Resistance by Art

Slow Protest in the Occupation of Cambodia’s White Building

by Brianne Cohen

The essay begins:

 

In 2011, artist Khvay Samnang offered “piggyback” rides to residents and visitors of the White Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of his performance piece, Samnang Cow Taxi. Titled colloquially with his given name, it was a humble undertaking. Khvay wore handmade cow horns (fig. 1) and, despite his svelte frame, humorously carried people on his back as if he were a robust workhorse. Evoking the water buffalo, a laboring animal crucial to Cambodian agricultural practices, seemed an odd choice for someone ferrying people around the more urban setting of the White Building. Moreover, the taxi ride seemed to grant a touristic gaze for nonresidents of the dilapidated public housing complex. Yet the physical intimacy of the gesture, as well as the slowness and toil of it, lent a critical edge to the playful jaunt around the famous white apartment structure, transformed into a muddy gray from decades of neglect. The White Building was erected in 1963 as a modernist, utopian experiment in public housing. It was created soon after Cambodia’s independence in 1953 as part of a socially optimistic, homegrown wave of New Khmer Architecture, and it was intended to house civil servants and municipal workers. After the devastating Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, many returned to the city in need of housing, and the modest apartments were repopulated with dancers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. Khvay’s own practice has been deeply indebted to the site and people of the White Building, and his slow, caring, arduous gesture highlighted a community of residents who, like the building itself, have been historically subject to state neglect, inattention, and habitual violence.

Today the building no longer stands. It was razed in July and August 2017 in order to make way for a new $80 million development by a private Japanese firm. The government had long threatened demolition of the White Building, claiming that the neighborhood was overrun with drugs, petty crime, prostitution, and poverty. Against this stigmatization, the artist collective, Stiev Selapak, roughly translated as “Art Rebels,” established an experimental arts space in the building, Sa Sa Art Projects, in order to raise positive publicity for its vibrant neighborhood of skilled cultural and municipal workers. “Sa Sa” is an abbreviation of Stiev Selapak, and the group is composed of three members: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, and Vuth Lyno. Yet despite their community efforts, the White Building’s five hundred households were more or less forced to sell their apartments to the development company and were evicted with minimal compensation. The land, after all, is in a desirable central location near the riverfront. After many years of resistance, the dynamic neighborhood was finally dispelled.

In this article, I argue that the artistic efforts of Stiev Selapak and many others to save the White Building constituted a form of what I term slow protest. In a sense, they worked to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to validate its importance for local, national, and international audiences. This process of art institutionalization was effected through more “official” programs, such as educational initiatives, a physical and online archive, and the establishment of a regionally oriented artist residency. Yet it also assumed more “vernacular” avenues of institutionalization, through temporary experimental performances and collaborations with neighborhood residents, which emphasized the everyday, changing life of the building. Samnang Cow Taxi is an instance of the latter….

…In the end, Stiev Selapak’s and other artists’ attempts to institutionalize the White Building signaled an ethos of slow protest through occupation. Plainly, the building was a site of inhabitation, but by “occupation,” I mean also to evoke questions of political assembly and resistance to regime-made disasters. In light of actions such as Occupy, Arab Spring, and the Umbrella Movement, scholars have recently underscored the importance of such movements’ transience. In contrast, in analyzing the longer-lived, slower protest enacted by artists for the institutionalization and preservation of the White Building, I aim to tease out temporal nuances between resistant acts of occupation and inhabitation, and, in the end, I argue for the value of more permanent, intergenerational, and infrastructural forms of resistance that often receive less critical attention. The idea of slow protest signals the need for a type of activism that may not be immediate or spectacular, as in the case of revolution, but that could be more habitual, accretive, or eroding; less instantly recognizable; and geared more toward questions of maintenance and transformative infrastructure. Continue reading …

In this short Field Note in our current issue, art historian Brianne Cohen describes a resistance process she calls slow protest. She argues that through this process the Cambodian art collective Stiev Selapak and many others attempted to save Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building by working to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to visualize and scaffold a more “official” space of appearance – physical and virtual – for its precarious inhabitants. Such slow protest served as a more durational instance of occupation, or resistance to state violence through political assembly.

BRIANNE COHEN is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research focuses on contemporary art in the public sphere, primarily in Europe and Southeast Asia, and she is the co-editor of the anthology The Photofilmic: Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture (Leuven University Press and Cornell University Press, 2016).

The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.

New Special Issue: THE SOCIAL LIFE OF PAIN

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 146, Spring 2019

Special Issue: The Social Life of Pain
Edited by Rachel Ablow

“The essays collected here counter [the] fantasy of pain as a knowable sensation that lies within that is then represented, or misrepresented, in language. Instead, they consider pain as always already enmeshed in social life, and representation as the means through which we can engage this imbrication. In so doing, they demonstrate the importance of bringing together two approaches to the problem of pain that have often been kept distinct. The first is the anthropological insight that pain behavior constitutes a mode of social engagement and, hence, that suffering is necessarily bound up with shifting, often unpredictable, cultural, familial, and interpersonal dynamics. The second involves a historical and literary-critical account of representation’s complex and productive relations to both experience and culture.” –from the editor’s introduction

RACHEL ABLOW
The Social Life of Pain

DARIUS REJALI
Is There Truth in Pain?

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES
A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering

MITCHELL MERBACK
Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA
‘‘No Pain, No Gain’’ and the History of Presence

RACHEL ABLOW
An Interview with ELAINE SCARRY

Seeing the Illustrious Past

Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

by Randall Meissen

Francisco Pacheco, portrait of Benito Arias Montano, c. 1580–1644. IB 15654, Biblioteca Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid.

The essay begins:

Pacheco was the foremost art theorist of his generation, a longtime member of Seville’s famed humanistic academy, and both father-in-law and mentor to two of the most prominent artists of the Spanish baroque, Alonzo Cano (1601–67) and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Pacheco’s unfinished manuscript book, Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos, de illustres y memorables varones (Book of description of true portraits of illustrious and memorable men), currently held at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, was a work in progress for most of his professional life, as he gradually compiled it from 1599 until his death in 1644. The manuscript consists of fifty-six portrait drawings by Pacheco and forty-four short biographical texts on authors, artists, ecclesiastics, and other men of accomplishment. Most of the biographies are straightforward, consisting of a description of the individual’s education, notable military or literary achievements, any written or artistic works, connection to Seville (however slight), and occasional brief anecdotes highlighting the individual’s moral character.

In his treatise Arte de la pintura (On the art of painting; Seville, 1649), Pacheco indicated that he had drawn more than 170 portraits in black and red pencil with the intention of selecting from them up to one hundred eminent individuals representing all fields of learning. The physical construction of the Libro de retratos, evident from several of the unfinished sections, demonstrates Pacheco’s process, as he described it, of drawing, retaining, and selecting the portraits over many years. Seven loose, single-sheet portrait-biographies that he chose not to incorporate into his manuscript book still survive at the library of the Palacio real in Madrid. Pacheco cut each portrait from its original sheet, pasted it onto a sheet of the manuscript, and then framed it with architectural ornamentation drawn in ink and washed in sepia tones. At the top of each finished frame, Pacheco added a biblical verse, and along the lower edge he placed the individual’s name in capitals.

A completed portrait and biography in Pacheco’s Libro consisted of a single sheet folded in half to form two folios. A succinct two- to three-page biographical description followed each finished portrait and often concluded with an epithet or poem. Most of the biographies recorded the death of the individual, and some portraits of individuals who survived Pacheco have blank pages where the biography would go, a detail that suggests Pacheco avoided writing a person’s definitive biography until the ink upon the pages of their life had dried.

Pacheco chose to adopt a genre of historical writing with a classical genealogy for the preservation of Seville’s recent historical memory. The De viris illustribus (“on illustrious men”) genre, which can be traced back to Plutarch and Cicero, experienced a renewed popularity during the Renaissance. Pacheco was familiar with the illustrated editions of famous men by the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) and the subsequent work on the lives of artists by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74). Pacheco lamented that although in other nations, “particularly Italy,” art itself was honored by those who wrote the lives of illustrious artists, “only our nation lacks that praiseworthy endeavor,” and artists themselves were to blame. Apparently Pacheco took it upon himself to remedy this shortfall, and he was uniquely well suited for such an undertaking. Unlike Giovio or Vasari, who depended on artists and engravers to translate their projects into print, Pacheco had complete control over both the text and the images of his manuscript book.

The Libro de retratos is in fact a visual history. In its recovery and preservation of a visual record of an illustrious past, it confirms that such a practice existed in Pacheco’s era. It was a practice manifested in a transmedial application of methods adapted from humanistic textual scholarship and early modern antiquarianism as they were applied to artistic media for the preservation and communication of historical knowledge. To understand his Libro it must be recognized that Pacheco constructed his images by basing them on other credible visual sources (employing a method I call visual philology). One might mistake the portraits for illustrations of the text, but instead the texts “illustrate” or describe the portraits, as Pacheco made explicit by titling the collection of works Book of Description of True Portraits.

His Libro is thus a useful object for exploring questions of material culture relevant to visual studies scholars, historians of the book, and early modernists. Pacheco’s claim to produce true portraits was closely related to the distinctive ways antiquarians and ecclesiastics of his era used material evidence to stake truth claims about the ancient world and about the virtuousness of historical personages, respectively. Pacheco attempted to show certain qualities of historical personages—such as prestige, prosperity, illustriousness, and holiness—that were tightly bound to display, pageantry, costume, and liturgy in Seville. My essay, then, will demonstrate how three intertwined visual cultures produced by the antiquarian reimagining of Seville’s Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image theory, and the publishing conventions of Sevillian humanism shaped Pacheco’s expectations about how an illustrious past should look. Let’s consider first how Seville’s elites used reimagined classical imagery to celebrate the glory of their city and how Pacheco employed that visual vocabulary in his Libro. Continue reading …

Francisco Pacheco (1564–1644), the foremost Spanish art theorist of his generation, worked on his manuscript Libro de verdaderos retratos (Book of true portraits) for more than forty years. In this essay Randall Meissen addresses how the visual cultures of Pacheco’s Seville, especially the city’s reimagined imperial Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image praxis, and visual conventions of Renaissance humanism, shaped Pacheco’s conception of how an illustrious past could be recovered and shown.

RANDALL MEISSEN is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Southern California and predoctoral fellow at the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. He has held short-term fellowships at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island; and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

New Special Issue, Representations 145

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 145, Winter 2019 (available free for a limited time from UC Press)

Special Issue
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

“If, as this issue suggests, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.” —from the editors’ introduction

The volume, edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz, defines the category of “visual history” and introduces its operations in essays dealing with the impact of visual narratives on and within their historical contexts. It proposes that visual histories can be seen not simply as guides to the times, but as  guides to time itself.

DANIELA BLEICHMAR and VANESSA R. SCHWARTZ
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

RANDALL MEISSEN
Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

EVONNE LEVY
Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED
Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

ALLEN DOYLE
The Medium Is the Messagerie

BILLIE MELMAN
Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

AARON RICH
The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Upcoming in Representations 146: The Social Life of Pain: a special issue edited by Rachel Ablow, who provides an introduction, including essays by Darius Rejali on truth and torture, Nancy Scheper-Hughes on social representations of pain and the kidney trade, Mitchell Merback on pain and memory in the formation of early modern habitus, Shigehisa Kuriyama on the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of “good” pain, and an interview with Elaine Scarry. Coming in June.

 

Sneak Peak: Visual History Special Issue

Coming in March! (watch this space)

Representations 145
SPECIAL ISSUE
Visual History: The Past in Pictures
edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz

 

 

 

 

 

The following is adapted from the introduction to the issue by its editors, Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz:

Visual histories—pictorial accounts of the past—are as old as art, but they have been little recognized as constituting their own genre.

In the Western tradition, visual histories have since early modernity played an important role in geographic and economic expansion, imperialism, and capitalism and in the global circulation of information through reproducible media, from the printing press to photography, film, and digital media. As such, the rise and spread of visual history has an important legacy for contemporary culture. We see the news more than we read it; historical fictions and documentaries play on screens small and large to enormous audiences; new museums dedicated to national and world heritage exhibit the past and visualize historical narratives primarily through combinations of objects and images. The essays in this special issue of Representations, taken together, also delineate a centuries-long trajectory of visual history; one that has been variously embraced, ignored, and challenged by different audiences. There is little doubt that the contemporary digital-image revolution makes us now, more than ever, both able to see the long life of visual history and curious about its workings.

In proposing and exploring the notion of visual history, we aim to contribute to the study of images in the broadest sense, addressing all pictures and formats across categories such as fine art, popular or folk art, and nonart. Central to our approach is the belief that images not only reflect or provide access to a period’s views but also actively participate in creating those views in the first place. As the essays in the volume suggest, the history of images has an impact on the making of other images, which itself constitutes a valuable record of people’s past actions in the world. Additionally, the essays we present here investigate how images shape meaningful change rather than embodying, containing, or reflecting changes that happen elsewhere. Visual history is thus particularly important because it suggests that images have shaped how people lived in earlier times as much as they can be used in the present to address other issues that concern students of the past, among them evidence and truth claims, the organization and presentation of knowledge and information, and temporality and the experience of spatial and temporal distance.

If, as we suggest, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.

Table of Contents

DANIELA BLEICHMAR and VANESSA R. SCHWARTZ
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

RANDALL MEISSEN
Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

EVONNE LEVY
Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED
Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

ALLEN DOYLE
The Medium Is the Messagerie

BILLIE MELMAN
Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

AARON RICH
The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Glebova Essay Wins Prize

Warm congratulations to Aglaya Glebova, whose “Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature” has been awarded the 2018 Emerging Scholar Prize by the Society of Historians of Eastern European, Eurasian and Russian Art and Architecture  (SHERA).

The prize jury praised the essay, calling it “highly innovative in its approach to the interpretation of a famously problematic episode in the career of Aleksandr Rodchenko: the work produced during his visit to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps, in the early 1930s.”

 

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

 

Visual Form and the Beholder’s Share

“Reading-In”: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share

by Whitney Davis

The essay begins:

Franz Boas (d. 1942) was born into an educated Jewish family in Westphalia in 1858; by 1888, at the age of thirty, he had settled permanently in the United States, in New York City. Today Boas is perhaps best known for his lifelong critiques of racialist theory and its concomitants in anti-Semitism and Nazism. He broadcast his arguments indefatigably from Columbia University (where he taught from 1899 until his death) into the public forum; one such statement was his memorable 1924 letter to the New York Times, “Lo, the Poor Nordic!,” in which he set out to refute Henry Fairfield Osborn (chief paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History), who was advocating the innate superiority of the “Nordic race.” By the 1920s, the German-Jewish immigrant Boas was writing with immense authority as one of the internationally recognized founders of American anthropology—that is, both of Americanist anthropology and of anthropology in North America (the United States and Canada; Boas did much of his fieldwork in the latter nation).

In this essay, I consider a somewhat neglected contribution made by Boas to the anthropology of visual culture and, more narrowly, to the methods and principles of art history—namely, his prescient theory of the beholder’s projection of verbalized meaning into visual form and symbolism. Boas worked out his ideas in relation to certain background intuitions about human seeing and image making in interaction with natural language. But they remained undeveloped, and they have not much been followed up beyond the specific ethnographic context in which they were formulated. Still, they remain suggestive from the vantage point of a present-day world art history. I will contextualize them analytically in relation to comparable but distinct approaches to the “beholder’s share”—a beholder’s active identification and interpretation of visual form and meaning, including the most basic matter of recognizing the things that might be depicted or symbolized in a conventionalized visual pattern. My aim is not only—not primarily—to provide an exegesis of Boas. Instead, I aim to frame and phrase his ideas—as I see them in their “best case”—in ways that give them the greatest interest and relevance for certain present-day concerns in the study of visual culture worldwide. Continue reading …

Basing his essay in part on Boas’s book Primitive Art (1927), Whitney Davis considers the Boasian theory of the beholder’s share in constructing the significance of visual form and in interpreting its meaning. Boas’s analysis of what he called “contradictions” between his indigenous informants’ exegeses of form lay at the heart of his conclusion that individual agents “read-in” to form some of the most crucial aspects of social experience that are most salient and specific to them. “Reading-in,” Davis argues, is the verbal speaking of visual “seeing-as,” and it infuses visual form with the diversity and particularity of a speaker’s grammatical choices undertaken within their natural human language(s). This model might now seem self-evident. At the time, however, it opened up the possibility of an “anthropology” of art and, to an extent as yet unrealized, the possibilities of its sociology and history. The essay evaluates Boas’s model in relation to other well-known accounts of the beholder’s share in art history, philosophy, and elsewhere and concludes with a discussion of the uptake of his idea in the “structuralism” of Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

 

The Formalist in Nature

Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

by Aglaya Glebova

The essay begins:

“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.

Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading … 

In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova  traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

Blockbuster Diplomacy

The Splendor of Dresden in the United States, 1978–79

by Alice Goff

The essay begins:

On June 1, 1978, The Splendor of Dresden: 500 Years of Art Collecting opened in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. At the entrance to the massive exhibition, two life-size mannequins on horseback, outfitted in ornate armor, lunged at each other in mid-joust: a preview for visitors of the spectacular onslaught of cultural objects across twenty-two galleries in the brand new East Building beyond (fig. 1). The impact of Splendor was both political and aesthetic. This was the first major loan of art from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the United States, initiated immediately after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries just four years earlier. Billed as a grand gesture of cultural exchange in the spirit of the Helsinki Accords, the exhibition was the product of unprecedented collaboration between American and East German museum officials in an environment of intense mutual suspicion at the highest political levels. The gradual erosion of détente in the late 1970s set the stage for a telling opening scene: the dinner planned to celebrate the exhibition’s installation in the National Gallery was deferred to accommodate the NATO summit taking place concurrently in Washington. At the same time that NATO delegates were committing to increase defense spending in response to Soviet military advantage in central Europe, their wives, hosted at a preview tea by First Lady Rosalynn Carter, were among the exhibition’s first visitors.

Beyond the strained political environment from which it emerged, Splendor was a spectacle in its own right, exceeding standards of scale and expense even in an age of blockbuster exhibitions. The 702 objects on display, works of fine and decorative arts from eight of Dresden’s state museums, formed by many accounts the most ambitious exhibition ever mounted by an American institution. Insured for an extraordinary $81 million, Splendor was among the first exhibitions to be partially indemnified by the US government under the 1975 Arts and Artifacts Indemnity Act. In addition to funding from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the cost of the enterprise was funded by a $750,000 grant from International Business Machines (IBM), the largest-ever corporate contribution to a cultural project in the United States at the time. Over the course of a year, Splendor traveled from Washington to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, attracting 1.5 million visitors and widespread national and international press coverage before its return to Dresden in June 1979. “I wore out my eyes,” confessed the Branson Beacon’s Helen C. Saults of the endless galleries of artworks, from Cranachs, Rembrandts, and Friedrichs to ostrich-egg tankards, gem-encrusted mirrors, astronomical clocks, and filigreed automata—not to mention towering arrays of porcelain, weaponry, and bronze sculpture. The New York Times art critic John Russell concurred: “It is by universal agreement the most intelligently conceived, the most inventively presented and, room by gorgeous room, the most seductive exhibition of its kind ever to be seen in this country.”

The lavish scope of The Splendor of Dresden was an expression of the firm belief, common to its American and East German organizers, in the utility of fine art to Cold War foreign relations. Splendor joined numerous other exhibition initiatives during the 1970s that exploited the public forum of the art museum as a stage for the performance of mutual understanding on one hand and cultural superiority on the other. As David Caute argues, while the Cold War was a conflict between opposing world powers, it was also a contest over a shared cultural field located broadly in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. An 1823 bust of George Washington included in the gallery on neoclassicism is a case in point. Commissioned from a Dresden sculptor by a Saxon merchant who had served as a volunteer in the Philadelphia militia, the bust was to stand for a liberal republicanism common to Saxon and American cultural traditions in the nineteenth century: “a work of remembrance and respect,” in the words of the exhibition’s principle organizer in Dresden, Joachim Menzhausen. As the catalog noted, the bust was based on an illustration of Antonio Canova’s 1821 statue of Washington for the North Carolina State House. Incidentally, because Canova’s statue had been destroyed when the state house burned in 1831, and had only been replaced with a marble replica in 1970, the Dresden bust served as a unique referent to a work of American cultural heritage since lost. The collections on view in Splendor established Dresden’s artistic wealth in terms that American audiences could easily appreciate; they also sought to prove socialism’s unmatched capacity as a steward of the artifacts of the Western cultural canon.

For the East German officials who were largely responsible for Splendor’s conceptual framing, the role of art in political performance was not only the exhibition’s guiding premise but also its central theme. This was among the first exhibitions to focus on the history of collecting, narrating the shifting fortunes of notoriety and prestige won through the production, acquisition, and display of art over five hundred years. In the catalog, published by the Metropolitan Museum but authored entirely by curators from the Dresden museums, this story unfolded according to a Marxist-Leninist narrative, with socialism as the last stage in a long dialectical process of progress and retrenchment. Catering to American audiences, “for whom every communist dialectic is foreign,” this trajectory was both conventional and understated. From the curiosity cabinets of the sixteenth-century electors to the grandiose collections of the absolutist monarchs, through the rationalized public museums of the bourgeoisie, and culminating in the rise of fascism and the total destruction of Dresden’s architectural heritage and near annihilation of its art collections by American and British bombs in February 1945, the socialist state emerged from this history as its logical end and proper keeper. “We recognize the creative conservation of our humanistic cultural heritage in the hands of the working class,” wrote Manfred Bachmann, general director of the State Art Collections of Dresden in his prefatory statement. While the objects on display transformed the splendor of the past into the splendor of the present, they also showed the very concept of splendor itself to be a historical construction: dynamic, contextual, and contingent on the political convictions of their owners.

The following pages offer a tour of three focal galleries in The Splendor of Dresden that demonstrate how East German political aspirations, historical imagination, and diplomatic maneuvering shaped the story of art collecting at work in the exhibition’s design and reception. This was a conception of splendor as fragile as it was complex, as the Washington Post noted: “It is ironic that a socialist state should dazzle us with the spoils of absolutism.” The title of the show might more appropriately be “The Splendor that was Dresden,” quipped the Wall Street Journal. To make the cultural wealth of early modern Saxony reflect the political prestige of the East German state for Western audiences was the exhibition’s central challenge. Fully cognizant of the conceptual risks, curators from Dresden worked with their American collaborators to create an exhibition that was as concerned with the perils of splendor in the past as with its promise in the present. In the first gallery, we encounter a history of the destruction of Dresden that established the enduring fragility of its cultural wealth; the second gallery presented the virtues of the unaffected pursuit of knowledge sheltered from the taint of statecraft; the fifth transformed the excesses of princely collecting in the baroque into a new model of cultural diplomatic exhibiting. Throughout, splendor emerged as a historical problem, even as it remained for East German organizers the primary instrument through which its cultural political goals could be achieved. Continue reading …

“The Splendor of Dresdenwas an astonishingly lavish blockbuster exhibition loan from the German Democratic Republic to the United States between 1978 and 1979. Yet the history of its conception and execution reveals the tensions and ambivalences that underwrote cultural diplomatic efforts in the era of the Helsinki Accords, even those at the grandest scale.

ALICE GOFF is a historian of German cultural and intellectual life in the modern period. She is Assistant Professor of History and the College at the University of Chicago.