Saturday, April 13, 2013

Medieval Modern: Art out of Time 

by Alexander Nagel (my review from Amazon).

Arguably, Meyer Schapiro was the greatest art historian ever produced in America. His two fields of concentration were medieval and modern art. This pairing was not accidental, for Schapiro recognized that the two periods share a common disregard for illusionism and the cult of beauty, principles inaugurated by the ancient Greeks and revived during the Renaissance. In a word, medieval and modern art are both anticlassical.

In this light there has long been a need for a systematic account of the felt affinity of medieval and modern art. Unfortunately, this book does not meet that need. Nagel conveys no sense of the historical sequence of medieval civilization, a complicated matter in which most readers will need guidance to thread their way through the historical narrative. Yet the author rejects periods in favor of a kind of an "episodic" approach, hopping from one topic to another. Moreover, he complicates the Middle Ages by adding such figures as Michelangelo and Titian, Parmigianino and Bruegel--artists who can in no sense be characterized as medieval.

The author's sense of modern art is almost as muddled. Unaccountably, he fails to discuss the evocation of medieval buildings by Monet (Rouen Cathedral), Matisse (Notre-Dame de Paris), Delaunay (Laon Cathedral; and St.-Severin) and O'Keeffe (Taos church). In each case these works were important milestones in the individual artist's development.

Setting these deficits aside, what does one actually get from Nagel's book? It is a kind of grab-bag of aperçus and speculations, generally proceeding from some casual encounter with a modern or contemporary work. The effect is one of blundering into a room in which the speaker conducts an endless grasshopper conversation. Taken on these terms, though, the book may be stimulating.

The last page offers a conclusion of sorts: "It is hard to think of any category of current work whose terms were not set in the 1960s. The medievalism that was such a constitutive part of the development of the 1960s is, therefore, now encoded (usually unrecognized) in the DNA of contemporary art." Unrecognized--and unrecognizable.

On the positive side, the publisher has embellished the text with many striking photographs. Whether this lavish feature will be enough to compensate for the narrative deficit of the text must be left for the reader to decide.