Treasures from the Paradise Garden: on the Visual Background of Southern Folk Art
I love the new traveling show at the High Museum. “Medieval & Renaissance Treasures from the Victoria & Albert Museum” is one of those dorky titles in which “Treasures” is the only blockbuster keyword. Leonardo’s exquisite little notebook doesn’t even make it into the title.
And this is appropriate for a show that contains so many blockbuster items, from Late Antique Roman ivory diptychs to the sort of ivory ecclesiastical implement that required a whole tusk to carve properly. The medieval and early Renaissance trade in ivory from the Arab traders to the Italians in Venice to the workshops of all of Europe is something that deserves a show of its own: the dynamics kept changing depending on who had conquered which city and whether walrus ivory could take up the slack. (And whether the ivory came west from India or up the east coast of Africa, centuries before the Portuguese arrived, is surely a consequential topic.)
However the raw materials got there, the disrespected carvers and jewelers of Europe did wonderful things with them. Leonardo’s notebooks survive because the cult of the artist had begun to make personality as much a topic of interest as end product. What we have in this show is mostly end product, and wondrous end product at that.
The only known freestanding Virgin and Child sculpture from Byzantine workshops (where Orthodox theology required bas-reliefs, to discourage idolatry) stands in marked contrast to the intricate northern European style of Veit Stoss, making an object of admiration for a wealthy collector rather than an object of veneration in an ecclesiastical setting.
And it all requires close looking, and time to see the commonalities in Christian iconography if you care about such things, and even more time to understand the full implications of the Chinese-looking Medici porcelain made in the shape of a pilgrim’s flask but unusable for such a function.
But it doesn’t require a lot of background to be struck by the overall appearance of these objects. And their overall appearance, for me, transforms the Howard Finster gallery into which the exhibition unexpectedly opens.
I have long insisted that Finster and R. A. Miller and a host of other folk artists of their generation must have seen a vast number of family Bibles. And family Bibles of the era regularly reproduced Masterworks of Christian Art, usually things like Rembrandt but sometimes also Early Renaissance crosses and medieval ivories like the Soissons diptych in the V & A show.
And not being given to reading small print in photo captions or in the bottom of Bible pages (where the same information came in large-print concordances), folks like Finster would have experienced the Wow factor without necessarily remembering much about it. This makes it impossible to prove my theory, which first arose with regard to R. A. Miller’s strangely Italo-Byzantine-looking crosses. (Italo-Byzantine refers to the style of Eastern Orthodox images that were transmitted from the East to Western Catholicism by the Eastern Empire’s city-settlements on the Italian coast.)
Miller didn’t know from Byzantine, of course, and never had an explanation for why he had the curious accoutrements on his crosses. But I still wondered.
And viewed from the exit of the V & A show, from a distance Finster’s plexi boxes and some of his all-over paintings look like they got their horror vacui from the ordered ranks of storytelling on medieval ivories rather than from the natural human tendency that folk artists seem to have to fill every available square inch of space. The artists fill all the space they have, but they fill it differently; there is no single folk aesthetic.
My hypothesis is probably nonsense, but the V & A show does what a good museum show is supposed to do: it makes me look at the world a different way than I did before.