Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Storied Matter

The past few days days have been a mess of eroding civil rights, further stratification, bad faith, false pieties, nasty politics, worse governing, and general awfulness. Here is an excellent analysis of why Indiana's so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by our ignominious governor Mike Pence this past week, is so awful. Facebook has been alight with anger and frustration as our hopelessly jerrymandered state was twisted by its legislators into a place in which a business could now legally, in the name of its owners' religious "freedom" (ack! I can still barely write this nonsense), turn away an LGBT person. There's been much talk of "Christian florists" and "Christian cakemakers" as of course this is a right-wing response to the thriving of marriage equality. There's been tremendous protests, and businesses pulling out of the state and events canceled, and lots and lots of call for repealing the law. We'll see. I'm very cautiously hopeful: it's clear the people of the state don't want it, but the legislators (Pence foremost among them), all have their sights set on political careers that might benefit from snuggling with the extreme right. Fools. Hateful fools. Pence backtracked a mile this morning (even claiming that he "abhors" discrimination, that he was a Democrat (gasp!) in high school, and that he's been to Selma - Lord), so maybe, maybe there's a turn coming. Again, we'll see. In the meantime, everyday life here sucks: there was doubt and mistrust everywhere over the week-end, as customers and businesses both are trying to figure out who is what to whom now. Being straight, I can ask if a business is willing to serve LGBT customers with impunity - a nasty privilege. Being a decent human being, I can't believe we are having to deal with this idiocy. A bright, weird connection was made for me this week-end to the theoretical issues of a paper I gave this past week-end in Minneapolis (more on the conference in another post) on "storied matter." The term comes from Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann's brilliant introduction to the spectacular collection, Material Ecocriticism and prizes the "configurations of meanings" that emerge in the interdependence of material forms. I was thrilled to find a resonance with this idea in Linda Seidel's Legends in Limestone, in which she characterizes the tympanum of Autun as "material narrative" - memory and story moving into matter. For me, this week-end, in the very mundane act of grocery shopping, the intersection of storied matter and identity came into painful contact. The food I eat, the people I've spoken to casually these past fourteen years of living here, the businesses and restaurants I've frequented with friends, for projects, in the company of the kids - all of them exist on shifting ground now; all of them are taking on another layer of story. With not a little anxiety, I composed an e-mail to the farmer of our CSA, who is a very devout Christian who home-schools his children (a sign of conservatism if coupled with Christianity around here) to ask him about his intentions around the law. His eggs and vegetables totally matter to our family - I know that something so small and mundane shouldn't (especially as I am inspired to think of these things out of a paper on precious objects), but in their smallness and mundanity, they shape the reality of our everyday lives, they shape the trust of our bodies. Before I could send the e-mail, the farmer sent out an e-mail to his entire CSA and spoke gladly of love and of not letting legislators dictate Christianity to him, of providing for all and of Happy Easter. I think that there will be more moments like that than the other kind, and maybe I don't have to fear that our little (really little, 10,000 people) town will pull apart, will polarize around this issue. None of this is over, as the state legislation gathers to "clarify" the language so that it does not allow for discrimination. In the meantime, I felt apple, asparagus, and bread come alive differently beneath my fingers, as I wondered about the beliefs of those who brought them into being. There's an intimacy, to food especially perhaps (and I think of the trust that we all bring forward when we sit down to share a meal in public or in private), that is startling here - that was amplified for me by the intersection of "making and becoming" that I talked about in my paper. If you have an especially big cup of coffee, you are welcome to stay for the paper. Otherwise, just please hope that civil rights and human decency will prevail in Indiana.

“Declarative Materiality: Inscription and Artistic Process in Medieval Art” (I would now subtitle it: "Making and Becoming in Medieval Art")

"Letters are shapes indicating voices.  Hence they represent things which they bring to mind through the windows of the eyes. Frequently they speak voicelessly the utterances of the absent." When John of Salisbury made this declaration in his Metalogicon from 1159, he engaged the multiplicity of voices and identities involved in the experience of writing in the Middle Ages. By no means confined to the manuscript page, medieval letters projected the voices of authors, scribes, artists, patrons, supplicants, saints, and God himself from an array of surfaces including metal, stone, wood, ivory, and even gems. This dynamic of voice and materiality exemplifies what Jeffrey Hamburger, in his book Script as Image, has called "the plenitude packed into medieval representations of letters," (57).

In many instances, inscriptions on works of art spoke to the artistic process itself. For our work together, I have chosen two inscriptions from the High Middle Ages, one of an intimate the other of a communal scale, that are variants on a phrase of making: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN ("Alfred had me made") and GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT ("Gislebertus made this"). These inscriptions will hold our attention because of the particular placement of the inscriptions upon the work of art, and what it might reveal to us about the act of making by the artist, and about the event of becoming for the image.

Both inscriptions occur at crucial transitional spaces of the art object: wrought in gold as its frame, or carved in limestone to frame two distinct spaces. Knowledge of gold-smithing, and sculpture are re-marked upon by the presence of the inscriptions, and consequently draw attention to the material process and boundary of the image. In occupying these liminal sites, the inscriptions, I will argue, collapse a series of binaries we have come to expect in art history, between subject and object, representation and presence, animate and inanimate, human and non-human, and material and discursive. The result, I believe, is a call for us to reconsider how being attentive to the making of images can provoke a welcome entanglement between artist, audience, and art. In seeking these moments of "entanglement" provoked by inscriptions, I am inspired by the language and ideas of the material ecocriticism of Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman, whose call for a materially shared existence presents a productive way to keep the making of art part of its perpetually emergent becoming – an art historical mode to which I will return in my conclusion.


The Alfred Jewel, betw. 871-899
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
During his reign from 871 to 899, King Alfred the Great of Wessex made a series of gifts to all the bishops in his realm to invigorate, some have said to instill, readership in his leading clergy. Accompanying King Alfred's own Old English translation of Pope Gregory the Great's Cura pastoralis (On pastoral care), each bishop received an aestel, a "little spear" from the Latin hastula – a pointer for reading. Designed to be both cradled in the hand, as well as slid along the surface of the manuscript page, this pointer guided the reader across the letters of sanctified writing and amplified the sacrality and authority of the text. This remarkable aestel is now known as the Alfred Jewel both for its material splendor and for its inscription reading AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN ("Alfred had me made").

The letters are both binding and boundary to a rock crystal from Roman antiquity re-carved to cover an enameled figure, long thought to be Saint Cuthbert, but now, through iconographic corroboration, more usually identified as the allegory of Sight. The wide eyes of the figure of Sight are amplified by those of a dragon whose mouth would have held the ivory, bone, or wood pointer that tracked the reading.

To hold the Alfred Jewel is to join hands with a master goldsmith working in 20k gold, a high level of purity of the material that indicates its import, most likely from the Middle East, Spain, or southern France. Anchoring his hold on the dragon's head with his fingers, and feeling the rock crystal hub of the aestel press against his palm, our bishop reader would have felt the aestel 's insistent, and wondrously transformative materiality, even as it guided his spiritual reading. The soft bumps of the meticulous filigree that ropes around both the bottom and the top of the inscription are reconfigured to become the texture of the dragon's skin in the filigreed surface of its head animated by the reader's gestures dragging the aestel across the manuscript page. The aestel is a "moving" work of art in all sense of the word: it is seldom still, perpetually engaged in the emergence of its own letters and forms, of the text beneath its pointer, and of its owner as reader.

The letters of the aestel themselves are not only molded in a proportionate harmony that stretches all the way around the rock crystal, they are also marked with interior lines to accentuate their volume and fullness, materializing their words in resonance with the materialization of the words enabled by the medieval practice of reading which called for enunciation out loud, in contrast to our silent reading today. Citing the notable difficulty and expertise of the craftsmanship, Ben Tilghman has suggested that the inscription be translated not only as "Alfred had me made" but rather as "Alfed had me worked" which aligns even more closely with the old English wyrcean (to work). The painstaking work of the aestel may be not just a sign of luxury, but also one of labor, and the legible, tangible traces of the artist's hand (in the expert work of filigree, re-carving, setting, sculpting, and inscribing) project an expertise and a labor of making. When considering only the static object stilled by a museum display, it is the aestel itself that speaks most immediately: "Alfred had me, the aestel, worked." But when the object emerges into its function as a pointer for the reading of valuable text, the experiences and identities of the artist and the reader are brought into play, and we can start to consider how the artist was "worked" or "made" by such an important commission; as well as how the bishop is being "worked" or "made" into the reader King Alfred desires (nay, ordains) him to be. The knowledge of the aestel, in its intimacy with the text, the knowledge of the artist, in his intimacy with the materials, and the knowledge of the reader, in learning the content of the sacred text become interdependent. Making is entangled with becoming; labor, effort, and expertise materialize as endeavors shared by the aestel, the artist, and the reader.

Fluid ontologies, in which one thing becomes another energize the poems that have come to be known as "Anglo-Saxon riddles." Written down around the year 1000, but in existence through oral tradition for generations before then, the riddles begin with one state of being of a material and traces it through its manipulations and manufactures as it becomes another entity entirely. Thus, Riddle 24 begins in the voice of the animal whose hide is used to make a manuscript and ends in the voice of the holy book that will save a man's soul. Throughout the poem, the "I" is constant, even though the identity is fluid. So, too, I am suggesting, the "me" of the Alfred Jewel fluctuates in identities, even as it remains the same making a distinction between subject and object (between artist, aestel, and audience) moot.

The effort of the aestel in being made, that of the artist in making, and that of the reader in becoming are entangled around the object so that, while here I can hold them apart through analysis, in the act and gestures of reading, making and becoming become enmeshed for all three. By picking up the aestel, the reader becomes a part of a community of readers, authorized by the king, sanctified by precious materials, and sealed by knowledge.


The tympanum of Autun cathedral was sculpted in limestone in the 1120s and 30s. Depicting a Last Judgment with a Heaven and Hell frenetic enough to provoke the cathedral's canons to plaster the entire surface over in the 18th-century, the material presence of bodies writhing in apocalyptic agony was too insistent even 600 years after their sculpting. Autun's tympanum continues to stir passions and provoke controversies,

few more passionate and controversial than what and whom are meant by the inscription GISLEBERTUS HOC FECIT ("Gislebertus made this") which succinctly wedged itself amidst the words of Christ at the Last Judgment. The 1999 publication of Legends in Limestone by Linda Seidel questioned, and some will say over-turned, the heroic narrative that a single artist is signified by the phrase, a narrative which had had traction since it was first suggested by George Zarnecki and Denis Grivot in 1960. Wresting "Gislebertus hoc fecit" from the status of a signature to that of an inscription, Seidel's research argued for the phrase carved into the tympanum as a "stone charter" within what she calls a "material narrative" – a heavily material inscription meant to evoke the name of the last Carolingian duke of the late 10th century in a region still tumultuously ruled by the Capetians in the 12th-century of the cathedral's construction. Medieval art historians have been grudging about giving up the unified identity of the "medieval Michaelangelo" as Gislebertus-as-artist had been dubbed. Gislebertus-as-ancestor is a much more fragmented identity, as Seidel's argument positions it, diffused across memory and history. But even, or I would say especially, as an inscription signaling a donor rather than an artist, "Gislebertus hoc fecit" speaks to the effort of making as it elides with that of becoming in the after-life.

As with the Alfred Jewel, though on a radically different scale, we stand before a work of art that announces the effort of its making. The figures of Autun cathedral still sway and stretch with detailed and unusual torment. There is writhing even in Heaven, as resurrecting souls cling to angels' wings in escaping the call of a trumpet of the Last Judgment, and seize the hands of St. Peter in a final plea. A particularly burdened angel is embraced around the hips by a desperate soul while hoisting another wriggling soul's insistently heavy "body" into the architecture of Heaven above.

One of the most poignant scenes in Hell performs the sculptural and acrobatic feat of positioning a figure on the supports of the Scales of Judgment, as he calls out (oh to hear those words!) to the Heavenly side, leaning against the scale, willing and weighing the scales to lean in St. Michael's favor against the grappling demons. In these scenarios of reaching and striving, the making and carving of the limestone sculpture is insistent in the weight and effort of the figures. Angels' wings are thick with stone; hopeful souls are heavy as rock; saints' robes stretch up in slabs. Once again, the effort of the artist is amplified, and identities become fluid, not by and with a reader this time, but through the yearning figures on display for a viewer hopeful or even fervent for salvation. The figures of Autun exist in the dynamic tension between the transcendence of reaching for Heaven and a world weighed down by pathos.

The stone inscriptions speaking the words of Christ in this heavy Heaven take on a significant role as the only element containing the emerging masses of resurrecting souls from their heavenly or hellish destinations. Christ is framed by his own words on the mandorla that encircles him: "I alone dispose of all things and crown the just, those who follow crime I judge and punish."

"Thus shall rise again everyone who does not lead an impious life and endless light of day shall shine for him" reads the inscription separating Heaven from the resurrection.

"Here let fear strike those whom earthly error binds. For their fate is shown by the horror of these figures" stretches out beneath Hell, at one point punctured by the grasping claws of a devil snatching a soul even before its judgment at the scales. These words become material in their enunciation, for as they are traced with the eye or read aloud by a voice, the internal rhymes of the disyllabic leonine hexameters of the inscriptions emerge.

·      Omnia dispono solus meritoque corono
·      Quose scelus exercet me iudice pena coercet

·      Quiseque resurget ita quem non trahit impia vita
·      Et lucebit ei sine fine lucerne diei

·      Terreat hic terror quos terreus alligat error
·      Nam fore sic verum notat hic horror specierum

As the visual space is crowded with figures, so the words around the tympanum are made thick with rhyme. In the midst of this structured, rhyming language emerges "Gislebertus hoc fecit" as a disruptive presence – neither rhyming, nor coupled, unattached, a signifier floating more than ever since Linda Seidel unmoored it from the heroic narrative of the solitary artist. Who speaks these words? Would Christ interrupt Himself in thundering his leonine rhyme? The time and place of the speaking remains open-ended, blurring distinctions of the here-and-now and the hereafter, stretching across past time and future time, sustaining multiple states of being. The Gislebertus inscription bridges words and worlds, collapsing human and divine time and space, and offering immediacy through the knowledge and insistence of its own heavy making.


These two brief excurses around inscriptions that speak (to) the making of their objects seek to expand our understanding of the artistic process in medieval art, not just in the act of creation, but in the lasting fascination with making and becoming. Inscriptions keep works of art "in progress" – they keep the act of making current and perpetual through their evocations of what I have called "fluid ontologies," those identities and states of becoming (of artist, audience, and art object) that gather around matter as it coalesces into event. In articulating the ideas of "material ecocriticism," Serenella Iovino and Serpil Opperman look to matter as a site of entanglement between what has been kept separate as the human and the non-human (building on the work of ecocriticism that seeks to undo the damaging binary of nature and culture). The gold, enamel, rock crystal, and limestone we have been discussing this morning constitute what Iovino and Opperman call "storied matter" – an "interchange of organic and inorganic matter, the continuity of human and nonhuman forces, and the interplay of bodily natures, all forming active composites." (Material Ecocriticism, 21). When, in the solitude of his study, the bishop picks up his golden, enameled aestel encased in rock crystal and feels the edges of the letters of its inscription in his palm, he engages the king's favor, his own religious knowledge, and an intimacy with materials that join in the concerted effort of making him (into) a reader. When, in the narrow, crowded viewing space of the tympanum of Autun, the pilgrim looks up to the bodies of souls yearning within stone and hears the inscriptions read aloud to the community around her, she becomes entangled in the time and place of the here-and-now and the hereafter, her own knowledge of Heaven and Hell made vivid by weighty stone, and the potentiality of her being in salvation. "Storied matter," here as highlighted by inscriptions but with a multiplicity of possible applications to works of art, has great potential for art history in the Material Turn, as the field opens up the concept of making to include the "shared becoming" of artist, audience, and art.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

On the Non-Mimetic Representation of Nature

You'll want to start with the evocative synopsis that Steve Mentz shares of "Transition, Scale, and Catastrophe."

Borneo, Indonesia
40,000 years ago
Of the many memories entangling Karl Steel with oysters, Stephanie LeMenager with graphic novels, Lynn Tomlinson with Holland Island House, myself with Holbein's Ambassadors, Steve Mentz with the Shipwreck of The Amsterdam, and Stacy Alaimo with deep sea creatures, the recurrent problem / impulse / vortex / pleasure / challenge of REPRESENTATION continues to work away in both my sleeping and waking thoughts. My dreams have been vivid of late, perhaps because of multiple transitions (we leave tomorrow for the Midwest Art History Society conference in Minneapolis, for example), more likely because all of the entities I mention above had lives of their own in the beautiful writing of their thinkers. Oysters reached for shipwrecks and deep sea creatures, ambassadors in exile for sinking houses and graphic novels - and every kind of vice versa and combination thereof that emerged (and continues to emerge) from the ideas of each and all: the bare life and barely life of oysters; the no words and species feeling of graphic novels and art in space; the perpetual becoming and undoing of a house represented in clay on glass; the melancholy of mimesis, not just for the ambassadors; the acts and words and images of living in, not just or necessarily through, the shipwreck; the simultaneous discovery and destruction of deep sea life. These are the entities that keep coming together to ask insistently: and so how will you represent us? Not here, not in a blog post, or now - but as a practice. Our day keeps making me think of the mimetic modes of representation of (what has quite possibly become a separate realm precisely through these modes!) of nature (or Nature, or the natural world, or what we keep calling all of these things that exist in perspectival continuity and rupture with the human). And so, some specific challenges:

1) To think and represent non-mimetically. To not assume perceptual continuity between myself and what is presented to me visually about a realm dubbed separate and natural. To look for what Steve Mentz called "mimetic breaks" - those moments when the oyster recedes from my perception and use into its own murky depths; those moments when I'm not sure what I'm seeing (as happened in Lynn's marvelous film, or Stephanie's descriptions of FutureCoast); those moments not safeguarded by what Stacy called "guiltless wonder." But instead, a way of seeing what has been called nature as hovering between the recognizable and the unrecognizable. Why on earth would this be productive, or even do-able, you ask? Because mimesis, the imitation of the visual world, exercises a control we have come to believe is real and absolute. Mimesis is marvelous (any detail of The Ambassadors can still send me); and mimesis is dangerous (it is an illusion of the perceptual world that we have taken as a reality). And so, I feel this call to think non-mimetically, or (as I tried to do in "Anamorphic Reach)" to think beyond mimesis. Right now, it's the handprints of Paleolithic cave painting that are opening up possibilities for me: perhaps because of their immediacy - these are not images that are mimetic of hands, these are images by hands: they acknowledge human intervention, they mark it and keep it, and sing of the meeting of human flesh and lithic surface mediated by paint. They witness contact as much as (more than?) representation; they are the traces of an entanglement between human and environment.

Green Man, Norwich Cathedral
The fluid ontologies of the Green Man, and many an image that falls outside the Western project of verisimilitude, could join this fray. Their fantasies, their narratives, their frights, their pleasures. We can continue seeking those moments when perspective and mimesis are not assured, when the human is de-centered, when the transition between human and environment is blurred, when we're just not sure. There was a strong appeal, all day during our day together, to a critical examination of narrative and mimesis both as relational modes. So to seek or create narratives with a narrative voice diffused over time, space, and/or subjectivities. To seek, as I will keep trying to do, mimesis that shifts the relation of human to environment from one of control to one of contact (and disorientation, and lost objectivity).

2) To think about the politics of non-mimetic representation. Stacy's words continue to challenge me on this. Because in the disorientations of non-mimetic representation, might we not lose coherence altogether? Coherence needed for political action, for environmental policy, for actions in the world? This becomes the challenge, too, for me: how to do the important work of displacing human exploitation while asserting human stewardship. Stacy presented moments when fantasy narrative ("Jellyfish Gone Wild!" if you can believe it) meets scientific purpose (the connection between climate change and jellyfish swarms) at the National Science Foundation. This entangled narrative/scientific mode is new - artists like Lynn are both in and representing unchartered waters. Her film thinks through rising sea levels from the point of view of a house abandoned and submerged. I've recently come to know the images of artist Chris Jordan, which begin with the mimesis of a narrative or art image, and end in the objecthood of climate change - the incredible transition in scale culminates in the numbers of our environmental catastrophes. And please, look at Lynn's film, and please click on Chris's images (several of them!), and let's start thinking together about moving through mimetic breaks. Mimetic breakthroughs?

World enough and time, I would ask here about the non-representation of nature. I would ask about the points of contact between human and environment in my dear friend's garden in Brittany - about labor and thought and materiality. And then I'd want to ask about the mimetic impulse of all the times his garden has been photographed and awarded; about the pull to narrative, to allegory even!, that his garden provokes. I could loop back to oysters and shipwrecks and ask again. But soon we leave, and so there's dinner and packing, and what has been deemed a necessary screening of at least a couple of episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show for the children's Minneapolis preparation. Onwards to other images always.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Anamorphic Reach

Hans Holbein. The Ambassadors 
Oil on oak panel, 1533. 
National Gallery, London.
With all the thanks in the world to Jeffrey Cohen, to mathematician Christian Hoffland for consultation and companionship (and a smashing handout), and to those who shared their energy and the day at the "Transition, Scale, and Catastrophe" Symposium at George Washington University

This is some of what we know of the painting. That the year was 1533, that it was spring, that it was England, and that it was cold. That Jean de Dinteville, a French ambassador to Henry VIII's court, commissioned the painting, and that work on it was begun during the visit of de Dinteville's "intimate friend" ("ami intime"), Georges de Selves, a bishop and himself sometimes ambassador to the papal court in Rome; that after de Selves's departure, de Dinteville described himself in a letter to his brother as "the most melancholy, weary, and wearisome of ambassadors" ("le plus mélancholique, fasché et fascheux ambassadeur"). That de Dinteville commissioned the artist Hans Holbein to paint the picture during an embassy prompted by the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, an embassy prolonged by the announcement of the new queen's pregnancy. That the slashing shape in the bottom of the painting corrects to a perceptible image if you look at it from a disorienting point of view. That the instruments on the table chart time and space according to the sun and stars; that the lute has a broken string; that the books represent actual publications of the 1520s; that the floor replicates the mosaics of Westminster Abbey, and that there is a small silver crucifix in the upper left corner.

The painting is full of information. For art historian Keith Moxey, the painting's crisp and relentless verisimilitude make the painting emblematic of what he calls the "mimetic impulse" thriving in the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This compulsion to imitate, this fascination with a seemingly "naturalized" (possible, recognizable, continuous) representation of reality has long had a champion in perspective as the key mathematical tool needed to snap the picture plane into coherence and correspondence with our own. The painting's scale (6'9" by 6'10") and the placement of its persons and objects in its mathematically lucid perspective (including the shifts necessary for the anamorphic image to resolve into something recognizable to human perception) compel our fascination to know, to decipher, and otherwise figure out and, through our interpretation, master the seemingly naturalized, viable reality so carefully and possibly laid out before us.

And so scholars have plotted and calculated and charted and corresponded with the painting. Jurgis Baltrusaitis's book on Anamorphic Art devotes an entire chapter to Holbein's Ambassadors and works out the measurements of the shifts in scale and perspective provoked by the pull of the anamorphic perspective; Elly Dekker and Kristen Lippincott have calculated the precise places and times projected by both the terrestrial and celestial globes, the pillar dial, the universal equinoctial dial, the horary quadrant, the polyhedral dial, and the torquetum; the restoration team of the National Gallery, led by Martin Wyld, was able to cite the specific edition of the Lutheran hymnal open on the bottom ledge, as well as the page that the Merchants' Arithmetic book is open to; having assembled clues indicating the picture was painted on Good Friday, April 11, 1533, John David North argues for a correspondence between Holbein and none other than Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Parsons' Tale Prologue provides the astronomical information needed for North to find the date of April 16, that of the Good Friday of 1400, the year of Chaucer's death. 

The painting's information has the potential to fix it into a "right" interpretation. But the painting resists with a series of assertions that don't "make sense": the gnomons on the instruments all point to different spaces and times, breaking up the possibility of spatial and temporal coherence; some shadows project right, while others project left; the painted skull's slash causes it to hover between representational depth and representational surface in one bold mathematical stroke; de Dinteville asks his brother to keep George de Selves's visit a secret, all the while that Holbein's preparatory drawings are becoming the monumental painting we see today. And so we come to a standstill when it comes to what we know of the painting. It is replete with information, but information that folds back on itself to produce a wildly varying scale of interpretation, from portraiture to alchemy, from the rise of humanism to the Fall of Man. And so, the more you know about the painting, the less you know where to look within it for meaning; the less you 're sure what the painting is about, the more you approach Jacques Lacan's claim, in his discussion of anamorphosis and The Ambassadors, that "painting… is first of all something that is organized around emptiness" (136). In creating a "window" onto another world, perspective empties out and negates the material support of the painting (its frame, its paint) in favor of a spatial depth that is continuous with and projected to be controlled by the human imagination (this is how Erwin Panofsky, in Perspective as Symbolic Form can simultaneously discuss the "rise" of humanism, perspective, and landscape painting; this is how we might start to think of the role of mimetic visual representation in our continuing ecological crisis; beware the mimesis of the nature documentary). Anamorphic perspective (in its disturbance of the depth of linear perspective) reveals this depth to be constructed, to be empty, a human fantasy of continuity and control, willfully ignorant of the life and agency of the representational realm. For Jean-François Lyotard, the anamorphosis of The Ambassadors exists as nothing less than an "ontological act," a coming-into-being of the skull, as the viewer moves to the point of perception, an explosion of representation, and a chance for the catastrophe of death (as both human and beyond-human) to "speak" and act.

In its undoings of the expectations of constructed naturalism, I see The Ambassadors in conversation with The Ballad of Holland Island House by Lynn Tomlinson. In the shifts of scales and perspectives, the multiplicity of non-human points of view, and the revelations of and revels in realms that exist beyond human presence, these two assemblages of images ask us to think with them beyond human perception, into what I will call the "anamorphic reach," a representational mode that pulls the human towards the non-human, towards those objects and entities whose agency is occluded by the rationalized fantasy of perspective. From the opening "bird's eye view" shot of The Ballad of Holland Island House to its closing images depicting the house refracted through water, Lynn's images, and method of pulling images into being through clay, manipulates perspective and challenges perception. The anamorphic reach of The Ballad of Holland Island House, like that of Holbein's Ambassadors, displaces human perception, and questions human mastery and knowledge.

What does this painting know?

Wendy Wheeler ends her marvelous essay, "Natural Play, Natural Metaphor, Natural Stories," with a question that Holland Island House and the Ambassadors have been waiting for us to ask: "What does this painting know?" If we are to follow the anamorphic reach of these images, we must try to give up interpretive control from the human point of view. Wheeler continues, "This assumption, that the work is like an organism that knows something – no matter how potentially alien the knowing belonging to this way of life – is the productive question, the question that might bear fruit, because it recognizes that the work has a life of its own, that minds and knowledges are not confined to humans, and that we can (and perhaps should) get into conversation and relationship with all the life and mindedness we encounter around and about us, whatever form it takes." (from Material Ecocriticisms; ed. Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann. Indiana University Press, 2014: 78).And so, we will strive for mingled epistemologies: there is what we know of the painting, and there is what the painting knows (and perhaps even knows of us). Knowledge can here in other settings than the disembodied, rationalized Cartesian mind, and I would like to reach for three: it can be impressed, witnessed, and contained in materials; it can be tracked and followed, letting the painting take the lead, as perspective; and, most speculatively, the "life and mindedness" of the painting can be projected in the melancholy that surrounds it.


The materials of
The Ambassadors announced themselves to the restoration team of the National Gallery in London from 1993 to 1996. Under X-rays and cleaning solvents, the painting became another kind of object: ten planks of oak covered in a mid-grey priming adorned with patterns of linseed oil mixed with pigments and small traces of gold. Dendrochronological analysis of the wood locates it to the Baltic-Polish region and asserts 1524 as its earliest felling date. The knowledge of human agency (whether it was Holbein or de Dinteville or someone else entirely who insisted on importing the oak) is lost, but the knowledge of the tree, its travails and travels across land and water to reach England, is apparent. The Baltic oak was a sought-after hardwood, strong and enduring; equally telling of the luxury of the painting it would become, and of an emerging ecological catastrophe. The extensive deforestations of England, analyzed in relation to artistic production in Vin Nardizzi's book Wooden Os; Shakespeare's Theatres and England's Trees, had already begun, and this Baltic cousin of the English oak had come to stand in for its kindred. Felled in 1524 for a 1533 painting, the oak was young in the guise of wood and plank, but old as a tree. Its knowledge is of multiple states of being: seed, tree, wood, plank, panel, painting – each producing molecular changes, some revealing that the painting existed in a flooded room at one time, all shifting the structure and function of the lignin that had carried water from its roots to its leaves, and now seasons into its strength. It shares a kinship of endurance with the oak from which Holland Island House was built in the early-to-mid-19th century, when the nearby Chesapeake Forest flourished with oak and maple trees. Oak regeneration efforts today led by the organization Forestry for the Bay speak to the continuing mingled narrative of human and arboreal ecologies, the ebb and flow of human exploitation and sylvan resurgence.
The wood of the painting knows (it re-members) its own ecological crisis of being felled. Every work of art is a re-membered ecological crisis. It also knows the variant scales of the ecological precariousness of England and the individual desire of its patron for a luxury hardwood. Its materials witness extended histories and ephemeral moments both. It is as well versed in molecules as it is in mimesis. In a mingled materiality lost to measure, the painting bears the molecular traces of de Dinteville in the melancholic sighs he expelled near the painting, as he gazed upon the countenance of his departed friend and contemplated the months of his exile, drawn-out by Anne Boleyn's pregnancy. The air around the painting, as its linseed oil took its days to dry into the wood, may have been disturbed by the fluttering wings of the mosquito carrying the parasite that would infect de Dinteville with a tertian fever, whose torments de Dinteville would detail in the May 1533 letter to his brother that disclosed de Selve's visit. The molecules of sighs and the air disturbed by mosquito wings are not the stuff of history from a human point of view: they cannot be measured or proven, plotted or fixed within a linear perspective; they are, instead, the stuff of anamorphic reach.


From a literal, figurative, allegorical, and moral point of view, the anamorphic skull of The Ambassadors is a catastrophe. A "strophe" was originally the structural division of a poem, as denoted primarily by the right to left movement of ancient Greek choruses on the stage. Simplified through use, it means to turn. The Greek suffix "cata- takes us downward, or against, it makes the turn a downturn. The anamorphic skull positions us to look downwards if we are to see it as an image, if we are to recognize, even briefly, its mimetic mastery. I invite you now to participate in the perspectival displacement that the skull provokes. You will need to shift your approach from the usual perpendicular one with which we approach almost all of our images, to a lateral one. At this point, I recommend pulling your piece of paper taut, with your right hand towards your body and your left hand out before you – you need a flat surface that won't buckle (those of you who prefer to do this on your smart phones will have the solidity, you'll have to cope with the glare on your screen). You can now seek the point at which the two-dimensional anamorphic slash resolves into a mimetically three-dimensional skull. It helps to close your right eye, to shutter your human perception of three dimensions and flatten your perception to that of the painting's two dimensions. Once you "have" it (and go ahead and enjoy the cognitive thrill of seeing the image resolve), you can move vertically up and down the plane and see the skull distort downward as you move up and upwards as you move down; if you move horizontally, you will see the skull experience much less change. This is because, in anamorphic perspective, the axes of vision are independent of each other, whereas they remain in proportion in linear perspective.

Holbein performed his anamorphic perspective after Leon Battista Alberti (in 1435) and Albrecht Dürer (in the 1520s) had theorized linear perspective, but well before Jean-François Niceron, and other early modern mathematicians had theorized anamorphic perspective in the 1640s. The anamorphic perspective of The Ambassadors is simple compared to the extrapolations along multiple planes in works such as this one by Niceron in which faces of Turkish men coalesce into a portrait of Ferdinand II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, when seen through a glass cylinder prism (lost from the Museo Gallileo in Florence after a 1966 flood).

But I prize the relative simplicity of Holbein's anamorphic perspective because it demonstrates how quickly our perception can be disoriented and unsettled, and how symbiotic we become with the painting in our efforts to reorient ourselves. The painting draws us near with its anamorphic perspective; it knows our desire to perceive, and displaces us from our usual point of mastery perpendicular to its representation plane, to a lateral point of physical and, given time and contemplation, emotional intimacy. The catastrophe of death is disorienting, and we might be tempted to wrench ourselves away, back to perpendicular mastery and away from the perils of anamorphic perspective. But if we linger, if we stay disoriented and marginal, in transition between two and three dimensions, moving between the outsized scale of the anamorphic skull, and the proportional scale of the corrected image, we might start to ask about the anamorphic skull's point of view, about what the painting would look like if the skull was the originating point of perspective. This is at once a tremendous mathematical challenge (lines would have to be redrawn and pulled), an epistemological one (objects and persons would be unrecognizable to themselves from the point of view of death), and perhaps even an ontological one (how do the dead, the inanimate, perceive and experience the living? How, building on the work of Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology and W.J.T. Mitchell's What Do Pictures Want?, might we visually theorize them doing so?).

Towards the end of The Ballad of Holland Island House, Lynn Tomlinson takes us to the vanishing point of human perception, as the house and the graves become the only occupants of the island. The dead and the inanimate take the perspectival vanishing point with them as they plunge into the depth of the image, and the thickness of its clay. In this still from earlier in the film, the house's perception frames the scene, accompanied by the words, "I watched as they worked on the water." The scene that is murky to the human eye is clear and recognizable to the house. Lynn has not anthropomorphized the house's gaze here; rather, in this image, we have the rare opportunity to see a work of art perceiving another work art. The scene of the fishermen that the house is watching is pulled from an 1885 painting by Winslow Homer entitled The Herring Net now at the Art Institute of Chicago. What does it mean for one work of art to know another? The anamorphic reach of The Ballad of Holland Island House to The Herring Net is practiced in the visual forms that Lynn refashions and retools, the curve of the boat, the cascade of wriggling fish. A work of art knows another through the practice and repetition of its forms. The life of forms is present in the anamorphic reach.

Scholars have long heralded the correspondences of
The Ambassadors with Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, Melancolia I, noting the presence of measuring tools, musical instruments, and mathematical calculations to be made, but only in terms of influence. We can think, instead, of the life of forms practiced and repeated, polyhedrons and spheres drawn again, numerals and manipulated perspectives amplified, brooding and melancholy revisited.


I am pulled to take melancholy seriously not only by de Dinteville's self-identification as "the most melancholic ambassador," but also by experiencing the pull of anamorphic perspective as a temporal one: the painting knows melancholy through time. De Dinteville was not just being rhetorical: melancholy, already in his age, was perceived as a veritable epidemic, a disease to be analyzed and understood, as Robert Burton would seek to do in 1621 in his monumental Anatomy of Melancholy. The "Author's Abstract of Melancholy" at the beginning of this volume interweaves the multiple ways that time can pass (fleetingly, slowly, in joy, in sorrow, in Paradise). The painting knows melancholy because it has been a persistent witness to time and in time – and in this once again joins Holland Island House. The Ambassadors' coming into being itself could be characterized as de Dinteville and de Selves "killing time," waiting for Anne Boleyn's pregnancy to come to term, which it would do only in September of 1533.  Eight years later, in 1541, the painting would come to know de Dinteville mourning de Selve's death; it would now contain and project both memory and melancholy. His family having weathered a sodomy scandal and a treason accusation, Jean de Dinteville himself would die in 1555 at his home in Polisy, France, where The Ambassadors had also taken up residence, never having been married and with no direct heir, initiating the painting's long trajectory from this Burgundian region to the de Cessac property in the south of France in 1653, to Paris in 1787, to England in 1792, to the castle of the Earl of Radnor in 1808, and finally to the National Gallery in 1890, a steady series of lawsuits and ownership struggles trailing in its temporal and spatial wake.

Multiple scales of melancholy exist in the passage of time witnessed by the painting, and our time together draws short, so I will end with the painting's melancholic knowledge of catastrophe ranging across a tremendously variable scale. Upon the terrestrial globe, which is turned here for our legibility but requires human viewers to disorient their gaze to read, a line stretches thinly across the Atlantic Ocean, up the west coast of Africa and down the east coast of what is now known as South America. Identified as "Linea Divisionis Castellanoru et Portugallen," this fine line demarcates the division of New World territories between Spain and Portugal as decreed in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, and sanctioned by Pope Julius II in 1506. This first cut of the ocean, this first etching upon the globe presages unprecedented scales of conquest and crisis, it signals the transition to the New World, and it persists as silent witness on an intimate scale of the soon-to-come ecological catastrophe of empire, and the continuing ecological crisis of globalization. In the pristine and exact line of the Treasty of Tordesillas, I find the melancholy of mimesis: the resolute and precise representation of reality coupled with the desire of erasure, of representing a different world.

The Ambassadors
 and The Ballad of Holland Island House each know melancholy as objects that exist in time: from its wall in the National Gallery, The Ambassadors continues to reside in perpetual witness; in the digital realm, The Ballad of Holland Island House perpetually flows through forms. Simultaneously, they project the melancholy of their represented objects in multiple temporal directions and on a wild variation of scale (the past, present and future of de Dinteville and de Selves as well as the fantasy and empire of a New World; the future that awaits the Holland Island House, increasingly difficult for humans to perceive, as the sea continues to rise above it). In these intermingled ontologies and epistemologies, we can ask what the work of art and any other environment we can perceive knows. The answers will be anamorphic and elusive, fluctuating in and out of coherence. And while there is a profound melancholy in the vastness that lies beyond human perception, the desire to understand and shift and change thrives in the anamorphic reach that continuously pulls us beyond ourselves.