Sunday, March 06, 2005

Art-history minicanon

The last few years have seen an increasing volume of public awareness and support for the visual arts. Museums attract large crowds, and a plethora of art books beckons. Not everyone, even in Manhattan has been enthusiastic about the Christo-Jeanne Claude "Gates" in Central Park, but lots and lots of people turned out. We have voted with our feet.

All this is well and good. Eventually, however, those drawn to this humongous cultural zone acquire a wish to understand art at a more fundamental level. What are the principles of visual analysis? Giving this matter some thought, I have come up with a minicanon of six books.

The first two items embody the method of formal analysis. In his book Principles of Art History, Heinrich Wölfflin offered an influential model of a binary approach (he is said to be one of the first pioneers of the two-slide method of lecture presentation). He began with a contrast of the "linear" and "painterly" modes, and then presented four more analogous contrasts. To be sure, Wölfflin’s book would have been better titled "Some Principles …" His five contrasts are examples, rather than an exhaustive presentation. Moreover, the 1932 English translation of the 1915 German original text is wooden and occasionally faulty, while the illustrations are smudgy (but one can find others). Still, this is a landmark volume that no one should miss. In his Art and Culture (1961) the American critic Clement Greenberg applies a somewhat similar approach to modern art, including Cubism, Abstraction, and (his particular enthusiasm) Abstract Expressionism.

In recent years formalism has come under attack. This critique is only appropriate if it is regarded as the only method. However, even Wölfflin recognized the need for iconography, the subdiscipline that examines visual constants in terms of meaning. For this, he recommended the work of his French contemporary Emile Mâle. That writer’s best known work, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, is indeed an enthralling work, offering a comprehensive account of the imagery of French cathedrals during their most vital era. For its non-Christian counterpart, see Jean Seznec’s lucid The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (1940/1953). Seznec shows how a series of key texts conditioned the Renaissance revival of classical imagery.

Several brilliant examples of a synthesis of these two approaches—the formal and the iconographic--appear in Erwin Panofsky’s Meaning and the Visual Arts (1955). There are three theoretical papers, including his manifesto seeking to distinguish between iconography and iconology. Then there are case studies on Titian, Dürer, Vasari, and Poussin.

A closer study of the great age of art history reveals that the preponderance of its leading practitioners was formed in Germany. For some landmarks of that tradition, see the anthology of Gert Schiff, German Art History.

Except for Greenberg, none of the books concerns modern art. And none addresses Asian or tribal art. One must accept the fact that the Middle Ages and especially the Old Masters populated the laboratory in which these ground-breaking theories were discovered.

Moreover, the volumes were written a long time ago. Mâle’s book first appeared in 1898. The most recent, by Greenberg, came out in 1961. Why do my recommendations stick to these old fogies—DWEMs as it were? In every field we expect that the most recent books will be the most definitive. Perhaps so, but in my opinion this is not true in art history. After 1970 or so there was an attempt to replace the earlier model with an ostensibly better one termed the New Art History. Paying tribute to psychoanalysis, Marxism, and semiotics, this approach has, in my view, not stood up very well. Of course, anyone is free to challenge this negative judgment by consulting works by leading practitioners, including Yve-Alain Bois, Michael Ann Holly, and Rosalind Kraus. In my judgment, though, the "New Art History" is old hat.

My little course of six volumes requires but a modest outlay. As a rule, paperback editions of the sextet can be picked up for a song, at used bookshops and on the Internet. Of course these older paperbacks lack the glamorous color reproductions of more recent productions, but the enrichment offered by the ideas they contain is incalculable.