‘The artist,’ read the catalogue of the avant garde exhibition, ‘has sought by various means to involve the observer in the work. This is a radical new development in an art-world which has for too long been stultified by the framed image.’
But there is nothing new under the sun.
The two most important Flemish and Rhenish works of the late Middle Ages, The Issenheim Altar Piece (now in the Musée d’Unterlinden in Colmar), and The Adoration of the Lamb (in St Bravo’s Cathedral, Ghent), could both teach the modern painter in search of ‘involvement ‘ and ‘participation’ a thing or two.
Both works deploy space and time in a way so subtle and imaginative that the observer is enmeshed in the work. They are collections of panels designed to be displayed in different arrangements at different liturgical times. The ‘work of art’ (‘happening’?) changes constantly. And both involve the observer in the spatial framework of the panels themselves and blend the whole work into the architectural setting from which the observer sees it.
At Colmar the mystical encounter of Anthony Abbot with Peter Hermit and the temptations of St Anthony are set in scenery both fantastic and familiar. The foreground gives way to identifiable landmarks around Issenheim – representations of the very countryside through which the pilgrim has walked to keep the feast of St Anthony.
At Ghent a stained glass window (in ‘real space’ behind the spectator) is reflected, in ‘pictorial space’, in the great jewel on the morse of God’s cope. God is in St Bravo’s or St Bravo’s is in heaven, or the spectator is in some sacred space between the two. Optical illusion preaches Gospel truth.
Figures at the edges of both compositions fade out into neutral tones, like trompe d’oeil extensions of the building around them. Architecture penetrates painting and painting flows out into architecture.
At Colmar both the crucified Christ and the devils of Anthony’s temptations bear the marks of erisipelas, St Anthony’s Fire, the disease from which the patients of the hospice who worshipped daily at that altar were themselves suffering. Subtler and deeper than the baroque, these late medieval masterpieces use every technique, from surrealist symbolism to photographic realism, to ‘involve’ the worshipper and bring him to his knees.