Preposterous Timing

Hal Foster

  • Medieval Modern: Art out of Time by Alexander Nagel
    Thames and Hudson, 312 pp, £29.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 500 23897 4
  • Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum by Amy Knight Powell
    Zone, 369 pp, £24.95, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 935408 20 8

Typically, the first job of the art historian is to slot a work of art into its proper place in time, in the corpus of the artist who made it and in the context of the world that informed its making. Usually, we rely on the notion of ‘style’ to help with this task, to connect the work to the individual manner of its creator as well as to the collective Kunstwollen (or ‘artistic will’) of its culture. As the index of the artist and the period, ‘style’ is crucial to the chronological basis of the discipline, which in turn is why anachronism, or the assigning of a work to a temporal frame foreign to it, is anathema to art history, and why ‘pseudomorphism’, or the relating of different works that merely look alike, is also problematic. Rookie mistakes, we smile when students make them, two wrenches inadvertently dropped into the academic works. It comes as a surprise, then, that some scholars now aim to redeem both errors, and to question the verities of the discipline in doing so.

The anachronism at issue here is less the projection of a contemporary idea onto a historical artefact (though this can occur in the new literature too) and more the recognition of the complex temporality of any work of art (including architecture), not only as we stand before it in the present of our own experience, but also as different times are inscribed in the work as it passes through history, whereby it comes to double as the record of its own material alterations or programmatic transformations. The rehabilitation of anachronism has various motives. Within art history it registers a turn away from the thinking of Erwin Panofsky, who privileged the historical perspective permitted by a clear demarcation of period styles, and towards the writing of Aby Warburg, a fellow German who was obsessed with the unexpected eruption of ancient forms of extreme expression in Renaissance art and beyond (accordingly, Warburg viewed the Renaissance less as the ‘rebirth’ of antiquity than as its ‘afterlife’). This shift also marks a renewed appreciation of less renowned scholars such as the Frenchman Henri Focillon, a medievalist who saw the ‘life of forms’ as an almost autonomous force in art, and the American George Kubler, an expert in pre-Columbian artefacts for whom the Panofskyan emphasis on individual style, strict chronology and iconographic analysis (the hunting for sources of images in documents) was not helpful in a field where known artists, exact dates and intact archives were scarce. At the same time, the interest in anachronism is spurred by the breakdown of the old division of the aesthetic field into spatial and temporal arts, a decorum proposed by Gotthold Lessing in the 18th century and affirmed since by many modern artists and critics. In recent practice, ‘time-based’ performances, installations and projections are more the rule than the exception, and this too cannot help but sensitise scholars to temporal questions.

The key text so far in this debate is Anachronic Renaissance (2010) by the Americans Alexander Nagel and Christopher Wood. It seems counterintuitive that the case for ‘anachronic’ thinking would be launched in a study of the Renaissance, for it was then that the ideas of the artist as great original and the artwork as absolutely unique first took hold. Yet it is precisely this ‘authorial’ notion of the artist and this ‘performative’ model of the work (that is, as ‘the product of a singular historical performance’) that Nagel and Wood want to put into question. ‘Since the late 15th century some version of this theory of origins is inscribed into every European painting,’ they acknowledge, but in its dominance, they insist, it has obscured another model that was ‘coevolutionary’ with it, one they call ‘substitutional’. According to this view, the work of art was seen less as a punctual, singular act of representation than as one token in a long series that stretched back, in a ‘categorical continuity’, to a cherished type or a lost original that was often mythical (in some ways, then, this source was an effect of its replicas as much as a cause of them). The best examples of such authorless substitutions are painted icons, which were usually understood as ‘effective surrogates’ for fabled ur-representations: in the case of images of Christ, of the miraculous imprinting of his face on the veil of Veronica, or in the case of images of the Virgin, of the legendary portrait of Mary by St Luke, who was said to be a painter. Architecture provides further instances of such categorical continuity for Nagel and Wood, who dwell, for example, on imagined reconstructions of the Holy Sepulchre – the tomb of Christ – in a variety of premodern works. Their essential claim is that all such artefacts were understood ‘to have a double historicity: that is, one might know that they were fabricated in the present or in the recent past but at the same time value them and use them as if they were very old things.’ Anachronism was not an aberration, then, but ‘a structural condition of artefacts’, and the primary value of these very old things lay in their ‘referential authority’ to auratic originals deemed even more ancient, not in any revelation of the stylistic genius of their creator, let alone of the social moment of their making.

Obviously, these two principles of punctual authorship and ‘identity across a succession of substitutions’ are at odds. Yet Anachronic Renaissance does not argue that the former simply displaces the latter – that scenario would be largely in keeping with the dominant story (from Leonardo and Giorgio Vasari down) of the originality of Renaissance art as a break with the stereotypy of medieval practice – but rather that the ‘one defines and responds to the other.’ ‘The pattern of dialectical interference between the two theories,’ Nagel and Wood claim, ‘was constitutive of all European art in this period,’ and ambitious painters sometimes turned this tension to advantage, conceiving the picture as a ‘staging operation’ where these ‘competitive models of the historicity of form’ could be juxtaposed. Jan van Eyck, for example, declared the category of the secular portrait through a slight deviation from the type of the sacred icon, and so advanced the new value of authorship within and against the old model of substitution. It is such patterns, Nagel and Wood argue, that the usual lenses of art history tend to obscure.

This is a bravura intervention in Renaissance studies, and its effects are already evident in academy and museum alike (for instance, an exhibition about the Renaissance portrait, held at the conservative Metropolitan Museum of Art last winter, was revisionist enough to begin with relics and icons). It takes a wrecking ball to the popular notion of the Renaissance as both the death of the medieval and the rebirth of the ancient, for here the medieval persists into the early modern period and the ancient is largely its retrospective construction. This view of the Renaissance also presents a different sense of the historical rapport that exists among its artefacts, according to which ‘a given sequence of works’ was seen not ‘perspectivally, each one with a different appearance’, but ‘as different objects stacked up one on top of another without recession and without alteration’. Such thinking would be familiar to early moderns schooled in typological readings of the Bible, in which figures and events in Old and New Testaments were often ‘stacked up’ in a similar way, anticipating and completing each other across stretches of time. It is we who do not think in this manner: informed by humanists like Panofsky, art historians in particular understand Renaissance perspective not only as a revolutionary technique of picture-making but also as an epochal form of historical consciousness that allowed for ‘an intellectual distance between the present and the past’. This might be true for us, Anachronic Renaissance suggests, but only for us.

Nagel and Wood illuminate other thorny problems of the period too: for example why copying, once valued in the making of icons and documents, could be redescribed, in many instances, as forgery. ‘The art forgery was a historical novelty of the Renaissance,’ they write, but ‘what is an art forgery if not a substitution cruelly unmasked as a mere performance?’ Yet the main contribution of Anachronic Renaissance remains its strong challenge to the continued dominance of ‘style’ in art history, as the evidentiary mark of artist and period alike. In one sense, then, the book is a continuation of the postmodernist critique of ‘the author’ in the very field where such categories were first made central. But it is also a critique of the new default of the discipline, a social history of art that often lapses into mechanical studies of ‘context’ with little concern for class and even less for art. As Nagel and Wood polemically put it: ‘“Art” is the name of the possibility of a conversation across time, a conversation more meaningful than the present’s merely forensic reconstruction of the past. A materialist approach to historical art leaves the art trapped within its original symbolic circuits.’

And yet, once let out of the bottle, anachronism and pseudomorphism are not easy genies to control: how far, how fast, do art historians want to run with them? Both of the books under review propose historical connections that are provocatively ‘preposterous’: that is, they link works of art from ‘before and after modernity’, the premodern and the postmodern.[*] ‘Whenever I come into contact with contemporary art,’ Nagel writes in Medieval Modern, ‘I find references shooting in all directions, well beyond the framework of modernist histories, and often they go in the direction of medieval and early modern art.’ By ‘modernist histories’ he means, generally, the separation of the arts into spatial and temporal modes, and, specifically, the privileging of painting over all other forms of visual art, especially the easel picture, whether this be a representational tableau of a secular scene, the bourgeois mode of ‘a window on the world’ (which John Berger once associated with a safe on the wall), or a modernist painting of pure abstraction (which, despite the frequent claims of autonomy made on its behalf, is usually a commodity on the wall too). Like many others, Nagel sees a gradual breakdown of this modernist paradigm over the course of the 20th century, yet, distinctively, he believes this decline has now allowed premodern concerns to resurface, among which he highlights ‘questions regarding the generation and dissemination of images; site-specificity and mobility; fetishism and iconoclasm; memory and anachronism; and authorship and authority’.

As he notes, scholarly movement across these historical fields is hardly new: for example, even before the First World War, Wilhelm Worringer connected German Expressionism to the Northern Gothic tradition; between the wars, Meyer Schapiro moved easily between abstract painting and Romanesque sculpture; and after the Second World War, Leo Steinberg wrote with equal insight on 20th-century innovators like Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and Old Masters like Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Velázquez. Yet this traffic is busier than ever before, according to Nagel, with art historians such as Hans Belting, Horst Bredekamp and Georges Didi-Huberman at work on various subjects from the premodern to the postmodern. This interchange is opened up, Nagel believes, not only by the breakdown of the modernist paradigm, but also by a quasi-anthropological turn in art history and art practice alike – that is, a turn to considerations of ‘visual culture’ at large in which high art in the form of painting and sculpture is no longer absolutely privileged.

There are brilliant insights here, but there are also dubious propositions. The notion of anachronism at work in Medieval Modern is different from the one in Anachronic Renaissance: not an unpacking of the substitutional logic of premodern artefacts, but a pseudomorphic mixing and matching of premodern and (post)modern works and ideas. Sometimes the terms of the two periods are combined in ways that seem to conflate rather than elucidate the different practices, as when Nagel writes of ‘multimedia sacred environments’ and ‘ritual performative stagings’. Sometimes, too, he projects recent notions onto premodern works. For instance, against the modern understanding of the image as primarily visual, a sign designed for the eye, Nagel points to a shared interest in ‘indexical’ forms of representation that address the body directly, physically. And against the modern privileging of the easel picture, he sees a common concern with ‘installation’, a form of ‘interactivity whereby artworks alternatively internalise and project out into their environments’. And finally, against the modern division of the arts into specific media, he finds a similar commitment to ‘nonunitary’ forms, whether these be medieval reliquaries or (post)modern collages.

These affinities are suggestive, but how much do they explain when put to the test? Inspired by a remark by André Breton about Picasso, Nagel compares Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) with a Cimabue altarpiece of the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels (c.1280-90). It is true that both are large paintings with multiple figures who gaze outward, which renders them eccentric to the typical size and address of the easel picture, but this reveals little about either work, or about why these two should be juxtaposed and not many other examples. It is also true that both a contemporary installation by the Conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov and an early modern chapel involve ‘world creation’, but that too says little that is precise about either. Is the substitutional logic of icons truly akin to the serial logic of, say, the silkscreens of Andy Warhol? Is the ‘conglomerate’ aspect of an altarpiece really like the ‘open’ aspect of, say, an assemblage by Kurt Schwitters? In my view the differences often overtake the similarities, but part of the point here is to irk diehard modernists like me, and on this score Nagel is effective (that installation art might want to recover aspects of medieval ritual is especially troublesome for us disenchanted types). Yet in the end it is not always clear whether his juxtapositions of the premodern and (post)modern count as historical constellations that, like the ‘dialectical images’ of Walter Benjamin, stir us from the slumber of our historicist chronologies, as Nagel intends, or whether – as he fears – they are exercises in ‘historical telescoping’, a reprocessing of old artefacts in contemporary terms in a way that might play into the presentism of our culture at large.

In Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum, Amy Powell also poses ‘pseudomorphic resemblances’ between premodern and (post)modern works, but her focus is tighter than Nagel’s, concerned as she is, in the first instance, with only one category of pictorial representation and ritualistic re-enactment in 15th and 16th-century Northern Europe: the Descent of Christ from the Cross. In her bold argument, these Depositions, as representations of the ur-image of Christianity, provided ‘an occasion to imagine the deposition of the image as such’, and so ‘prefigured’ not only ‘the imminent iconoclasms of the Protestant Reformation’, but also ‘the repeated “deaths” of art’ announced since the invention of the camera in the mid-19th century. To back up the first part of this claim, Powell recounts literal performances of the Deposition in the premodern period, in which paintings of the scene were removed, and moveable crucifixes entombed, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. At the conclusion of each of her discussions, Powell offers a ‘vignette’ about a (post)modern artist, most of which involve the destruction or at least the disappearance of a work of art. In one of these Marcel Duchamp arranges for a readymade (in this case a geometry book) to be exposed to the weather on a Paris balcony; in another, Sol LeWitt has one of his signature cubes buried in a Dutch garden. Where Nagel finds ‘premodern modalities’ newly returned in (post)modern art, Powell sees a (post)modern concern with ‘deposition’ already anticipated in premodern art.

Like Nagel, Powell intends her comparisons to ‘bridge but … not collapse the historical distance separating the early modern world from the more recent past’. She also means them to demonstrate that ‘form is too promiscuous to remain faithful’ either to the intentions of the artist or to the conceptions of the period; it is here that she joins the battle against historicist ‘style’ waged by Nagel and Wood. In this respect Powell regards the deposition of the work of art – in her case, its removal from the late medieval church to the modern museum – not as a deracination always to be deplored, as it is almost always seen today (so much do we take the value of contextualism for granted). Rather, in a manner that recalls the ‘imaginary museum’ of André Malraux, Powell sees this displacement almost as a desideratum, for it opens up works of art to formal comparisons and conceptual connections that would otherwise be difficult to make. Indeed, she champions the ‘promiscuity’ of artworks in the modern museum, ‘which is precisely what most art historians would rather overlook’, against the historicity that ties each work to its particular time and space of emergence, which is precisely what most art historians aim to articulate.

Particularly salutary is the way Powell challenges the basic mission of art history ‘as a humanistic discipline’ as laid down by Panofsky seventy years ago: that of ‘enlivening what otherwise would remain dead’. ‘Neither institution nor individual can restore life to an object that never had it,’ Powell retorts. ‘The promiscuity of the work of art – its return, reiteration and perpetuation beyond its original moment – is the surest sign it never lived.’ This refusal to animate, even to anthropomorphise, the artwork is especially pertinent given the tendency today to treat images and objects as though they were alive, even human: a fetishism of the artefact in art history that is in keeping with the fetishism of ‘personal devices’ in the commodity world around us.

And yet, again, how far do we want to go with ‘promiscuity’? It is one thing to question rote forms of stylistic analysis and social history, but a semi-arbitrary set of juxtapositions may not be the best alternative. In a first moment, globalisation made some art historians more alert to the spatial extent of ‘world art history’; now, it seems, in a second moment it has sensitised others to its complicated temporality. But what is lost in this version of the anachronic, this yoking of the premodern and the postmodern? There are important aspects of modernity that some of us might not want dropped altogether, such as the values of autonomy and critique; in fact they might become timely again (even the modern easel painting, though hardly central as it once was, has made a comeback in contemporary art).[†] There might also be other ways to write ‘preposterous’ history, more critical ways. Both Nagel, who sees the appearance of the medieval in the (post)modern as a ‘re-entry’, and Powell, who sees it as a ‘prefiguration’, read art history forward into the (near) present, but one could move in the opposite direction, and use recent practice as a vantage point from which to revise the (distant) past. This is a posture, less projective than retroactive, that T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom ascribed to the ‘strong’ poet. It is also the approach of such strong theorists as Althusser, Lacan and Foucault when they returned to Marx, Freud and Nietzsche to read them anew. Nagel and Powell think they perform this kind of critical return too, but the accent of both is on analogy and anticipation more than revision.

Today, students and others flock to contemporary art. At the same time, especially in its global extent and new media forms, it often seems divorced from art history. Hence the pressure to (re)connect the two that one senses in both Nagel and Powell, who recognise the divide in their very attempts to bridge it (their embrace of recent art is far preferable to the contempt for it that one often witnesses in the discipline and elsewhere). The appearance of these two books has a further, related implication. Powell sees her Depositions as foretellings of the modernist story of ‘the end of art’; yet Nagel believes that this story ‘is itself at an end’. Not so long ago artists and theorists alike thrilled to the idea of such breaks: not only was representation, painting or art as such declared to be kaput, but also ideology, history or even man himself (recall the face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea that Foucault imagined being washed away at the end of The Order of Things). The avant-garde penchant for rupture was carried over into the rhetoric of critical theory, structuralist, poststructuralist, feminist, queer, and postcolonial, which effectively became its own avant-garde after the artistic one had dissipated, an avant-garde that wanted to put paid to metaphysics, humanism, patriarchy, heterosexism and racism. The worm has turned of late; today there is a preoccupation with stories of survival and models of persistence across a range of discourses, especially, as these two books suggest, in art history. The grands récits of modernity might be gone, but there is now a fatigue with the rhetoric of rupture. What this shift portends, intellectually and politically, it is too early to say.

[*] In this broad scope distinctions between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ are often elided; hence my use of the hedge ‘(post)modern’. I borrow the term ‘preposterous’ from the Dutch art historian Mieke Bal, whose Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (1999) is an early instance of this interest in anachronism.

[†] In his own account of persistence in Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (2008), Michael Fried argued that the easel painting has returned in the guise of contemporary photography, whose digital capabilities have reinvigorated pictorial concerns. For Nagel postmodernist art registers the defeat of the modern tableau, while for Fried postmodernist art is in turn defeated by the modern tableau come again.