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Aneta Georgievska-Shine, Rubens and the Archaeology of Myth, 1610-1620 (Ashgate, 2009)

Aneta Georgievska-Shine. Rubens and the Archaeology of Myth, 1610-1620. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN: 978-0754-66771-1. 242 pp. Hbk. £65.

Reviewed by Jeremy Wood

[1]  Rubens’s mythologies form a very large proportion of his output, and have, of course, received a great deal of critical attention in the past, yet their literature is surprisingly fragmented, and, though there are some outstanding individual studies, it is hard to find a coherent overview that goes beyond the generalities of standard iconography, style criticism, and biography, essential as all those things undoubtedly are. Aneta Georgievska-Shine’s recent book departs from this approach in terms of its sophistication of method. But, disappointingly, she follows precedent in deciding to focus on a small group of works within a narrow time frame. The period selected falls between the years 1611 to 1618, and, as a result, it is not clear from this focus whether her arguments apply to Rubens’s other mythologies of the same decade, or, indeed, to the works painted before and after during his long career. The book is essentially a quartet of linked essays on four of Rubens’s works: the Prometheus Bound in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, the Juno and Argus in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, and the Finding of Erichthonius in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna. Essays by Georgievska-Shine on the Erichthonius and a related work that is also mentioned in passing, the Ixion tricked by Juno in the Museé du Louvre, Paris, have already been published, so, although the material has been much expanded for the present book, the methodological approach, if not the detail, will already be familiar to many of her readers.

[2]  If there is one work that laid the foundation for Georgievska-Shine’s approach it is an essay by Svetlana Alpers, ‘Manner and Meaning in Some Rubens Mythologies’, that was published in the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in 1967. Alpers examined some of Rubens’s mythologies from the 1610s, including several of the works to which Georgievska-Shine now returns, and in this essay – to reduce a subtle argument to a blunt one – Alpers interpreted these paintings less in terms of their narrative or drama than as allegories in which the true meanings were abstracted and veiled. Although Alpers’s essay has been much admired, up to now scholars have been cautious in adopting its conclusions wholeheartedly.

[3]  Georgievska-Shine follows Alpers but goes further. For her, the myths are the subject of complex exegesis by Rubens, and his versions are not just single allegories but multiple ones (8). It follows that they are not demonstrations of the myths themselves but interpretations that respond to the nature of the poetic fictions (10); the myths are therefore no more than the ‘nominal’ subjects of the pictures (93), and Rubens’s visualisations contain a network of iconographic parallels that can be accommodated within an Aristotelian scheme of argumentation (92). Overall, Georgievska-Shine is concerned with what she calls the ‘tension between the mimetic and the symbolic value of pictorial signs’ (112). Paintings are therefore viewed as intertextual in the sense that their meanings are not constrained by the image itself, or what the artist may have meant, but are formed by the spectator who not only responds to the work of art in question but to all those texts and mythological commentaries from the period that may be invoked by this viewing process. Rubens is reinvented as Post-structuralist.

[4]  It is therefore no surprise that Georgievska-Shine does not set out to recover Rubens’s original intentions, an aim that she rightly says has little credibility nowadays, returning to this issue in her conclusion (190). She firmly sides with those modern literary theorists who hold that patterns of allusion are not simple evidence of an author’s intent. So far so good, but her approach is not quite so straightforwardly of its own time. She brushes aside current methodologies dominated by social and political history, not to mention psychology. Her own approach returns to the Warburgian scholarship of the Post-War period but with a new twist, and perhaps more than a touch of Hegelianism if I read correctly a slightly throwaway remark that Rubens’s visual language was ‘a faithful mirror of his age’ (ix), an opinion which would be much disliked by that most sceptical Warburgian, E.H. Gombrich. In short, Georgievska-Shine’s method is unexpectedly close to the work of older scholars like Frits Saxl and Edgar Wind, while being very much of its own time in its emphasis on intertextuality. There is not much else like it in the current writing on Rubens.

[5]  Georgievska-Shine directs her energies to finding associative meanings in her chosen group of works by Rubens, but, nonetheless, vestiges of ‘intention’ remain. Accordingly, she claims that Rubens, on returning from Italy to Flanders in 1609, was determined to impress the art lovers of Antwerp with his erudition (9). A great deal of emphasis is placed on the famous letter from Rubens to Justus Sustermans of 1637 which contains a reference to the ‘experienced eye’ of the latter (17, 20). But, to my mind, this does not mean that Sustermans could identify texts from authors such as Virgil and Lucretius unaided in the work then under discussion by the two artists, Rubens’s Horrors of War which was painted for the Florentine court (21), but rather that Sustermans, an established court artist, had no difficulty identifying standard personifications in art. Georgievska-Shine invites us to ‘imagine’ spectators who could recognize a complex range of visual and literary models (17). However, later in the book she admits it would be hard to find anyone in Rubens’s circle able to grasp the ‘circuitous interplays between mythological topoi’ (91) that she proposes. Instead, we are asked to envisage a ‘model’ reader/viewer who will justify these highly complex literary parallels, and later we hear about Rubens’s ‘ideal beholders’ for these ‘learned favole’ (189), as if they were a group consciously addressed by the painter and their erudition was widely shared and clearly defined. To me this seems very much like having ones (scholarly) cake and eating it, since, at various times in the discussion, Rubens doesn’t intend to set up these textual parallels and at other times he does, and, equally, his informed interpreters both do and don’t exist in the period.

[1]  Georgievska-Shine applies her methodology rigorously, but, at the same time, with some flexibility since each of the works of art chosen for discussion is handled in a slightly different way. The account of the Prometheus is the most persuasive. It is viewed less as a recreation of a lost painting from antiquity by Euanthes, as widely accepted, than as the symbolic re-enactment of the ‘original creative act’, the theft of fire by Prometheus from the Gods (56). Georgievska-Shine elucidates Rubens’s pursuit of the past to provide a ‘historicised perspective on the meaning of this myth’ (35). In part this is achieved by looking at the models that Rubens took from earlier art, so that representations of Tityus by Titian and Michelangelo, as well as the ancient statue of the Laocoön, are adapted in a different narrative (Prometheus) not purely for visual effect but as amplifications of meaning that bring associations and cross-references to bear on the new subject. When Georgievska-Shine turns to the Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus she does something similar. She argues that Rubens, playing with convention, moves from depicting one specific incident to creating a ‘meta-narrative’ concerning abduction (71). The figure seen from the back and identified as Hillaria in this composition is presented here as a new version of Michelangelo’s Leda and Titian’s Danae. ‘As a quotation’, Georgievska-Shine writes ‘she [Hillaria] elevates the depicted incident to a level of abstraction and enables it to assume a metaphorical role as an exemplum of the abduction of the beautiful form, ultimately leading to Helen’ (97), this is because Helen – like Castor and Pollux who abduct the daughters of Leucippus – was a child of Leda, and Helen, of course, was also famously abducted. The idea that a visual debt may retain traces of its previous meaning is well taken.

[7]  The discussions of Juno and Argus and the Finding of Erichthonius are different because they are more concerned with multiple literary parallels which are presented as an extended meditation on their subjects by Rubens’s audience, or, as implied at other points in the discussion, by Rubens himself. In Juno and Argus, for example, Rubens is not just presented as exploring Aguilonius’s diagram of colour theory, a familiar idea, but as choosing a subject that can be transformed into an allegory of human perception (117) where touch – as shown by the hands removing Argus’s many eyes from his decapitated head – is transformed into a mediation between blindness and sight (134). Similarly, Rubens’s Ixion tricked by Juno in the Louvre, a work mentioned in a digression, becomes a ‘sophisticated visual inquiry into the nature of cognition’ (139), and, in a comparable manner, the Erichthonius is a ‘complex pictorial apologia of the marvellous’ (157) according to Georgievska-Shine. It is here that the idea – developed from Alpers – that these narrative subjects are truly allegories is elaborated most fully, but also perhaps most elusively for the reader who struggles to follow Georgievska-Shine’s inventive, intricate, but also dense and elliptical arguments.

[8]  To sum up, Georgievska-Shine’s book offers an antidote to more conventional readings of Rubens’s mythologies. I find it interesting that the forthcoming volumes on this aspect of the artist’s output in the Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, the multi-volume project to catalogue all of his work, are being prepared by a team of scholars, and I wonder whether they will be able to agree on a consistent approach to both method and meaning that will give a much-needed coherence to this part of the series. Georgievska-Shine’s recent contribution is more than just a book on Rubens, however, and anyone working on late renaissance and early modern interpretations of the stories of Prometheus, the children of Leda, not to mention Juno, Io and Argus, and Erichthonius, should read her immensely rich exploration of the early mythological commentaries, with the warning that the author’s learning is by no means worn lightly. Nonetheless, it seems to me that she has created a slightly different book from the one that she planned, one more about the way that mythology was interpreted in the late renaissance than about Rubens’s work as such. So, as a result, it is not perhaps quite the breakthrough in Rubens scholarship that might be hoped and its lasting importance may be more as a reflection on method.

   University of Nottingham, September 2011

Brian Cummings and James Simpson (eds.), Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Brian Cummings and James Simpson (eds.), Cultural Reformations: Medieval and Renaissance in Literary History (Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780199212484. Xii + 690 pp., Hbk. £ 85.

Reviewed by Mike Rodman Jones

[1]  The ‘Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature’ series is a refreshingly avant-garde one thus far. Like the other volume currently available (Paul Strohm, ed. Middle English, 2007), Cultural Reformations eschews the essay compilation as ‘companion’ or ‘handbook’ – a compilation based on an assumed readership of undergraduates and a consequent drive to summarise what is ‘already known’ about a topic – and instead asks its contributors to write new and challenging essays which might in many cases lead scholars outside their usual chronological or textual frame of reference. The work produced is often variously and engagingly open-ended, surprising, curious, polemical, corrective, and exploratory.

[2]  Like many volumes, this one seems to have grown out of a conference (in this case ‘Cultural Reformations’ at Harvard in 2008, which is mentioned a number of times in contributors’ acknowledgements) and gained a great deal of intellectual momentum. The intriguing agenda here is that the contributors (a fairly even split of medievalists and early modernists) have – for the most part – embraced a demand to write across the chronological boundary point of 1500, dealing substantially with both literature and cultures usually separated by what are often only the most banal and convenient assumptions about cultural and literary periodicity. It often seems tacitly understood that the distances (formal; cultural; linguistic; chronological) between Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales are somehow shorter than those between the Canterbury Tales and the Faerie Queene. The ability to deal substantively with, for example, the writing and cultural context of Wyatt in the 1530s and Milton in the 1660s raises few eyebrows among early modernists, while the ability to do the same from Gower, Langland or Chaucer in the 1380s to Wyatt raises enough eyebrows to fill an interview panel or half a conference room, despite scholars like Helen Cooper or Greg Walker working across the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries for years. This volume provides very substantial proof (at nearly 700 pages and 32 essays plus an introduction) that a great deal of work remains to be done – what the editors call ‘unfinished business’ (5) – within ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ English literary and cultural history.

[3]   One can imagine the risk of this new focus on a ‘Med-Ren’ agenda becoming a kind of pious and static new orthodoxy, but it is the openness and energizing, even jagged, quality of this field that appears throughout the volume. The comments in David Aers’ and Sarah Beckwith’s essay (on ‘The Eucharist’) about ‘those telling stories about relations between the “traditional” Christianity of the Middle Ages and the “revolution” in sixteenth-century Christianity’ (156) feels like it might be directed at one of the volume’s editors. In an essay on ‘Space’ (especially focused on Canterbury) we find James Simpson – repeatedly and very self-consciously – pre-emptively moving away from the kind of powerful binary argumentation which a reader might have expected (108-9). Similarly, Brian Cummings’ contribution looks back to a polemical essay by David Aers from the early 1990s in negotiating autobiography through a very longue durée tracing of Augustinian (or not) life-writing (‘Autobiography and the History of Reading’). Ultimately, the volume’s aims are generative as well as polemical. As the editors write in the introduction, the volume surely must ‘initiate new periodic conversations’ (5) rather than seek to offer blunt answers to the plethora of literary, religious, political and cultural questions that one might ask of the period 1300-1700. It is certainly clear that the kind of impressions we might get from reading across periods need not be restricted to more obvious questions of precedence, originality, or simple continuities or divisions. The volume shows on many occasions the sheer oddity and curiousness of culture in the period, the ways, for example, in which we might see a remarkable ‘hydraulics of culture’ in which ‘cultural forces migrate, under pressure, from one discourse to another’ (6), or, as Paul Strohm puts in, the striking ‘unevenness’ (207) with which cultural or literary change occurs.

[4]  The volume is divided into thematic sections (‘Histories’; ‘Spatialities’; ‘Doctrines’; ‘Legalities’ and so on) and each sections contains a number of similarly thematic essays, on topics such as ‘Place’, ‘Conscience’, ‘Despair’, ‘Community’. Very few of the contributors have blanched at the idea of writing across unfamiliar chronologies and about texts which rarely meet one another in standard literary discourse, but some stand out in particular. Lynn Staley’s essay on ‘Enclosed Spaces’ – which follows various metaphors for the insular nation or community (monastery; garden; croft) – manages to draw monastic chroniclers, Piers Plowman, Chaucer and Shakespeare into an exploration neatly framed by comments about Marvell’s ‘Upon Appleton House’ (which also makes an appearance in David Wallace’s essay on ‘Nuns’). Paul Strohm and Nicholas Watson offer wonderful essays on ‘Conscience’ and ‘Despair’ despite coming to very different conclusions about how the Reformation might have affected these ideas (radical difference and striking continuities respectively). Colin Burrow’s essay on ‘The Reformation of the Household’ speaks incisively and forth-rightly to gaps in the scholarship of the sixteenth century which are also a product of the compartmentalising of genre, time and culture in ways which have perhaps proved to be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding the period. Andrew Hadfield’s essay on ‘Travel’ finds an early seventeenth-century traveller (William Lithgow) tracing the precise itinerary followed by Margery Kempe between Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem in the 1410s; Cathy Shrank’s essay on ‘Community’ contains an elegantly-written account of the appearance of Lydgate’s Serpent of Division in print alongside Gorboduc in 1590. There is a wonderful diversity of texts, approaches and ideas on offer here.

[5]  At the same time, it must be said that religion is absolutely central to this volume. Despite the editors’ slightly defensive comments in the introduction that ‘we did not wish to make the Reformation the single, non-negotiable pivot of the volume’ (7), the expertise of the editors clearly lies here. Simpson’s recent writing (including Reform and Cultural Reformation) has had ‘Protestant Modernity’ firmly in its sights, and Cummings’ book on the literary culture of the Reformation has been followed by sophisticated work on the intersections between sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature (particularly Shakespeare) and Reformation and post-Reformation religious identities. Naturally, literature and religion across the English Reformations is one of the new strengths and focuses of this ‘Med-Ren Renaissance’. Essays on such topics as ‘Monasteries’, ‘Nuns’, ‘the Eucharist’, ‘the Saints’ throw up a vast variety of different suggestions, arguments, and continuities from what could have been repetitively elegiac (if sometimes absolutely warranted) attacks on the violence of the Reformation. While some of the work here looks across from medieval to early modern in a very wide chronological span (connecting patristic or medieval reading with seventeenth-century puritan autobiography, for example), much of it has focused in on the previously unglamorous period between Caxton and Wyatt, and this is surely a good thing as well. It also has ramifications for particular writers. One of the striking things about the volume is that the cross-period agenda has produced a plethora of new work on Thomas More, especially Utopia. At my count, seven of the essays discuss More in some detail, and often in ways which do not necessarily replicate the interests of past scholarship. There is much of interest here for specialists working on what is usually the first stop in a survey of ‘Renaissance’ literature, and much which makes More seem as exciting and vexing a writer and thinker as he ever has done.

[6]  There is only the occasional case in which the medieval to renaissance theme of the volume’s subtitle has been rather circumnavigated. David Loewenstein’s (good, interesting) essay on ‘Heresy and Treason’ places together Thomas More in the 1520s and 1530s with the civil war period in a way which is interesting, but which also doesn’t really get to grips with the importance of the early fifteenth century for these things (Lollardy is acknowledged only in passing). An essay rather more in the spirit of the volume may have perhaps chosen to look in much more detail at 1401-1414 as a substantial comparative point for the civil war material. Others have done it before (one thinks of Christopher Hill’s work on Lollardy and the Levellers) and a new look at that connection – and one freed from Hill’s ideological agenda – might have thrown up all manner of interesting connections and comparisons. Likewise, Stephen Greenblatt’s essay on ‘Utopian pleasure’ rather edges around the ‘Med-Ren’ idea by coupling More with the fifteenth-century Italian humanists with whom he frequently keeps company in standard narratives about ‘Renaissance Humanism’. The result is as interesting as Greenblatt’s work always is, but one feels a little disappointed that something more daring (and which even managed to look at something in Middle English) wasn’t attempted.

[7]  These small disappointments, however, take little away from such an exciting and diverse volume. It is also a volume which shows that the ‘Med-Ren renaissance’ is still only really at the tip of the iceberg. This is not the first such volume which notes its own timeliness (5) – compare David Wallace’s ‘Afterword’ in Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 2007) – as if the time for being interested in more than one period of literature is a vogue which might potentially pass at any moment. This is a book which suggests that reading across periods, and asking awkward questions of assumed periodisation, is energizing and productive enough to be around for a good while longer.

Nottingham University, September 2011.