Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Coral Redux!

Several years ago now, a friend of mine named Old Ken posted this blog entry about Renaissance art and coral. While Old Ken sadly died about a year ago, I have recently come upon some new information about coral, which expands upon Ken's theme in interesting ways. So, in the aggregating spirit of our age, I'm going to repost Ken's text and images adding in my own special, Sanchez touches here, there and, well, everywhere.

In an award-winning essay from 1999 entitled "Cellini's Blood," art historian Michael Cole offered a fascinating reading Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus and Medusa (c 1550, Florence). Among the numerous interesting observations made in this article, Cole notes how the clots of bronze blood streaming from Medusa's severed head and neck were referred to in period inventories as "gorgoni." And while seemingly related to the Greek word Gorgon that often designates Medusa herself, Cole argues that in the sixteenth century, gorgoni meant coral. By understanding why these spurts of bronze blood would be likened to coral, so the argument goes, we can apprehend how period viewers thought of Cellini's sculpture and the narrative it represents. Cole then goes on to relate how, in period Italian translations of Ovid's "Metamorphoses", a mythical origin story of coral is told by the dripping of blood out of the head of Medusa as Perseus frees Andromeda.

With this reading of Cellini's bloods as corals in mind, Old Ken was fascinated to see this 1679 depiction of the Perseus and Andromeda story in the Louvre. Perseus strikes a pose at the center of Pierre Mignard's massive canvas, bloody sword by his side, while Andromeda being unchained by a cherub at right. Here is the relevant story from Ovid as Cole gives it:

"Having killed the dragon, Perseus came down from the rock and sat on the bank of the sea to wash himself, for he was soaked with the dragon's blood. As he did this, the head of the Medusa got in his way, so he set it on the ground. So that the head did not crack, Perseus gathered some seaborne sticks of wood to set it on, and put them on the ground. Immediately those sticks hardened as stone does, and from the blood of the head they became vermillion. It is thus that coral is made, and this was the first coral."

Perseus' left foot in Mignard's painting points toward the severed head of Medusa, which still seems to wriggle with serpentine life. Moreover, as can be perceived even in this lousy detail, red sprigs of coral are clearly emerging from beneath the head, presumably from contact with the leaking blood (or perhaps just from contact with the head itself, depending on your version of Ovid).

Now, while Ken went on to make interesting comparisons between this painting by Mignard at the Louvre and a portrait at the National Gallery in London, what is more interesting still are the connections between these learned, French paintings of the later seventeenth century and the Italianate circulation of thoughts about coral and gorgons on which they drew. Consider this drawing by Nicolas Poussin known as La Tintura del Corallo, where the severed head of Medusa is being inspected by two sea nymphs on the river bank at lower right.

Here is the account of the drawing given by Anthony Blunt in The French Drawings in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle (Oxford: Phaidon, 1945):

"The subject is taken from Ovide (Met. iv, 740). Perseus, after killing the sea-monster, washes the blood of the latter from his hands. Before doing so he has laid the head of the Medusa on the ground, and the plants which it touches harden into coral. Hence the title which Bellori gives to this composition: 'La Tintura del Corallo.' Sébastian Bourdon used this drawing or [a studio version thereof, also in the Queen's collection] as a basis for his painting of the same subject in Munich. ... This particular episode from the story of Perseus and Andromeda is rare in art, and it is interesting to note that Cardinal Massini, to whom this drawing belonged, commissioned a painting of it from Claude, now in Lord Leceister's Collection." (36)

With its sprouting coral placed at the juncture of land and sea, we can infer that Poussin probably served as inspiration for Mignard's composition, given the incredibly high regard with which the earlier painter was held in later seventeenth century French academic circles. 

Seeing this print in a fascinating paper by art historian Elmer Kolfin at a recent conference in Chicago, however, I began to reconsider some of the implications of the whole coral matrix. This print is the frontispiece to de La Croix's Relation universelle de L'Afrique, ancienne et eoderne (1688). Here, we see a seated maiden posed with a coral crown not unlike Mignard's Marquise de Seignelay and Two of her Sons (1691), surrounded by objects ostensibly signifying "Africa": an alligator, coral, a snake, a chameleon, etc.

Drawing upon this older history of coral as a material and sign of transformation, what if we were to think of this image as not only visualizing a fragmented African menagerie, but as a meditation on things that change dramatically in appearance and outward properties? Coral changes from hard to soft, from ductile green to rigid red. The chameleon epitomizes this malleability. But, so too, according to the theories circulated among scientific circles of the time, were the pigmented skins of peoples native to Africa subject to alteration. Here is a fragment of conversation along these lines as recorded in the minutes of the Royal Society of London from April 12, 1682:

“And upon the occasion of those concerning the transformation of Creatures by means of the qualifications of the place, wherein they are fostered, the President [Sir Christopher Wren] related that he had observed in a garden made out of the ruins of an old building, that the leaves of all the plants became speckled and striped; and that the same plants being transplanted from thence to another place would for some time continue striped and speckled. The change effected in mules and in red steak fruit was also mentioned. It was likewise urged, that there are many of the Jews black, who yet are very strict in not mingling with other nations; and that Europeans, by continuing to inhabit in Africa, have been found to turn black, and that Blacks in England, after a few generations, become white; and that wild asparagus, which is very small and sticky [i.e. stick-like], being planted in gardens, and heightened with dung, becomes large and soft.”

Seen in this (strange) light, de la Croix's print might thus be read as activating coral as a governing model for material transformation. That is, where coral models the marvelous transfiguration of liquid bronze into sculpted blood—or, if you like, of monstrous, feminine abjection into gleaming, virtuosic  artifice—for Cellini, Poussin and his academic followers, it provides a gloss upon the more humble transformations at work in and as de la Croix's print. White paper reads as black female body when impressed with ink. Like the coral, the chameleon or even the curling snake who will shed its skin, perhaps one of the possible readings of this image (following the Royal Society passage) is that those attributes are themselves in ongoing flux. Change and transformations may still yet be unfolding.

Fossils, Photography, Painting

In his contribution to Jim Elkins's volume Photography Theory, literary critic Walter Benn Michaels takes a claim from Hiroshi Sugimoto (whose Devonian Period, gelatin silver print of 1992 we see at left) whereby photography stands in some meaningful relation to fossils. Neither are, so this claim goes, only  representations. And perhaps, as Michaels suggests, neither are representations at all. Fossils and photographs are both made from objects such that those replicated targets become "causally indispensable" to the resulting petrification or chemical image in ways that are simply irreconcilable with pictorial techniques like painting. (Michaels, 432) While a broader aim of this course is to problematize the model of photography that Michaels has in mind, the preliminary question for today is: what does this assertion assume about fossils? More to the point, following on from what we saw last week with Boschini and his delight in the distance of Titian's stains and marks from intentionality, how plausible is the conception of painting to which Michaels is juxtaposing his conception of the fossil/photo?

As a way into those questions, we began with two early modern texts on those artifacts we know now as fossils. For Nehemiah Grew (from whose Musaeum Regalis Societatis [1681] the images at left are taken), Michaels's contention that fossils need some prior object to transform would have been highly tendentious. While he acknowledges that it is fashionable to claim that fossils are natural bodies petrified, Grew also asks: why might we not imagine that that Nature has redeployed the "plastic virtue" by which terrestrial bodies are normally formed, but done so in the colder, wetter bowels of the earth for fun? (Grew, 254) After all, if comparable techniques of embedding "pictures" into stones could be practiced by contemporary artisans (as the piece we read from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London shows) and if so-called fossils could be dissolved in acid (Grew, 267), then surely the higher artifice of Nature could produce these marvelous sports. Grew puts it this way: "There can be no convincing Argument given, why the Salts of Plants, or Animal Bodies, washed down with Rains, and lodged under ground; should not there be disposed into such like figures, as well as above it? Probably, in some cases, much better, as in a colder place; and where therefore the Work not being done in a hurry, but more slowly, may be so much the more regular." (Grew, 254) 
Contra Michaels, then, objects in the world only appear to be "causally indispensable" to fossil-production. In fact, Nature  is just playing games—an idea with an extensive early modern pedigree. Curiously enough, though, Grew also goes on to compare the manner by which these "pictures" of natural forms get embedded into rock with what he calls images "cast through a Glass (as Kepler shews the way sometimes of taking Landskips) upon a Tablet in a Dark Room." So as with Michaels, we might say, Grew ends up likening camera-(obscura)-based image-making to fossils anyway. 

Contemporary to Grew, Robert Hooke took a radically different position on fossilization. The sea shells found on the tops of mountains were, he contends, once lay at the bottom of oceans. (Hooke, 324) If incredibly hard rock like flint was once so fluid that it could envelop shells, then the earth must be massively susceptible to radical changes. Indeed, Hooke continues, a model of the created earth organized around the governing influence of gravity would be an onion-layer system with the densest metals at the core and lighter materials grouped like-to-like progressively outward toward the periphery. This, Hooke explains, is why gold is so often found in mountains, where the forceful violence of earthquakes has forced subterranean materials upwards. Unlike Grew, then, there is no space for nature to playfully represent her standard form in the cold, wet space of the earth; indeed, the earth is not cold and wet at all for Hooke. Instead, the reason that we find fossils like the ammonites at left is that they have been petrified and then thrust into the earth through Nature's convulsive violence.

Thomas Willis's conception of the means by which the material body and the incorporeal soul communicate are among the closest engagements with "liquid intelligence" to be found in the seventeenth century. Drawing from optics, alchemy, mechanics and extensive anatomical research, Willis explains how the blood is heated and rarefied into animal spirits, then blown upward like a fountain through the fleshy folds of the brain. Unlike chemical liquids, though, the animal spirits can carry with them representational information ("Images of their Objects") by which the faculties of the soul are informed of data perceived by the senses. And these swirling liquids interface with the soul in a truly remarkable piece of visual projection in "the inferior Chamber of the soul, glased with dioptric Looking-Glasses; in the Penetralia or inmost parts of which, the Images or Pictures of all sensible things, being sent or intromitted by the Passages of the Nerves, as it were by Pipes or strait holes, ... are represented upon the Callous Body [of the Brain], as it were upon a white Wall; and so induce a Perception, and a certain Imagination of the thing felt." (Willis, 24-5) So, the blood is filled with images which the soul can see once projected onto or through the hermetic glass casement that surrounds its seat in the watery depths of the brain. Because these images are then saved by the soul, they become the basis for rational thought and reflection. 

Photo-sensitivity is central to the accounts of William Petty and William Cole, who also links it to fossilization. Petty begins his account of dyeing (published in Thomas Sprat's 1667 History of the Royal-Society of London) by emphasizing how central to the study of light would be to any exhaustive understanding of liquid dyeing practices. (Sprat, 284-5) Petty then goes on to demonstrate how material supports need to be prepared to receive dye (see Sprat 290), and much work is required "to fix" the dye's coloration. (Sprat, 302-3) Cole, meanwhile, takes a delight as much in his capacity to fix color as to observe its temporal evolution. In his correspondence on shell-fish dye from the mid-1680s, Cole sets out a complex account of the times of year when the dye can be fashioned—the season in which the shell-fish can be harvested and how long their innards need to be exposed to the sun to make images. (Cole, 233) He takes great delight in juxtaposing fossils (a specimen of which he claims "will puzle Mr. Hooke and the rest of the ingenious Gentlemen who will have them to be petrified shells of fishes"), which seem to be painted by Nature (along similar lines as that of Grew), with his photosensitive dye, which is painted by hand but then transformed by the sun.

What can we conclude from all of this? Well, first off, Michaels certainly moves in a venerable tradition when he likens camera-made images to fossils. Whether or not objects "cause" their images to be made in either domain, a central theme in this collision holds that human agency or intentionality is somehow put into abeyance when these visual forms are generated. Nature is playing games. Or, if a human intervention is required to ready a chemical support or to provide an optical projection, it is the sun that then does the work in making an image appear in time. Now, if all this flies in the face of the ideology of artistic nobility promoted by Poussin—if this solar agency departs from the dark, sunless spaces commanded by the masterful maker of oil painting in van Mander's narration of Van Eyck—it seems to how close to the model of Titian's painting and period reception described by Philip Sohm. "Venetian painting," as Sohm puts it, describing Marco Boschini's views, "is a 'form without form, or rather form deformed'; it finds its 'true formation in fluid form.'" (Sohm, 124) How, then, do we explain this persist conception of painting (to which Michaels clearly subscribes; see 444) as a pure exercise of human will and intentionality whereas photography—like fossilization—is mired in a quasi-magical domain of objects that make their own images?

Friday, February 3, 2012



One of our themes from last time was how attempts to reckon with the liquid image often collapse  elevated, artistic vitality and corporeal abjection. It is as if the image with a "life of its own" often has back hair! If Benvenuto Cellini (in Michael Cole's) account succeeds in ennobling the seemingly menial task of bronze casting and, thus,  enfolding Renaissance Florence's supreme masters of marble sculpture into the fictional field crafted by his medium, he does so by imagining the flowing pour of molten bronze as a cascade of coagulating blood. Where Albrecht Durer extends the project of Jan van Eyck still one stage further in Joseph Leo Koerner's telling by claiming authorship for an image "made without human hands" (acheiropoieton) and then representing the face of God with Durer's own features, he does so by modeling that picture upon an image made from sweat—the mythical sudarium or veil of Veronica. As Karel van Mander's historical account relates how Jan van Eyck's incredible oil paintings were sniffed and smelled by Italian painters not yet in on his alchemical secret, Jim Elkins admits that the painter's bewitching materials nevertheless bear an undeniable similarity to excrement. And as he crafts his entrancing, Sisyphean project of liquid picture-making (see above), Oscar Muñoz does so by throwing it down on the sun-baked pavement where it constantly loses form "like a spider or spit."

Our readings for today asked us to take a decidedly higher, drier road. They ask us to meditate upon the dangers of the watery image or, more to the point, of the images made by water. In Richard Neer's reading of Poussin, the dying figures of Narcissus and Echo are chastening warnings to the followers of Caravaggio who would simply copy appearances or "aspects" of nature rather than engaging in Poussin's emulative model of classicizing invention from imitation—the active appropriation and recombination of a variety of motifs from learned sources. (Neer, 274; 275; 277-8) That model is figured in and around the god Bacchus who is being reborn in the picture's darkened grotto. So, this God of Wine reborn is the living, vital image of true painting; but, if we expect him to appear optically wet—to render visible those outward trappings of his liquidity—then we are but in thrall to that pernicious, flattening of art into the mechanical replication Poussin saw in prints. (This reading might finally help me to work past my loathing of the arid, ascetic dryness of Poussin's paintings!)

Eve too, in John Milton's telling, is confused about which image tradition to follow. Adam's image, made from his flesh and blood, she awakens and espies a bewitching, lovely presence in the "liquid plain" of Paradise's pool. But, unlike Echo to Eve's feminine Narcissus, Adam can actively call her out of her reverie, alerting her that this is but her own reflection she sees. Appealing to something like Poussin's internally-differentiated, imitative tradition of reproduction, Adam encourages Eve to turn away from her own water-reflected image and embrace "he / Whose image thou art, him thou shall enjoy / Inseparably thine, to him thou shall enjoy / Multitudes like thyself, and hence shall be called / Mother of human race." (Milton IV, 471-475) Like Hari in Tarkovsky's Solaris, Eve has been made from Adam by an intelligent agent—God, in the case; not a watery planet. Yet, offered this prodigious, replicative order, she resists. She turns back to the softer, watery image she originally saw in the pool.

This capacity of the pool to transform the luminous world into an image more compelling than itself is given interesting treatment by Bachelard: "It then seems as though contemplated nature helps in the contemplating. ... Is it the lake or the [human] eye which contemplates better? The lake or pool or stagnant water stops us near its bank. It says to our will: you shall go no further; you should go back to looking at distant things, at the beyond. While you were wandering, something here was already looking on. The lake is a large tranquil eye. The lake takes all of light and makes a world out of it." (Bachelard, 28) Clearly, this is treading similar ground to Housekeeping; but, it also makes fascinating address to Poussin who defines painting as " 'an Imitation with lines and colors on any surface of all that is to be found under the sun.'" (Neer, 274) Yet, Poussin represses from his Birth of Bacchus the figure he had planned of the Sun God Apollo. (Neer 278-9) Why?

How might Bachelard's curious comment that "in Bruges, every mirror is stagnant water," help us to understand Lucas de Heere's praise poem whereby the Ghent altar piece is both a mirror and the sea? (Van Mander 62) How does the solar scope of painting for Poussin compare or contrast to the antagonism between the sun and the unctuous image for Muñoz and for Van Eyck? (57) Does the scabby surface of the stained Venetian picture according to Sohm problematize the portrait of liquid generativity painted by Neer? Let me get back to you on that one.