The Shock of the Old: Art Historian Alexander Nagel on His New Book, ‘Medieval Modern’

The cover of Alexander Nagel‘s Medieval Modern features a striking black and tan image of a woodcut by the early 20th century German-American artist, Lyonel Feininger. The image is of a towering Gothic cathedral stretching out into the sky buttressed by shooting stars—“The Cathedral of the Future” as Feininger called it in the Bauhaus Manifesto (1919). Feininger’s vision of the medieval German cathedral was an emblematic one, wherein a country’s vision of itself was tied inexorably to its past.

Today’s art is often in constant dialogue with the art of the past. This premise is what Nagel, an art historian who teaches at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, sets out to explore in his new book Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time.

Nagel is the author of five books. His last, The Controversy of Renaissance Art, won the prestigious Charles Rufus Morey Book Award in 2012. His second, Anachronic Renaissance, co-authored with Yale art historian Christopher Wood, is a remarkable, perspective-altering study of the art of the Renaissance and the concept of art’s temporality. In his writings and teaching, Nagel proves that he is a highly original voice in art historical scholarship and a force to be reckoned with.

Nagel corresponded with PopMatters recently in an email interview about his inspiration for his groundbreaking new book, Medieval Modern and the importance of reevaluating our response to artworks across time.

What was the inspiration behind this book? When did you first make the connection that there’s a dialogue between the art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and modern and contemporary art?

In a way it has been there since I started my studies. It was the ’80s, and we were supposedly seeing the end of painting, the end of the artist as original creator, the end of modern aesthetics, the end of the museum, even the end of “man” in the sense of a humanist conception of art and history. All these endpoints raised fairly pointedly the question of beginnings. If these institutions were historical phenomena that were now coming to an end, where did they come from? And it seemed that every time one asked these questions one was led back to the Renaissance. This was where easel painting came from, when picture galleries and proto-museums were formed, where modern conceptions of the artist originated.

And of course, that only raises the question of what came before that: How did these institutions arise? Out of what processes? From that time onward, I had the sense that there was something of a mirror relationship between our time, at the end of a historical trajectory, and the emergences that marked the beginning of it. I went on to write a dissertation on the origins of easel painting out of the tradition of the altarpiece. My interest in medieval and Renaissance art was provoked by problems in contemporary art, and it then became a lifelong preoccupation.

About ten years ago, I started to realize that many artists had anticipated me, and that their connections to medieval art were something of a theme in 20th century art, a theme that had not been sufficiently recognized, in part because the discipline of art history has become so specialized in recent decades. In the meantime, MFA programs had become an industry, and yet all these young artists were getting a pretty old idea of modern art, not to mention of medieval art (if they were taught medieval art at all). I wanted to do what I could to open up this history for them: modern art had a sustained relation to the older art, and the older art is maybe not what you thought it was.

Your book Anachronic Renaissance also dealt with the temporality of the work of art and the problem of strict definitions of the concept of time. Were there themes and issues that you wanted to expand upon from that book in Medieval Modern?

The two books seem related by their interested in anachronism, and they are. Both books study ways in which artworks reach across time, into the past and into the future. Both books argue, mostly implicitly, that artworks are particularly well-suited to tampering with chronological time.

One difference between the two books is that in the case of Medieval Modern the time travel is much more logically consistent. The modern artists are, despite themselves, children of historicism. They reach for the medieval because it is medieval, whereas in the Renaissance they consistently misdated the “antiquities” that interested them, and they even made works that were to stand as antiquities. Renaissance artists and writers inhabited a pre-historicist consciousness.

Nonetheless, it is also true that what the modern artists were reaching for in the medieval was, in part, an art that inhabited a different conception of time and space. Although they were children of historicism, the modern artists wanted to be free of it.

Who are some of the art historians who have inspired you in your research and in writing this book?

This book is about artists dealing with time and history, but it is also about art historians who had a special connection to the art of their era, who felt that the art of the past was in a sensitive relationship to the most contemporary developments in art. The ones I learned from most are actually subjects of this book. Wilhelm Worringer was so in tune with artistic developments of his time that he published, in 1907, a dissertation on abstraction in ancient and medieval art, a work that was read by virtually all the German speaking artists of the era. Thoughts about “old” abstraction thus anticipated and informed the critical developments in art over the next decade and more.

Later, Umberto Eco played such a role for artists of the ’60s. Leo Steinberg’s work, I believe, shows how his research in medieval and Renaissance art affected how he looked at, say, Johns, but just as importantly, his exposure to the radical experiments of modernism, in particular Joyce, inflected his understanding of what we would eventually call the “multiplex” meanings of the older art. I have been greatly affected by the studies of Hans Belting and Georges Didi-Huberman, both “field travelers” motivated by polemical urgency: they both feel that things went basically wrong with art and thought in and after the Renaissance, and find in some modern and contemporary art signals of a possibility more in tune with what was best in medieval art.

But in the end I am an historan. I do believe, as I say at the end of the book, that the medieval-modern complex is no longer a motor of art and ideas about art. It too has a history, now at an end. I realized at a certain point in the work on this book that I was writing its epitaph. The determination both to think through the material in its widest ideological implications and also to be sensitive the historical position implicit in the material is something I learned form Rosalind Krauss and T.J. Clark.

Your approach to art historical analysis can be considered to be a bit daring from a traditional academic standpoint. Your exploration of the concept of time and the comparisons you make between seemingly disparate works of art are occasionally at odds with more conventional art historical approaches. Did you anticipate any criticism to come along with Medieval Modern, and how would you answer some of your critics?

This book is involved in a paradoxical exercise, in the strict sense of being to one side of orthodoxy. It is bringing to light cross-temporal relations promoted by writers and artists, relations that go directly against art-historical method. And yet it is proposing that these wrinkles are in fact part of the historical record. These things actually happened and I would like to tell you about them!

It is not easy to be an historian of past anachronisms. Mere delirious anachronism on my part doesn’t interest me. But a merely traditional historical approach would have trouble even seeing these relations — otherwise something like this book would already have been written. Hence my paradox: I have to be open to anachronism in order to be have my eyes open to the historical problem. There were moments writing the book where I thought, “I am leaving my comfort zone here, but I have to. The material demands it!”

I am certain that the book will seem less daring as the years pass. I can tell from some of the reviews that some of its readers have had difficulty actually seeing what is there, due to some sense that it violates their commitments. There has been a tendency to exaggerate the willfulness of my juxtapositions, disregarding how much this book is a fairly straightforward investigation of attitudes towards art and history, using traditional methods of art-historical contextualization and archival research.

I have noticed that some readers believe I am arguing for similarity or deep affinity when I make comparisons. What I am after, always, is a powerful sense of difference. But of course difference means nothing without a relation, and I do believe there is a relation worth exploring when I put things together. Rather than a comparison, I think it is better to see these as relations, even conversations. We do not expect two people to be the same just because they are in conversation.

For readers who are new to Medieval art, what would you like for them to take away from your book?

If they are not artists, I would like them to try out what it would be like to take the eye of an artist to a work of medieval art, one not discussed in the book. If they are artists, I would want them to feel enabled. Don’t let the worn out modernist story determine what is relevant to your art. Go elsewhere, go to earlier work, of any period, and look for yourselves. We are listening to you.