Das Bild als Schleier des Unsichtbaren: Asthetische Illusion in der Kunst der fruhen Neuzeit in Italien
Munich: W. Fink, 2001. 446 pp.; 226 b/w ills. $88.00 [[euro]68]
Words and images. This book embodies a paradox that increasingly can be encountered in art historical discourse. It offers an intensely insightful analysis of a series of works of art that, despite the forcefulness with which it argues for, and acknowledges, the image as an episteme in itself, to a substantial degree, is dependent on the verbal brilliance with which the author defends this position. In a complex but effective way, the scholarly discourse here becomes a mirror of the very subject matter it addresses: the self-assertion of the image in its "medial" function of evoking pictorial illusion. (In the course of this article, the--complex and contradictory--semantic values that Kruger attaches to the German adjective medial ["medial"] and the noun Medialitat ["mediality"] will be clarified.) Klaus Kruger's language not only is the vehicle for exploring and unveiling this paradoxical identity of the image in late medieval and early modern Italian art, it also asserts itself as the road toward, and entrance into, that world of visual experience without which there is no (or less easy) access. This is far from suggesting an element of artificial self-display in Kruger's account. It is just to say that his exposition, with its syntactic complexity and opaqueness (at least for a non-German reader) relative to the content of what it exposes, has a powerful presence of its own that becomes a mirror of--the road of insight into--the image's medial status as a constituent component of the viewer's aesthetic experience. The fact that the reader is dealing with the German language has to be acknowledged right from the start. This language allows for the construction of nouns that imply the existence of something that may not exist other than as a neologism, or not in the reified form evoked by the noun, and for which it is hard to find an immediate parallel in English.
Medialitat is one such concept, and it is a key concept in Kruger's book. Kruger's reasons for using this term, and the particular meaning(s) he attaches to it (which I will address below), go beyond the contingencies of the history of image making. They are rooted in a theoretical position regarding the ontology of the image as Ding und Erscheinung, which depends on ideas formulated by modern thinkers such as Theodor Adorno and Arthur Danto (and influenced, it seems, by reception aesthetics in the tradition of Hans-Robert Jauss and Wolfgang Iser). This position attributes a revelatory power to the dialectic between "thing" and "illusion" as it becomes manifest in the beholder's aesthetic awareness of, and reflection on, the image. In this perception, the objecthood of the work of art--that is, not its material makeup or concrete constitution but its perceived thing identity--gains a presence of its own next to, but paradoxically and inextricably intertwined with, the illusory phenomenon created by its pictorial means.
This intertwinement manifests itself as a dynamic dialectic, as an oscillation between perceived objecthood and illusion, which is not resolved in the aesthetic experience of the image but is, and remains, the very fundament and proper subject of that experience. This position, Kruger argues, is not to be treated, as modern theorists have tended to do, as a description of the ontology of the modern image that has "freed" itself from the claim (or burden) to represent, or to embody, metaphysical truth and reality; rather, it relates to a characteristic inherent in religious art. His book is an effort to trace the history of the image's "asthetische Alteritat" (its potential to generate an aesthetic perception oscillating between material object and pictorial illusion)back to a period that (current scholarship assumes) did not know, or acknowledge, the phenomenon--that is, to religious art of the late Middle Ages--and to describe the trajectory of its subsequent development up to the early modern period. Kruger's rationale for focusing on Italian art lies, first of all, in his particular expertise; his investigations could equally well have been carried out in the realm of early Netherlandish painting (and there are, throughout the book, references to the art of the oltramontani). But it lies perhaps more so in the opportunity to address, at the very end of the book, the art of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, which, at least on the surface, offers resistance to the idea of asthetische Alteritat.
After having expounded his theoretical position--I say "after," but as a matter of fact, the description of his position is woven into the main body of the text and in a brief concluding chapter, rather than in the introduction--Kruger sets out to project that theory against the general increase of a mimetic capacity in Western art, that is, against its increased tendency to treat the picture plane as a "window" onto the world (Leon Battista Alberti's ideas are regularly accounted for). Kruger is interested not in this mimetic capacity itself but in its consequence for the image-viewer relation, in the experience of the picture plane's transparency--the illusion of a continuum of pictorial space and real space, which implies a denial (not conceptually but aesthetically) of the material presence of the picture plane. The transparency of the visual image, in other words, by nature would seem to defy the aesthetic perception of its objecthood, thus destroying its potential of structuring asthetische Alteritat. The reason why the book, after dealing with many works by many artists, most of them created over a period of almost three hundred years (from about 1300 to 1600), has only one, albeit brief (sub)chapter on the oeuvre of a single artist, Caravaggio, lies in the fact that his work, while epitomizing the tendency toward increased surface translucency and illusionism, is the ultimate testing ground for the theory.
The threefold structure of the book can thus be understood as addressing the phenomenon of asthetische Alteritat over a period of time that sees changes (not necessarily congruent, but often--also by Kruger--treated as interwoven) in the status, identity, representational nature, and aesthetic potential of the image. The book's first part is devoted to religious art, primarily to what usually are labeled Andachtsbilder, images that are thought to have served private devotional contemplation because of the close-up rendering of the religious protagonist and the resulting illusion of intimacy and proximity to the viewer. Nowhere does Kruger explicitly theorize this predilection for a particular type of religious image, and it has to be said that he also considers some paintings that were meant to function as altarpieces in liturgical settings--apart from the fact (which the author is very well aware of) that a strict distinction between these categories...