Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Important new example of British early Celtic art. 10. The psychology of plasticity

In part four, I gave a link to an art history paper: Anamorphosis and the Eccentric Observer by Dan Collins. In reference to the early Renaissance, and giving the standard dating of our day, he says: "The appearance of anamorphosis as a consciously applied technique in the history of art is nearly simultaneous with the invention of linear perspective." After realizing that the early Celtic art Plastic Style not only used anamorphosis but used it in ways yet to be expressed since, I could say that not seeing the ancient Celtic application was an oversight and leave it at that. But, rather than engaging with useless trivia, I thought it might be interesting to see if there is something about the spirit of the Renaissance that we could equate to the La Tène. After all, those Renaissance artists thought that they were originating the technique and were not reviving a Classical tradition.

As his title indicates, Collins has brilliantly identified the Eccentric Observer as the subject of this process. He says:

"The gymnastics necessary for the successful apprehension of the anamorphic image casts the observer in an active role in which the conventional relationship to the object of vision is literally thrown "off-center." To observe anamorphic images, one must be an "eccentric observer," that is, an observer who is not only a bit "eccentric" in the usual sense of the term (i.e. "strange")--but an observer who is willing to sacrifice a "centric" vantage point for the possibility of catching a glimpse of the "uncanny" from a position off-axis. While the term "eccentric observer" could be viewed as an elision of Arnheim's terms "eccentric" and "centric" (which he employs to describe "compositional forces" at work in visual art), I am suggesting the "eccentric observer" as, simply, an alternative to the usual model of a viewer occupying a central position with respect to the material world. An eccentric observer is exactly the observer of the anamorphosis, an observer who literally "stands apart" and is self-aware of the process of seeing."

It seems reasonable to look for this eccentric observer  in the La Tène period and to focus, of course, on the Plastic Style. We could do no better than to consult Jacobsthal.  Paul Jacobsthal is something of a paradox. On one hand, he represents the conservative structure of the subject: the division into types of objects; classification through named styles; the use of comparison of design elements, and so on. Yet on the other hand, he is the originator of the subject and the conservatism was expressed afterward, by those who found his methods useful. The subject, itself, is very recent -- Jacobsthal published his text in 1944.

Jacobsthal says:

"The Plastic Style is Janus-faced: on one side tree and berry forms, on the other a new, very original calculated plasticity. In addition, the 'Cheshire Style' revives the masks of the Early Style, but gives them a far more uncanny look. Certain plastic forms are possibly a revival of Hallstatt forms. Despite increased connexions with abroad, migrations of tribes, and bodies of fighting men or single mercenaries active in the South and South-east of Europe, there are no longer any loans: by now the Celts were saturated with foreign forms. There is much unrest and a baroque, deeply unclassical note in this style: I do not hesitate to see in it the culmination of Early Celtic art: σχε τν ατς φύσιν." p. 162.

While Collins connects linear perspective with the methods of those artists engaging in anamorphism, Jacobsthal refers to the uncanny, the baroque and unrest as impetus for the style. He is essentially describing the mind-set of the observer -- in fact the eccentric observer as Collins describes.

So what connection can we then make between the Italian Renaissance and the La Tène period?  The former marked the beginning of much international cultural exchange and it developed further with the importation into Italy of ancient ideas from such cities as Alexandria and Istanbul where not all ancient knowledge had perished in the fires of their famous libraries long ago. It became fashionable to be interested in magic and alchemy, and the wealthy were buying up all sorts of imported manuscripts (many of them spurious).

Perhaps it is a coincidence that the La Tène owes so much to northern Italy -- When the massive Celtic armies started setting up their bases in that region, the area had already been visited by their forefathers as far back as the Golasecca culture. The Etruscans certainly embraced the cosmopolitan and it was not so strange for an Etruscan woman to marry a Celtic man with their family then pursuing a Greek life-style. Most of the forms of Celtic art which evolve later were adopted in Italy and many of these forms were, appropriately, brought there by artisans from Asia Minor. The strangeness of the Plastic Style -- its "baroqueness" might have been an introduction by the Boii, who had a large base there. The tribe was well traveled and their name later gave us the place name 'Bohemia' -- the eastern end of the Plastic Style distribution.

 Next time, the role of magic in the Plastic Style.

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