The Future of the Past

Creative Writing and Art History
, edited by Catherine Grant and Patricia Rubin (208pp, £22.99, Wiley-Blackwell)

How do you tell the history of a painting? For example, in the mid-1870s, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, a prominent member of New York high society and a noted philanthropist, travelled to Paris to sit for a portrait by Alexandre Cabanel. The half-length portrait (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) shows her in the height of French fashion: a white satin evening dress trimmed with what looks like either fur or feathers. The museum's website tells us that contemporary viewers admired the sitter's elegant hands and pose for their evocation of 'a hostess receiving guests [...] full of flexibility and pliant, willowy grace, entirely American in its distinction and sensitive responsiveness.' The portrait is, then, both a product and a producer of a complex cultural and social scene from which we can select a few facts. It took a French painter to produce something 'entirely American'. Wolfe was the only woman among the 106 founding members of the Museum. On her death in 1887 she bequeathed her art collection to the Museum as well as leaving an endowment to the Grace Church in Manhattan to promote 'women's work'. This led to the foundation of the Catherine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club which is still active today in offering opportunities to women artists.

Her 1887 bequest to the museum included the Cabanel portrait and a wide range of other paintings that tell us much about late-nineteenth century American taste in contemporary art. One such painting was Gabriel Max's The Last Token
which portrays a Christian girl in the Roman arena, about to be eaten by lions and holding a rose thrown by her lover in the crowd. Max's painting was hugely popular in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The New York Times for February 22, 1903 reports that Mrs George J. Gould hosted a charity bazaar which included a series of tableaux vivants which 'was an enjoyable feature of the entertainment'. Marjorie Gwyne Gould, aged 12, 'posed as 'The Christian Martyr', after Gabriel Max's famous painting 'The Last Token''. And Max's painting was the cover illustration for The Christian Herald of Jan 17th 1912. Edith Wharton wrote an ekphrastic poem about the painting which she would have seen in Wolfe's house.

Wolfe and her portrait are, then, nodal points in different but mutually reinforcing narratives of capital, art, and the social staging of femininity. For the twenty-first century writer there is a challenge about how to tell the story of the Cabanel portrait and its surrounding scene. The account I've sketched is conventionally framed. The point of Grant and Rubin's collection of ten essays is to find new ways of writing art history. The title of the collection is slightly misleading and you will be disappointed if you are expecting a book about creative writing. What Grant and Rubin have
gathered are essays that explore how to be critical and creative. This is important for a number of reasons. First, art history has remained largely immune to the theoretical and post-theoretical turns and to the self-consciousness about methodology that have dominated film studies and literary criticism for the last forty years or so. Second, as one contributor, Gavin Parkinson, points out, to think and write about, say, cubism, dada, surrealism, Duchamp, Fluxus, or conceptual art 'through the realist and rationalist means that constitute academic writing is to drag them into the very forms of knowledge that such art repudiates, criticizes, questions, seeks to overthrow, or at least considers limited.' Such art, he continues, 'opens out onto lack, absence, and disorder.' Art history is heavily invested in explanatory and representational narratives similar to the one I sketched around the Wolfe portrait and such narratives risk making the nature of modern art (an art often focused on absence and lack) consumable and harmonious.

The contributors to Creative Writing and Art History
offer alternative forms of knowledge. Catherine Grant explores how Double Game (1999), a collaboration between Paul Auster and Sophie Calle, breaks down the usual demarcations between artist and writer. Francesco Ventrella, in one of my favourite essays here, looks at how art history as a discipline originates with the iconic figures of Bernard Berenson, Irwin Panofsky and Aby Warburg; and how all three were often photographed wearing distinctive hats. Nicholas Chare brings a variety of perspectives (Lacan, archaeology, prehistory, queer theory, personal account) to bear on the megalithic Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. Linda Goddard looks at how Paul Gaugin's Diverses choses (the appendix to his Tahitian memoir Noa Noa) use fragmentary modes of writing—repetition, anecdote, quotation, press cuttings, reproductions of art—to suggest a response to art that bases interepretation on creative responses. And C. F. B. Miller traces Bataille's reworking and reimagining of the solar myth in Picasso's art.

So, there is much to enjoy and be provoked by here. Some of the writing will necessarily be a little opaque for the non-specialist in its range of references. But, in general, this is a book that will offer a range of unusual options for anyone interested in different ways of writing. Oscar Wilde wrote that 'To recreate the past from the mutilated fragments of the present is the task of Historian'. The best contributions here suggest that the task of recreation is best achieved when the historian synthesises fragments of different approaches and/or recognises the changing nature of the critical self in relation to a work of art. One of the most interesting books I've read in some time.

     © David Kennedy 2012