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13.04.08, Powell, Depositions

13.04.08, Powell, Depositions

Amy Knight Powell begins her book Depositions with two provocative contentions: first, that images are not alive--they do not live and they do not have an afterlife, nor should we try to breath life into them--and second, that they are promiscuous--they interact actively and often with other images. One could be forgiven for thinking (with fear, or perhaps relief?) that zombies had finally breached the ivory tower of art history. But Powell's approach deserves more than just a flippant deflection, for she demands that we reconsider and reframe some of the basic principles of art history to follow her argument. The book, one of several recent works to challenge art historical conventions of chronology and context, offers an iconoclastic approach to the study of images that is intriguing and engaging, if also at times problematic.

Powell takes as her point of departure the image of the Deposition from the Cross, which she first considers in the context of late medieval devotional practice, and particularly with reference to Lenten enactments of the subject. She then recasts the removal of Christ from the Cross as a figure for the taking down, rejection and denial of the image writ large, first in the Reformation context, and then beyond, anticipating the death of art announced more than once by modern artists, theorists and critics. Embracing the sometimes- reviled notion of pseudomorphosis, Powell pairs late medieval practices and images with a modern or contemporary work that shares some formal dimension with the earlier example. Drawing on a rich array of examples, she endeavors to investigate the implications of the deadness of the image and the interpretative potential gleaned from pairings with works of art that might otherwise not obviously be connected to them.

Each of Powell's chapters has a similar structure. They open with a focus on a late medieval or early modern image that leads into what she calls a vignette, a discussion of a contemporary work that exposes a dimension of the earlier work of art or sacred practice previously explored in the chapter. She does not really compare the two works, and no transitions (apart from a new subheading) mark the shift from one work to the next. She invites the reader to draw inferences from the pairing of the two works of art, perhaps to facilitate the migration of authorial intention that she asserts in the works of art themselves. Her discussion of the Deposition rite--a paraliturgical performance that reenacted the burial of Jesus Christ with a cross or crucifix and a sepulcher--is followed by a discussion of Sol Lewitt's Buried Cube, which a work that also stages a concealment and burial. Playing with the proximity of deposing the image and disposing of it, Powell's wide-ranging account of the imagery and performance of the Deposition asserts how the figure of Christ should be understood as the image, and that its detachment from the cross, transport, and burial thus constitutes, enacts and foretells the iconoclastic impulse.

Ambivalence and hostility to images and to image-making expressed in images themselves takes many forms, both medieval and modern. A chapter on crucifixes with movable arms so designed to facilitate their removal to the tomb includes a discussion of the mocking and ritual humiliation of images later restored to their prior form. It concludes with an account of Marcel Duchamp's Unhappy Readymade, a work exposed to the elements and successively destroyed and recreated. Chapter three, "Dead Images," discusses iconoclasm and other appraisals, rhetorical and pictorial, that renounces the potential for life in the image, is succeeded by a discussion of Ad Reinhardt's Non-Happening of 1958, in which the artist, too, asserts the lifelessness of painting. In another chapter, Freud's account of the child's game Fort-da adds nuance to the repetitive enactment of death and resurrection of the image. Without entirely rejecting the Panofskian tradition that seeks and establishes the meaning of work of art based on sources, documents and practices contemporary to it, Powell's book thus seeks to liberate our interpretation of images from the fetters of context and chronology. Instead of restricting the resources that serve the interpretation of a work of art, Powell opens the door to a potentially infinite field of critics and comparisons, whose cacophonous variety, she insists, adds nuance to our understanding of images and their making and unmaking. If this will strike some readers as a heretical assault on one of the essential tenets of the art historical credo, it will inspire reverence in others.

Powell's transhistorical salon is crammed with luminaries. Gathering authorities that range from Gregory the Great to Paul de Man, by way of Luther and Lacan, Baudelaire and Benjamin, that expands her analysis from the confines of interpretive tools contemporary to the work of art. How can our understanding of works of art be enriched when we release them into the realm of the timeless? This is perhaps the central question--and perhaps even central methodology--that underlies Depositions: much can be learned when we bring ideas and images into contact that the rigid conventions of art historical periodization otherwise isolate. The museum--described throughout the book, with different intentions and implications, by sources whom we might call the usual suspects: Marinetti, Reinhardt and Proust--as a mausoleum, thus becomes a fertile hothouse for the cultivation of ideas and interpretations that the traditional art historical study insistent on contemporary sources would deny.

In her focus on the dead image, and her contemplation of the encounter between the past and the present, Powell draws on precedents established by David Freedberg, Joseph Leo Koerner and Alexander Nagel. In The Reformation of the Image, and also in his catalogue contribution to the exhibition "Iconoclash" (which brought together medieval and modern images) Koerner has argued persuasively for the iconoclasm latent in icons themselves, albeit in the Reformation context. Powell retrofits altarpieces of the previous century with the same engine. One might reasonably inquire if the ambivalence about the image that Koerner identifies in Cranach's Wittenberg Altarpiece can already be detected in Rogier's Deposition of a century earlier. But to harp on this distinction is to miss Powell's point, which instead invites us to "transgress history" and not be overly fastidious about chronology. Alexander Nagel has also recently explored the encounter of the late medieval and the modern in Medieval Modern, and some of Powell's examples are similar if not identical to his, although their approaches and aims are quite different. Powell is not alone in her desire to seek new tools and new approaches to the field.

With the fervor of an iconoclast, Powell can be dismissive of the order she seeks to overturn. Some of her most withering remarks are reserved for those art historians who seek to breathe life into images. And yet her own language enlivens images as much if not more than that of the scholars she deplores, as for example when she insists that "...well before the Reformation, people were finding ways to hush and still images when they became too gregarious or animated" (107). Powell's unshakable faith in the latent iconoclasm of pre- Reformation Depositions leads her to emphasize hostility to the image over ambivalence to it. A more nuanced approach, and an acknowledgment of the fluidity and range of attitudes towards the image might have made for a more persuasive if less passionate and innovative book.

Among the other weaknesses of the book are Powell's tendency to accelerate from speculation to certainty without much evidentiary scaffolding and her willingness to ignore evidence that might compromise her argument. Lean and nimble, the presentation of information dispenses with sometimes-necessary transitions and ballast. In one paragraph, she will offer an intriguing observation that needs some more fat on its bones before it becomes fact. And then in the next paragraph, this premise, without much (or sometimes any) more avoirdupois, becomes the foundation for a whole new set of observations. While so much slippage on the chain of signifiers may well be her explicit intention, it complicates and sometimes subverts her line of reasoning. For example, Powell begins her discussion of the Deposition painted by the Bartholomew Master noting that nothing is known of its patron, and that it shares features with a group of the artist's works given to the Carthusian monastery in Cologne. Ten pages later, by way of a discussion of puppets, Herrad van Landsberg, and Kleist's Über das Marionettentheater, inter alia, she asserts that "the Bartholomew Master's figures made themselves acceptable in the Carthusian context" (203). Is Powell still referring to the Deposition, rather than the artist's other, documented works at the monastery (she does not specify)? If so, the unsupported shift from the uncertain to the definite undercuts what is otherwise quite an interesting discussion about the artifice of images. It also compromises her ability to persuade the most resistant of her readers to come around to her way of thinking, not least because of the animation and even volition implicit in the language she consistently employs to describe images she insists are dead.

Indeed, one is forced to wonder to whom her argument is addressed. Is her primary audience the reader already conversant with the approaches of Koerner and Nagel? Or does she hope instead to convert the uninitiated, the idol worshippers with ears still ringing with Donatello's exhortation to the Zuccone to speak? Is she addressing Modernists oblivious to the resonance of the past? Or does she want to reach a broader public? These latter constituencies might explain, for example, the need to define Sarum Use, and the translation of Latin terms that will be familiar to most medievalists, including Imago dei, and the occasional parenthetical retranslation back into German of terms best known to an academic audience in their original form. For all of its deft deployment of complex theory, Powell's writing is largely free of jargon. The generous use of emphatic italics renders the text almost conversational in tone, which certainly helps to make the challenging subject and its underlying methodology accessible to a wide range of readers. One might wish for more illustrations, but the images are certainly adequate to the task of supporting this iconoclastic work.

The message of Powell's imperfect work, is that it is, quite literally, time to think outside the sepulchral box: that we should not fear to tell the story of the history of art and its object in brave new ways, even when they diverge, sometimes massively, from the received wisdom. Depositions is ambitious and worthwhile; it will make readers reflect on historical method and the nature of images even if they are not entirely persuaded to follow the path it blazes.