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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019

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Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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Sam McCracken: Walter Moser, Angela Ndalianis & Peter Krieger, eds. Neo-Baroques. From Latin America to the Hollywood Blockbuster. Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017. Pp. 327 ISBN: 9789004324343.

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Walter Moser, Angela Ndalianis & Peter Krieger, eds. Neo-Baroques. From Latin America to the Hollywood Blockbuster. Leiden & Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017. Pp. 327 ISBN: 9789004324343.

This collection of essays seeks to address the many valences of the “Neo-Baroque” as both a veritable artistic (and literary) movement of the postmodern age, characterized by a pronounced return to the aesthetics of the historical baroque, and as a larger conceptual paradigm that informs certain baroque-allied elements encountered in present-day works of art, architecture, and literature.

Seven years of international scholarly collaboration between 2007 and 2013 resulted in the contents of this book, comprised of ten localized case studies and three “artist’s essays” by writers based across the world. As such, this text enters into key debates within the existing critical literature on the neo-baroque—an admittedly contested term, even among this collection’s contributors—and offers several distinct approaches to its understanding, exhibited through the individual pieces of focalized criticism and wider theoretical meditations that make up the book’s thirteen chapters and three section introductions.

The collection’s three parts, “Neo-Baroques,” “Religion,” and “Cities” offer a systematic overview of the neo-baroque’s most salient aspects on a transhistorical and transcultural scale. The first part, as its very title indicates, functions as something of a general survey of the topic at hand, underscoring the inherent formal plurality of the neo-baroque both from critical and intermedial perspectives. Following Walter Moser’s introduction, Bolívar Echeverría’s “Mediations on the Baroque” draws upon writings on the European baroque by Miguel de Unamuno and Theodor Adorno in an effort to characterize the movement’s logics, which he subsequently describes as part of a curious, anti-colonial “survival strategy” mobilized by indigenous Americans throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries (34). For Echeverría, these indigenous populations adhere to a certain “baroque ethos,” predicated upon theatricality and excess, that affords them a degree of cultural agency in the sphere of ←195 | 196→religion, despite their near-total annihilation under colonial rule (36). Citing epistolary writings by colonial church officials in the Americas, the critic frames “Guadalupanism” as a baroque form of indigenous resistance to Catholicism and creolization (43; emphasis in original).

The book’s next chapter, “Reconsidering Metatheatricality: Towards a Baroque Understanding of Postdramatic Theatre” by Karel Vanhaesebrouck, approaches the question of the neo-baroque from a radically different perspective. Vanhaesebrouck presses the reader to consider the potential for “baroque” to operate as a transhistorical mode of understanding, to shy away from its application in the service of mere historical periodization. The author proactively distills the baroque’s mixture of aesthetic qualities into a single contradictory pair: metatheatricality and immersion.

Vanhaesebrouck traces the return of the conventional representational norms of the historical baroque in more recent works of postdramatic theatre, which is to say, theatre of the postmodern era that routinely invites the audience to consider its self-reflective structuring as a performance while simultaneously luring them into the experience of its performance. This strange – and at times purposefully disconcerting – interplay, as Vanhaesebrouck makes clear, is as common to baroque representation historically as it is to the much more recent advent of postdramatic theatre, which effectively underscores the baroque as an aesthetic paradigm recurring through the ages transhistorically and in a variety of cultural contexts.

In the following essay, “Fabricating Film – The Neo-Baroque Folds of Claire Denis,” Saige Walton methodically studies films by Claire Denis. The critic explores the appearance and thematic functions of baroque forms throughout the director’s oeuvre. Walton’s essay focuses on a single artmaker and a single aspect of the neo-baroque, “the fold,” as extrapolated by Gilles Deleuze, presenting what the critic terms “a materialist account of the baroque” in Denis’ films through the visual motif and its semiology (76). Her findings, bolstered by the use of embodied film theory, accentuate the fold’s textural quality as it appears in Denis’ film and the concomitant affective issues it may create for her works’ viewers. Walton’s essay highlights – if only through this single auteur, this single image – neo-baroque cinema’s sensuous and thought-provoking qualities, which are in constant dialogue with the historical baroque’s similar aesthetic sensibilities in other visual media.

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Reda Eser’s essay, “Baroque Affinities: Wölffin, Visconti, and the Baroque and the Films of Glauber Rocha,” offers a thoughtful analysis of Glauber Rocha’s cinema through the lens of Heinrich Wölfflin’s mediations on the historical baroque. Eser’s essay carefully examines Rocha’s Terra em Transe (1967), from the perspective of Wölfflin’s work as well as Rocha’s own writings and influences. The writer identifies the aesthetic and political “affinities” between Terra em Transe and the baroque (121), listing among them a deliberate break with ordained medial conventions, excess theatricality, and the purposeful engineering of a space for dialogue with its viewers.

The first of the book’s artist’s essays, “Artist’s Essay: The Neo-Baroque and Complexity” by Richard Reddaway, testifies to how the author sees the influence of the baroque in his own dynamic sculptural work and to what degree he (un)knowingly plays with its conventions, albeit on terms quite different from those prevailing during the time of the historical baroque.

The text’s second part, “Religion,” concentrates on religious imagery as a focal element of the baroque and the neo-baroque. It includes essays on a number of distinct topics, underlining the persistence of such an aesthetic preoccupation unto the present and describing its affective capabilities. In the first piece of this section, Hugh Hazelton provides a nuanced examination of religious exchange and play in two literary texts of the late-20th century, in an essay titled “Afro-Caribbean Belief Systems and the Neo-Baroque Novel.” Hazelton’s analysis, dense with close-reading, shows how syncretic-religious representation in his case studies – both of which set in the Caribbean – are characterized by lo real maravilloso and magical realism. For Hazelton, this feature, while not unique to the texts he focuses on, shares close ties with baroque religious representation, which prompts him to consider these novels as examples of the neo-baroque.

In “Temporal and Local Transfers: The Neo-Baroque between Politics, Religion and Entertainment,” Jens Baumgarten dissects the neo-baroque’s religiosity through an examination of the aesthetic paradigms of a single São Paulo church, the Nossa Senhora do Brasil, unveiled in 1940. Baumgaurten’s visual analysis of the space, informed by the neo-baroque’s generally nationalist, modernist characteristics in the Brazilian context, underlines the Brazilian neo-baroque’s ties to neocolonialist thought and urges its reader not to dismiss the political and affective aims pent up in neo-baroque configurations of religious material culture.

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In “The Religious Shines through: Religious Remnants and Resurgences in 90s Cinema,” Walter Moser, a long-time contributor to the field of neo-baroque studies, develops a compelling reading of 1990s films thematically united by a similar preoccupation with one central question: “What is real?” (179). While noting the theme’s endurance throughout the decade and across national borders, Moser limits his discussion, here, to The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999) and eXistenZ (Cronenberg, 1999), and examines the “ontological instabilities” characteristic of their narrative structures and dense commentary upon modern life as a whole (ibid). Despite the religious imagery and prophetic language which permeates the films’ staging of virtual realities, Moser finds that the spiritual sentiment shining through them is observably, even curiously undermined by more despair than hope, more complications than true resolutions. This places their playful representation of reality’s constructed nature in conversation with – but staunchly against—historically baroque portrayals of the same existential bent.

Patrick Mahon’s artist’s essay, “Towers, Shipwrecks, and Neo-Baroque Allegories,” closes the book’s second part. He stakes Walter Benjamin’s writing on baroque allegory as the foremost source of the artistic principles that guide his aesthetic, drawing our attention to the reflexivity with which he imbues his highly symbolic pieces, whether photographic or sculptural. His self-appointment as a social critic, as he suggests, aligns his practice with that of certain historical baroque artmakers, and he accordingly finds the neo-baroque as an aesthetic-cum-conceptual framework useful for the critical interpretation and creation of his art.

The third and final of the collection’s sub-sections, “Cities,” centers on architectural instances of neo-baroque aesthetics in the modern day, posing urban centers as loci in which “visual or imaginary effects overshadow social and cultural decline” in an encoded, yet decoratively excessive, manner (227).

“Symbolic Dimensions and Cultural Functions of the Neo-Baroque Balustrade in Contemporary Mexico City,” collection-coeditor Pieter Krieger’s contribution, considers the balustrade, an architectural element with roots in the historical baroque, as an ornamental, standardized commodity peppering the cityscape of Mexico City. In spite of the megalopolis’ overall “heterogeneity” (230), the balustrade proves a recurrent fixture throughout the city, one which – according to Krieger – emblematizes cultural and historical aesthetic exchange in a supremely “fetish[ized]” fashion (231). The design element, for Krieger, is indebted ←198 | 199→to Las Vegas’ commodified use of the same device, which serves to erect a superficial spectacle of history paradoxically divorced from its bourgeoise origins. Its multiple symbolic functions in the context of Mexico City, rife with modern, urban architectural schemas, (pre-)colonial design elements, and buildings lined with protective iron bars, all point to the balustrade’s fundamentally performative nature, as a piece of what Krieger pithily calls “cultural fiction” (251).

Monika Kaup’s essay, in turn, “Mexico City’s Dissonant Modernity and Marketplace Baroque,” complements Krieger’s analysis of the city. She adopts a different methodology to arrive at her conclusions, all of which point to the urban zone’s use of baroque aesthetics as a “successful blueprint for secondhand creation,” a means to create the semblance of posh modernity (255). In this vein, Kaup’s essay maps the discursive space between two writers’ rendering of the city: one of the early 17th century, Bernardo de Balbuena, as well as one of the 20th, Salvador Novo. Kaup’s argument lays bare, through this juxtaposition and the intertextual dialogue it spurs, the neocolonialist (and even recolonialist) undertones at work in the idealization and imitation of historically European aesthetic paradigms such as the baroque, while also indicating the (neo-)baroque literary style of the writers she analyzes.

The last critical case study of the collection, Angela Ndalianas’ “Baroque Theatricality and Scripted Spaces: From Movie Palace to Las Vegas Casinos,” deals with the construction of spaces designed to generate a neo-baroque aura, analyzing the baroque-informed notion of teatrum mundi, “theatre of the world,” as a design principle central to the US architecture devised throughout the 20th century. Buttressing her deft argument with concepts such as the “Experience Economy,” Ndalianas sheds light on the theatricality and excess of such architectural enterprises as well as their ambition to manufacture spatial spectacles through the visual language of the baroque (302).

Marjan Colletti’s artist’s essay, “Post-digital Neo-Baroque: Reinterpreting Baroque Reality and Beauty in Contemporary Architectural Design,” concludes the collection on a provocative note. Colletti’s insightful reflections on the capabilities of modern architectural-design technologies to render baroque aesthetics are nicely echoed in the artist’s own productions through digital means. The latter emphasize and exhibit recent avenues for producing dynamism, excess, and theatricality in digital artworks as well as for developing the groundwork for material projects.

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This collection of essays, in sum, delivers a range of approaches valuable for our contemporary understanding of the neo-baroque as a conceptual paradigm with multiple facets, manifold definitions. It offers, on the whole, various critical lenses through which we may interpret baroque-aligned productions of the modern day (as well as their constitutive elements). Moreover, through its three artist’s essays, it provides the viewpoints of those practicing artmakers who identify the influence of the baroque in their own craft. While it gathers an array of distinct voices, each of whom pursue such ambitions on his or her own terms, this critical text is a balanced and cohesive anthology that raises a number of new, provocative questions for scholars of the neo-baroque. It similarly points to the shortcoming of the field’s earlier ideals. It is a delight to read, and its detailed attention to the neo-baroque’s many forms across media well illustrates the neo-baroque as a cultural phenomenon of the present day.

 

Sam McCracken

sammcc@umich.edu.

University of Michigan