What Can Art History Say About Giotto?
Speaker: T. J. Clark, Visiting Professor, Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at University of California, Berkeley.
For many people – certainly for me – Giotto is the Shakespeare of art history: a figure of singular inventiveness and profundity, whose work depends on and sums up a previous complex (‘medieval’) culture while at the same time pushing his chosen artform in truly new (‘modern’) directions. What would we say, then, if the literature on Shakespeare was entirely concerned with questions of ‘context’, patronage, authorship and collaboration, circumstances of production, the mechanics of Elizabethan theatre, but seemed to assume that nothing (or precious little) more needed to be said about the poetry – about Shakespeare’s work on the language, and his unprecedented account of human consciousness? But something very like that state of affairs is characteristic, in my view, of art history’s dealings with its Shakespeare for the past fifty years.
This lecture therefore focuses on a panel from the fresco cycle by Giotto in the Arena Chapel at Padua, the scene usually called The Dream of Joachim. It explores the various treatments of the Joachim story in the apocryphal gospels that Giotto and his advisers would have had access to; but above all it tries to find language for the extraordinary things that Giotto did, visually, with and to that textual material. I hope to persuade you that 'close looking' at Giotto leads to an account of form and meaning in his work that puts many assumptions of art history - about the late medieval painter's relation to textual authority, about the dominance of 'advisers' and patrons, etc. - under pressure.
T. J. Clark is Visiting Professor at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities (Oct 2016 - Sept 2019) and Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at University of California, Berkeley.
He was born in Bristol, England in 1943, took a B.A. in Modern History at Cambridge, and a Ph.D. in Art History at the Courtauld Institute, University of London. He taught at various places in Britain and the USA, and from 1988 to the present at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is now George C. and Helen N. Pardee Chair Emeritus.
Clark is the author of a series of books on the social character and formal dynamics of modern art: The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France 1848-1851 (1973); Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1973); The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (1984); and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999); as well as Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (written with ‘Retort’, 2005); The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006); and Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013). In 2013 he co-authored (with Anne M. Wagner) Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life, a book accompanying an exhibition at Tate Britain. A book-cum-pamphlet on the present state of Left politics, Por uma esquerda sem futuro, based on an essay 'For a Left with No Future', originally published in New Left Review, came out in Brazil in 2013.
For the past several years he has written art criticism regularly for the London Review of Books. He is completing a book entitled Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, with chapters on Bruegel, Giotto, Poussin and Veronese; and co-curating an exhibition with Anne Wagner at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, opening in April 2017, called Pity and Terror: Picasso on the Path to Guernica.