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.

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