The Emotional Turn

By Gary Schwartz, Art Historian

First published on The Schwartzlist on 18 April 2017.

That strong emotions have irresistible power over us is undeniable. What can be denied, or ignored, is the all-pervasive influence of even low-grade emotion on society and its members.

Of all the places I might have been on Election Night 2016, none was more appropriate than Adelaide, Australia (where Election Night, 8 November, did not begin until the morning of 9 November), at the Biennial Research Meeting of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100-1800. The somewhat grandiloquent title makes the Centre (CHE) sound like an institution, but that is not the way the ARC does these things. The Centre is actually an extensive project, with five Australian “nodes” and eight foreign partners. It was founded in 2011 for a period of seven years, at the end of which it is expected to tie up its vast findings in countless fields of the humanities into some kind of integral bundle, with virtual profit at the bottom line. See the impressive 2016 annual report, with its closing “Key Performance Indicators.”

The various locations of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800)
The various locations of the nodes and partner institutions of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100-1800)

The mission statement of the CHE is an apparent truth that is nonetheless largely ignored. “Emotions shape individual, community and national identities. The ARC Centre … uses historical knowledge from Europe, 1100-1800, to understand the long history of emotional behaviours.” The relevance of that approach and the extent to which it is ignored were demonstrated with brutal clarity on the first day of the Adelaide conference. I was not the only one skipping out of talks to watch the unlikely election returns in the US. Even if voters saw Donald Trump for the huckster that he is, many were defenseless against the way he played on their anxieties, apprehensions, desire for approval and aversions, to cite only four emotions beginning with the letter A. Factors of this kind are increasingly being recognized as indispensable to the understanding of consumer behavior, politics and financial trade as well as voting. If forecasters missed out on the election, it is mainly because they have not yet found a way “to understand the long history of emotional behaviours.”

Although the talks at the CHE ‘Art, Objects and Emotions, 1400-1800’ “collaboratory,” as they call these types of events, were classical scholarly presentations on highly specialized subjects, the participants were clearly inspired by the theme of the Centre. Matters that would otherwise have been discussed without reference to the emotions were enlivened and deepened by the attention that was paid to feelings. In many cases it was clear that something essential had gone missing in earlier discussions that left emotions out of the equation.

The speakers did not all talk about the depiction of emotions. Some were stimulated to take a larger view of things, as in “The art of reading in the Middle Ages: an emotional history of the book” (Stephanie Downes), and “Impressions: wax and emotions in the Middle Ages” (Sarah Randles). Or a narrower view, as in the immensely intriguing: “Marriage, mourning and martyrdom: the history of an eighteenth-century English bedsheet” (Sasha Handley).

Two particularly fascinating – and moving – talks dealt with ensembles that interacted with groups of people in heavily charged ways. Corine Schleif spoke about post-medieval Christian street art in Nürnberg and Matthew Martin about an ancien régime porcelain dessert display from the Austrian abbey of Zwettl. These were not works of art before which one stood in contemplation or private transport. They fulfilled their function only in relation to the behavior of their intended public.

Adam Kraft, The Fifth Fall of Christ on his way from the House of Pilate to Calvary, ca. 1500. Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum
Adam Kraft, The Fifth Fall of Christ on his way from the House of Pilate to Calvary, ca. 1500. Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Around the year 1500, the Nürnberg sculptor Adam Kraft (1455/60-1509) created a set of six high reliefs of the Way to Calvary to be placed in the city streets, leading to a free-standing Crucifixion and reliefs of the Lamentation and Entombment. The scenes have a binding motif that is not the same as the more conventional Twelve Stations of the Cross. They show Christ’s Seven Falls, moments in the Passion when things were just too much for him and he collapsed before picking himself up and going on. They were positioned on the streets leading away from the House of Pilate, a Nürnberg evocation of the place of Christ’s sentencing. Captions beneath the sculptures tell how far the Christ of the reliefs has walked from the place of judgment to the location of that very relief. The route leads to the parish graveyard outside the city walls. The direction in which Christ is walking or stumbling in the reliefs is the same taken by mourners on their way to bury their dead.

Schleif surmises convincingly that the lifelike images were placed there as an aid to managing grief.

He “whose strength,” according to II Corinthians 12:9, “is made perfect in weakness” is the role model whom the deceased is following… A tractate published in Nürnberg in 1521 praises the use of wayside images of the Passion of Christ, including depictions of the Seven Falls – especially for the simple common folk, “who have a great desire and devotion toward the suffering Christ… When they view such imagery on the street they will not be able to pass by without sympathy.”

The reliefs also provide an outlet for bitterness by emphatically laying blame, in an iconography unique to this Nürnberg ensemble, at the feet of the perennial scapegoats, the Jews. Fall Five is explicated thus: “Here Christ carries the Cross and is beaten severely by the Jews, 780 steps from Pilate’s house.” This brings the Passion as close to home and heart as possible. Schleif is surely correct in saying that the reliefs helped to legitimate, before or after the fact, the expulsion of the Jews from Nürnberg in 1499. They were not re-admitted until – hold your breath – 1850.

Image: Anonymous, Bird’s-eye view of Zwettl Abbey from the south, 1689. Painting in the library cloister of the abbey
Image: Anonymous, Bird’s-eye view of Zwettl Abbey from the south, 1689. Painting in the library cloister of the abbey

If the feelings of the simple folk of Nürnberg were being played on by Adam Kraft in 1500, it was the Austrian elite who were targeted two-and-a-half centuries later by a prince of the church.

In 1768 Abbot Rayner Kollmann of the Zwettl monastery in Lower Austria celebrated the 50th anniversary of his profession as a Cistercian religious…. As part of these festivities, the abbot’s brethren commissioned a number of impressive gifts for their leader. Famously, the Kapellmeister of the Esterhazy court, Joseph Haydn, was retained to write an Applausus musicus for performance at the event.

The Zwettler Tafelaufsatz, as on display in the Österreichische Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna
Image: The Zwettler Tafelaufsatz, as on display in the Österreichische Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna


More spectacularly, they also ordered a set of 63 porcelain figures from the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory to be laid out on a 4.3 meter long mirror-glass plateau as a dessert display. Since 1926 the Zwettler Tafelaufsatz has been back in Vienna, in the Austrian Museum for Applied Arts, the best-preserved ensemble of its sort. Matthew Martin showed in his talk on this creation how wrong it would be to regard it as mere decoration. Like Haydn’s oratorio and the ceiling paintings in the monastery, it was an argument in art for the predominance of the cardinal virtues, joined by the parts of learning, the better-behaved mythological gods, the four seasons, the mechanical arts, trades and professions. All of this was intended to show how important were the monastic qualities of discipline and learning exemplified by the abbot.

The central group in the Zwettler Tafelaufsatz is The manufacture of porcelain
The central group in the Zwettler Tafelaufsatz is The manufacture of porcelain.

Most intriguing are the figures in the center. Rather than the personification of Wisdom usually found in that position, the Zwettler Tafelaufsatz shows lab putti making porcelain. As Martin explained, the manufacture of porcelain – a favored enterprise for any self-respecting princely court in the eighteenth century – was seen as a semi-mystic process

rooted in alchemy, that system of European knowledge we might characterize as a philosophy of transformation, physical and spiritual… A seventeenth century alchemical text by Thomas Vaughan, an Anglican clergyman writing under the name Eugenius Philalethes, puts it succinctly: “The Primitive, Original, Existence of it [Alchemy] is in God Himself: for it is nothing else but the practice, or operation of the Divine Spirit working in the matter, uniting principles into Compounds and resolving those compounds into their principles.”

In sum, the dessert display attached spiritual, even metaphysical qualities to the career of Abbot Kollmann. The program was an attempt, Martin argues, to shore up the eroding status of monasteries. If the dignified guests who celebrated the abbot’s jubilee on 17 April 1768 got the message and put out the good word, it was to no avail. In 1780 Emperor Joseph II took the imperial throne and initiated an aggressive anti-monastic policy from which the abbeys of Central Europe never recovered.

This conclusion is not unrelated to the status of the CHE itself, heading for its planned finality. One of the research questions it poses pays due to its origins in the ambitions of the Australian Research Council, which itself is under the ongoing obligation to account for itself to the government and people of Australia. “How does the legacy of past emotional understandings and practices continue to influence politics, society and culture in today’s Australia?” Part of an answer was provided not by the scholarship in the meetings but by their ceremonial opening. It has become the practice in Australia to begin group meetings with a bow to the original inhabitants of the continent. In Adelaide, the CHE research supervisor David Lemmings recited this formula:

We would like to acknowledge that the land we meet on today is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and that we respect their spiritual relationship with their Country. We also acknowledge the Kaurna people as the traditional custodians of the Adelaide region and that their cultural and heritage beliefs are still as important to the living Kaurna people today.

How can this not put you in mind of the irredeemable tragedy inflicted on the original peoples of Australia and the ineradicable emotions it has engendered in them and in the settler peoples?

CHE has latched onto more than just a set of research questions. The emotional turn, palpably taking hold of researchers in a multitude of fields and countries, challenges us to consult emotions not only in history but also in our own studies and our place in politics, society and culture. This is not a seven-year project – for this challenge there is no closure. The greater danger for the initiative engendered by the CHE is not the end of its funding but the all too easy retreat back into the comfort zones of those it has inspired to confront emotion in all its troubling omniscience.

My invitation to come to Australia for the CHE meetings was the outcome of my guest curatorship in 2015-16 of the Frans Hals Museum exhibition Emotions: pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age. In Melbourne, a successor exhibition is being held at the National Gallery of Victoria, curated by Angela Hesson, Love: art of emotion. With kindest thanks to Charles Zika and the CHE for including me in the programs at Adelaide and Melbourne.

CHE has taken a small step to perpetuate its spirit in the form of a Society for the History of Emotions. Membership is open to all, for a modest fee.

Gary Schwartz is an art historian, dedicated to the historical study of art. He has authored books on Jheronimus Bosch, Pieter Saenredam, Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer; exhibition catalogues on the Dutch world of painting and emotions in Dutch art; and more than 500 articles and columns in journals, the press and Internet, mainly on Dutch and Flemish art, connoisseurship and museum matters.


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