East Meets West
The origins of Oriental motifs in Western art were explored by an art historian whose interests extended to optical illusions
The Orient returns,” wrote Jurgis Baltrušaitis. “The restless might of the Far East is coming back. Again, demons are appearing with bats’ wings; beasts with half-animal, half-human masks, and two-legged creatures are emerging from shells.”
Baltrušaitis (1903–1988) was the son of a poet, and an influential pioneer of the comparative art criticism that is popular today. He spent most of his life in France and published most of his works in French, but he often referred to his connection with Lithuanian culture.
After the Second World War, he became an activist in the
struggle for Lithuania’s independence. From 1950, he was vice-chairman of the Committee of the European Movement of Lithuanians, and from 1960 he was the committee’s secretary general. Because of this, he became persona non grata in the Soviet Union, and his name and works were for a long time barred from cultural life.
Baltrušaitis was distinguished for his erudition. He was interested most of all in unconventional aspects of the interaction between Eastern and Western traditions in art which do not fit the conventional frames of art criticism, and also in marginal issues of art criticism that are often ignored by academic research.
He challenged the “eternal truths” that had taken root in academic art criticism, the ingrained Euro-centrist myths. He went beyond superficial phenomena, and raised the deeper and sometimes barely perceptible sides of issues, mysterious phenomena in art, and turned them inside out.
Baltrušaitis was born in Moscow in 1903, into the family of a poet, translator and influential Lithuanian diplomat. His father mixed with many outstanding Russian avant-garde artists, headed the Moscow Writers’ Organisation (from 1920 to 1922), and was the envoy of Lithuania to Moscow (from 1922 to 1938).
Having acquired a versatile humanitarian background through his family and at a German grammar school (the poet Boris Pasternak was one of his tutors), the future art historian continued his studies in Paris.
When in his old age he recalled his early years, he singled out his encounter with the French art historian Henri Focillon at the Sorbonne. This deeply affected his intellectual development.
In Paris he had become interested in the history of the theatre, in the symbols and gestures of medieval theatre. But his acquaintance with Focillon changed his interests.
The young man was fascinated by the professor’s way of acting and speaking, the warmth of his presence, and his formal methods, which corresponded absolutely to his research.
Having started out on his career as an art historian, doing studies on Romanesque ornamentation, the iconography of early Christian architecture and sculpture, and patterns in the sources and evolution of medieval art, Baltrušaitis gradually became interested in comparative research into Western and Eastern art.
His field of vision incorporated the Oriental roots of West European medieval art, images that for centuries had nourished the imaginations of medieval artists. He paid special attention to fantasticality in Romanesque and Gothic art. This involved the analysis of zoomorphic figures and mythological images of Oriental origin in bestiaries, in the reliefs on medieval columns, in the rosettes of cathedral windows, in the work of goldsmiths, in stained glass, in illuminations and in paintings.
Finally, his interests shifted towards mysterious optical illusions, or anamorphoses, distorted perspectives which reveal objects in a work of art only when they are viewed from an unusual angle. He was fascinated by the unconventional, by digressions from traditions and norms, and by unusual flights of the creative mind.
For most of his life, Baltrušaitis did not keep a diary, and did not write popular articles on art for newspapers. He would publish the theses of his studies only when he went to attend congresses. At the end of his life he gave interviews, but unwillingly and when pressed to by his publishers. He devoted all his intellectual energy exclusively to his research, which would sometimes last a decade.
With his solid approach to comparative methodology and his conclusions drawn from examples of comparative iconography, he questioned a number of established opinions in art history. He rejected textbook truths, and proposed a new, unbiased look at the real history of the civilisation and art of the ancient world. To him, the traditional contraposition of Western and Oriental art became merely a theoretical abstraction alien to the historical reality.
Working with thousands of works of art and resorting to the entire treasury of knowledge of the humanities and science, Baltrušaitis, in his typically precise manner, offered proof of the influence of the Oriental countries on the West.
By comparing the architectural and artistic motifs he found in various Western and Oriental civilisations, he revealed the logic of their internal evolution in different cultural regions. He was the first to establish the origins of some elements of décor, mythological creatures, monsters, floral and zoomorphic forms that were widespread in Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art.
“In Le Moyen Age fantastique,” he once said in an interview, “I substantiated my thesis and made accurate comparisons. Nobody had done that before.
“It is true that my scholarship gets on the nerves of many art historians. They would prefer the West to be ‘pure’, exclusively ‘Western’.”
Baltrušaitis was a reclusive type, fanatically devoted to his vocation. He avoided the hustle and bustle of life and communication with the press or curious admirers.
On entering his flat near the Porte d’Orléans in Paris, you felt that you had found yourself in a world of vanished erudition, in which exotic bric-à-brac, a kingdom of mirrors, ancient folios and rare books, mixed strangely with a multitude of photographs from expeditions and drawings of architectural and sculptural details.
In this hermetic world, sealed off from a profane existence, the scholar was in his element. In his thoughts, he wandered to different civilisations and epochs. The present fused with images, symbols and metaphors of the ancient past.
He scrutinised guests, who were seldom admitted to his temple, with the intent look of a sage. He spoke Lithuanian slowly, using unusual words and occasionally peppering his conversation with playful irony.
This reserved and reclusive personality was brimming with restrained pride and the realisation of the value of the contribution of his work to ideas in art history. He always followed an independent path. This way he gained for himself an exceptional place in the context of French art history in particular, and Western art history of the 20th century in general. Emphasising the unconventional orientation of his scholarly interests and his attitude to underlying issues in art history, he deliberately chose the stance of a hermit.
Even as a favourite pupil and son-in-law of Focillon, the patriarch of French art history, he did not want to settle into the academic establishment of Paris as a lecturer. He wanted to maintain his independence from groups and institutions.
Since he was an original personality, with unusual scholarly interests, disregarding the recognised authorities and scientific truths, it is no surprise that he did not have close followers.
Baltrušaitis researched the development of art in connection with the processes of civilisation. His methodology is based on the principle that a change in one style of art does not completely exclude previous ones, which remain latent in new styles and forms. In the dramatic processes and crises of civilisations, with the changes among civilisations, old stylistic forms are unexpectedly reborn and flourish, submerging the present ones.
Consequently, he explained the history of art not only as an ongoing process of the life and changes in art forms, but also as the development of their meaning conditioned by the context of a definite civilisation. Therefore, the history of art becomes the history of art forms. It determines the principles of thought and the perception of reality characteristic of a particular civilisation and culture.
To prove his scholarly hypotheses, he set off on archaeological expeditions. He took hundreds of photographs, made drawings of objects that interested him, took a fresh look at established facts in art history, and highlighted unexpected angles on them.
He spent a considerable amount of time and energy collecting documentary material to corroborate his claims, and looked for it in the archives of old monasteries, in engravings in libraries and museums, in manuscripts and old bookshops. Distinguished by his demands of critical texts and aiming at great precision of thought, he paid very special attention to the literary style of his work, and spent much time on meticulously polishing it.
“I revise my own texts like mad, rewriting and editing them until they become transparent,” he said.
“Writing as such, which is an essential thing, demands the same amount of time as gathering material and searching for documentation.”
Few of the pillars of 20th-century art history paid so much attention to such a careful presentation of their illustrative material. The comparative theses and parallels that he developed show the importance of iconography and illustration. The numerous and carefully selected illustrations and drawings in his amply illustrated studies are employed to reveal the internal logic of the material presented.
“I do not need illustrations to decorate a book, although each of them may be a welcome sight. Their purpose is to show objects, and therefore the rhythm of their arrangement is directly dependent on the text.
“Illustration for its own sake does not interest me. In my view, infatuation with splendour encourages many publishers to sacrifice the text. The books of many a young scholar suffer from this.”
Scholarship on the Romanesque style
Under Focillon’s supervision at the Sorbonne, Baltrušaitis delved into his studies of the history of medieval art and archaeology. With his diligence, inquisitiveness and the originality of his views, the young man made surprisingly rapid progress.
Bearing these qualities of his student in mind, Focillon directed him to research the ornamental stylistics of Romanesque sculpture and architecture. With his surprising originality in raising issues and finding the solutions to them, he eventually became not only the scholar’s faithful colleague, but also, after marrying his daughter, a member of his family.
In order to develop and provide a theoretical foundation for his hypotheses, in 1927 and 1928 Baltrušaitis obtained, with the help of his father (who was the Lithuanian envoy to Moscow at the time), permission to carry out research in Armenia and Georgia.
This expedition and all the material collected, almost unknown in the West, exceeded everyone’s expectations. In the Caucasus the young art critic found a multitude of forms of early Christian architecture and sculpture with emerging Romanesque and Gothic styles.
He published the results of the expedition in his first book, Etudes sur l’art médiéval en Arménie et en Georgie, in 1929. Here, resorting to copious illustrative material, he highlighted the influence of Oriental art on the art of the West. Comparing actual architectural and sculptural forms, ornamental structures, construction principles and symbols, he revealed the links joining Oriental and Western cultures.
The book immediately attracted the interest of the academic world, and was awarded the Prix Bordin Extraordinaire de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres.
At the time, art historians were involved in discussions on the origins of the pointed Gothic arch. Some were developing the theory of its construction origins. Others claimed that the functional nature was alien to the Gothic vault, since it does not support anything, and was purely an ornamental artistic solution arrived at by architects. Still others voiced ideas about the Oriental origins of the Gothic arch.
After studying intercultural contacts and the principles of early Christian Armenian and Georgian architecture, Baltrušaitis offered a new approach to the origin of the Gothic arch.
Relying on a detailed analysis of Caucasian architecture, he proved that in Armenian and Georgian architecture, the pointed arch has a clearly defined constructional function. It not only supports a vault, but also performs a decorative function, which eventually overshadows the construction one in importance.
In his view, the architectural forms prevailing in Georgia and Armenia spread to the West via architects and decorators of Caucasian origin who had worked in Byzantium and the Middle East.
“I was stunned by the incredible similarity between Georgian and Romanesque sculpture,” Baltrušaitis wrote. “It was the Middle East, a peculiar hinge between the East and the West.
“These two worlds, so different on the outside, were linked by the same form of expression. One can see some abstract formations of the Romanesque style in thousand-year-old details. Meanwhile, Gothic art, which is seen as the ‘expression of the triumphant West’, abounds in Oriental elements.
“When Gothic went into decline, fantasies characteristic of Romanesque reappeared. But the path led not only to the Middle East, but as far as China. The Romanesque spirit, restless, ugly, fantastic, exotic and brimming with the bizarre, came back.”
The credit for the substantiation of the Romanesque style in art and its aesthetic value goes to Focillon and his disciple Baltrušaitis, who in the same week in 1931 published two books on Romanesque. They provide theoretical foundations for the art forms of the Romanesque style, and explained their relationship with earlier and later traditions in the evolution of West European art.
Baltrušaitis’ dissertation, published as a book, was awarded the Prix Bordin de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Looking back, he stated that his dissertation embodied all the ideas which he developed in his later books. He said that “everything had already happened” in that text.
“In a world that looks regular and harmonious at first sight, there lurk the rudiments of ugliness and disharmony. In my dissertation, I was already standing on the doorstep of repugnant legends and optical illusions.
“I quoted Oscar Wilde’s famous saying that metaphysical truth is the truth of masks. There, between the truth and the masks, I had put almost everything that interested me.”
Comparative studies of ornamental structures in the Caucasus, and in numerous objects in France and Spain (where very similar archaic motifs of Oriental origin can be found), seem to confirm the hypothesis on their single Oriental sources.
In the early 20th century, when diffusionist theories of “cultural circles” were spreading, attempts were made to search for the original sources of primeval civilisations. The eyes of theoreticians of civilisation and of art historians turned to Sumerian civilisation, which they treated as the key source from which, like waves, the achievements of human culture and art spread in all directions.
For Baltrušaitis, the relations between individual iconographic elements and features observed in Romanesque, Caucasian, Sassanian, Byzantine, Coptic and Islamic art seemed to point to “the continuity of a unified flow in the evolution of art, the sources of which could have lain in primeval Sumerian civilisation”.
Thus, in 1933 he set off for the Near East, where, by his careful study of pieces of architecture and sculpture in Persia and Mesopotamia, he validated his hypothesis about the sources of floral and zoomorphic images that had flourished in different areas at different times.
He published the results of his studies in his book Art Sumérien, art roman. By comparing architectural and sculptural features of civilisations and cultures in Persia and Mesopotamia, he discerned primeval forms and the rudiments of motifs which were the source of various combinations recognisable in Oriental and Western folk art.
In 1933, having graduated from the Sorbonne, he returned to Lithuania to study the history of art at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. In 1937 he became a professor. Here he published his only work in Lithuanian, the two volumes of Visuotinė meno istorija (A Universal History of Art, 1934 and 1939).
While teaching in Kaunas, he paid much attention to the improvement of Lithuanian terminology in art history. He often went to Western Europe, lecturing at conferences in Paris and London.
In 1939 he became a cultural advisor at the Lithuanian embassy in Paris, and in the summer of the same year he completed a study in French on Lithuanian folk art. This was published in English almost ten years later (Lithuanian Folk Art, Munich, 1948).
During the war, and especially following Focillon’s death, Baltrušaitis continued his scientific and organisational activities. Focillon’s followers and friends would meet every Wednesday in Baltrušaitis’ flat, the “Academia Virginiana”, as it was called. The discussions that took place at Academia Virginiana played an important part in spreading topical ideas and methodological principles in art history.
The fantastic Gothic
After the war, Baltrušaitis stopped going on archaeological expeditions, and worked hard at his home in Paris. This was the beginning of the stage in his scholarship which eventually put him among the most original art historians of the 20th century. Except for lectures as a visiting professor at the universities of Paris, Cologne, Columbia, Yale, Washington, Harvard, Utrecht, Leyden and elsewhere, he devoted all his energy to his new work.
Le Moyen Age fantastique, published in 1955, opened up a new and mature phase in Baltrušaitis’ creative evolution. In the next five years, up to 1960, he published four studies.
It goes without saying that one of his most significant contributions to art history is his Le Moyen Age fantastique. It not only amazed readers by its wealth of new ideas and unexpected parallels, but it also filled in gaps in research into the sources of West European art.
In this work, Baltrušaitis analysed the origins of exoticism and fantastic images in Gothic art. He found these beginnings in three different art traditions, which were intertwined and which, in crossing and criss-crossing each other, created a unified and colourful repertoire of medieval images in art.
First of all, it is the heritage of Hellenic Greek and Roman art. Despite the ascetic reaction of early Christianity to pagan culture, this was perpetuated in precious stones, coins and medals. Later, in a new form, it fused into systems of images of medieval art.
The second, and much more important, is Islamic civilisation, which fascinated Christian culture with its refinement, glamour and grandeur. Arab Muslim civilisation is vast and varied. From it, Christian Europe took the principles of abstract ornamentation, and a multitude of images of fantastic animals.
Islamic art stands out by its ornamentation, its extreme intricacy of form, its refinement and its sharpness of style. Through Arab Muslim civilisation, which played the role of intermediary between the East and the West, and which covered a vast area from Spain and the south of France to China, the flow of Indian and Chinese art forms spread to the West.
Influences from China and India, spreading via the Ottoman and the Mongol empires, brought to the West new hybrid forms of mythological animals. It was a world of elements of the night and darkness filled with bizarre monsters, dragons and demons which expanded the visions of Christian Hell. Thus, the East, which reached as far as China, flooded Gothic art with characters from the circles of Hell, deformed creatures, fantastic beings made of parts of human bodies, and various animals and fishes.
A world of illusions
Baltrušaitis’ four later books, Anamorphoses (1955), Aberrations (1967), La Quête d’Isis (1967) and Le Miroir (1978), make up the core of his studies. His attention was focused on the mysterious world of distorted perspectives, optical illusions, conscious deformations and mirror reflections. It included human faces and silhouettes resembling the heads of beasts, phenomena that puzzle and influence viewers with their bewitching power. Conventional art criticism had stubbornly ignored these phenomena.
He was the first to plunge into this bizarre world created by the tricks of an artist’s imagination. He tried to work out what hides behind the conscious aberrations created by an artist. With distorted perspectives, or anamorphoses, a painting can be read from an unusual angle, usually diagonally.
Going into the complex world of the laws of perspective, he demonstrated how perspective, the Western foundations of which were in Renaissance art, is not only a tool to create realism, but also a means for developing new flights of fantasy. It can impart familiar objects with new and unexpected angles, creating an atmosphere of mystery and unreality. Consequently, with a simple shift of the angle of vision and lighting, it can be transformed into a complex art of hallucinations and magic effects.
Thus, Baltrušaitis’ analysis of the underlying laws and mechanisms of aberrations and anamorphoses is justly compared with Sigmund Freud’s metapsychology, and is called “metamorphology”.
From the very beginning of his career, he was interested in unusual phenomena in art. Later, he delved into the study of mysterious and fantastic images in Romanesque and Gothic art. He was fascinated by various means of conveying miraculous effects. He was intrigued by mysterious lines and geometric shapes capable of changing ordinary objects by the magic of distorted perspective.
“There is always something between the truth and masks,” he wrote. “An erroneous perspective, an erroneous way of thinking, a false legend. What looks normal actually only appears to be. One image appears on top of another and distorts it.
“This phenomenon has something faulty about it. Therefore, I like the word ‘aberrant’, because it expresses an aberration of the mind, illusionary tricks and anamorphoses.”
He was a passionate collector of books, prints, paintings and drawings, ancient treatises on perspective, and studies in geometry; in short, everything related to the complex mechanisms of aberrations and anamorphoses in various civilisations and epochs.
The principle of anamorphosis that was widely used in the work of post-Renaissance painters refers to the conscious distortion of the objects depicted, when the eye, looking at strange and unexpected shapes, can understand the work only from a special position.
A classic example of an optical illusion was Baltrušaitis’ favourite painting, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger. The subjects of the painting are two prominent figures at the court of Henry VIII standing by a table displaying various astronomy tools and musical instruments.
The painting was commissioned to be positioned between two doors. Looking at it in the National Gallery in London from in front, the spectator sees some incomprehensible-looking object by the ambassadors’ feet: its relocation from its intended space to a museum created a problem for viewers.
But when viewed diagonally, this mysterious object becomes quite clear. It is a skull, symbolising death, and reminding us of the frailty of authority.
Contribution to art history
Jurgis Baltrušaitis became a pioneer of comparative art history, which blossomed at the end of the 20th century and which rebelled against Euro-centric attitudes prevailing in traditional Western art history. In his meticulously documented works, he consistently, step by step, reconstructs many pages in the history of art and culture that had previously been unknown. He reveals the close contacts and the mutual influences between Western and Eastern art that existed in the past.
Baltrušaitis’ scholarship is characterised by his erudition. His work is distinguished by its thoroughness in examining patterns in the evolution of different civilisations.
He stood out with his strict methodology, the excellent documentation of his theses, and his avoidance of unfounded theoretical conclusions.
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