Memory, Simulation, and a Usable Past

Wedding of the Virgin (detail)

By Dennis Raverty

In 1918, literary critic Van Wycks Brooks wrote that Americans were engaged in a search for what he called a “usable” past –— that is, a believable, overarching narrative about the past that would inform and make sense of the present and give us an awareness of our collective identity.

Such was the idea of “Manifest Destiny” that drove the settling of the West (and rationalized the displacement of its native peoples). After the closing of the frontier, Brooks wrote, Americans were casting about for a new historical paradigm. So strong is this desire for a usable past, he claimed, that if it doesn’t exist, we will invent one. This is especially true in relatively young nations like the United States.

Sienese Madonna

The art found in churches all over Europe is often centuries old and thereby connects viewers directly with the past and with living tradition, but in the United States most churches are decorated with sculptures and paintings made much later. And while sometimes these are European originals or direct copies of them, they are more often executed as a respectful homage in emulation of great art of the past, in order to recall or “conjure up” a collective memory through imaginative artworks suggesting an earlier historical period or, in some rare cases, as highly skillful, self-conscious simulations in anachronistic styles.

The altarpiece at the small wedding chapel in New York City’s Holy Transfiguration Episcopal Church (the “Little Church Around the Corner”) is a depiction of the marriage of Mary and Joseph that is intended to suggest the era of the late Middle Ages. The holy couple are shown in strict profile, which makes them seem more two-dimensional and flatter (like gothic art), and their garments are decorated with gold leaf patterns that likewise suggest medieval sources.

However, the figures are closer in style to Howard Pyle’s masterful Robin Hood illustrations of the late 19th century than to anything actually from the late medieval period. Rather than simulating the historical style, the artist eloquently and convincingly creates the effect of that semi-legendary period of chivalry, painted in the spirit of the romanticized medieval revival of the late Victorian period.

At the nearby church of St. Mary the Virgin, the impressive wooden statues of the apostles that adorn the nave, by German sculptor Johannes Kirchmeyer, are in the style of late medieval artist Tilman Riemenschneider. The dark wood is finished naturally, with only a few touches of gilding and color (a hallmark of Riemenschneider’s style).

The gilding of the sculptures at St. Mary’s is of aluminum tinted with color rather than actual gold (which gives a similar effect). To further the illusion of being in a centuries-old gothic church, the brick walls of the interior space of the nave are painted in fresco to resemble stone veneer.

The faux marble walls at St. Mary’s, like the altarpiece of the Virgin’s wedding at Transfiguration, are part of the setting or theatrical tableaux, created more for their overall visual effect as part of an ensemble than for historical accuracy or truth to materials (both are High Church, Anglo-Catholic parishes).

Sometimes, however, such artworks are carefully executed in a painstakingly, historically accurate style of the past, and although not a direct copy, are nonetheless almost flawless simulacra of the real thing. This sometimes includes purposely stressing the surface by making it chip or crack, as in an icon in the narthex of the chapel at Holy Cross Episcopal Monastery in upstate New York, which one of the monks explained to me was done in order to give it the appearance of great age (although the icon was actually painted in the last half of the 20th century).

One of the most exquisite of these almost flawless simulacra is surely the melancholy Madonna and Child in a side chapel at Epiphany Episcopal Church in New York City, which according to an appraiser was painted during the last decade of the 19th or the first decade of the 20th century. It is in the style of Sienese art from the 14th century, characterized by a flowing linearity especially evident in the rounded forms of the Madonna’s drapery and in the embossed, gold-leaf fringe of her cape that cascades in a series of delicate curves that extends to the floor, falling in soft folds, adding a rich decorative element to the surface. But the simulation runs deeper and even has complex psychological dimensions.

We see the mother and child at an intimate moment of intense personal interaction. Mary’s slender, downcast eyes seem to look right past her divine son, as if she were lost in some melancholy reverie. Even the little angels playing musical instruments below seem unable to soothe her profound sadness.

Christ’s extraordinarily compassionate, concerned, yet fearless expression almost amounts to a parent/child reversal of roles. The toddler looks directly into his mother’s downcast eyes, as if to comfort her in her distress and sorrow in this incredibly tender and intimate scene. Yet never does it descend into that maudlin sentimentalism characteristic of so much late Victorian art. Rather, it is chastely and humbly executed very much in the spirit as well as the style of a Sienese master from the Trecento (even the wooden panel on which it is painted is severely warped, as if hundreds of years old).

In the early 20th century, Pablo Picasso famously stated that “Art is a lie,” and this partial quotation has been taken out of context and used for a hundred years to imply that Picasso’s work was insincere and that he was a fraud. But the entire remark suggests something quite different. “Art is a lie — that reveals the truth.”

That is, if a work of art is really authentic, it strives for truth on some level and, at the same time, it has this quality of “revelation,” even if it is essentially illusory (or a simulacrum). A dedication to truthfulness (especially truth to materials) and an almost mystical sense of revelation are important and often overlooked values in the moral universe of early 20th-century modern art.

In works like the Madonna at Epiphany, it is not an avant-garde but a conservative tradition of new “old” art — that is, later work created in self-consciously earlier, anachronistic styles. It is intended to open the viewer to a prayerful and contemplative state of mind, as well as to forge a link with authentic traditions and help the contemporary Christian construct a usable past.

Dr. Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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