Manual A Pattern of Shadows

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It is the tension between the two that has generated both melancholic resignation and methodological caution as two sides of the same coin. His Patterns of Intention obviously represents the culmination of this attitude, but, in one guise or another, it has been there from the start. Ostensibly Baxandall's Giotto and the Orators: Humanist Observers of Painting in Italy and the Discovery of Pictorial Composition, of is, as the lengthy subtitle suggests, about the rise or recovery of art criticism in the early Renaissance.

The problematic is a straightforward one: "Any language, not only humanist Latin, is a conspiracy against experience in the sense of being a collective attempt to simplify and arrange experience into manageable parcels. This is the most primal, unavoidable, and irrevocable loss. What does not fall within the purview of established schemes stays in remainder, always on the outside of the framing propensity of language.

Language makes vanish what it first sought to preserve: the compelling visuality of the work of art. As it struggles to signify what once was, the rhetoric of the art historian represents, in the terms of deconstruction, "not the thing but the absence of the thing and so it is implicated in the loss.

Pattern of Shadows

Despite late twentieth-century critical theory's obsession with the emptiness and meaninglessness at the heart of language, Baxandall still carries something of the faith in its recuperative powers. To paraphrase Freud, an acknowledgement of loss initiates the authentic " work of mourning" the past. The salvation of historical discourse in both Benjamin and Baxandall depends on it. At the same time as it takes something away from the beholder of works of art, language offers the powerful consolation of "a system of concepts through which attention might be focused.

It is just easier to talk about some things rather than others. As his next book, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy , set out to demonstrate, one of those things was addressing Quattrocento paintings as a "deposit" of "a commercial relationship," or as "fossils of economic life. There are no dark unknowables lurking here; only manifest pictorial codes derived from vernacular conventions, such as traditions of measurement, the economic worth of paints, and habits of gesture in sermons and dance. Perhaps that is what makes this text so accessible.

Categories of experience are highlighted so as to enable the viewer to "attend" to Quattrocento works of art in "distinctly Quattrocento ways. There actually once was a historical world out there, whose visualizing activity became embodied in its works of art. Deciphering it is fundamentally a matter of recognizing the brightness of the signs. It is the shadows, however, that I prefer to attend to in the work of Baxandall, no doubt taking my cue from his own fascination with the penumbral as most recently manifested in his Shadows and Enlightenment of In Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany of there is a wonderfully descriptive passage that provides some insight into Baxandall's own capacity for paying attention to the ephemerally perceived.

Trying to capture in words the visual effect of a Tilman Riemenschneider wooden altarpiece in a dusky church interior, he sits in front of it for many hours in order "to let the sun run its course. The easy mediation between present and past in Painting and Experience has metamorphosed in this text into a dimmer, more resigned affair, but one not without its compensatory satisfactions.

Even though the analytic confidence in the retrieval capabilities of language is sustained in this stunning study of a neglected artistic genre, at the same time Baxandall demonstrates no reservations about delighting in what remains unnamable:. There is no question of fully possessing oneself of another culture's cognitive style, but the profit is real: one tests and modifies one's perception of the art, one enriches one's general visual repertory, and one gets at least some intimation of another culture's visual experience and disposition.

Such excursions into alien sensibilities are a main pleasure of art. In Roland Barthes' last book, the bittersweet Camera Lucida , written at the same time as Baxandall's Limewood Sculptors , he invokes what he calls the "punctum," the unnamable something frequently present in old photographs and that for him was embodied in an ideal photograph of his dead mother.

It is as if he himself has scanned the artistic canon, seeking, like Barthes, for that insight or moment of contact that he already knows is forever foreclosed. The incapacity to name," however, "is a good symptom of disturbance. It is the source of a similar "subtle beyond" in the works of Baxandall that I have been struggling to name: the attitude or conviction that eludes definition but yet seems to shadow all the many things he has had to say.

Setting out to parallel Ambrogio Lorenzetti's fourteenth-century pictorial allegories of good and bad government in the Siennese town hall with political and social events surrounding their execution, he ended up writing a consciously fragmented allegory about good and bad art history writing. His original essay on art-in-context, he claimed, in short, could not be written.

Plagued by the sense that "there was something wrong about anything approaching a one-to-one relation between pictorial thing and social thing," he despairs of ever making matches between "analytical concepts from two different kinds of categorization of human experience," which is, essentially, to return to the futility of explaining works of vision through verbal constructs.


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The book is a wonderfully provocative, but maddeningly cautious, meditation on trying yet again to make words say something authentic about images. That it both masterfully succeeds and self-consciously falls short after a formidable number of constraints are levied upon what can be legitimately claimed is entirely consonant with Baxandall's wry sense of what it means to try and write an art historical narrative:.

The problem [as always] is the interposition of words and concepts between explanation and object of explanation. As Baxandall is chronically aware, what is left out of this habitual disciplinary praxis is the "authority of pictorial character, forms and colours," and other such crucial aspects of visuality. It is possible to give a shadow-account of articulation by not flouting it. Yet indirection is not the only course of action open to the savvy critic: concepts and objects "should reciprocally sharpen each other" 54 at every turn, with one revealing qualification.

We are interested in the intention of pictures and painters as a means to a sharper perception of the pictures, for us [my italics]. It is the picture as covered by a description in our terms [his italics] that we are attempting to explain.

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On this unacknowledged poststructuralist foundation of subjectivity, Baxandall's interpretive edifice stands. What it refuses to sacrifice to the demands of self-reflexivity, however, is the conviction that the past, though lost, merits every one of its serious attempts at comprehension. While the gulf between past and present, word and image, assures the historian of art that her or his enterprise will always be an incomplete, and hence melancholic, one, the quest for pictorial meaning is far from nugatory a nd in this sense ends up being more mournful than melancholic in classic psychoanalytic terms.

While "the starting point" in any art historical narrative, as he claimed in Patterns of Intention , "is a sense that there is some sort of affinity between a kind of thought and a kind of painting," 56 when it comes to some art "only superior paintings will sustain explanation of the kind we are attempting: inferior paintings are impenetrable" [!

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In the midst and mists of loss, the perceptive historian must above all keenly attend to the paintings themselves and focus on their distinctly pictorial constructions of meaning. In the process, she or he will put into effect a fair critical, though inevitably flawed, program:. Continuing curiosity about what the scholar will never be able completely to know seems to me to be the most noble, though undeniably melancholic, critical endeavor of all.


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This historiographic example of one notable art historian, I hope, can itself serve as an allegory of art historical writing in general, which is, I have been claiming, an essentially sentimental occupation. Of course, writing never heals.

And yet, there are degrees of relationship to the past that range along the spectrum from melancholic to the mournful, from the productive to the incapacitating. The point is: Past images, material objects of art, are forever beyond the capacity of present words to capture. An historical work will always elude the traps of contemporary points of view.

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That recognition is as much a cause for celebration as it is consolation. There is, as Nietzsche forewarned us, "a right time to forget as well as a right time to remember. John Osborne London: Verso, , Leon S. Benjamin, As seen, for example, in the writings of Walter Benjamin.

See Pensky, passim. Kristeva, 9. The authors point out that Klein's focus on reparations in her later writings leads directly to Winnicott's focus on external objects and the environment.


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