Feeling the Baroque Fold

by Andrea Bubenik, The University of Queensland

In the monumental oil painting Judo House Part 6 (The White Bird) by Australian artist Nigel Milsom, two stark figures emerge from an enveloping darkness, a black and white drama in which the protagonists are seemingly suspended in the air. The contrasts between light and dark invoke other dichotomies present in the picture: pleasure and pain, the real and imagined, the physical and metaphysical. As the figures are suspended, so too is disbelief.

Nigel Milsom (Australia 1975– ) Judo House Part 6 (The White Bird) 2014–15 oil on linen 230 x 194 cm Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales – Contemporary Collection Benefactors 2015, with the generous assistance of Alenka Tindale, Peter Braithwaite, Anon, Chrissie & Richard Banks, Susan Hipgrave & Edward Waring, Abbey & Andrew McKinnon. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Yuill|Crowley, Sydney. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales
Nigel Milsom (Australia 1975– ) Judo House Part 6 (The White Bird) 2014–15 oil on linen 230 x 194 cm Collection: Art Gallery of New South Wales – Contemporary Collection Benefactors 2015, with the generous assistance of Alenka Tindale, Peter Braithwaite, Anon, Chrissie & Richard Banks, Susan Hipgrave & Edward Waring, Abbey & Andrew McKinnon. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Yuill|Crowley, Sydney. Photo: Art Gallery of New South Wales

To anyone with even a passing interest in the history of art, Milsom’s figures will be instantly recognisable as borrowings from the well-known marble sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (1647–1652) by Italian artist Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680). Bernini’s sculpture is the supreme emblem of early modern religious ecstasy, and epitomises the style and forms associated with Italian Baroque art. The subject is Saint Teresa (1515–1582), the Spanish nun and mystic who famously described her experience of being transverberated – pierced with love by an arrow-wielding angel – and her ensuing union with the divine. In Teresa’s own words:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…[1]

Teresa’s solitary mystical experience, the outcome of intensive prayer and meditation exercises, was first made public through her autobiography (1567) before being visualised almost a century later by Bernini in his sculpture, which is still in situ in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. At the time of Bernini’s creation Teresa was one of the church’s newest (and most controversial) saints. Canonised in 1622, Teresa’s cult was promoted by the orders of Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelite nuns who proudly acknowledged her as their founder, as well as the wealthy Venetian patriarch Cardinal Federico Cornaro who saw in Teresa a spiritual forbearer. It was Cornaro’s patronage and desire to monumentalise Teresa that resulted in Bernini’s creation not only of the principle sculptural group, but also the architecture, frescoed ceiling, stained glass and sculpted portraits that flank the Cornaro chapel.

To experience Teresa’s ecstasy in situ is to be part of an early modern multi-media experience that Bernini has been credited with inventing. Bernini’s first biographer, Filippo Baldinucci (1624–97) commented how

Bernini was the first to attempt to unite architecture with sculpture and painting in such a manner that together they make a beautiful whole [bel composto] … His usual words on the subject were that those who do not sometimes go outside the rules never go beyond them.[2]

Bernini defied the conventions of the media in which he worked, and his novel fusion of painting, sculpture and architecture was designed to render the ecstatic experience accessible in a theatrical setting. We are so accustomed to Bernini’s vision that it is difficult to recall that Bernini was once a transgressor himself. Just as Teresa in her ecstasy went beyond perceived limits, so too did Bernini when sculpting her.

It has been often noted that Bernini emphasised the seemingly erotic overtones of Teresa’s verbal description. Teresa reclines and arches slightly, her head is cast back, eyes closed, mouth open, consuming and open to the divine love that enters her. Yet this physical manifestation of ecstasy would not necessarily have been viewed as blasphemous in the contemporary context. As the ideologies of the counter-reformation were promoted, Baroque art flourished, with its marked characteristics of exaggeration, high drama, theatricality and excess well suited to the Catholic Church’s purported goals of providing an intensive (and often ecstatic) visionary experience to believers old and new. Seventeenth-century artists, and their patrons, expected and anticipated that viewers would respond with enthusiasm and vigour to the religious experiences put before them.

While the subject of Teresa herself is noteworthy, so too is the sheer material force of Bernini’s vision. Nigel Milsom, the Australian artist mentioned at the outset, highlighted the painterly qualities of Bernini’s sculpture in his appropriation, focusing exclusively on the marble forms with a sharp chiaroscuro. This focus reminds us of the astonishing virtuosity at hand in Bernini’s original sculpture, in which he defied his medium, sculpting seemingly impossible curves in marble, with Teresa’s drapery as expressive of her emotional state as her facial features. This is drapery that ripples and undulates, as sensuality manifest, infinite folds that have inspired an entire literature of their own. The art historian Howard Hibbard has observed that drapery in Bernini’s work acts as ‘an agent of feelings’. Meanwhile the philosopher Gilles Deleuze made the fold central to his entire discourse on the mathematician Leibniz: ‘the Baroque trait twists and turns its folds, pushing them to infinity, fold over fold, one upon the other. The Baroque fold unfurls all the way to infinity’.[3] For scholars, Bernini’s infinite folds highlight a Baroque sensibility that lends itself well to characterising some tendencies in modern and contemporary art.

Hiromi Tango (Japan, Australia 1976– ) Insanity Magnet #7 2009/printed 2013 pigment print on paper, edition 6/6 Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2014. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and sullivan+strumpf, Sydney.
Hiromi Tango (Japan, Australia 1976– ) Insanity Magnet #7 2009/printed 2013 pigment print on paper, edition 6/6 Collection of The University of Queensland, purchased 2014. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and sullivan+strumpf, Sydney.

Bernini’s sculpture speaks from the past with an urgency that is characteristic of great works of art. Its presence reverberates in the work of contemporary artists such as Anastasia Booth and Audrey Flack. As the muse for the exhibition ‘Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond’, Teresa’s ecstasy can taken beyond the more literal interpretations of Milsom. The fold as an agent of feeling allows us to consider a dialogue between Bernini’s Teresa and Hiromi Tango’s Insanity Magnet #7, in which the artist has enveloped herself in ropes and coils that she herself wove from trinkets and remnants, to such an extent that her own physical self seems to have merged with these folds. Tango has stated that the artwork

…was born during the dust storm around lunchtime, 23rd Sep 2009, at New Farm Park, Brisbane. I did not know how and where to place my growing grey anger, which was totally overpowering and overtaking my identity … I was possessed and haunted … No one could heal it – except the dust storm.[4]

As an extreme response, laden with performative and theatrical qualities, Tango’s work also speaks to the transformative effect of a self-induced act, a transcendence of consciousness, via folds of one’s own creation.

The exhibition ‘Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond’ seeks to establish such a dialogue with the past, and suggests that in contemporary art as much as the Baroque lies the potential to be transported, overwhelmed and absorbed by visualisations of ecstatic experience. A contemporary artist dances next to a nineteenth-century vision of a bacchanalian fete; a photographic triptych echoes Bernini and his bel composto; seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prints show us an evolution of ecstasy from the sacred to the secular; the ecstasy of sport is considered along with saints and mystics. The works on display offer a lens through which to experience once again the rapture of Bernini’s Teresa, and to take ecstasy beyond the Baroque into the realm of contemporary aesthetics.

Andrea Bubenik is Senior Lecturer in Art History at The University of Queensland, and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research focuses broadly on Renaissance and Baroque art, and she is also currently researching the role of the passions in early modern art theory. In addition to curating ‘Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond’, she is the author of Reframing Albrecht Dürer: The Appropriation of Art, 1528‒1700 (Ashgate, 2013) and curator of ‘Five Centuries of Melancholia’, an exhibition held at the UQ Art Museum in Brisbane (29 August30 November 2014).

[1] Teresa of Avila, The Life of St. Teresa of Jesus, of the Order of Our Lady of Carmel (c.1565), trans. David Lewis (1904), at Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8120/8120-h/8120-h.htm

[2] As quoted in Giovanni Careri, Bernini: Flights of Love, The Art of Devotion, trans. Linda Lappin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 1; from Filippo Baldinucci, The Life of Bernini, 1682 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966).

[3] Howard Hibbard, Bernini (London: Penguin Books, 1965), 203; Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, foreword and trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 1.

[4] Hiromi Tango, “Insanity Magnet,” Hiromi Tango (website), http;//hiromitango.com/Insanity-Magnet.

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