Tintoretto's Difference
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Tintoretto's Difference

Deleuze, Diagrammatics and Art History

Kamini Vellodi

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eBook - ePub

Tintoretto's Difference

Deleuze, Diagrammatics and Art History

Kamini Vellodi

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About This Book

A provocative account of the philosophical problem of 'difference' in art history, Tintoretto's Difference offers a new reading of this pioneering 16th century painter, drawing upon the work of the 20th century philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Bringing together philosophical, art historical, art theoretical and art historiographical analysis, it is the first book-length study in English of Tintoretto for nearly two decades and the first in-depth exploration of the implications of Gilles Deleuze's philosophy for the understanding of early modern art and for the discipline of art history. With a focus on Deleuze's important concept of the diagram, Tintoretto's Difference positions the artist's work within a critical study of both art history's methods, concepts and modes of thought, and some of the fundamental dimensions of its scholarly practice: context, tradition, influence, and fact. Indicating potentials of the diagrammatic for art historical thinking across the registers of semiotics, aesthetics, and time, Tintoretto's Difference offers at once an innovative study of this seminal artist, an elaboration of Deleuze's philosophy of the diagram, and a new avenue for a philosophical art history.

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Year
2019
ISBN
9781350083080
1
Tintoretto: A Problem for Art History?
How else can one write, but of those things which one doesn’t know, or knows badly? It is precisely there that we imagine having something to say. We write only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other.1
Beside the numerous pictorial innovations through which one could intimate Tintoretto’s provocation, and beyond the strange and unfamiliar look of these works, was the sense of something for which the language of art history fell short. There was an obscure need to address, if not necessarily to correct, what scholars have characterized as Tintoretto’s ambiguity.
To this end I was intrigued by the kinds of problems the subversion of tradition might pose to reception and to thinking, and in what ways it could account for the registers of imperceptibility that I was encountering in the scholarship. Was ‘ambiguity’ a feature of the work, or was there something within art history’s methods, assumptions, and ambitions that fostered it?
Tradition and contextualism
To begin, it seemed that one had to attend to the disciplinary preoccupations with the category of tradition and the method of contextualism – that is, the attention to the historical context of an artist’s production as determining factors in that production.2 In Tintoretto’s case, one does not need to look far to find evidence of this preoccupation. In the survey of contemporary scholarship published to accompany the 2007 Prado retrospective, the inscription of the work within artistic tradition – be it a tradition of genre, period style, or iconography – dominates.3 Tom Nichols’ Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity, 1999, – the first full-length study to be published in English since Eric Newton’s Tintoretto in 1952 – situates even the most idiosyncratic aspects of Tintoretto’s practice within the category of tradition, the historical contexts of his practice, and the construction of the artist’s identity. Here, tradition emerges as a category of analogy by which difference can be identified, and the unknown brought back to the known. But why must enquiry begin with what is known?
It is arguable that the insistence to contextualize Tintoretto, to read him as a representative of his time and place, no matter how obscure, imprecise, and fluid this sense of context, has more to do with the pervasive inclinations and internal developments of the discipline of art history than with the peculiar nature of his works and what they invite or compel.4 The desire to ‘securely moor’ the work of art within its historical context is, I would contend, a testament to the ongoing legacy of the social art history of the 1960s and 1970s to which Michael Baxandall’s inordinately influential concept of the ‘period eye’ – which advocated the reconstruction of the ‘mental and visual equipment’ that informed the production and reception of a work in its historical time and place – was foundational.5 With all his difference, Tintoretto is still subject to such mooring.
Under the banner of contextualism, the question of experience emerges as somewhat impoverished, a state reflective of a given set of lived conditions. But what happens when a patron is shocked or disappointed by what he encounters, or when no one knows what to say about a particular work? When Tintoretto’s contemporary, the notorious satirist and man of letters Pietro Aretino, abruptly changes his assessment of Tintoretto from laudatory to sceptical, are we obliged to grasp this apparent capriciousness through an understanding of circumstance? When Tintoretto’s ‘breakthrough’ work, the Miracle of the Slave, 1548 (Figure 4), divides the opinions of those with purportedly the same ‘mental and visual equipment’ how are we to understand this? What do we say of a work that confounds the established ‘cognitive apparatus’ and terminological frames of a particular space-time? How might we approach works that continue to confound successive generations? How do we apprehend such difference?
Contextualism cannot adequately attend to such questions, or cannot do so other than negatively, since it returns difference to the identifying terms of circumstance. Here, I am inclined to concur with Georges Didi-Huberman when he remarks that ‘contextualist historiography … has been incapable of theorizing relationships of difference with any cogency or conviction’.6 The flaw in the contextualist approach, he continues, is its assumption that a period considered through its own eyes is coherent, that a time is identical with itself.7 Rather, all periods are heterogeneous, marked by anachronisms, and differentiated by the currents and forces that course through them. As Henri Focillon once remarked, two artists may have lived and worked at the same chronological moment but nevertheless have belonged to irreconcilable artistic realities. Such is surely the case with the elderly Titian and the young Tintoretto. To say they lived at the same time, in the same historical circumstances, and participated in the same cognitive apparatus is to grossly undermine their irreducible differences, differences that accounted for the fertility and vibrancy of the artistic production that followed in their respective wakes.8
For Hubert Damisch the inadequacy of contextualism lies in its failure to grasp the crucial question of why we look to a particular work now. He argues that ‘there is absolutely no way to look at a work through the “period eye” as Baxandall would have us do. The issue is that we, in our own time, look at works of the quattrocento, and the question is, why is it that a historical work of art interests us, given that we should only be compelled by works of our own time which belong to the same context as we do?’9 The historian’s task, Damisch thinks, is not to restore the putative identity of th e past, but to affirm its difference for us in the present, that difference by which we are drawn to it in the first place.
Whilst the meaning and scope of context may have changed over the course of discipline’s history, its methodological and conceptual stakes arguably remain consistent – namely, the foregrounding of the work of art as a piece of history whose difference is relativized against the intelligible background of circumstance.10 Some scholars applaud the triumph of this approach for its reinforcement of our awareness of the position of images in history, and concomitantly, of our awareness of the distance separating us from the circumstances of their creation. Historical reconstruction, the reimaging of those dimensions of experience that surrounded a work of art and that comprised its ‘fullest significance’, is essential to an understanding of the work, such scholars claim.11 We are brought to mind here of the ‘cognitive distance’ that Erwin Panofsky, grounding his approach on the Renaissance’s self-conception of its difference from the classical past, famously declared to be a necessary feature of the modern idea of history and of all rational scholarly work. Distance, he claimed, enables the scholar to build up ‘comprehensive and consistent concepts of bygone periods’.12 Founded on the apprehension and affirmation of such distance, contextualism would appear to find itself on firm territory then, re-invoking and upholding established and hallowed precedents of disciplinary practice.
Figure 4 Jacopo Tintoretto, Miracle of the Slave, 1548, oil on canvas, 416 × 544 cm. Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Photo: SCALA.
But what does such disciplinary propriety have to do with Tintoretto’s work? Historical reconstruction reimages past dimensions of experience within the broad spectrum of history – but what of the experience of a work in the present? Is this something that eludes the understanding and significance of which contextualists speak? It seemed to me that Tintoretto’s works invited another type of beginning, one that could affirm the aporetic experience of their difference – where we take the aporia to designate, after Aristotle’s formulation, a knot which one does not know but to which the difficulty of our thinking points: the obscure impulse to inquiry.13
And indeed, Tintoretto’s works offer many signs of such invitation. The lack of consensus regarding his position with respect to historical time and place is just one of them. Some scholars have aligned Tintoretto with the Central Italian traditions of painting and the Mannerism of Michelangelo and Giulio Romano, in this way detaching him from the context of Venetian painting traditions.14 Others have seen him as the quintessential representative of the Venetian school. For numerous scholars, Tintoretto is the true disciple of Titian, and ‘fully representative of a Golden Age of Venetian Painting’.15 An artist who may never have left his native city and who produced nearly all his work, certainly his most important work, within its churches, Scuola, and palaces, for many Tintoretto is utterly intertwined with Venice itself – with its aesthetic, its sensibility, its history, its intellectual climate, and of course its artistic traditions. Tintoretto’s modest life, his devotion to the Venetian scuole and Venetian patrons, his prolific output for the religious, civic, and private buildings of the city (in addition to his paintings for the interiors of these buildings, Tintoretto painted many frescoes for the exteriors of domestic buildings – as such, in the sixteenth century, he would have been extremely visible), his standing as a citizen, and even his choice to be buried simply in his parish church – the modest Madonna dell’ Orto, where an unadorned tombstone sits in an undecorated chapel alongside the startling exuberance of some of his greatest works – are for them testament to the inextricability of his Venetian identity and his artistic practice.
But it is not only the question of whether Tintoretto is more or less Venetian that is debated. Scholars also seem unable to agree on the time or period to which he belongs, or upon his status with respect to a particular epoch. For some he marks the end of an era, the end of the Venetian golden age,16 the end of the Renaissance,17 and even the end of painting.18 Whilst for others, he marks the dawn of a new age, ‘the representation of a new generation’,19 the birth of later sixteenth-century art,20 the age of the baroque,21 and even the dawn of the modern – ‘a modern artist, clothed in the garb of Classic Art’.22
Such inconsistency is more than a squabble over chronologies. It is irreducible too to the question of the ‘changing fortunes’ of the artist through different epochs, for we encounter divergent and contradictory views within the same epoch, the same year, and even the same scholar. How then might we attend to it?
Representational thought
It is precisely in his character as ‘a slippery figure that resisted easy categorization’23 that Tintoretto’s problematic function for a certain kind of art history – or perhaps more precisely, for a certain kind of thought – may be said to reside. Indeed, the issues I have been raising are arguably not specific to art history but concern the problem of thinking as such and the limits of a kind of thinking that art history, but not only art history, assumes. One might argue that Tintoretto’s difference is imperceptible to a representational image of thought – a thought that recognizes itself and its object in advance of its operation, which seeks to identify its objects, and which is carried out for the sake of furthering the knowledge of that which it thinks.24
Context and tradition are just two vectors of such representational thinking – their modes and their objects recognized in advance of the act of inquiry, their terms serving to bring difference under the limits of identity. What ma tters is not only that such tropes inscribe the historian’s investigation in facts, in the putative ‘past as it was’, and in the myth of objectivity. It is instead that such tropes uphold a representational mode of thinking. It is not that context and tradition are in themselves redundant notions, but rather that by being treated as designations cast over art history’s field of objects in advance of its inquiry to endow its plural analyses with resemblance from within to constitute a common and recognized territory, they limit the thought of art, subjecting that which is most obscure, deviant, and idiosyncratic to the levelling mechanisms of representation.25
In fact, it seems that the question of how art history thinks is rarely directly addressed. Four decades ago, Svetlana Alpers remarked that ‘it is characteristic of art history that we teach our graduate students the methods, the “how to do it” of the discipline (how to date, attribute, track down a commission, analyse style and iconography) rather than the nature of our thinking’, and it is arguable that her diagnosis still holds currency.26 Whilst Alpers did not elaborate on what she meant by ‘the nature of our thinking’ – going on to equate it, in a way that I think is misleading, with ‘the intellectual history of our discipline’ – her remark points to an important distinction between method and thought; between thought uncritically conducted through method and thought as critical reflection upon its own nature.
This preoccupation with method has been associated with a retreat from reflections on the nature of the artwork. Some have felt that concerns with aesthetics and the ontology of art are at odds with more typically art historical concerns with material and historical specificities.27 The former, they claim, put to work universal, ahistorical, and generic categories, whilst the latter focuses on the ‘specificities’ of art in particular contexts. Betraying more outdated views, others have feared that an admission of aesthetics and philosophy of art would compromise art history’s proper and objective study of artworks by admitting ‘personal taste’28 – a fear arguably traceable to the disciplin...

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