Categories
Intellectual history

David Wojnarowicz and Donna Gottschalk: A Meditation

By guest contributor Hannah Leffingwell

As I walk through the rain toward the neon sign reading BOOKS, I am aching for some guidance—or what might otherwise be called “theory”—in the likeness of a known name. Having just left the David Wojnarowicz exhibit at the Whitney, I find myself unable to simply return home.

“I’m looking for Susan Sontag,” I tell the man at the bookstore.

“She’s in a graveyard somewhere,” he responds flatly. “She told me once this was her favorite bookstore.”

Affirming at once Sontag’s mortality and her fame, the bookseller answered a question I hadn’t asked in a tone I didn’t expect. It should have been obvious, I thought, that the work of the author existed, while the author herself had ceased to be.

But perhaps the bookseller had a point. I had gone in search of someone, a voice to guide me. And in truth she was nowhere—only words on a page.

These are strange and dangerous times. Some of us are born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls.

Wojnarowicz Untitled (Face in Dirt) 1992-1993

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1992-1993

 

Two nights later, alone in my New York apartment, sleep eludes me. I have been reading Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives in the dim light of street lamps through the window. I think perhaps something will be revealed to me this way, attuning myself to the artist’s hallucinatory rambles. He was meant to be a writer, after all, a secret they say was deeply buried in him for years.

I think of the friend who helped to bury him and then took a photograph—for posterity.

I think of everyone we have buried, most lacking the privilege of a wall text, of a frame.

The fear of AIDS imposes on an act whose ideal
is an experience of pure presentness (and a creation of the future)
a relation to the past to be ignored at one’s peril.
Sex no longer withdraws its partners,
if only for a moment from the social.
It cannot be considered just a coupling;
it is a chain, a chain of transmission, from the past.

I realize I have come in the wrong way of the exhibit, beginning at the end. It is no gentle transition into skeletons, this way, but death first: full-frontal. In the final gallery, the desperate attempt to say it all—to get it all out. One must work, ironically, to take it all in. And I do, walking slowly from one image to the next, deciphering. The final image, hung along the wall between the end and the beginning, is fittingly that of a child. His toothy grin and earnest features belying a framing of destruction.

Wojnarowicz One day this kid... 1990

David Wojnarowicz, One Day This Kid…, 1990

 

Throughout, the black and white invectives deconstruct the framing. Not only the cause of his destruction (his naked body on the naked body of another boy) but the effect (He will be subject to loss).

When I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted
a diseased society, as well.

There is word and there is flesh but not always where you would expect it. There is black and white, but then there is color and there is whiteness.

Wojnarowicz Untitled (Buffaloes) 1994

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffaloes), 1994.

 

I pause to consider the falling buffalo, the burial ground, the reference to a “Native American boy”—scattered through the rest of the room as though part of the same history. I wonder about the ramifications of this reproduction, the taking of something already taken, believing this calculation ends in some kind of double negative. Not the negation of death, per se, but of its pre-invention.

I have my camera in hand, in the spirit of must-not-forgetting, but I find I cannot pull the trigger. Not on the skeletons. But also not on the face, the hands, the feet of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s dead “brother,” “father,” “emotional link to this world.”

There are some things, I think, that are sacred.

When the eyes finally open, they reveal nothing
new about the world except a slight shift in landscape proving
that increased mortality teaches me nothing.

In the Donna Gottschalk exhibit, the next day, I think I will begin at the beginning for once. There is no double entrance this time, only the one. I follow the progression laid out for me—from young to old. I experience aging, this way, as a foregone conclusion. I follow the black and white portraits along the wall as though dragging my fingers along fenceposts, touching the faces of ones more familiar, less obscured.

Gottschalk Revolutionary Women's Conerence, Limerack, Pa. 1970.

Donna Gottschalk, Revolutionary Women’s Conference, Limerack, Pa. 1970. Image courtesy of Donna Gottschalk.

 

A woman naked, in the eyes of her lover, stepping into a bathtub; naked bodies, sleeping, packed like sardines onto a mattress on the floor; the smiling portrait of two lovers on a journey to the coast; a woman’s face half-obscured by the face of her child.

And there is, I think, a not unnoticeable sense of relief. The Man has no place here, no crosshairs aimed. By halfway through I think maybe they have escaped him.

A lesbian is the rage of all women
condensed to the point of explosion. –
W.I.W.

It is said that Wojnarowicz skipped town the day he found out he had made it. He left his apartment and headed West. I do not know the reasons, only that his journey felt familiar. The writing on the wall: Young man, disillusioned, goes West in search of Something. A rough translation of the actual wall text that reads: “his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explored American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.”

In the other museum, in a room as small as one of his eleven galleries, the wall text speaks not of Gottschalk’s rightful place, but of her invisibility. Not of an iconoclast, but of a woman “protective of the lives and trust of those who had revealed themselves to her camera.”

There is the question of preservation. Whom to preserve, and how.

The purpose of my book was to calm the imagination, not to incite it.
Not to confer meaning, but to deprive something of meaning:
to apply that quixotic, highly polemical strategy, ‘against interpretation,’
to the real world this time. To the body.

Halfway through his eleven rooms, I study the four elements, beginning with fire and ending with earth. There is the dream, and behind it the reality, and behind that the fear. Not of destruction, I realize, but of nothing. As I trace the red chord out of the baby’s head, through the window, into the hands of the soldier, I notice that something is missing. Not color, or the lack of it, but a sense of its creation. Amidst a succession of childhoods, I realize, there are no mothers, only Gods.

 

Wojnarowicz Wind (For Peter Hujar) 1987

David Wojnarowicz, Wind (For Peter Hujar), 1987

 

On the left side is a typical representation of Coatlicue, the Aztec
goddess of the earth and war. Pictured as a woman wearing a skirt
of snakes and a necklace made of human hearts, hands, and skulls,
Coatlicue is presented as not only a nurturing mother but also
a monster that consumes every living being.

With Gottschalk, there is no shortage of mothers: dead center in a world without men. The story is cleaved in two—youth, age, but in between: an exuberant, collective becoming. Not only the “woman-identified-woman” but her children. And in the center of that center, the whiteness of her body—a Madonna of the lesbian agenda—eyes half-closed as though she hadn’t taken the time to see where she was going. A prophecy not of destruction, but of cleavage: of a movement cleaved by color, or the lack of it.

I am your worst fear / I am your best fantasy

At the end (the beginning) of his art is darkness. A cage of black walls surrounding a papier-maché globe, a burning face. I am told that Wojnarowicz’s series of disembodied heads means something, politically speaking. The outsider. War. Corruption. Perhaps, I think, the blackness is meant to put the other colors in relief—the brightness, an endeavor to prove difference. To prove that he is not-one-of-them.

And it’s not that I don’t believe him or want to. It’s not a matter of believing, really, but of attunement. The hallucinatory rambles have led me somewhere, after all. Not the haunting I was expecting, given the ending of things. But a young man, poised on the brink of his life, playing with masks.

The center is something outside of what we know as visual,
more a sensation […] It’s all swirling in every direction
simultaneously so that it’s neither going forward nor backward,
not from side to side, embracing stasis beyond the
ordinary sense of stillness one witnesses in death.

I was wrong about the ending, or lack of it. The assumption being that if the artist lived—survived the work, like Gottschalk—the aching could be for something else. Not guidance, but transmission—the continuation of the known into the unknown.

I was wrong to think that death belonged only to the dead, as I watched first Gottschalk’s friend Marlene, and then her sister Myla disappear in snapshots, becoming a “Xerox” of their former selves, as Wojnarowicz would say of himself in the dying years. Her brother, her sister, her “emotional link to this world”—ravaged, all the same.

 

Gottschalk Marlene Resting with a beer, Oregon, 1974

Donna Gottschalk, Marlene resting with a beer, Oregon, 1974. Image courtesy of Donna Gottschalk.

 

I’m getting closer to the coast and realize how much I hate
arriving at a destination. Transition is always a relief.
Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever
in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain
in a state of perpetual freedom.

At the beginning of the beginning (the end of the end) is not darkness, not light, but illumination. The past by the present. A role reversal in line with all the others.

I have come out, into the light, and they are not who I thought they were. He, the “angel of history,” she, the “brave beautiful outlaw”—both of them catapulted into fame, into tragedy. Neither of them, dead or alive, able to escape the gaze of the present on their past.

I think, perhaps, it was not the repetition of history that kept the artist awake at night.

It was the burden—his, and hers—of making it.

David Wojnarowicz: “History Keeps me Awake at Night” closes at the Whitney Museum of American Art on September 30th.

“Brave, Beautiful Outlaws” is open at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art until March 17th, 2019. There will be a special opening reception featuring the artist on September 29th.

Hannah Leffingwell is a doctoral candidate at New York University. Her research interrogates the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class in contemporary French feminism. More of her work can be found on publicseminar.org.

Categories
Think Piece

J. M. W. Turner’s “Dissolving Views”

By guest contributor Jonathan Potter

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842)

Reviewing the 1842 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, the art critic John Eagles wrote of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings:

They are like the “Dissolving Views,” which, when one subject is melting into another, and there are but half indications of forms, and a strange blending of blues and yellows and reds, offer something infinitely better, more grand, more imaginative than the distinct purpose either view presents. We would therefore recommend the aspirant after Turner’s style and fame, to a few nightly exhibitions of the “Dissolving Views” at the Polytechnic, and he can scarcely fail to obtain the secret of the whole method […] Turner’s pictures […] should be called henceforth “Turner’s Dissolving Views” (“Exhibitions—Royal Academy,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, July 1842, p. 26).

The comparison is no doubt intended to reduce the stature of Turner’s paintings from high art to the level of popular performance. Eagles was not a fan of Turner’s work – he begins by suggesting Turner suffered hallucinations—and he reused the dissolving view comparison the following year to note with approval that there were few imitators of Turner’s ““dissolving view” style” (“Exhibitions,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Aug 1843, p. 188). But Eagles was not alone. Much of the press for Turner’s paintings at the 1842 exhibition was negative, concentrating primarily on various aspects which broadly fall into the category of realism: clarity, recognisability, and believability of depiction, amid others.

Part of the problem also lay in Turner’s subject matter—reviewers struggled, for example, to relate the exiled Napoleon and the limpet in War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet with the sea burial of the artist David Wilkie in Peace – Burial at Sea. These two subjects (or three if you include the jarring juxtaposition of emperor and limpet) do not naturally fit within a traditional historiographical narrative or seem to follow a sequential logic.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
J. M. W. Turner, Peace – Burial at Sea (1842)

The paintings contradicted reviewers’ expectations by disregarding realist principles of depiction in both form and content. In order to understand them, we need to look beyond the traditions of fine art painting. This, indeed, is what Eagles suggested when he called the paintings “dreamy performances” and directed the reader to consider them as “dissolving views.”

A successor to the phantasmagorias, the dissolving view was a magic lantern show that used a gradual transition (the “dissolve”) from one image to another. This could utilize superimposition or, more often, involve a gradual dimming and elimination of light through one lens whilst proportionally increasing light through another. Dissolving view shows came to prominence sometime in the first part of the nineteenth century (Simon During suggests around 1825 [Modern Enchantments, 102-3]), taking over from the phantasmagoria as the chief magic lantern entertainment.

The dissolving view is unstable and, potentially at least, destabilising, offering an alternative to traditional sequential historiography. The dissolving view presents paired images that blur together as they transition. In dissolving, the images attain, lose, and regain focus and clarity, and, for transitory moments, appear to coincide and coexist with no clear distinction from one to the next. The dissolve blurs the visual field, but it also blurs the semantic fields of content and context.

A handbill for dissolving views at the Adelaide in London, for example, promises a variety of different subjects seen in different states or time frames. The “Water Girls of India” for instance appear in daylight and then in moonlight, followed by the Tower of London in daylight, then moonlight, then on fire. As the lantern changes from one lens to the other, the scene dissolves from day to night and the viewer is given the sense of time passing. Because the subject remains the same, often there is very little movement beyond the changing light or incidental details. The first image (either night or day) implicitly reiterates an aspect (in this case, diurnal/nocturnal light) of the next image which is the past—i.e. the nocturnal image acquires meaning in relation with the diurnal image—and this semantic return of the past implies the next stage in the cycle. The implied sequence follows a causational rationale (day to night to day) but its progression from past to present to future is also a progression from past to present to past. This rhythmic logic is further complicated by the progression to the next subject. There is no clear logical connection between the water girls of India and the Tower of London except that both share a rhythmic temporality (both transform from day to night). The teleology of cause and effect is replaced by coincidence and shared rhythms that are not causation but do allow a certain predictive logic.

This destabilisation is not without form or structure. These kinds of dissolving view present a cycle which intermittently reinstates something resembling linearity and perspectival order, but this linearity is caught in a revolutionary whirl from one to the next and (potentially at least) back again. This is a visual whirl in more than one sense: the blur of the images replicates the visual field of motion and, in fact, dissolving view images were often circular. In essence, the whirling of the dissolving view contains a sense of rhythmic regularity. In images which oscillate between summer and winter or night and day, as magic lantern dissolving views often did, a natural sequential rhythm supplants the linear progressions of dominant conceptions of time and history. Rather than succession and disjunction, the dissolving view infers repetition and conjunction. It acts as a conceptual counterpoint to the linearity of conventional historical thought that emphasizes the sequential logic of cause and effect.

We can see such effects in much of Turner’s paintings at the 1842 exhibition. Turner experimented with circular, octagonal, and square canvases of proportions reminiscent of lantern slides, on which colours characteristically whirl around a central point, and his images suggest forms of motion—most famously in his later painting Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), but also in the angled column of smoke in “Peace”, or the vortexes of colours in the two deluge paintings.

 

Turner_-_Rain,_Steam_and_Speed_-_National_Gallery_file
J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844)

If we follow Eagles’s suggestion and consider these as “dissolving views,” then we might consider the two most difficult paintings, Peace and War, as a cyclical binary. The bright sunshine of War melts into the dark clouds of Peace much as magic lantern slides might melt from day to night or summer to winter. The light sources also share a structural unity – that central beam of brightness eviscerating the darkness of Peace is mirrored by the sun’s reflections in War. Thematically, too, there is some unity in the shared representation of the sea, though in War this is a watery shoreline rather than sea proper.

But what about the difficulty of the central subjects? Exiled Napoleon does not so obviously dissolve into David Wilkie’s burial at sea, and any notion of the latter returning back again to the former is more than a little jarring. Perhaps these difficulties are part of the point. They are the difficulties faced by viewers looking for conventional socio-historical links in paintings that, as the metaphorical dissolving view often does, seem to defy such conventions. Turner’s paired paintings demand that the viewer think beyond established norms to reflect upon the meanings of teleological historiographical practice. In pairing Napoleon with the limpet, the human figure of the man is pulled away from the mythology of the emperor.

Turner’s “dissolving views,” notably blurred and indistinct except for their central subjects, seem to be locked in the moment between two images. The space of actual physical objects—the focal point of visible reality and the space of event—is very small in these pictures, confined to only thin bands of land the run across the mid-sections of canvas between water and sky. This is true of all of the 1842 exhibition paintings. The space of visible definition and physical solidity is caught between the indistinctions and contradictions of watery reflection and vaporous sky. The vast majority of painted space is given to indistinction, as though the whirling visual chaos around physical phenomena were as important as the phenomena themselves.

Turner might be, as various critics have suggested, drawing attention to the embodied subjectivity of vision, but he is drawing attention, too, to the ambiguity of interpretation. In the paired paintings, War and Peace, viewers used to history being “for” something (for understanding progress, nationhood, divine provenance, or a multitude of other values) are prevented from resolving the images into a coherent narrative. This is not history as chronology or ideology but as event, to be set within an interpretive framework only by individual observers in full knowledge that such frameworks are not naturally occurring, but imposed, and so necessarily reduce events to certain structures and values. This relates to the metaphorical dissolving view in precisely its insistence that visibility does not equate understanding and that, in the blurry vague expanse around the focussed subject, the flaws and ambiguities in our understanding are rendered visible—great gaps that rupture the certainty of the visible space.

The more certain we, as viewers, are that this is a view of Napoleon on Elba and this is a view of Wilkie’s funeral, the more uncertain we become of our interpretation of the pairing, and the more they converge in contradiction. These two events are juxtaposed, so that their meaning and relational dynamic is left more or less open to the viewer’s interpretation. The structures of historical force (of sequence, of continuum) are rendered visible. In the British solider for instance, Napoleon’s historical past is made visible, as are his imprisoned present and future. However, these forces are not the main agents of meaning in the images—they are peripheral, there to be identified, but attention is not purposely drawn to them. In this sense, these are extra-historical images which probe and question the history they ostensibly project. As dissolving views, these images do not resolve uncertainty, they generate it, they blur conventional structures and obscure dominant historical relations. They inculcate a historiographical perspective of complex relations that evade the organising structures of cause and effect, of sequential succession, of contradistinction and perspectival clarity.

Jonathan Potter recently completed his first book, Discourses of Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain. He completed his PhD at the University of Leicester in 2015 and currently teaches at Coventry University. Find him on twitter at @DrJonPotter

Categories
Intellectual history

Bernini at the Borghese

By Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng

In Rome, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is nearly unavoidable. Walk down the center of the Piazza S. Pietro and look up. All along the great curving wings of the Piazza’s colonnades stand Bernini’s saints–carved and executed by other sculptors, but envisioned by Bernini. There he is in Piazza Navona, with the Fontana dei Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers. Those are his angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. That playful little elephant bearing an obelisk in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva? That belongs to him, too. Only by leaving the historic city center can one escape him. Much like Michelangelo, another sculptor turned architect and impresario, Bernini transformed himself from a maker of precious objects to a maestro whose vision re-shaped the city. If Bernini is synonymous with the Baroque, it is due to his success working on this grand scale, shaping and molding the fabric of Rome to suit the dreams and needs of the Church and its princes.

* * *

In the fall of 2017, a monographic exhibition on Bernini opened at the Galleria Borghese, curated by Anna Coliva (also director of the Borghese) and Andrea Bacchi (director of the Fondazione Federico Zeri in Bologna). By the curators’ own admission, there has been no shortage of Bernini-related exhibitions in the past decade. So why mount another one? Their rationale is deceptively simple: “We have attempted for the first time to cover Bernini’s whole career,” with the exception, of course, of those site-specific works (fountains, altars, the baldachin in St. Peter’s) that cannot be moved. What this means, in reality, is that the curators have collected an extraordinary range of freestanding works by Bernini and his workshop. The exhibition also includes Bernini’s paintings (seldom exhibited en masse), sculptures by Bernini’s father, Pietro, and preparatory works for monumental commissions like the Four Rivers Fountain.

thumb_2009-08-23 14.19.48_1024

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Galleria Borghese. All photographs by Cynthia Houng

So much has been written on Bernini in recent years that it seems impossible to propose anything new. But the experience of encountering Bernini’s work is always new. Each encounter is a dance, a performance that requires the beholder’s participation. There are no passive audiences here. Bernini’s orchestration of the pilgrim’s approach to St. Peter’s exemplifies the performative, relational nature of his work. As a series of impressions leading the pilgrim out of the quotidian world and into another world altogether, the work is, to use the language of another time, site specific and performative, requiring activation by a participant in order to be complete. The power of the encounter, and the effect of the performance on the participant-beholder–Bernini’s partner, really, in the work–is ecstatic. In Rudolf Wittkower’s evocative description, the performance of approaching St. Peter’s cathedral via the Piazza transports the viewer “beyond the narrow limits of his own existence and be entranced with the causality of an enchanted world.” In St. Peter’s, “the beholder finds himself in a world which he shares with saints and angels, and he is therefore submitted to an extraordinarily powerful experience. A mystery has been given visual shape, and its comprehension rests on an act of emotional participation rather than one of rational interpretation.”

“The challenge that Bernini set himself in his religious architecture,” Fabio Barry argued, “was always to create visions whose credibility depended upon them being experientially fleeting but permanent in the mind. God had created a heaven, but because its unveiling at the end of time was eternally distant yet perpetually imminent, Bernini must create a heaven just for us.” And who wouldn’t want to experience heaven again and again, each time anew? And so both scholars and laypersons find themselves drawn back to Bernini, each return an attempt to parse their own experiences of Bernini’s art.

The Borghese show makes full use of the relational, performative aspects of Bernini’s work. It is an object-oriented show in the fullest sense, all of its arguments and propositions originate in the objects gathered for the exhibition, in the relationships formed between them, and in the possibilities of close observation and comparison. It invites the visitor to participate in a hermeneutics of looking.

The show is both ambitious and ravishing. It makes full use of the Villa Borghese’s fabulous setting, occupying both the ground floor galleries (where Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne has resided since its creation), and the smaller, more intimate rooms on the second floor. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2012 exhibition, “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” was a marvel, but the show was installed in the antiseptic Lehman wing. The Met did not have the benefit of the Borghese’s setting, with its sumptuous ornamentation and rich installations of Old Master paintings and Classical sculptures. Though the Borghese was largely redone in the eighteenth century (by the architect Antonio Asprucci, under the patronage of Prince Marcantonio Borghese IV), it had always served as a site for the display of art. These eighteenth-century renovations codified the building’s role as a site for the display of art. In her study of Asprucci’s renovation of the Galleria Borghese, Carole Paul noted that “Asprucci coordinated the decoration of each room to form a sumptuous ensemble unified in form and content, including the statuary.” Asprucci took everything–from the marble floors to the carved cornices–into consideration, creating new juxtapositions between the paintings, sculptures, and their environments. He also shifted Bernini’s statues, David (1623) and Apollo and Daphne (1622-25), from their original seventeenth-century locations. Today, neither sculpture can be viewed as Bernini intended. Though one can no longer see Bernini’s sculptures in their seventeenth-century settings, the richness and intensity of the Borghese’s environment is closer to how these works were meant to be seen than the clean, white galleries of the modern museum. More importantly, the placement of Bernini’s sculptures in the Borghese maintains their connection to the painting of his time, a connection that is particularly important to the argument of the Borghese’s “Bernini” show, which dedicated an entire section to Bernini’s own practice of painting.

Due to its constraints, “Bernini” is more heavily weighted towards the artist’s production for private patrons. However, Bernini’s greatest patron was the Church. As Wittkower noted in his 1955 study of Bernini (the first English-language study of Bernini intended for a broad audience): “it was Bernini’s tremendous achievement in the area of the Vatican that secured his reputation as the first artist of Europe.”

Appropriately, for our secular age, the major patrons of the Bernini exhibition at Villa Borghese were a bank and a fashion house–Intesa Sanpaolo and Fendi. And this is no accident. If, in Bernini’s time, the Church was the greatest orchestrator of spectacle, then commerce must be the Church’s contemporary analogue. We have grown comfortable with the imbrication of aesthetics and capital. We have even come to expect it. When I saw that Fendi sponsored the Borghese’s Bernini show, my first reaction was, “Of course.” Fendi has been funding various cultural initiatives around Rome, where the house has its headquarters, as part of the house’s mandate to invest in the city’s cultural capital. (Fendi also sponsored the restoration of the Trevi Fountain.) My second reaction was to note the exceptionally spectacular quality of the exhibition’s presentation–the display cases, the lighting, the installations, the quality of the fixtures–which matched the quality and finish of those intended for luxury boutiques.

* * *

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Installation View, Sculptures by Gian Lorenzo and Pietro Bernini, Galleria Borghese

The Borghese’s “Bernini” exhibition presents a narrative weighted towards the earlier stages of Bernini’s long career. This emphasis was dictated, in part, by the show’s constraints: it could rely only on freestanding, movable works to make its arguments, and much of Bernini’s later output can be characterized as site-specific installation work, literally inseparable from its architectural setting. (The Cornaro Chapel is not going anywhere.) Walking through the show, visitors witness how Bernini became Bernini. The show presents some of his earliest works–including collaborations with his father, Pietro as well as early independent works. Pietro Bernini’s sculptures are also part of the Borghese presentation, and through the younger Bernini’s sculptures we witness Gian Lorenzo’s talent unfurling.

2009-08-23 14.47.06

Model for the Four Rivers Fountain, Galleria Borghese

4 Multiple models

Installation view of bozzetti and modelli, Galleria Borghese

More interesting–and startling–is the development of Bernini’s aesthetic, the emergence of a strong and powerful stylistic vision, though again the show references Bernini’s mature works largely through proxies–through sketches and models for large-scale projects such as the Four Rivers Fountain, Cathedra Petri, and Ponte Sant’Angelo. And for almost all of Bernini’s works–even the bozzetti and modelli–there is always the question of authorship, of hands and facture. (The Met show addressed this problem of the “hands” in remarkable, technical detail.) The Borghese show is less interested in these questions. The curators take it as givens that Bernini operated a large workshop, and that he often outsourced work to other sculptors. As Bacchi and Colivo note in the introductory essay, the show aimed for “a direct dialogue with the works,” and many of the objects are on display together for the first time. The two monumental crucifixes have never been gathered in the same space before.

The show also invites viewers to consider different facets of Bernini’s practice in relation to each other. At the Borghese, visitors can view Bernini’s early putti in relation to his classically-inspired sculpture, The Goat Amalthea (an early work dated before 1615, probably made when Bernini was about 16), in relation to his restoration of ancient Roman sculptures–such as his restoration work on the famous Hermaphrodite sculpture, and to the angels and putti that he imagined for the Ponte Sant’Angelo and the Baldachin and Cathedra Petri projects in St. Peter’s cathedral.

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A room full of bozzetti, Galleria Borghese

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Installation View, Portrait busts and paintings, Galleria Borghese

The portrait busts and paintings, displayed together in one long gallery, form an interesting dialogue. Bernini is not often thought of as a painter. The paintings gathered for this exhibition will probably not elevate him to the pantheon of great painters, but they are very interesting as windows into his creative practice. They also provide us with clues to his relationship with the painting of his time. And the Borghese, with its impressive collection of Old Master paintings–though several of the Borghese’s most important Caravaggio paintings were on loan to the Getty during this show–provided an apt location to think about Bernini’s style and aesthetic in relation to the painting of his time.

Tightly focused on Bernini, this show was both an investigation and a celebration. It is a testament to Bernini’s magnetism as a subject that the wider world seems to pull in and collapse around him. The Roman Baroque narrows down to the Age of Bernini. The show is both spectacular and ravishing, and it reminds us of how far we can go–how much we can do–with an intense focus on the works themselves. It is their world that we wish to enter. And once there, we linger in pleasure.

At the same time, the Borghese show does not present the full breadth of Bernini, the man, or Bernini, the artist. It is a highly specific vision, one that presents him as a great genius, on par with the other “giants” of Italian sculpture named by the show’s curators in their introduction: Donatello, Michelangelo, Canova. Bernini had another side, one not revealed in this show. As Alexander Nagel once pointed out, “Just about everyone who knew him hated him.” He was domineering, violent, and ruthless. He slashed his mistress’s face in anger. One didn’t have to have to know Bernini to loathe him. In his biography of Bernini, Franco Mormando quotes anonymous pasquinades directed at Bernini, critiques affixed by unhappy Romans to the statue of Pasquino in the Piazza di Parione. The expensive transformation of the Piazza Navona by the Pamphilj family–which included the construction of Bernini’s spectacular Four Rivers Fountain (completed in 1651)–elicited such pasquinades as “Dic ut lapides isti panes fiant [Turn these stones into bread]!” Ordinary Romans, tired of poverty and hunger, railed against the Church’s immense expenditures on projects that did not benefit the populace.

Mormando quotes an impressive kaleidoscope of criticisms, describing Bernini as selfish and avaricious, and accusing him of robbing the papal treasury to enrich himself. Mormando cites an avviso from August 30, 1670, blasting Bernini as “the one who instigates popes into useless expenditures in these calamitous times.” By this time, Bernini was a wealthy man. (Pietro da Cortona was one of his few contemporaries who achieved comparable levels of wealth, and Cortona was, by all measures, also not a very nice man.) The construction of the Piazza San Pietro, with its colonnades and statues, cost 1 million scudi, roughly half of the Church’s yearly revenue. For Bernini’s critics, whether or not ordinary Romans enjoyed the aesthetic experiences of encountering the Four Rivers Fountain or progressing through the Piazza San Pietro was beside the point. Aesthetic pleasure provided no relief from poverty:  “We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want!”

* * *

In 2017, Fendi initiated a three-year partnership with the Galleria Borghese, providing support for the establishment of a Caravaggio Research Institute. This description of the partnership between Fendi and the Borghese comes from the press release for the “Caravaggio” exhibition at the Getty Museum: “The partnership between the Galleria Borghese and FENDI is part of a patronage begun by the luxury goods House in 2015, and is based on the company’s belief that beauty must be shared and spread, and that the incomparable richness of the Galleria Borghese, a reflection of the Eternal City, is a powerful, cosmopolitan pathway to promote a refined cultural sensitivity, both contemporary and universal, in the same way that FENDI pursues in its collections a true example of aesthetic research and the absolute sign of ‘Made in Italy.’”

In our time, commerce has replaced the church as art’s great patron. Private sponsorship of public patrimony raises difficult questions–of appropriation, commodification, profit, and control. It pulls the public patrimony into a process where values inherent in the cultural ‘patrimony’ or ‘heritage’–sometimes called ‘heritage values’–are captured, accumulated, and commodified by private entities. The process is widespread enough to merit its own neologism,“heritagization.” And it is almost always twinned with commodification. Salvatore Settis has written and lectured extensively–and passionately–on this subject, arguing that the transformation of cities rich in cultural heritage–such as Venice and Rome–is almost always accompanied by ossification and decline, as the city ceases to be a city for the living and transforms into a museum city, a set piece for the delectation and consumption of tourists. And yet the profits from the heritagization process flow, not to the public, but to the private entities who sponsored–capitalized, really–the process. As Pablo Alonso Gonzalez noted in his study of the heritagization process in Maragateria, Spain, the process can alienate the community from its heritage or patrimony, eliciting resistance and even fury from community members.

The relationship of the past to the present is always tricky, but perhaps exceptionally so in a place like Italy, where the past is all pervasive, where there is so much value to be extracted from the past (via industries like tourism), and where the past weighs heavily upon the present. History can feel, at times, like a straitjacket upon the present, as the city ossifies into an open-air museum. There is the Rome for the past–but where is the Rome for the living?

Fendi is not the only Italian luxury house to invest in Italy’s cultural heritage, in order to capture and accumulate “heritage values.” Tod’s sponsored the restoration of the Colosseum. Bulgari chose to restore the Spanish Steps. Telecom Italia (also known as TIM) is sponsoring the “re-launch” (the verb employed in the press release announcing the project) of the Augustus Mausoleum through its Fondazione TIM. But investment in Italian cultural heritage is not limited to Italian entities. In a 2014 interview with the New York Times, the minister of culture, Dario Franceschini, said, “Our doors are wide open for all the philanthropists and donors who want to tie their name to an Italian monument. We have a long list, as our heritage offers endless options, from small countryside churches to the Colosseum. Just pick.”

Sponsorship isn’t the only mode of privatization. In a 2007 article, Roland Benedikter noted that a set of laws, introduced in 2002, allowed the Italian government to sell objects and monuments “to international investment firms and private investors for amounts that many Italian experts consider well below the median market price.” Benedikter noted that, since 2002, the privatization of Italian cultural heritage has been “the subject of heated public debate [for it] concerns the limits of privatisation, and could lead to a broad new anti‐capitalism movement.” Settis, too, frames his argument in terms of opposition not only to commodification but also to neoliberalism.

One might argue that Bernini would have understood this process–that, perhaps, he would have encouraged and embraced it. After all, only a hair’s breadth separates the tourist from the pilgrim, and Rome made a mint off pilgrims. (Rome continues to make a mint off pilgrims. The 2000 Jubilee drew 35 million visitors to Rome.) But one might also argue that we live in different times, with different ethics and ideals–and the society we wish to live in looks nothing like the one Bernini knew.

Our wishes, though, are not always consonant with our realities. Neoliberalism, globalization, and capitalism have all incited resistance and fury from the people of Rome. I am no expert on the intricacies of Roman or Italian politics, but it would not be an exaggeration to say, given the recent elections, that Italy is in a difficult place. And– Bernini would also have been familiar with this–the fury of the people is neither predictable nor easily channeled. We don’t want obelisks and fountains; it’s bread we want.

Or perhaps more pointedly: We don’t want to live among the patrimony of the past. Nor do we want to alienate our heritage to enrich certain select private coffers (does this sound familiar, again?). We want to be able to create a patrimony that we can call our own.

Bernini was on view at the Galleria Borghese in Rome from Nov. 1, 2017 – Feb. 4, 2018. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue (available in Italian or English).

 

 

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Think Piece

A Reflection on the Phenomenology of Tibetan Space

By guest contributor Joshua S. Daugherty

Image 1
Milarepa, Tibet, 11th-14th century, Kagyu lineage, Taglung style. Ground pigment on cotton. 55.24×46.99cm (21.75×18.50in) HAR 65121. Rubin Museum of Art, accession no. C2002.24.5
(https://www.himalayanart.org/items/65121/images/primary#-3004,-8020,9726,0)
Image 2
Milarepa, Tibet, 1600-1699, Kagyu lineage. Ground pigment on cotton, HAR 30508. Private collection. (https://www.himalayanart.org/items/30508)

While exploring the pictorial depth displayed in traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas, a rather abstract concept continually resurfaced: the notion of space. Early paintings appear shallow or flat, yet, in later centuries, the surrounding environment was expanded to include landscape elements. Questioning whether this change is material evidence of a shifting zeitgeist, I have begun to trace a thread running throughout the Tibetan imagination, one that links topographical ideas with soteriological aspirations. By looking to theories of phenomenology, it is possible to begin unravelling the way space structures lived experience in the Tibetan context.

Numerous studies trace the impact of concepts such as love and hate (Hadreas 2007), evil (Hamblet 2014), perception (Merleau-Ponty 2002), and the sacred self (Csordas 1994); each of these dissect how concepts set up a matrix of presuppositions and expectations that govern lived experience. Prior to engaging with Tibetan ideas, it is useful to briefly consider the work of Western academics who have defined phenomenological methodologies. Henri Lefebvre theorized the “spatial body” in which the conception of reality is predicated on perceptions experienced through a human form (Lefebvre 1991:194-6). The body orients the mind within the environment, which organizes the development of understanding just as language gives structure to thoughts. Considering that thoughts are formed in words, they are therefore limited by vocabulary and syntax; likewise, the mind struggles to imagine a reality beyond the known environment. Just as it becomes impossible for the human mind to experience thoughts beyond the limitations of language, the use of the five sensory perceptions to navigate reality limits the mind’s understanding of that reality. An environment which does not contact the mind via these sense faculties is unfathomable.

Moreover, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explained, “Our perception is entirely dominated by a logic which assigns each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest…” Consequently, once the facts of spatial perception are perceived by sense faculties, they are organized according to logical dualism: near and far, above and below, inside and out, etc. To propose that space is underpinned by a type of logic originating from the human body, one that demarcates zones of being based on practicalities of physical movement, and superimposes notions of the metaphysical, ontological, and soteriological dimensions derived from a sense of self, requires that space take on “an essential and necessary structural role” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:313). Consequently, both Lefebvre’s spatial body and Merleau-Ponty’s logical dualism allow us to glimpse the conceptual object of ‘space’ as a structure of consciousness. Yet, such a statement can be brutal in its hegemony.

Accepting space to be a fundamental structure of human consciousness risks totalizing all human experience under the yoke of a single paradigm. Gavin Flood provides an important counterpoint in his assessment of the limitations of phenomenology when applied to religion, that it “carries with it Husserlian assumptions about the transcendental ego and an overarching rationality… [and] smuggles into the phenomenology of religion a Husserlian philosophy of consciousness.” (Flood 1999:155) While both Lefebvre and Merleau-Ponty assert that space underlies perception—and certainly, parallels between Tibetan concepts of sacred geography and macro-microcosmic spiritual domains suggest an overarching thought-structure—Flood is wise to warn us against essentializing phenomenological structures as a fact of consciousness. In many ways, Tibetan concepts of space mirror the prevailing notions of South and Southeast Asia prior to vernacularization, a time when “Mount Meru and the Ganga were locatable everywhere” and as Sheldon Pollock explained, this is “nothing in the least mystical” but rather “a function of a different, plural, premodern logic of space” (Pollock 2006:16).

In the Tibetan language, there is an inherent connection between notions of location and materiality. The word sa means both “place” and “earth;” a concise twofold definition which poetically demonstrates the problem at hand. To stand on soil is to be somewhere, which may seem rather obvious, but in the case of Tibet, topographical features possess complicated layers of attributions. A single point in space can be the form comprising a deity, a vessel of sacred energy, the domicile of either divine or demonic beings, a site embedded with residual power left behind by spiritual adepts, or some combination thereof, which can change depending on the inhabitant’s religious affiliations. Moreover, beyond these immediate details pertaining to individual sites, all locations are subsumed within a cosmic system. Therefore, to stand on Tibetan earth is not simply to be somewhere in a cavalier sense, but rather a very specific place within a complicated network of locations and ontological stratifications.

In his assessment of Heidegger’s essay ‘Art and Space’ (1969), Paul Crowther wrote, “Place comes into being not only through the relation between things, but through the event of their coming together to define a certain location, and even more importantly, through their enduring together, and individually, through time” (Crowther 2013:70). Physical space can be described as a matter of distances and directions, but also exists as an omnipresent aspect of the cultural milieu. Areas defined in relation to an ‘object’ or localized essence, are termed “place” or gnas, as the site possesses a distinct identity. Conversely, locations like yul lha or mountain gods, where consciousness is believed to be active in the site, are identities which acquire a place and possess agency. Examples of sites expressing agency include Tsibri and Mount Potalaka. The former is a mountain in Tsang, Tibet believed to have relocated from Bodhgaya, India to conceal a poisonous lake while the latter is the home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which also originated in India and supposedly moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet (Quintman 2008:367). As the conceptualization of locations as gnas or conscious yul lha endured through time, characterizing the culture of Tibet, they inspired the continued identification of newly recognized sacred places, leading to a proliferation of moveable spaces and single sites which simultaneously exist in multiple locations.

Therefore, in Tibetan civilization, geography is not uniformly fixed in place; rather, it is subject to change over time, resulting in an ongoing, shifting amalgamation of spaces. There are many examples of locations being transported to Tibet, like the eight charnel grounds utilized in tantric rites, or sites in India replicated elsewhere. The latter includes the Mahābodhi temple, the site of the original Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been replicated in Bagan, Burma and Patan, Nepal (Buffertrille 2015:135). Another Mahābodhi temple can be found at Lung Ngön monastery in the Golog area of Tibet, where Kusum Lingpa (1934-2009) carried out several building projects in the 1990s. Other duplicated sites included at this location are the Sarnath Stūpa, Samye monastery’s Tsuklakhang, and the Bodhnāth Stūpa (bya rung kha shor). Although these structures are apparently not organized according to a larger composition, they establish links with important sites from the historical Buddha’s life, significant masters of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and important figures active during the Tibetan empire period (Buffertrille 2015:138, 142). During her investigation, the scholar Katia Buffertrille was informed of Kusum Lingpa’s motivation, “When the pilgrim could not go to the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage was brought to the pilgrim” (Buffertrille 2015:144). While the reasons for these relocations are diverse, ranging from religious veneration to economic prosperity and legitimization of power, this quote demonstrates the visiting practitioner’s pragmatic reception of these events, which in other cultural perspectives would be nothing short of mystical.

Further, the replicated sites are considered to possess the same power believed to imbue the original location, so the circumambulations performed by pilgrims at the replica bestows a similar quality of spiritual merit. Buffertrille points to several incidents in which actions done at one site are equated with actions performed at another more prestigious location. She provided the example that thirteen circumambulations around Mount Tarab are considered equal to one circuit around a more culturally significant site, Mount Kailash. Also, a site’s ability to attract pilgrims has economic dimensions. This may partially motivate claims that some sites are as potent as—or even the combined embodiment of—other well-known locations, like Tsibri in the region of Tsang, which is considered a combination of three sites: Lapchi, Tsari, and Kailash (Buffetrille 2015:145).

Lastly, although the complexity of the subject extends well-beyond the scope of this reflection, mountains also contribute a cosmological template, which is outlined in the Abhidharmakośa and the Kālacakra Tantra. The cosmic mountain as axis mundi stands at the centre of a composition comprising a macrocosmic world system, which is analogous to a second mountain-based network visualized inside the body of the practitioner. Utilizing this macro-microcosmic duality, it is possible to conceptualize processes which hover on the brink of non-conceptual thought. The subtle body is a catalyst for reversing the supposedly confused perception that the universe causes the human form to come into being, and that this form creates the mind, which in turn creates consciousness. By reversing this conception of universal-to-internal space generation and discovering the primordial awareness believed to predate material reality, the three layers of topographical, microcosmic, and macrocosmic space are united as a single entity. By locating the individual’s notion of self within Buddhist cosmology, and simultaneously recognizing a microcosm within that self, pilgrimage sites—such as the twenty-four pīṭhas identified in the Chakrasamvara Tantra—act as physical spaces where it is possible to concurrently operate on all three levels of space.

As it exists in the Tibetan imagination, space can neither be considered an “ether” wherein “things float,” nor a common characteristic; rather, it should be considered “the universal power enabling them [phenomena] to be connected” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:284). From the immediate experience of an individual, space includes a perception of the self and external objects in a cohabitated environment. Material reality composed of self, objects, and landscape are all easily recognized from the vantagepoint of the individual. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy seeks to complicate or problematize this idea by deconstructing the dualism of microcosmic and macrocosmic spatial divisions, that is to say, the internal world of the self and the larger universe in which it is contained can merge. Dualistic distinctions of interior/exterior or self/other can be obliterated. The great yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), once said, “Having meditated on gentleness and compassion, I have forgotten the difference between myself and others” (Odier 2003:104). Milarepa demonstrates that, from a Buddhist perspective, space not only encompasses perception, sacred geography, and micro-macrocosmic metaphysics, but is the medium through which soteriological aspirations are accomplished.  While there are many nuances regarding the conception of Tibetan space, it is clear they are not somehow affiliated with a super-consciousness. Rather, these conceptions form a thought-structure upon which cultural representations of reality have been projected throughout time and from which individuals derived a variety of interpretations that bear similar characteristics

Joshua S. Daugherty is a graduate fellow at the University of Washington pursuing a PhD in the history of Art. He has previously studied art history at the University of London, SOAS and Tibetan & Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.

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Cups with Memories: Ainu Lacquer and Skeuomorphs

By guest contributor Christopher B. Lowman

If you have a smart phone handy, take a look at your phone application icon: when was the last time you saw a receiver shaped like that? Even the language associated with phones reflects physical actions no longer required: there is no dial to “dial,” and no hook on which to “hang up.” Think about this too: when taking a photograph on a phone, the sound effect is still that of a “kachunking” camera shutter, despite its absence. These are all symbols that have outlasted their original functional counterparts.

Visual or auditory symbols that retain aspects of older, defunct design are called skeuomorphs. In the last decade, the heavy use of visual metaphors in Apple’s iOS led to discussions of skeuomorphism’s definition, and its pros and cons. Listicles of skeuomorphs and other visual metaphors have been popular reading on Mental Floss and other design blogs. Skeuomorphism is not just digital: it also describes physical objects retaining material characteristics no longer functionally necessary. Horsepower describes the capabilities of vehicles long since stripped of accompanying horses. Patterns of circular holes in concrete structures, formerly imprints from the pouring process, continue to be made even when not all processes require them. Skeuomorphs can be “found in nature as well”: the orchid Ophrys apifera produces flowers shaped to attract Eucera bees, even though the bees have disappeared from much of the plant’s modern range, as illustrated by xkcd. This illustrates how skeuomorphs can occur without intention, yet still indicate an object’s origins through no longer functional physical phenomena.

Despite the popularity of the term to describe digital design, its origins have more to do with artifacts than phone applications. Dr. Dan O’Hara at London’s New College of the Humanities described skeuomorphism as “unintentional side-effects of technological evolution.” It is in this evolutionary sense that skeuomorphs become useful to anyone interested in the history of material culture: as O’Hara put it, “skeuomorphs, as a kind of ‘memory’ capacity of artifacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology.” A look at the Google Ngram Viewer, which gauges the popularity of a word over time based on publications in Google Books, reveals that “skeuomorph” was in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Henry Balfour in The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893) and Alfred Cort Haddon in Evolution in Art: As Illustrated by the Life-histories of Designs (1907), among others, used skeuomorphs as crucial evidence for studying object designs over time. For example, Balfour, the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, described how indigenous people in the Andaman Islands had traditionally used large shells as plates, and continued to make wooden plates with decoration recalling shells (1893, 114).

Academic interest in skeuomorphs was rooted in some of the hierarchical assumptions that defined much of nineteenth century anthropology. Skeuomorphs offered evidence of change in the types and materials of objects over time; this played into what many anthropologists believed to be a universal and linear evolution of human culture. Haddon specifically uses skeuomorphs to describe supposedly universal material transitions, such as tapa giving rise to matting, and basketry giving rise to pottery (1907, 116). Both archaeology and ethnography developed as disciplines guided by the assumption of cultural evolution, that studying “primitive” people would reveal linear developments toward “civilization,” defined as Western European cultures. Balfour describes his work as the “study of the Art of the more primitive of the living races of mankind, with a view to explaining, by a process of reasoning from the known to the unknown, the first efforts of Primaeval Man to produce objects which should be pleasing to the eye” (1893, v). This conflation of past and contemporary cultures drove ethnographic interest in the collection of objects for museums, particularly from cultures believed to be on the verge of disappearing.

Are skeuomorphs still useful for the study of material culture? Doing away with the assumption that material changes imply progression toward any particular cultural zenith, the study of skeuomorphs continues to reveal chronologies of connections between objects and people. Archaeologists use them to discuss invention, innovation, and replication (Knappet 2002, Blitz 2015), especially across cultures (Howey 2011). An example of this is a type of lacquer cup called a tuki, used in religious ceremonies by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands north of Japan. Comparisons of different tuki over time indicate origins and meanings invisible when any one example is considered by itself.

In traditional Ainu religion, any physical being or thing that can perform in ways that humans cannot is considered a god, or kamuy. Kamuy could only be contacted through the use of specific instruments, including carved wooden prayer sticks called ikupasuy, and cups, called tuki, which held offerings of sake. Ikupasuy would be dipped into tuki and drops of sake scattered to please kamuy.

Lowman_IMAGE1
Two Ainu men using prayer sticks (ikupasuy) and lacquer cups (tuki) in prayer. Photography by Burton Holmes from Ewing Galloway, 1917.

Nineteenth century visitors to the Ainu mistakenly called ikupasuy “moustache sticks” because the Ainu prayer ceremony involved lifting both cup and stick together toward the mouth, leading observers to assume the purpose of the stick was to lift the moustache when drinking. The uniqueness of ikupasuy led to them becoming prized by collectors. When Romyn Hitchcock conducted his collecting trip for the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, his pursuit of ikupasuy earned him the name “Mr. Moustache Stick” while in Hokkadio (Houchins 1999, 149-150). Anthropologist Frederick Starr, who helped to organize the Ainu exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, also stated that ikupasuy “had a great attraction for us and we secured scores of them” (Starr 1904, 65). While museum collections contain dozens of ikupasuy, tuki were rarely collected: fewer than a dozen were collected for United States museums prior to 1920.

Lowman_IMAGE2
Romyn Hitchcock’s illustration of ikupasuy and tuki, from “The Ainos of Yezo” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1890, 459.

The reason for the cups’ absence from collections is connected to the same theories that drew nineteenth century anthropologists to study skeuomorphs. Anthropologists lacked interest in tuki because they were trade goods rather than Ainu-made. Ainu lacquerware, including tuki, was acquired through trade with the Japanese, particularly the Matsumae clan. Exchange ceremonies appear in Japanese paintings, such as this one by Hirasawa Byōzan from 1876. However, anthropologists seeking only “pure” Ainu culture systematically ignored trade items. Anthropologist Stewart Culin dismissed lacquer and swords among the Ainu, believing that “not one of them have any artistic or pecuniary value” (75). Why was this? Recall that according to cultural evolution theory, so-called “primitive” cultures were understood as keys to the collective human past. Trade items like the tuki were corruptions: they clouded the anthropologists’ ability to observe supposedly preserved past practices. Ikupasuy were fascinating because they seemed to stem from Ainu material culture alone. Since trade items did not fit within a pure progression, but seemed wholly introduced from another culture, items like tuki were believed to lack research value.

 

AMNH Anthropology catalog # 70/4223
Tuki made of brass and ornamented with the mon of the Matsumae clan. Catalog No. 70/4223, Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

However, tuki do possess skeuomorphic properties that are clues to their changing significance as they passed from a Japanese to an Ainu context. Japanese crests, called mon, adorned possessions belonging to noble houses (for example, the diamond motifs on the banner in this 1867 image of an Ainu ritual welcoming Matsumae merchants). While some tuki have none, or only single mon, others are decorated with multiple mon from different noble houses. Why would this be? One explanation is that Ainu interest in acquiring highly decorated lacquer may have outweighed the Japanese social meaning of the mon. Linguistic evidence of the importance of shining things and metallic surfaces is preserved in Ainu words such as “treasure,” ikor, literally “shining things,” or “metal,” kane, a word used as a synonym for “magnificent,” and used to describe tuki specifically in Ainu epic poetry (Phillipi [1979] 2015). The shining decorations, that in a Japanese context represented noble ownership, were appreciated for aesthetic reasons once in Ainu hands, which in turn changed the way Japanese artisans applied the mon during production.

Lowman_IMAGE4
Wooden tuki and ikupasuy on display in the Ainu Cultural Center, Sapporo. Photograph by the author, August 2016.

In addition to decoration, the shape of tuki influenced Ainu woodcarvers, who produced their own skeuomorphic versions out of new materials. In one example, a carver created a tuki and stand from wood, which were subsequently lacquered by a Japanese artist. Others, like the one pictured above from the Ainu Cultural Center in Sapporo, are decorated wood without any lacquer but still retain the same vessel form. While the Ainu possessed other styles of cups, tuki specifically were made in the shape of Japanese lacquer cups and stands.

Tuki are an example of an object transformed through cultural context—a decorative cup that became integral to religious practice once in Ainu possession. Viewed over time, the transformation is a physical one as well, as they accumulated decorations that transformed in meaning because of an Ainu, rather than a Japanese, aesthetic. The shape of the lacquer vessels was preserved even as the Ainu produced tuki out of new materials. Tuki as skeuomorphs show how objects simultaneously influence and are influenced by their cultural context, and how their form and material act, as Dan O’Hara said, with a capacity for memory.

Christopher B. Lowman is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on intersections between historical archaeology and museum anthropology, with a focus on immigration, colonialism, and the history of museums.

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The Great Art

By guest contributor Adrian Young

One can hardly imagine a more audacious ambit for a museum exhibit than that of the Staatlische Museen zu Berlin’s new show, Alchemy: the Great Art, now at the Kulturforum. In the curators’ words:

“Alchemy is a creation myth and therefore intimately related to artistic practice – this idea permeates all eras and cultures, shaping Alchemy’s theoretical underpinnings as well as artistic creativity. An exhibition dedicated to the art of Alchemy is consequently predestined for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, whose diverse collections stretch over time from pre- and early history to the present. Alchemy is a universal theme for a universal museum”

As if to underpin its universal sweep, that thesis is inscribed on a wall above Matthäus Merian the Elder’s beautiful image of the cosmos, published in 1617.  Here, the position of the heavens above, the earth below, and humanity in between are assured within a hierarchy ordained by the divine unity of creation. The planets correspond to metals and vice versa, mercury for Mercury, at once products and signifiers of the same heavenly power.

L0029108 R. Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet...
Robert Fludd, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica historia (1617-1618). (Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library)

From this document, and from the assemblage of some 200 remarkable objects like it, spanning continents and millennia, we are meant to learn something of the universal creative ambition that drove alchemy as a global, timeless, and human craft. As a creative practice, the ars magna (or “great art,” to use alchemy’s medieval European appellation) wedded the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of knowledge within the same practical tradition. It was only after the advent of Enlightenment rationality obscured their longstanding relationship that art and science seemed to diverge into bifurcating paths. However, though we rational moderns may have lost sight of a creative unity the pre-moderns knew well, by assembling the material culture of a deep alchemical past alongside the artistic products of a scientifically minded present, the exhibit suggests that “art” and “science” need be understood as separate enterprises. Rather, it claims, we have always been modern. We have always sought truth and beauty alike in the manipulation and transformation of material things. Creators have always been alchemists.

It is a seductive and tantalizing notion. Historians might chafe instinctively at claims of universality, as I did when I read the exhibit’s opening scrawl—“this idea permeates all eras and cultures”? But why not? One is inclined to indulge the thought, at least for a moment, while examining the treasures assembled here. And there are treasures. A ding, or ritual cauldron, from thirteenth-century BCE China still draws viewers in with a ring of intricately rendered cicadas; the metamorphosis of these insects suggest that a similar same property of transformation operated inside this metal crucible, and in remains at work in crucibles like it in laboratories and workshops the world over. Wall scrolls by sixteenth-century Daoist artist Lu Zhi depict the search for truth as the work of gathering herbs in the mountains. These hang near sixteenth-century European allegorical representations of the mountainous earth as a temple in which to mine divine knowledge.  Alchemical correspondences abound.

Whether these artifacts were products of “art” or “science” is of course a nonsensical question. Indeed, the exhibition reminds its visitors that artists and alchemists were practitioners of allied creative crafts, which they often plied in the same princely courts. A small work by Hans Jakob Sprüngli from the early seventeenth century drives that point home well. In his “Venus and Armor against the backdrop of renaissance architecture,” painted figures are ensconced in a field of gold leaf and stained glass. Master artists, like master alchemists, relied on an intimate, practical, and embodied knowledge of the materials from which they produced their works of truth or beauty. Artists today are much the same in their attention to material things, an alchemical affinity they even share with contemporary scientists. Think of Joseph Beuys, for instance, whose works are represented in the exhibition by a 1986 offprint displaying his “goldkuchen.” In Beuys’s use of fur, fat, and gold, physical objects became agents of affect, begetting emotional reactions and transformations. Pieces by a younger generation of artists do much the same. Sara Shönfeldt’s 2013 series “All You Can Feel (Maps)” is an object lesson in the commonalities of practice between science and art. Shönfeldt placed dissolved chemical compounds like the recreational drug MDMA onto pretreated negatives which, once developed produced full-color portraits of chemicals. Their crystalline browns and greens are reminiscent of minerals or landscapes, feeling simultaneously geological and geographical.  It is a use of darkroom technology that recalls earlier work by Walter Ziegler and Heinz Hajek-Halke, also represented in the gallery. Photography and its attendant chemical techniques long provided a practical if little-celebrated bridge between the hands-on work of art and science. Can we meaningfully call those shared practices alchemy? The genealogy, here at least, is manifest.

Continuities with the past need not be happy ones. Deep in the heart of the exhibit, in its lower level, lurks the specter of the homunculus. The artificial being, made living by the alchemist’s manipulation of inanimate matter is also evoked here to suggest alchemical practice’s persistence into our present.  Underscoring the idea’s lingering presence in the popular imagination, images of Frankenstein’s monster sit next to a copy of Japanese graphic novel Full Metal Alchemist. That the notion of a monstrous artificial life still haunts us powerfully reinforces the exhibition’s argument; in our era of genetically modified and artificial life, one of alchemy’s chief ambitions is enacted daily in scientific practice. At the center of the “Homonculus” section is one of the “Ripley Scrolls,” on loan from the Getty and one of the exhibition’s most arresting objects. Unwound inside a twenty-foot-long case, it becomes the body of arcane alchemical knowledge now splayed open for visitors. However, the exhibit which most monstrously evokes the grotesque possibilities of alchemical transformation might well be on the floor above, where another of Sara Schönfeldt’s pieces melds scientific and artistic practice. “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)” (2014) stores urine inside a large glass tank, lit by lamps on both sides. The light only penetrates so far through the liquid murk, fading from amber to blood red before disappearing in a dark center of clotted black.

By assembling in one gallery historical objects and art pieces from across time and space, the exhibition attempts a kind of curatorial alchemy, building a synthesis from diverse elements. Like most grand experiments, it falls somewhat short. Though the SMB is indeed a universal museum, Europe’s heritage dominates. While the exhibit proffers alchemy as a universal mode of creation, there are no representative objects from the New World, sub-Saharan Africa, or Oceania with which to substantiate such a claim. East Asian objects appear much more frequently–the Museum für Asiatische Kunst is the source of a number of fascinating exhibits– though these sometimes seem to reaffirm Western narratives. A section on the “chemical wedding” is a case in point. In a famous alchemical allegory, male and female, corresponding to mercury and sulfur, are bonded and give rise to a hermaphroditic compound.  It was a notion that originated with Jābir ibn Hayyān and spread in alchemical texts throughout the Mediterranean world, though we see it represented directly only by Western European artifacts. However, we are told that the idea shared an affinity with the wedding of opposites in other traditions—enter a bronze sculpture depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati from late eighteenth- or early nineteenth- century Madurai, which gestures at similar alchemical dualities in the Hindu world. The bronze’s precise relation to “alchemy” is sadly unexplained; rather,  we are left to ponder the exact global unities between such dualities on our own.

Those artifacts which do receive closer temporal or spatial framings are all the more compelling for it, even if the resulting narratives are in tension with the exhibition’s universal aspirations. Assertions of timeless continuity might productively trouble our understanding of science and art in the present, but historians of science have long offered more circumscribed historically situated assertions of continuity between alchemy, chymistry, and chemistry. In this show, too, the artifacts that best challenge the too-neat dichotomies that seem to separate modernity and reason from premodernity and magic are those that speak evocatively of their own historical moments. Take, for instance, that eminently enlightenment document, the Encyclopedie, whose entry “Chemie” is represented by Louis-Jacques Goussier’s engraving “Laboratoire et Table des Reports,” (1771).  Here, a table arranges the traditional signs for the elements, rationally ordering notations inherited from alchemy. Or, better, take the image of Sigismund Bacstrom’s “Apparatus to attract the Lunar Humidity” in Johan Freiderich Fleischer’s 1797 Chemical Moonshine, on loan from the Getty. Here, the glassware of the empirical chemical laboratory (an alchemical inheritance, to be sure) is turned toward the goal of capturing the fleeting essence of moonlight itself. It evokes Yoko Ono, but gestures even more strongly toward the tumultuous, contingent, and fleeting worlds that existed on the edges of the chemical revolution.

Adrian 2 Chemical Moonshine 10_1024
Sigismund Bacstrom (German, ca. 1750–1805), “Device for Distilling Lunar Humidity,” ink and watercolor in Johan Friedrich Fleischer, “Chemical Moonshine,” trans. Sigismund Bacstrom, 1797, frontispiece. 950053.4.1 (Image courtesy of the Getty Research Institute.)
 Was I ultimately taken in by the allure of the exhibition’s universal aspiration? More than I might have expected. Assertions of similarity between art and science abound in books and museum exhibits, perhaps less because we aim to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures and more because we in the fragile arts hope to ally with the slightly sturdier sciences in this era of shrinking funding and diminishing respect for the academy.  Alchemy, by focusing our attention on the practical knowledge required by the work of creation, suggests genuine and overlooked affinities. I am inclined to understand those commonalities as the product of a shared, historically and regionally specific genealogy. But no matter. If the ideal of a common and universal human creative impulse can compel us to study the rich material heritage of the alchemical past, or indeed any past, then all to the good. Like the elusive philosopher’s stone, perhaps the ambition itself is of less consequence than the things learned in yearning for it. What’s more, artists and alchemists alike have long known what some historians have only recently rediscovered: that objects can speak with a vocabulary the written word does not always afford. In this exhibit, aesthetic objects, whether contemporary sculptures or scientific plates, evoke their pasts with a remarkable richness. As windows into the practical histories of alchemy and art, these materials, whatever their ordering, exude a transformative power of their own.

“Alchemy: The Great Art” is on view at the Kulturforum in Berlin until the 23rd of July, 2017.

Adrian Young is a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin Center for the History of Knowledge, where he is revising his dissertation “Mutiny’s Bounty: Pitcairn Islanders and the Making of a Natural Laboratory on the Edge of Britain’s Pacific Empire” for publication. Though not a historian of alchemy by any stretch, he maintains an abiding interest in material culture and object lessons.