Brusati and Berger (22.05.17)

There is an unfortunate trend in scholarship of Northern Renaissance art to look for symbolism and meaning in every single minute detail.  I could not help but think that Brusati’s initiation point stems from this way of thinking, by looking for symbolism in something beyond the subject matter, the compositional and methodological approach.  That being said, my personal way of viewing very much aligns with Brusati.  Her attention to detail is not dismissive of the effect of the whole, rather, it is looking at why we are continuously drawn to such images and what the artists did that keeps the viewer looking even centuries later.  This does have me pondering the question as a fellow Northern scholar (at vastly different levels), whether we are drawn to artworks that fit our way of viewing/thinking, or if we shape our way of viewing by the works we are drawn to?

Where Brusati begins her article admonishing museum visitors for their lack of attention, Berger’s first person narrative style starts out almost from the perspective of any old museum goer, one who wanders into a gallery and is struck by the awe of a painting in it.  This opening, and the first person in general, made me think that this article was going to lean more towards the idea that anyone can enjoy and interpret art.  While I think an essence of this remains in the unsubstantiated rumors of certain figures he tells, Berger’s extended discussion on the historical, socio-political, and military influence on the painting pushes the idea that only one with that knowledge, or the time and ability to research, can truly appreciate and understand what is going on.  Surely the initial viewers and commissioners of this work appreciated and understood what Rembrandt was doing, but how does the passing of time and removal of knowledge influence our viewing and interpretation? This is a question I am much more interested in discussing after this article, rather than how and why Rembrandt painted what he did.


5 thoughts on “Brusati and Berger (22.05.17)

  1. Great to see you all continuing threads of earlier conversations here. I hope everyone goes back and reads all the comments on all the posts!

    (Aaron–recognize Panofsky? He’s everywhere.) There are in fact a lot of Netherlandish (Flemish/Dutch) painters who did all manner of heavy handed symbolism, with genre scenes making moral statements–or sometimes mocking those moral statements. And recovering the jokes that original viewers would have gotten can indeed be a very rewarding way to look at these paintings. (I’ve been *really* enjoying Mariet Westermann’s symbolic reading of Jan Steen’s “In Luxury, Look Out.” That painting is loaded with little symbols and jokes that would have been commonly understood (in Westermann’s book, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic 1585-1718, pp. 10-15–maybe I should have assigned it!). This is, in fact,
    what historian Robert Darnton has called the crux of cultural history: getting the jokes.

    Steen, unlike those Italian Renaissance painters Panofsky was decoding, was speaking to the common people, not (just) the educated. One problem w/ Panofsky is that what he took for “society’s view” what really a well-educated political elite, who knew all the Greek and Roman references, etc., in those paintings (please correct me if I’m wrong on this). Something different is going on in some of the Northern works, I think.

    But back to Brusati: I’m curious why you think she’s looking for symbols. I see her as also, if anything, working against that kind of reading. Instead of looking for hidden meanings, she’s letting her eye wander, asking why she’s doing that, what the artist did there to make her do that. So in the end, she is looking for the artists’ original gestures, techniques, tricks, playfulness with perspective, with light, etc. And that is intentional–this is about the artists’ intentions, she argues–but I take this to be different from looking for the artists’ hidden meanings.

    Berger’s prose once again seems to confound his point: his prose seems subjective and stream of consciousness, but in fact his argument or interpretation is a well-researched historicist one: for him, meanings lie in historical context. But still there is that way he has of keeping asking questions that can’t be answered–is there meaning there, too, in the viewer’s inquiry?


  2. I agree with this. Possibly look more into the idea of viewing iconography in Dutch paintings and Panofsky’s argument of when is a candle just a candle. While iconography was used heavily in the northern renaissance, how does the ordinary viewer know when a candle is just a candle? Where is this balance? Iconographical artworks can still cause emotions and thoughts for a non-historial; the artwork is not confined by generational cultural/religious themes of the Renaissance. It can still be enjoyed without knowing the full meanings of each object in a painting. However with close reading, both of the painting and on the meanings of these objects, one can get even more out of the viewing experience. This can be formulated together with Brusati’s methods of close looking for your essay. All you your thoughts and ideas sound like a great start to the essay.


  3. I agree with your argument. The techniques that Berger and Brusati have created cannot be applied across a universal spectrum of art and media. However, I disagree with you in regards to your belief that art can be over-critiqued for symbolism and meaning. One of the main reasons that art is created is that art can be a symbol or representation of something or someone else. By digging deep into the details, both from a perspective stance and a historical significance stance, a viewer has a greater understanding of the art as a whole. I do agree that these techniques are seemingly high brow, making it difficult for a passerby or someone who does not have an hour or two to spare for each picture to be left missing crucial meanings of the art.
    Your question regarding time and its influence on how we understand a piece of art is striking, as for many pieces of art whose background is already unknown, they can only continue to grow more and more mysterious as we move forward in time to the point that the art becomes increasingly obsolete to a generation who can no longer understand its meaning or even its emotional appeal.


    1. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look for symbolism in art pieces, of course the majority of art symbolizes something greater than what is physically presented to the viewer, but in the late 1930’s Erwin Panofsky popularized the idea that every aspect of an image need to be looked at for deeper meaning, and I, and a few contemporary scholars, am saying that sometimes a candle is just a candle. Iconology is a very tricky aspect of art because we can not put ourselves in the same mindset of the original viewers, who presumably would have known the symbols and when to stop. If we look for deeper meaning in everything we may miss the most obvious and pertinent symbols, and perhaps end up at the wrong conclusion. I wasn’t criticizing Brusati’s approach, I think it’s novel, interesting, and insightful, just trying to place it in my mind in the history and course of Northern scholarship.


  4. Hello! I completely agree about the use of Brusati’s and Berger’s method. Berger’s argument only works for historical scenes and limits the artistic meaning of a picture while Brusati’s method is more universal and focuses on just the painting. While I love iconography and finding meanings behind even the smallest detail in paintings, I agree that it is overused and can block the artist’s true meaning of the painting. Brusati’s argument focuses on what is directly in the painting and not on WHY or WHO is painted. The artist is showing you a fixed point and we should respect that by putting assumptions on the work.

    Also, very good question. I feel that it is a mix of both: while we, as humans, are constantly looking for connection and meaning we tend to assume and put our own emotions into viewing an artwork. However, the artist guides us to these emotions and assumptions with context in the work. (This is, however, going against my Mark Rothko paper on the emotional connections between the artist and the viewer in Rothko’s abstract art.)


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