Monday, November 14, 2011

Oh the toes, Oh the humanity

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I've been wanting to write about this since I saw it in the flesh for the first time after the ICMA symposium at the CMA, however many weeks ago that was now (see me previous post on how things keep getting away from me).  This sculpture, a late medieval image of John resting on Jesus' breast, is one of the treasures of the museum's medieval collection, but the later medieval material isn't on display due to the all of the renovations.  The museum had arranged a small display of this material for the ICMA event.

I was initially drawn to the toes of both figures: individually carved out little wooden digits.  Awesome!  Some are missing as you can see in the photo.  That could be just accidental damage; individually carved wood toes are going to break off easily.  But I keep imagining some whacked-out medieval nun snapping off Christ's missing big toe and sneaking it away in her garment so she could have a little bit of her divine husband all to herself.  And what an interesting little bit - don't tell me there's nothing phallic about a detached big toe.

I was looking at the sculpture with the amazing Elina Gertsman and the fabulous Karen Overbey.  They called my attention up from the toes to the eyes, specifically John's closed eyes and the way his pupils bulge beneath his eyelids, suggesting an unseen interiority to the figure.  The same goes for his slightly parted mouth, suggesting again a space, a being, a person, inside.  Sticking my face in close to see all of that, I got that creeped out feeling I sometimes get from sculptures, like in examining them I'm invading their personal space.  In this case, it was like John was about to open both his eyes and his mouth and say - hey lady, get out of here, this is my moment!

That creeped out feeling, by the way, is what I love about sculpture as a medium and why I choose to write mostly about sculpture - so that even my major manuscript piece, my Roman de la Rose article in Art History, is about sculpture as represented in manuscript miniatures.   I'm planning a second book about images of sculptures in manuscripts as sources for medieval ideas about sculpture as a form (hopefully I get to that someday).

I'm interested, obviously, in how sculptures approximate human beings, in their suggestion of interaction with the viewer - and in their refusal of that interaction and so their suggestion of a closed off interior world.  What's going on behind John's eyelids?  What words is he holding in with his closed mouth?  Because humanity isn't just interaction, it's that refusal to engage and the presence of that private, closed, unknown, interiority.   It's the genuine otherness of another human being.  The fact that each of us has our own separate inner worlds of thoughts and ideas and feelings and memories that others hardly ever even know about and never really understand.

What I like about sculptures, then, is not just the suggestions of activity and interactivity that make them seem human, but the way that their refusal to engage forces us to face up to the otherness of others.

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