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

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