Why art history? Bernini's David

February 13, 2013

Speechless at the Borghese

As I sit and think about the question of “Why art history?” for myself, I’ve realized that there are two different paths that encouraged me to “find out more” about the works of art which appealed to me. I first was drawn to the intellectual aspects of art, particularly Northern Renaissance art, while only later finding myself drawn to actual aesthetics and the experiential nature of viewing art.

When I first began to study art history as a teenager in high school, I was immediately drawn to the cerebral aspects of art. I relished the concept of “disguised symbolism” in Northern Renaissance painting, especially found in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and the Merode Altarpiece (c. 1427-32) by the workshop of Robert Campin. With what precision answers could be produced about the symbolism of these everyday objects! Lilies symbolize purity! A dog means fidelity! Pieces of fruit mean fecundity! I devoured the succinct answers that were provided in my heavy survey textbooks. I considered these answers to be universal truths, not realizing at the time that Panofsky was the iconographic chef de partie who systematically shuttled out answers for me to consume.

The Merode Altarpiece (Annunciation Triptych). Metropolitan Museum. New York.

Perhaps, since I was a somewhat naïve and inexperienced teenager, the precision and readiness for such answers appealed to my limited knowledge of the world. I felt like everything had an answer in art history, just like I assumed that life would also produce answers with precision and exactitude. It was not until a few years later, as I began to realize the complexities of life as a young adult, that I realized how iconographic meanings could be very complex and difficult.

My cerebral interest in art continued for several years after high school. I started college as a music major and took a few art history classes on the side. Even though I found works of art to be beautiful, I think that the aesthetics of art were always ancillary to my interest in facts and information. I primarily sought knowledge back then, instead of experience. If I looked for beautiful and attractive things, I probably didn’t look much farther than the apartments of boys that were located near my college apartment.

However, my opinion about art changed a year or two after I switched my major to art history. The most definitive moment, when I began to truly realize the aesthetic and experiential power of art, happened when I was a junior in college. I traveled to Europe on a study abroad that was designed for art history majors. It was on this study abroad, specifically when I visited the Borghese Gallery in Rome with a few friends, that I realized how viewing art could be an emotional experience. There, when viewing Bernini’s David (1623-24) I was brought almost to the point of tears. I recorded this note in my course journal afterward:

May 10, 2003
Bernini’s “David”: WOW. I’m speechless. The direct, concentrated stare is very poignant and dramatic. His body is twisted up and tense. It is so realistic. I can’t believe it is marble. It’s absolutely beautiful. I thought I was going to cry at first and then I was filled with a lot of joy and passion…almost to the point of being giddy. It was definitely an odd sensation to experience so many emotions at the same time.

Although I deeply loved Baroque art before this point, I think that this experience in the Borghese Gallery really changed the way that I approached and understood art. I wanted to learn more about Baroque art, but learn more about it from the aspect of the viewer’s experience. How do Baroque works of art interact with their audience? How can three-dimensional sculpture interact with the viewer in ways that aren’t possible for two-dimensional paintings? These questions began to germinate over the next several years; they eventually led me to travel to Brazil in 2007 to analyze the element of viewer participation and experience in Aleijadinho’s sculptural composition of Old Testament prophets (c. 1800-1805) at the church Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos. I twisted and turned around the paths and staircase that lead up to this church several times, similar to how I revolved around the twisted body of the David a few years before.

Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos. Photo by Monica Bowen

My experience at the Borghese Gallery also encouraged me to learn more about ways to describe the different emotions I felt while looking at the David. I wanted to compare my experience with the words written by others, which led me to read books like James Elkins’ book Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. Although I have armed myself with great adjectives and flowery phrases over the years, I still don’t feel like I have mastered the skill of translating emotions into words. Perhaps it is a fruitless endeavor to try and give words to seemingly ineffable emotions, but I like to try. If there is one reason why I like to write about art history, it is because I’m compelled to practice and find better ways to communicate such emotions with only words.

Monica Bowen is a professor of art history at Seattle University and Central Washington University. As a scholar of the Baroque period, she has a special love for Caravaggio. When Monica is not in the classroom with students, she often can be found working on content for her own art history blog, the inspirational and informative Alberti's Window.

Related links
Prof. Bowens's 2010 interview with 3PP link
Met Museum The Merode Altarpiece link
National Gallery of London The Arnolfini Portrait link


Dr. F said...

Nice job Monica. I wonder how many people have the same kind of experience you had with a personal, up-close encounter with a great work of art. There is a real limitation to seeing a work of art in a book or on the web.


Clarke Riedy said...

Many people, with far less erudition on the history of art, insist that art is just a methodology in the service of creative industry. For them the expectation of intersecting emotional catharsis, and intellectual understanding is just too high a threshold. Fortunately, the durable reminders of such successful evocations remain in the public domain, ready to impart this experience.

Unknown said...

Ah, Bernini claims another victim! I have had similar moments of euphoria and tears in the Borghese. But for me it was the Daphne and Apollo. I studied the leaves growing and the crowds fell away.

Thank you for this beautiful essay.

picturetalk321 said...

You're the person behind Alberti's Window! How exciting. What a wonderful post. I heart James Elkins. And your experience of the twisty Baroque is a delight to read about. I too have nearly wept before art - not often but I remember it. Mine was Titian's Venus in the Uffizi.

Jesse said...

Thank you very much for this post, and for sharing your experience! As a recent master's graduate who is getting out into the "real world," I always enjoy reading professionals' backgrounds. Your story particularly resonated with me, as I also started as a music major, then later changed to art history after having studied abroad in Europe and experiencing that emotional attachment to certain pieces. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

What a great post -- how fun to hear about the avenue that brought you here! I, too, fell in love with Northern (and Italian) Renaissance art in college, the order and logic of it all, but my avenue was more through the history. As a kid, I was dragged to museums, cathedrals, battlefields (my dad was a historian), but it wasn't until college that I experienced the weak-in-the-knees feeling that beautiful art and architecture can evoke. The first day I was in Florence, I walked through the Uffizi by myself and had many such moments (seeing the fronts and backs of Piero's Montefeltro portraits springs to mind). Thanks for sharing your experiences and taking me back to my own!


Ellen Fisch said...

Marvelous article! Your art journey is one that inspires! I have wept in front of greatness many times. Even before arriving at the fabulous Borghese, I was in tears to be in Rome, home to the Berninis, Michelangelos, et al. At the Albertina in Vienna, I was sobbing before the Durers. The Velázquez paintings at the Prado....left me weak with emotion. As an architectural art photographer, I can get teary looking at a beautiful staircase or doorway. Is not sensitivity, appreciation of beauty and heightened emotion that which draws us to art? Thanks again for the post!

Alberti's Window said...

Thank you for the kind comments, everyone! It was a pleasure to write this post, especially since it gave me an opportunity to reflect upon how my own attitudes and approaches toward art have changed over time. I think one of the exciting things about art is that one's perception different pieces (or attitude toward art in general) can change over time. And, as I implied in this post, attitudes and perceptions can change when one sees/experiences a work of art in person, as opposed to seeing a reproduction online or in a textbook.

I really enjoyed participating in 3PP's "Why art history?" series; I look forward to more posts on this topic!

Alberti's Window

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