Sunday, August 7, 2011

Is It Baroque, and Do We Fix It?

A couple of days ago I had an email conversation with SFR, who lives in northern Florida. Her local museum is hosting a loan of 16th- and 17th-century Italian paintings from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milano (a lovely gem of a museum itself). This loan exhibition is being marketed as "Baroque" art, about which SFR wanted to know more. This is a good question, because when you think about it, what does Baroque actually mean? When I emailed her back, this was my quick, off-the-cuff response: "Baroque typically means it's more dramatic than Renaissance art, which is more balanced and harmonic. In Italy this was a period of intense religious fervor, so you get lots of contrasts of lighting and shadows for dramatic effect, sometimes some violent scenes. ... But then you also get these delightful still lifes ... which symbolize bounty and the wealth of the patrons." From the picture you see here of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Decapitating Holofernes (1612-21, Uffizi), you can get a sense of what I meant by the first part of my definition. This painting to me captures the spirit of the Italian Baroque because it is a Biblical (i.e. Apocryphal) subject presented in a way that’s highly melodramatic and incredibly violent, driving home the intensity of Judith’s determination to save the Jewish people from the Babylonian general. The fact that it was painted by a woman (a rare feat itself at this time) makes the picture even more fascinating because of our ongoing societal belief that women in general are less violent then men, driving home even more the determination of Judith and her maidservant in this picture. The painting also has a spotlight effect, making the figures stand out from the darkness around them. This results in thrusting the subject into the viewer’s plane more sharply, so that you cannot escape the work's visceral intent.

I could go on about this painting (which I love, in case it wasn't obvious), including talking about the influence of Caravaggio on Baroque art, but now take a look at the picture you see here, Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, or The Family of Philip IV (1656-57, Prado), which also is Baroque (and another favorite of mine). What makes this picture Baroque? It’s certainly not violent. You could say it’s dramatic, but more like a theatrical tableau. The intricacies of what’s going on in this picture have been debated by numerous art and cultural historians, including Leo Steinberg and Michel Foucault. Although people differ on the specifics, everyone seems to agree that there’s a determined level of psychology and interpersonal communication taking place, with the artist looking out at the viewer, who stands in the place of the king and queen whose portrait he is painting. The king and queen in turn are reflected in the mirror in the background, while their children and servants are positioned staring back at them, i.e. you the viewer. Are we to understand then that Baroque art also implies psychology? Not necessarily, because one could argue that the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci also have a psychological subtext to them (Freud certainly believed so!). The intricacies of light and darkness are at work in Velázquez's painting, so perhaps that is why the picture is Baroque. Does this fit in then with pictures by other so-called Baroque artists from the North, like Rembrandt and Vermeer, both of whom painted in very different styles but were known for manipulating the power light for dramatic purposes? But if it's all about light, then how does this fit in with Nicolas Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-39, Louvre), whose classical referencing clearly seems to call into question what French Baroque might mean.

My point is this: isn't it time we stopped using useless labels like Baroque? Or even the ever more popular Renaissance, for that matter? PR told me he’s teaching a course this fall on the Renaissance, and while I have no doubt Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael will appear in his course, will he go further back to include the "early" Renaissance art of Fra Angelico? And will he go forward to include the "late" manneristic Renaissance art of Parmagianino? Will he stay in Florence and Rome, or cover Venice too? And what about Netherlandish and German "Renaissance" art of the same period? In this context, I ask, what does "Renaissance" actually mean, and what does it tell you about the art itself? In truth, nothing.

I'm certainly not criticizing PR at all, just using his upcoming course as an example of the problematics of these stylistic terms. There was a point in art history when these labels made sense because in general people understood the unfolding of Western art in terms of historic appellations. You went from ancient to Greek & Roman classical, then Early Christian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Romantic, Realist, etc., until you got to the modernist 'isms' from Impressionism to Cubism and so on. Most large museums still arrange their galleries in this fashion. What made these labels work was the assumption that students/viewers were all White and Judaeo-Christian. But as every professor can tell you today, it’s not like that anymore in our ever-expanding global communities. There are students who have no idea who that guy Jesus really was, heaven forbid be able to identify the gods Mars and Venus. Complicating this is that the idea of history unfolding on a timeline also has lost its meaning, so that the Apollo Belvedere and Michelangelo's David are seen as parallel creations by some students, without any sense as to which came first and how one may have inspired the other. And yet, for some reason, academic programs are still teaching classes using these terms. Columbia University’s Fall 2011 undergraduate program has a course on "Early Italian Renaissance Art," and Princeton is offering "Neoclassicism through Impressionism." In truth, the reason why these terms are still used is because they are easy catch-all phrases that help (supposedly) get across similar ideas and concepts about art produced by a European cultural group during a particular period in time. After all, the alternative of offering classes on "Italian Art, 1400-1490" and "French Art, 1750-1886" are actually less helpful in giving students or the general public any sense of what they are actually going to see and study. And switching to using the names of artists ("Fra Angelico to Botticelli" and "Jacques-Louis David to Camille Pissarro") may make matters even worse because that assumes the student/viewer already knows who these people are and can date/contextualize them.

My art history survey textbook Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (12th ed., 2005) more-or-less says the same thing I said to SFR about what Baroque actually means. The authors also mention that the word comes from the Portuguese barroco, meaning an irregularly shaped pearl, and that it contrasts "with the rational order of classicism" (689). More noteworthy is that they acknowledge "the problematic associations of the term and because no commonalities can be ascribed to all of the art and cultures of this period," they have restricted its use to very specific cultures as it seems most appropriate. But then as you go through the chapter, you see that they use the term in each section on Italy, Spain, Flanders, The Netherlands, etc., showing that even they fall into the trap. Clearly relying on art historical terms like Baroque are now "baroquen" and need to be fixed, but it seems the only way to do this is to ensure the terms are explained as having some, but not all, defining characteristics that are appropriate to a particular time period because of current social and political events in a particular geographical area. And even with all that, it's important to note that not every artist shared the same styles and thus there are exceptions to every rule. Admittedly, it may confuse some, but need in the past to pigeon-hole everything into single broad-sweeping categories just doesn't work anymore for contemporary audiences. The new world order of art history needs a more nuanced explanation. (Images: Web Gallery of Art)


pranogajec said...

My class is 16th-Century Italian Art (it's an existing course in the catalog, so don't blame me), but I intend to start in the 1490s (with a brief overview on the first day of earlier stuff--Alberti, Brunelleschi, etc.) and go all the way through the early 1600s to include Annibale Carracci, Caravaggio, and the like.

I think the second half of the century is fascinating but always overshadowed by the first half. I never use the term Mannerism in my intro. course but I'll introduce it here really just to talk about the problematics of it and the larger issue of stylistic-historical labels that you bring up. Of course, I'm going to cover a lot of architecture, including villas and gardens, and yes, Venice will be prominent.

Venice is so much more interesting than Florence, anyway!

bklynbiblio said...

Totally NOT blaming you at all. Definitely sounds like it will be an interesting course, and I think it's great you're focusing on the latter half of the 16th century, which is important and frequently overlooked. Although claiming Venice is "so much more interesting than" Florence may lead to a debate.

pranogajec said...

Yes, well on Florence v. Venice...I'm ready to slug it out over that one.

Plus--I am *not* ready to abandon labels such as Renaissance and Baroque. Whatever their difficulties, I am not convinced they are "useless." I'll fight that one, too.

bklynbiblio said...

But you don't deny that the labels are problematic. I'm not advocating for abandoning the labels, just making sure they are explicated so there are no assumptions.

Stephanie Race said...

Now I'm really looking forward to visiting the exhibit. Glad I could provide fodder for the blog :-)

BTW - went to a presentation Saturday at Mission San Luis that featured theater performances from the first play in history to put New World scenes onstage. They did a great job of connecting then with now. It was done by Theater with a Mission and featured scenes from Lope de Vega’s three-act masterpiece, Nuevo mundo, written around 1600. For some reason I think you might have enjoyed it.

bklynbiblio said...

Stephanie, one never knows where inspiration will come from--our e-coversation was the perfect source. Thanks for the tip on the play. I'll look for it.