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The Melancholy Art

by Michael Ann Holly
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2013
224 pp., illus. 41 b/w. Trade, $24.95
ISBN:  9780691139340.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

Art historian Michael Ann Holly’s The Melancholy Art, a recent addition to Princeton’s illustrated series “Essays in the Arts,” interrogates the History of Art as an endeavor distinct from other historical sciences for its capacity to entice scholarship through the unique resonance of objects present through direct experience.  The “power and poignancy” of material objects, she maintains, elicit complex psychological associations replete with memory and evocation that compel art writing, research and pedagogy.  Motivated largely by psychic undercurrents that reflect a desire to discover or recover a tattered cloth of fragmentary, ultimately irretrievable meanings lost to time, she proposes the trope of melancholy as an overarching thematic to elucidate a discipline aimed at the collection of disparate visual narratives estranged by era and insight.  Addressed directly to the scholarly community of art historians concerned with the metonymic quality of art objects represented in art historical discourse, this eloquently written collection of essays examines the creative potential of melancholy as a reflection upon the mutability of experience and the insufficiency of human comprehension to encapsulate the past within writings about art.  At the same time, Holly points to a loss of aesthetic focus that accompanies empiricism in art historical writing, one that emphasizes contextualization over poetic and philosophical inclination, a striving to reveal the deeper structure of the discipline, penetrating below the surface of conventional and iconological meaning to psychic forces that motivate and condition art historical inquiry.  To this end, she advocates a professional practice whose rhetoric captures the compelling visuality of the artwork rather than its absence, restoring its initial sense of wonder and emotive power. In the manner of Martin Heidegger’s lyrical paean to archaic temples, she urges writing that extends beyond the accumulation of information and classification to wisdom, rapture and “warmth of human heart.”

Chapters advance methodically from the establishment of a psychological premise based on the paradoxical conundrum of historical artworks whose reception is not synchronous to their creation, viz. the psychological distance, transience, and irrecoverability of meaning that separate artworks and writers.  She proceeds to examine art historical case studies that trace the development of art history in relation to competing schools of psychoanalysis and Viennese historicism, relying heavily on the object-relations theory of Melanie Klein and the British School of psychology in support of a melancholic predisposition of art historical writing predicated upon aggrieved loss.  Renaissance models of “incantatory” writing about art such as Adrian Stokes’ Stones of Rimini illustrate the melancholic ethos that pervades art writing as a form of art-making as attempted reparation. Her analysis extends ultimately to the elegiac, hence melancholic quality that informs postmodern perspectives of art history with its temporal disjunctions, rhetoric of mourning and the semiotic obfuscation that accompanies art’s irresolute dialogue with the present and pluralistic grammar.

In support of her argument, Holly marshals a wealth of erudition indicative of formidable trans-historical, interdisciplinary expertise.  Interweaving citations from psychoanalysis, literature, philosophy, historical and art historical scholarship, she adroitly orchestrates interpretations of melancholy from Dürer’s iconic emblem of saturnine Melancolia I (1514) to John Milton’s poem Il Penseroso (1633) to Marcel Proust’s reveries of temps perdu (1913-1927).  She cites with assurance Frances Yates on esoteric reminiscences of “cold” and “dry-hot” melancholy; Kant’s aesthetic evocation of memory as an undercurrent of melancholic renunciation; Alois Riegl on the aesthetics of formalistic disintegration; Walter Benjamin on the redemptive capacity of art historical retrieval; Erwin Panofsky and Fritz Saxl on poetic melancholy; Michael Baxandall on the impenetrability of pictorial intention and the functions of critical discourse; Julia Kristeva on transference of meaning.  These examples a mere scintilla of a kaleidoscopic intellectual history enlisted to document the theme of melancholy in writings on art.

With the utmost refinement, Holly’s own poetic resonance echoes from artful analogy and suggestive imagery.  One interpretation proceeds from a deft comparison between twin Renaissance paintings of St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata attributed to Jan Van Eyck and a theoretical tautology that she reconstructs surrounding Van Gogh’s painting “A Pair of Shoes” of 1886 as it was investigated by Heidegger (as a sign of nationalistic socialism), Meyer Schapiro (explained through epistolary art historical evidence), and Jacques Derrida (deconstructed as a metaphor of loss).  In a circular manner, Holly unites these works, ostensibly through an iconic art historical trope—viz. shoes, familiar also from other postmodernist theoretical debates (Andy Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shoes” and Frederic Jameson’s late capitalist interpretation)—one that alludes to the foundational nature of her investigation.  Through these examples, she compares the inconclusiveness of attribution in the case of the Van Eyck’s (despite advanced technological analyses) to the disputed significance of Van Gogh’s painting as pendant illustrations of the irrecoverability of meaning, the “constitutional inability of the [art] historical discipline to possess objective meanings,” resulting in the effect of melancholy that accompanies such narratives of desire as the lingering wounds of St. Francis’ Stigmata.  Extending this analogy yet further, a postscript ruminates over the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston with its conjoined historical and contemporary identity; founded in relation to its namesake’s personal history of loss; comprised of a collection of works in their original, oftentimes damaged condition; with notoriously plundered works recollected via empty ornate gold frames hung in dusty galleries as “lingering wounds.”

While the art historian’s pursuit of knowledge may be motivated by a cornucopia of purposes that include intellectual curiosity, the enlargement of human experience, the discovery of truth and correction of error, espousal of humanistic and social values, universality, aesthetic aspiration and oneness with nature, the suggestive language of art history, as Holly emphasizes, holds the capacity to make present that which is absent through evocative writing that marks “the most poetic discipline in the humanities.” In its finest moments, it remains attuned to the sense as well as the sensibility of artworks that it endeavors to chronicle and illuminate.


Last Updated 5th August 2013

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