It is a big book, weighing 5 kilos at least! A standard work of art education I suppose: Gardner’s "Art through the Ages". (1) Very thorough and instructive, lavishly illustrated but in its scrupulous objectivity also a tad boring. It’s just too impartial a reference work while, for me, the irresistible attraction of art history books lays in their loving labor of imagination to revive what is lost – as exemplified by those great art historians who, combining passionate erudition with imaginative understanding , were on a quest to resuscitate the beauty & meaning of the artifacts from bygone ages. (2)
But still, melancholia too is in the eye of the beholder, and so, even with as impassive & impartial a guide as the Gardner book, I cannot but intensely feel the pathos of the history of art. Those time-lines with their accompanying images of ancient art works …. how could one not see them as witnesses of the glorious rise and inexorable fall of civilizations? (3)
In the chapter about the art of troubled late antiquity there’s this one picture I keep returning to, in awe and wonder. It’s a reproduction of an ivory plaque from around 400 AD.
It shows a woman of noble bearing, calmly picking grapes from a bowl offered to her by a boy (4). Her pose is serene, exuding graceful gravitas. The whole scene, her figure, and the folds of her classical robe are carved with precise fluency .
And the choking poignancy of it, is that this image of striking classical beauty appears in 400 AD, amidst the chaos of a crumbling empire, at a time when confident primitive Christianity had banned all ancient pagan cults and when society’s taste had long turned towards cruder images, to “archaic, abstract and bluntly expressive” forms , oblivious of classical aesthetic ideals.
In fact, one has to turn back almost 200 pages in the weighty Gardner book to find images of similar beauty and the diligent (& melancholy) reader can then ponder how the beauty of a 400 BC Parthenon frieze was briefly recaptured in the amazing grace of a lone 400 AD ivory.
But, surprise, dear blog-reader: I will not now launch in a lamentation about how our own 21st Century has definitely forgotten all about greco-roman gracefulness. I will not now grieve over the loss of authority of classical aesthetics (5). And l will even refrain, for now, from end-of-civilization prophecies (6).
Instead I will rejoice in some rowdy cross referencing between epochs, seeking consolation in the wayward afterlife that transient human expressions do have.
Take Emile Mâle’s “the Gothic Image”, a book written around 1910 (and now more or less out of print) to raise understanding and appreciation of the then largely despised art of the middle ages. Mâle’s book offers such a lovingly-detailed and evocative insight in medieval Christian art - its chief aim being to try and understand the spirit of those medieval artifacts around whom had “gathered a whole world of hopes and longings, and they appeal to us to-day as do all things on which men’s thoughts have lingered.”
This book is a passionate apology of Gothic Christian art, and therefore definitely not into the lamenting of lost classical standards. But Mâle none the less faithfully records the dim classical memories that did survive – like the iconographical origins of the allegorical statue of “Lady Philosophy” , figuring in the series of statues representing the liberal arts in gothic cathedrals. The statue of “Philosophy" appears there with “the attributes given to her by Boethius” .
Boethius (7) …. “living on the confines of two worlds, […] at once the last of the Romans and the first of the mediaeval doctors”. Ah, Boethius …. writing his “The Consolation of Philosophy” in prison, with stoic courage ….. (or with pathetic heartbreaking bravery?), while awaiting his execution. Boethius … striving to preserve classical wisdom in a world where greco-roman traditions were fading fast.
And once a great tradition has declined and faded, it cannot ever come back exactly as it was – but it can have a strange, wayward afterlife – it can be revered and desired even without being really understood or mastered. And it is Mâle, this zealous apologist of the mediaeval christian spirit, who so lyrically captures the full poignancy of late-classical Boethius’ influence in the sturdy middle ages :
“[Boethius] had seen Philosophy and had talked with her, the Middle Ages took him at his word and had no wish to represent her otherwise. […] His vast learning no doubt aroused admiration, but it was the vague sadness, the subtle symbolism, the sudden bursts of poetry which mingle so strangely with his dialectic, in short all that there was of disquietude in this latterday philosophy, which made the strength of his appeal to men”. (8)
Vague sadness , late sensitivities – in our blind race towards some collective future (and a private death) , amidst the always recurring onslaught of new generations who render old traditions irrelevant, we humans have this stranges capacity of nostalgia, of a longing for what is lost.
A longing that itself seems to be more permanent throughout the ages than the objects which it longs for. (9)
Consolation of Notes
(1) hard cover; 28 X 24 X 8 cm , 1198 pages; I do cherish this Gardner – book, not only because of its impeccable instructiveness, but also because, at a certain period in my life, it was a most welcome weighty & tangible proof both of the durability of Art (despite a world ruled by economical priorities) and of the dedication of my long distance lover (who at her PC in Detroit asked Amazon to deliver this doorstopper at a Brussels address - and I still remember the excitement of fetching this gift at the post office, evading clandestinely from my bank desk during the lunch break)
(2) Winckelmann, “the first art historian” is unapologetically melancholy in his evocation of all that has been lost (see note 9) , and Emile Mâle (perhaps the Winckelmann of the gothic image) is on an almost fanatical mission to produce a work summarizing the iconography of the gothic cathedrals (as thorough & comprehensive as a medieval “summa” )--- ah, what could be more moving then these attempts to recover a lost language of the eye
(3) and as sad proof that “L’homme est une passion inutile” (Sartre) – with what passionate energy have humans devoted themselves to transient enterprises of no use whatever for our survival or reproduction … (Darwinians of course argue that displays of useless splendor& complexity are an honest sign of a surplus of health & energy and thus yet another evolutionary ploy to attract mates keen on giving their off spring the best chances of survival – I beg to differ, too many men & women ruined themselves while devoted to enterprises “entirely gratuitous in terms of life-preservation; far transcending what may be deemed necessary for sexual attraction “ (Arendt))
(4) Gardner tells me it is a priestess celebrating the rites of Bacchus
(5) I shall always retain a nostalgia for this 19th C - Grand – Tour - type of reverence for antiquity. A self-conscious, ironical nostalgia of course. Besides, my recent reading about pathetic Ruskin has further dented my belief in the edifying effects of worshipping the arts of the past. Though, still...., mental and physical health cannot but benefit from a habit of regular art-holidays, or so I wistfully (& jealously) noted when reading in this Ruskin-biography: “ In poor spirits, he set off almost at once for a restorative trip to the Continent” ( France, Italy, etc, and this from May to September , dear reader, not just a hurried weekend city-trip. )
(6) This being said, I cannot deny having a keen “decline-and- fall of the Roman empire” sensibility – it may even be a family trait. A great-great-great uncle is reported to have had religious end-of-times visions. And, on a more prosaic note, close relatives of mine glumly take the dearth of qualified plumbers as an omen of the decline of western civilization skills. (which may not be that wide off the mark, the nigh uncontrollable Gulf of Mexico oil spill does show the catastrophic consequences of a slippage in sound plumbing prudence at deep-water levels , as Moss pointed out to me).
(7) on Boethius "Boethius's best known work is the Consolation of Philosophy (De consolatione philosophiae), which he wrote most likely while in exile under house arrest or in prison while awaiting his execution, but his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy."
(8) Doesn’t this echo Bonnefoy’s insight about classical longings and about « meditations sur l’exil, […] parce que la nostalgie que portait en soi cette sensibilité tardive est plus véridiquement perpétuable que l’héroique illusion de ce qu’on appelle une haute époque ». « the nostalgia inherent to such a late sensibility can be more truthfully perpetuated than the heroic illusions of a so called great epoch”
(9) great opportunity to quote again from that sublime concluding paragraph in Winckelmann’s "History of the Art Of Antiquity" (18th C itself) : “[…] although contemplating the collapse of art has driven me nearly to despair, […] I could not keep myself from gazing after the fate of works of art as far as my eye could see. […] we have as it were only a shadowy outline of the subject of our desires remaining. But this arouses so much the greater longing for what is lost. […] In this, we often are like individuals who wish to converse with spirits and believe they can see something where nothing exists. […] One always imagines that there is so much to find…"