PRINT April 2013


Alexander Nagel’s Medieval Modern and Amy Knight Powell’s Depositions

Jan Mostaert, Triptych of the Deposition from the Cross, ca. 1520, triptych, oil on wood panel, open: 55 3/8 x 74".

Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, by Alexander Nagel. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012. 312 pages.

Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum, by Amy Knight Powell. New York: Zone Books, 2012. 369 pages.

YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED ALREADY: The Renaissance is finally contemporary again. Documenta 12 staged a dialogue between the venerable old-masters collection at Schloss Wilhelmshöhe and newly commissioned works, and at the 2011 Venice Biennale, Tintoretto was granted the place of honor. Now Alexander Nagel, one of the luminaries of Renaissance art history, and rising scholar Amy Knight Powell each set out to provide a theoretical framework for this itch to link the old and the new. Both Nagel’s Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time and Powell’s Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum make a case for the unbroken actuality and relevance of the Renaissance—despite the books’ titles, medieval art is less of a focus—by pointing to its “pseudomorphic resemblances” (Powell) and “deeper structural analogies” (Nagel) with twentieth-century art.

This might sound old hat. Not only have a few legendary scholars such as Meyer Schapiro and Leo Steinberg nimbly jumped from the medieval to the present; art historians have always diligently traced development across broad time spans. Even Clement Greenberg famously situated the origins of the flatness of modernist painting in sixteenth-century Venice. Neither Powell nor Nagel, however, wants anything to do with this kind of evolutionary continuity. Instead, they propose altogether alternative notions of temporality and historical experience. Both studies seek to “transgress history, at least, our linear conception of it” (Powell) and focus on “art works that refuse to stay stably in their time” (Nagel). Now, Powell is not suggesting that Marcel Duchamp, with his self-destructing Unhappy Readymade, 1919, shared the same concerns as the anonymous fourteenth- to sixteenth-century wood-carvers who made crucifixes with movable arms so that these figures could disappear in boxes. Nor is Nagel merely asserting phenomenological links between Michelangelo’s Medici chapel and the Minimalist installations of Dan Flavin and Robert Morris, even though these are all environments of a kind. Powell and Nagel are much more radical. They do not simply affirm that premodern and modern works can somehow be compared. Rather, they identify much deeper connections, “inevitable liaisons,” between works of art. Or, as Nagel puts it, these multiple orientations to time and history cause “relations of contemporaneity persistently routed through anachronisms.”

Such a simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous conjures, of course, Walter Benjamin, from whom Nagel in fact borrows his book’s epigraph. In his enigmatic concept of the dialectical image, Benjamin asserted that behind the facade of the present, otherwise-forgotten moments could be recovered from oblivion and reintroduced to illuminate current historical situations. He thus rejected historiography’s chronological progression—in which time simply marches on, leaving the past irrevocably behind—and instead proclaimed the dialectical interplay of temporalities, in which what has been and now suddenly come together in an image that reveals higher historical and even objective truths.

With Christopher S. Wood, Nagel has already written a very Benjaminian history of art, titled Anachronic Renaissance (2010). This book contrasts what the two scholars call the “performative” authorship of the modern artwork with the “substitutional” mode of the atemporal medieval cult image. The latter is linked to a prototype, of which the image is not merely a copy but an identical token, its chronological distance and formal difference notwithstanding. In other words, a fifteenth-century image of Christ could be subject to the same kind of devotion as the “vera icon,” or true image of Christ imprinted on Veronica’s cloth; the artwork partakes in all the attributes and even the magical power of that (lost) original. Around 1500, with the waning of the Middle Ages and the birth of modern concepts of the author and of chronological time, the substitutional model began to fade—without, however, disappearing completely. Only now could images become properly “anachronic”—or dialectical, for that matter: performative works of art “shot through” (to use Benjamin’s language) with substitution.

While this model of conjoining temporalities certainly complicates traditional narratives of art, its true originality lies in its contribution to the discussion of the power of images. This discourse, fed by David Freedberg and Hans Belting, has been stimulated anew by, among others, Horst Bredekamp’s plea for the agency of art in Theorie des Bildakts (Theory of Picture Acts, 2010), wherein images have a presence that paradoxically fills them with life, allowing them to actively create rather than merely reproduce or interpret reality. Similarly, Nagel and Wood’s anachronic image can wield a force that reaches into the innermost depths of the human psyche and, potentially, causes the viewer to act.

Whereas Anachronic Renaissance deals with a well-defined body of mainly religious works in a circumscribed period, Medieval Modern turns truly anachronistic by linking works separated by hundreds of years and vastly different mentalities. As a result, no coherent theory, history, or even shared set of concerns emerges, precisely because, according to Nagel, the irrepressible force of premodern art has always spoiled modernism’s attempts to tell conclusive narratives, in particular that of its pursuit of purity and medium specificity. Instead, Nagel offers an unsystematic series of case studies, some more Benjaminian than others. His discussion of the Bauhaus’s interest in the Bauhütten of Gothic cathedrals and their communal modes of production is a relatively straightforward historical analysis of this programmatic attempt to recover a submerged tradition. Other interpretations are quite original, as when he considers Guillaume Apollinaire’s comparison of a thirteenth-century altarpiece by Cimabue (as described by sixteenth-century art historian Giorgio Vasari) with Louis Blériot’s 1909 airplane. According to Nagel, Apollinaire sensed not only that these pioneering works were paraded through the streets of Florence and Paris in a similar celebration of human inventiveness but that the altarpiece and the airplane redefined their respective societies’ understanding of the relation between heaven and earth. The rocket-like format of the monumental Cimabue, one might deduce from Nagel, forms precisely such a Benjaminian constellation, in which the past irrupts into the present in a flash.

This is an ingenious reading, one that shares its unabashedly suggestive, intuitive mode with much that is written in the spirit of Benjamin. But such loose chains of association raise larger methodological questions, especially when they remain on the level of pseudomorphism, the comparison of things that look alike without regard for their fundamental semiotic difference. However striking similarities of form might be, such comparisons, especially of religious and post-Enlightenment works, risk being misleading. Nagel’s juxtaposition of Robert Smithson’s non-sites, in which the artist transferred rocks from New Jersey to a New York gallery, with topographic relics such as the earth from Jerusalem in the Camposanto in Pisa, exemplifies this danger (a preview of this chapter appeared in these pages in October). While the original places of the rocks might have mattered personally to Smithson, they are largely insignificant to the non-sites’ complication of the old modernist dialectic of abstraction and representation. For the premodern Pisan, on the other hand, the place of origin was all that mattered: Holy earth in the cemetery promised to facilitate access to heavenly Jerusalem. The comparison, therefore, only works when the eschatological dimension is left out—but this is the Camposanto’s raison d’être.

Powell also falls into the trap of pseudomorphism, but she is unashamed of it (thus boldly galvanizing a debate that art historians such as Erwin Panofsky, Schapiro, and Yve-Alain Bois seemed to have laid to rest). She hails art’s decontextualization in the museum because it facilitates the “promiscuity” of form; that is, the ability of artworks to “stray” and “intermingle” with each other across time and space. Powell thus discounts historicism’s fixation on the “period eye” and the always already futile attempt to reconstruct an author’s intention, affirming instead that “works of art do not belong to their makers.” This nonchalant shedding of historical constraints notwithstanding, Powell develops a concise, even historical thesis, arguing that the premodern iconoclasm she identifies in late-medieval depictions of the Deposition of Christ prefigures the postmodern and its litany of the “deaths of art.” Picturing the dead Christ coming down from the cross, and his subsequent disappearance in the tomb, amounts to an attack on representation: The Deposition implies the “lowering of the image from visibility” and, as such, foretold postmodernism’s own defenestration of the aesthetic image itself.

But the problem is precisely the ahistoricism Powell advocates. As inspired and suggestive as this proposition may be, little insight is ultimately gained from Powell’s comparison of the empty shroud on the ground of many Deposition altarpieces with the white surface underneath Robert Rauschenberg’s prone body in his Postcard Self-Portrait, Black Mountain (II), 1952. In the Rauschenberg, such a plane might indeed serve as a “receptor surface,” in Steinberg’s famous formulation, its blankness inviting, in Powell’s paraphrase of him, “any number of imaginary interventions.” But the shroud contains no such element of chance or uncertainty, as every Renaissance viewer knew perfectly well that it was only there to register Christ’s imprint. Thus, even if both surfaces are potentially acheiropoietic images—that is, images not made by human hands—their status is fundamentally different. While Rauschenberg’s work might confirm Powell’s observations that “form is too promiscuous to remain faithful to its author’s intentions,” the indexical image eventually appearing on the shroud is defined by its claim to be authentic, and thus identical with its author, Christ.

As much as both Powell and Nagel seem aware of the specific contexts of their objects, by collapsing historical time, they ultimately squeeze the history out of art history. This is in perfect alignment with our society’s obsession with the present, which has in turn increasingly affected academia’s historical disciplines. Until the 1990s, the Renaissance constituted the epitome of art history, but—especially in the US—it has ceded this position to modern and thereafter rapidly to contemporary art. In part this brisk dethronement is driven by an ever more powerful global art market, zealously striving to generate demand for new, salable products. But it also results from the perception that Renaissance studies is as old-fashioned as the old masters it deals with. Neither Powell nor Nagel has any illusions (or desire) to return to past hierarchies. If nothing else, their engagement with postmodernism suggests that Renaissance studies has come a long way from connoisseurship and iconography. By making the old masters contemporary, Powell and Nagel might aim at a renascence of the Renaissance—even if this comes at the price of submitting to modernism’s ultimate hegemony.

Based in New York and Berlin, Benjamin Paul teaches Italian Renaissance art at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey.