Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Summary of Lecture Four

During the first three lectures we examined a number of key theoretical issues, clearing away much ideological underbrush that had accumulated during the era when disparagement of the Middle Ages and its culture was de rigueur.

The present lecture concerns the first of our source eras. Lasting roughly from 200 to 600 CE, is is termed either Late Antiquity (emphasizing the continuity with what had gone before) or the Early Christian period, signaling its role the first act, so to speak, of medieval culture.

Prior to 1901, there was scarcely any acknowledgment that art had existed at all during the five centuries in question. In 1901 this situation was transformed by the appearance of major monographs by two Viennese art historians. Alois Riegl emphasized the evolutionary aspect, showing late antique are as part of chain running through the Middle Ages and lasting as long as Rembrandt. Jowef Strzygowski stressed the catalytic role of Middle Eastern traditions, erupting as it were into the calm waters of the Greco-Roman consensus. Strzygowski, who had a particular affinity with Armenia, ranks as a major precursor of the ethnic approach to culture. As Otto Brendel has shown, the perceptions of such innovative scholars drew implicitly on their awareness of contemporary avant-garde art.

The main part of the lecture followed a nonlinear approach, in order to isolate the major themes of late-antique art. The common thread linking these categories is their disregard of the norms established in fifth- and fourth-century Greece.

The portrait head of Decius (emp. 249-51), with its tormented features, exemplifies the category of EXPRESSIONISM. The portrait ascribed to Plotinus reflects the ascetic philosophical ideals of the period, which may be connected with certain tendencies towards physical attenuation found in the art of the time. The Eutropius portrait displayed a striking geometrical rearrangement of the standard features of the human head.

The category of SPHERICITY appeared in the smooth, rounded images of Theodosius and Theodora. The contrast of this category with the previous one exemplifies the complexity of late-antique art.

FLATNESS is pervasive in the period, as seen in several paintings and reliefs. An early example is the standing figure from the Synagogue at Dura Europos (before 256 CE). In some cases, as in mosaic of Justinian's court in S. Vitale, Ravenna, a "floating" effect was achieved.

Various GEOMETRICAL matrices ware essayed, including the frames on the domes of the catacombs and the astronomical diagram from the Synagouge of Beth Alpha. A particular form was the imago clipeata, in which a bust is framed by a roundel. The Jewish ossuary in the British Museum comes close to nonobjective art.

The asethetic of the SKETCH, in which a few strokes serve to suggest a more complex image, comes to the fore in the catacomb paintings.

PROPORTIONAL FLEXIBILITY appeares in images that seem to us too short (the icon of St. Menas) or too elongated (statue of Valentinian II).

The art of mosaic lends itself to a FACETED approach, as seen in two Ravennate monuments, the tomb of Galla Pacidia and S. Vitale (Theodora and her retinue).

STYLISTIC HETEROGENEITY appeared in the Mary icon from Mt. Sinai, where the front row of figures is in one style, the two angels in the middle distance in another. The Arch of Constantine (315), making use of spoils, is a more radical example.

Several works showed a deliberate disregard of the rules of perspective, some favoring REVERSE PERSPECTIVE.

SERIATION, the deployment of line-ups of nearly identical figures, appears in relief carvings (Arch of Constantine, again) and paintings.

The device of OVERALL PATTERNING emerged in the starry vaults of the Christian building at Dura Europos and the tomb of Galla Placidia.

Finally, BUBBLE ARCHITECTURE, greatly extending the premises of earlier Roman architecture, was seen in Santa Costanza, San Vitale, and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

The following lecture will document in extenso the parallels in modern art. By and large these are matters of a f f i n i t y, rather than "influence" as the term is usually understood. Yet there is a deeper connection, and that is that modernist vision in effect created late-antique art, something that prior to 1901 was not accepted as existing at all.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Suumary of Lecture Three

At the outset the instructor reported on his visit to St. Thomas Episcopal church (Fifth Ave. at 53d St.), previously introduced as an example of the mature Gothic Revival mode. In keeping with his recollection, the interior proved to be AC (Archaeologically Correct), with a tripartite elevation surmounted by rib vaulting. The end of the chancel was dominated by a humongous, sculpture-crowded reredos, providing a backdrop for the service. The latter, in keeping with High Anglican tradition, was something of a Cecil B. DeMille production, with processions, choral and organ music, and much rising, sitting, and kneeling on the part of the congregation. The building reflects the confluence of two 19th-century trends in England: Pugin's reforms and propaganda; and the Oxford movement. (See Brooks for further information.)

By way of a prelude to a return to the subject of RUINS in art, the discussion turned to the aestetic problem of the fragment, beginning with the powerful piece known as the Belvedere torso, eulogized by Sir Joshua Reynolds for its "perfection of the science of abstract form." A head from St.-Denis, severed in the 18th century, attests the role of vandalism (or restoration) in the creation of sculptural fragments. Rodin created ex-novo fragments, such as his "Striding Man." Some modern works, as the Cezanne watercolor. seemingly unfinished, appeal to the "beholder's share." Hence the nonfinito problem, one that does not seem to lend itself to any sort of definitive solution.

While there are occasional depictions of ruins in medieval manuscript illuminations, the subject does not really get off the ground until the Italian Renaissance, with its fascination with classical remains. In my view the role of ruins in Mantegna's Vienna St. Sebastian remains enigmatic-- a personal penchant? A symbol of the end of classical civilization? a counterpart of the plague? or a trope fo the breaking of Sebastian's body? (He was later stoned.) Similarly the ruins in Giorgione's "Tempesta" remain puzzling, though perhaps the new explanation by Jurgen Rapp (the figures as Paris and Oenone) may work.

(Btw, there is a recent coffee-ta le book on ruins in art by Michel Makarius, available at the Met at a reduced though still high price.)

During the 18th century the depiction of classical ruins took on a new pathos, as seen in works by Robert and Piranesi. These bring us to the life-changing experience of Edward Gibbon. In his own words: "It was at Rome, on the eighteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers, at the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of wriging the decline and fall of the City first started in my mind." The first installment of Gibbon's great work appeared in 1776. Essentially presenting the era as a prelude ot the Dark Ages, it served to retard the appearance of a more balanced approach to the era. Only by implication does Gibbon adduce a more general oomparative theory. Such, however, was presented in the 1830s by Thomas Cole in his five-part series "The Course of Empire" (New-York Historical Society). In 1918 Oswald Spengler brought out the first volume of "The Decline of the West," a full-dress exposition of the trope of the inevitable life-cycle of civilizations. Today, once again, historians and pundits are asking if we are about to reproduce the fate of ancient Rome.

In 1809 and after C.D. Friedrich transformed the theme of the pathos of ruins to apply to the Middle Ages. In keeping with a theme of the Romantic movement, his images of ruins are intended to evoke a sense of irreparable loss (a loss that Pugin later held he could in fact cure).

The theme of ruins invites many reflections. Ruins are caused in four ways: enemy action, despoliation, neglect, and deliberate creation (fakes).

In 19th century France the term for Gibbon's problem was decadence. As seen in Thomas Couture's 1847 painting, this expression was originally applied to the more distant (Roman) past. After the defeat of 1871 the term was actualized--hence the Decadent Movement, whose most prominent figure was Paul Verlaine. The adoption of the term "decdaent" illustrates the curious theme of "detoxification of terms, as seen e.g. in the "queer" trend and the Hollywood Rat Pack. Huysmans' novel "Against Nature" shows a genuine appreciation of the literature of late antiquity. This seems to be the first instance of a positive approach to the cultural products of this much-disparaged era. A little later the Viennese historians were to extend the approach to art works.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Summary of Lecture Two

Returning to two key figures discussed last time, Monet and Kandinsky, we find that a further contextualization dissolves the sense of iconographical arbitrariness, showing that, instead of pursuing mere personal penchants, these painters were responding to currents vital in their time.

In keeping with the Enlightenment disparagement of all things medieval, the French Revolution had treated the country's venerable monuments harshly--necessitating major restorations after the tide had turned. A telling document in the turn towards a renewed appreciation of the medieval contribution was Chateaubriand's "Genie du Christianisme" (1802), wherein he supported the forest theory of the origin of Gothic churches. Even more influential was Victor Hugo's novel "Notre Dame" of 1831. Setting his narrative at the very end of the Middle Ages, Hugo limned the Parisian cathedral as the mastertrope of a whole civilization. It stood on the verge of yielding to a new mastertrope, Gutenberg's printed book. Gradually a kind of cathedral-mania ensued in France, abetted by the 1842 revelation that the Gothic had in fact originated in that country (and not in Germany as had been previously thought--cf. Vasari's jibes). The enthusiasm generated one of the rare masterpieces of art-historical writing, Emile Male's "Gothic Image" (French original, 1898). Thus Monet's 31 love-letters to Rouen cathedral appeared at the culmination of a trend that had occupied four generations.

Kandinsky's excursions into Old Russia must be viewed in the light of Pan-Slavism, originating in the Prague Congress of 1848. At first primarily political (envisaging a series of national-liberation efforts), the trend came to emphasize the cultural distinctiveness of the Slavic peoples (Slavophilia). In Kandinsky's case this interest morphed into a concern with apocalyptic imagery (with both Eastern and Western roots), leading directly to his espousal of nonobjectivity. As with Monet the trajectory shows an inner logic, not a first suspected.

What is the Middle Ages? Is it truly a stable concept? The theme of fluctuating reputations can be seen in the changing reception of the work of Bosch and El Greco. The reputations of these two painters fell sharply at the time of their deaths, only to climb meteorically at the end of the 19th century. Today we admire the "real" Bosch and El Greco--but can we be sure? Eras also may suffer wholesale disparagement, witness 16th-century Mannerism and the Middle Ages.

As a synecdoche for the whole Middle Ages, the term Gothic merits close scrutiny. The Goths were a Germanic people that ravaged the Roman empire, starting in the 370s. By the 1140s, the birth date of what we know as Gothic architecture, the Goths had long disappeared as a distinct ethnic group. But the misnomer retained its appeal because of its aura of barbarism and bad taste. The disparagement prevalent in Early Modern Europe was only occasionally relieved by encomia of "Gothic balance," a free political system ostensibly introduced into England by the migrating Anglo-Saxons.

At first seemingly a neutral chronological marker, the term Middle Ages quickly took on negative connotations as the era was badmouthed as the "Dark Ages." We noted Vasari's 1550 harangue of the unnatural barbarism of the hated maniera tedesca. The religious reformers Luther and Calvin probably delivered more decisive blows. Calvinism adopted iconoclasm, physically annihilating mucy medieval sculpture and painting. As a via media Anglicanism was more tolerant.

In my view Chris Brooks' outstanding treatment of the cultivation of the "old style" in England cannot be bettered. Using the examples of Hagley Park and Nymphenburg we briefly alluded to the phenomenon of fake ruins in the 18th century. The third lecture will offer further reflections on the fascination with ruins.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Summary of Lecture One

The instructor's current semiretired status facilitates reflection on several topics of ongoing interest. Among these is the multifaceted phenomenon of the encounter between the medieval and the modern. Seemingly episodic and fleeting, these links in fact display a deeper substance and inner logic, as will become apparent in the course of the semester. (One clue to this logic stems from Wilhelm Worringer's little 1907 treatise, "Abstraction and Empathy.")

During the first hour a range of instances of the Gothic Revival was adduced. The church of St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue reflects the culmination of several generations' effort to "get it right+--to produce a convincing simulacrum of "real Gothic." The Brooklyn Bridge, mingling pointed arches with the nonmedieval principle of suspension, represents a creative adaptation. This contrast may be labeled the opposition between mimicry and midwifery.

As a Pre-Raphaelite, D. G. Rossetti subscribed (with mixed results) to their doctrine that art had lost its way ca. 1500. It was essential to recover the purity and sincerity of medieval and early Renaissance art. The painting "Dantis Amor" originally adorned a piece of furniture in the Red House, Bexley Heath (near London), an instance of midwifery in which such medieval features as them poiinted arch and asymmetrical plan happily consort with elements of other derivation.

Monet's 31 paintings of Rouen Cathedral belong to his mature phase, when he executed works in series (e.g. the grainstacks and the poplars). A building of personal as well as national significance, the Norman cathedral opened the way for other "citationalist" works (e.g the Houses of Parliament in Wsstminster and tye Palazzo di Mula in Venice.)

The previous examples all stem from the Western Middle Ages. About 1906 Vassili Kandincky began to engage the Slavic Middle Ages. Eventually his interest morphed into an intense preoccupation with apocalyptic imagery, leading to his breakthrough, in late 1912, into Nonobjectivity.