Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 5, 2014
Helen Hills, ed. Rethinking the Baroque Burlington: Ashgate, 2011. 286 pp.; 25 color ills.; 34 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754666851)

Many periods in the history of art are subject to anachronistic or pejorative names that have somehow stuck, yet few have been so controversial as the term “baroque.” Is baroque a style? If so, what are its characteristics and how to account for the countless exceptions? Is it a period? When does it begin or end? What are its geographical boundaries? Is it a concept? Due to its historical anachronism, pejorative connotations, and, not least, the sheer difficulty in defining it as a style or a period, art historians have in recent years shied away from the term. Cultural critics and philosophers, on the other hand, have found rich possibilities in the idea of a baroque liberated from its stylistic or temporal roots.

Rethinking the Baroque, edited by Helen Hills, attempts to reconcile these phenomena and “to retrieve the baroque from the margins of art history” (4) by drawing on a substantial body of writings by leading philosophers, literary critics, and art historians for the task of “mobilizing baroque in relation to the historical—beyond the periodized” (5). The protagonists of this volume are not Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini but rather twentieth-century critics Henri Focillon, Walter Benjamin, and Gilles Deleuze, who, in Hills’s words, turned away from “the model of periodization and the over-identification of period with appearance” (22). Each of these thinkers turned to baroque as an idea, independent from the historical period in which its characteristics emerged most forcefully. The figure of the fold as expressed in Deleuze’s Le pli. Leibniz et le baroque (1988; trans. Tom Conley, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) is central to Hills’s concept of the baroque. Whether in science, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, or art, the Deleuzian fold—like the baroque itself—resists linear narrative and causality, showing instead decenteredness, instability, and a tension between being and becoming, between concealing and revealing, and between dissolution and unity. This dehistoricized “baroqueness” is not limited to the seventeenth century, but can appear in twentieth-century philosophy, nineteenth-century poetry, or medieval art. Indeed, the shadow of Deleuze hangs so heavily over Rethinking the Baroque that readers unfamiliar with Le pli may find themselves struggling to follow some of its arguments.

In the opening essay, “The Baroque: The Grit in the Oyster of Art History,” Hills introduces “the idea of a baroque that is neither pejorative nor early modern” (11). She traces the storied history of the word “baroque” from its eighteenth-century usage meaning “irrational” and “bizarre” to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when it served both as a stylistic term and as an indicator of artistic, moral, and political decadence. As she notes, Jacob Burckhardt and Heinrich Wölfflin were instrumental in changing the perception that baroque was a decadent form of Renaissance art instead of a distinct period with its own set of aesthetic and stylistic criteria. She then focuses on a Deleuzian baroque, which, when unshackled from a specific style or historical moment, can provide a productive framework for the interpretation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art and architecture.

Alina Payne’s “On Sculptural Relief: Malerisch, the Autonomy of Artistic Media and the Beginnings of Baroque Studies” explores the profound critical reassessment that Baroque art underwent in nineteenth-century Germany. Payne recounts how, between the publication of Burckhardt’s Der Cicerone in 1855 and of Wölfflin’s Renaissance und Barock in 1888, virtually all the terms by which Baroque art had been condemned underwent a dramatic reversal. The reason for this shift, Payne persuasively argues, lies in the discovery and display of the Pergamon Altar, exhibited in Berlin in 1879. Burckhardt and his predecessors heavily favored the “noble simplicity of quiet grandeur” (40) of early Greek art and High Renaissance art, rejecting the excesses of Baroque art. Although the malerisch (painterly) Pergamon friezes violated every “classical” principle, they were universally admired and thus forced not only the reassessment of the criteria by which ancient art was judged, but also the relationship between Renaissance and Baroque.

Howard Caygill’s “Ottoman Baroque: The Limits of Style” tests the stimulating question of whether the concept of baroque as a style has a value for non-Western art. Specifically, he explores the case of the “Ottoman baroque” carried out by the prolific sixteenth-century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. More broadly, he attempts to disentangle the question of baroque as something real (a priori), based on a set of shared characteristics, or nominal (a posteriori), based on a retrospective attempt to categorize the past. Was “Ottoman baroque,” Caygill asks, a previously unknown stylistic discovery or is it merely a historiographical invention? He concludes that as it is currently conceived, “the search for stylistic parallels seems increasingly misguided” (76), given the historical and cultural assumptions and misapplications that prompted it.

In “Discomfited by the Baroque: A Personal Journey,” Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann recounts his experiences from a career teaching seventeenth-century art and architecture. Kaufmann observes how in his path from student to senior scholar the Wöfflinian model was gradually supplanted by a more geistesgeschichtlich approach—the model of John Rupert Martin and José Antonio Maravall—in the mid-twentieth century. As a historian of Central European art, Kaufmann is acutely aware of the limitations of either formalist or historicist approaches, having been formulated in the “center” and being only vaguely relevant for the “periphery.” Crucially, he observes that the rehabilitation and reconfiguration of the baroque could lead toward a broader and more sympathetic approach to art from beyond the confines of seventeenth-century Europe, especially that of Latin America.

Claire Farago’s “Reframing the Baroque: On Idolatry and the Threshold of Humanity” turns to art of colonial Mexico in “a series of nested case studies of art that might have once been considered idolatrous” (103). Farago’s essay is an urgent plea to art historians to reject the structural status quo and implicit racial and geographic strictures built into the discipline and its history. She revisits material, mostly from the early sixteenth century, that she has covered elsewhere, and the connection to “baroque” seems strained. One cannot help but see this as a missed opportunity to explore vibrant and understudied expressions of baroque outside seventeenth-century Europe, and it would have been an ideal chance for Farago to bring her substantial knowledge of Latin American art and ethical impulse to bear on the question at hand.

Anthony Geraghty’s “Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Drawing Technique of the 1690s and John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding” and Glenn Adamson’s “The Real in the Rococo” are, as Hills notes, the “two essays which remain within a traditional periodization” (7), and, perhaps not coincidentally, they are also the two essays that take specific works of art as their point of departure. Geraghty’s is a sensitive reading of architectural drawings by English architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, which, he argues, “intentionally collapse the distinction between ontology and epistemology” (125)—that is, between experience and knowledge. In other words, they unite the contradictory phenomena of the subjective, painterly, and experiential with the objective, linear, and cognitive in a manner reminiscent of Locke’s contemporary ideas. Adamson’s essay, on the other hand, takes an inductive approach that, in contrast to some neo-Marxist methodologies, considers the specific materiality of a few examples of eighteenth-century painting, woodcarving, and porcelain work. Here he demonstrates how the calculated tension between mimesis and artifice was one of the driving conceits of Rococo craftsmanship.

In “Baroque Matters” cultural theorist Mieke Bal offers reflections in the vein of her book Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). She presents four contemporary artists that exemplify “how ‘baroque’ can refer to a vision rather than a style or period” (184). Bal draws from the baroque in unconventional ways, like Deleuze, seeing Berninian drapery as not mere ornament but instead as a metaphorical figure that can “embody a philosophical, epistemological and aesthetic position of much greater depth” (184). As stimulating as her observations are, the arguments move at such a rapid clip that readers unfamiliar with her extensive considerations on the topic elsewhere may find themselves scrambling to keep up.

Tom Conley’s “The Baroque Fold as Map and as Diagram” and Andrew Benjamin’s “Benjamin and the Baroque: Posing the Question of Historical Time” take a decidedly philosophical bent, and it may prove challenging for art historians to see the direct applicability of these contributions. Conley, as translator of Deleuze’s Le pli, is eminently qualified to reflect on the implications of the French philosopher’s ideas. In this case, he turns to notions of cartography—both metaphorical and literal—in the writings of Michel de Montaigne and in seventeenth-century maps as a means for exploring Deleuzian folds. Benjamin, on the other hand, provides dense philosophical reflections on the nature of historical time in Walter Benjamin’s works, especially the themes of “fate” and “melancholy” in the latter’s study of the German baroque, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1963; trans. John Osbourne, London: Verso, 1998). Given Walter Benjamin’s distrust of the visual arts and his conviction that allegory was beyond the sphere of art, perhaps these ruminations can serve in this context as a reminder of the role that the creative act plays in reconstructing the fragments of the past.

Each essay in Rethinking the Baroque raises a number of provocative questions about style, historiography, nomenclature, and the philosophy of history, and the reader emerges at the end with a dizzying sense of the richness, complexity, and delightfully paradoxical nature of the baroque. Yet while these questions are inevitably exciting ones for those seeking a philosophy of history or a critical framework for art theory, students and scholars of art produced ca. 1585–1750 may find themselves scratching their heads at the prospect of bringing a “dehistoricized baroque” into the classroom or their own research. Given the intellectual weight of the scholars included here and the profundity of the questions they raise, it seems small-minded to ask questions as simple as: If this volume has succeeded in recovering the concept of the baroque from the margins of art history, how and when can it be used? What would it now mean to teach a class on baroque art?

More troubling, however, is the fact that every instance of this “non-periodized baroque”—whether manifest in Greek sculpture, the art of Doris Salcedo, or the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé—inevitably takes its concept of “baroqueness” from Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In other words, even if we (in Conley’s phrase) grant baroque “the autonomy of concept” (203) and the timelessness of a philosophical question, it is nonetheless linked to a specific time and place. Indeed, the baroques of Deleuze, Benjamin, or even Bal—despite their rejection of a linear, Hegelian notion of progress—are themselves directly derived from seventeenth-century thought and material culture. As a case in point, in the introductory essay Hills asks, “Might it not be productive to fold a Deleuzian fold back into that art work whose formal complexity and religious intensity conventionally earn it the epithet baroque?” (28) But is it possible to consider Bernini or Borromini according to supposedly autonomous philosophical ideas that were themselves derived from the very works that they are now being used to analyze? Is this not itself a tautology, returning us precisely to the point where we began?

Perhaps we sympathize with the baroque today because, as participants in a postmodern world, we are painfully aware of being suspended between the epistemological and the ontological—that is, between the way things seem and the way they are. We can no longer speak of the past in confident positivist terms and are only too cognizant that, like Walter Benjamin, we are blindly collecting shards of history for our own use. The question of what we as scholars, educators, and students do with these fragments is one of the many perplexing ones raised by this stimulating volume.

Jesse Locker
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, Portland State University