Q&A: Alexander Nagel introduces Medieval Modern

Our groundbreaking title Medieval Modern offers a radical new reading of art since the Middle Ages and sheds fresh light on the deep connections between modern and pre-modern art. In this fascinating interview, author Alexander Nagel talks to Kaiya Stone about the origins of the book and highlights works that have inspired and influenced its creation.

Medieval Modern

What fascinates you about the temporal lives of artworks? Can art live outside of its time; is it timeless?

Art is always of its time and reveals the imprint of its time in its style, references, and general make-up: that is the premise of the history of art as an academic discipline. But it is also true that art is very good at confounding time; at times that is its primary function. Very often, it reaches back into history (think of all the artworks that are commemorative, or that come in for restoration, or that are themselves restorations of one sort or another). But art also comes packed with messages for later times, even if that message is as simple as “So-and-so existed, and now you are aware of that fact.” Artworks regularly give their future viewers the thrill of a present-tense dialogue with the past. Art is different from other manufactured items, such as tools, in that it is designed to carry meaning, and it is just a fact that that usually involves some compression of temporal relations. Art is spring-loaded for time travel. There are artworks that actually remain impervious to the chronological orderings of the most scientific art history; we just don’t know how to date them, either because they are palimpsests or because they don’t conform to the art-historical schemas of stylistic progression. (If we are going to judge artworks as to their “timeless value,” those would have to be the greatest ones.)

Which piece of medieval artwork would you say is most modern or perhaps relevant to modern times?

The point of the book is that “relevance” is always context-specific. Medieval works are reactivated at specific moments, and just as quickly fall silent. For Meyer Schapiro, writing in the 1930s, it was Romanesque art, perhaps emblematically the famous tympanum at Vézelay, because here we see a disturbance of the field of art by a new order of information coming from the real world, and a restructuring of art to handle that disturbance. For Wilhelm Pinder, writing in the 1920s, it was the fourteenth-century works of Peter Parler, because they stood at the cusp of a corporate medieval church art meant to be experienced through perambulation, and a modern, “authored” spatial environment meant to be comprehended in one commanding view. For Marcel Duchamp, thinking about the border between art and non-art in the 1910s, the category of the reliquary was, I believe, of critical importance; at the very least, reliquaries are very useful to us, now, in coming to terms with the logic of the readymade and its various adaptations throughout the twentieth century. For Dan Flavin, Russian icon painting, in particular an icon from Novgorod in the Metropolitan Museum, flared into urgent relevance; it was a way out of a specific and very contemporary impasse for painting in 1960-61. For Heiner Friedrich, thinking of new ways to display site-specific work in the 1970s, Giotto’s Arena Chapel was a critical organizing model. Ilya Kabakov could not stop thinking about the Sainte Chapelle as he was installing his Communal Kitchen of 1991.

But perhaps your question was addressed to me, personally. As I was writing this book, the Jerusalem chapel in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome was a constant inspiration. According to tradition, the chamber contained relics brought back from Jerusalem by Saint Helena in the fourth century (now housed in another part of the church) and was literally paved with earth from the site of the Crucifixion “soaked in the blood of Christ,” which Helena had transported in shiploads from Jerusalem. The chapel was thus literally a transplanted patch of Jerusalem in Rome. To accede to the ancient chapel one has to walk down a ramp to a level below that of the church, an archeological descent through time but also a topographical/topological fold, as one steps from Rome into Jerusalem. For me, this earthwork and all the pieces that make up the chapel are something to hold up to contemporary installation art, in order to learn more about both the medieval and the contemporary works.

What do you feel an artist/ someone new to medieval art/ an expert on either medieval art or modernism might take from your book?

I want readers to be inspired to think outside of the dominant linear narratives of modern and contemporary art. I feel that artists often do this anyway, taking inspiration where they can find it, cutting across period lines, but that they do it as it were in secret. I met Kiki Smith, unfortunately after I had finished writing this book, and said to her, “Sorry, but I am just going to ask you a very forthright question: is medieval art important to you?” She breathed a long sigh, and answered, “I don’t think there is one thing I’ve made that is not in intensive dialogue with one or another work of medieval art,” and then went on to detail her various encounters with medieval works and churches throughout Europe. I had suspected some interest on her part, but nothing like this!

I am hoping that this book will say to artists: “What you are doing actually has a history—it has gone into a lot of the modern art you know!” I don’t just want to give them a different historical scheme to work with. I want to enable and encourage the cross-temporal relations and models they are themselves building.

As for the experts in either field, of course I want them to feel that I have not undersold the complexity and richness of the things they know well, even as I put them in new contexts. Many of them, of course, know a lot about the other field as well. For those who do not, I would hope this book encourages them to take a turn into the other field and find themselves thinking new thoughts, ones that advance their own thinking.

What was the inspiration for this book?

As I say in the first chapter, there is in fact a widespread surge of interest in this topic. In that sense, I am part of a larger historical moment, which we may describe very generally as “post-postmodern”. Postmodernism was very concerned to break with the premises of modernism, but in the process stabilized modernism as a father figure. Now, we are in a position to think through both modernism and its aftermaths in new ways.

I am trained as a specialist in Medieval and Renaissance art, but I grew up in the twentieth century. Twentieth-century developments in art and thought have informed my thinking about the earlier periods whether I have liked or acknowledged it, or not. (I do in fact like and acknowledge it.) No matter what our specialization may be, we all have to deal with the twentieth century. In this book, I have made my dealing with it explicit rather than implicit. Beyond acknowledging how the history my family and I have lived through affects how I see earlier art, for me it is natural to turn the question around: how has the medieval informed the modern?

How did you research this book?

I started with clusters where I knew medievalism was rife: the 1910s and 20s in the range between German Expressionism and Bauhaus, and the 1960s and 70s in the range between Warhol and Smithson. Working out from there, I discovered many other things.

I also concentrated on those art historians that I knew had worked in both periods: Wilhelm Worringer, Pinder, Schapiro, Lionello Venturi, Eugenio Battisti, Umberto Eco, Marshall McLuhan, Leo Steinberg, Hans Belting, and Georges Didi-Huberman. I read their works, of course, but I also looked carefully at their circles. Which artists were they close to?

I also made use of oral history. Some of the people who participated in this history are still alive! It is hard to overestimate the wonder of this fact for someone who normally studies artists buried at least five hundred years ago. Whenever I found myself in the company of artists and of specialists in twentieth-century art, I asked them to name a moment when the medieval became interesting or relevant to them. I hope I have been able to credit properly all the things I learned this way.

Is there a pair of artworks that you would say typifies the relationships you talk about in the book?

The 6th century “Palestine box” now in the Vatican and the Franklin Non-site by Robert Smithson now in the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. I like the idea that Smithson did not actually know the medieval box, and yet there they are – such spectacularly similar things! It just seems to break all the rules of historical propriety. What interests me is the fact that they don’t just look alike; their deep logic is in fact similar. Not the same, but comparable enough so that the differences that emerge are really interesting differences, differences that open up new thinking about both the medieval object and the modern work.

Palestine Box (top)

Palestine Box

Do you feel you have exhausted the topic in this book or is it a topic you feel you might return to with a different focus?

At a certain point in the writing of the book I realized: this is not a book, this is a field! So I decided I would be openly selective, working on certain fertile areas as it were heuristically, to show how a study like this could be conducted. I am now certain that there is much, much more work like this to be done. If readers start to respond by saying things like, “How is it possible he left out Matisse’s stained glass work?” or “He completely missed the medieval aspect of performance art – I mean, Vito Acconci almost entered a doctoral program in medieval studies!” or “Video art is in fact deeply medieval; his schema just couldn’t allow it,” then I know we will be off and running; the book will have served its purpose.

Is style simply always cyclical or is there such a thing as true originality in art?

The thing about these relations is that they almost never have to do with style, or with content (such as religious iconography). I decided early on I was not really interested in Georges Rouault’s Crucifixions. The relations I am interested in work at a deeper structural level, the level of artistic modalities or organizing concerns: site-specificity and multi-media installations, concerns over idolatry and iconoclasm, the problem of authorship and non-authorship, viewer participation and ritual, singularity and replication, and the frontier between art and non-art.

These issues come up urgently in both medieval and twentieth-century art, and it is no surprise that they come up in very different ways and with starkly different results. Different, yet worth understanding in relation to one another. And often enough it is the artists who feel the relevance and necessity of the relation.

So there is no question here of notifying people that there is nothing new under the sun. On the contrary! It is never the case, in my account of it, that the modern turns out to be a big déjà-vu, but rather that the medieval turns out, at various junctures and in particular ways, to be contemporary.

Alexander Nagel

For more information about Medieval Modern, click here.

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