The Recurrent Actuality of the Baroque

By Nicoletta Isar, docteur ès lettres

Else Marie Bukdahl, The Recurrent Actuality of the Baroque
København: Controluce, 2017. 260 sider

In recent years the baroque has regained the interest of the scholarly community. There have been studies to further investigate the phenomenon, to discover new facets, to rethink it all together (Hills, 2011), or to search for its relevance for the contemporary world, and draw connections with digital developments (Murray, 2008). This book reflects the effervescing worldwide academic interest in the topic. The book’s title – The Recurrent Actuality of the Baroque – hints at the slant of the contents, which is the constant re-actualization of the baroque.

After a short presentation of the scope of the book (chapter I), and the main concepts and symbols of baroque art (chapter II), chapters III and IV are focused on the actuality of the phenomenon. Chapter III is an extended mis au point of the main theoretical ideas devoted to the concept of the baroque through time, an interpretation of philoso-phers’ and aestheticians’ ideas around baroque art (Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Mario Perniola, Christine Buci-Glucksmann and Gilles Deleuze). The author investigates a number of philosophical trends, following them through specific themes and problematics and succeeds to combine abstract thought with concrete analysis on specific images. Finally, chapter IV is devoted to contemporary responses to baroque ideas emerging within present day culture and science, in public spaces, and on a verbal and visual level. This chapter directly addresses the major concern of the book to demonstrate the long-lasting impact and recurrence of baroque patterns of thought and images that continue to inspire contemporary artists, as well as scientists. This specific chapter takes up quite a significant part of the book (64 pages out of 260) and is conceived in some ways as a comparative study that attempts to find the past in the present, and to inquire about its actuality. This is an aim that to a considerable extent is achieved, since the way in which the chapter shows how the baroque has come alive again and is actualized in new and spectacular forms makes the book enticing to read, as well as a significant contribution to studies on the baroque.

One should perhaps also say that the author Else Marie Bukdahl was trained originally as a literary scholar, not an art historian, although her expertise in this field is excellent. She is also the former rector of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen. This is important information as it helps us define the position of the author in the wider circles of baroque scholars, who are in general divided between those dwelling on the historical side of the baroque phenomenon, and the theorists engaged in the analysis of contemporary culture and architecture. This division sometimes generates certain tensions between scholars.

The author’s background as a literary scholar is clearly reflected in the aim of the book, which in many ways is to ease the aforementioned tension, which for her is symptomatic of the baroque itself which, “exists only in perpetual crisis and redefinition” (p. 50). Thus, in the second chapter, she describes how the book project was created to depolarize the existing scholarly situation and instead search for baroque universals. To oppose “baroque typology” she offers an alternative view of the baroque as a vision of “a distant mirror of our time.” In the final chapter this becomes a reflection of a process as effervescent as it is volatile, which makes it a valuable source of documentation for further research. The author investigates the present contemporary process in which artists are engaged in dialogue with theoretical ideas, which could be perceived as a rich and well documented answer to the older question formulated by Buck-Morss, “how can theory learn from contemporary art practices engaged in stretching that membrane (of visual images), providing depth of field, slowing the tempo of perception, and allowing images to expose a space of common political action?” (Buck-Morss, 2004, p. 13)

In the author’s analysis, contemporary culture offers a space for critical reflection on both past and present. The open character of the projects and artistic events presented in this chapter bring important testimonies about the artistic process, how theory and praxis go into dialogue with each other in an ongoing process of mutual inspiration and actualization. Aesthetics expands its field leading to shaping and reshaping new aesthetical ideas. Thus, for example, we see how the Baudelairean ephemeral moves radically from its modern meaning as “the fugitive, the contingent, the half of the art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable” (Baudelaire, 1964, p. 13) into “the new regime of the ephemeral images” (Buci-Glucksmann, 2003). The book refers to Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s exhibit at Versailles, in its bid to encapsulate how the “aesthetics of the ephemeral” can be generated by a new “vibrant presence”. Eliasson’s enactment of Seeing Yourself Seeing could be read perhaps as a part of a trend in museums for the reactivation of historic ephemeral art through relational, conceptual and performative practices and re-enactment philosophy. In the digital era, the era of flux, this might look paradoxical (Buci-Glucksmann and Quinz, 2014). But scholars like Buci-Glucksmann are inquiring into the baroque, and although she acknowledges that such inquiries may appear a paradox when situated within a digital culture setting, she stresses that her work “implies the weaving of time, rather than its erasure.” “We don’t invent from nothing,” thus “it is necessary to create relational and virtual artworks.” In her opinion, it is not possible that the creation of virtual works is independent of a true culture of heritage.

In searching to offer an alternative view of the baroque as a vision of “a distant mirror of our time,” the author of this book perceives the “fold” as the connecting “passage” that allows one to perform a constant revision and actualization of vision, which is a way out from the essentials, the universals, ultimately, from presence. By an irony of history, in the course of its alternating turns and counter-turns, the Leibnizian vision has been once called upon to undo “the split,” the broken image, and to restore presence. But as the author of The Fold might say, it is all a matter of “point of view with variation.” Thus, as if by means of an inverse gesture, one could just turn the mirror around so that it may project a new vertiginous image. A new theatre will constantly emerge, and, with its new proscenium, a new dream and a new illusion will emerge. “The Baroque artists know well that hallucination does not feign presence, but that presence is hallucinatory.” (Deleuze, 2006, p. 143)

 

Literature

Baudelaire, Charles, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon, 1964)

Buci-Glucksmann, Esthétique de l’éphémère (Paris: Editions Galilée, 2003)

Buci-Glucksmann, Christine and Emanuele Quinz, “For an Esthetics of the Ephemeral”, Hybrid, 01, 2014. http://www.hybrid.univ-paris8.fr/lodel/index.php?id=314

Buck-Morss, Susan, “Visual Studies and Global Imagination”, Papers of Surrealism 2, 2004

Deleuze, Gilles, The Fold: Leibniz and the baroque (London: Continuum, 2006)

Hills, Helen (ed.), Rethinking the Baroque (Oxon: Ashgate, 2011)

Murray, Timothy, Digital Baroque: New Media Arts and Cinematic Folds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

Quinz, Emanuele, ”For an Esthetics of the Ephemeral: Interview with Christine Buci-Glucksmann”, 2014