MASTERPIECES OF MEDIEVAL ART BY JAMES ROBINSON
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themes, we might say, are often whatspearhead new research and lend newinsights into otherwise well-knownworks. To focus research and writingaround a commonplace drink such asmilk, however, does seem a slightly oddnotion. Indeed, Kenneth Hayes admits asmuch in his introduction to this book.Milk is, of course, much more than just adrink. Its comforting and life-givingassociations mothers milk, childhooddrink, sustenance for the sick, the frail andthe elderly are always present. Hayeshints at these sorts of associations; heimparts how his title of Milk andMelancholydraws on Sigmund Freuds essay Mourn-ing and melancholia of 1917, as well as onanother important study, Saturn and Melan-choly: Studies in the History of NaturalPhilosophy, Religion, and Art (1964) byRaymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky andFritz Saxl. Reference to these two textsenables Hayes to take a dualistic ap-proach, so that roots in iconography andpsychoanalysis expand a monographicstudy of milk into a much broader textthan we might imagine.
Why the splash, though? Hayes set outto write a monographic study of Jeff Wallsiconic image Milk (1984), but soon dis-covered a proliferation of images in art,especially in photography, that took up theidea of spills, splashes, pools and puddlesof this opaque liquid. For Hayes, theevanescent nature of the spill or splashseemed to act as a locus of disturbance oreven a traumatic interruption. His net castwider than just Wall, then, Hayes looked tothe emergence of these sorts of photo-graph in late nineteenth-century scientificphotography.
He begins with the history of splashphotography in scientific research andhow those images were later appropriatedfor arts sake. The readers attention isdirected to the early scientific photographsof Harold Edgerton in the 1930s, as well asstudies of fluid dynamics by A M Worthing-ton around 1900. Worthington moved inscientific circles, the opacity of milk andits seemingly luminescent quality inter-ested him. His thinking was informed bystudies in fluid dynamics and his owninvestigations reveal a fascination with theindexical trace. Despite this, Worthingtonresisted photography and preferred hand-done illustrations accompanied by adetailed written account of his observa-tions. Later, Edgertons work, as Hayesobserves, integrated photography from
the very beginning. An engineer by train-ing, Edgertons photographic practicedemonstrates the photographic apparatusitself. Soda Spritzer of 1933 demonstrateshow high shutter speed, combined withcareful lighting, could have the effect offreezing action without losing any vitality.In November 1939 Life magazine featured acollection of Edgertons images, whichconcluded with eight photographs of amilk drop falling into a saucer of milk. Hisphotographs appeared in technical andpopular publications as well as MOMAsphotographic show The Exact Instant in1949. Yet, Edgerton considered himself anengineer first and foremost, not an artist.
In Chapter 2, Hayes claims that themilk splash was instrumental in over-coming the hegemony of Action Painting.This is a bold claim for a small splash,perhaps, but one that has some groundingin preceding developments in photogra-phy. The increasing assimilation of thework of photographers such as Edgertoninto art exhibitions meant that the imagesof the splash were rooted in photography.In Hayes argument, the splash in ActionPainting, then, gestured towards photo-graphy and a loss of confidence in thefuture of painting itself.
Chapter 3, The Optical Unconscious inextremis expands upon what Hayes rathergrandly refers to as the milk-splashdiscourse. In this model, milk becomes asite of disturbance, what I referred to earlyon in this review as trauma or interruption.Hayes explores the significance of thesesorts of idea in Walter Benjamins famousessay of 1936 The Work of Art in the Ageof Mechanical Reproduction, as well asmore contemporary thinking on Benjaminfrom Rosalind Krauss and MargaretIversen. The idea of seeing the unseenthrough photography brings Hayes tosuggest that the milk-splash allows us aglimpse into the optical unconscious. Heeven goes so far as proposing considera-tion of the milk-splash as a sort of primalscene of the optical unconscious.
Hayes final chapter turns to hisoriginal inspiration for this project andWalls Milk appears as an almost inevitabledestination for Hayes argument. He sug-gests an agoraphilic drive at work as, inthe late 1960s, artists moved into the spaceof the street. Braco Dimitrijevic, AdrianPiper and Martha Rosler are just a few ofthe artists whose work he examines here,but it is Hayes treatment of BarbaraKrugers Untitled (You Are Getting What You
Paid For) (1984) that really brings hisargument together. The dialectic of anxietyand desire suddenly becomes central toHayes milk-splash discourse and lendsclarity to what is, by its very nature,disturbed. When he finally gets to Wall,Hayes reaches for Roland Barthes poeticsin Mythologies. The picture, he tells us,manifests the phantasy of seeing the soulat the moment of death, a death contrivedby the camera. There is nothing new inthis argument of course, but at last we getto the meaning of Hayes title and hisideas, like milk, coalesce, mid-air andmelancholic.
beth l williamsonTate
MASTERPIECES OF MEDIEVAL ART
james robinsonBritish Museum Press 2008 d19.99320 pp. 250 col illusisbn 978-0-7141-2815-3
The medieval period is frequentlyportrayed as an age of darknessand ignorance, compressed betweenthe wisdom of the Ancient World and itsrediscovery during the Italian Renais-sance. Similarly, the Middle Ages arecharacterized as a time when linear pers-pective was forgotten and draughtsman-ship replaced by awkward figures, lackingproportion. Fortunately, modern academicopinion is helping to redress this image,showing that the period was one of vibrantcolour, exquisite craftsmanship, and pro-found symbolism. In particular, PaulBinski has forged analyses of medievalart and architecture that integrate history,theology, music, and literature in order tounderstand the visual culture of this time.This influence of an integrated approachto art history is now spreading to wideraudiences in surveys of medieval artdesigned to appeal to the general reader.James Robinsons Masterpieces of MedievalArt is a fine example of this trend.
Published by the British Museum, thisbook is a survey of some of the mostinteresting and beautiful items in itsmedieval collections, examined piece bypiece. This is not, however, merely aselection of artefacts made at the whimof the author; it is in fact a catalogue of themuseums newly refurbished medievaldisplay: the Paul and Jill Ruddock Galleryof Medieval Europe. James Robinson, theauthor of this book, is also the curator ofLate Medieval Europe at the museum, and
46 The ArtBook volume 17 issue 1 february 2010 r 2010 the authors. journal compilationr 2010 bpl/aah
thus responsible for the current reorgani-sation upon which the catalogue is based.The book and exhibition both concentrateon works produced in the period 10501500, covering, as far as English chronol-ogy is concerned, the vast period from theeve of the Norman Conquest to that of theReformation.
This bright and stylish presentationwas opened to the public last year, and isin many ways superior to the previousarrangement. The number of freestandingcabinets has been reduced, allowing theviewer greater freedom of movement,while spotlights highlight individualpieces within each cabinet, giving themtheir own emphasis. One drawback of thenew arrangement of the collection is thedisplay of the most significant artefacts.When objects were presented typologically,the outstanding examples of each typecould be clearly appreciated; the thematicapproach helps to place an object within acontext of its use and user, but this can beto the disadvantage of smaller items. Twopieces suffer from this in particular: theseal die of Robert Fitzwalter and theDunstable Swan Jewel. The former isreckoned to be one of the finest survivingmedieval silver seal dies. Nevertheless,once removed from the company of otherseals it loses much of its previous impact.
The Dunstable Swan Jewel (c. 1400), adelicate gold and enamel pendant, is partof a tradition of display used by a networkof European nobles who all claimeddescent from Godfrey of Bouillon, grand-son of the legendary Swan Knight, agenealogical phenomenon addressed insome detail by Sir Anthony Wagner(Pedigree and Progress, 1975). The jewel,symbol of the Bohun family and ofLancastrian allegiance, illustrates the con-temporary interest in both genealogy anddisplay. Little more than an inch in height,the Swan Jewel is difficult to show; thoughit is placed on a pedestal and illuminatedby a spotlight, it is dwarfed by surround-ing objects; unfortunately a large knightshelmet and accompanying chain mailattract the eye more readily than thedelicate beauty of the Swan.
The book is divided into three sections,Devotional art, Society, and Interna-tional influences, incorporating sacredand secular art, and its domestic andforeign inspiration. Clearly many piecesdo not fit cleanly into one category themonumental brass of an unidentifiedbishop is placed in the first section, while
that of the gentleman John Langstonappears under Society; but is the funeraryimage of a bishop more devotional thanthat of a layman? Nevertheless, thecategories are more straightforward thanthe 13 themes that appear in the galleryitself, most of which can be seen assubdivisions of these general divisions.The only one of these themes that isdedicated to a particular work is the LewisChessmen (c. 11501200), a group of chesspieces finely carved from walrus ivory;significantly, the curator is also the authorof a separate book on this subject, and assuch receives one of the most detailedentries in the catalogue,explaining their provenance