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There’s a lot to be said about art writing: much of it, in its current mainstream iteration oscillates between faux-lowbrow listicles and convoluted connoisseurship, both fail to provide enough information to readers. There are exceptions, though, for instance, the illustrious Marina Warner, who has for many years taken a different approach in writing.
In her latest anthology Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists, historian and mythographer Marina Warner shows us a third way: a lengthy introduction the author argues in favor of art writing that should be “as dynamic as the work itself,” and the way she does that is by extensively discussing each work or the artist she examines in their anthropological, psychological, philosophical, and religious context, before taking any stabs at interpreting the work itself. “Ekphrasis [the Greek word for ‘description’] has offered a way of capturing visual experience in words,” she writes in the introduction. Yet, description is not enough. “I like to explore above all the range of allusions to stories and symbols, not to pin down the artwork as if it were a thesis or a piece of code, but to touch the springs of the work’s power.”
The book, which collects Warner’s articles and essays spanning from the 1980s to the 2010s, is divided into four sections, which, cleverly, tread the line between niche subject matters and topics that appeal to a more general-interest audience. “Playing in the Dark,” which explores the correspondence between making art and make-believe plays, is rooted in her lifelong study of fairy tales. “Bodies of Sense” examines the evolution feminine body in art as a vehicle of beauty, seduction, and sin. Part Three, “Spectral Technologies,” explains how new medias enabled artists to overcome the limit of human senses, while “Iconoclashes,” whose name derives from a 2002 exhibition by Bruno Latour in Karlsruhe, examines the power held by images as “active agents.”
In “Cristina Iglesias: Where Three Waters Meet,” an essay in the “Iconoclashes section,” she writes about Cristina Iglesias’s “Tres Aguas” three pool-like sculptural installations that touch on the convivencia period in the city Toledo, a hypothesis that describes a time of religious co-existence that began in the eighth century. She does not merely describe the installations. She gives the reader a primer of the history of Toledo, with a brief excursus on the city’s mastery of weaponry, citing Shakespeare’s mention of “Spanish blades” in Romeo and Juliet, and also veers off into explaining the significance of water installations in Renaissance gardens, and the way hydraulic sciences were advanced among the different Arab dynasties when they conquered Spain.
The analysis of AL and AL’s CGI avatars and video installations in the essay “AL and AL: Visions of the Honeycomb” in “Spectral Technologies” rests on the concept of the double. She traces it back to the concept of eidolon, a simulacrum of a real-life entity that is seen in a version of the Trojan myth, where the woman that Paris abducted from Sparta was not the real-life Helen, but a simulacrum, while the real Helen had been spirited away to Egypt.
The essay “Hans Baldung Grien: The Fatal Bite” (its section is “Bodies of Sense), an analysis of the artworks of Hans Baldung Grien, who studied under Dürer, starts off as an analysis of Baldung’s female nudes, who smile mischievously and whose physicality verge on the grotesque. The description veers into a study of the presence of “the fool” in Northern art in the 1500s thanks to Erasmus’s “In Praise of Folly.” Its grotesque element does not provoke laughter as in mirth, but it exposes the hypocrisies of the subject portrayed or the viewer. She makes apt pop-culture analogies, going as far as saying that Baldung’s penchant for grotesque makes him “the natural father of the horror movie, not the drama of passion, for his work inspires a grim kind of laughter mixed up with terror.” Seeing his original juxtaposition of maidens and horror — such as in “Eve, The Serpent and Death” where Death resembles a decomposing human figure, a curvaceous Eve smiles coyly in the distance, and the central sensual figure in “The Weather Witches” sits on a flayed donkey’s skin, images in the movies, from “Nosferatu” to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
As a graduate in Classics, I am biased towards Warner’s writing, which emphasizes the mythical, religious, and fabulist component of each work she writes about in a way that might ring too academic to readers who are not interested or familiar with that type of lore. “The words tempus and temple share the same root as temenos, a sanctuary, and ultimately derive from the Greek verb temno, for hewing, slicing and wounding,” she writes in regards to Damien Hirst’s predilection for ephemeral creatures such as butterflies, before delving into comparing art galleries and museums to modern-day temples and mausoleums. Warner’s essays are aspirational in their scope, form, and subject matter. In each of the essays, you learn something about the topic discussed and not, as it is the case in many instances of art writing, just wonder what that convoluted “artspeak” word actually means.
Marina Warner, Forms of Enchantment: Writings on Art and Artists (2018) is published by Thames&Hudson and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.