explore the sophistication and subtlety of his reflections on literary-critical and historical method; and to be reminded of his unfaltering standards of truth, care and accuracy in the exercise of criticism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics was held at the Maison française of NYU on Friday February 17, 2017 and was sponsored by the Center for French Civilization and Culture of NYU and the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York.

Emelyn Lih is a graduate student in French at New York University. Her master’s research at the École normale supérieure in Paris focused on literary representations of the Spanish Civil War, from Georges Bernanos to George Orwell and Claude Simon. She is preparing a dissertation on the relationship between autobiography and history in postwar French literature.

Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

The imperial red hits you as soon as you enter the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932,” which sets out to explore the frenzy that gripped the Russian artistic scene between 1917 and 1932.

The artistic avant-garde initially enthusiastically extolled the ideals of the new Bolshevik regime. A new age had dawned on Russia, and its artists embraced their roles as apostles of this new vision. This exhibit explores the remarkable vitality and versatility of Russian art during that short but turbulent window, often presenting the viewers with lesser-known artists. From Isaak Brodsky’s studious portraits of its leaders Lenin and Stalin to Boris Kustodiev’s depiction of enthused masses, many artists set out to capture the euphoria that followed the revolution and the hope that it would be extended to the whole world.

At the heart of their endeavor lay the desire to create innovative paintings, sculptures, ceramics, crockery, textiles, and even architectural designs that would reach a mass, and for the most part illiterate, audience. New technologies were enlisted to convey these political messages and aestheticize the experience of the worker and peasant; through the magic of film and photography, the latter were refashioned as muscular heroic figures and Russia transfigured from a still overwhelmingly agricultural nation into a great industrial super-power. And whereas in the pictures, workers and peasants emerged liberated and sublimated, in reality, these machine-men and women were generally little more than slaves, dying of starvation in the name of communal collective agriculture. Reality, as this avant-garde movement would soon find out, fell dramatically short of its ideals.

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Radical innovations had already been under way for a few years, but this artistic avant-garde seized the momentum of the revolution to precipitate change and formulate new art for a new world, exploring the full range of abstraction. In this era of radical experimentation, each artist developed his own particular visual language and vocabulary across a wide range of media. The painter Alexander Deineka deployed his characteristic use of geometric lines and collages of drawings, graphic images, and photo montages to convey workers’ dedication to the cause. Pavel Filonov’s method of “universal flowering” produced anguished phantasmagorias merging urban landscapes, heads, and geometric shapes in his “Formula for the Petrograd Proletariat.” Mikhail Matiushin projected pure cosmic teleology in his 1921 “Movement in Space.” Blok’s symbolist poetry greeted the revolution as a quasi-religious second coming. El Lissitzky designed new apartments for the new soviet lifestyle. The theatre director Vsevold Meyerhold designed biomechanics, a system in which emotions were experienced primarily through bodily movements and gestures. Vladimir Tatlin imagined flying gliders, Sergei Eisenstein recreated the revolution in his films, and Vassily Kandinsky conjured up symphonic abstract explosions.

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set "Metal," 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set “Metal,” 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

The artist Kazimir Malevich took geometric abstraction to a whole new level with his invention of “suprematism” in 1915. Art, he thought, should first and foremost express spirituality, away from the “dead weight of the real world.” The Royal Academy’s exhibition recreates his display at the original 1932 exhibit in which he famously exposed “Black square,” the work he claimed marked the “zero point of art.” And yet, as artists were increasingly urged to depict social realities, the soviet man caught up in a dynamic vision of the cosmos soon began to give way to visions of faceless figures far removed from the utopian visions of cheery peasants laboring for the cause in the golden fields of collective farm labor that the Party extolled. As artists grew more ambivalent towards the regime, they started deploying their art to subvert its imagery.

A particularly striking and, for western viewers, unusual piece is “Insurrection” (1925) by Kliment Redko. In it, the painter has replaced Christ with Lenin, surrounded by his disciples in a diamond of fire that burns the city. The atmosphere of the painting is dark and infernal; the city has turned into prison. The revolution was slowly morphing into state repression. While the Revolution of 1917 had heralded a new age of hope and equality for most, repression had already started to kick in by 1921, with artistic freedom increasingly constrained in favor of the collective ideology.

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The exhibit not only showcases the gradual shift in power over the years, but also brings to the fore the inner contradictions of the age. In the face of extreme conditions and growing misery after the collapse of the economy and the urban infrastructure in the wake of the civil war, many artists looked back towards an idealized Russian past with its birch trees, snowed-under villages, troikas and countryside churches. They sought comfort in a world they felt had been lost forever before one that was failing to materialize, like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a lesser-known painter who sought to discern the “optical magic” that coursed through reality. His pieces hark back to a more peaceful, curiously atemporal time, away from the tumult and prospect of hardship.

Over the years, the window for creativity and freedom of expression gradually narrowed, until Stalin decreed that socialist realism would be the only acceptable art form in the Soviet Union. 1932 simultaneously signaled the apex and the end of this artistic revolution; it was the year Nikolai Punin curated the exhibit “Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic” at the state Russian museum in then-Leningrad; it showcased more than two thousand works of art and has served as the inspiration for the present exhibition. That same year also sounded the final death knell of that era of dazzling creativity. Overnight, the Soviet state’s fittingly-named “People’s commissariat of Enlightenment” became the sole commissioner of art, and socialist realism the only acceptable art form. The soaring spirit of the avant-garde was brought to an abrupt halt.

While Lenin had envisaged art in mainly pragmatic terms as a tool of propaganda, Stalin had an acute understanding of the power of art and, with social realism, was intent on harnessing it towards the cultivation of his own legacy. His utopian vision celebrated physically perfect sportsmen and parading workers as the new heroes of this politically unified and collectivist vision. Art was to be in the image of regime: insipid, impersonal and soulless.

Disillusionment gradually set in. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930; Meyerhold was executed in 1940; Punin died in a gulag in 1953. Many others would be purged in the following years.

Ultimately, the exhibit charts one of the human spirit’s greatest experiments in hope, as it first soared and was then violently repressed and crushed by a dream-turned-nightmare. Each piece documents a different facet of this human epic in striving and aspiration and bears testimony, in spite of mankind’s fragile memory and constant attempts to rewrite history, to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. That much is certain – and as I was walking away from the Royal Academy, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s fateful and all too timely words from 1921 continued to resonate in my ears:

“And since the crisis exists the world over—worldwide revolution is at their door—As clearly as two times two is four.”

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London
Until 17 April

Audrey Borowski is a DPhil student in History of Ideas at the University of Oxford.

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.

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Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.

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Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.

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Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?

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Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Fortune. Failure. Fetish. Fest. Aby Warburg’s glorious Nachleben

by guest contributor Dina Gusejnova

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Aby Warburg (c. 1900)

Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the philosopher of culture, art historian and psychopathologist of modernity extraordinaire, famously described himself as an “Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino.” Having renounced the inheritance of his father’s bank, Warburg became known for his purpose-built library, devoted to the study of what he called the afterlife of antiquity (Das Nachleben der Antike). In 1921, two years after the founding of the Weimar Republic, it grew into a dedicated research institute based in Hamburg. Aby was anxious about the times he lived in, yet some grounds for optimism remained. A core member of his research community, Ernst Cassirer, had been appointed Rector of the University of Hamburg a year prior to his death: the first Jewish Rector in German history. Warburg, suffering a mental breakdown after the First World War, did not live to witness the near destruction of his Institute following its eventual expulsion from Germany to Britain after the Nazi rise to power, nor its resurrection in two locations, London and Hamburg, after the Second World War and the reunification of Germany, respectively.

Few would contest that it is the library in Bloomsbury where the aura of the founder most continues to be felt. The current chief archivist, Claudia Wedepohl, had the initial idea to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Warburg’s birth this July. Though Wedepohl kept a low profile throughout the event, the conference proved her own resounding success. An initial restricted list of free tickets were snapped up within days of the quiet announcement. To make the Warburg Fest happen, the organizers switched to one of the largest lecture halls in the University.

Work. Legacy. Promise

Photo courtesy of the author

As current Director of the Warburg Institute in London, David Freedberg, reminded attendees, however, paradoxically the fortune of the institute had never been less secure than now. It has recently come under great financial pressure from the University of London, and only survived after a 2014 court ruling in its favour. A recent major research project, operating under the enigmatic name of Bilderfahrzeuge (named after a concept Warburg has once used in a postcard), owes its existence not to British but to German taxpayers. It has recruited a majority of its postdoctoral scholars from German institutions. It is worth adding to this that the two Warburgian havens of culture exhibit some anachronisms. They do not appear to attract non-Europeans or non-North Americans. Besides, all but one of the Institute’s Directors have been men, with the only woman, Gertrud Bing, having served from 1954 to 1959. It was particularly puzzling that two distinguished women who have broken paths for Warburg-inspired scholarship, former Archivist Dorothea McEwan and Librarian Jill Kraye, did not speak at the conference.

It is obviously the idea of Warburg’s personality or, more precisely, his elusive fondness for humanism that resonates with some of our contemporaries as it had with his. Intellectuals in Weimar Germany praised his invigorating effect on modern society, particularly at a time, as one scholar put it, when “humanism in Germany is constantly in decline” (Eduard Fraenkel to Aby Warburg, 16 May 1925). Warburg’s case also inspired works on mental illness in cultural history itself. For the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and many others, Warburg’s library gave hope and meaning. Cassirer liked to put it in the words of William Shakespeare: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact [….] / And, as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, sc. 1).

It was not surprising that the celebration Work. Legacy. Promise also took material possession as one of its themes. Martin Warnke offered a particularly moving vignette in this connection, which highlighted the importance of material memory to the heirs of Warburg’s foundations. He chose to tell the biography of an object. Warburg’s paperweight, a snail, ended up in the possession of a Hamburg art historian, who then bequeathed it to the chief custodian of the Hamburg Kunsthalle Eckhard Schaar, who in turn had made provisions in his will that the snail was to become the rightful property of the Warburg Institute after his death. The snail never reached its destination, however, until one day Mr Schaar’s sister made a sudden appearance at Warnke’s door. She admitted that she had grown unusually attached to it since her childhood. Asked why she was returning it now, she replied that her brother had recently appeared in her dreams, scolding her for not fulfilling her obligations as the executor of his will. The snail’s return had prompted the question which of the two Warburg institutes, the Haus in Hamburg or the Institute in London, would be the rightful owner. In the end, they decided to make a copy. It is then that they realised that the snail which the sister had returned was in fact not made of brass, as Aby Warburg’s notes had described it, at all but of a cheaper alloy. The Hamburg team dutifully produced a brass copy, and Warnke personally used this celebration of Warburg’s birth to hand it over in front of the audience. Curiously, this copy matched Warburg’s own idea more closely than the purported original.

The snail handover

Photo courtesy of the author

So, what are we to make of Warburg’s act of cultural patronage in historical perspective? Horst Bredekamp suggested comparing it to Wilhelmine foundations such as the Bode Museum. Funded with capital sourced from the private banking sector, it emerged at a time when the German state was in severe crisis, but the memory of the public wealth of the Wilhelmine era was still vivid. Scholars of Jewish background were visibly represented there mainly because limitations in the career progression of academics were still in place throughout the Wilhelmine era. In the end, this theme – Warburg’s fraught relationship with his own Jewish identity – was strangely absent in the conference with the exception of Bredekamp’s brief treatment of the so-called “imperial Jews.”

Warburg himself encouraged thinking of his own work as an art historian and ethnographer as a process of “undemonizing the phobically imprinted inherited mass of impressions” [der Entdämonisierungsprozess der phobisch geprägten Eindruckserbmasse]. Did his madness precede Warburg’s method, or is it an occupational risk for anyone trying to think of visual culture both in terms of pedigree and in terms of synchronic association, as Claudia Wedepohl suggested? Was there an aesthetic purpose to Warburg’s assemblages, as George-Didi Huberman’s idea of a knowledge-montage might suggest? Or was Warburg’s way of thinking about lineages and pedigree Darwinian, as Sigrid Weigel insinuated? Like a snail’s path, the life of Warburg’s mind and its afterlives emerged in different ways at this conference.

“Sometimes it appears to me,” Aby Warburg wrote in his diary on April 3, 1929, “as if I, the psycho-historian, were trying to deduct the schizophrenia of the West from the imagery of autobiographical references” (Gombrich, Warburg, p. 302). On this occasion, the most stirring example of this intimate link between Warburg’s persona and the precariousness of our personal present came from W.J.T. Mitchell. Sharing his current work on insanity and visual culture, he sought to make sense of his own son Gabriel’s suicide by placing his project in a comparative perspective with the history of Warburg’s mental life-world.

As Freedberg made clear, the boundary between Enlightenment encyclopaedism and what he called Warburg’s “genealogical” approach, “pathetic in its reliance on reproduction and multiplication,” has always been porous. This critical remark would have felt almost dismissive were it not for the double entendre, which was impossible to miss for those familiar with Warburg’s work. For those doubting Warburg’s powers of logos, he remains a beacon of insight with his pathos. Warburg was not the first to signal the role of the emotions as a factor in the form and transmission of ideas, and in fact had been inspired in this by Darwin as well as his contemporary Richard Semon. His term Pathosformel captures his belief that emotions, like languages, can be captured and transmitted in the form of an engram, gesture, or symbol, and thus become the objects of study. Some papers used Warburgian formulae with a pathos that came close to magical incantations, speaking of Seelenraumbekenner, Engramme höchster Ergriffenheit, Wunschräume and Denkzwischenräume.

As Carlo Ginzburg suggested in advancing his own intellectual genealogy of Warburg’s Pathosformeln, Warburg’s method could be equally seen as a forensic approach to cultural genealogy. By extension, the task in tracing the fortune of an idea is not merely antiquarian but also moral in the way in which aesthetic practice had always been deeply embedded in theories of moral sensibility, if we only think of Burke, Kant, and, in Ginzburg’s case, Pseudo-Longinus. For some art historians, tuning our eye to the veins of the marble from which ancient sculptures were made as if they were indeed the blood vessels of a living being (Frank Fehrenbach) becomes a Warburgian practice. It makes the analysis of form a matter subservient to the understanding of the emotions.

Yet, just as the copied snail turns out to be a more authentic piece than the purported inherited original, some of the less eulogistic papers were in fact far more self-evidently Warburgian. Robert Darnton did not speak about Warburg but returned to an old question: What books did the French read on the eve of the French revolution? He applied Occam’s razor to formulate a more manageable question, namely, what books did the French buy before the French revolution? This allowed him to “use maps to highlight diachronic processes” (Claudia Wedepohl’s phrase), a feature of the Mnemosyne atlas, by tracking the paths of Swiss booksellers. This produced a literary Tour de France which could perhaps have linked back to his own studies of the visual. In the end, however, a fortune history of books and their sellers might not satisfy those seeking to know the fortune histories of ideas.

Contradicting Lorraine Daston’s curious observation that the humanities do not tend to think about the epistemological value of case studies—though without saying as much—Quentin Skinner performed an act of iconographic hermeneutics with his usual rhetorical finesse. In picking up on previous work by Horst Bredekamp on the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan and his own work on this subject, he effectively articulated a question which had been missing from a room full of answers: Why engage in studies of the Afterlife of Antiquity at all?

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Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes (1651)

The answer emerged from his performance of thinking. Without the knowledge of this transmission, we may not be able to discern the meaning of past communications at all, be they textual or visual. (At least not those communications which had themselves been produced by highly erudite authors.) When it comes to the place of Hobbes’s Leviathan in the genealogy of the idea of sovereignty, nobody has developed a more rigorous way of assessing the place of the frontispiece in the architecture of Hobbes’s argument than Skinner himself. His charted path – a genealogy of visual persuasion — leads to the biography of the artist who designed the frontispiece (something which Horst Bredekamp had provided before), as well as to the portraiture of sovereignty itself. Panofsky, Warburg’s mentee, can help with the formal side of this analysis, highlighting the frontispiece’s merging of two opposing traditions of representing power: the triangle of the Trinity (the power of God), and the triangle emerging from tracing the sovereign’s sword and the crozier upwards (to represent the power of the mortal God, or Leviathan). But something more than this is needed

in order to answer the old question which has haunted Hobbes scholars, namely, whether the Mortal Man in the Leviathan was a likeness of Charles I or of his de facto murderer, Oliver Cromwell. Iconology, it turns out, is not the only path to persuasion. Skinner concluded his own hypothesis – that the man is the state itself — with an affective gesture towards a detail so self-evident that it is almost invisible: “Look at that moustache! Look at that hair!” The hair of that mortal man looked remarkably like the phenotype of all the other rulers drawn by Abraham Boss’s pen for his previous patrons. It felt as though a Warburgian Mnemosyne had lifted a veil of confusion through the language of common sense.

Perhaps it is this persistent yearning for a world in which a tiny, ‘pathetic’ detail can suddenly reveal more significant meanings, which might explain Warburg’s persistent appeal to scholars today. To adopt the phrase of an older contemporary of Aby Warburg’s, being determines Nachleben. In the end, who needs a Schrift when you can have a Fest?

Note that video of the full conference proceedings of Aby Warburg 150. Work. Legacy. Promise at the Warburg Institute, London, has been posted online.

Dina Gusejnova is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. After a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, she held a Harper-Schmidt fellowship at the University of Chicago and a Leverhulme fellowship at UCL’s Centre for Transnational History. Her interests range from the intellectual history of Weimar Germany to twentieth-century European political thought and the cultural and intellectual history of statelessness. She has just published European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Pressavailable here with open access), in which she explores the lifeworld of fading empires.

Institutions and Fragments: “A Portrait of Antinous, In Two Parts” at the AIC

By guest contributor Luke A. Fidler

The postwar art museum has increasingly served as a site of artistic intervention, whether through sanctioned forms of institutional critique (Fred Wilson’s pointed rearrangements of the collections at the Maryland Historical Society and the Seattle Art Museum, for example) or unsanctioned action. Museums like the Kolumba (the former Cologne Diözesanmuseum) have taken note, juxtaposing their medieval and modern collections in an attempt to lend older art a frisson of novelty and to speak to the postmodern mal d’archive. In a similar vein, this small show at the Art Institute of Chicago (running through August 28, 2016) frames the museological archive as an archaeological site, ripe with potential finds.

The find in question is a fragment of a mid-second century marble portrait head of Antinous, Hadrian’s teenage companion whose untimely end in 130 CE sparked an unprecedented wave of memorialization (below). Controversially deified after his death, he was repeatedly rendered in a distinctively individuated style. The Art Institute’s fragment, comprising most of his face and his distinctive curls, typifies this wave of production. It entered the museum’s collection in 1922 after being removed from its original bust and remounted as a quasi-bas-relief. A fine example of imperial carving, it compares favorably to a slightly earlier bust of Antinous as Osiris presented here as comparison.

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Fragment of a portrait head of Antinous (mid-2nd century A.D. Roman. Gift of Mrs. Charles L. Hutchinson; Art Institute of Chicago)

About a decade ago, scholars noted the fragment’s similarity to a heavily-restored bust of Antinous in the collection of the Palazzo Altemps (below). The Altemps work features an eighteenth-century face stuck awkwardly to a second-century head, the join between old and new sculpture clearly articulated by a line running down the cheek, under the jaw, and across the tousled locks. A battery of tests, supplemented by the wizardry of 3-D printing and laser-scanning, determined that the Art Institute’s fragment had, indeed, been lopped off the Altemps bust at some past point. The museum is not wrong to claim this as a significant discovery. In a rare turn, we can examine the particularities of a story too often told in generalities, for the long life of a Roman sculptural object, ravaged by time, taste, and restoration, gets some real specificity. Although it’s unclear exactly when the bust and fragment parted company, their rich modern biographies are telling.

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Monica Cola, Roberto Bonavenia, Francesco Borgogni, Franco Trasatti, Studio M.C.M. srl., Rome. Bust of Antinous, 2015–16. © The Art Institute of Chicago

They show us, for example, how early modern collectors broke apart ancient objects and recontextualized them according to their tastes. They show us how one statue could multiply into two, how a bust could beget a bas-relief which could turn into a more explicitly orphaned fragment. How an English (probably) sculptor could sculpt a facsimile of Antinous’ visage in the eighteenth century (probably) for a faceless bust thanks, no doubt, to the obsessive antiquarian collection of Roman medals and statues. The stories of the sculptures’ early modern afterlife—not to mention their susceptibility to contemporary analysis—are bound up with Hadrian’s relentless imaging of his dead companion in a recognizable, replicable form.

The curators have smartly used the show to reflect on the conditions that enabled the objects’ reunification. (Unfortunately, however, they eschew any critical reflection on those conditions’ limits or negative consequences. To my mind, this is a missed opportunity to engage thorny questions of method, collecting, institutional practice, and display, to name but a few issues occluded by the show’s occasionally triumphalist tone.) The captions, wall text, and object selection frame the fragments in a story of connoisseurial sleuthing and trans-Atlantic technological gumption. A large portion of the exhibition space is given over to a long video replete with interviews. Differently-scaled models and prints of the Art Institute fragment and the Altemps bust surround the objects. One model, marked by the glossy sheen of contemporary facture, recombines them in a spectral approximation of how Antinous would have appeared before its dismemberment. A selection of ancillary objects—including a portrait of Charles L. Hutchison, the Art Institute’s first president who also purchased the fragment—attempt to place the fragment with respect to the taste of fin-de-siècle American collectors, while other ancient and early modern comparanda help contextualize other key moments when the objects were altered.

And so, this show is as much about the way museums tell complex, object-centered stories to the general public as it is about the genuine historical insights afforded by the busts and their models. If material objects are uniquely positioned to make the past legible, how should museums best interpret the ways those objects register the vicissitudes of taste? The fragment and bust are exciting testimony to interdisciplinary, inter-institutional collaboration. But they are also testimony to the means by which museums and collectors have historically proved hostile to the integrity of art objects, severing illuminations from medieval codices and chiseling the faces of Roman busts. If Hadrian desired overly much to keep Antinous whole through art, perhaps it’s worth querying our own desire for unification too

Luke A. Fidler is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago.

Conference Report: “Nearness | Rift”

by guest contributor Jack Dragu

On 16 April, I had the pleasure of attending “Nearness | Rift: Art and Time in the Textiles of Medieval Britain,” a one-day symposium hosted by the University of Chicago’s art history department and organized by Ph.D. student Luke Fidler. Named after the image of the crumpled handkerchief famously invoked by Michael Serres to describe a topology “wherein disparate points unexpectedly fold onto and away from each other,” the symposium set itself against a sexier theoretical backdrop than one might suppose any conference on “medieval textiles” has any right to. Fidler, as he made plain in his introduction, aimed to start a conversation that engaged head-on with some of the key historiographical assumptions in the study of medieval art history. Throughout the day, one had the feeling that the scholars he had brought together were collectively attempting to carve out new ways of thinking with textiles as puzzling and ontologically unstable objects of labor and aesthesis, reminding us that our very notion of context (from the Latin contextus, meaning woven or entwined) is historiographically complex and unstable.

Fidler (University of Chicago, Art History) gives his opening remarks.  Photo courtesy Carly Boxer.

Fidler (University of Chicago, Art History) gives his opening remarks. Photo courtesy Carly Boxer.

The keynote lecture was given by Thomas E. A. Dale (Professor of Art History, UW Madison), whose paper, “Materiality, Metaphor and the Senses: Elite Textile Cultures of Medieval England in their Global Contexts,” considered opus anglicanum textiles as a site for exploring how the intimate and the global fold onto each other, as well as for the recent “sensory turn” in medieval art historical studies. Examples of opus anglicanum, such as the vestments of St. Cuthbert and the lavish cope of John of Thanet, serve both as prime examples of medieval English textiles’ globality (both in their wide circulation and reflection of elites’ exotic tastes for Eastern materials and ornament) and also of their “multi-sensorial desire.” While Meyer Schapiro saw in Reginald of Durham’s account of the inventio of St. Cuthbert a surprisingly modern sensibility in his purely aesthetic enjoyment of the saint’s vestments, Dale helpfully guided our attention away from Reginald’s connoisseurship to the aesthesis effected by the garments themselves that is given such vivid witness in Reginald’s account (the “completely undecayed” body still seems to somehow breathing, wrapped in luminous and beautifully detailed vestments that “crackle” when they are unfolded). Thanet’s cope is notable for both its pseudo-Kufic inscriptions and its image of Christ resting a hand on a T-O globe, indicating the importance of Christianity’s global character. Like St. Cuthbert’s vestments, its distinctive use of gold threads and taste for Orientalist exoticism points to the importance of globalism and multi-sensorial piety to opus anglicanum aesthetics.

Dale, as part of a move to consider the broader theological-aesthetic contexts for these objects, then considered the eschatological significance of veils and the metonymic action of “putting on Christ” entailed in the adorning of garments that shine forth with light. Dale’s talk concluded with a case study of sacral kingship analyzing the lavish robes worn by Richard II and his patron saint St. Edmund in the Wilton Diptych, which crystallizes these themes in a secular context. In his equal emphasis on the semiotic significance of the materials and sensoria of opus anglicanum as well as their global context, Dale raised important questions about the potentially widespread geographical genealogies of this class of textiles while also pointing to their ability to crystallize complex social and politico-theological relations and networks.

Following Dale, Valerie Garver (Associate Professor of History, Northern Illinois University) discussed “Garments as Means of Communication Between Anglo-Saxon England and the Carolingian World.” She followed Bernard L. Herman in attempting an “object-oriented approach” to history in her reading of the extensive body of letters left behind by Alcuin of York. Garver paid particular attention to Alcuin’s discussion of clothing in his letters to various Anglo-Saxon correspondents, warning them of Frankish excesses in dress. Garver’s talk, more reliant on texts than the others at the symposium, highlighted the usefulness of a historicism that assumes that objects produce texts, rather than the other way around, especially in the context of the early Middle Ages, a period often weighed down with historiographical problems for its relative dearth of surviving objects.

Christina Normore (Assistant Professor of Art History, Northwestern University) was next, and her “Linear Narrative, Liturgical Time, and the Bayeux Tapestry” confronted some sacred cows in the scholarship and teaching on the famous textile: namely, its secularity and the linearity of its narrative. Normore’s talk was primarily concerned with the history of the tapestry as an object. She began with an intriguing (and humorous) discussion of British school curricula that have students reenact and interpret the “feelings” of the tapestries’ “main characters.” Normally, “we medievalists” would like to assume that we’re above the teaching methods of grade schools, but Normore showed such methods to be symptomatic of a series of assumptions in Bayeux tapestry scholarship that ignore its materiality and liturgical settings. She suggested that the tapestry’s sheer length and weight lead to a persistent tendency, even need, to fragment, skim, and reduce its scale just to engage with the tapestry at all.

Normore’s talk was followed by a paper by Clare Jenson, a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Chicago, on her research on the wonderfully idiosyncratic writings and vestments of John Grandisson, Bishop of Exeter (d. 1369). Jenson discussed Grandisson’s exceptionally detailed writings on the role of vestments in the liturgy, revealing a personality with an exhaustively fastidious attention to detail, such as color coordination and the arrangement of the liturgy.In Jenson’s telling, Grandisson was a keen theorist of liturgy, cultivating a praxis that fastidiously considered liturgical actors individually as well as their “total effect” on the audience as a coordinated group..This praxis was derived not only from his study of theology, but also the examples of “great” bishops before him, such as Anselm. Remarkably, a considerable collection of objects and vestments survives that was created under his patronage and according to his liturgical preferences, allowing for a truly unique research opportunity questioning the relationship between Grandisson’s texts and the objects those texts theorized. Consistent with many other works of opus anglicanum, these vestments also delight in legible juxtapositions of international, exotic styles.

Nancy Feldman (Lecturer in Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) gave the final paper, entitled “Cultural Politics: The Term ‘Opus Anglicanum’ in Late Medieval England.” It was by far the most technical of the papers given, analyzing changes and variations in the threading techniques of English textiles, as well as the shift from a predominance of gold to silver threads in the textiles, which Victorian historians considered a degradation of the style. Feldman’s paper pointed to an essentially global character to the genre of opus anglicanum itself, a term that wasn’t coined until the late thirteenth century and was used most frequently in continental inventories, justifying historically a recent shift in scholarship away from nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts that use the term to refer to a local phenomenon.

Overall, “Nearness | Rift” stimulated a fruitful discussion that made one feel in the presence of genuinely productive and fresh scholarly conversation. As Aden Kumler (Associate Professor of Art History, University of Chicago) noted in her closing remarks, the papers collectively raised questions and prompted conversations about fundamental and under-theorized issues in textile studies, including the study of technique and movement, forcing scholars to confront the fact that art history today still hasn’t found a way to really grapple with “the applied” as not just a functionalist but an aesthetic category. Kumler reminded us of the fact that textiles are, at their core, assemblage objects made from a stratified aggregation of labor practices and techniques that make them ontologically, topologically, and temporally unstable, leading her to ask the important question of whether or not it even makes sense to see textiles as a medium at all. At the end of the day, what made “Nearness | Rift” feel like success was that it asked more questions than it answered, opening up ambitious avenues for new research.

Jack Dragu is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago, where he studies late medieval literature and enjoys thinking about things like poetics, self-induced suffering, resistance to hegemonies, and superfluous historicism. He grew up in Los Angeles but has spent his adult life in the Midwest.

Representing Material Evidence: The Catacombs in Print

by Madeline McMahon

bosio1632 frontispieceAntonio Bosio’s Roma sotterranea was published posthumously in 1634. Bosio’s original manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Vallicelliana, was finally brought to print by the Oratorian scholar Giovanni Severano. The book would have cost a fortune—it was over six hundred folio pages long and heavily illustrated—but it became enduringly popular (Simon Ditchfield, “Reading Rome,” 189). It covered much more than the underground world of the Roman catacombs for which it is now known. It detailed how the martyrs’ bones had been preserved by providence for future believers (book I) and discussed early Christian material evidence from construction sites as well as excavations proper in books II and III. But the vast majority of the visual evidence for which the book is so famous and the detailed analysis of that evidence in book IV were primarily the work of the editor Severano rather than Bosio (Ditchfield, “Text Before Trowel,” 346). Severano’s team of engravers recreated Christian sarcophagi, catacomb paintings, lamps, and inscriptions, often from multiple angles.

In the catacombs, as Jerome reflected dramatically in the fourth century, “So great is the darkness that the language of the prophet seems to be fulfilled—‘Let them go down quick into hell.’” How did one bring the catacombs to light in print—how did one depict the material evidence that was so often fragmentary but also charged with devotional meaning? Severano’s interests were clearly iconographical. His added fourth book addressed the typical representations of biblical figures and the symbolism used in the catacomb art. Iconography could both help and hinder understanding of early Christian art. It helped the engravers fill in destroyed or only partially visible carvings and paintings. Typically they did not call attention to it, but sometimes they did.

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Reconstructing a damaged wall painting, with a hypothetical restoration (p. 271)

Here, for example, they have taken the liberty of showing a corresponding figure in the orans pose on the other side of good shepherd where a piece of plasterwork had fallen off. But they have also taken care to show both their addition and the damaged area. Yet their expectations for iconography could also blind them, leading them to expect the instruments of martyrdom (p. 433) or subtly shaping their depiction of a bust-length portrait of Christ (p. 253).

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.18.40 PMThe way in which they depict text is especially fascinating in light of Severano’s attempts to depict and describe early Christian iconography. As he noted in IV.31, “the ancient Christians not only represented our Lord with various images, as we have seen, but his most holy name was expressed in different mysterious ways,” including the monogram (cifra) of the Chi-Rho (p. 629), comprised of the Greek letters Χ (chi) and Ρ (rho). Letters could function like images—to such an extent that Severano included the symbol in the book’s index under “X” rather than “C,” so that befuddled readers could learn what this common sign meant.

This awareness of text as image sometimes influenced the reproductions of epitaphs on sepulchers. Although many of the reproductions only imitated original inscriptions through their use of capital letters, Severano’s team occasionally reproduced visual elements in the text, such as the exaggerated size of T’s (probably referring to the association of the Greek letter Τ (tau) with the cross) in some (p. 300). As in the case of the praying figure on broken plaster, they also tried to indicate damage, either by replicating cracks in the stone or including ellipses in the transcription. While they frequently attempted iconographically based reconstructions of missing parts of paintings or imperfect sarcophagi, textual frammenti were left incomplete. In one instance, on a marble stone that was especially “worn out,” they simply confessed, “Il resto non si può leggere” (p. 400).

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A broken inscription and an inscription with exaggerated T’s (p. 151)

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 5.24.59 PMWhile even simple capital letters in a square are evocative of the material object they represent, there are a few instances in Roma sotterranea when Severano clearly felt that the script was integral to the artifact. One was a broken sepulchral inscription found by the Via Portuense catacombs—one of many fragments “from which one could not extract any sense” (p. 125). Perhaps its very difficulty made it necessary to reproduce with greater attention to the placement of the text on the stone. Text, with symbols like palms, doves, and the Chi-Rho, also features as part of the reconstructions of the sepulchers carved out in the catacomb walls. One page in particular includes an attempt to copy the curved, messy writing on an anonymous grave: “Rest in peace. Kalends of December” (Sabbato in pace KK decembris) (p. 214).

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Tombs with inscriptions (p. 214)

Although Severano’s appreciation of script was not as sophisticated as his understanding of early Christian iconography, the two are not unrelated. As William Stenhouse has shown, earlier contemporaries of Bosio and Severano had begun to contextualize classical inscriptions and reproduce them to scale, differentiating between different kinds of writing. They had even made attempts to reconstruct fragmentary inscriptions. In many ways, Roma sotterranea follows these trends more closely in its engravings of catacomb paintings than in its reproductions of Christian inscriptions and epitaphs. Nonetheless, there were certain instances in which image and text were treated as one. The inhabitants of “Underground Rome” had envisioned Christ in many guises—as a Good Shepherd, as an Orpheus, and even as collections of letters. Their own writing was part of the material evidence that Bosio encountered, and these textual objects became part of a new one when Severano brought the book to press.

Progressive Past, Conservative Present: Surpassing Art Historical Genres in a Late Medieval Book of Hours

by guest contributor Matthias Pfaller

The Tower of Babel, one of the images made for Henry VI. BL Add MS 18850, f. 17v (photo courtesy British Library)

The Tower of Babel, one of the images made for Henry VI. BL Add MS 18850, f. 17v (photo courtesy British Library)

The Bedford Book of Hours, illustrated by the most capable artists of Paris of the fifteenth century, is one of the most splendid of late-medieval illuminated manuscripts, and one of the most famous pieces in the British Library’s present collection. Commissioned some time between 1410 and 1415, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, it was intended for the French dauphin; this, at least, is what scholars guess from its lavish production. However, in 1423, the book switched sides: it was bought by the Duke of Bedford, the brother of English King Henry V, who married that same year. The newlyweds customized the almost-finished book, and had their portraits and emblems added on several folios.

In 1430, the book again received a new owner, the Bedfords’ nephew King Henry VI of England, who had just become old enough to be crowned king of France under the provisions of the Treaty of Troyes. Accordingly, the book of hours was adapted to the needs of the boy king and got new miniatures, emblems, and, curiously, two lines of descriptive text underneath the border decoration on almost every folio.

These captions have been passed over in almost every article and monograph on the Bedford Book of Hours. Scholars made attempts to date them and roughly reflected on their purpose, but left it at that. The real problem for me, however, is not the scarce material, but the description and proper classification of this feature. They do not belong to any established text genre like prayers, bible excerpts, or standardized exegesis. Nor are captions generally an inherent part of genres such as books of hours, apocalypses, moralized bibles, and psalters. There is a standardized categorization known as “extra-textual content,” where we find all kinds of text too idiosyncratic to be subsumed under general terms, like speech in banderoles, occasional subtitles, and scribbles. But as the basis of a detailed analysis of the captions, this seems not at all satisfying in accuracy and meaningfulness.

Since these captions—an elaborate program on almost 300 folios in a royal commission—can hardly be a side-product of some other decoration, the idea was to look for predecessors. Indeed, a descriptive one to three lines beside miniatures is actually quite a common feature in a range of books from the twelfth to the fifteenth century across Europe. Yet no classification in manuscript studies considers this element, which makes every description specific to the object in question, without the possibility of grouping the findings under common traits.

St. Luke. BL Add MS 18850, f. 20v (photo courtesy British Library)

St. Luke. BL Add MS 18850, f. 20v (photo courtesy British Library)

The usual detour in such instances is to connect the objects in question through a demonstrable influence, still keeping the texts separate. In this case, a corpus of English manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth century with captions suggests an English tradition of descriptive subtitles. A group of apocalypses (Bodleian Oxford MS Auct. D. 4.17, Pierpont Morgan MS 524, Trinity Cambridge MS R. 16.2) dating from around 1255, as well as the Holkham Bible Picture Book from 1330 (BL Add MS 47682), and the Psalters of Peterborough (KBR MS 9961-62) and of Queen Mary (BL Royal 2 B VII) from around 1315, all feature captions in the same manner as in the Bedford Hours. The Psalters were made for the English royal family or came into their possession, which is why it is reasonable to assume later kings have known them. It is therefore possible that the Duke of Bedford may have chosen to have captions added in the French manuscript to remind the young king of his English roots (aside from the obvious descriptive factors of such text).

This theory ties together a small number of subtitled manuscripts, but does not solve the categorization problem of treating captions as random extra-textual content. Upon closer examination, the English manuscripts mentioned above — besides inhabiting traditional genres such as the apocalypse, bibles and psalters — all show links to the French genre of the moralized bible, which is itself a strict corpus of a few manuscripts from the thirteenth century onwards, created for the French royal family. When the first of these bibles came to the English court in 1250, it massively influenced local book production, so that the standard text of English apocalypses actually derives from the French moralized bible. In the Peterborough and Queen Mary psalters, too, the narrative of typological cycles was inspired by the French type. Most important, the pictorial program of the Bedford Book of Hours follows the same scheme. From there it is only a small step to suggest that the captions, added at least a decade after the painting of the miniatures, were intend to complete the moralized bible that the images had begun.

Seeing a moralized bible within a book of hours stretches the boundaries of classic genres in manuscript studies. Indeed, the format of the moralized bible in the Bedford Hours does not at all correspond to what a moralized bible usually looks like. However, the structure, content and purpose of both pictorial and caption program allow this association and, what is more, finally offer a possibility to describe captions of this particular sort as part of a genre which turns out to be more flexible than initially conceived. This allows features like captions to be integrated into our understanding of medieval book production, instead of being treated “extra-categorically.”

Matthias Pfaller received an MSc in Art History from Edinburgh University. From September, he will be a graduate intern at the Getty Museum.

Imaginary Iconoclasms in Early Modern Haarlem

by Madeline McMahon

Interior of the Bavo Kerk, Haarlem (Fitzwilliam Musem). Photo by author.

Isaak van Nickelen, Interior of the Bavo Kerk, Haarlem (Fitzwilliam Musem). Photo by author.

Isaak van Nickelen (or van Nickele) (c.1633 – 1703) painted multiple church interiors of the St. Bavo Kerk in Haarlem. Yet the Bavokerk in this painting—Fitzwilliam Museum 82— does not appear as it did in 1668, when Nickelen painted it. It is filled with altars—elaborate Baroque edifices at regular intervals, with paintings and candles that are otherwise clash with the whitewashed interior we expect in a painting of this Reformed church. On the left, a priest and a monk gesture emphatically. At the top of one of the columns there is a statue of St. Peter with his keys to the kingdom of heaven—the saint most associated with the papacy. Nickelen imagined the Bavokerk as a Catholic cathedral.

It had been nearly one hundred years since the Bavokerk had been stripped of Catholic decoration in a riot on the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi in 1578, the so-called “Haarlem Noon.” Nickelen was not merely painting the Reformed church as it stood in his day, filled with Catholic images, although given our preconceptions of what a Reformed church would look like may lead us to believe that. Crucially, the Bavokerk had its walls whitewashed with lime up to 140 years before sixteenth-century iconoclasm, possibly for hygienic purposes. Furthermore, the Protestants had added paintings of biblical texts or tapestries bordered in text onto the white pillars in the sixteenth century to this supposedly image-free space (Mia Mochizuki, The Netherlandish Image after Iconoclasm, 106, 1, 7, 73-4). These Protestant paintings disappear in Nickelen’s work—he performed his own act of iconoclasm before he filled the church with Catholic icons.

Nickelen’s unusual choice must be put in context to be understood fully. He lived in one of the great centers for paintings of church interiors, and closely followed the methods of his older and more prolific contemporary, Pieter Saenredam (1597 – 1665), who also painted the Bavokerk multiple times (Perspectives: Saenredam and the architectural painters of the 17th Century, 267).

Saenredam also painted Catholicized interiors of the Bavokerk. One such work depicted a fictive bishop’s tomb in it, and was commissioned by the bishop’s chapter of St. Bavo’s (Rob Ruurs in Perspectives, 44-5). The community had been able to continue its existence despite the reformation and the lack of episcopal hierarchy in the Netherlands (Xander van Eck, Clandestine Splendor: Paintings for the Catholic Church in the Dutch Republic, 13). Saenredam’s painting was part of the chapter’s campaign for papal acknowledgment.

Typically owning such a painting would have been a visual statement of the owner’s confessional identity (Ruurs, 101). Yet the work did not always reflect the artist’s beliefs. Saenredam is believed to have been Protestant, but confessional lines did not dictate his painting. He had Catholic acquaintances among the Haarlem Catholic community and took on Catholic commissions (Perspectives, 101).

In fact, seventeenth-century Catholics in Haarlem often commissioned works of art that were more a restoration or reimagining than a practice in strict realism. In 1630, the painter Pieter de Grebber painted a posthumous portrait—sketched at the exhumation!—of the Haarlem priest Cornelis Arentsz. This portrait, like Saenredam’s, was part of the Catholic chapter’s ongoing battle for historical legitimacy in the eyes of Catholics and Protestants alike (van Eck, 83, 84). It combined realism with an urgency to demonstrate continuous tradition. Similarly, a painting like Nickelen’s created an imagined Catholic space in a real building.

Detail, Nickelen's "Interior of the Bavo Kerk." (Fitzwilliam Museum). Photo by author.

Detail of monk and priest in Nickelen’s “Interior of the Bavo Kerk.” (Fitzwilliam Museum). Photo by author.

Seventeenth-century Catholics living in Haarlem were also concerned with promoting the cult of St. Bavo, the most prominent saint in their diocese and namesake of the cathedral (van Eck, 97). Priests in the 1630s worked closely with Ghent, which was also associated with the saint, to reform the sung service of St. Bavo. Printed images of the seventh-century saint made up part of their correspondence (van Eck, 98), again picturing the past to create a narrative of continuity into the present.

Haarlem was among the towns in the Dutch Republic with the highest percentage of Catholics—there were at least twenty Catholic priests in the city in 1620, in contrast to six in the state-backed Reformed church. Catholic services were suppressed in public, although private practice was not forbidden and sometimes the authorities overlooked even public events (Steven Nadler, The Philosopher, the Priest, and the Painter, 41-3).

A space like the Bavokerk, although officially Reformed, would have nonetheless provided shelter and a public space to the entire Haarlem community, from Catholics to Jews—“a broad public of diverse age, class, gender, and confession bound by a common interest in local society and religious traditions that shared a biblical basis” (Mochizuki, 6). To some extent, this is reflected in Nickelen’s painting, where the beggar and his dog occupy the same space as a well-dressed couple.

Nickelen’s confession is unknown but this painting of a Protestant church re-Catholicized speaks to the fluidity of religious identity, especially in religious spaces, in this time.

My thanks to Tom Goodwin and Nailya Shamgunova for their help during the research process on Nickelen’s painting in the Early Modern History MPhil Research Challenge at the University of Cambridge.