Harvard Book Store welcomes acclaimed authors and art historians CHRISTOPHER P. HEUER and ANDREI POP for a discussion of their latest books, Into the White: The Renaissance Arctic and the End of the Image and A Forest of Symbols: Art, Science, and Truth in the Long Nineteenth Century. Their discussion will be moderated by JOSEPH LEO KOERNER, Harvard professor and fellow art historian.
European narratives of the Atlantic New World tell stories of people and things: strange flora, wondrous animals, sun-drenched populations for Europeans to mythologize or exploit. Yet, as Christopher Heuer explains, between 1500 and 1700, one region upended all of these conventions in travel writing, science, and, most unexpectedly, art: the Arctic. Icy, unpopulated, visually and temporally “abstract,” the far North―a different kind of terra incognita for the Renaissance imagination―offered more than new stuff to be mapped, plundered, or even seen. Neither a continent, an ocean, nor a meteorological circumstance, the Arctic forced visitors from England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, to grapple with what we would now call a “non-site,” spurring dozens of previously unknown works, objects, and texts―and this all in an intellectual and political milieu crackling with Reformation debates over art’s very legitimacy.
In Into the White, Heuer uses five case studies to probe how the early modern Arctic (as site, myth, and ecology) affected contemporary debates over perception and matter, representation, discovery, and the time of the earth―long before the nineteenth century Romanticized the polar landscape. In the far North, he argues, the Renaissance exotic became something far stranger than the marvelous or the curious, something darkly material and impossible to be mastered, something beyond the idea of image itself.
In A Forest of Symbols, Andrei Pop presents a groundbreaking reassessment of those writers and artists in the late nineteenth century associated with the Symbolist movement. For Pop, “symbolist” denotes an art that is self-conscious about its modes of making meaning, and he argues that these symbolist practices, which sought to provide more direct access to viewers and readers by constant revision of its material means of meaning-making (brushstrokes on a canvas, words on a page), are crucial to understanding the genesis of modern art. The symbolists saw art not as a social revolution, but as a revolution in sense and how to conceptualize the world. The concerns of symbolist painters and poets were shared to a remarkable degree by theoretical scientists of the period, who were dissatisfied with the strict empiricism dominant in their disciplines, which made shared knowledge seem unattainable.
The problem of subjectivity in particular, of what in one’s experience can and cannot be shared, was crucial to the possibility of collaboration within science and to the communication of artistic innovation. Pop offers close readings of the literary and visual practices of Manet and Mallarmé, of drawings by Ernst Mach, William James and Wittgenstein, of experiments with color by Bracquemond and Van Gogh, and of the philosophical systems of Frege and Russell―filling in a startling but coherent picture of the symbolist heritage of modernity and its consequences.
“For early modern European explorers, the arctic presented both a physical and an epistemological challenge, as unseeable and ungraspable as the invisible God. Into the Whiteelegantly captures how the arctic confounded vision, geographic knowledge, and humanistic verities. Moving fluently across time periods, and making a major contribution to conversations about globalism, art, and ecology, Heuer challenges the complacent understanding of “the global Renaissance” and generates new ways of thinking across disciplinary boundaries.” ―Rebecca E. Zorach, Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art and Art History, Northwestern University
“Vibrant and lucid, Andrei Pop’s new book is a superb account of symbolism in art, ideas and culture in the nineteenth century. His history of art is grounded in a deep engagement with philosophical and literary reflections on the symbol in the period.” ―Jas’ Elsner, Corpus Christi College and University of Chicago
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.