Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Summary of Lecture Seven

The Merovingian era is one of the most obscure periods of European history. It may be that its "curse" has arisen anew, as I inadvertently omitted to post the Summary of Lecture Seven. Here it is, after a week's delay--and out of sequence.

As we noted on a previous occasion, the notion of the "Dark Ages" was coined by Petrarch in the 14th century as a universal label of opprobrium for the entire Middle Ages. Since it seemed little of significance happened during that regrettable age of superstition and tyranny, there was scarcely any need for differentiation of historical sequences. It was all one dismall blur. Gradually, however, it became clear that major cultural accomplishments had occurred during the later Middle Ages, the era of the Romanesque and Gothic. Nor could Byzantium, capable of transmitting its culture through much of the Slavic world, qualify for the epithet.

Many hold, though, that the period from ca. 500 to 1000 in Western Europe, sometimes termed the age of the barbarian kingdoms, was a genuine Dark Age. Perhaps so. There was an undoubted social and economic decline, but nonetheless the period did make some major cultural advances, one of the which, the majuscule-minuscule balance in typography, is still very much with us.

After the failure (after 565) of Justinian's overambitious project of reunification of the Roman Empire, the still-prosperous East eseentially wrote off the errant Western provinces. As long as these regna barbarorum acknowledged the nominal supremacy of the great basileus in Constantinople, they could be left to stew in their own juice.

All the same, things were stirring in that dispised juice (so to speak). This period saw a process of ethnogenesis, in which the nations of Western Europe enucleated: Italy (with its Ostrogoths and Lombards), Spain (Visigoths), England (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes), and France (the Salian Franks). The Frankish kingdom is sometimes termed Merovingian, after a putative early monarch.

The era also saw an important process of glottogenesis, in which the primordial forms of the modern vernacular languages emerged. Latin ceased to be spoken in Gaul about 770, replaced by Old French (even though written Latin continued to be an attribute of those few educated people who survived). If the term is apt, Latin became a dead language from this time forward. Latin was a synthetic (inflected) language; French (and its romance sisters), an analytic tongue. The contrast may be illustrated by translating the Latin phrase "casus belli" into French, where it becomes "la cause de la guerre." In addition to the articles (lacking in Latin) we note the appearance of the preposition "de," which does the work of the genetive ending -i, attached to the word for war.

And there were important lexical changes. The older word for war, "bellum," yielded to "guerre," derived as in English from a Germanic root, "werra." Neglected by the French educational system, the Germanic Franks left a major impress on the French language and culture. To this hybridity (romance and Germanic) French culture probably owes much of its incomparaple capacity for irradiation. As examples of the Frankish heritage we noted "boulevard" and "bourgeois," so important for 19th- century society. Frankish military customs led to feodalism (reflecting a Germanic word "fief," originally referring to cattle) and chivalry, the civilized transmogrification of the crude warrior code. (The word chivalry itself derives from the Vulgar Latin substitute for "equus.")

In the last analysis the spoken language is the basis for the written language, which is what will shortly concern us. Since the vernacular was not written at this point, Merovingian scribes had to struggle with their imperfect knowledge of an exotic language, one moreover that was tinged with religious awe, as the Christian scriptures familiar to them were written in ecclesiastical Latin. This condition of juggling two languages (often heard on NYC streets) is termed diglossia.

Some Merovingian manuscripts (such as the Gelasian Sacramentary in the Vatican) show an almost childish glee for color and for a proliferation of creatures such as birds and fish. The Sacramentary of Gellone shows the first mermaid known to me. Perhaps
it is not too much of a stretch to say that Merovingian scribes invented the child's coloring book. In its original context, such adornment may reflect a magical world view, one understandable among people who had just learned to write.

However that may be, they did two things of utmost importance. 1) They created minuscule script made of up lower-case letters out of earlier attempts at cursive writing. As noted on the blackboard, the essential difference between majuscule (A FLY) and minuscule (a fly) is that the former can be written in a two-line stave, the latter, the new invention, required a four-line stave. Most of the text you are reading is composed in minuscule.

2) They created a binary system in which majuscule is used for headings and capitals at the beginning of sentences, while minuscule rules in the body of the text. This binararism stands in stark contrast to Roman script-monism. To the best of my knowledge all original Latin inscriptions and manuscripts are written only in majuscule capitals. These came in several varieties, including the stately capitalis quadrata and the more compact capitalis rustica. But as in Henry Ford's precept "You can have any color you want, as long as is is black," the ancient Romans (like the ancient Greeks) offered no relief from the ruthless hegemony of capitals. IMAGINEHAVINGTOWRITEEVERYTHINGLIKETHIS. The Latin scribes rarely observed breaks between words or syllables. This wall-to-wall treatment reflects the fact that the ancients read texts aloud. Silent reading began to come in only around 400 CE.

We briefly noted the more elegant version of this binarism (majuscule mingling with minuscule) in the manuscripts of the Carolingian era. A brief glance at the front page of the New York Times showed how these principles still prevail.

Across the English channel the Hiberno-Saxon cultures flourished contemporaneously. We briefly examined the wonderful, color-drenched jewelry recovered from the still pagan burian at Sutton Hoo near the East coast of England. The prevalance of red shows an affinity with modern works such as Matisse's "Red Studio" of 1911.

The Irish illuminators of the Books of Durrow and Kells showed various innovations. The use of flatness, as seen in the Matthew of Durrow, is an important precursor of modern flatness, as are, in a different way, the carpet pages, showing as they do Joseph Mashek's Carpet Principle. In script the innovation of the decrescendo (letters decreasing in size) at the start of texts has not been generally followed--except perhaps in graphic novels, where one sometimes finds phrases such as "AAaargh" rendered in this fashion.

We posited a relationship between the ornament of Louis Sullivan, as seen in the entrance to the Carson, Pirie, Scott building, and the Book of Kells. More generally, the art nouveau honors a debt to Hiberno-Saxon ornament, as seen (e.g.) in the interior of Victor Horta's Tassel House in Brussels from the 1890s.

Summary of Lecture Eight

The Carolingian era--anchored by Charlemagne's imperial coronation in 800--shows both continuity and innovation. Like their Merovingian predecessors, whom they supplanted, the Carolingians (including Karl der Grosse/Charlemagne) were Franks. Their regime, which emphasized education and competent administration, was at bottom another barbarian kingdom. As we saw in the previous lecture, their scribes refined the binary system of manuscript page layout, bequeathing it to all later generations, including ours.

Charlemagne's empire embraced much of what became the core of the European Community, that is, France, (northern) Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The capital was located at Aachen in Germany, a little more than a stone's throw away from the borders of today's Netherlands and Belgium. Of course, the revival of the imperial idea (in competition with Byzantium) proved to be problematic. Charlmagne's grandsons effected the separation of France and Germany (previously a unit) in 843, with fateful consequences down to 1945.

As seen in two paintings by Jacques-Louis David, the heritage of Charlemagne was alive in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. The equestrian portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps evokes both Hannibal and Charlemagne by name. The big canvas of the imperial coronation of 1804 tracks the similar event a millennium before, with the required participation of the pope.

In the course of the tenth century, the Carolingian family faded away. Its hegemony was succeeded by the Saxon Ottonians, who used their Frankish precessors as a template. In 962 Otto the Great achieved imperial coronation in Rome, inaugurating what came to be called the Holy Roman Empire.

The Carolingian Ebbo Gospels in Epernay (about 835) set the tone for a similarly exhuberant type of manuscript illumination in the Ottonian school of Cologne. We looked at the Hitda Gospels, a manuscript made for an intellectual-abbess. The protoexpressionism therein embodied also appeared in two ivories and the famous bronze doors of Hildesheim of 1015, where we noted the scene of the Expulsion.

The most extraordinary accomplishment of the Ottonians was the revival of monumental sculpture, a tradition that had been essentially extinct for 500 years. The Essen Madonna (slightly under life size) has a barbaric intensity that is understandable
given the novelty of the task. It has (or had, prior to replacement with plastic) a wooden core, over which a gold-leaf covering was fashioned. The Crucifix of Archbishop Gero in Cologne Cathedral is highly expressive. It is one of the first pieces of art to show Christ as dead. Both works derived their "permission" (as it were) from their function as reliquaries. They are the lineal ancestors of all subsequent monumental sculpture in the West, a tradition that did not start in the Italian Renaissance, as sometimes assumed.

Two wood sculptures by Ernst Barlach were briefly noted as 20th-century avatars of the Ottonian expressionist tradition.

In addition we examined some vivid manuscript illuminations of the Beatus (Apocalypse) text, products of the Mozarabic culture, a Spanish counterpart of the Ottonians. The appeal of their intense, saturated hues and striking simplifications to the modern sensibility needs no emphasis, though we did mention the influence of the Saint-Sever Apocalypse on Picasso, ca. 1930.

In conclusion we examined some points raised by the paper assignment. While capitalism is conventionally regarded as antithetical to the "feudal" Middle Ages, we noted two medieval anticipations: the use of the check in banking, and the sweatshop, which appeared in the late medieval cloth industry of Flanders and northern France. The four ethnic types seen in the heads of the Woolworth Building probably allude (following an 18th-century tradition) to the four continents--and by implication to the global aspirations of the Woolworth firm.

Finally, we discussed the supercession (at first gradual and partial) of historicism in public buildings by the austerities of the International Style (from 1922 onwards). Lionel Feininger's 1919 flyer of the Bauhaus still assumes that one can appeal to medieval precedent--in this case the presumed Gothic ideal of community. Gropius' 1925 building at Dessau rejects historical allusions. The key to this vast shift in attitude and ideology is not Louis Sullivan, as sometimes assumed, but the penetration in the years immediately following World War I of the ideas of the Viennese architect Adolf Loos. In a 1908 lecture, "Ornament and Crime," Loos condemned all ornament as a hangover from earlier, less enlightened times. He put his ideas into practice in the severe design of his Steiner House (1910), among others. If there is a culprit for the triumph of routine corporate modernism, it is Loos--though this charge is surely unfair, as he could not have anticipated the for-profit routinization of his ideas after World War II.

[Note: Lecture Seven, out of sequence, precedes this one in the queue.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Summary of Lecture Six

The theme of the presentation was Byzantine civilization, concluding with its putative heritage in nonobjectivity. The term "Byzantine," suggesting deviousness and bureaucratic subterfuge, has its own aura of negativity. Historical analysis will largely dissipate this. The details of the Byzantine revival in Western Europe are covered in Bullen's monograph, Byzantium Rediscovered (a copy was passed among the class). Bullen has one major gap, in that he offers no coverage of Russia and Eastern Europe (where Orthodoxy and Byzantine statecraft left a permanent impress).

Before tackling the main theme of the presentation, it was deemed advisable briefly to address the problem of representation. The details, at least for Western Europe ca. 1300-1817 (Constable, "Wivenhoe Park"), appear in E. H. Gombrich's Art and Illusion (1960). Exemplary as far as it goes, this book does not account for the "great renunciation" of modern art, which subverts (De Chirico) or simply denies (Klee) the purported progressive message of the conquest of illusion. More probing in this regard is a more recent book, The Power of Images, by David Freedberg of Columbia University. Freedberg address the paradox of how realistic images (as the Venus de Milo) can be powerful, but so can "idols," such as the 12th-century Russian baba figure emulated by Goncharova.

The instructor noted some distinctions among the terms. In the strict sense "iconoclasm" refers to image-smashing. Today, the word is often employed in a metaphorical sense to refer to someone with sharp opinions that deviate from the accepted consensus. "Iconophobia" has some currency, but as with other -phobia terms there is a question as to whether suspicion of images is a phobia in the clinical sense. Perhaps the best term is "aniconism," which covers a whole range of responses. For example, early Buddhist art in India is aniconic only for the founder Sakyamuni, who is indicated by a plank or turban; his associates are presented directly. (This limited substitution is similar to a reluctance to pronounce or write the name of the deity, as the tetragrammaton in the Hebrew bible, or the abbreviation "Ds" (= Deus) in medieval manuscripts.)

The earliest examples of aniconism known to me come from pharaonic Egypt of the 14th century BCE. The monotheism of Akhnaten decreed an end to the anthropomorphic (and therioanthropomorphic) renderings of the gods. There was but one god, the solar Aten, and this figure could only be rendered in the form a disk (albeit with the uraeus signifier). The return to polytheism after the death of Akhnaten led to the mutilation of his works--iconoclasm. These acts of aggression were accompanied by efforts to chisel out the name of the royal offender (damnatio memoriae).

There followed a brief account of Byzantine history, from the founding of
Constantinople in 330. In fact the Late Antique period blends almost imperceptibley into Byzantium. By about 500 CE the latter was well under way, as the Western half of the empire fell under barbarian domination. The reign of Justinian (527-65) is the core of the first Golden Age of Byzantium. Justinian is best remembered for his building campaigns and his reform of Roman law. Lasting until 1810, the Justinian Code is the foundation of the civil-law tradition, observed almost universally outside the English-speaking countries.

After Justinian's death the empire was exhausted. In the early years of the 7th century a severe challenge occurred in the form of a massive Persian invasion. Heraclius managed to beat this incursion back--only to see some of his most prosperous provinces (Syria and Egypt) fall under permanent Islamic rule.

There was brief discussion of Islamic aniconism, which entailed strict exclusion of holy images from mosques and other religious structures. The central symbol of the faith, the Kaaba in Mecca, is an elementary form. Contrary to popular belief, though, the Prophet himself was represented, though usually with a veil over his countenance. These images appeared in manuscripts for private use, not in public settings. Here we have another aspect: aniconism according to context.

Islamic critiques doubtless played a role in the launching of official iconoclasm by Leo the Isaurian in 726. A great many holy images were destroyed, but not secular scenes, which were not effected. Leo's target was image worship which he decried, that is, idolatry. The controversy was not settled until 843, when icons again became permissible.

In due course the loss of the Eastern provinces was compensated by the penetration of Byzantine civilization northwards. Here the penetration of Cyril and Methodius into Moravia (863) was exemplary. These two missionaries translated the liturgy into Slavonic, and devised the Cyrillic alphabet (with minor modifications of the Byzantine Greek alphabet as seen in the use of the letter C to represent the "s" sound).

These efforts did not bear full fruit until the following century. The visit of Princess Olga of Kiev to Constantinople proved premature, but her grandson Vladimir converted, together with his court in 988. This shift unleashed a flood of immigrant talent: clergy, administrators and scribes, artisans, and architects. Among other things the art of icon-making on the Byzantine model took firm root in Russia. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the doctrine of the Third Rome (Moscow) was launched.

What was the nature of the early icons? These survive only in territories beyond the reach of the imperial writ. The monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai (founded by Justinian) has the largest cache, 36 examples. About 30 come from Egypt, while the city of Rome supplies a select quartet of Marian icons. We examined several choice examples, notably the Peter icon, where his garments anticipate the brushwork of Frans Hals. In fact this body of icons (all made before 726) constitute the foundation of all later European panel painting, including (e.g.) the Ognisanti Madonna, Duccio's Maesta, and the Ghent Altarpiece.

As the research of Ernst Kitzinger has shown, the later 6th century, a time of growing insecurity, saw an increase in magical associations attached to icons. The faithful were (it was charged) worshiping the icon rather than the holy figures depicted therein. Icons were held to be able to save cities and armies, and to protect individuals (they were readily portable). Some examples were to be held to be acheiropoetai, not made by human hands. The apprehensions these superstitions caused contributed to the rise of iconoclasm in the following century.

Iconophobia was referred back to the prohibition in Exodus 20, though many held that this referred only to works in the round. In the end this exegesis formed the basis for compromise, as flat works (paintings and reliefs) were allowed after 843, but not sculpture in the round. This arrangement deprived Byzantium of an independent sculptural tradition comparable to the one that arose in Ottonian Germany ca. 980, serving as the basis of all later Western sculpture.

A second great outburst of iconoclasm occurred in the 1560s in the Low Countries, stoked by Calvinist rigorism. Paintings by Emmanuel De Witte show, as it were, "before" and "after."

The instructor posited that Piet Mondrian, raised as a strict Calvinist, was heir to this tradition of suspicion of representation, as seen in his formal explorations of the Domburg church and the plus-minus works. His triptych "Evolution" is indebted to the Theosophical ideas of H.P. Blavatsky, a Russian seer.

Slavic countries are even more forthcoming. Over the years my analysis of the rise of nonobjectivity (restricted to the foundational years of 1909-15) has led to the discernment of a prime octet of major innovators. Of these, six are Slavic (Kandinsky, Kupka, Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich, and Sonia [Terk] Delaunay); this prominence is unlikely to be an accident.

Several contributions by Goncharova, including her "icon" of St. George were noted.
More pervasive, but by the same token more elusive were the inclinations of Kazimir Malevich. His 1915 hanging of the black square in a corner in fact evokes the "red corner" of the traditional orthodox peasant home. Malevich's use of elementary forms included a prominent role for the cross. As noted previously, it proved difficult to cause this form to shed its cultural accretion. As a final note, we acknowledged that Malevich's return to figuration in the later 1920s entailed aspects of image shyness in that the faces were elided.

In conclusion, the instructor noted his indebtedness to a somewhat imperfect book by Alain Besancon, The Hidden Image (University of Chicago Press), which traces the growth of aniconism from the Greek pre-Socratics onwards, with special emphasis on the modern Russians.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Summary of Lecture Five

Lecture Four presented a plethora of unfamiliar, disparate objects. Their contrasting, even contrary emphases suggest that Late Antique/Early Christian art has no style of its own. This heterogeneity is in fact rooted in Roman art, which developed on different tracks, depending on whether the work was official, funerary, private, or sectarian. The Decius portrait and the Christian building at Dura Europos are almost exact contemporaries, but couldn't be more different. The difference resides in the fact that the one belongs to the first Roman category just noted, the Dura frescoes to the last.

The main part of the lecture reprocessed, as it were, the categories introduced last time in an effort to discern organic links between the (incipient) medieval and the modern.

The term Expressionism appeared about 1910 to designate art trends that emphasized the inner theater of emotions as distinct from our processing of sensations (Impressionism, envisaged at E's polar opposite). The artists of Die Bruecke, formed in Dresden in the early years of the century, lie at the core of the Expressionist endeavor. Schmidt-Rottluff's "Melancholia," a woodcut of 1919, is a characteristic example. Works by Kirchner and Heckel were also seen. Godfathers of the movement were Van Gogh and Edvard Munch.

The intellectual underpinnings of Expressionism may well lie in Friedrich Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy" of 1872. This work posits a fundamental dichotomy between the Apollonian and Dionysian. While Nietzsche sees the two in a state of creative tension in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, he believed that the duality applied to all of life. Certainly the Dionysian seems to have application to late Roman life with its bloody cults of Mithras and Cybele, not to mention the executions of the Christian martyrs in the arana and (some would say) Christianity itself, where the central feature is the violent death of its Founder.

"Sphericity" is, it is now evident, a special case of Elementarism, a concept introducted by Theo Van Doesburg about 1925. Ultimately the concept stems from a dialogue of Plato, the Philebus. Here Plato maintains that the most fundamental principle of beauty lies in basic geometric forms. A visit to a humble carpenter's shop will illustrate this point, as the carpenter produces straight lines and circles with the appropriate instruments, resorting to a lathe for 3-D counterparts such as cylinders, cones, and spheres. This concept was illustrated by a page from Le Corbusier's programmatic treatise "Vers une architecture" of 1923. More recent cases of squares and cubes, circles and spheres were discussed. The cross form remains problematic in that, once Christian ideas had been attached to it, they were not readily dismissable.

The ideal of flatness is traceable to Sir Henry Cole's campaign for design reform in England, following the fiasco (as many saw it) of the kitschy, pretentious objects in the first world's fair of 1851. Cole and his allies held that carpets and wall hangings should not attempt to show depth, but much be kept relatively flat. William Morris mass-produced products embodying these principles. Edouard Manet transferred them to the fine arts, as seen in his "Fifer." Other examples were seen in works of Maurice Denis, Klimt, Matisse, and Georgia O'Keeffe.

The concept of tonal unification is easily referenced to impressionist, neoimpressionist, and postimpressionist work.

A number of examples the use of geometrical matrices were presented, including work by Adolf Gottlieb and Judy Chicago.

The aesthetic of the sketch came to the fore (as Albert Boime has shown) in the middle of the 19th century. A good exposition of this idea appears in Hawthorne's Roman novel, "The Marble Faun." A sketch by Delacroix for his monumental "Death of Sardanapalus" documented the freshness and freedom of such exercises, qualities that tend to be lost in the finishe work.

Proportional flexibity appeared in work by Picasso and Miro'.

Paul Signac seemed to have adopted (or adapted) his style by reference to the faceting of the mosaics in Ravenna and Constantinople.

Perhaps the most important of the categories was the idea of stylistic heterogeneity, the cohabitation of two or more styles in a single work. This was shown in two works by Picasso, his "Demoiselles d'Avignon" and an analytic Cubist still life. To the best of my knowledge, this feature (found of course in the Mary icon from Mt. Sinai) has not been adequately theoretized in art, though Bakhtin's polyphonic concept addresses it in literature. In Saul Steinberg's classic New Yorker cover each of the six figures has his or her own style, wittily making clear the link between (artistic) style and lifestyle.

Perspectival manipulation famously occurs in late Cezanne. De Chirico and Klee show more radical efforts. Ultimately these departures may be connected with non-Euclidean or Riemannian geometry, which emerged in Central Europe in the middle of the 19th century. In this mathematical concept, Euclidean geometry, the basis of "scientific perspective," is but a special case of the larger field of non-Euclideanism.

Seriation was referred to 19th century architecture, where (as in the Crystal Palace) a small number of basic, identical building components were utilized. Warhol's Marilyn Monroe diptych is a striking example in painting.

Overall patterning appears in the work of many abstract artists, as in Agnes Martin and (more contoversially) Jackson Pollack.

Late-antique architecture carried the Roman mallebility principle (assured by the use of concrete) to new heights. Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam (1920s) is a landmark example, rejecting as it does the geometrical grids that were de rigueur in the International Style. The TWA Building (Saarinen) and the Bilbao Museum (Gehry) were also shown.

In conclusion it was suggested the the thread connecting all these categories is their willingness to defy the norms of the classicist aesthetic first set forth in fifth-century Greece. Clumsily perhaps, Wilhelm Worringer sought to portray this epochal change as the overcoming of the empathy principle he detected at the foundations of the classical aesthetic.