Making Medieval New: “Gothic Spirit” at Luhring Augustine

Gothic Spirit: Medieval Art from Europe, on view through March 7, 2020 at Luhring Augustine and presented in partnership with London-based gallery Sam Fogg, features around thirty pieces of medieval art from private collections. These objects are exhibited against a backdrop typically seen in modern and contemporary art galleries. The blank walls and clean, bright lighting of this setting, as well as the curatorial treatment of the pre-modern works on display, present a case study for considering how contemporizing pre-modern works impacts viewers’ perceptions of these pieces, and of medieval art in general.

Painting, sculpture, tapestry, illuminated manuscripts, wrought iron, enamelwork, stained glass—these mediums and more are accounted for in just two rooms. The pieces also represent an idiosyncratic array of time periods and geographic regions, including an enameled orb from around 1170 Cologne, a pair of early thirteenth-century Italian marble lion bases supporting nineteenth-century columns, and a wooden Spanish crucifix from around 1500. If one is accustomed to viewing medieval art in an encyclopedic museum like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, encountering this wide variety of styles and techniques in the same context is an unfamiliar, albeit welcome, experience. The didactic aims of museums tend to privilege curatorial decisions that assemble works based on chronology and medium, and often group similar objects together in order to guide visitors through a condensed narrative. While this mode of organization is an effective method of providing clarity when presenting a massive breadth of material, it can have unfortunate side effects; in particular, it risks collapsing nuanced understanding of how trends develop into a simple teleology, often with baked-in value judgments.

Workshop of Anselmo da Campione. A pair of monumental lions Italy, Emilia, possibly the Cathedral of Reggio-Emilia c. 1210-20 (lions and columns), with 19th-century capitals copying those of Parma baptistry. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg

The organization of Gothic Spirit is in no way chronological, and by arranging very diverse works in close proximity, the show generates interesting dialogues between disparate periods and regions. In the exhibition’s second room, kept dim to emphasize the warm, jewel-like glow of three backlit panels of stained glass, two pieces are displayed on pedestals—a c. 650-700 Tibetan silver ewer, and an Italian ivory casket from c. 1400. Reaching across a gulf of roughly 700 years and 4000 miles, these two objects differ greatly in almost every conceivable way, and yet one finds commonalities when encountering the two beside each other. Both are vessels created with the intention to hold or contain material, and though their contents would greatly differ, they are similarly suggestive of hidden interior spaces. Each is decorated with three-dimensional figurative designs, although the decorations were created with additive processes in the case of the ewer and subtractive carving techniques in the case of the casket. While the ewer is a more simplified and rounded form compared to the casket’s complex geometry, the two items share enough formal and iconographic similarities to converse with each other. Further, the exhibition does not include any wall text, instead listing all information about the items on a checklist. Viewers are therefore free to roam the gallery, unreservedly making their own associations between pieces before turning to the checklist to learn the specific origins of each item.

Saint Margaret and Saint Elizabeth presenting a donor. Cologne, Germany, possibly from the church of Saint Peter c. 1525-30. Courtesy of Luhring Augustine and Sam Fogg

The number of works shown in the exhibition is quite small, encouraging the viewer to look closely at each piece and consider its exceptionalism. A massive cassone from Italy, made around 1500, is startlingly detailed with inlays. The box is covered in complex geometric designs, intricately fashioned from individual miniscule pieces of boxwood and bone. The effect of the simultaneous tininess of its component parts and the largeness of the forms they compose is hypnotic. One could easily be persuaded to spend hours poring over every inch of the walnut cassone and still have more to see. In addition to detailed works that impress through sheer craftsmanship, Gothic Spirit also includes quirky pieces that likely do not resemble anything that the average viewer will have encountered. A chandelier suspended from the ceiling, hailing from the Alpine Region of Germany from approximately 1525-50, depicts the torso of a “wild man” holding what appears to be some sort of heraldic shield. As a symbol of life outside the structures of society, the wild man has a dual valence in medieval art, indicative of both anxiety of the unknown and admiration for life in harmony with nature. In the case of this chandelier, the figure, intriguingly, is affixed to real antlers. Both his chartreuse-green shirt and his nearly black hair and beard are articulated in similar wavy textures, giving the sculpture an all-over vibratory energy.

This show, thoughtfully curated and chock-full of unique masterpieces, is not to be missed. Although the works themselves are hundreds of years old, the show’s staging in a contemporary gallery, in combination with the stunning individuality of each piece, results in a vision of shocking newness.

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