22 August, 2006

Observance

Today I present one painting in a cycle depicting the life of St. Anthony from the 1440s, attributed originally to Stefano di Giovanni, il Sassetti (compare his Anthony here), but now simply to an unknown Master of the Osservanza (fl. Siena 1430-50). This piece, tempera and gold on wood, is titled 'St. Anthony Tempted by Gold'.


It's a naïf, colourful style, still essentially Gothic—almost a Quattrocento Le Douanier. The clarity and simplicity of its arrangement is quite touching. But the most interesting thing about this image is the dislocation of its purport caused by later overpainting. St. Anthony, with his characteristic tau cross, throws up his hands in horror, gazing down to his left. Originally in this space was a pile of gold, one of the temptations, and of course not one that's going to work on St. Anthony of all people! But this has been overpainted, and you can see the pinkish patch where it was. Instead, nothing. Anthony is gesturing in horror at nothing. Or rather, as the reader might perhaps have been thinking—at the rabbit!

The painting is like a proposition in which the has been erased—recalling this deconstruction of Garfield by removing Garfield, the melancholy of absorbing absence—or rather one where a different object has come to fill its place. Thus is the original sense replaced unexpectedly by a new meaning. This is what I mean by 'the dislocation of the purport', and it is related to the paranoiac-critical method, where one object is confused with another, as if in a state of delirium. Dali himself spotted another hidden object, the infant coffin which Millet overpainted for the finished Angelus.


The rabbit is a symbol of fertility, as symbolised here by the tree growing out of its back. In the desert landscape it is a sinister fertility: the saint's injunction against the love of money has given way to sexual anxiety, and the quiet desert has become molten with his fear. I ascribe no intentionality, but only observe the unconscious generation of new meaning by absence. By this I want to say that the semantic excrescence—two hands and overpainting as sexual anxiety—exists only in my mind. The content of this new meaning was put in my mind by Freud, who, in reviving ancient symbolic modes of exegesis, has been kind enough to provide our atheistical age with a fresh vocabulary of thought. His analyses—and I hope my analysis too—are convincing: not convincing like an argument, but convincing like a poem, or indeed a painting.

8 comments:

chris miller said...

I'm always drawn to that peculiar round hallway of early Italian paintings at the Met -- and I've especially liked this painting -- it's so convincingly dream-like -- spooky -- the kind of dream that I'd expect religious mystics to have -- the kind of dream that I might have if I were locked away in a monastery as a teenager with a bunch of weird old men. I don't remember if the label tells the story of the missing gold -- I don't think I cared -- I just wanted to live in that dream world for a few moments (and it's how I later envisioned some scenes from Spencer's "The fairie Queen" -- the ones where the wise old sage might well be a master of the black arts).

It's a good painting -- one of the best in that gallery --- and maybe one of the best in its genre in the world --- but to repeat my point made concerning the Dell' Arco tableaux --- nobody would care about the meanings of the rabbit or the missing gold if it didn't look so good.

And why do think some later owner had that gold erased anyway ? Perhaps he had spent his life getting rich and didn't want to be reminded of his life's misdirection ? I think the museum should hire someone to paint it back in.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Nobody would care about the meanings of the rabbit or the missing gold if it didn't look so good."

Fundamentally I disagree. Maybe this will be an impasse for us, Chris. In my experience, the best work I've done is on texts (I'm more of a lit than an art person) that I am aesthetically indifferent towards. What I'm saying is that I draw a strong distinction between 'beautiful' and 'interesting'. Not only that, but to me analysis, and more specifically an exegesis which recovers or creates meaning--if it is interesting--increases a work's beauty. I value the hidden.

"I think the museum should hire someone to paint it back in."

Really?

Gawain said...

You two have had this disagreement before --- and it may well be irreconcilable. Conrad is quite forthcoming about his preference to have something to talk about as opposed to something to just let wash over him in quiet contemplation. The conclusion is in: Conrad has a different head. I love that precious head, of course, but as much as I love another precious head, of a friend who thinks that wihtout God life would be meaningless and we might as well kill ourselves -- we just have to agree to disagree.

With Chris, I fear -- for the sake of my proclivity to contemplate -- that the dominance of the academia in art in the last couple hundred years -- in which one is constantly under pressure to write something -- a string of words, preferrably theory -- has had an impact on the general tone in the field which is not to my liking. Not enough contemplation, too much theory. Like Chris, I long for a different kind of museum. There are such museums, and they are usually private collections. I think Chris might feel well in Doria Pamphlji. I know I did. :)

Gawain said...

You are into my corner of art, btw. thanks, it feels so much more airy here (to me).

chris miller said...

But Conrad --- the hidden --- once revealed -- is hidden no more -- so it's value , as such, has diminished.

This painting, for example, used to present a puzzle ("what the hell is St. Anthony looking at?) But then a sharp, inquisitive mind, like your own, became interested in this puzzle and solved it ("St. Anthony is looking at a pile of gold that was painted over by a later hand")

Now that the puzzle is solved -- why should another inquisitive mind still find the painting of any interest on that question ?

And -- yes -- I would have some competent person paint the pile of gold back in -- just as restorers are often summoned to repaint areas of paintings that have been damaged.

(there are some damaged areas, of course, which are too difficult to restore -- like those paintings in the Met's Persian gallery -- where the faces of one of the characters have been blackened out by someone who didn't like him. Painting the human face is probably the greatest challenge in pictorial art -- since the human viewer is
very sensitive to every nuance. But painting a pile of gold is probably well within the range of available skills)

And while you say that you " draw a strong distinction between 'beautiful' and 'interesting'" ---- I'm doubting that it's just coincidence that the objects you've been discussing --- and showing on your blog-- also just happen to be among the most beautiful paintings and sculpture in the world. I mean -- there is tonnage of inferior work concerning which even more challenging questions may be asked -- indeed -- tough questions and speculations can be presented for absolutely anything.

My favorite example of the 'anything' is the early 20th C. specialist in Nordic literature who spent his career translating a runic text that had been recently discovered on a set of stone slabs.( I wish I could remember his name) He ended up with an entirely new Nordic epic -- a great contribution to the field -- except that --- subsequent research proved that the markings on the rock that he was studying had been made by glacial -- rather than human -- activity.

So I'm thinking that you probably are quite an active aesthete, Conrad. I know many people in the visual arts who have no idea that those great, memorable objects you've been showing even exist.

Conrad H. Roth said...

"Now that the puzzle is solved -- why should another inquisitive mind still find the painting of any interest on that question?"

He takes pleasure in my solving: but he also takes pleasure in the results of the solution: he takes pleasure in the realisation that there had been a mystery to solve, and in the generation of meaning occasioned by (in this case) the overpainting. It's a reasonably solipsistic process.

"I'm doubting that it's just coincidence that the objects you've been discussing --- and showing on your blog-- also just happen to be among the most beautiful paintings and sculpture in the world"

Not a coincidence: I don't dismiss the beautiful, as you seem to think, and when you have both the beautiful and interesting then you've got a double winner. I wanted to please you with St. Anthony's loveliness, as well as with my wit: but with my wit, also.

"tough questions and speculations can be presented for absolutely anything."

Quite true--see my post on apophenia. But in these situations why not praise the discoverer? This Nordic person (name, please) sounds perfectly brilliant, as much a writer as any 13th-century Norseman.

Finally, G and C--two of the four amino acids, basic building blocks of existence--can we not accept a position in moderation? After all, what is the purpose of me writing? There are dozens of web-forums for you to look at pretty pictures: so why read me? Or Heaven Tree? The reason must be that you like words and thoughts.

I agree that academia puts out a lot of BS, and a lot of it deadens the art/literature it is about. But let's not leap from that agreement to the position that all talking about art/literature is pointless: that is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

What I find most pleasurable about reading and looking at pictures, etc., is the creation of meaning--by me--which, incidentally, is what I find most pleasurable about writing too. That pleasure of generating meaning was the point I was trying to make with this post.

Of course, once one progresses beyond the private: one tries to defend one's own meaning, with wit and with fun--and that is the game of debate. I enjoy it.

Gawain said...

"one tries to defend one's own meaning, with wit and with fun--and that is the game of debate. I enjoy it"

So do we, dude, or we would not be here.

Of course there is nothing to dislike about intelligent search for meaning and interpretation in art. But we have a lot of that (and not all of it is crap, as you properly point out, though a great deal alas is -- we don't disagree about that, either). What I miss is some intelligent and sensitive way of talking about the other ingredient of art -- non-verbal, meaningless pleasure of it.

But there may be a problem here: after all, what can one say about the beauty of the summer sky? (my response to your ekphrasis post is really about that, but it probably won't get done until next week, alas).

Conrad H. Roth said...

"talking about the other ingredient of art -- non-verbal, meaningless pleasure of it"

Therein lies the paradox, I suppose.