Search This Blog


01 June 2016

Renaissance of Allegory


In a recent article in Slate (“Save the Allegory!"), Laura Miller makes a plea for deploying the word allegory correctly in cultural criticism—in essence, contradicting the recent tendency to call an “allegory” any film or book that can be interpreted as a commentary on society or politics.  As she argues, allegory is not accidental, it is generative of the work; and allegorical figures in literature are generally called out as such (Fortitude, or Poliphilo—‘Lover of All Things’). She rightly reclaims allegory’s medieval past, but here the deployment of the word “medieval” to describe anything before the “modern” era is also problematic (but I’m not a fan either of calling sixteenth-century art or literature “Early Modern”). The Middle Ages were the middle centuries between the classical culture of antiquity and its rebirth in the Renaissance. That may be a construct, but it’s a useful one, far more coherent than folding the Renaissance and Baroque into the trajectory of Modernism. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene is not a medieval book, but neither is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, written a century earlier (when Italy was fully in the Renaissance while England, perhaps, did in fact remain “medieval”). This is not to say, at the same time, that the Middle Ages were disconnected from antiquity, nor that they weren’t prescient of the Renaissance (witness Dante): see the still classic The Survival of the Pagan Gods by Jean Seznec.

The Triumph of Hope Over Experience
A version of an allegory that, this time
implies some irony in Hope’s gestures: 
she attempts to light an altar pyre, 
but the green kindling generates smoke; 
she pours water onto a dead tree stump; 
her temples are greying
But I’m especially interested in allegory in the visual arts, and in the wider culture of the Renaissance and Baroque (like opera, for example). I’m interested in it because it was formative for that culture, but also because my interest in recovering the tools of that culture means that I actually practice it. In practicing allegory I’ve marginalized myself not only with respect to mainstream modernist culture, but also with the ascendant neo-Realist phenomenon (which I just can’t accept calling “Classical Realism”). It’s a marginal position because much of Modernism was predicated on the abolition of allegory, beginning with literature; the Realist painter Courbet drove a stake through its heart in the nineteenth century in the visual arts (even if academic artists continued to practice an enfeebled version of it into the early twentieth century). Both modernists and realists are still suspicious of, if not opposed to, allegory. Perhaps, in the latter case, rightly enough—there’s no stranger iteration of allegory than the one populated by ordinary, realist (rather than idealized) figures.

For me, the critical thing is that allegory was not baggage appended to painting or sculpture in the seventeenth century: it was formative, essential, causal. It was not foisted on artists by pretentious patrons; instead, it was how artists themselves thought and how they perceived the world. When the great Gianlorenzo Bernini was in the midst of a brief period of being marginalized himself, he set to work on an allegorical sculpture, Truth Revealed by Time, both to comfort himself and to make an argument to his marginalizers. Even his seemingly intimate and “realist” portrait of his lover Costanza Buonarelli has been recently interpreted in, if not allegorical terms, at least rhetorical ones.

Now, mythologies can be interpreted allegorically without being intended as such—the hero’s journey, the battle with brute nature, the overcoming of labors. These can be credible allegorical readings because even in antiquity the myths were understood to be messages (maybe not in Homer’s day, but certainly by Ovid’s). But while Plutarch’s Lives may also contain messages about exemplary behavior, the real people he describes are not symbols or types, not gods or mythical heroes, but specific, individual characters. They cannot take on the burden of allegories because they cannot transcend their individual characteristics and stories—which Plutarch is at pains to narrate as realistically as possible.

the design for The Triumph of Hope
So, allegory doesn’t suffer realism gladly. English painters may have popularized portraits as allegories—Lady Somebody as Minerva—but this always feels like play-acting, not personification. Classical theorists like Bellori were suspicious of too much realism precisely because it defeated the transcendent quality of good allegory, locked it down too much into the here and now, the him or her. But naturalism was valued, that sense of the credibility of the allegorical figures. Where is the boundary, then, between realism and naturalism? The answer, perhaps unsatisfyingly, is that it requires taste: taste formed on the canon of “classical” achievement, a canon even loosely defined, but one that establishes some conventions of the acceptably universal. It might be painterly or precise:  Luca Giordano and Tiepolo are as much a part of the canon as Poussin. But its figures transcend their individualism to become types, universals rather than particulars.

The taste for allegory may not accord with our dominant zeitgeist: too ancien régime, too abstruse or pretentious, too opaque. But it’s also not real enough for most people, doesn’t dazzle with its meticulous, every-hair-on-the-head depictions. Its imagery is broad, general, “classical.” At the same time, it’s not divorced from the depiction of reality; some of the greatest allegorical painters were quite fine portraitists. Sargent felt something of this need to distinguish his late-career allegories in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from his virtuoso portraiture; but for my money he went too far in the other direction, his allegories lacking any sense of the sensual, tactile, and human that suffuse the rest of his oeuvre: they are more graphics, almost abstractions, than paintings. That taste that distinguishes realism from classicism also distinguishes classicism from abstraction. And what distinguishes ars from scientia is judgment, formed by experience of the beautiful, which is found more on canvas and marble than flesh and blood.

first thoughts on this version of Hope Over Experience