medieval art history, navel gazing, horizon scanning
Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Hunting and Gathering (uh, Harriet the Spy is for Iris)
The upcoming New Chaucer Society meeting is on my mind, and making me think both about last year's Kalamazoo paper (on stained glass as interpretation in The Book of the Duchess) and this year's round table (Animate Objects and Ecologies) and all of the other projects that are pending, but available to lucid contemplation in the suspended state that is summer. I want to write in all directions (about the storms, about the shape of the St. Fiacre project, about the wonderful intersections of the disparate books I'm reading, about a soon-to-be publicized Call for Papers that I (gulp) will be putting Out There), but each of those is its own thing. Enough tonight to celebrate the gracious wonder of friends, three muses who teach at the University of Chicago and who invited me to come up for the day to talk about book chapters, projects, and Things Medieval. Virginity, allegory, materiality, nature - four different projects, yet intertwined by the time the day was over. My own thinking about an eco-critical art history is becoming more layered, starting to include questions about the motivations of representing nature: how does the visualization of nature conceptualize nature? I can isolate some of what I would consider "natural matter" (stone, wood, gem, vellum, I could easily go on) used in making medieval art - but pressed to identify representations of nature in medieval art, I couldn't easily name "landscape," "animal," "plant," as isolated examples because natural things are so deeply intertwined with human existence - is there even a nature "out there" in medieval art (culture)? Nonetheless, I still wonder about a medieval response to nature - was it aesthetic? was it framed by...? (When I put this to Mac (the modernist, mind you) he said "No, the response was more likely to be one of terror." Ponder). I feel myself moving closer to certain medieval objects (certain landscapes, back to the alabaster panels, the plants of the St. Fiacre choir screen) - but still wanting to read gobs more. And so off to the Seminary Co-Op, treasure trove of my graduate school years, generous haven of possibility. Graduate school was brutally competitive (huge M.A. classes winnowed to tiny PhD co-horts) and my experiences at a southern women's college, imbued with hazelnut coffee and backrubs and the smell of clove cigarettes while we read each other the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (good lord, it's all true), had done little to prepare me to be tough. But the Seminary Co-Op reminded me blissfully that I could always read, always learn more, always find something new. And to this day, I marvel at what it proffers up: classics I've always wanted like Michael Baxandall's The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (let materiality reign supreme!); complete and utter wild cards like Philip Fisher's Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetic of Rare Experiences (I couldn't resist the possibility of learning about Descartes's description of a rainbow); and then what promises to be an astounding experience, Amy Knight Powell's Depositions; Scenes from the Late Medieval Church and the Modern Museum (each chapter has a medieval section and a modern vignette, so "Crucifixes with Moveable Arms" (back to the marionettes!) is paired with the vignette "Marcel Duchamp's Unhappy Readymade (1919)" - I will read the medieval and Mac will read the modern and it shall be good. This (the search, the serendipity, the discovery, the reading) is the fundamental pleasure that frames viewing works of art - sometimes, it is the fundamental pleasure itself. And lastly, too: driving home, plunging back into the vast expanse of Indiana seen from the highway, this time under a pink-to-orange moon and between the hundreds and hundreds of windmills that make up the enormous wind farm I have come to love, tonight, each windmill blinking a red light, stretching an impossible hem across the horizon.