Tuesday, January 15, 2013

It seems that a central principle of modern art its relentless disregard for the art of the past.  How then could it have any truck with the Middle Ages, that era of conformity and dogmatism?  Nonetheless, in forty years of college teaching, I have had frequent occasion to note affinities between medieval art and modern art. Six years ago, on the verge of retirement, I finally offered a course at Hunter College on the connection.  My lectures are summarized at a related site:  www.medmod.blogspot.com.

When I learned a few days ago that a book had appeared on the subject.  I immediately acquired it.  The book is Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time by Alexander Nagel, a professor at NYU's Institute of Fine Arts (Thames and Hudson).  Here is my review, as posted on 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, predilections 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, ranging from Early Christian to Byzantine art, and on to Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, and Gothic art. Yet the author rejects periods in favor of a kind of an episodic or "nonlinear" approach, hopping from one topic to another. Moreover, he complicates the Middle Ages by blurring the boundaries so as to embrace such figures as Michelangelo and Titian, Parmigianino and Bruegel.  These artists 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 in Paris) 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.


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