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Byzantium/Modernism: Eds Roland Betancourt and Maria Taroutina.


Eds Roland Betancourt and Maria Taroutina

Leiden: Brill, 2015

ISBN 978 9004292208, 369 pp, h/b, 100 [pounds sterling]

Joseph Masheck: This book is the record of a conference at Yale in 2012, divided between 'Byzantium and Modernism' and 'The Slash as Method'. The latter shows a postmodern appeal which actually spreads across both halves insofar as almost nobody dates any illustrated artworks. But there is a good 'spill' back and forth between the sections.

Edmund Ryder: The 14 substantial essays comprising the book--subtitled The Byzantine as Method in Modernity investigate the aesthetic links and disjunctions between the culture of Byzantium and 19th- and 20th-century artists, architects and intellectuals who took it to be a source of inspiration and kinship. The book's editors, Roland Betancourt and Maria Taroutina, have offered a multi-disciplinary view of subjects as varied as historiography, art history, architecture, stage design, psychoanalytic thought and theology.

JM: And overall, the account copes with an unsteady tension between constituencies: not only between Byzantinists as believers or faith-sympathetic antiquarians and functionally atheist modernists, but also between a classic-cum-modern position and a postmodernism that has become so doctrinaire that a law might have been passed condemning monotheistic religion as oppressive meta-narrative. (Some writers cannot miss a chance for the tendentious trope of modernism as 'failed utopia', either: how exalted their radical standards must be!) In practice, cases of crossover are open-minded: Devin Singh employs

Theodore of Stoudios's notion of image as 'seal and impression' in regard to the modern Catholic existentialists and personalists who affected Andre Bazin's view of photography: 'The photograph is a materialist incarnation, and is thus a type of immanent theology'. Likewise for film, Marie-Jose Mondzain elucidates the strangeness of Andrei Tarkovsky's work, so reminiscent of, yet disconnected from, Christianity as to seem mistaken.

ER: Let's go back to the emergence of Byzantine studies in the 19th Century. Dimitra Kotoula notes the importance of John Ruskin and William Mor ris in changing opinions about the subject's merit. Ruskin's discourse provided a means of challenging the privileged hegemony awarded to the classical world, and with which Byzantium and the Gothic had been unfavorably contrasted.

Elena Boeck explores the Byzantium embraced by popular culture, specifically the setting for such spectacular theatrical productions as Sardou's play Theodora (1884), based loosely on the life of the Empress. Bernhardt performed the eponymous role, becoming a living embodiment of Byzantium itself: sinful, opulent and barbaric.

As for architecture, Tulay Atak and Robert Ousterhout note how the singular Hagia Sophia is itself at the centre of much of the discourse regarding Byzantine architecture and yet many of the researchers they cite focus on the physical fabric of the building, ignoring how its function as a stage for liturgical and imperial ritual affected its architecture, decoration and interior planning.

Of course, it's in the realm of painting that the discourse between modernism and Byzantium is at its most fascinating and complex. Roger Fry considered Neo-Impressionist art 'Proto-Byzantine', interpreting its formal qualities of flatness and decorativeness as having kinship with Byzantine art. He viewed the Neo-Impressionist break with realism--and Byzantine art's own movement toward abstraction after Greco-Roman realism--in line with contemporary avant-garde movements, framed as cyclical rather than teleological.

However, the early 20th-century art historian Nikolai Punin made the perceptive distinction that despite any visual similarities, Neo-Impressionist artists still attempt to represent the world of physical reality, whereas a Byzantine icon is conversely a presentation of a spiritual reality.

JM: Here the modernist patriarch is still Clement Greenberg, making cameo appearances with his 1958 essay on 'Byzantine Parallels'; but his interest in the icon is ultimately limited by his very eschewal of convergence. Perish the thought that theology might intersect with modernity! Ever apodictic, Greenberg says that iconoclasm's 'motives were entirely religious' (false), while speaking of 'the echo of certain aesthetically felt objections to the figurative' (what about the Second Commandment?). What I really don't understand is how this overview can do without Alois Riegl, a virtual hinge between Late Roman-into-Byzantine and modern art, who directly derived his notion of 'negative complimentary motifs'--never 'negative space'--from Augustine's notion of evil as privation of the good.

Some of us latterday moderns have quite comprehended the parallel between the Orthodox iconographers' reaction to 'Western' naturalistic, pre-modern painting and Western modernism. The new book does list Margaret Betz's article 'The Icon and Russian Modernism', in Artforum (Summer 1977)--though not in the text. It was I who published that article, as editor, in the same issue as my own 'Cruciformality'; after which I wrote 'Hard-Core Painting (4/1978), based on the icon's rigid ground, and 'Iconicity' (1/1979), with epigraph from Epiphanius the Wise. Is this a case of 'Internet amnesia'--meaning that nothing before c.1985 counts unless cited by somebody later?

An early 20th-century sense of what Malevich meant by the non-objective seems to be in order. Myroslava Mudrak knows that symbolisme cannot support his Suprematism, which is why Malevich placed so much stock in cubism; hence, 'Malevich's emulation of icon elements constitutes only a brief period in his artistic life' ends just where we hoped it would start. Also, reliquaries have a relation to symboliste fetishism, and Charles Barber takes them rightly to be unlike icons; but, resorting to Gregory Palamas, he discounts icons in favor of a flash of insight transmitted through the icon (like grace?). But if that makes for the 'ruin' of painting, it is odd that his own example (c.1370) adumbrates the great Transfiguration of Theophanes the Greek, 1408. In later Russian art, a Moscow Conceptualist is supposed a reliquarian: June Sharp deals with Igor Makarevich and Elena Elagina's Cross of St Ignatius (no date); but reliquaries are not readymades, and neither are death-masks. Critics 'into theory' seem to fixate on this project, so dreary compared with some of Makarevich's constructions.

Theory buffs will be charmed by the pomo-rhetoricism of Betancourt's introduction to Part II, 'The Slash as Method'. I'm not sure that Franses's sensitive essay on the phenomenology of the iconic gold ground--which, when light strikes it, can overpower the image--requires Lacan. It is a waste to have Anthony Cutler take us on a tedious ride comparing a Byzantine ivory with Dr Seuss: better to have developed his excursus on De Kooning. Glenn Peers is the last paper, if not the last word. Reflecting on a seemingly free-associative, postmodern exhibition (no date) at the Menil Collection, Houston, he overlooks that museum's extraordinary crossover: the de Menils' museological integration of 13th-century Cyprus frescoes into a purpose-built 'chapel'--quite near their own neighbouring Rothko Chapel.

ER: We might end our review of this book with Robert Nelson's solid early paper showing that Western artists became enamoured with the decorative surface of Byzantine art, manifest particularly in mosaic and enamels. Linear definition of contour, and perceived lack of modeling were privileged at the expense of the painterly qualities that are also exhibited in Byzantine icon painting. Nelson ends on a fascinating note, an image of the newly-revealed face of a seraphim from one of the pendentives at Hagia Sophia, in which the modernist qualities attributed to Byzantine art are missing: here is a figure that is individualized and corporeal. Nelson offers that it is through historiography that we can understand the motivations influencing the discussion of art. In other words, we must try to perceive Byzantine art with both the eyes of its creators and with our own eyes, replete with the knowledge of the later periods of art history.

Joseph Masheck has written on abstract art and the icon in A+C nos. 59, 62, 71, 76; Edmund Ryder, a collegial Byzantinist, is an New York art historian new to A+C
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Author:Masheck, Joseph
Publication:Art and Christianity
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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