PRINT Summer 1966


Mannerism by Arnold Hauser

Arnold Hauser, Mannerism (Knopf, New York), 1965. Two volumes.

Naturalness—what poverty of spirit.
Clarity—what thoughtlessness.

The author of these lines is not Oscar Wilde or Huysmans but Gongora, one of the extreme exponents of the taste for artificiality in the period to which Arnold Hauser’s new book is devoted. Its title is nothing less than “Mannerism: the Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art.” It is a matter of record that for Mr. Hauser art is an expression of ideology and that his approach to it is sociological. In “The Social History of Art” he applied these views to the whole spectrum of Western art. In “The Philosophy of Art History” he discussed their theoretical implications and ramifications. “We are now living in the day of the sociological interpretation of cultural achievements,” he wrote there. So much for dialectical materialism. It is a faith, we can do nothing but accept it, it is not to be questioned. It is an umbrella which must cover everything. “A work of art is a challenge; we do not explain it, we adjust ourselves to it. In interpreting it, we draw upon our own aims and endeavors, inform it with a meaning that has its origin in our own ways of life and thought. In a word, any art that really affects us becomes to that extent modern art.” Consequently, “our generation”—by which I should say that Mr. Hauser means chiefly the generation of Central European intellectuals who came to maturity after World War I and were either destroyed or displaced by Hitler—“with its expressionism and surrealism, cinematography and psychoanalysis” has come to revaluate "the intellectualist, problem-ridden, and inwardly disrupted art of mannerism.”

Mr. Hauser uses the term mannerism to denote a style that, in his view, dominated the European visual arts from about 1520 until the end of the 16th century and European literature from the last quarter of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th. He sees it as the result of a mannerist vision of life—“the real change of style occurs only when a new vision of life has taken place”—and as the expression of the spirit of the age. By modern art, besides Expressionism and Surrealism (“the quasi-mannerist trends in modern art appear in their purest form in surrealism”) Mr. Hauser means Cubism, Futurism, and the works of Chagall, Dali and Picasso—at least these are all that he mentions by name. The focus of his discussion of mannerism in modern art, however, is literature. “Mannerist trends,” he says, “are most manifest in times of stylistic revolution associated with spiritual crises,” such as Romanticism and Symbolism. Its chief exponents, therefore, are Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Valery, Proust, and, inexplicably, Kafka.

Writing on the painting of the “maniera,” that style of “conscious artifice” practiced by “most of the painters of the Florentine and Roman school between roughly 1540 and 1580,” Sidney Freedberg has pointed out that “maniera is the product of a culture of the most extreme sophistication, and simple truths are not its line. In maniera we confront a moment of the history of art for which the single most pregnant symbol may be the mask: it is inevitable that we be frustrated in some measure in our attempt to penetrate it.” The concept of mannerism is an extension of the historical style of maniera, and its justifiableness depends on the degree to which what it refers to adheres to the fundamentals of maniera. The scrupulous historian—and there can really be no other—would caution against such extensions. “Our view of the period 1515–20 to 1585–90 ought not to be subject to any distortion by the potent implications attached to Mannerism since the seicento,” Craig Smyth has warned, for “above all, the main twentieth-century concept of Mannerism seems to have a fascination of its own which tends, I suspect, to keep us rather unswervingly interested in the spiritual, irrational, and expressionistic.” Mr. Hauser, who proceeds, as he has said, by informing the work of art “with a meaning that has its origin in our own ways of life and thought,” has no such scruples. Concerning the symbol of the mask, for example, he writes that “to mannerism . . . all things presented themselves in distorted forms, under a cloak of concealment that made their true nature impossible to ascertain. The mask was never laid aside, the cloak never thrown off.” Like all other mannerist devices, Mr. Hauser interprets the mask ultimately as an expression of the phenomenon of alienation, “whose effect was so revolutionary and all-embracing” that it is the “only possible common denominator for the various forms of ‘upheaval’ that affected every field of culture” during the 16th century. One is reminded of Harold Rosenberg’s concluding sentence in his survey of contemporary American painting in the March issue of Holiday Magazine: “What is portentous for the future of art is not the radicalism of its devices but the ending of that separation between the advanced artist and society which had been the rule for more than a hundred years.” Who is Mr. Rosenberg trying to kid? The alienation of the artist from society is a fact. The only attempt I know of seriously to deal with it is Brecht’s theatre of alienation. But piously to pronounce that the gap is being bridged seems to me as hollow as to claim that consciousness of it was the underlying factor for the development of modern art, or the modern posture in art, in the 16th century.

Mannerism, for Mr. Hauser, is an art of crisis, and he is so intent on convincing his reader of the crisis-charged, mannerist character of the works of art he adduces that he only rarely, that is, only when the work in question is exactly in line with his expectation of it, hits the mark. Much of the time he misses, as in his interpretation of a passage from “Othello.” In his gloss that precedes the passage he says that “whether mannerism presents itself as a positive or negative reaction to alienation, its connection with the social process is unmistakable. In examining its historical and sociological origins it is impossible not to be struck by the parallelism between the loss of personality suffered by the manual worker as a consequence of specialization on the one hand, and on the other of the sense of estrangement and the loss of self, the doubt about the reality and identity of the self that are among the principal themes of the literature of the age: (for example), ‘My Lord is not my Lord,’ says Desdemona of Othello.” The speech in which this passage occurs is, in part:

Alas, thrice-gentle Cassio,
My advocation is not now in tune.
My Lord is not my Lord: nor should I know him,
Were he in favor as in humour altered.

In answer to Cassio, who has asked her whether she has been able to persuade Othello to reinstate him as his Lieutenant, Desdemona says in effect that she cannot now broach the subject to Othello because he is in a rage—he is not himself. Why would Mr. Hauser permit himself to commit such an obvious mistake and interpret a psychologically clear passage as an expression of “doubt about the reality and identity of the self?”

In his book on the philosophy of art history Mr. Hauser wrote that “the central problem of art history is the interpretation and evaluation of style, and here it must be questioned whether one should even aim at objectivity and immutability of judgment . . . What can art signify to one who does not judge it from a position in real life, who is not entangled in life as deeply, as passionately, as dangerously as the artist himself? Art helps only those who seek her help, coming to her with their qualms of conscience, their doubts, and their prejudices.” This is a view of art not as ideology but as redemption. It reflects what Ernst Gombrich, in his review of Malraux’s “Voices of Silence,” has called “that authentic Angst which is the true root of the Expressionist hysteria—the anxiety of that utter loneliness, that would reign if art were to fail and each man remained immured in himself.”

This messianic theme, which is sensed throughout Mr. Hauser’s book, is articulated to a certain extent near its beginning: “Art may be altogether less an expression of inner peace, strength and self-confidence, and of a direct, unproblematic relationship with life such as we meet in the fleeting moments of classical art, than a spontaneous, often wild and desperate, and sometimes hardly articulated cry, the expression of an ungovernable urge to master reality, or of the feeling of being hopelessly and helplessly at its mercy.” The implication is clear. Art can fulfill its true mission only in times of crisis. Mr. Hauser does not, of course, tell us why. But we may perhaps deduce why from the assertion that “to the new, conflict-torn generation the repose, balance, and order of the Renaissance seemed cheap, if not actually mendacious. Harmony seemed hollow and dead, unambiguousness seemed oversimplified, unconditional acceptance of the rules seemed like self-betrayal. Something terrible must have happened to that generation. Something which shook it to its core and made it doubt its highest values.” Which generation? That of Hermann Broch’s “The Sleepwalkers,” that is to say, of the disintegration and collapse of values in pre-Hitler Germany—Mr. Hauser’s own generation? Not at all. He is referring to the generation of Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino—whose style, I should add, has been persuasively “connected with the desire to experiment and contribute something new rather than with a spiritual crisis.” The discrepancy between Mr. Hauser’s interpretation and what it refers to is as glaring here as in the example of Desdemona’s “My Lord is not my Lord.”

The reason, I would suggest, is that Mr. Hauser looks at all art with the expectations of the revolutionary intellectual milieu of the 1920s in the German-speaking world. “The German revolution took place more in the spiritual world of art and aspiration than in the actual world of streetfighting”—so Hanns Hess has written in connection with the work of George Grosz. For Mr. Hauser nothing less drastic than a revolutionary art of protest seems to deserve the name of true art. His posture suggests particularly the writings of Karl Kraus, whom he may have known in Vienna (Kraus died there in 1936 and Mr. Hauser, according to the biographical note in “The Philosophy of Art History,” lived in Vienna from 1924 to 1938).

It comes as no surprise that Mr. Hauser sees the history of Europe since the Middle Ages as a succession of crises, interrupted only by brief intervals. These, however, “were intervals of euphoria between periods of misery and suffering, man’s suffering because of himself and because of the world. The Renaissance was such an interval, but its foundations were never secure, and thus the tormented art of the mannerists, impregnated with the mentality of crisis and so much denounced and decried for insincerity and artificiality, is a much truer reflection of the age than the ostentatious peace, harmony and beauty of the classics.” The implication that true art is now to be rewarded with the martyr’s crown is felt not only here, but sets the tone for the tireless reiteration of what mannerism is on virtually every page of the book, including the last, where one may find what I would like to take to be the definitive formulation: “At the base of all mannerist and quasi-mannerist (i.e., Symbolist and Surrealist) art there lies the sense that the ultimate and vital things, the whole complexity of life, the insoluble contradictions and irrational motivations of human existence, the link between truth and illusion, mind and body, instinct and reason are ineffable and unrepresentable.” Thus mannerist art can be both ideology and redemption: since it is nothing it can also be everything. And so it is suspended in the spectral gloom of Spenglerian incomprehensibility and finality.

When Mr. Hauser descends to the problems of unravelling the historical record he is apt to be no more successful than in dealing with concrete works of art. For example, he writes that “artists of the type of Albertinelli (1474–1515) were not alert and sensitive enough to hear the voices of doubt and dissatisfaction with classical standards that were rumbling in the interior of their spiritually more demanding, more susceptible contemporaries.” In Vasari’s biography, however, Albertinelli seems to be acutely sensitive as well as susceptible to what was going on in painting at his time. Vasari tells us that he “came to hate the subtleties of painting and its brain weaving, and, being frequently attacked by the envious tongues of painters, he resolved to take up a baser, less difficult and more cheerful craft. Accordingly, he kept open for many months a fine inn outside the gate of S. Gallo, and a tavern at the Dragon, at the Ponte Vecchio, saying that he had found an art which did not need foreshortening or perspective, and better still, without critics . . .” Surely Vasari’s anecdote suggests infinitely more vividly and informatively the effects of the crisis of the Renaissance on art than the interior rumblings of Mr. Hauser.

“The subject of this study,” Mr. Hauser writes of his book, “is the period in the history of ideas that saw the birth of modern man, and its object is to work out the implications of this event . . . It was the break-up of the Renaissance and not, as is nearly always assumed, the Renaissance itself that created the conditions for the modern age.” Its symptoms, Mr. Hauser continues, were “economic and social disintegration, the reification of culture, the alienation of the individual, the institutionalization of human relations, the atomization of functions, and the feeling of general insecurity.” The crisis of the Renaissance began “with the doubt whether it were possible to reconcile the spiritual with the physical . . . The world, however evil it might otherwise have been, had once seemed uniform and in harmony with itself and with man, but now it had been irretrievably split (chiefly by Luther) into a world of illusion and another of dreadful reality.” Mannerism expresses the tension between these “apparently irreconcilable opposites” by the idea of paradox, which Mr. Hauser proposes as the most comprehensive definition of mannerist style.

In order to align in some more comprehensible fashion the development to which Mr. Hauser refers I should like to quote from Erich Heller’s “The Disinherited Mind,” which contains the most persuasive formulations of the issues involved that I know. In his chapter on Kafka’s “The Castle,” which he brilliantly shows to be a symbolic novel, Mr. Heller outlines certain stages in the history of the symbol. In the Middle Ages what was real was so insofar as it was symbolic (in Goethe’s words), and in its sacramental model of reality “a definite correspondence prevailed between the mundane and the transcendental spheres . . . The sacramental model of reality was upset in an historically decisive fashion at the time of the Reformation . . . To Luther the sacrament of the Last Supper is Christ . . . while Zwingly reduces it to the status of an allegory (as merely representing what, in itself, it is not). From then onwards the word ‘merely’ has been attaching itself ever more firmly to the word ‘symbol,’ soon gaining sufficient strength to bring about a complete alienation between the two spheres. Finally a new order of things emerged. Within it the transcendent realm is allotted the highest honours of the spirit, but, at the same time, is skillfully deprived of a considerable measure of reality; the mundane, on the other hand, is recompensated for its lowering in spiritual stature by the chance of absorbing all available reality and becoming more ‘really’ real than before . . . Religion and art lost their unquestionable birthright in the homeland of human reality, and turned into messengers from the higher unreality, admitted now and then as edifying or entertaining songsters at the positivist banquet. What had once been a matter-of-fact expression of life, became a problem worthy of a great deal of intellectual fuss and a negligible assignment of reality . . . (Since the time of Hoelderlin, whose) work is one continuous attempt to recapture the lost reality of the symbol and the sacramental experience of life . . . reality has been all but completely sealed off against any transcendental intrusion. But in Kafka’s work the symbolic substance, forced back in every attempt to attack from above, invades reality from below, carrying with it the stuff from hell . . . His creations are symbolic, for they are infused with negative transcendence.”

This is not Mr. Hauser’s line. For him “The Castle” and all of Kafka’s work is not only not symbolic (the only time that the word symbol comes up in the book is in this context), but an expression of the mannerist position that “ultimate and vital things. . . are ineffable and unrepresentable.” In fact, he denies that there is any meaning in Kafka at all, and concludes his book with the observation that Kafka is “among those who bring us closest to an understanding of mannerism.” The circle is complete, the Spenglerian void is sealed.

“Mannerism” is full of adjectives. The most frequent is “piquant,” which connotes in distilled form what Mr. Hauser sees as the essence of mannerism, but there are many others: eccentric, subtle, pungent, bold, challenging, stimulating, refined, erotic, over-strained, bizarre, playful, affected, frisky, atomized, abstruse—all called upon to convey the qualities of mannerist art. Not much can be done with them, nor does the esthetic character of mannerist art ever really come to life. Writing that does so is rarely encountered. One example, in my opinion, is Sydney Freedberg’s essay on maniera painting, in which he vividly suggests a number of reasons for the continuing esthetic fascination of these works.

Mr. Freedberg points out, for example, that in his use of quotations from previous works the maniera painter “performs upon the vocabulary of his model an operation that results in a kind of petrification, and he may then use the cold, pure substance of the vacated form as an element to build with into any context. This suits the esthetic disposition of the maniera style in any case, but it also suits the disposition of the maniera artist to evade emotion that itself may be unstylized. For the maniera personality, feeling, too, whether it is the property of a quoted or imitated model, or an invention he has made to suit a present context, requires to be estheticized.”

If the foregoing suggests parallels in the art of the 20th century, the following, it seems to me, strikes very close to one of its chief preoccupations, particularly at the present day: “In front of a maniera altar, as before an icon, the spectator sees an effulgence of abstracting beauty. But . . . (he) does not see its subject matter as one with this effulgence. The precious and exalting emanation is suspended as if in a separable plane before the matter that identifies overt religious meaning. The spectator may associate his state of exaltation, produced by the esthetic means, with the subject matter, but the artist has not made the identification for him . . . Unless the viewer brings to the painting the refinement of sensibility, the wit, and the sophisticated resource that the work of art contains beneath its mask, it will not deign to make communication.”

Mr. Freedberg writes about the identity of the work of art—its formal relations and significations, and can therefore tell us something about it that may enrich our knowledge of it. The historian who deals with works of visual art cannot, so George Kubler has persuasively argued in “The Shape of Time,” avoid this responsibility. It is largely a matter of making the right distinctions, and thanks to our increasing competence in fields like the psychology of perception we can make such distinctions, as Ernst Gombrich has shown particularly well, better than before. Craig Smyth has said, for example, that Pontormo’s lunette at Poggio a Caiano cannot, strictly speaking, be considered an example of early mannerist style, “however sensitive, refined, abstract, private, irrationally or eccentrically oppressive” it may be. Not only does this suggest a great deal about the work in question, but also about issues which the sociological approach tries but so often fails to reveal. The labor, dedication and talent that go into such works as Mr. Hauser’s “Mannerism” are defeated by the vicious circle that they so ingeniously strive to create.

Hellmut Wohl

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