151 I’m not an art historian, but…

A tribute to a beloved and boundlessly respected colleague.


The phrase is Marilyn Lavin’s, who is actually one of the indispensable art historians of our time. Lavin is a specialist in Italian art and a super-specialist in fresco cycles. The research for which she is best known concerns the seemingly unsystematic order of narrative fresco cycles. Anyone who has tried to follow stories from the Bible and saints’ lives in the chapels of Italian churches knows the experience that became an obsession with Lavin. You begin quite confidently with the wondrous birth and precocious youth. Then, when you are warmed up for the exciting conflict with the authorities and the bloody martyrdom, you get a posthumous miracle or two instead. You start to retreat in order to fight another day, and when you turn around there are the holy career and horrific death on the opposite wall.

What Lavin ran into when she began researching this phenomenon is the lack of attention in the literature of art history to spatial disposition. The normal techniques of art-historical study and publishing not only entirely lack the third dimension, they are even incapable of handling irregular forms and surfaces. Anything that isn’t a neat rectangular has trouble fitting onto the page of a book or into the frame of a slide. Lavin was forced to invent new techniques to get a grip on the material. She turned to computer technology, which in the 1980s was not at all as accommodating as it has since become. She had to learn the unforgiving elementary principles of digital logic. It benefitted her work greatly. She was able, when all of her examples were entered, to identify certain recurring patterns in the tactics of placing scenes. In her book The place of narrative: mural decoration in Italian churches 431-1600 (1990), she came up with names for them like “the Double Parallel,” “The Wraparound” and “narrative encapsulation.”

Lavin realized that publishing the results of her research in book form was not enough. This would leave readers in a two-dimensional situation like the one she encountered when she started. To help students visualize the placing of these paintings in space, she developed computer models that could show just that. Part of the Piero Project, as she called it after Piero della Francesca, can be seen on Internet, at http://mondrian.princeton.edu/art430/. The Project not only illuminates the spatial context of fresco paintings, but also their iconogaphic, historical and social context. It is one of the great pioneering efforts in the application of digital technology to art history. It is also important for its insistence that works of art are not isolated, free-floating images or objects, that they are embedded in very specific contexts and environments.

Lavin has revolutionized art-historical discourse in another way as well. Internet had barely begun to penetrate the consciousness of academics in the humanities when she set up a discussion list called the Consortium of Art and Architectural Historians (CAAH). The participants engage in daily exchanges of information and polite argument. Qualified readers who are not on the list can get on it by sending an e-mail to malavin@princeton.edu with a few lines on your art-historical background and interests.

Like many pioneers of new ways of thinking, Lavin has become nervous about the implications of her approach. Technically innovative as it is, her work stands in the service of traditional art-historical questions and quests. At the coming meeting of the College Art Association (20-23 February in Philadelphia), the largest regular get-together of art historians in the world, Lavin is chairing a session called “I’m not an art historian, but…,” which is intended to explore new dangers to art history as we know it. “Scholars from many disciplines now routinely deal with visual images,” Lavin notes, “Art history’s contextual muscles have thereby been greatly strengthened, but there looms the specter of lost respect for objects, and the worry that visual culture will replace artistic canons with societal paraphernalia.”

As a participant in her panel, I am preparing to undermine one of the assumptions behind Lavin’s statement. To speak of “lost respect for objects” implies that classical art history treated objects with proper respect until the contextualists came along. This is not the case. In fact, respect for objects is the Achilles heel of art history. Although many courses in art history send students to local museums, and a few even familiarize them with art objects at close hand, nearly all the teaching is done with slides that retouch, cut off, reduce or enlarge, distort and discolor the images they project. The real object of study is not works of art at all but a low-grade light show. When students trained in this way become curators of art collections, their natural inclination is to prettify the art to make it look more like the unblemished images of slides. This falls into line with the strategies of old-fashioned restorers whose techniques, they claimed, were capable of rejuvenating art works. It also matches the interests of art dealers out to cover up traces of damage and old restorations. This alliance sanctioned treatments that accelerated rather than alleviated the effects of time.

This is not my idea of respect. Respect for the object should begin with concern for the physical integrity of the work of art. This is something that academically-trained art historians learn not in universities but on the job, in museum work. Increasingly, they learn it from colleagues who are not art historians but conservation scientists.

Marilyn Lavin’s worries are not unreal. But the remedies are not to be found where she is looking for them. Respect for the object is not to be found in the traditional art history as we know it, but in more and more context. She herself is the one who has shown us this.

(c) Gary Schwartz 2002. Published in Dutch in Het Financieele Dagblad on 16 February 2002 and in English on the Schwartzlist on 24 April 2019.

 

 

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