Thursday, October 18, 2012

Renaissance Art, asking new questions about an old topic

The European Renaissance: one of the great over-collected and over-studied periods of Art History.  I say this not to disparage the Renaissance, which was a time of interesting, unprecedented change, but to emphasize how entrenched our stories of this era are.  A thousand times over, art historians have used paintings and sculptures from Europe’s 1400s and 1500s to build an overarching picture of an era. This picture illustrates a time influenced by Humanist beliefs and renewed interest in Roman and Greek culture, a time with a shifts in religious thought, a time with new developments in disciplines from mathematics to philosophy.  All of these aspects are visible in Renaissance art, and they feature in reiterations everywhere, from our history textbooks to our museum halls. 

Last week I stumbled upon an ad for the opening of a new show at the Walter’s Museum in Baltimore, titled African Presence in Renaissance Europe.  I was instantly intrigued: here is a new angle on this favorite era.  I had never heard of an African presence in Renaissance Europe –that isn’t usually part of the narrative of the era.  The very idea of this exhibit highlights of one of the things I love the most about working in the art and culture field: history is a palimpsest, and digging into its complicated depths may suddenly reveal new layers of truth.  No matter how many exhibits there have been on Renaissance art, and now many times studies have corroborated our theories about Renaissance developments, the art works still hold more stories within their frames, stories we aren’t able to see until we figure out the right questions to ask.

With the help of new technological developments in navigation, in the 1400s, people of the European continent were interacting with people of the African continent more than they had in a century, since North Africa was part of the Roman Empire.  Ergo, the thinkers behind the exhibition reasoned, we should see a proliferation of interpretations of Africa and Africans within European Renaissance art.  What shaped the discourse about Africa and Africans in Europe during the Renaissance?  What were the interactions between Europeans and Africans like?  What roles did Africans play in Europe?  African Presence in Renaissance Europe is structured on these new, open-minded questions.  Armed with this new set of questions, scholars can find evidence of an African presence in Europe all over the Renaissance art, in aspects not particularly hidden, but nonetheless often overlooked earlier generations of art historians.   
Girolamo da Santacroce Adoration of the Kings 1525-30 oil on panel, 27" x 32"
 I took the train to Baltimore to see the exhibit last Sunday, the first day it opened.  The exhibit starts with a gorgeous painting of a nativity scene with the three kings, one king portrayed as a black man, as became a common piece of Christian iconography starting in the 1400s.  (We’ve all seen these representations of the nativity with a black king.  But have we ever thought about what this black king represented to Renaissance artists and art viewers?  Who acted as the model for the painting?) 

Moving around the corner from the first painting, I entered the first gallery, a space focusing on the European historical context.  I looked at a lot of old illustrated books, of which the Walter’s has an impressive collection.  In the travel books, atlases and scientific tombs of the time, the mix of study and stereotypes highlighted the increased encounters between Europe and Africa.

The next gallery showed examples of African presence in Christian iconography, and in the iconography of other key Renaissance stories, such as Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.  Next came a gallery of portraits.  A decent sized minority population of Africans lived in some European cities –diplomats, business people, merchants, artisans, servants and slaves- and all of them appear in studies and portraits by European Renaissance artists. 
Some portraits from the exhibition, featured on the Walter's website
By the beginning of the 1600s, the diversity of roles that Africans played in European society dwindled, as the European image of Africa became irrevocably entwined with the inhuman slave trade to the colonies in the New World.  But between 1400 and 1600, the exhibition demonstrated for me that there was far more complex interaction, and fluidity between Europe and Africa than I would have thought.  Plenty of racism existed, but it was inchoate, mixed, not as all-powerful as in later manifestations. 

As is appropriate for an exhibit that is trying to break with ingrained beliefs about the Renaissance, there were a lot of opportunities for visitors to interact and participate in the exhibit.  “Conversation Cubes”, with a question on each side, sat on a bench at the center of the exhibit, provoking visitors to think about issues of art and ethnic identity that the exhibit brought up.  “How does art contribute to the shaping of identity?” and “How does previous knowledge influence the perception of the artwork?” are two examples of questions from these cubes. 

An adjacent gallery displayed the results of interactive projects between the museum and Baltimore middle schools.  In the preceding months, classes had talked about the art to be featured in the exhibit, and had responded to it creatively.  This gallery displayed student work ranging from drawings of new imagined scenes featuring historical people from the exhibit, to a class letter to their textbook company, pointing out how little Africans are ever mentioned in history textbooks and calling for this gap to be rectified.  I enjoyed seeing these contemporary responses to the exhibit; they enhanced its message by demonstrated that the new questions being asked about this over-studied period are making an impact on how we think about the Renaissance.    

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