Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The human head as such

The theme of this presentation [at Hunter College in November 2006] is the special power of the human head even when unconnected to or detached from the body. The subtext of this talk is the current Metropolitan Museum exhibition and the related symposium. However, the ideas presented are ones that I have been meditating on for some time.


Both these superb examples of Mosan art come from the Imperial Abbey of Stavelot in Belgium during the time of Abbot Wibald (r. 1130-1158). A close confidant of three Ottonian Emperors, he traveled to Italy. Later he twice went to Constantinople. On the first trip he presumably acquired the Alexander relic, and probably others, while the two tiny Byzantine cross relics, enshrined in the triptych must come from the East. Alexander, the fifth pope after St. Peter, died in the early second century CE.

Together with the lost retable of St. Remacle, the two pieces are thought to come from the same workshop.

The Alexander head is in silver repoussé. That is, the artist first carved the likeness of a human head from wood, a material that is both malleable and robust, allowing for precise rendering of the hollows and protuberances of the head. Then a silver plate was hammered onto the matrix. Chasing was employed to remove joints and minor imperfections.

Before the head was attached to the base, a cavity was carved within. When it was acquired by the Musées Royaux d’art et d’histoire in Brussels in 1860, the interior was opened. Therein was found a papyrus indicating that the relics were placed within it at the time of dedication, on Good Friday of 1145. In addition the papyrus gives a remarkable inventory of the relics housed by the head: a fragment of the skull of St. Alexander, a blood-stained piece of the garment he was wearing at the time of his death; a bit of the stone on which Jesus stood at the time of his baptism, some hairs from the beard of St. Peter, portions of the body of SS. Agapitus and Crispin (both martyrs), a fragment of the table that figured in the Last Supper, a bit of the sponge used at the Crucifixion, a fragment of the Holy Sepulcher, a fragment of the rock on which Jesus stood before his Ascension, and bits of the skeletons of the martyrs of the Theban Legion and of some of the eleven thousand Virgins who accompanied St. Ursula.

This list is almost beyond belief. It covers all bases, animal, vegetable, and mineral. One has to ask how could a mere life-style head contain so much material. The account doesn’t say so, but presumably some items were lodged in the coffin-shaped base.

As is usually the case, the worshipper could not see the items lodged within. There is no room for a doubting Thomas here. These items were not souvenirs. Instead, each one had a particular potency—it was radioactive, as it were.

This belief rests upon two stages of the cult of relics. First, it was thought that the martyrs, especially those that had perished in the city of Rome, were so charismatic that special effulgences proceded from their remains. It was not always possible to gain access to the body. For Jesus and Mary, there was no body. In such instances it was thought that something that had come into intimate contact with these holy persons would have the same effect. Hence the interest in acquiring the crown of thorns (kept in the St. Chapelle), the Holy Cross (fragments kept all over), and the Virgin’s tunic (the proud possession of the Cathedral of Chartres).

By the sixth century it was recognized that the city of Rome had almost a monopoly on these remains, at least in the West. In transalpine Europe a clamor arose for the papacy to share the wealth. Naturally, they were reluctant to part with whole bodies, seeking to satisfy the petitioners with a brandeum, a strip of cloth that had touched the martyrs’ remains and therefore acquired its beneficent radioactivity. Such gifts were not enough to supply the demand, and an illicit trade in stolen bodies (the Furta Sacra) developed.

Eventually the authorities hit upon an ingenious solution. Since the charisma of the martyred saint inhered in the entire body, why not offer a fragment—a finger, a hand, or in exceptional cases a cranium, or some portion thereof. This is how Wibald acquired his bit of St. Alexander’s skull, together with the fragments of the bodies of other martyrs. The other items were presumably acquired in the Greek East during the Abbot’s two visits there.

Very odd, or is it? Yet there are many contemporary parallels, as seen in the incident a half-century ago when Bobby Soxers tore off the tee-shirt of singer Fabian, almost injuring him in the process. From time to time we hear of sales of celebrity memorabilia. Sometimes these are acquired as investments. In other instances the purchaser may caress or wear the object in the belief that somehow contact is being made with the departed.

Returning to the Middle Ages, let us draw the inevitable conclusion. After death the physical head of St. Alexander, separated from its body by the executioner’s sword, would have had great potency. How much greater potency then the artificial head, since it joined to the two Alexander elements, various other potent items, four of them bearing the special residues of being touched by Christ himself. This reliquary was not an atomic bomb, but a hydrogen bomb—in a good way, of course.

The Alexander head was made ex novo. As we indicated, body cannibalism had become prevalent as early as Merovingian times. In many cases, though, the head was obligingly severed by the execution. The case of John the Baptist, of whom there were three separate head-findings: Jerusalem, Emesa, and Cumana. After 1204 the Cumana head was transferred to Amiens. The present Cathedral, whose construction (after the fire of 1211) was spurred by the precious head, is a kind of gigantic reliquary. (Slide).

B. The beheading of Saint Denis in Montmartre had a memorable sequel. The saint, dissatisfied with his place of execution, picked up his own severed head and carried it some miles to the West, where in due course the present basilica was erected. In fact there are scores of these cephalophoric (head-bearing) saints.

C. Other beheadings include the case of the column statues in the West front of the Abbey of St. Denis. Six heads have survived, the bodies not. Did this occur (as is often assumed) at the mob attack in 1789? It has recently been suggested that the dismemberment occurred during a “benign” restoration of 1771.

D. The Egyptian substitute heads of the Old Kingdom offer an interesting parallel. Many show signs of mutilation in the form of small holes, perhaps to prevent them from doing harm. It is interesting that the ancient Egyptians invented both the theme of the separate head and the bust (the Ankh-haf in Boston being the earliest suviving example of the latter).

E. My interest in this overall question began a number of years ago when I investigated the iconography of Orpheus. As far as we can tell, Orpheus’ original role seems to be as an inspired singer with magical powers. He could calm the beasts and even, on occasion, cause trees to move. He could enrapture men, causing them to do things they might not otherwise have been. In later antiquity this magical charisma was transformed, making him the founder of a religion known as Orphism. The myth enjoyed a notable revival in the Renaissance, at which time the tragic story of Eurydice becomes central. Note the appropriation by Politian and early opera. In ancient times the Euridice story was part of a diptych. The second phase occurred after he moved to Thrace and began his “Mark Foley” career, seeking to seduce young men, some of whom were married. Hence the murderous anger of the Thracian maenads.

After his lynching and dismemberment, the head floated away, still singing. It was found by the people of Lesbos, who erected a shrine. In antiquity visitors could still hear it faintly singing. Seemingly, these postmortem utterances, transcribed, are the basis for the Orphic hymns..

F. Other speaking heads include the one in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” an English poem of the fourteenth century. After Gawain severs the head, the knight promptly picks it up, and the head speaks, reminding Gawain of his promise. The Green Man images may be connected with this. An allegory of nature’s renewal (the Green Man appears at Arthur’s New Year’s festivities).

G. Pope Sylvester II (d. 1003) was supposed to have created a magical head, la Meridiana, which could answer questions—“yes” and “no” only.

H. There is a magical head towards the end of Part II of Cervantes' Don Quijote. Don Antonio Moreno, a wealthy citizen of Barcelona, befriends the knight. He conducts him to a room in his house displaying a bronze bust, in the style of a Roman Emperor, which will answer questions. It never does so on Friday, so they must return the next day. This hoax is carried out through a speaking tube leading to a chamber immediately below. (The motif has been traced to an earlier French romance, Valentin et Orson.)

The head of Medusa was efficacious in a different way—generally a negative one, for seeing her head would turn the unfortunate viewer to stone. Some classical references describe her as one of three Gorgon sisters. Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale were monsters with brass hands, sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes. The Gorgons and their other sisters the Graiae (and possibly the Hesperides), and their brother Ladon were children of Phorcys and Ceto, or sometimes, Typhon and Echidna.

In a late version of the Medusa tale (related by the Roman poet Ovid) Medusa was originally a beautiful woman. She had sex with — or was raped by — Poseidon in Athena's temple. Upon discovery of the desecration of her temple, Athena changed Medusa's form to match that of her sister Gorgons as punishment. Medusa's hair turned into snakes and her glance would turn all living creatures to stone. More ancient Greek writers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form.

While Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, she was beheaded in her sleep by the hero Perseus who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus. With help from Athena and Hermes, who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades' cap of invisibility, a sickle, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. The hero slew Medusa by looking at her reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her to prevent being turned into stone. When the hero severed Medusa's head, from her neck two offspring sprang forth: the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. Perseus used Medusa's head to rescue Andromeda, kill Polydectes, and, in some versions, petrify the Titan Atlas. When he flew over the Sahara desert, the drops of her blood that fell turned into venomous snakes, and when he placed her head on a riverbank, coral was first made from the seaweed or reeds her head had touched. Then he gave it to Athena, who placed it on her shield Aegis. Some say the goddess gave Medusa's magical blood to the physician Asclepius, some of which was a deadly poison and the other had the power to raise the dead. (there is a monograph by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1936!). Folklore and fairy tale elements are salient in all this material.

Early Greek art offers interesting evidence, such as a Protoattic amphora from Eleusis with blinding of Polyphemus above, and beheading of Medusa below (two spheres attacked). The skeleton of a 10-year old child was found within. The Corfu pediment shows two offspring, but Perseus rendering has not been found. This sculptural monument may stem from from a pro-Medusa faction that believed that she had the offspring without being beheaded.

Later art shows notable examples by Cellini, Caravaggio, and Rubens.

I. The apogee of the head as such occurred in the work of the Symbolist artists, especially Redon and Moreau. Redon’s fascination with spherical forms is well known. (For further information see the material provided in other contributions at this site.)
Late offshoots of this tradition appear in the work of Brancusi.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Lecture FOURTEEN summary

Think of the following: trees, landscapes, mountains, oceans—-in short all that Nature has to offer. Let us place these in the context of a new sense of awe that emerged some two hundred years ago. This awe relates to a larger complex: nature mysticism, an almost pantheistic sense of oneness with the universe. It is this type of sensation that William James studied in his book The Varieties of the Religious Experience. James found the majority of religious or mystical experiences tended to occur in natural settings, usually in scenes of wildness or grandeur. He concluded that the natural environment has a unique capacity to awaken feelings of transcendence, divine presence

The German theologian Rudolf Otto defined nature mysticism as "the sense of being immersed in the oneness of nature, so that man feels all the individuality, all the peculiarities of natural things in himself. He dances with the motes of dust and radiates with the sun; he rises with the dawn, surges with the wave, is fragrant with the rose, rapt with the nightingale: he knows and is all being, all strength, all joy, all desire, all pain in all things inseparably." While these remarks are somewhat gushing, they capture important features of the sentiment. More succinctly, Aldous Huxley termed mystical oneness with nature "the perennial philosophy."


As Alain Corbin has shown in his monograph Lure of the Sea (French original, 1988), European ideas about the sea underwent a crucial change between 1750 and 1840. Once seen as a dark and sinister force, the domain of monsters, the sea was associated with dread and catastrophe and fear. The flotsam and jetsam found at the ocean’s edge were regarded as sinister evidence of the Great Flood that had almost destroyed humanity.

A text from the early eighteenth century by the English critic Joseph Addison shows the beginnings of this shift in attitudes. “Of all the objects that I have ever seen, there is none which affects my imagination so much as the sea or ocean. I cannot see the heavings of the prodigious bulk of waters, even in a calm, without a very pleasing astonishment, but when it is worked up in a tempest, so that the horizon on every side is nothing but foaming billows and floating mountains, it is impossible to describe the agreeable horror that arises from such a prospect. A troubled ocean, to a man who sails upon it, is, I think, the biggest object that he can see in motion, and consequently gives the imagination of the highest kinds of pleasure that can arise from greatness. . . . Such an object naturally raises in my thoughts the idea of an Almighty Being, and convinces me of his existence as much as a metaphysical demonstration.”

Gradually, then, attitudes towards the ocean began to shift from the negative to the positive, so that by the mid-nineteenth century our present-day understanding of the seashore as attractive and salubrious had come into being.

Darwinism showed that the sea was the origin of all life. In a more mundane way, ocean bathing came to be seen as therapeutic, and the shore became a locale for self-exploration and reverie. Discovery of the seaside had political, economic, and social effects, too. In Europe the attractions of the shore led to the rapid growth of coastal towns such as Brighton and Scarborough, Dieppe and Cannes.

Ever cautious, ancient mariners had favored the coastline, being reluctant to venture far from the land. With the Age of Discovery, ships did not hesitate to go from continent to continent, eventually even charting the Arctic and Antarctic. As ship technology moved from sail to steam, sea-going vessels were ever more vital in trade, migration, and the sustenance of imperial ambitions.

These changes were mirrored in complex ways in art. The German painter Caspar David Friedrich frequently depicted his local Baltic. Unique in his oeuvre is the brooding “Monk by the Sea” of 1808. While this exemplary work offers many interesting perspectives, one surely is the survival of the idea of the fearfulness of the sea. Turner’s seascapes may serve to delineate the transition, for while some (the Deluge series) are threatening, others reflect a calmer acceptance..

The impressionist painters achieved unforgettable images of a happy Europe at play by the seaside. These paintings are homages to light, color, and the therapeutic benefits of bathing.

Something of the older idea of dread survived in Arnold Böcklin’s “Isle of the Dead,” so popular that he created five versions. Other German Symbolists, such as Eugen Bracht and Franz von Stuck, provided their own versions of ominous seas. In their works the sea is shown solo, without an island, boat or other distinctive feature.

It was left to Piet Mondrian to make the transition from the seashore to abstraction. His paintings of dunes show a shifting indeterminacy. In his pier and other plus-and-minus paintings he uses views of the sea as starting points for abstract compositions.

In music one might think of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece “La Mer.” This is not a tone poem in the usual sense, because specific events are not characterized. Debussy’s work is “absolute music,” that is, abstract.

A late manifestation of the attraction and ambiguity of the sea appears in the correspondence between the French novelist Romain Rolland and Sigmund Freud. Beginning in 1923, this correspondence evolved on several planes. The central debate, however, revolved about the question of le sentiment océanique. This, Rolland says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he posits as being present in millions of people. It is a feeling he would like to call a sensation of "eternity," an intimation of something limitless, unbounded, indeterminate—in short, "oceanic.” While the novelist failed to convert the atheist Freud, the correspondence stimulated other thinking that has granted the expression a life of its own. See William B. Parsons, Jr., The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York, 1999).

We may reference the oceanic feeling to a series of major contemporary works, the Waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. While these show a pond rather than the sea, they capture the indeterminacy implicit in the surface of a body of water and the plants growing on it. The viewpoint-—head-on or above?-—Is also indeterminate. Some passages are virtually abstract. In short, the message is “go with the flow.”

[The story of Western response to mountains, briefly discussed in Lecture Thirteen, follows a similar trajectory from aversion to active embrace.]

Paths from Symbolism to abstraction

The case of Mondrian has already been considered. Kupka’s early works show an interest in enigmatic subject matter that is certainly Symbolist. His Egyptian paintings are prescient explorations of a theme only later documented by archaeology. Kupka’s ensuing transition to abstraction was somewhat abrupt.

Vassily Kandinsky shows a more organic evolution from the Fauve-ish landscapes of the first decade of the 20th century to the gestural abstraction that sets in towards the end of 1912.

As the linkage between Symbolism and abstraction (toutes proportions reservées) is implicit in much of the course, we may excuse ourselves from further documentation here.

Surrealism, Symbolism’s other offspring

The conventional wisdom is that Dada was the prelude to Surrealism. Since the relevance to our subject is indirect, we can be brief.

According to its proponents, Dada was not art—it was "anti-art". Paradoxically, Dada sought to fight art with art. Where art was concerned with aesthetics, Dada ignored aesthetics. If art were to have at least an implicit or latent message, Dada strove to have no meaning. Interpretation of Dada depends entirely on the viewer, or so it seems. According to Tristan Tzara, "God and my toothbrush are Dada, and New Yorkers can be Dada too, if they are not already."

Central to the Dada worldview was the idea that the catastrophe of World War I was not the betrayal of Western civilization, but the revelation of its ruthless essence. Reason and logic had led people into the horrors of war; the only route to salvation was to reject logic and embrace anarchy and the irrational. In another sense, though, it is not irrational to embrace the systematic destruction of values, if one thinks them to be flawed. As Marcel Janco recalled, “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the tabula rasa. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”

Zürich was the point of origin. In 1916, Hugo Ball, Emmy Henning, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Täuber, and others discussed art and put on performances in the Cabaret Voltaire expressing their disgust with the war and the interests that inspired it. By some accounts Dada coalesced on October 6 at the cabaret.

The first Dada presentations mounted a cacophonous disruption of “normal” sequences, reflecting (inter alia) a Rimbaldian derangement of all the senses. In practical terms this aim could be achieved through sound-poetry, overlay of sounds, and an overall atmosphere of Hellzapoppin. Hugo Ball’s sound-poetry seems to be the first instance of absolute abstraction in literature. Later, with his Ursonatas, Kurt Schwitters was to offer a more formal model.

Some maintain that the word Dada originated from the writers Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco's frequent use of the words "da, da," meaning yes, yes in the Romanian language. Others believe that, in search of a name for the new movement, someone chose it at random by stabbing a French-German dictionary with a paper knife, and picking the name that the point landed upon. Dada in French is a child's word for hobby-horse. In French the colloquialism, c'est mon dada, means it's my hobby.

The recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art afforded an opportunity to see the emergence of various cities as centers of the Dada phenomenon. Groups in Germany were less strongly anti-art as other groups. Their activity and art was more political and social, with corrosive manifestos and propaganda, biting satire, large public demonstrations and overt political activities. In February 1918, Richard Huelsenbeck gave his first Dada speech in Berlin, and produced a Dada manifesto later in the year. Hannah Höch and George Grosz used Dada to express post-World War I communist sympathies. Grosz, together with John Heartfield, developed the technique of photomontage during this period. The Berlin group saw much in-fighting; Kurt Schwitters and others were excluded from the group. Schwitters moved to Hanover where he developed his individual type of Dada collages, which he dubbed Merz. There he created the Merzbau, a rare example of Dada architecture.

In Cologne, Max Ernst, Johannes Theodor Baargeld, and Hans Arp launched a controversial Dada exhibition in 1920, which focused on nonsense and anti-bourgeois sentiments.

Like Zürich, New York offered a refuge for writers and artists from World War I. Soon after arriving from France in June 1915, Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia met the American artist Man Ray. By 1916 the three of them became the center of radical anti-art activities in the United States. The American Beatrice Wood, who had been studying in France, soon joined them. The New Yorkers did not label themselves Dada, nor did they issue manifestos or organize riotous events. However, they issued challenges to art and culture through publications such as The Blind Man, Rongwrong, and New York Dada in which they criticized the traditionalist basis for museum art. New York Dada lacked the disillusionment of European Dada and was instead driven by a sense of irony and humor

By 1921, most of the original players moved to Paris where Dada experienced its last major incarnation. Inspired by Tristan Tzara, Paris Dada soon issued manifestos, organized demonstrations, staged performances, and produced a number of journals (the final two editions of Dada, Le Cannibale, and Littérature featured Dada in several editions.). The first introduction of Dada artwork to the Parisian public was at the Salon des Indépendants in 1921.

Surrealism as such

Surrealist tendencies emerged around 1920, partly as an outgrowth of Dada, with French writer André Breton as its initial principal theorist. In Breton's “Surrealist Manifesto” of 1924 he defines Surrealism as “Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” He also wrote of the omnipotence of dream and the disinterested play of thought. In his view, this approach “tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life.” Needless to say, these definitions lent themselves to considerable later expansion.

Breton’s personal background was significant. An army doctor in World War I, he was required to deal with soldiers in a state of shell shock. From this experience he came to realize that utterances that were seemingly nonsensical or inconsistent might have a meaning on their own terms. One of Breton’s superiors introduced him to the ideas of Sigmund Freud, for whom he retained a lifetime admiration. Yet Surrealism differed from Freud in attending to the manifest structure of dreams, rather than (as Freud preferred) seeking their deep structure. More generally, Surrealists believed in liberating the Unconscious. By contrast, Freudian psychoanalysis held that repression of the hostility and destructiveness that resided in the Unconscious was essential for the survival of civilization. Later, Herbert Marcuse was to attempt to synthesize the two viewpoints.

Breton regarded automatic writing as the gateway to a vital and liberating substratum of language. Even though this resource was common property, it had been obscured by an overlay of conventional discourse. “Doesn’t the mediocrity of our universe stem essentially from our powers of enunciation?” he asked. Later other techniques were used. The utterances of children and of third-world peoples were honored, as being essentially uncontaminated by the overlay of conventionality that hinders us from unleashing the wellsprings of the Imagination. The quest for the marvelous is central to the Surrealist endeavor.

Like those involved in Dada, adherents of Surrealism thought that the horrors of World War I were the culmination of the Industrial Revolution and the result of the rational mind. Consequently, irrational thought and dream states were seen as the natural antidote to those social problems.

Together with the rest of his original group, Breton regarded visual art as only another stratagem—perhaps a lesser one--for recovering this life-giving primordial substratum. It is ironic that the general public has come to regard objects of Surrealist visual art as the defining tokens of the movement’s essence. By contrast, for Breton and his colleagues writing was primary, at least at the beginning. But Surrealist literature has never been truly popular, at least in the English-speaking world.

While Dada rejected categories and labels and was rooted in negative response to the World War I, Surrealism advocated the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic. Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis also enjoyed a privileged status in the development of Surrealist theory. Yet in the literal sense Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis are incompatible. This improbably alliance reflects the general fascination with the idea of Revolution.

By placing a premium on the imagination, Surrealism reverted to the ideals of European romanticism a hundred years before. In this sense Surrealism is old wine in new bottles. In addition to honoring Arthur Rimbaud, the Surrealists rediscovered the work of Isidore Ducasse (a.k.a. Le Comte de Lautréamont), choosing as their talisman his saying: “beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.” Later this technique of juxtaposition became known as defamiliarization.

Through the practice of automatism, dream interpretation, and similar procedures Surrealists believed the wellspring of creativity could be accessed. Surrealism also embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness or darkness of the mind. Surrealists looked to so-called "primitive art" as an example of expression that is not self-censored.

Not all Surrealists subscribed to all facets of the philosophy. Historically many were not interested in political matters, and this lack of interest created rifts in the Surrealism movement.

As has been noted, André Breton initially harbored doubts that visual arts could play a part in the Surrealist movement, as they appeared to be less malleable and open to chance and automatism. This reluctance was overcome by the discovery of such techniques as frottage, decalomania, and Salvador Dali's paranoid-critical methods. As the idea of automatism lost sway as the main vehicle for unlocking the unconscious, the visual arts (including sculpture, painting, and film) became more acceptable.

Giorgio de Chirico was one of the important joining figures between the philosophical and visual aspects of Surrealism. Between 1911 and 1917, he adopted an unornamented depictional style whose surface would be adopted by others later. The mysterious perspectives of Chirico’s cityscapes evoked a sense of enigma that was greatly appealing. Other paintings offer a seemingly random series of objects that anticipate the Surrealist cult of the objet trouvé.

The career of Max Ernst was the most important link between Dada and Surrealism. His “Elephant of the Celebes” draws on third-world inspiration (a granary in the Sudan). His MoMA work, “Two Children Frightened by a Nightingale,” has qualities of folk art and Sunday painting. The Surrealists anticipated the contemporary fascination with Outsider Art (produced by untrained painters, folk artists, and the mentally disturbed). The painting of the Madonna spanking Jesus may be explained by episodes in the apocryphal Infancy Gospels. Perhaps such explanations should be avoided, as they tend to limit the imagination.

Alberto Giacometti and Man Ray extended Surrealism to sculpture.

In my view the work of René Magritte is the most consistently rewarding of all the Surrealist artists. His “Threatening Weather” shows three unrelated objects floating in the air: a female torso, a tuba, and a chair. In fact the weather is fair, not threatening—suggesting that Magritte may be toying with the idea (dear to Freud) that in primordial states of language the same word could have opposite meanings. Magritte’s “Mme. Récamier” is a witty, intertextual variation on a neoclassic portrait by Jacques-Louis David.

Some hold that Surrealism need not specifically refer only to self-identified "Surrealists", or those sanctioned by Breton. Instead it embraces a range of creative acts of revolt and efforts to liberate imagination. Significantly, some figures not regarded as specifically Surrealist, the Picasso of the mid-1920s and the films of Jean Cocteau, have had a greater impact than most officially-sanctioned Surrealists. The case of Marcel Duchamp is more complex. As a rule Surrealist images have had more impact than Surrealist writings, which many find hermetic and unrewarding. Exceptions again occur outside the official canon, as with L.F. Céline and William Burroughs.

The following is a balance-sheet of features linking Symbolism with Surrealism:

Admiration for Mallarmé and (more enduringly) for Rimbaud.
Interest in dreams and dream-like states (the oneiric)
Enigmatic qualities
Fascination with the occult
Retention of realistic depiction, as against Cubism or abstraction.

At this point I need to share my own reservations about the flea-market aesthetic of the Surrealist objets trouvés. Defying as it did the imperatives of high culture, this outré accumulation must at one time have seemed daring and innovative. With the passage of time, though, the objects have come to seem dusty, shop-worn, and kitschy. From the overall mass of Surrealist work a good deal that is of value can be rescued. The satisfactions these works afford are real. But this reward can only be attained if one recognizes how much of the production is dated and trivial.

Hegel is supposed to have said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Could Symbolism have been the tragedy, Surrealism the farce? Perhaps this judgment is too harsh.

Surrealism was slow to take root in the United States. In 1937 the Museum of Modern Art stages a major exhibition. The dealer Julien Levy consistently showed and defended Surrealist works. The war brought a number of influential figures to our shores, starting with the irrepressible Salvador Dali. The painters Yves Tanguy and André Masson came, together with the “pope” of Surrealism himself, André Breton.

In their own work Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko show a convergence with Surrealism in their use of mythology (e.g. Rothko’s “Rites of Lilith”), mysterious places(“Gardens at Sochi”) and some formal devices. The connection between Surrealist exiles in World War II and the Abstract Expressionist was not so absolute as some have alleged. Still, André Masson’s automatic writing had an impact. In this way, perhaps, the bifurcation of the two Symbolist heritages—abstraction and Symbolism—was healed.

IN CONCLUSION, let us return to the problem that we noted at the beginning of the course. Symbolist writings and paintings represent a fusion of two elements: the descriptive component and that which can be merely suggested. We might say that the Symbolist formula is as follows (let D stand for description): D + ?. Surrealism retains this duality. Abstraction abolishes it.

The broader development may be regarded as a double diptych. First, the pair Symbolism-abstraction; then Surrealism-abstract expressionism.

An interesting sidelight on the problem comes from the incompleteness paradox of mathematician Kurt Gödel, which stems from 1931. Gödel began as a junior member of the Vienna Circle, a brilliant constellation of philosophers of science and mathematicians that appeared in the Austrian capital in the wake of World War I. They are also known as logical positivists. These thinkers began with the operation of demarcation, separating nonsense from sense. Unfortunately, nonsense includes all works of literature, music, and art, because they do not lend themselves to empirical verification. Once this exclusion is accomplished, though, we are left with a series of propositions that are undeniably true. Moreover, these propositions are linked to form a system. We stand, so they claim, on the verge of a Final Theory sustained by a complete inventory of every potential true statement about the world.

Gödel's first incompleteness theorem is perhaps the most celebrated result in mathematical logic. It states that

For any consistent formal theory that proves basic arithmetical truths, an arithmetical statement that is true, but not provable in the theory can be constructed. That is, any theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and complete.

Here, "theory" refers to an (infinite) set of statements, some of which are taken as true without proof (these are called axioms), and others (the theorems) that are taken as true because they are implied by the axioms. "Provable in the theory" means "derivable from the axioms and primitive notions of the theory, using standard first order logic". A theory is "consistent" if it never proves a contradiction. "Can be constructed" means that some mechanical procedure exists which can construct the statement, given the axioms, primitives, and first-order logic.

Some technical hypotheses have been omitted here; the most important one is the stipulation that the theory be computably enumerable. That is, for Gödel's theorem to be applicable, it must be possible in principle to write a computer program that, if allowed to run forever, would:
 Prove all theorems of the theory and nothing else;
 Decide whether any statement is a substitution instance of an axiom of the theory.

Gödel's second incompleteness theorem can be stated as follows:
For any formal theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, T includes a statement of its own consistency if and only if T is inconsistent.

The result of these contributions was to explode logical positivism, for there can never be any complete theory of reality. Incompleteness will always subsist.

It may seem rash to compare these technical propositions of mathematical logic with Symbolism, even though the date (1931) is suggestive.

Perhaps, though, there is a larger context, one that is perennial. Symbolism, Surrealism, and the incompleteness theorems may share a common ancestry in the tradition of Pyrrhonism. This is the philosophical approach, going back to the ancient Greeks, that counsels skepticism in all things.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Lecture THIRTEEN summary

[Footnote. A new book has appeared with a different take from mine last week: Ann Friedberg, The Virtual Window. A quick look suggests that this book starts with Alberti’s painting-window simile and comes down to computers, where we all rely on Windows now.].

Circles revisited

An e-mail comment from a member of the class has made me conclude that I gave short shrift to the question of circles in 20th century art. This topic we revisit in selected examples.

We start with two illustrations from the Theosophical Thought-Forms of Besant and Leadbeater. In the designs presented, ostensibly based on observation of actual auras, there seems to be an assumption that circles are inherently peaceful, even when expansive. Ovals are suited to characterize more aggressive feelings.

During the 1930s Fritz Glarner defied his guru Mondrian by imposing rectilinear forms on tondos (Mondrian had banned all circular forms).

Isamu Noguchi was a sculptor who bridged two worlds. He seems to have paid homage to the ensō in his “donut” sculpture.

Meret Oppenheim’s famous fur-lined trio is probably best regarded as a comment (in the wake of Duchamp) on the dubious commonplace that “we know something is art by the fact that it is useless.” The saucer is of course a circle.

In the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism, Jasper Johns and Kenneth Noland used concentric circles.

In a different way, feminist artists explored the use of central-imagery. The work of Judy Chicago and her collaborators is a case in point.

Alice Aycock and Robert Morris combined a circular scheme with a labyrinth. In his evocative photographs of manhole covers, Mark Feldstein discovered circularity in a commonly observed (and ignored) manufactured object.

Damien Hirst’s brightly colored tondo seems to pay homage to Robert Delaunay.

Flowers and plants

Nicolas Poussin’s “Realm of Flora” summarizes idea from classical times about the origins of flowers from the deaths of beautiful young people, including Ajax (who became a carnation), Clytie (who became a sunflower), Narcissus and Hyacinth. Sir James Frazer’s ideas detecting a parallel between the dying-reviving god and the vegetation cycle still seem pertinent. It is possible that Van Gogh’s concern with sunflowers reflects knowledge of the Clytie legend. The association of cypresses with death reflects the story of Cyparissus, though the connection had become generic by the time that Arnold Boecklin used it.

Redon used flowers in a variety of contexts, especially in his later pastels. The image of Pandora seems to suggest that she is the giver of flowers—and by extension the natural world.

Flowers were important in the art nouveau because of the sense that the traditional imagery of ornament (in part based on stylized plant forms) had become sterile and repetitive. These artists rejected the radical abolitionism of Adolf Loos. Guimard’s Métro entrances are a case in point. Otto Wagner’s majolica house seems to be a witty variation on the theme of the floral window box. In his Sezession building, Olbrich used flowers to suggest the idea that renaissance (the new style) = reflorescence. The floral ornament of Gaudí and Louis Sullivan is very individual.

In the 20th century Georgia O’Keeffe made powerful use of flower imagery.

Trees and landscapes

Mondrian’s sustained studies of trees were perhaps the most important bridge in his work from realism to abstraction.

As we noted in an earlier lecture, Puvis de Chavannes’ work became a principal reference-point for the idea of arcadia. This sense was picked up by Signac and above all by Matisse in his “Joy of Life” (Barnes Collection). A different sense of arcadia appears in Kandinsky’s “Garden of Love,” where exotic fulfillment is linked with incipient abstraction (a perhaps-necessary veiling, for personal reasons).

An old theme was renewed in Central Europe in a new concept of the evocative landscape in which scenes became, as it were, mirrors of the soul. This approach began precociously with the northern landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. In his several versions of “The Isle of the Dead” the Swiss Arnold Boecklin shifted the focus of interest to the Mediterranean.

On the whole Symbolists did not seem very interested in mountainous landscapes. Yet attitudes to them reflected an important conceptual evolution. Around 1800 “mountains became ‘temples of Nature built by the Almighty’ and ‘natural cathedrals or natural altars … with their clouds resting on them as the smoke of a continual sacrifice.’ A century and a half earlier, however, they had been ‘Nature’s Shames and Ills’ and ‘Warts, Wens, Blisters, Impostumes; upon the otherwise fair face of Nature. For hundreds of years most men who climbed mountains had climbed them fearfully, grimly, resenting the slightest aesthetic gratification.” (Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, Ithaca, 1959, p. 2).

For centuries the conventional wisdom was that, as much as possible, high mountains must be avoided—quite sensibly in the case of Alps in winter. Yet with the emergence of the aesthetics of the Sublime the awesomeness of mountains began to fascinate. And with the related doctrine of the picturesque mountain ranges (though generally low ones) were admired for their pleasing qualities. For some this appreciation of hills and gentle mountains was schooled by the seventeenth-century paintings of Claude Lorrain.

Mountains are prominent in the figural work of Vassily Kandinsky of a hundred years ago. In the last preabstract period of his work, the Russian artist frequently depicted hills and mountains, sometimes showing himself together with his companion Gabriele Münther, both reclining on the grassy sward. Gradually the rippling lines of the mountains became less specific, though sometimes acquiring a crowning feature in the form of idealized Russian city, with domes and bulbous turrets. In Kandinsky’s Improvisations and the early Compositions we can see the natural motifs gradually becoming less and less salient, while the dynamism of the line, originally inspired by mountains, remains.

ADDENDUM. At the intermission, the instructor shared a concern stemming from thinking about Picasso’s “Funeral of Casagemas,” a task fostered by reading the student papers. The issue is this. We customarily regard the ambiguities and enigmas of Symbolist painting as a product of deliberate choice—the story that is told and the story that is not. What if, though, in this ambitious work of a nineteen-year old Spanish painter the ambiguities are a product of immaturity?

It was posited that the unresolved tensions in the painting reflect the artist’s religious evolution--from the unproblematic Catholicism of his childhood to the skepticism that his Barcelona peers confronted him with. In this way one can account for the copresence of the sacred and the blasphemous in the painting. There are psychological issues as well, stemming from Picasso’s economic dependence on the relatively prosperous Carles Casagemas.