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Shigeki Abe

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“Non-flowing” Art History: The Modernity of Henri Focillon’s Thought

Shigeki Abe
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Aesthetics, Art History

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Is History Like a Big River?

When we think about history, we usually imagine it as flowing from the past to the present like a river. And we think of art history, a branch of history, as having shifted and changed from the ancient past to medieval times, from the modern age to the present day. Those who are knowledgeable about art history can visualize the “stylistic” progression from Romanesque to Gothic, and Renaissance to Baroque. Books on Western art history by H.W. Janson and E.H. Gombrich have been translated into Japanese and achieved a large readership in Japan. Their version of art history truly gives one the impression that it flows along in a leisurely manner just like a long novel. No doubt this interpretation of art history as a “grand story” is a source of great satisfaction for those of us who love art.

Well, there is one art historian who continually disagreed with this image of art history. His name is Henri Focillon, a French art historian who died at the height of World War II. He was born in 1881 in the ancient city of Dijon in eastern France. By the time he died in 1943 in the U.S., where he was living in exile, he had taught at the University of Lyon, the University of Paris, and Yale University, and had worked as a professor at the Collège de France, known since the Renaissance as an institute for advanced research. His main contributions have been related to the art history of medieval Western Europe. At the same time, however, his scholarship is wide in scope, ranging from modern art history all the way to the art of East Asia and Japan.

I am fascinated by the unfettered thought of this art historian and have presented several studies on him since I published a Japanese translation of his essay on art and art history, The Life of Forms in Art [Katachi no Seimei] (Chikuma Gakugei Bunko), in 2004. Last year, I was invited to an international symposium (“Aesthetics and the Uses of Time” [Toki no Sayo to Bigaku], April 15, 2012) at the National Museum of Western Art where I discussed one aspect of his observations about time. The following contains the general content of my arguments, entitled “The Horizon of Transformation: Drawing on the Thought of Henri Focillon” [“Henyo no Chihei: Anri Foshiyon no Shisaku kara”].

“Non-flowing Time” as Older Layers of History

Time flows on as we go about our daily lives. Yet it is a self-evident fact that it never flows away or disappears. I am referring here to memory. Memories sometimes come back from the depths of forgetfulness at an unexpected moment in time. This is by no means a unique experience, as evidenced by the many writers who talk about having such personal experiences. For example, when Yukio Mishima saw the city of Rio de Janeiro for the first time in his life, he identified it with a city he had dreamt of when he was a boy and realized that reality and memory carry the same weight (The Cup of Apollo, 1952). He physically experienced his memory, or the effects of the past, transforming the city of Rio before his eyes. At the same time, this included the painful realization that he himself would inevitably change due to the flow of time. This is the universal reality of all human beings living in the midst of time and memory. The past never disappears.

Thus, superimposing the past on one’s present reality and thereby seeing traces of the effects of time is by no means the special province of writers. Ruins photographed over and over again by photographers from Charles Marville and Eugène Atget to Nobuyoshi Araki vividly evoke this human reality.

Chihiro Minato impressively captures massifs (mountain masses), symbols of immobility, as formations shaped by the large-scale effects of time, which usually span tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years (Our Mountains of Metamorphosis: Morphogenesis and Sacredness, Inscript, 2001). Time and transformation are inseparable.

As an art historian, Henri Focillon always viewed works of art on the horizon of time. Placing something on the horizon of time means to always treat it as something in the process of transformation, pregnant with the past and leading toward the future. Works of art are, of course, nothing more than a spec in the chronological scheme of things. As living things, however, they are always connected to the past below the surface, and their forms retain traces of the time that has elapsed.

From time to time, Focillon asserted this connection to the past in a bold manner. For example, in his article “Prehistory and the Middle Ages” (“Senshi Jidai to Chusei”) written in 1941, he links and discusses these two periods of history, separated by thousands of years, with great ease. According to Focillon, history is structured like a geological formation. It is made up of many overlapping layers, from the older layers at the bottom to the surface layers at the top. The fact that the older layers are usually not exposed, however, does not mean they have disappeared. Likewise, ancient periods of history live on as the older layers, so to speak, in our collective consciousness or the subconscious of individuals, and they sometimes exert an effect on the history of surface layers from deep inside. This idea that there are short-term changes and long-term continuities in history is similar to the new historiography—later called the Annales School of historiography—that was being developed in France at just about the same time.

Art Stores Memories of the Past

An example of a Flamboyant style church. You can see the ornamental motifs with reverse S-shaped curves at the front.
Church of Saint-Maclou, Rouen (Photograph taken by author)

Thus, a new horizon in the history of art opens up when we consider that the past does not disappear, and that time flowing slowly on a historical level coexists with the time we can see changing before our eyes. For example, Focillon links the strange rock formations that late Gothic artists like Joachim Patinir (c. 1480-1524) liked to paint, which look like they have been worked up like clay and torn apart, with prehistoric megalithic culture. This does not mean he is connecting the two through a conventional empirical process. Rather, this kind of approach is an attempt to grasp something underlying both cultural expressions that cannot be verbalized by such process.

A more striking reemergence of the past can be found in the Flamboyant style of the late Gothic period. A distinguishing feature of this architectural style, known for its ornate decoration, is the complex intertwining of S-shaped curves. Focillon boldly links this feature to the ornamental designs of the Iron Age. The life of this form, which has survived chiefly in the subterranean stream of the ornamental traditions of the British Isles, was revived, so to speak, in Flamboyant-style of church architecture.

Focillon did not see works of art as flowing in just one direction—from the past to the present—but as blossoming from rich memories of the past. His art history has saved art from a dull chronological system and brought the life of art works closer to the reality of our lives. I believe it holds rich possibilities.

Shigeki Abe
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Aesthetics, Art History
1962 Born in Kyoto
1985 Graduated from the Faculty of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University
1989-93 Studied at the University of Paris on a scholarship from the French government
1994 Completed the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University; served as an assistant to the Faculty of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University
1996 Became an assistant professor at Yamagata University and went on to become a professor at the same university
2011 Assumed his current position as a professor on the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Professor Abe holds a Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Paris.
His areas of research are French neoclassical art, with a focus on the work of David and Ingres, and re-examining the art history of Henri Focillon.
His translations include H. Focillon’s The Life of Forms in Art [Katachi no Seimei] (Chikumashobo), A. Chastel’s The Myth of the Renaissance [Runessansu no Shinwa] (Heibonsha), and J. Lacoste’s Philosophy of Art [Geijutsu Tetsugaku Nyumon] (Hakusuisha).
Shigeki Abe’s seminar site: http://c-faculty.chuo-u.ac.jp/~abes/arthistory/new window