Visions of Order and Chaos: The Enlightened Eyeby Steven Pestana
CARNEGIE MUSEUM OF ART | MARCH 3 – JUNE 24, 2018
A lavish, gold trimmed specimen of cabinetry rests to the side of a periwinkle-hued room in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibition Visions of Order and Chaos: The Enlightened Eye. Designed by David Roentgen, an eminent Louis XVI-era ébéniste, it is a hefty but refined medals cabinet made circa 1783. In its heyday, the cabinet’s owner would have used it to store collections of ancient coins, maps, books, and accoutrements of learning within an intricate matrix of interior compartments. Such artifacts not only expressed an esteem for learning, but also of dominion. Lulu Lippincott, curator of the exhibition, considers this and such pieces as its era’s hard drive, a micro-repository of knowledge and memory. It was also an incidental trophy case boasting the owner’s worldliness and cultivation. With construction materials such as mahogany and oak originating in far-flung corners of imperial reach, at a time when long-distance travel was still an extraordinary undertaking, the cabinet itself is as much a document of empire as any of its contents. Yet, as tremors of the French Revolution rumbled to the surface, these sorts of extravagances would soon find themselves on the chopping block like so many of the period’s doomed aristocrats.
Visions hinges on moments like this, where the internal contradictions of Enlightenment values yield disaster. The Enlightenment’s emancipatory principles—rationalism, liberalism, egalitarianism, constitutionalism, to name a few—were noble but ideologically contentious, even among the so-called Lumières. Eventually, the zeitgeist toppled over into Romanticism, with its emphasis on emotion and intuition over reason, or as one well-known selection here by Goya described it, “the sleep of reason.” Mrs. Lippincott’s exhibition sure-footedly navigates the eras’ philosophical precarities, revealing the everyday codes used to negotiate and express them. More than a survey of the eras’ paintings and sculpture, it lays out an expansive worldview through a collection of stunningly-crafted texts, scientific instruments, tableware and objets d’art.
Visions’s essayistic, interdisciplinary approach distinguishes it from the familiar focus on painting and sculpture common to most museums’ treatment of the period. One compelling tangent showcases a suite of prints and paintings by different artists questioning the legitimacy of humans as property. Each scene captures the players in the midst of a transaction: marriage, slave trade, the division of the spoils of war. A consistent vernacular of expressive gestures propels the respective narratives. A father, arms outstretched, gives the soon-to-be son-in-law a bag of money representing a dowry as extended family looks on (L'Accordée de Village, Jean-Pierre-Marie Jazet after Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1819). An African man is forcibly restrained by slave traders, separating him from his wife and child (Execrable Human Traffic, Louis-René-Lucien Rollet after George Morland, 1788). They clutch their hands to their chests in resistance as their eyes meet in mutual panic and heartbreak. A group of Native Americans decide the fate of a captive mother and her children, the husband most likely killed in battle (Family, Taken Captive by the Indians, Trevor McClurg, 1849). In each, a conventional vocabulary reveals dramatic subtexts, offering modern-day viewers a nuanced insight of the era’s evolving attitudes towards individual autonomy.
Similar prompts to close reading appear throughout the show, including a section comparing the methods of academic copyists and another contrasting the gestural cues in portraits of leaders. Moments of levity appear on occasion, like a foursome of portraits with kittens and pomeranians painted with all the gravitas of a Pope or Cardinal, or a group of engravings brimming with high society sauciness under the heading “Mad, Bad and Dangerous” (a phrase taken from a description of Lord Byron by one of his many amantes). The selections are cute and playful, but it’s their simple humanity in the face of rationalism’s hubris that makes us smile. Wall labels remind us that a salacious press and fervent readership reveled in others’ naughtiness and errors in judgement. Observing the people’s readiness to submit to their basest instincts, the Enlightenment facade began to show cracks.
It’s tempting to read the Enlightenment-Romanticism crux as foreshadowing our current political dramas. Parallels can, of course, be found. But in truth, these ideologies were in flux and hadn’t yet hardened into the party lines we would recognize today. Skepticism was a dominant mode of inquiry, and the outcome resulted in everything from the pseudoscientific—Goethe’s color theories, for instance, highlighted in one of the show’s rare book offerings—to the transcendent, such as human flight. Visions is most timely in reminding us what may come of the whims and excesses of skepticism. Encompassing heights of political accomplishment to nadirs of barbarity, the Enlightenment gave us the Constitution, but also the Reign of Terror. With the post-truth era fueled by radical skepticism and emotions run amok, we might take some solace in the safeguards of the former versus those of the guillotine.
STEVEN PESTANA is a visual artist and writer living in Brooklyn. He holds an MFA in Digital Media from Rhode Island School of Design and a BA in Art History from New York University.