Its melange of naivete and erudition (1), yes that may well be what I love best about art history.
This naivete is to be found in even the most sophisticated art historian, in as much as he or she can’t help being aesthetically and sentimentally moved by a work of art. (2)
Apart from some sour iconophobic postmodern specimens (3), I haven’t yet read an art historian who didn’t at some point lapse from scientific erudition & distance into genuine love for the art works they research.
More, art historians’ sheer devoted erudition can be endearingly naïve. Meticulously tracking down the ancestry or the afterlife of a certain image throughout the ages, accumulating documentary evidence from musty archives: what could be more devoid of utilitarian cynicism? What could be a greater testimony to that discredited humanistic notion that the evolving formal expressions of human concerns have a value as such, even after the societies that have spawned them have collapsed. (4)
But still, there’s the question – how much cultural background information do we need to process in order to properly enjoy a work of art. And what is “properly enjoying”? Is it about grasping the “meaning” of a work of art, recreating the initial intention of the maker? (5) Is it about formal aesthetical enjoyment? Is it about a naive, uneducated emotional response? Or do I need to be familiar with the bible and with medieval scholastic thought & iconography to appreciate a 12th century relief from a French cathedral? (6)
Did I pin the above image on my kitchen wall because of its religious significance? Because I like to be reminded of the angel-assisted resurrection of the Virgin Mary while devoutly drinking my morning tea?
Or because, in general, I dote on statues of winged creatures gathered around a dead body?
Eh, no, that’s not it. Well then, why do I love this image?
Oh, because I found it in a second-hand book , a lovely bundle of essays by the French art historian Emile Mâle who at the turn of the century set out (not without French-chauvinistic and Christian-religious zeal) to restore the fame of French roman-gothic imagery.
And because he wrote so engagingly and affectionately about these swift & gentle angels. (7) .
And because this tympanum relief was so expertly sculpted by an anonymous artist in the 12th Century.
And mostly I love this image, because, in that tumultuous & harsh age, someone took the pains to lovingly represent an image of unalloyed gentleness & solicitude.
suitably naïve notes
(1) self-consciously post-modern readers may now sigh and click on to less naive blogs
(2) Roland Recht in « L’historien de l’art est-il naïf ? » :
« Le spectateur peut se trouver place à différents degrés de “naiveté”, à savoir d’illusions sur la plus ou moins forte implication de son propre équipement culturel dans l’appréhension des œuvres du passé »
But the art historian would then not be naive, because he is aware of the cultural distance, and should be able to dissociate naive aesthetic enjoyment from a cultural & intellectual interpretation of the work.
« Une ligne de démarcation entre une forme « sentimentale » de l’appréhension de l’œuvre d’art et une forme intellectuelle qui se définit (entièrement) par la conscience de l’histoire sous sa forme la plus élémentaire : la conscience de la distance »
(3) A sure sign of this sourness is the lack of reproductions/images in these postmodern art history books, which excel in ironical and conceited meta-discourses-about –the- historical - art historical-discourses
(4) E Panofsky in “the history of art as a humanistic discipline” : “from the humanistic point of view human records do not age"
(5) E Panofsky, Ibidem. "Thus, in experiencing a work of art aesthetically we perform two entirely different acts which, however, psychologically merge with each other into one Erlebnis: we build up our aesthetic object both by re-creating the work of art according to the “intention” of its maker, and by freely creating a set of aesthetic values comparable to those with which we endow a tree or a sunset
[…] the sensual pleasure in a peculiar play of light and color and the more sentimental delight in « age » and « genuineness, » has nothing to do with the objective, or artistic, value with which the sculptures were invested by their makers. "
(6) I’d like to refer here to all the libraries which are filled with highly enjoyable erudite tomes about this ‘what is art’ question. But, sorry, I really can’t go into all this right now. I have to leave for work in about 1 hour and, well, the whole point of this post was just to reproduce a beloved image of solicitous angels, so I’d better get on now.
(7) Emile Mâle - Art et Artistes du moyen âge : recueil d’articles publiés à des dates s’échelonnant de 1897 à 1927. La première édition est de 1927, la quatrième est de 1947.
The reproduction is from the essay about « Le portail de Senlis et son influence »
« Puis, les anges viennent ressusciter ce corps sacré et le tirent doucement du tombeau.[…] La résurrection du corps de la Vierge par les anges est une scène nouvelle dans l’iconographie religieuse et pour laquelle [les artistes de Senlis] n’avaient aucun modèle : ils en ont fait un chef-d’œuvre de vie et de grâce . […]La belle pensée de Senlis .[…] C’est à Senlis que se forme l’iconographie de la résurrection […] de la Vierge . La légèreté, l’allégresse des anges de Senlis […] ».