Alamut, Bosch, Gaddis: Introduction to Epochal Art

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Recognitions

I

On the noon of the seventeenth day of Ramadan, 1164, Hassan II, the hereditary Imam of the Alamut State founded by the Order of Assassins under Hassan-i-Sabbah, immanentised the Eschaton. 

In a bravura display of apophatism, he declared quiyāma ―the Islamic Resurrection― with the abrogation of Sharia law; inviting the Nezāri potentates to gather ―with their backs to Mecca― and partake with him in a feast of pork and wine. In normal circumstances, this would have been haram, but Paradise is outside time and so without sin or law. In the state in which nothing is true and everything is permitted, Apocalypse Now coincides with Paradise Regained. The Imam’s worldbreaking banquet prefigures other tropes we may be more familiar with: Blake’s fearful symmetries, Nietzsche’s balls-to-the-wall transvaluation, Burroughs’ “disruption of reality” as “literal realization of art.” 

II 

The subject of this blogchain will be this paradisiacal liminality when captured in the amber of art. A commonality of cultures is they all have dragons: objets de vertu that congeal at moments and in ways that can insinuate complete epochal gestures. From Imam Hassan’s milleranian post-Islamic happening to Millenial work that is emerging as we speak, the epochal perspective/scale, brought to art, can furbish insights even parsimonious criticism cannot. Beyond a work’s aesthetic and surface historical merits, an epochal approach to art analysis will probe at its memetic and mimetic outer reaches―what it means because it rhymes. Its concern is resonance. 

Take, for instance, the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights ―its garden proper, the apple of the tryptich’s eye. In a way that echoes Hassan’s suspension of belief, it may be the greatest of the stranger apophatic moments in all Western painting, in that it comes at God from the front, from the back, and sideways. The Garden is to its picaresque epochal sentiment what Wittgenstein’s qualifying of Weininger with an ~ did for the latter’s name: used it as mirroring device. A mirror doesn’t merely reflect, it multiplies infinite and infinitesimally at once. The nictitating membrane of the world is drawn; its giveaway and gate a mise en abyme, meta. 

In this sense, the @boschbot account on Twitter may be doing more to further our appreciation of Bosch’s Garden than most recent scholarship on it has, by exposing and exploiting its extraordinary detail through a telescopic lens, in an approach that allows fellow observers to engage the work on a precritical, almost prefrontal level, all while opening up new and previously unseen dimensions to an artwork that had become something of a floating signifier through mediatic and memetic overexposure. As much as this enriches art by association, familiarity breeds indifference, the most unimaginative form of contempt. In opposition to this cultural assimilation, @boschbot plumbs the Garden’s enigmas and restores its mystery, that is to say, an element of its authority, in a true feat of auratic restoration. It is also a case of instinct ―knowing how to see― trumping expertise ―knowing what one’s looking at―, a kind of imposition of innate, originary lares over connate, conventional mores.

III

In 1955, William Gaddis published The Recognitions, which is, among other things, the greatest novel ever written on the art and act of painting. Structured as a triptych, it investigates the spectrum between the original and the mimetic, the djinn of imitation, the real and the fake, and the real in the fake, ad nauseaum. It is, as you may well imagine, another of our vertiginous epochal artifacts: the one to lend its name, and spirit, to our catoptric inquiry on artworks that have passed the Turing test of time across the ages.  

Whistler’s Giantess

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Recognitions
James Abbot MacNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Oil on canvas. 144.3 cm x 162.4 cm. 1871. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

In Mr. Turner (2014), Mike Leigh’s lambent portrait of the artist as an old man, the protagonist sits for a daguerreotype. Behind the camera is an American prosopon, whose primordial photographs are advertised to “stand the test of time and climate.” Intentionally or otherwise, the scene establishes a passing of the torch between light-wranglers. It also anticipates the appearance of Turner’s unnatural successor, the American James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, whose technique a sitter once described as developing “a negative under the action of […] chemicals.”

Whistler would not set foot in London until 1859, eight years after Turner’s death but, when he did, the groundwork would be more or less prepared for a career agonist. A cosmopolitan whose scope extended from the US to Russia through Chile, Whistler would systematically be [at] the centre of the world, at a time when European art was barely postindustrial. Wagner may have held court at Bayreuth, but Whistler forged, and bridged, the early modern transatlantic artworld.    

He refashioned his biography and cultivated his persona into something he could set loose against critics and patrons, carving costly inroads into the contractual and public perceptual domains. Though his victory against Ruskin earned him no more than a farthing, bankruptcy and a Venetian exile, it wasn’t Pyrrhic by any epochal measure. (The same cannot, alas, be said for Whistler’s frenemy, Oscar Wilde, whose libel suit proved nothing short of suicidal.) With the Royal Academy and its satellite salons still in the game of academicism and its malcontents, he became adept at solo showmanship. As with his private exhibitions, his Peacock Room was not decor but installation.

James Abbott MacNeill Whistler and Thomas Jeckyll. Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Oil paint and gold leaf on canvas, leather, and wood. 1877. 421.6 cm × 613.4 cm × 1026.2 cm. Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Whistler’s portraits pack terroir and not just atmosphere. The best example of this is Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, the famous painting of his mother. No print can do it justice. At a nearly square 144.3 cm x 162.4 cm and mounted on a frame of the artist’s own design, it is in every way heroic. (It’s hardly a coincidence that Thomas Carlyle would become the subject of Arrangement…No. 2.). Though touted as some manner of hieratic icon, the mother of a younger god is but an older goddess, no less static than a crocodile. Behold, the Baudelairian giantess in/action.

Early in his career, Whistler shared a mistress with Gustave Courbet: Joanna Hiffernan, she of The Origin of the World. Here she is again, revised, revisited, as her antithesis, in chambered and exploratory greyscale.

James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. Oil on canvas. 215 cm × 108 cm. 1861-62. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.