Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 23, 2018
Catriona MacLeod Fugitive Objects: Sculpture and Literature in the German Nineteenth Century Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013. 264 pp. Paperback $39.95 (9780810129344)

Fugitive Objects features impressive scholarship, skillfully engaging a great variety of sources: philosophical texts, literary works, sculptures, and paintings, as well as objects, texts, and images from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular culture. But at the same time, unlike many other scholarly works, it also tells an exciting story, full of suspense, which at times makes the book a genuine page-turner. In Hegelian terms, this story could be summarized by another title, “The Story of Sculpture after the End of Sculpture.” It is fitting to refer to Hegel here, because Catriona MacLeod herself, in the first chapter, draws on both Hegel’s and Schlegel’s discussions of sculpture in order to usher in her first central thesis: with the beginning of the nineteenth century, sculpture is increasingly perceived—by philosophers, critics, and artists themselves—as a problematic medium, connected via classicism to a distant past, and too static and material to accommodate the theoretical and artistic needs of the Romantics. While this observation may not come as a great surprise, what is surprising and intriguing is MacLeod’s perspective on the historical, artistic, literary, and philosophical consequences of this romantic overthrowing of sculpture from its classicist pedestal. Just as in Hegel, art does not really come to an end after its “End,” in MacLeod’s account sculpture does not simply go away after it has been dethroned by other, supposedly more appropriately romantic forms of art such as painting, literature, or music. Rather, sculpture sticks around, assuming a sometimes humorous and ironic, sometimes disconcerting and uncanny, sometimes even violent and anarchic afterlife. All of the chapters in MacLeod’s book deal with different varieties of this afterlife.

Hegel’s own account of the historical dialectic of art is fraught with difficulties and tensions (for one thing, as MacLeod notes, it is striking that in contrast to all other phenomena that are subject to dialectical historical development on Hegel’s account—such as philosophical knowledge, the state, or history itself—art has its high point in the distant past, 40). However, putting aside such difficulties, one should expect a smooth Hegelian narrative of the end of sculpture to run roughly in the following way: since sculpture can, for one reason or another, no longer live up to the ambitions of romantic thought and art, it must be transformed into and preserved in a “higher” form of art, such as literature, painting, music (or perhaps “romantic sculpture,”—though MacLeod demonstrates in chapter 1 that this very expression raises problems, as romantic theorists had a hard time conceiving precisely what a romantic, postclassical form of sculpture might look like). This Hegelian take on art history as a succession of stages in which each period or form of art both corrects and preserves its predecessor is powerful and compelling, and it is arguably intrinsically tied to the very project of conceiving a unified history of art. In my view, the most fascinating aspect of Fugitive Objects is how MacLeod both remains faithful to this Hegelian approach and subtly subverts and undermines it at the same time. On MacLeod’s account, it is true in a sense that (classical) sculpture is both preserved and transformed—in a word, aufgehoben—in nineteenth-century literature. But at the same time, MacLeod perceptively brings to light how this transition to a novel stage of existence of sculpture is not as smooth as the orthodox Hegelian scheme would suggest. In each chapter, she discusses one or several instances of postclassical transformations of sculpture that fall short of the Hegelian standard of a seamless Aufhebung.

A second central thesis of the book is that while the very notion of a romantic form of sculpture appears problematic, sculpture nevertheless continues to inform the romantic imagination: namely, in literary works of art. This thesis guides MacLeod’s original readings of Clemens Brentano’s Godwi (chapter 2), Achim von Arnim’s Raphael und seine Nachbarinnen, and Joseph von Eichendorff’s Das Marmorbild (chapter 3). In all of these works, sculpture(s) play a crucial role. However, MacLeod argues, in contrast to classicist theorists such as Winckelmann, Goethe, or Schiller, romantic authors tend to conjure up fictitious, often generic sculptural images, rather than concrete, actual works, such as Winckelmann’s Apollo Belvedere or Schiller’s Juno Ludovisi. This is in line with the more general romantic strategy “to deal with sculpture by subjecting it to dematerialization of various kinds” (59). For instance, in Godwi the protagonist suggests that the perfect romantic Gestalt is a soap bubble, thus replacing the ancient (anthropomorphic) sculptural body with a more ethereal and malleable form. In Arnim’s Raphael, an ancient pagan statue is transformed into a Christian icon, the Sistine Madonna. In Eichendorff’s Marmorbild, a stone sculpture of Venus is converted into a levitating Madonna through a musical rendering. So far, so good, the orthodox Hegelian might reply: but is not all of this perfectly in line with the Hegelian view that art becomes ever more spiritualized in its postclassical, modern age? However, MacLeod demonstrates throughout how the romantic attempt at dematerializing sculpture involves acts of force and violence, even “rape” (58), and manifests a sometimes neurotic impulse to tame and suppress a medium that is perceived as a recalcitrant and even threatening other. The gendered language is no coincidence here, since on MacLeod’s account, it is often female sensuousness that is seen to be embodied by the sculptural image and in need of being tamed by romantic authors. Thus, in Godwi, “language is deployed … as a dematerializing masculine force intended to overcome the taciturn and potentially hazardous “thingliness” of sculpture” (63). What is more, MacLeod demonstrates, these strategies of dematerialization are seldom fully successful. On the contrary, sculpture “bites back” (the title of chapter 2): in Godwi, for instance, a scene in which the narrator first approaches a statue of Violette, his lover, as an object of classical ekphrastic description (thus imposing his own voice on her) culminates in an act of mutual rape in which the narrator is first enthralled and overwhelmed by the sculpture’s sensuousness, and then inflicts a bloody wound on her through which she herself speaks. The romantic transformation of sculpture, then, involves struggle and suppression, obsession and violence—it is anything but the Hegelian narrative according to which all the scars inflicted on spirit are subsequently healed.

MacLeod’s aim of bringing to light the implicit, sometimes suppressed subtext of the postclassical, nineteenth–century discourse on sculpture is reflected in her method: she gives voice to items, images, and texts that are less conspicuous and easily overlooked due to their presumed insignificance. One key instance of this strategy is her intriguing analysis, in chapter 4, of Adalbert Stifter’s treatment of sculpture in his novel Der Nachsommer. As McLeod brings out, here the protagonist Risach’s attitude toward classical sculpture runs contrary to that of the romantics discussed in earlier chapters: rather than transforming and transfiguring it, he undertakes “a combined rescue and rejuvenation mission for auratic art, embodied by the antique statue, a symbol of eighteenth-century Classicism and even of anti-industrialization” (122), by salvaging an antique sculpture from an Italian marketplace and creating a safe haven for it in his country estate. In doing so, Risach apparently seeks to prevent sculpture from being subjected to unworthy transformation. Not only is the sculpture submitted to violent acts of stripping down and grooming as part of this rescue mission, but what is more, on the country estate the statue is mirrored in an inconspicuous yet unruly and glaringly phallic twin object, a cactus (since Risach is also a collector of cacti). Just like the sculpture, the cactus needs to be groomed and put into shape (tellingly, Risach aims to give it the shape of a perfectly erect column), but here the forceful acts of trimming, even amputation, that such grooming involves become even more obvious.

The final chapter, which offers a reading of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz, is less well integrated with the overall narrative of the book. MacLeod mentions that Sacher-Masoch’s novella brings into view the transformation of sculptures into commodities and objects of mass production in the industrialized nineteenth century, but this theme is not further developed. Instead, MacLeod focuses on the novella’s treatment of the tableau vivant as a deliberate literary strategy deployed by Sacher-Masoch in order to blur the boundaries not only between different forms of art, but also between observing subject and observed work of art. While this is a fascinating analysis, it does not become entirely clear to what extent it carries further the overall argument developed in the preceding chapters.

One further shortcoming of the book is that it fails to offer an extensive discussion of the philosophical, theoretical, and artistic reasons underlying the fundamental fact from which its argument starts: the fact that sculpture in its classicist form becomes problematic and untenable in the nineteenth century. Here one would like to know more precisely what it is about classical sculpture—its corporeality? its materiality? its anthropocentrism? its paganism?—that gives rise to the romantic imperative to transform, dislocate, and dissolve it in the various ways discussed by MacLeod. MacLeod hints in these directions, but given how central the idea is to the overall argument, a more extensive discussion would have been welcome.

On the whole, though, Fugitive Objects opens up a fascinating, compelling perspective on sculpture that will offer inspiration for philosophers, art historians, and literary scholars alike.

Julia Peters
Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Tuebingen, Germany