For those with an interest in fashion history, springtime in New York City heralds the opening of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual summer Costume Institute exhibition. The Costume Institute show (this year’s is “Camp: Notes on Fashion”) and its glittery opening gala in early May inevitably attract a huge amount of press and public attention – so much that they threaten to overshadow other fashion exhibitions. But any museum visitor who wishes to understand more about how these exhibitions developed as a scholarly practice will be rewarded by a trip to the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT). MFIT – originally called the Design Laboratory and Galleries at FIT – opened in 1969. Since then, it has played host to over two hundred exhibitions, most organized by MFIT’s dedicated team of in-house curators. In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the museum’s founding, earlier this year MFIT opened “Exhibitionism: 50 Years of the Museum at FIT.” This show is a reminder of how fashion scholarship has developed over the past few decades, and the potential for even the most eye-catching garments to be pedagogical tools.
In a 1953 letter, Alfred H. Barr Jr.—the founding director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art—wrote: “in our civilization with what seems to be a general decline in religious, ethical, and moral convictions, art may well have increasing importance quite outside of aesthetic enjoyment” (204). Per Barr’s logic, MoMA’s founding marked more than an effort to build a new home for western art in Manhattan; it was an explicit attempt to reframe art as the moral and ethical source of knowledge in a secularizing world. It was, in other words, a stand-in for biblical religion.
In fact, nearly half a century before the founding of the museum, God had died in the minds of many thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche, for one, proclaimed: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, comfort ourselves?” (trans. Walter Kaufmann, 181). Nietzsche lamented the loss of God as the loss of societal and individual values. Life, the philosopher observed, had no significance, no “comfort,” in a world without a priori meaning. Furthermore, the Bible had long informed a shared human experience with “roots in a continuum of tradition”—and yet, in a godless world, there ceased to be a unifying cosmic entity (Nochlin 41).
The void that God’s death created had unique resonance in the United States. As Linda Nochlin notes, there was “a sense of alienation from history as a shared past—an alienation central to the Americans’ experiencing their own condition as a purely contemporary one, without roots in a continuum of tradition” (136). In 1929, when MoMA was founded, the United States had only a century and half of shared history. In the interwar years, the US was not yet the global superpower it would become after the Second World War. The modern era was marked by a need to create a shared narrative of history and values to inform the future of the nation (Nochlin 136). The Museum of Modern Art, I contend, was an institution born of modern necessity—designed to provide a structure of shared value and meaning to undo the newfound alienation in the godless future.
The question posed by Nietzsche’s observed deicide remained contested throughout the early twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre centered the human subject as the source of meaning. In the modern era, Sartre argues, the individual subject is thrown into a godless world and is forced to forge a meaningful relationship with the world for himself. Sartre explains that “before the projection of the self nothing exists; not even in the heaven of intelligence: man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be” (quoted in Kaufmann349). There is no divine mandate that inherently imbues life with meaning and structure. Man exists innately without purpose and must actively create meaning in the world for himself through relation with the world around him. At MoMA the individual is forced to forge a meaningful existence for themselves in relation to the works of art on display. Objects are spaced apart from one another highlighting their individual importance while allowing the viewer sufficient space to view a single work of art. The works are then hung on unadorned white walls so nothing distracts the viewer from the object on display. The artworks provide a guide for the individual to develop themselves as a locus of moral thought. In an attempt to fill the void left by God’s absence in the world MoMA centered the artist as the subject of worship, assembling a pantheon of artists arranged by the curator-priests of the museum in the hallowed halls of the building on 53rdStreet.
When Barr asserted that MoMA would be the definitive arbiter of artistic quality in the modern age, he constructed an art historical future in which he hoped the museum would remain focal. As the museum’s director, Barr strove to be the omnipotent force determining that history. In Barr’s 1933 “Report on the Permanent Collection,” he reveals his teleological understanding of art history in a description of the guiding principles of the museum’s acquisitions. “The permanent collection may be thought of graphically as a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past of fifty to a hundred years ago” (MoMA archives, Barr Papers II.C.17). Barr even included an image of his torpedo metaphor, anchoring the collection in the works of Ingres, Goya, Constable, Delacroix, and Turner, with supplemental influence from the general categories of “non-European prototypes and sources” and “European prototypes and sources” (Fig 1).
This diagram refers to one of the early instantiations of the theological ramifications of MoMA’s organization and collecting practices. In 1889, Henri Bergson penned his paradigm-shifting essay, “Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness,” which serves as an intellectual antecedent to the torpedo model developed by Barr. In his essay, Bergson outlined the implications of teleological readings of history for the present and for free will. In Barr’s sketch of the arc of art history, the “ever advancing present” is a direct result of the “ever receding past.” The present art scene is an inevitable fruition of the formalist innovations of the past vanguard. In his diagrammed comparison, Barr converts the passage of time into a material, spatial form: the torpedo. Bergson warned that “time, conceived under the form of a homogenous medium [space], is some spurious concept, due to the trespassing of the idea of space upon the field of pure consciousness” (98).
The transformation of time into measurable space, as Barr suggests doing to organize modern art, limits the individual’s ability to make free choices, as it makes the past the basis for the future. In Barr’s organization, artistic innovation must flow linearly from the past into the present. Once an idea has been around long enough to be absorbed into the present, it is done away with as it passes through the tail of the torpedo. Bergson insists that “we could not introduce order among terms without first distinguishing them and then comparing the places they occupy; hence we must perceive them as multiple, simultaneous, and distinct; in a word, we must set order in what is successive, the reason is that order is converted into simultaneity and is projected onto space” (102). By claiming that converting time into space allows one to “project time onto space,” Bergson is arguing that this space-time can be projected onto the future, nullifying the possibility for free choice. Time, when measured in space, is predetermined.
By converting the temporal history of modern art into a spatial organization, Barr limits the possibilities of future production through the canonization of present artists. The only artists acceptable in the torpedo model are those that can find their roots in the tails of the torpedo. As time (and art history) progress, the artists who are presently the nose of the torpedo will eventually become the tail, and new artists must root their practice in the works of those sanctioned by Barr and MoMA more broadly. All future relevant “modern art” must find its roots in the works that Barr and MoMA have validated as foundational to future production. The Museum of Modern Art, led by Barr, then controls the future of modern art, predetermining what forms of art will be accepted into the canon and which will be rejected because they cannot find grounding in MoMA’s torpedo. This model is designed to outlive Barr. By rooting the development in a canon, the torpedo model insures that all future “quality” art must forever be rooted in the canon as conceived by MoMA institutionally.
In the post-modern world, the seemingly solid framework of the Museum of Modern Art begins to melt into air. Alfred Barr attempted to use the torpedo as a closed system to describe the entirety of modern artistic production. The torpedo held modern art together as a unified system to overcome the modern preoccupation with alienation in the face of the death of God. But as Derrida notes:
If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concepts from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.The engineer, whom Lévi-Strauss opposes to the bricoleur, should be the one to construct the totality of his language, syntax, and lexicon. In this sense the engineer is a myth. A subject who supposedly would be the absolute origin of his own discourse and supposedly would construct it ”out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth,” would be the creator of the verb, the verb itself. The notion of the engineer who supposedly breaks with all forms of bricolage is therefore a theological idea; and since Levi-Strauss tells us elsewhere that bricolage is mythopoetic, the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur. As soon as we cease to believe in such an engineer and in a discourse which breaks with the received historical discourse, and as soon as we admit that every finite discourse is bound by a certain bricolage and that the engineer and the scientist are also species of bricoleurs, then the very idea of bricolage is menaced and the difference in which it took on its meaning breaks down (trans. Alan Bass, 258).
Barr positions himself as the engineer of modern art; claiming to establish the truths of the discourse. Barr uses the teleology from the torpedo to construct a narrative of modern art that claims to be a closed, all encompassing, system. As the museum leaves the modern era of systemic discourse into the open systems of post-modernity, its authority imbued by Barr begins to waver. No longer can the museum claim to be the authority on the closed system of modern art, as said system begins to fall apart. As the world of contemporary art expands beyond the articulated confines of the western tradition and breaks free from (and expands beyond) its western roots, it can no longer be contained by Barr’s modernist model of artistic development: “Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined as useless, and sometimes as impossible” (Derrida 289).
In the global age, art is the ultimate form of play. It takes signs of the past and alters them to have new and expanded meaning in the present with disregard for their historical meanings. Signs and their signified meanings are loosely related to one another, constantly and unpredictably changing with the progression of dissociated time.
Edward Maza is a master’s student at Oxford in the department of Theology and Religion. His academic work focuses on the intersection of religion and art history with a particular focus on the Hebrew Bible in modern art.
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.
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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.
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.
Model for the Four Rivers Fountain, Galleria Borghese
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.
A room full of bozzetti, Galleria Borghese
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!”
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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).
“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.
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 novelFull 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.