Looking to the Medieval to Understand Modern Art

Nancy Thebaut on Alexander Nagel’s Medieval Modern

Alex Nagel, Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, Thames & Hudson, 2012, 322 pp., $45
Alexander Nagel, Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, Thames & Hudson, 2012, 322 pp., $45

What could Cimabue’s 1280 panel painting, Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels, and Louis Blériot’s airplane from 1909 possibly have to do with one another? Or a sixth-century reliquary and Robert Smithson’s bins of New Jersey rocks exhibited in 1968?

Alexander Nagel boldly forges and uncovers intellectual and formal relationships between these and other art objects and practices from the medieval and modern eras in his most recent book, Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time. He uses a double perspective in this anachronistic art history as he looks at how the study of (mostly religious) medieval art has profoundly shaped the practices and aesthetics of several modern artists, including Constantin Brâncuși, Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, and Robert Smithson. Nagel’s overarching aim is to look beyond periodization, and he creates a space in which to think about art, religion, and reception from time periods that are typically treated as disparate.

Medieval Modern is divided into twenty episode-chapters. Each presents a brief encounter with at least one medieval and one modern object, artist, or historian, and explores how a study of the two in tandem can productively inform the history of each. Several themes or commonalities of medieval and modern art emerge in these chapters. These include installation practices, the index and the multiple, collage, and conceptual art. Nagel’s hope is that this alternate take on the medieval and the modern will make apparent “how deeply medievalism is built into the history of twentieth-century art.” And indeed it does.

In his mixing up of histories, Nagel is able to show, for instance, how the procession of Louis Blériot’s airplane through the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in 1909 is like the procession of Cimabue’s Madonna and Child Surrounded by Angels in thirteenth-century Italy. Both objects were “invested with humanity, with millennial aspiration” for Guillaume Apollinaire and others in their crowds of onlookers.  Nagel then argues that both objects were not only processed and venerated by their audiences in highly similar ways, but that the Cimabue panel even has a “liftoff quality,” as its pointed top and outward-looking figures make it more of a levitating rocket than a “museum picture.” And finally, this comparison opens us to the religious quality of Blériot’s flight and plane: flying was seen as a “spiritual transport” in the early twentieth century and compared by the press to the flight of Icarus. For aeronautical journalist Francois Peyrey, it exuded “religious grandeur.” Suddenly, modern airplane and medieval altarpiece are not so different. The medieval and the modern inform the other, and we witness how productive an anti-periodization history can be in making us see objects and their resonances with contemporary audiences in completely new ways.

While the airplane-altarpiece analogy is daring, illuminating, and gives equal weight to both objects of study, not all comparisons are quite so fruitful. For instance, Nagel considers Robert Smithson’s A Non-Site, Franklin, New Jersey, 1968 alongside a sixth-century painted wooden box filled with stones and wood from the Holy Land.  He looks specifically at Smithson’s writings on the Holy Land, considers which art books he owned, and studies his marginal notations in an effort to prove that Smithson was indeed looking to the medieval in his work. While an interesting archive is produced in this process, the need to prove Smithson’s intentions overtakes Nagel’s study, which the reader does not require to see and understand how the byzantine and modern artworks are both fascinating destabilizations of topographies. Nagel’s inclination to prove the modern artist’s intention to cite the medieval also has the detrimental effect of privileging the modern vantage point over the medieval, thus making the “double perspective” at times singular.

Some of the episodic chapters of Medieval Modern still make the relationships between artworks clear, and Nagel trusts his readers to forge these connections without abundant archival evidence. In addition to “Airplanes and Altarpieces,” the chapter on “Painting as Second-Order Observation” lucidly details how painting, of all media, is able to blend spaces and time; “Limits of the Diaphane” considers the relation between the icon and index in both medieval and modern (particularly Duchamp’s) art; and the chapters on cathedrals and the Bauhaus, El Lissitzky, and Kurt Schwitters consider a range of ways the image and space of the medieval cathedral were appropriated and complicated by artists of the twentieth century.

Nagel is not the first to take the medieval and modern out of time and strive for a period-free account of art history. Several museum exhibitions – such as Bruno Latour’s Iconoclash in 2002 and L’Empreinte at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1997 – and other recent art historical literature have provocatively engaged the at times formal and theoretical intersections between pre- and (post-) modern art. Medieval Modern was published only a few months after Amy Knight Powell’s excellent book, Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (2012), and a quick comparison of their work brings Nagel’s project into clearer focus.

In Depositions, Powell makes a compelling argument for the participation (and anticipation) of the removal of Christ’s body both in medieval deposition rituals and in the face of the destruction of images during the Reformation. Whereas Powell includes stand-alone, curatorial vignettes at the end of each chapter to consider the relationship between a modern art practice and a medieval work that engages the deposition (of Christ or image), Nagel aims to integrate more fully the medieval and modern in his text, considering ways that the medieval has shaped or problematized modern art and the writings of modernist art historians. The very structure of Powell’s work invites us to consider whether medieval art needs modern art, ideas, and philosophy to be liberated from older paradigms.

Nagel’s work instead points to how the study of modern art requires looking to the medieval, as it is citations of the medieval that comprise the most “aggressively contemporary” aspects of twentieth-century art. Only in breaking down the bizarrely fixed periods of medieval and modern art history can we actually begin to understand a fuller history of both. Although Medieval Modern leaves its readers convinced that one cannot entirely understand the history of twentieth-century art without understanding medieval art and practices, it remains unclear whether the same can be said of the reverse, or whether an understanding of modern art is necessary to comprehend the medieval. There is certainly a risk in misconstruing or, at worst, colonizing the medieval through such an approach.

Medieval Modern is laudable in its creation of a wholly new kind of space to consider a variety of intersections among medieval and modern art. Nagel asks his reader to entertain yet another framework of study – altogether different from that of Amy Powell, Meyer Schapiro, or Marshall McLuhan – that is at once historically grounded and unhinged.  The implications of Medieval Modern are undeniably far-reaching.  I am eager to read more studies like this in the future that take serious intellectual risks, construct creative analogies, and make claims beyond the scope of their immediate project about the ways we write history and arbitrarily parcel that history into discrete periods of time.