An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

December 16, 2014

D’Arcens and Lynch (eds): International Medievalism and Popular Culture

Louise D’ Arcens and Andrew Lynch (eds). International Medievalism and Popular Culture. New York: Cambria, 2014. 261pp.

Review by: Molly Brown (

In one of the essays in this volume, Helen Hickey and Stephanie Trigg comment that “nothing is easier to mock than medieval aspirations under the harsh light of colonial sunshine” (94). The opposition established in this wry comment on the appearance of the United Tinsmiths marching through the early twentieth-century streets of Melbourne dressed in full or partial suits of armour is reflected throughout this collection in which contemporary scholars associated with the global South focus their attention on a range of tropes and issues conventionally linked to a Northern past. The resulting polarization throws new light on both post-colonial and medieval concerns, allowing two once othered discourses to interact in unexpected and illuminating ways.

The editors acknowledge that achieving this exhilarating creative synergy was precisely their intention. In their introduction they refer to the significance of what Caroline Dinshaw has recently termed atemporal encounters in which “different time frames or temporal systems collid[e]” and argue that the recursive presence of the medieval within the modern not only blurs temporal distinctions, but actually “creates a cultural topography in which national boundaries are redrawn or erased, and familiar polarities and spatial coordinates no longer apply” (xii). In this way the volume becomes a celebration of the multitemporal potentialities inherent in a variety of perspectives on how medievalism may be seen to permeate and in some cases, articulate socio-political aspects of modernity and even postmodernity. 

The current proliferation of volumes of thematically-linked academic essays has been fuelled at least in part, by a postmodern predilection for heteroglossia, but all too often, a form that should facilitate unexpected insights and stimulating differences collapses instead into works in which the individual components talk past instead of to each other. Thanks to the editors’ clear sense and lucid articulation of the importance of the new topography they aim to explore, the essays in  International Medievalism and Popular Culture are given the freedom to range widely without any threat to the essential coherence of the collection as a whole.

International Medievalism and Popular Culture contains twelve essays on subjects ranging from medievalism and contemporary Middle Eastern politics to the presentation of dragons and teenage wizards in fantasies for younger readers. Such is the current rage for specialization that many readers are likely to turn only to those essays directly related to their own interests, but  those who do this will not fully appreciate the strength of the collection as a whole, since all of these essays are linked by a nuanced understanding of how concepts of the medieval commonly infuse and enter into dialogue with responses to the contemporary.

Appropriately enough, the opening essay by Clare Monagle addresses crucial issues of sovereignty and neomedievalism by revisiting the seminal work of an earlier Australian political theorist, Hedley Bull. Bull argued as early as 1977 that the once-dominant concept of the national state was in decline before later suggesting in The Anarchical Society (1995) that this decline would lead to what he called the New Medievalism, a secular version of the system of overlapping or segmented authority presented by him as characteristic of medieval Christendom. Monagle deftly acknowledges the significance of Bull’s work, while also revealing that it may be read as rooted in anxiety about all non-modern forms of political life, so that the “actions of socialist and third world states, the actions of terrorists, and the political formations of primitive societies prior to invasion and colonisation, as well as the political cultures of the Western Middle Ages themselves…are all yoked under the analogy of the medieval, flattened into a disturbing past and a futurological otherness” (12).In this way, Monagle is able to show that the concept of New Medievalism as applied by neoconservatives leads to a refusal to consider the “specificity of the other’s historicity” (13) allowing al Qaeda, for instance, to be presented as the medievalised enemy.

This tendency to use the medieval as a lens through which to examine and even counteract current East West conflicts is illuminatingly developed in Louise D’Arcens analysis of three films by Riddley Scott. D’Arcens, who is widely known for her work on medievalism in Australian and international contexts, argues persuasively that Scott uses his films to explore subjects too sensitive to address more directly, so that in a startling reversal, Robin Hood’s tactics of resistance against his Norman oppressors (Robin Hood, 2010) can be seen to echo the ground-level activities of al Qaeda and the central figure in Body of Lies (2008) “rather than seeking a better Aussie-style multicultural life for all, goes to ground, quite possibly to become a high-skill terrorist” (249). Intriguingly, American medievalist, John Ganim shows that it is not merely the western gaze that projects medieval memes onto contemporary conflicts but that great Islamic medieval figures such as Saladin, Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta have become powerful symbols for those anxious to modernise the Islamic world from within. Each of these medieval figures has been used in various contexts and in various Arab states to evoke tradition, but the tradition concerned is one of “Golden Age cosmopolitanism, of geographic mobility before the borders of nation-states, and of often improvisational inventiveness” (71).

If medievalism can allow for multiple interpretations of the othered Orient, a second group of essays from International Medievalism and Popular Culture focuses on how the medieval may help, in Chantal Bourgault du Coudray’s words “to reinstate values that are essential to the reinvention of a subjective experience that challenges the gendered dynamics of Cartesian thought” (153). Du Coudray’s positive re-visioning of the story of Red Riding Hood refreshingly undermines standard readings of the story as one that restricts the feminine and promotes patriarchal authority. Laurie Ormond’s study of witch hunters in contemporary fantasy fiction makes an interesting companion piece to Du Coudray’s essay in that it draws on a similar body of theory, but uses it to infer that while fantasy fiction rarely elides sexual violence against women and therefore resists conventions that systematically downplay the trauma this causes, such works cannot be seen as legitimate forms of feminist protest because they also conform too readily to enduring cultural stereotypes grounded in “an essentialist understanding of female vulnerability that accompanies the figure of the monstrous and deviant rapist” (177). Nicholas Haydock, on the other hand, discusses Julia Kristeva’s   Murder in Byzantium in which a modern scholar is drawn into an enhanced understanding of the First Crusade by an interest in the writing of the Byzantine princess Anna Komnene. Stephen Knight observes in his engaging conclusion to the collection that the reverse pilgrimage described by Haydock  both “claims the Medieval for the Middle-East” and simultaneously uses “forms of abjection seen across time as reason at war with meaning, but also as access to the other”(249).

This idea of accessing otherness is crucial to any assessment of International Medievalism and Popular Culture since it demonstrates not only that the oriental and the woman can both be simultaneously othered and affirmed by competing medievalisms, but so also may the child, who  as modern theorists have noted, has much in common with both. Clare Bradford’s essay, “Here Be Dragons”, argues that dragon stories promote a ludic engagement with texts in that they offer images of delightful alterity, while in no way deluding young readers about the precise boundaries of the fictional and the real. Instead she suggests that by drawing attention to “the codes, conventions and cultural meanings that inform dragon narratives….[such stories] teach interpretive strategies, conducting a kind of training in reading the medieval” (221). In ‘The Battle for Reality’, on the other hand, Helen Dell makes a thought-provoking contribution to the interpretation of the animosity felt towards Harry Potter by the religious right. Rather than glibly dismissing this as an instance of either hysterical fanaticism or neoconservative distrust of the imagination, Dell carefully teases out the implications of a logocentric world view in which words are both frighteningly potent and dangerously vulnerable to change. This leads her to conclude suggestively that “J.K. Rowling with her free-wheeling, ‘unbaptized’ imagination and her blithe disregard for the potency of words together with her immense popularity, presents conservatives with the gravest of threats – the threat to reality” (33).

While a Southern sensibility infuses almost all the essays in this volume, it is particularly apparent in what might be seen as the three most overtly Australian essays in the book. The first of these is Karen Hall’s exploration of medieval influences and connections in the work of four contemporary Australian artists: Alexia Sinclair, G.W. Bot, Irene Barberis, and Laith Mc Gregor. The second is Helen Hickey and Stephanie Trigg’s nuanced study of the ways in which organised labour in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Melbourne consciously positioned itself in relation to medieval chivalry in ways that are both reminiscent of and different from the strategies used by  the international Knights of Labour. The third is Anne McKendry’s analysis of how Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger and Russell Crowe flavour the medieval-themed films, Braveheart (1995), A Knight’s Tale (2001) and Robin Hood (2010), with an Australian sense of mateship expressed in terms of a distinctively egalitarian sense of male bonding, which she argues also “functions as an unidentified – yet discernible factor in the appeal these characters have for broader international audiences” (198). Each of these articles is remarkable for foregrounding the fact that concepts of medievalism do not simply feed into contemporary life, but  in complex reflexive processes, are themselves altered and shaped by current conventions and modes of expression.

If one were of a mind to quibble, one might wish for more chapters like those described in the previous paragraph, analyses that are both unequivocally local and yet suggestive of broader global patterns. It would certainly have been intriguing to have had articles by scholars firmly located in other areas of the global South to sharpen awareness of what Australian and global medievalism have in common and also give a clearer indication of what differentiates them. I confess too that I found the grouping of illustrations at the end of chapters annoying as it required one to riffle continuously backward and forward, especially in chapters like that by Karen Hall where an appreciation of images was central to an understanding of her argument. In addition, I suspect that the casual reader might also have appreciated the listing of full titles in the table of contents so that it would not be necessary to turn to the first page of each essay in order to get a clear indication of its subject matter. Despite these minor qualms, however, International Medievalism and Popular Culture is an intelligently edited, original and suggestive collection that is sure to be of interest to anyone working in the fields of either postcolonial studies or contemporary medievalism. 

Molly Brown
University of Pretoria
South Africa

December 8, 2014

Pérez: The Myth of Morgan la Fey

Pérez, Kristina, The Myth of Morgan la Fey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. 262.

Reviewed by Kristi J. Castleberry (

Morgan la Fey is a slippery, shadowy figure. She hurts Arthur and she heals Arthur; she is the enemy of the Round Table and she is the only hope that it may return. She is beautiful and powerful and terrifying. Kristina Pérez's The Myth of Morgan la Fey takes on the ambitious project of grappling with Morgan in myth and text and film and popular culture, easily moving between ancient and medieval and modern sources in the process. Pérez states in her preface that, "[b]y exploring the shifting portrayal of Morgan from Celtic Sovereignty Goddess to cartoon super-villain, we will find that real meanings and definitions are located in the place between two extremes," and she does keep well to this purpose throughout the book (xii). The historical breadth of the project renders it particularly appropriate to the topic of medievalism, since it gives such a thorough account of both the medieval stories and how those sources have been reimagined by later periods.

The preface features a strong authorial voice. Pérez discusses her first encounter with Morgan la Fey when she was an insecure thirteen-year-old who discovered Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. She mentions that, as a medievalist, "the admission that you might have first developed a love for your subject from a fantasy novel ... is a guilty secret that many of us share" (xi). By sharing that secret with us, Pérez creates a personalized tone that is rare in scholarly monographs. This breakdown between the professional and personal seems particularly appropriate for a work that concerns the limiting binaries forced upon Morgan and other female figures. She explains that her goal is "to make an original contribution to the academic scholarship surrounding this transformative character and to bring Morgan la Fey to a wider audience of Arthurian students and enthusiasts alike" (xiii). She thus frames the book for an audience both within and outside of academia. Because the sense of Pérez herself is so strong in the preface, I was surprised that the "I" didn't continue in the rest of the book. The tone becomes, from the introduction until the end, much more formal and distanced, shifting to the third person and plural first person. The preface creates such a strong sense of who the author is that I missed that personal voice as I continued reading.

The book's introduction begins with the end of the story—Camelot has fallen and "Morgan la Fay is the last one standing" (1). Whether or not she is described as an enemy to Arthur and the Round Table, Morgan is still a figure of healing and hope in the end. Pérez traces this complicated characterization back to the figure of the Celtic Sovereignty Goddess whose "dual function as kingmaker and death-dealer" the rest of the book explores (2). The introduction does a nice job of laying out a complex history of both Morgan specifically and the sovereignty goddess more generally, and the deft way with which Pérez moves between a wide range of material is impressive. The introduction also sets up the psychoanalytical framework that will be the primary lens of the book. She explains that "[i]n the same way as pioneering psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung turned to myth to inform their understanding of interpersonal relationships, we will use psychoanalysis to understand myth itself" (9). This statement seems a bit cyclical, and I found myself wanting more explanation about why this methodology is useful. What can psychoanalysis offer myth in particular? The first two chapters attempt to answer this question.

The first chapter convincingly argues that the split between Morgan la Fey and the Dame du Lac comes from the inability to reconcile the different aspects of the Morgan figure (mother and lover, healer and destroyer). The chapter introduces psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's concept of the "Oresteian Position," which becomes a central idea for the remainder of the text. As Pérez explains, "[a]ttempts by our heroes to contain their Oresteian Mothers result in either perversion (a defense against her), or psychosis (the full negative impact of the Oresteian Position)" (16). In some ways the book becomes more about the masculine anxieties about women than about Morgan herself, but perhaps that is what makes the subject so relevant.

The second chapter introduces Slavoj Žižek's concept of "courtly masochism," which "attempts to compensate for the reduction of Woman to phantasy" (35). Pérez argues that Sovereignty Goddesses and Fairy Mistresses from Celtic and Breton sources complicate this notion because in these cases "the Woman literally is a phantasy figure" (36). This chapter, like the first, is more focused on setting up the book’s psychoanalytic framework than on Morgan herself, but it does define the terms with which the book will discuss Morgan.

With chapter three the book begins to delve more directly into medieval materials. This chapter discusses Morgan as a monstrous mother and connects her to the Mélusine tradition, since Mélusine "remains the image of monstrous motherhood par excellence, and because she and Morgan share common Celtic origins" (55). Pérez shows us how Mélusine transforms back and forth between two different forms, while Morgan "is cut into two separate personages" (59). The examples of these figures in the chapter show how tensions between the roles of mother and lover result in literal splitting. Instead of recognizing more complex possibilities for identity that allow for women to be both mothers and lovers, the traditions of both Morgan and Mélusine attempt to reassert the desired split categories.

After the chapter on monstrous mothers, it makes sense that the fourth chapter concerns divine mothers, and it explores the Dame du Lac and the Virgin Mary in relation to Morgan. Since the Dame du Lac is a mother to Lancelot without having given birth to him, she is allowed to be a mother without having been compromised by sexuality and childbirth: "she is whole, like the Virgin Mary" (75). The Dame du Lac is thus the good mother to Morgan’s bad one. Since Morgan also heals Arthur and the Dame du Lac also traps Merlin, I am unsure about the simple dichotomy of Morgan and Dame du Lac as bad and good mother respectively, but Pérez does acknowledge that depictions of the Dame du Lac trapping Merlin ultimately complicate her role. I would have liked to hear even more about the implications of the Dame du Lac being a bad mother as well as a good one, but Pérez nonetheless shows that the primary focus on each of these figures tends to reinforce that splitting between bad and good mother.

The fifth chapter shifts focus to examine Gawain and the perennial question of what women want. The chapter begins with Mary's role as intercessor, which connects back to the chapter on divine mothers and leads nicely into a discussion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The pull between the power of Mary and Morgan in the poem fits nicely with the category of Oresteian Mother, and the chapter provides a new understanding of the complex binary between Morgan and the Dame du Lac as well, since even Mary's role is complicated in Gawain and the Green Knight. After all, Gawain's prayer for shelter reveals the very castle where Morgan resides and plans to test him, and thus "they are both agents of Gawain's testing" (115). Again I would like more analysis of the contradictions, though I think that the sheer breadth of material covered by the chapter (and the book) makes it inevitable that some moments will leave readers wanting more.

Chapter six takes on Morgan's role in the next major Arthurian text, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, where “Morgan la Fey reaches her zenith as a nefarious figure determined to destroy Camelot" (137). Yet, as the chapter also points out, Morgan remains the one to conduct Arthur to Avalon. Since the mother/lover opposition has been important to Pérez's framework, there could have been more explicit discussion of the dichotomy between this healer aspect and Morgan's sexual assertiveness. The chapter does a wonderful job of connecting both her sexual advances toward men (and the way in which women give and take swords such as Excalibur) back to the sovereignty goddesses discussed earlier. The chapter also makes clear how Morgan and Nymue both function as part of this tradition. Though they work against each other, they also serve similar roles in the text. Pérez addresses in detail some of my questions about the Dame du Lac from chapter four when she discusses Nymue's imprisonment of Merlin. Nymue may be Morgan's opponent, and she may work for Arthur more than against him, but she and Morgan both hold similarly powerful positions in the text.

Chapter seven, which discusses how the tradition developed in the Victorian period, explains how Nymue became Vivien. Tennyson depicts Vivien's entrapment of Merlin as an illustration of the dangerously sexualized and educated woman. Pérez explains that there was not only a dichotomy between good and bad women in Victorian society, but also between the Fallen Woman, “depicted in Victorian society as a passive victim,” and the femme fatale, “an active subject, a perpetrator” (163). The chapter argues that Vivien “retains her origins as the femme fatale: the Sovereignty Goddess in her death guise” (164). The discussion of Pre-Raphaelite artists, accompanied by helpful black-and-white images, adds further complexity to the chapter. These artists often chose working-class women and even prostitutes as models, subsequently trying to educate and rehabilitate them. This background gives us examples of male artists directly engaging with real women as they worked through their troubled responses to the characters and stories explored throughout the book.

Chapter eight takes us up to modern culture and notes that "Morgan la Fey has reappeared during the past two centuries at moments of cultural change in the definition of Woman, female sexuality, or motherhood—and their corresponding legal ramifications" (183). This chapter brings the book full circle to the ways in which contemporary anxieties shape modern depictions of Morgan, thus reinforcing how vital the topic remains. The discussion of T.H. White’s Once and Future King works particularly well within the book’s psychoanalytical framework. Pérez discusses White’s problems with his own mother, Constance White, whom he freely admitted was one of the inspirations for his characterizations of Morgause (188). I had been wondering why the book had not discussed Morgause’s role in the tradition earlier, but it makes sense to bring her in here with analysis of White. A mention that she would be discussed in more depth later would have been useful, but this chapter does a good job looking at her transformation in the literature from the Vulgate Cycle to Malory to White. The chapter then gives a tour of modern literature, film, theater, television, and comic books, concluding that “ambivalent feelings toward maternal and feminine power (especially over men) are as pertinent in cultural production today as a thousand years ago” (206).

When reading the first chapters of the book I was concerned that statements about "the subjectivity of all men" seem to universalize male anxieties and gender roles (55). But what becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses is not that specific roles or feelings remain unchanged, but rather that Morgan repeatedly functions as a touchstone for anxieties about women. The book takes on such a complex topic and deals with such a wide range of materials that it’s inevitable that individual readers will crave more in certain areas. And I would have loved signposting to let readers know when something mentioned in passing would return for further discussion later. Overall, though, Pérez brings together Celtic myth and comic book with ease, showing us the ways in which Morgan herself is a once and future queen. The wide scope of the book will make it appealing to scholars of the medieval and medievalist alike. The level of psychoanalytical theory might make it difficult at first for the enthusiast, but the richness of Pérez’s study would reward anyone interested in Arthurian literature, gender studies, or Morgan la Fey.

Kristi J. Castleberry
University of Rochester

July 28, 2014

Nagel: Medieval Modern

Never just modern: a review of Alexander Nagel. Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time. London: Thames and Hudson, 2012. 

Reviewed by Anne F. Harris (

In Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time, Alexander Nagel unlocks the doors of the museum and the archive and dislodges works of art from an art history driven by periodization. Here, in the cross-temporal interpretive space the book creates, the 13th-century silver-gilded reliquary bust of Saint Yrieix looks across a page break to the diamond-studded skull of Damien Hirst’s 2007 For the Love of God (66-67). Here, in the findings of Nagel’s meticulous research, Robert Smithson’s earmarked and annotated pages from the December 1966 issue of Scientific American link the artist’s fascination with the form and entropy of ice crystals to his writings comparing the form and entropy of Minimalist sculpture to those of Mannerist art (146-47); and student notes from Joseph Albers’s 1946 design course proclaim a haptic Middle Ages in the memorable phrases, “Renaissance afraid of texture. Gothic much more care of matière” (161). Here, through the book’s sustained concern for how modern artists joined forces with medieval art to resist the certitude and boundary of the frame, Moholy Nagy writes about medieval stained glass and its “spatial-reflective radiation” as a solution to the element of movement in his construction of the Licht-Raum-Modulator from 1922-1930 (255-57). The possibilities of interpretation, research, and debate that Nagel presents engage works of art, artists and theorists, and materials in a series of encounters between medieval and modern visual cultures that energizes contemporary discussions of works of art and the work of art history.

Pursuing the possibilities of studying the “plural temporality” of art explored in Anachronic Renaissance, co-authored with Christopher S. Wood (Zone Books, 2010), Nagel’s book joins the endeavors of Bruce Holsinger’s The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (University of Chicago Press, 2005), and Amy Knight Powell’s Depositions: Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (Zone Books, 2012), in arguing for the transformative presence of the Middle Ages in modernity. This is not just a book about how modern artists are inspired by medieval art; it is a book about how modern artists use medieval art to critique institutional standards of modern art; more specifically, it is a book about how artists in the 1960s and 1920s dedicated to the “open” work of art as an interactive, provocative, and boundary-shifting experience for an involved audience used principles of open-ness and interaction in medieval art to critique, indeed tear down, the “closed” work of art exemplified by autonomous easel paintings and sculptures displayed in museums and galleries. Broadly speaking, as Nagel himself puts it, it “is a study of how art responds when the old ordered cosmos has fallen apart” (169).

From its opening pages, Nagel positions Medieval Modern as a book of artistic and art historical practice. The first three chapters are devoted to the principles and methodology that will guide the interpretations to follow. A series of claims makes clear that this approach strives towards a new understanding of artistic interaction between past and present, and a new way of practicing art history. The interest of the book is in how “encounters with medieval art mark the whole history of modernism” (8) rather than in tracing a history of influence or development; the focus is on “structural analogies” rather than iconography (10); it seeks to delineate “patterns and themes,” not just disparate episodes. Medieval art is joined to the endeavors of modern art not by formal elements, but rather by five practices that render the pre-modern a powerful resource for the critique of framed and stilled art performed by the 1960s and 1920s modern avant-gardes that Nagel selects for study: these are installation, indexicality, replication and the multiple, collage, and conceptual art. In advocating for “cross-temporal surfacings” (26) and an acknowledgment of a “decenteredness” (33) shared by medieval and modern cultures, the book opens up both the time/history and space/geography of medieval art to include modern art’s ambitions.

Chapters 4 through 8 perform a series of smaller-scale recursions that establish interests in evocative surfaces, interactive spaces, and engaged audiences in medieval and modern art. A series of “unlikely pairings” (40) guide these chapters and seek to dislodge modern art from an art history that has made it largely antithetical to the Middle Ages. Modern art, these chapters argue, participates in more medieval practices than has been previously acknowledged. Early 20th-century airplanes are likened to altarpieces through the processions and potential mysticism of both; pre-museum spaces of medieval and Renaissance chapels link with the dislocation of museum space effected by modern site-specific works; the medieval relic proves an apt framework within which to understand the avant-garde’s critique of value; and medieval wall painting’s involvement with the (physical) space and (spiritual) experience of its viewers proves resonant with Minimalism’s dematerialization of the worldly art object in favor of large, meditative surfaces. Nagel works nimbly through these suggestive correlations, acclimating the reader to a cross-temporal, recursive art history and its possibilities of interpretation. His succinct and pertinent evocations of Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Derrida made me eager for him to engage with Bruno Latour’s critique of periodization and temporal demarcation in We Have Never Been Modern (trans. Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 1993). The absence of a response to Latour’s sociological critique signals Nagel’s prioritization of theorists of visual culture. In this, Medieval Modern becomes a book about the practice and debates of art and art historiography, and indeed matters of social history are displaced in favor of a history of ideas; Leo Steinberg entertains more discussion than Meyer Schapiro.

Chapters 9 through 11 focus on the problem of space and site through a correlation between medieval art recollecting the Holy Land and late 1960s Robert Smithson’s Non-Site works. These chapters form the first of three in-depth explorations of modern artists’ explorations of the Middle Ages. The second exploration shapes chapters 12 through 14, in which the arrangement and multi-perspective viewing of the Justinian and Theodora mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna feature prominently in a rethinking of painting as installation, and as “a surface for operational processes” (186) spearheaded by Jasper Johns’s 1960s transformations of the surface of painting. The third, in chapters 18 through 20, traces the shifting enthusiasms of the 1920s Bauhaus for the process-oriented, utopic and transformative “cathedral thinking” (241) of the Gothic cathedral.

The breadth of the recursive loop between medieval and modern becomes apparent here. The displacement of stones from the Holy Land and their reconfiguration as relics in the Sancta Sanctorum of medieval Rome functions as the “topographical destabilization” (121) that Smithson advocates in his Non-Site works. This medieval practice “brings us full circle” (125) in Smithson’s own displacement of red clay from Hebron arranged to form the number 1969 in Hebrew letters on the soil of Mount Moriah for a 1969 Jewish Museum poster (the poster was ultimately rejected in favor of an image of Smithson’s Mirror Trail from Patterson Quarry in New Jersey, revealing the continuing controversy of Holy Land topography and its multiple displacements). In the chapter linking the mosaics of Ravenna and to Johns’s concern to shift painting to considerations of surface, Nagel proposes a brilliant rethinking of Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message,” arguing that McLuhan is not only signifying that the means of communication are as important as the content, but rather that the means of communication matter because of the appropriation, re-investment, absorption, engagement, and adoption of old forms by new ones. This point will prove important in the final page of the book, when Nagel presents medievalism as “now encoded (usually unrecognized) in the DNA of contemporary art” (278), denoting a hidden life of forms (to paraphrase Henri Focillon). It also intersects provocatively with work by Graham Harman that has emerged since the publication of the book, notably “The Revenge of the Surface: Heidegger, McLuhan, Greenberg” (Paletten 291/292 (2013): 66-73) and “Greenberg, Duchamp, and the Next Avant-Garde” (Speculations V (2014): 271-54). The Bauhaus’s self-conscious appropriations of the processes and forms of collectivity (but only quasi-religious content) of Gothic cathedral building are traced in their shifts and changes from utopia to lived experience. The emblematic image discussed here, indeed the cover of the book itself, is Lyonel Feininger’s Cathedral of the Future, a print whose woodcut production hews to medieval practice, and whose use for the cover of the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto projects its critical importance. (On the print that Nagel identifies as the trial block for what would become this cover of the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto is a date which reads distinctly as “1922” – an explanation of this discrepancy would have been appreciated.) Feininger’s own decision to expand the image of the cathedral from a first print showing it as a framed image to a full-page cover signals the prominence of “cathedral thinking.”

At stake in these in-depth explorations of modern recursions to medieval practices is the heated contest between the elite autonomous work of art (rendered separate from the world by a frame or pedestal within the specific and prescriptive viewing space of the gallery or museum) and the pre-modern and avant-guard practices that presented art as contingent upon the viewer’s space and experience, and therefore more accessible, interactive, and transformative. The artists of these pages (with close analyses of Robert Smithson and Jasper Johns in the 1960s, and László Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and Kurt Schwitters in the 1920s) and their theorists (Marshall McLuhan and Leo Steinberg in the 1960s, and Wilhelm Worringer and Adolf Behne in the 1920s) use the open-ness of medieval art (the decenteredness and displacement of works referencing the Holy Land; the multi-faceted surfaces of mosaics; and the process-oriented communal methods of cathedral construction) to shake the certitude and institutions that preserved the autonomous work of art. And yet Nagel argues throughout the book that the reign of the autonomous work of art was neither as assured nor prolonged as avant-garde artists believed: “It is difficult, now, to imagine that the museum picture could have loomed as such a mighty enemy in the eyes of the avant-gardes” (57). This remains a point of disagreement for me. On the one hand, I would very much like to believe that the pressures of pre-modern and avant-garde artistic practices squeezed the reign of elite, autonomous art to a negligible existence; on the other, I have a hard time denying the power of the institution of the museum and the economics of the market that autonomous art greatly benefitted from for well over two hundred years. (Nagel himself is vague about the reign of the autonomous work of art, at times setting its ascendancy in the 15th century, at others, in the 18th.) Seen from a cross-temporal perspective in which the pre-modern and the avant-garde forge a strong alliance, the autonomous work of art may not seem a mighty enemy; but seen within the historical specificity of its own institutions in the 1920s and 1960s, the autonomous work of art indeed seems formidable. The continuing politics of the museum and the place of the avant-garde today open up these chapters to welcome and vigorous discussion.

There are times within these chapters when the book’s title favors a reading in which “medieval” is but an adjective to “modern,” and the investigations of the book tip the balance between the two periods decidedly in favor of the modern. Medieval art is then presented almost exclusively for how it aids and abets avant-garde projects rather than with an eye to the debates that might have provoked artists, patrons and audiences in the Middle Ages. Describing Cage’s Fontana Mix, for example, as “Pollock rerouted, as it were, through Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages” (178) takes a certain degree of modern art expertise that may not be available to some readers. Strange, small mistakes skew the analysis, most notably placing the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose in the fourteenth century and, from within an otherwise brilliant analysis of Umberto Eco’s 1962 Opera aperta, positioning Jean de Meun as writing within a stable (closed) system of allegorical signification. Nagel goes on to use Eugenio Battisti’s critique of Eco to re-establish a “more ‘open’ reading of medieval material” (172), but there is a missed opportunity here to discuss the radical semiotic open-ness of the “couilles/reliques” discussion in the Rose, in which Reason claims that meaning (and moral value) are ascribed and not at all inherent to language, and that she could say “balls” as easily as “relics” to signify the thing in the world known as “relics.”

It is to Nagel’s credit that disagreeing with aspects of his book itself prompts further interpretation, in this instance of the ways in which his discussion of relics and reliquaries (from Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God to the dynamic of the reproducible) might intersect with further medieval sources which, like Jean de Meun’s Rose, question closed systems of signification. Nagel’s book opens up a challenge for medievalists to more vigorously question medieval artists’ own recursions to antiquity, not simply as appropriations of the past but as concerted efforts within debates of the Middle Ages. Linda Seidel’s book Songs of Glory: The Romanesque Façades of Aquitaine (University of Chicago Press, 1981) and its analysis of the use of visual forms of Roman imperial antiquity in both Carolingian reliquaries and Romanesque architecture comes to mind. Another recursive loop worth revisiting is that of gender exclusion. Of the 139 illustrations in the book, only two are by women artists. Gender is in some ways too much of a social history issue for the emphases of this book (a point of debate in itself), but the virtual absence of women should at least prompt further thinking about the hyper-masculinity of the history of the Middle Ages and the avant-garde presented here. Doing so would perpetuate one of the values of the book: to open works of art closed by institutions.

Nowhere does Nagel’s cross-temporal virtuosity shine as brightly as in his chapter on Jean-Antoine Watteau’s L’Enseigne de Gersaint. It is surprising that in a book devoted to the medievalism of modernism a painting from 1720 should have such a pivotal role, and yet the claims of chapter 15 (and those that follow in the next two chapters) are crucial to Nagel’s meta-argument about the open work of art. Painted at the height of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (for which Watteau had painted his Embarkation for Cythera as his reception piece in 1717), and during the first flourishes of the gallery system and art market, L’Enseigne de Gersaint is nonetheless presented here as a critique, “a commentary on a new system of art, offered from a position just outside the system” (201). Nagel’s agility is such that by the end of the chapter, the reader can understand L’Enseigne de Gersaint both within a very (very) long medieval tradition and a (very) nascent avant-garde critique. The painting’s placement (even if only for fifteen days) outside Gersaint’s painting gallery, its concerns with visuality in and out of the painted frame, and acknowledgement of the painting as surface (in “two-dimensional contingencies” (203) such as its elision of the female clients of the gallery and the women painted in the works of art they wish to buy) make it a meeting point of medieval art’s interactivity with a curious public and the avant-garde’s critique of the static image. L’Enseigne de Gersaint becomes a temporally hybrid image: not chronologically medieval (yet as a street sign participating in medieval visual culture of the public sphere), not chronologically avant-garde (yet as literally on the margins of the gallery, critical of the institutions of autonomous art). The re-appearance of figures from L’Enseigne de Gersaint within a photomontage of Watteau’s clients in cathedral space within chapter 19 (251) then becomes a tour-de-force of recursion. The next two chapters continue troubling limits Watteau had begun to push: of visibility with the diaphane and Duchamp and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors from 1915-23 in chapter 16, and of originality with the idea of the reproducible, relics and acheiropoieta (art not made by human hands) linked to Duchamp’s readymades in chapter 17.

Nagel’s conclusion articulating the effects of a powerful dynamic of entropy which pulls consistently towards the Middle Ages is worth quoting in full for the power and presence that it credits to medieval art, and the momentum of medievalism in modernity’s confrontation of its objects of critique: “Medieval art flared into view amidst the breakdown of belief in the system of fine arts, in the museum object, in mimetic naturalism, in the idea of artistic originality and the unique work of art, in Enlightenment aesthetics, in linear history and rationalist models of time, and in a modern, colonialist concept of Europe” (275). In a cross-temporal art history prizing the presence of medieval artistic practices in the subversive tactics of modern art, medieval art is always already avant-garde. This is both the argument and the invitation of this provocative book.

Anne F. Harris
DePauw University