Background figures

This crucifixion scene by Joos van Cleve (c. 1525, Flanders) in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has rather unusual background activity.

The crowd of tormentors are leaving, becoming progressively less exotic in appearance as they reach their (very Dutch) towns and villages; their leaving highlights the isolation of the three principal personages.

(This shot and the master are official. Blurry ones below are mine. The blues are really very cool, as in the museum's photographs; mine are much too yellow.)

The first travelers were still talking about the event, even interacting with it on the picture plane. One of them, perhaps the one is the red hat, is presumably the centurion, forever changed by the experience, but identification is unclear. Those further away (on Christ's left hand) are resolutely leaving, faceless (though their spears are more pointedly aimed towards the nearly dead Christ). 

Later the returning crowd melts into the day-to-day life of the background.

I'm very interested in the use of atmospheric perspective in this painting, which seems to connote more than mere distance: note how this cottage is lit in the same blue light, although it is in front of some still-green trees.

In the city behind, human figures are in full color. And look at the abrupt transition on the near side of the bridge! Below: another official detail, mostly for its beauty.

To give a totally spurious interpretation, i would suggest that the blue points to the overlap between the historical and the heavenly Jerusalem, one condemned to oblivion and the other created by the event shown in full color in the foreground. The real (walled cities and countrysides, more or less embellished) is rendered unreal. In either case, those who left the foreground can't fully return, are lifted from the distance in some way.
I do find this unsatisfactory, however, and the picture still appealingly puzzling.

Nothing, however, is as puzzling as this (to the left of the big rock; the wavy line above is Christ's loincloth). Is it the next step in the story? The cross does appear to bear no corpus. Or is it another, mundane crucifixion?


Throne of Wisdom

One of my favorite Marian genres is the Sedes sapientiae, the Throne of Wisdom. So imagine my surprise when, in the Boston MFA's small and jumbled medieval room, i saw this particularly beautiful (and late) example (click through for more official images):

Virgin and Child, wood with polychromy, 154.9 x 53.3 x 45.1 cm, French, 1210-25.

Medievalists (my former professor Jacqueline Jung is at the forefront of this movement) have been critiquing photography and display practices for their flattening effect on some sculpture. Here, for instance, the picture is taken from an unnaturally high angle. From lower down, it is possible to meet the Virgin's gaze, and the statue takes on a much more serious dimension:

(My apologies for the shoddy picture)

One should always, when encountering sculpture even more than two-dimensional work, move around, forward and backwards, and up and down. Although this is useful to get a grasp on the piece as a whole, it also helps to uncover the priviledged viewpoint(s): in this case, the moment(s) when the statues become interlocutors, engaged in a dialogue with us. This happened when my eyes were level with Mary's feet (incidentally, other museum visitors seem to frown on kneeling in galleries), which tells you something about at least some subset of original viewing conditions.
About another factor, however, i can only speculate: the effects of variable light. Lit by windows and candles, all medieval sculpture was much more mobile in situ than it is in museum galleries. In this case, for instance, the deep folds of the cloak at Mary's throat presumably caught more motion than the rest of the sculpture, leading to the appearance of movement in the head. Furthermore, i suspect that the very spare carving of facial features, much less detailed than the draperies, had a great deal to do with variable light as well: given that it is cast shadows which enable us to read the faces, having a relatively unspecified expression, but with a relatively deeply carved mouth in particular, might allow for manipulation in a ritual context.She seems benevolent and serene in this even lighting - might she not be somewhat foreboding in others? Without experiments, it is hard to say.


The Three Marys

Undoubtedly the strangest image I have yet seen of the empty tomb, from a small presentation of Mannerist print-making at the Boston MFA. Mannerism is extremely strange in general, of course. But this was the highlight of the room.

Jacques Bellanges, etching and engraving, 1613. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


Imagined Communities, not the book you thought it was

Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is one of those ubiquitous books. One that's always on some syllabus, that gets brought up over and over in the footnotes of most scholarship on nationalism or ethnicity written in the past twenty-five years, whose title, as a definition of "nation," pops up everywhere. Sucked dry, as Anderson puts it in the afterword to the 2006 Verso edition, by the "vampires of banality."
So naturally, when it was suggested that i read this book as a theoretical framework to use re: my bachelor's thesis, i was resigned. "Time to finally read that book," i thought, assuming that for most intents and purposes i'd already read it.*
I was completely wrong.
This is the single-most cited line: the nation "is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."** Perhaps an author will also cite one of the explanations for all of those words: limited, for instance, in that nation is a concept that inherently selects a small section of humankind under its purview, and assigns the rest to other nations; or imagined in the sense that "nation" allows someone to consider those s/he's never met as co-nationals. And all this is fine and dandy, and has become accepted terminology, etc. but it's all just terminological groundwork. It's a priori, and it's not the point of the book.

Imagined Communities is an attempt to understand the mechanisms which gave rise to the phenomenon thus defined, and which allowed its spread. It's an attempt to do so mostly from the Marxist tradition, albeit with a New Left bent. It's somewhat aimed at demystification, insofar as a historical account of a phenomenon inherently denaturalizes the phenomenon, but that's not its primary purpose; in fact, it's somewhat more positive towards nations that one might think.
Anderson identifies three fundamental structural conditions for the rise of the nation.
The first is the least fleshed out, and the least convincing, although a central enough plank to modernization narratives: the decline of universality through a decline of eternity. Belief in eternity provided (in timeless medieval culture) a way to connect events together and give them meaning; and this meaning belonged to a universally valid framework guaranteed by its possession of eternity. By contrast, the modern world is characterized by "homogeneous, empty time" in which events happen simultaneously with no connection on the level of meaning. This, among other things, allows for the conception of a "limited" community coexisting (in simultaneity) with other limited communities. Anderson cites the novel and the newspaper as forms of cultural production reflecting this important shift.
The second is the arrival of print-capitalism in Western Europe.*** Capitalist printers, seeking to sell ever-greater numbers of books, outgrew the Latin-literate segment of the population and moved to producing books in the vernacular. Here as elsewhere Anderson stresses the interplay between fatality and arbitrariness: the fact of linguistic diversity is fatality, the specific language distribution arbitrary. So, to maximize readership, eventually print-languages developed which could be relatively read by speakers of closely related vernaculars, in as broad a net as could be cast: print-French, for instance, in the langue-d'oïl language zone, or print-English in Enland and lowland Scotland. These print-languages "created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars"**** and over time, given the relative infrequency of translation, created common points of reference for speakers of all the spoken vernaculars under a print-language umbrella. This argument, incidentally, leans very heavily on an Annales-school book, L'Apparition du livre by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, which i have not read but clearly should.
The third condition comes along with a bit of a polemic, for Anderson argues that it was met first in the creole communities of the New World: what became the USA, Peru, Brazil, etc. It is the existence of geographically bounded administrative pilgrimages. By administrative pilgrimage, he means the movement of state officials from a post in a market town, to administrative post in a larger center, to administrative post in a larger center... This pilgrimage, as it developed in the early-modern state, has two crucial characteristics. First, it is "spiraling," meaning that one doesn't typically move up from a small town to its larger center but to a place at the next administrative level elsewhere on the network, unmooring the administrative class from local loyalties. Second, the spiraling is not total: metropolitans (peninsulares) can move through the levels of colonial administration, from Lima to Mexico, then end up at top jobs in Madrid, but white colonial subjects (criollos) typically can not only not expect to get top jobs in Madrid but also in a colonial administrative zone outside their own. 
With these two factors, members of the administrative classes developed a "consciousness of connectedness" with other criollos from their administrative unit (say, the viceroyalty of New Spain), which they did not share with criollos from elsewhere in the empire and which was defined over against people born in the Metropole.*' And so they developed a sense of themselves as Peruvian, Venezuelan, etc. (or Pennsylvanian or Virginian) and as American-not-European; their experiences gave a real meaning to the somewhat-arbitrary administrative boundaries of vast empires; and they were key players of independence movements.
Educational pilgrimages, typically in close parallel, were also key.

Under these three key conditions, Anderson argues, a sense of nationalism arose more or less organically, first and foremost in the New World. Nationalism quickly became modular, however, with other groups coming to view nation-status as something to aspire to. And some of the factors that had led to the creation of nations became constituent parts of nationhood (e.g. bounded administrative territory, common (preferably unique) print-language, national education systems and presses...). Anderson discusses two different groups: nationalist revolutionaries, individuals among linguistic "minorities" like Magyars or Catalans, who self-consciously sought to promote their vernaculars to the status of "legitimate" print-languages so as to claim nationhood;**' and imperial states who imposed "official nationalisms" as defensive mechanisms against the potentially destructive nationalisms of their lower classes, through processes like Russification - compulsory language teaching in particular - and the invention of a "national" mythos for such awkward constructs as Great Britain or the Russian Empire - or, even more awkwardly, the British Empire.***'
The line between the two is not, however, especially easy to draw, especially in "the last wave." A great example is the imposition of "bahasa Indonesia," an artificial administrative pidgin of the Dutch East Indies, as the "national" language of a new thing called Indonesia; an "official," state-imposed form of nationalism, but also the self-conscious nationalism of a revolutionary group, arising organically from the life experiences of the bureaucratic class - who naturally used Bahasa Indonesia to talk to each other. 

Overall, i found this argument extremely convincing. More convincing than most arguments i've heard that claims to condense 3-500 years of global history in 200 pages. Perhaps a great part of its explanatory power is that it does assign a great place to contingency: nationalism feeds on itself, features that are originally arbitrary become self-consciously sought as part of a model to replicate. I also greatly appreciate that the movement of ideas in this account goes both from the bottom up and from the top down. That said, like any historical account, i don't doubt that much of it might be called into question - dating eras in particular is something all of us enjoy playing at too much to ever agree to any "first."

Also, was it useful to my project? Not really.

I also think this about Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen and Hobsbawm's Invention of Tradition, on similar topics. It may be time to get on that.
** Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006), 6. Page numbers, incidentally, are substantially the same in the 1991 edition.
*** Print-capitalism and not merely print: Anderson points out that print in China and Korea did not have the same effect, because it was not deployed by actors interested in maximizing their sales of a mass-produced commodity. Ibid., 44.
**** Ibid.
*' Ibid., 56.
**' Chapter 5, "Old Languages, New Models," ibid., 67-82
***' Chapter 6, "Official Nationalism and Imperialism," ibid., 83-111. 


Hopper Drawing at the Whitney

I went and saw the Whitney Museum's big summer show, "Hopper Drawing." It was, in fact, a very well-put-together exhibit. It accomplished what, i think, is one possible purpose of an art exhibit: to teach through the placement of objects, with minimal explanatory text. In this case, perhaps, the task was relatively easy: Josephine Hopper had bequested to the museum the couple's artistic estate, including a very large corpus of drawings. So the museum organized a look at Hopper's drawing practice, as a key to understanding his painting. In the center, a group of floating drawings (unattached to any particular painting or series), around it a set of galleries, each featuring a painting or series and the drawings from the museum's collection which were part of its creation. It seems easy enough, but it was still well-handled and unobtrusive; i felt that i walked out with a very different - and perhaps more accurate - conception of Hopper and Hopper's work.
Of course what i learned might not have been what the exhibit was intended to teach - the generally blessedly spare wall text had excessively numerous references to "great" work, and certainly flowed from an understanding of Hopper as genius which was clearly shared by the majority of the other museum-goers (or at least the loud ones). This seemed odd to me because the exhibit's design seemed to me to pick apart both Hopper the artist and, more to the point, "Hopper" the myth.

So the following is a record of my personal and peculiar encounter with the Hopper Drawing exhibit, and conclusions that i drew from it. Some of these things are obvious and boring, others less so.

Hopper was a nineteenth-century artist.
This of course is a flippant way to say it, but it communicates. It communicates, actually, two things: the most important is the degree to which his academic training continued to define his artistic practice: life drawing, both in and out of class, and generally a sketching practice that assumes that objects, especially human beings, can be isolated and drawn without their background; and the conception of drawing as instrumental and necessary to painting, are habits Hopper picked up in art school (at the turn of the century) and never appeared to drop or challenge.
The other thing that i mean is that, before he became famous, he made work that clearly belongs to the tradition of Belle Epoque caricature and illustration. It is, in fact, funny to see how "French" some of these early works are given Hopper's status as a quintessentially "American" artist.

Couple Drinking, 1906. Watercolor, pencil, and chalk on paper, 34.3 x 50.5 cm. Note that - unlike in your classic Hopper - these types are solidly situated socially and not at all situated spatially (Hopper did many sketches of nudes sans backgrounds, on which see below. But this is a finished drawing, framed by a rectangle and part of a series, not a working sketch). Note also that they have a reciprocal relationship to the artist. (This and subsequent images are lifted from the Whitney's web site.)

It is perhaps instructive to attempt to analyze the various way in which Hopper's "American" and "twentieth-century" works - in other words, the "Hopper" corpus - set themselves apart from these early works.
The image above, for instance, largely exists within the tradition of (here fairly light) caricature. Its characters exist in relation types. In other words this and other drawings of Paris street life, positions its subjects in a socio-economic web, even when that positioning is ambiguous (boundary-crossing being constituted by and constitutive of boundaries), and posits contrasts between these character-types and other character-types sharing, say, the Tuileries on a Sunday morning. In contrast Hopper's American subjects all look the same: white, overwhelmingly middle-aged, typically of unspecified class - unspecified not because it is ambiguous but because it is deemed unimportant - and, after a certain date, mostly modeled by the artist himself or his wife Jo.

One other contrast might be drawn, which is the obvious importance of photography and film in Hopper's mid-century work (disclaimer: i am totally ignorant of Hopper's relationship to photography beyond visual evidence, mostly from this exhibit; it seems, however, that he did not make use of photographs as such in his painting). The shift in subject matter and style is paralleled by a partial shift in drawing practice: he abandoned pen-and-ink (which focuses on line and lends itself to caricature) in favor of chalk, with its degrees of density, of light and dark, and its consequent ability to resemble the photographic "eye" as much as the human one. This shift in medium seems to have a chicken-and-egg relationship to Hopper's framing devices, which are always designed to give the impression of a photograph, with the relatively narrow angle of view and flat projectionEdward Hopper (1882–1967), Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper; 11 1/8 x 15 in. (28.3 x 38.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase and gift of Josephine N. Hopper by exchange  2011.65
Study for Nighthawks, 1941-2. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper, 28.3 x 38.1 cm. There is line of course, but the emphasis is on the play of lights and darks. There is a much greater claim to objectivity in this drawing than in the previous one - this claims to be in effect a visual capture of a specific time and place, the other claims to be the index of an encounter between three human beings.

The photographic effect - the claim that this is a cropped bit of visual reality at a particular place and time - is it seems to me one of the important reasons for the famous sense of isolation or alienation in Hopper's oeuvre. Hopper typically situates the viewer in a transitory position: going down a set of stairs, driving on a highway, entering a hotel lobby. This feels strange for painting in that painting implies an extended period of time and in this is unlike a photograph which actually is the index of a moment. So Hopper causes the viewer to feel paralyzed, approaching something ze cannot approach and which cannot respond to zer approach.

Hopper was a much better hand with charcoal than with oil paint
The first thing this exhibit taught me is that Hopper was a great draftsman. His drawings suggest a real facility with the medium (mostly chalk) as well as a long engaged study in the forms and textures they can create, both in themselves and in relation to their representational referent. In the Nighthawks study, for example, the few strokes of white chalk to suggest reflections in the foremost window and the very light charcoal for the street seen through the back window, economically suggest the transparency, the sense of a palpable volume of light which defines the space here. It's also quite pretty as pattern.
So, after walking through a room full of interesting and varied drawings, it comes as quite a shock to get to his oil paintings, which are clumsily and laboriously painted, neither interesting explorations of the medium of oil on canvas, nor successful representations of the visual world. I will make a limited exception for Nighthawks (zoom in through the Google Art Project), which is coloristically and spatially interesting, but even there...

Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm. Much of the drawing's textural richness is lost: people, bricks, and sidewalk appear carved from the same stuff, and the front pane of glass has completely disappeared. The characters in the smaller drawing, although just lightly sketched out, were more expressive thanks to the interplay between line and shading. And overall, the sense of real depth and spatiality is much greater - alleviated only by the painting's larger scale. 

One could suggest rather easily that the famous alienation of Hopper's paintings derives in large part from this lack of ease with the medium. His painted people are stiff and awkward, the surface of clothes and skin awkwardly mismatched, in a way that his drawn figures typically are not.
In particular Hopper often has trouble integrating the figures into the overall painting, a problem exacerbated by his academic working method. In his studies, figures are typically elaborated out of context, after or alongside composition sketches (this is why the figures in the nighthawk sketch have very different poses from the ones in the finished painting). When he brings it all back together in the final product, often his figures don't seem to fit in terms of lighting, texture, and color composition.

Study for Morning in a City, 1944. Prefabricated chalk on paper, 56.2 x 38.1 cm. 

Morning in a City, 1944. Oil on canvas, 112.5 x 152 cm. This juxtaposition, i think, speaks for itself: there is absolutely no connection between background and figure, even the thematic light failing to convince. Wouldn't the light be behind her/to her right, standing where she is?

If i am convincing, and we can situate the "Hopper" effect in the intersection of the intentional (e.g. framing devices and a dialogue with photography) and unintentional (i.e. Hopper's difficulty with the medium of oil painting), then perhaps any of the following can follow:
1. This can be an excuse to dismiss Hopper, and his heroic-white-male mythos.
2. Hopper can come to stand for the evocative power of failure. His failures to project his idea - his reframing of his visual world - onto the canvas yields a somewhat evocative vision of communicative failure, and this medium-is-message interpretation adds depth to the our experience of the paintings. After all, for all their technical superiority, Hopper's drawings are hardly world-changing stuff; doesn't the somewhat stiff paint-handling, that inability of the scene to hang fully together, add that "Hopper" je ne sais quoi?
3. Both of the above. To dwell more on Morning in a City, we see on the one hand a very typical and uninspiring development: Hopper appropriates the body of his wife and transforms it into the body of a generic (and, of course, white) Woman, on which he then projects his (white, male) artistic Vision. On the other hand, surrounding the woman is a visible seam, a mark of the materiality of the medium and of the artist, of the white man's inability to fully impose his Vision on the world, either represented or representation. Woman here escapes the space created for her. In this reading Hopper both stands for a type of disembodied Artist that radical art production of the past decades has largely been interested in tearing down; and for the seeds of this destruction.