Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Mannerism Of The Mind: John Hale About El Greco; A Pinch of Blake

Adoration of the Shepherds (El Greco, 1614, originally in Toledo, now at the Prado).

Of this painting, the eminent historian John Hale-- a worthy successor to Burckhardt and Huizinga-- wrote: "It is a dazzling technical virtuosity. But this is a Mannerism of the mind, not of ingenious rule-breaking or a search for novelty, a style without a dominating source and which could have no progeny" (page 326 of The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance, one of my touchstones for understanding that place at that time; published in 1993, the book won awards from the Royal Society of Literature and Time-Life).

For grand pronouncements such as this, I love Hale's work. I love the firm assurance that brooks no retort, the god's-eye view, the sense of doors properly opened and closed, indeed of door-frames finely measured, angled and planed...and yet, and yet...the very finality of the assertion starts to bend and elongate (like an El Greco figure!) under closer inspection, does it not?

What--I ask myself--is a "Mannerism of the mind," as opposed to, say, a Mannerism of the heart or a Mannerism of the body? Or, alternatively, whose mind: that of the painter, that of the viewer (the intended original audience at the monastery in Toledo, or today's in the museum in Madrid), that of the critic (the critic at the time, the critic re-discovering El Greco in the 19th century, the critic writing today)?

What, I murmur: no ingenious rule-breaking, no search for novelty? But what had driven El Greco from Venetian Crete to Rome, and thence to Toledo if not his deep desire to break free of first Byzantine and then Italianate artistic rules? Others, some known to El Greco, shared his iconoclastic desires: Pontormo (I think), surely Parmigianino and Tintoretto. And the doom-laden, definitive claim that there not only were no progeny, but that there could not be any--?...even allowing the simple declarative, one ought to note that the offspring of aesthetic invention sometimes skip (many) generations: El Greco's role as progenitor was acknowledged by (among others)Cezanne and Picasso, presumably also by Dali and the other Surrealists.

My point though is not to flyspeck the powerful and enduring work of an expert such as Hale, but to force myself as a reader to slow down and scrutinize the struts and props beneath the carapace of authority, to question my own understanding, to query even the most persuasive of statements-- especially when I need only bend my vision to the image or text being critiqued. To quote Blake (another mannerist ill-understood in his own time): "As the eye is formed, such are its powers."

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