Author Archives: Vincent Debiais

Paris Workshop – June 16th

After several attempts to schedule and reschedule the final workshop of the program Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art in Paris, this event will finally be happening very soon. On June 16th, several scholars from France and the USA will virtually gather to present some case studies on the notion of abstraction in medieval visual culture. Conceived as a real workshop, with short presentations and time to discuss, this event will conclude the program sponsored by the foundation FACE since September ’18.

15.00 – Vincent Debiais (EHESS, Paris) & Elina Gertsman (CWRU, Cleveland) : Introduction

15.15 – Jean-Claude Schmitt (EHESS, Paris) : « Figure » ou « image » ? Le cas du Bréviaire de Belleville / “Figure” or “Image”? The Case of the Breviaire de Belleville

15.40 – Daniel Russo (Université de Bourgogne) : La couleur du manuscrit 1 de Semur-en-Auxois / Color in Semur-en-Auxois, mss. 1

16.05 – Élise Haddad (EHESS, Paris) : Les étoiles de Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne / The Stars of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne

16.30 – discussion

17.00 – Herbert Kessler (Johns Hopkins University) : Plato’s Planetary Plant / Les plantes planétaires de Platon

17.25 – Elina Gertsman (CWRU, Cleveland) : Faithful Abstraction: Withdrawals and Simulacra in Late Medieval Nacre / Abstraction dans la foi : effacement et simulacre de la nacre

17.50 – Isabelle Marchesin (INHA) : La lumière du lectionnaire d’Hildesheim / Light in Hildesheim lectionary

18.20 – discussion

The workshop will be held online on Zoom; please contact Elina Gertsman or Vincent Debiais to receive the connection link.

An Abstract Glimpse of Japanese Art

The project Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art focuses mainly on Christian art produced in western Europe during the Middle Ages. In this context, the concept of “abstraction” is put in perspective with Christian theology and with the elaboration of a theory of images. Comparisons are always risky when dealing with complex notions like abstraction, deeply rooted in specific cultural contexts, but they can also be very fruitful when highlighting the broad questions at stake in the survey about Pre-Modern abstraction. Vrinda Agrawal, Bailey Sullivan, and Julia LaPlaca (University of Michigan) offer here a glimpse of these questions for three Japanese works of art from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

“Both Boy and Ox Forgotten” from Ten Verses on Oxherding. 1278; Kamakura period (1185–1333). Handscroll; ink and color on paper. Dimensions: Image: 12 1/4 in. × 20 ft. 6 in. (31.1 × 624.8 cm) . New York, MET, 2015.300.10, Mary Griggs Burke Collection.

The Buddha’s enlightenment is represented as a miraculous event throughout Asia. In paintings and architectural reliefs, fantastical creatures appear around Śākyamunī and the heavens shower flowers upon the newly Enlightened One. In Japan’s Zen Buddhism, however, enlightenment or awakening was often rooted in the familiar, observable world. Satori 悟, a Japanese for “liberating insight”, can be achieved through a practiced awareness that develops over time, but it was also imagined as a sudden realization triggered by a mundane occurrence.

In the Kamakura period (1185–1333) artists of the Zen tradition favored representations that were grounded in the real and ordinary, instead of idealized other-worldly realms. The parable of ox herding is a well-known example of this. In it, the elusive ox is the zoomorphic expression of satori while the herder boy is the seeker. Over ten steps, described in poems and depicted in accompanying illustrations, he searches, captures, and finally brings the ox home. After the boy’s struggle and the ox’s resistance, they harmoniously come together in absolute unity, which we see in this illustration, the eighth of ten. The empty circle, depicting here the “true void” (shinkū), is particularly surprising when viewed alongside the other nine meticulously drawn and colored images. Its placement within an otherwise “representational” visual program not only heightens the level of abstraction but also demonstrates an astute artistic understanding of the power of placing an absence within the pronounced presence of figural imagery. It also forces the viewer to pause and contemplate the serenity that comes from first forgetting the ox (in illustration 7), and then forgetting oneself.

The deliberate emptiness of the circle embodies the underlying concept of mu – the nothingness or “not-being” of pure awareness achieved by the herder boy. Furthermore, the circular format was preferred because it is without opposing angles and does not have a discernible beginning or end. In fact, Zen monks would often paint stand-alone ensō circles as a performance of the enlightened self. The next circle, the ninth stage, contains symbols of natural beauty and perfection, but neither boy nor ox appears here. The seeker has detached himself from such ephemeral stimulations and sensory desires. Having realized his true self, he does not need escape to another world. The many illustrated versions of this parable, in many media, suggest that it was a widely viewed and understood set of images. Was the void, then, considered an abstraction or did it become a recognizable symbol, “read” in the same way as the other representations? Or does the empty circle ask the viewer to engage with it more, go deeper, than the other nine illustrated circles?

– Vrinda Agrawal (University of Michigan)

Sesshu Toyo 雪舟等楊. Haboku, Splashed Ink Landscape. 1400s–early 1500s (Muromachi period, 1392–1573). Hanging scroll; ink on paper, 28 5/16 x 10 ½ in (71.9 x 26.7 cm) (painting only). Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio. Gift of the Norweb Foundation. Inv. no. 1955.43

Haboku, Splashed Ink Landscape (Haboku sansui-zu 破墨山水図), attributed to Zen Buddhist monk Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟等楊, 1420–1506?) and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, presents a waterside vista that emerges before the viewer’s eyes. Painted on a vertical hanging scroll, this late-fifteenth-century landscape oscillates between the non-representational and the representational. On the right side of the scroll, a pyramidal form suggesting a rooftop peaks out from behind two amorphous ink washes, while to its right a cliff recedes into the landscape. On the lower left side of the scroll is the signature of the artist.The landscape itself occupies only the bottom third of the painting, and the artist leaves the upper portions of the scroll empty. The viewer, then, must intuitively fill in the details of the riverside scene and imagine the vast space the sparse marks imply. In this way, the representational mode of this landscape is not necessarily abstract, but abstracted—withdrawn from the perspectival particularities of embodied physical sight.

Sesshūlikely first encountered “splashed ink” (破墨, Japanese: haboku, Chinese: pomo, lit. “broken ink”) painting on a trip through China. Probably one of the first Japanese Zen monks to paint using the haboku technique, Sesshū was also acclaimed for his work in “modal painting,” a practice of art-making in Japan that adopts, digests, and transforms the styles of Chinese art into a novel Japanese visual tradition. Some art historians have interpreted the seemingly spontaneous stylistic properties of this painting as representing the artist’s engagements with Zen Buddhism and its core values of enlightened spontaneity. However, it is equally likely that Sesshū’s practice in Chinese painting techniques gestures towards his self-created artistic identity, one that borrows from and builds on well-established image-making practices on the continent.  This work raises many questions about abstraction in medieval Japan. Can landscapes be “abstract” representations of space? If so, in what way? How does empty space play into the idea of abstraction in this painting? How would this image change if the upper half were filled with text?

– Bailey Sullivan (University of Michigan)

Hotei, mid-1500s. Yamada Dōan (Japanese, d. 1571), inscribed by Tōkei Jakurin (Japanese, dates unknown). Hanging scroll; ink on paper; overall: 85.7 x 35.3 cm (33 3/4 x 13 7/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1978.48

At first glance, there is nothing particularly abstract about this art work. The portly Hotei (or “Bùdài,” in Chinese, d. c. 916), a semi-mythologized Chinese Buddhist monk, extends his arm upward, pointing with an outstretched index finger. His figure is rendered in faint ink, but a close look reveals his beaming grin and twinkling eyes. Hotei cranes his neck toward his finger, encouraging the viewer to follow his gesture and gaze. But what do we see? A five-line inscription fills the top of the scroll. Perhaps he wants the viewer to ponder the inscription. However, the inscription itself negates this possibility:

Big stomach, gaping garment,

Treasures gathered deep in the bottom of his bag,

Passing through the sky is another road,

Do not seek that to which his fingertip points. (CMA website)

The big stomach and garments belong to Hotei. The “treasures” lie in his signature round sack that rests on his left side. But then the inscription becomes more mysterious. Where is the road in the sky? Why shouldn’t we seek what may be on this road? Whether we begin with text or image, we find ourselves in the empty space at the tip of Hotei’s finger.

This work illustrates a central tenet of Zen Buddhism—enlightenment is not something that can be achieved but is rather something inherent that is realized. Each of us already has a “buddha nature.” This is different from previous Buddhist practices that encouraged demanding spiritual practices in order to reach enlightenment. By pointing to the empty space, Hotei indicates that the road to enlightenment cannot be gained through conscious efforts that are perhaps represented by the written words. Instead, Hotei focused on present, physical phenomena, instead of trying to detach from the world.

Hotei is most well-known for his “treasures,” that are sometimes interpreted as the “treasure of consciousness” or the important realization of his enlightenment. This is why Hotei smiles contentedly, and why he appears to be disappearing before our eyes. This image may be an “apparition painting” (moryōga) in which foundational Zen figures seem shadowy and ethereal, as a way to signify their spiritual state between the mundane world and the transcendent reality of enlightenment. Can we interpret the empty space above Hotei’s figure as abstract? How might the pale figure, bold inscription, and space between work together to help viewers realize their own enlightened state, as described in Japanese Zen?

– Julia LaPlaca (University of Michigan)

Scheduling & Rescheduling

As we all do in our daily lives, the project Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art is struggling with the agenda. When will we be able to flight between Paris and Cleveland to resume our workshops and lectures? When will we be able to explore the collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Musée national du Moyen Âge? It seems almost impossible to schedule real meetings soon and it is why we are planning to close the FACE program remotely with a last workshop in Paris next June. Fingers crossed!

June 2020 was a bad moment to host a one-day symposium in Paris – in middle of the pandemic situation, just before the holidays. Our plan was to reschedule this very seminar in Paris during the Fall but it was too soon, and the situation had to stabilize before thinking in gathering scholars from the US and France in a closed room at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. Planning it in June 2021? Why not, but once again the situation might be too hectic, too unsafe, and we cannot afford another delay. The FACE Foundation has been helping the project so much since the beginning with a lot of flexibility, but the program Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art has to reach a final point with a closing meeting soon.

In these difficult and uncertain circumstances, we have decided to plan this last meeting on Wednesday 16 June, both on site and online. We will have the great pleasure to welcome the speakers we originally invited in 2020 and who kindly agreed to reschedule their talk this Spring: Jean-Claude Bonne (EHESS) on Matisse and medieval abstraction; Jean-Claude Schmitt (EHESS) on the use of diagrams in the Middle Ages; Daniel Russo (Université de Bourgogne) on the use of colors in manuscript illumination; Elise Haddad (EHESS) on the depiction of stars in the portal of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne; Anca Vasiliu (Centre Léon Robin) on the concept of image in Philo of Alexandria. We will also listen to a very special guest, as Herbert Kessler (Johns Hopkins University) has agreed to give a paper during this workshop. This event will be open to all, and we will be sharing the link for registration and login at the beginning of June.

In the meantime and during the lockdown both in France and the US, we have been working in a quite long article in French untitled “Au-delà des sens, l’abstraction”, to be published soon in the next issue of the journal Convivium edited by Ivan Foletti and Philippe Cordez. The participants of the symposia held in Princeton, Cleveland and Paris in 2020 will recognize some objects we have been discussing during these meetings, like the non figurative pillars from Moissac cloister for example (c. 1100).

More news soon; stay safe.

Some News from Our Project

French and US research institutions entered in lockdown in March 2020. A stated in a previous post, all the activities scheduled for our project in 2020 have been canceled, starting with the workshop we had organized in June 18th. During a Skype meeting at the beginning of the lockdown, we decided not to move to virtual workshops and symposia. The main objective of our project is to create the intellectual conditions for fruitful conversations, exchanges and discussions between scholars based in France and in the USA, to make them meet and work together. The online modality, at this time, was not able to ensure this quality of discussion. That is the reason why we decided in March to move all the activities scheduled between March and July 2020 to the same dates in 2021.

In the meantime, we kept working on several papers and the book project reflecting our researches on abstraction in medieval art! More news soon about all of this and the 2021 activities.

Next Paris Symposium – Cancelled

In this very difficult moment, we have been forced to cancel our next symposium in Paris on Abtraction in Medieval Art, originally scheduled on June 18th. We have informed our speakers yesterday, and we are now working on a new date next Winter to host the conference at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, and close the firt part of our intellectual adventure.

We are deeply sad to postpone this event but safety first, of course.

We hope you are all safe at home with your beloved ones. We will try in the meantime to post news about the project as often as we can, like this beautiful image dated 1375: a visual tool to calculate the level of the see according to the phases of the moon (Paris, BnF, ms. esp. 30, f. 2).

Abstraction in Medieval Art – Our next workshop in Paris (June 18th, 2020)

We are pleased to announce that we are currently wrapping up the program of our next and final meeting in Paris this Spring. After almost two years of research and brainstorming, it will be exciting to share some questions with important scholars who have also been dealing in their own work with the concept of “abstraction”.

The workshop is scheduled on June, 18th 2020 and will be hosted by the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, with the following speakers: Jean-Claude Bonne (EHESS) on Matisse and medieval abstraction; Jean-Claude Schmitt (EHESS) on the use of diagrams in the Middle Ages; Daniel Russo (Université de Bourgogne) on the use of colors in manuscript illumination; Elise Haddad (EHESS) on the depiction of stars in the portal of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne; Anca Vasiliu (Centre Léon Robin) on the concept of image in Philo of Alexandria.

More details soon… For any further information, please contact Vincent Debiais.

Abstraction in Medieval Art – Paris, June 18th 2020, 10h-17h (Institut national d’histoire de l’art 2 rue Vivienne, salle Pereisc).

Princeton Symposium – Some Thoughts From our Speakers

During the reception hosted by the Index of Medieval Art after the symposium in Princeton last spring, Angela Black (Stanford University) conducted three shorts interviews with Herbert Kessler, Pamela Patton, and Cécile Voyer. They kindly offered some thoughts on our project on abstraction that we are happy to share here.

The Creation mosaics in San Marco in Venice studied by Herbert L. Kessler in “Blur”

Prof. Kessler, what excites you most about this project?

It totally decenters traditional art history, which is focused primarily on sacred figuration. And it considers largely ignored aspects of the field and ground ornament, the relationship between architecture and imagery, and of course the basics of image-making, of the materials themselves.

In your paper entitled “Blur”, you spoke a lot about the impact an artwork has on the viewer, or how the viewer impacts the experience of the artwork, particularly when it brings with it a blurring effect. I was hoping you could speak a little bit more about that. When there is abstraction in a work of art, how does that impact the viewer’s experience?

I guess my fundamental argument is that we tend to look at images as concrete circumscribed elements, and yet we know from lots of evidence that the image itself was understood to be failing, failing to represent what cannot be represented, which in Christianity especially was the essence. What I argue in the paper, is that the blurring effect reminds the viewer about the inadequacy of the physical image alone.

Do you think there was knowledge among medieval artists that blur was a way to portray the essence of what we cannot really see as humans?

I introduced a number of medieval texts. I try to keep them as close to the points at which the objects were made in time and place. Our idea of the autonomous artist, as an isolated maker of images, is anachronistic for the Middle Ages. I think it never happened. The integration of theological advisors within the making of medieval art is critical there. We have to think of teamwork, and in that context we could find evidence of such a knowledge about blur and other “abstract” effects.

Dr. Patton, what made the Index of Medieval Art inclined to host the symposium for this project?

We are always inclined to host innovative events promoting scholarship. Nationally, or internationally. Anytime someone has a great idea, we are interested in talking about it. I have to be a little cautious at times about overtaxing the staff because we have so much going on with the new database, and we have our own annual conference in the Fall which takes a lot of time and energy. But when someone comes to you with an idea as good as this one, and especially because Elina and Vincent have been so dynamic about getting in touch with the speakers, that we really could not say no to something like that! It is a great chance to bring people together on campus and see a lot of different scholars who work on similar topics.

Is there anything specific about the project that excites you?

I like the idea that abstraction is being studied for its own meaning, for its own inherent values, because one of the things we are trying to do in the Index is to think more carefully about what subjects are. What is “significant” iconography? The Angel Gabriel talking to the Virgin Marry, of course, in the Annunciation, but it can be a plant, it can be an ornament…

Or a color!

And it can be a color! And this is something very new. In fact, we were under orders not to describe color back in the old days of the Index. We have begun in our new cataloguing to include color, because it can be quite important as an attribute, not to mention on its own. This whole idea that we could be cataloguing abstract forms part of the active iconography is really exciting.

Do you consider this new perspective as a way to expand the boundaries of medieval art history?

I think there is a change in the way people think about art historical scholarship at large really since the 80s and the New Art History movement. It reminds people that iconography is not just matching images and texts. I like the idea that iconography is fluid, that its meaning changes according to its context and viewer. The real opening up of how images and visual things speak to people has been truly exciting in the last 5 or 10 years, and this symposium is very much a part of this movement.

Beatus de Valladolid, f. 120r (la cinquième trompette)

Prof. Voyer, qu’est-ce qui vous intéresse personnellement dans le projet de recherche qui nous réunit ici à Princeton ?

Je trouve ce sujet très stimulant d’un point de vue intellectuel. Il nous oblige à mettre en discussion de très nombreuses notions, comme l’abstraction ou la figuration, et leur pertinence dans l’analyse des œuvres d’art médiévales. On doit ainsi se concentrer sur des objets, des images, mais aussi des démarches artistiques originales, généralement peu abordées par l’histoire de l’art médiéval.

Selon vous, comment penser la connexion entre l’abstraction au Moyen Âge et l’art contemporain ?

Je ne sais pas si l’art contemporain est influencé ou a pu être influencé par l’art médiéval. On sait que Matisse s’est beaucoup intéressé à la question des couleurs au Moyen Âge ; on sait aussi que Picasso était extrêmement sensible au langage des Beatus. En revanche, je pense que ce serait plutôt à l’art contemporain de questionner l’art médiéval sur un certain nombre de choses : sur la matérialité, sur la performance, sur le concept de couleur, sur le langage des formes. Il y a en réalité une convergence des questionnements sur les possibilités ou les limites du langage formel, et le Moyen Âge a sur ce sujet énormément à apporter, car c’est précisément là que beaucoup de choses se passent dans cette réflexion sur la figuration.

Paris – Meeting on October 1st

The second year of our project Abstraction before the Age of Abstract Art starts on October 1st in Paris. Members from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland are flying to the École des hautes en sciences sociales for two days of meetings, workshops and visits.

This first event in France for our FACE project will give us the opportunity to present the results of the first year of collective research and to collect insights and comments from our colleagues from the medievalists’ group Anthropologie historique du long Moyen Âge. We will also have the great pleasure to dive into the fascinating world of architectural geometry with Patrice Ceccarini.

Join us salle Mariette (Institut national d’histoire de l’art, galerie Colbert, 2 rue Vivienne, 75 002 Paris) at 9.30 a.m. on October 1st.

Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland) Vincent Debiais (EHESS-CRH, Paris)

Introduction et présentation du projet FACE

Patrice Ceccarini (École nationale supérieure d’architecture, Paris)

L’abstraction géométrique gothique. Hypothèses

Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland)

Color/less. Vide et abstraction

Vincent Debiais (EHESS-CRH, Paris)

La couleur nue

Saint-Avit-Sénieur: Objects and Patterns

Our first post shows some beautiful patterns painted during the 13th century in the abbey church of Saint-Avit-Sénieur (Dordogne, France).

Saint-Avit-Sénieur, abbey church. Pilgrims’ cloaks (13th c.)

At first glance, when we look from the central nave of the church, this entire part of the south wall seems to display a large ornamental area made of geometric patterns. A closer look reveals that the painting actually represents luxurious pieces of cloth hanging on a wooden rod. The effects of volume, the folds, and textures suggest the weight of the clothes and their undulating movement. In the medallions and diamonds, some figures of animals (lions and eagles) evoke the motives embroidered on contemporary fabric.

This example allows us to measure some of the difficulties in defining as “abstraction” for the Middle Ages, situated as it is between objecthood, materiality, and ornamentation.

Before Abstraction

The research blog Before Abstraction aims to record the activities and present the results of the project Abstraction Before the Age of Abstract Art, a research program in Art History between Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland (USA) and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris (France), sponsored by the FACE Foundation (2018-2020).

This project is predicated on the extensive collaboration between the two project leaders, Elina Gertsman (Case Western Reserve University) and Vincent Debiais (EHESS) as well as on the active involvement of their graduate students. All activities are conceived as part of a research and training initiative for scholars at different stages of their career, involved in the creation of an original and groundbreaking joint program spearheaded by French and American scholars.