The Anachronic Scene Twice

by thomasmagnahastings

How to describe the chunky tool that pilots Christopher S. Wood and Alexander Nagel’s Anachronic Renaissance (Zone Books: 2010)? The anachronic’s object, at least, is clear: it is the work of art, and the orientation it extends to the art historian. As the reader is told in the Introduction:

The work of art when it is late, when it repeats, when it hesitates, when it remembers, but also when it projects a future or an ideal, is “anachronic.” We introduce this term as an alternative to “anachronistic,” a judgmental term that carries with it the historicist assumption that every event and every object has its proper location within objective and linear time. (13)

For these authors, who challenge calendrical time as much as those modes of art history that wholly refuse it, a crisscrossing study of the European Renaissance offers the most rewards for a referral to the gregarious artwork. They write:

What was distinctive about the European Renaissance, so called, was its apprehensiveness about the temporal instability of the artwork, and its re-creation of the artwork as an occasion for reflection on its instability. (13)

What I find confusing is this: that artworks do more than create occasions for art-historical reflection on wayward time; but that this experiencing of time as wayward is seen to belong to the work of art, through an array of materials, media, motifs and types that are not merely illustrative, nor representative, but are genetically akin to the anachronic sight lines they disclose. With Michael Baxandall’s placid assertion, “We do not explain pictures; we explain remarks about pictures,” in mind, I question the work of art’s ability to recursively fashion time upon itself, prior to art history’s “remarks”. My paper begins by considering the artwork’s priority, before going on to propose how the anachronic is enabled by a “structural thinking”, one that must be read symptomatically against the backdrop of art-historical method.

Part One

As Nagel and Wood’s account elaborates, the anachronic is dependent on two reactants: Originally, there is the artefact’s substitutional economy, in which, as the authors explain, ‘the work d[oes] not merely repeat the prior work… Rather, the work simply is its own predecessor’ (11); and upon this ground there is a figure, authorial performance, whose innovative adjustments of available conventions foreground substitution in a multitude of ways. Together, then, substitution and performance generate a magical interplay that gradually speeds up through the Quattrocento’s shrinking cycles of self-knowing –– and the work of art guards their chronic oscillation like a cipher. Taken as read, Anachronic Renaissance proceeds by zoning in on those episodes in art’s working – up to and including their sources – that are knowingly anachronistic; and it is in the authors’ capture of these episodes, that the anachronic potential of such anachronistic material is leveraged. This is a strong and divisive precis, yet it is perhaps necessary, given time constraints, to exaggerate the book’s historically sensitive and self-reflexive strategy into a blunt, paranoid instrument of itself.

Chapter Four offers a typical example. The authors’ discussion of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio’s Saint Augustine in his Study (c. 1503), begins by describing (and I quote), ‘The roster of objects and images vibrating anachronistically in the picture’s background… Deliberate anachronisms’, as the authors surmise, that ‘fe[e]d back into the symbolic machinery of the picture.’ Scanning past piles of books, ‘meteorological curiosities’ and other scholarly ‘bric-a-brac’ that fill the shelves of Saint Augustine’s study, the reader’s gaze is led to rest on a freestanding bronze Christ atop an alter, recessed in the rear wall of the painting.


Surrounded by vegetal ornament, and situated near to a statuette of Venus, this Christ figure was weighted by Carpaccio, so the reader is told, because it defied common knowledge of Augustine’s hatred of paganism by consolidating Christianity’s Antique pictorial life for the contemporary Renaissance viewer. To evidence this, the authors track the origins of the Bronze Christ, beginning with a group of biographers who predate Constantine, through Eusebius, a fourth-Century church historian, whose ekphrasis was later elaborated upon by Gregory the Great – note the ‘special glow of the statue’s face’ – to the thirteenth-century hagiographies of the Golden Legend. Having conducted a whistle-stop textual history, in all of half a page, the authors state that

The Bronze Christ cited in the painting was not merely, for Carpaccio, a modern work functioning as an ingenious hypothesis of a lost ancient work. The bronze Christ did not just “stand for” or refer poetically to antiquity. Rather, the statue was for him an antique work. (41)

It cannot be doubted that Carpaccio’s insertion of this Antique Christ was a deliberate choice, a performance, whose token untimeliness served to reflect a “clash of temporalities”, so called, that were otherwise already apparent in the painting’s scene, only awaiting their reactivation. Taking their cue from the bronze Christ’s apostrophe to a substitutional chain, the authors relay a performativity that diagrams what they call ‘the structural condition of artefacts.’ And it is here, in its structural form, that the priority of the work of art lies.

Upon a reflex, one might argue that the authors’ detection of the anachronic within Saint Augustine does more than simply reactivate this particular artwork’s plural and discordant origins; that, as corollary to this, detection effects an opening within the bounds of art history for the performance of a critical prowess, one that mimics the vitality of artistic process itself. This charge is easily made. For on the other hand, what kind of knowledge and method direct the anachronic’s twenty-eight case studies? How can the artefact’s zigzagging passage through time credibly be restated, without the interim work of iconography, albeit a kind of work that is silenced in the finale? “According to the texts…” is only one rhetorical refrain the reader encounters on the wayside, in ways that seem, in the end, to have served an auxiliary purpose.

But iconography is an auxiliary science, meaning that a readiness on the authors’ part to distance themselves from the father figures of art history is besides the point; in fact, Nagel and Wood read more like executors of a misunderstood will than as wilfully disobedient. Though a critical lexicon of referentiality is consistently deployed throughout Anachronic, its workings are still immanent to the humanistic programme of their forebears, one that is rendered plastic and projective through a relicensing of attention to the work of art. They are certainly willing to historicise Aby Warburg’s attachment to pathos and Erwin Panofsky’s transatlantic harnessing of iconology as distinct from post-structuralist over-valuations of this earlier project (as when, for instance, they question the legitimacy of Georges Didi-Huberman’s heralding of the medieval image, after Warburg, as ‘a disruption of the coded operations of the sign.’) Calling the authors out on charges of critical play simply won’t wash, then; it doesn’t square with the sheer historical serendipity of these stories and the pleasure they partake of therein, such that, without the safe house of art history’s symbolic forms, would lose face.

Yet, there must be another way to apprehend the allover buoyancy of the anachronic’s dominant terms, without losing sight of this confusing compact between work of art and art historian. Perhaps reading laterally away from Anachronic Renaissance will lead to some resolution.

Part Two

Like a line from that fabulous maker, oft-quoted in art-historical monographs, Jorge Luis Borges, the authors sign off on the Introduction to Anachronic in a way that invites the reader to dream whole worlds:

This book [they augur] is not the story of the Renaissance, but nor is it just a story. It imagines the infrastructure of many possible stories. (19)

I query the occurrence of the word “infrastructure” in the context of this promissory ending. To whom or to what do these “possible stories” belong? To the work of art, the reader, or to the authors themselves? For a story of the anachronic to emerge in the first place, the listener is reliant on some triangulation coalescing between points that otherwise have no way of reaching one another. Usually, such a question itself intimates a linguistic field conditioned by a general equivalence that routes all utterances. As I see it, however, the authors’ regular ascription of action verbs to the work of art suggests not only that it originates this whole storytelling process – and, by extension, that the artwork’s position within a substitutional mode of production is more important than the authorial performance that attends to it like a foil – but that the work of art, having presaged these ‘many possible stories’, will eventually survive them, through what must now be understood as its infrastructural primacy within the terms of the anachronic. Thus the work of art traverses this linguistic field with relative ease, exempt from the gravitational magnitudes of maker, style and history alike. Naming this special status is not only a reader’s affective response to the piling up of time lost and found, one that returns on the work of art’s world-making faculty, but it also follows on from the authors’ technical descriptions of the artwork. As noted earlier in the authors’ Introduction to Anachronic:

The work [of art] can represent itself either as a “structural object” or as a relic. It can represent itself either as a magical conduit to other times and places or as an index pointing to its own efficient causes, to the immediate agencies created it and no more. 

Here, “structural object” steers the reader away from the historical recognition of magic whose shorthand is substitution, towards a register that is far more reflective of its own procedures as art-historical method. Elsewhere, the work of art is cast as a “message whose sender and destination are constantly shifting,” evoking fields like linguistics and, more distantly, electrodynamics. Such moments of procedural self-reflection, which are enriched by historical detail that is first marshalled, then disengaged, cumulatively distil a synchronic form of structuralism, one that implicitly modulates the ratio of substitution to performance which everywhere frames the anachronic’s “clash of temporalities”. It is finally this synchronic form, and the culinary movement that undulates beneath it, that I query.

Part Three

An interest in structuralism will come as no surprise to readers of Nagel and Wood. Where Nagel’s Medieval Modern (2012) tracks renewed possibilities for premodern artistic modalities through twentieth-century practice, Wood has written judiciously about the art historian’s experience of war exile through Anglophone, Italian and French contexts. It is worth concentrating briefly on Wood’s twinned introductions, to Panofsky’s early essay, Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924), and The Vienna School Reader (2000); both of which he translated and edited for Zone Books in an effort to acquaint American Humanities with the generational crossfire of Austrian-German Kunstwissenschaft. These two magisterial commentaries serve as a spirit level to the anachronic, in that they are strictly bounded by duties of transmission and reception.

Through a comparative analysis, Wood plots what he calls the ‘awkward chronological coordinations of art history and intellectual history’ (18) that stymy the application of any synchronic account of the artwork. The ideal ‘strategy’ for players ranging from early Formalists like Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl, to proponents of Viennese Strukturanalyse such as Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt, to Panofsky’s own brand of Neo-Kantianism, was (and I quote) ‘to isolate the work [of art] temporarily in order to grasp more clearly its deep structural principles, and then ultimately to reinsert the work into its primordial environment on more legitimate grounds.’ (8). This operation proves tricky, for the requirements of philology mean any divergence from a study of the work’s material circuits necessitates some theoretical compensation (insofar as the artwork’s immediate environment has to be bracketed in order to access its deep structural principles). The lodestar for such cryogenic attempts was, as Wood explains, Riegl’s notion of Kunstwollen, translated here as “artistic will”. His explicative task is thus two-fold: to describe the various refinements on Kunstwollen; and to compare the relative limitations of those refinements.

Kunstwollen, so the reader learns, was a deliberately unacademic, homespun notion, referring to the act of will behind the work of art, as opposed to the work itself. By delving past content and style, past ‘function, materials and technology,’ Riegl’s prose sought to isolate the formal rhythms of the will across large chunks of slow time. Submerged on this value-free plane, beneath the epiphenomenal world, where masterpieces melt into material culture, he implemented a series of oppositional formal criteria – ‘haptic and optic, internal and external unity, coordination and subordination’ and so on – to configure the Wollen of a corresponding Weltanschauung, or ‘world-view’. It was the severance of those particularities that animate the work of art as an aesthetic object, which enabled this worldliness to come into view as a series of formal developments. No doubt, submersion risks a parallactic view of things.

As Wood informs his reader, Panofsky extended Riegl’s artifactual apprehension of the world by refining Kunstwollen into a set of a priori transcendental categories, or “symbolic forms”, that, again, ended a hair’s breadth from the actual materials of the work of art. ‘Perspective made a promising case study,’ Wood explains, ‘because it described the world according to a rational and repeatable procedure… [and because it] encourages a strange kind of identification of the art-object and the world-object.’ (13) By way of example, Wood comments elsewhere that: ‘Panofsky the cultural historian simply absorbed Picasso into the “unified stylistic field” by comparing cubism to Einstein’s theory of relativity.’ (VSR: 50)

Where Panofsky transformed Riegl’s will into a special sort of cognition, the Second Vienna school reprised Kunstwollen by relegating Riegl’s still philologically-sensitive Weltanschauungsphilosophie behind the work of art’s structural principle. Sedlmayr especially credited the vision of the art historian with an ability to “see through” the artwork’s stylistic and representational efflorescence; to alight on that marginal surface detail or effect, the artwork’s macchia, which would reveal its non-visible quality, or Struktur. This paradoxically empathic, as opposed to scientific, form of apprehension, accelerated the strategic period of analytical quarantine – noted earlier – to such a great extent, that the artwork’s immediate environments totally receded from view, to be replaced by a parallel universe, a “Welt im Kleinen”. Thus Struktur led to a kind of solipsism, and it is less surprising to learn that Sedlmayr was a member of the Nazi party. But what does all this portend for Nagel and Wood’s later description of the “structural object”?

In his Introduction to the Panofsky essay, Wood makes the following assessment:

The flaws of Viennese Strukturanalyse were the flaws of any structuralism; it was driven by a certain sentimental faith in the organic integrity of culture, in the mysterious interconnectedness of events; and consequently it tended to leave the crucial link between work and world strangely unexamined. (11)

In spotlighting these conversations and this procedural statement, my intention is not to figure the anachronic as such another act of ‘sentimental faith,’ even if the propensity of “infrastructural” leads in this direction. For the anachronic’s kinship with the work of art’s plural and discordant origins gives rise to an irreconcilable view of things, one that perpetuates an agonistic relaying of world-view and Welt im Kleinen. I do however want to register a feeling of readerly exhaustion that accompanies both the methodical involution of Kunstwissenschaft, and Nagel and Wood’s devolution of method to the work of art. To illustrate the procedural circularity that triggers this exhaustion, here is another quotation from the Anachronic’s Introduction:

 A materialist approach to historical art leaves the art trapped within its original symbolic circuits. It tends not even to notice that the artwork functioned as a token of power, in its time, precisely by complicating time, by reactivating prestigious forebears, by comparing events across time, by fabricating memories. (18)

One can see how painless it would be for the social art historian to reverse the term’s of this criticism, by questioning the dubious historical proprioception accorded to the work of art; and how this would in turn lead Nagel and Wood to double back on the artefact’s substitutional economy, in an infinite regress. Michael Ann Holly has written eloquently about the experience of melancholy attached to the perpetual reversibility of the art historian’s endeavour. Yet rather than end with this impasse, I want to make some closing statements about language use.


Nagel and Wood’s chunky tool, the anachronic, is finally a statement about art history; and in this sense, it is an effect of the work of art. After substitution and performance, one can extrapolate an inventory of such terms from the text that demonstrate the work of art’s infrastructural priority. Sometimes these mechanical words accrue massively in clusters, as when the authors describe Jan van Eyck’s Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ (ca 1425–1435) as a painting that ‘coalesces around the modelling operation. The artwork is a metamodel, the model of a model. It mimes the modelling operation.’ (70) Elsewhere, a historical term like spoliation figuratively stands in for the artwork’s inward upheaval (41). At staged intervals throughout the book’s miniature histories, the authors are at pains to reformulate and newly define the “structural object” that gives rise to the anachronic; and it is due to the recursion of such attempts at defining the work of art as a structural object, I argue, that the anachronic ineluctably hardens into the book’s blindspot.

** At some point I will extend this paper by reading the anachronic with George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962). Kubler’s short book recognises that the readerly exhaustion one experiences with ‘Anachronic Renaissance’ comes from the historian’s attempt to reconcile meaning and structure. By approaching the problem that sits behind “the anachronic” with a degree of sustained and systematic openness, one that crucially makes space for the artist, Kubler enables the very interconnectedness that, in Nagel and Wood’s later (though less developed) book, reflects only the exchangeability of each object-of-study.

This paper was first presented at Time Immaterial: Studies in Anachronic Art History (York University, 11 November 2016).**