Art & architecture stores memories of the past

milan-cathedral

Art and architecture are repositories of memory, the stories we tell ourselves as a culture. I came across a mention of French art historian Henri Focillon, and the impact of his thinking on art history. Most people may think of art history as a flowing continuity, where one style “progresses” into another. But Focillon envisioned history as layers, embedded within works of art and architecture, exuding meaning and memories of the past. It’s an interesting thought. Via Shigeki Abe, of Chuo University:

As an art historian, Henri Focillon always viewed works of art on the horizon of time. Placing something on the horizon of time means to always treat it as something in the process of transformation, pregnant with the past and leading toward the future. Works of art are, of course, nothing more than a spec in the chronological scheme of things. As living things, however, they are always connected to the past below the surface, and their forms retain traces of the time that has elapsed.

From time to time, Focillon asserted this connection to the past in a bold manner. For example, in his article “Prehistory and the Middle Ages” (“Senshi Jidai to Chusei”) written in 1941, he links and discusses these two periods of history, separated by thousands of years, with great ease. According to Focillon, history is structured like a geological formation. It is made up of many overlapping layers, from the older layers at the bottom to the surface layers at the top. The fact that the older layers are usually not exposed, however, does not mean they have disappeared. Likewise, ancient periods of history live on as the older layers, so to speak, in our collective consciousness or the subconscious of individuals, and they sometimes exert an effect on the history of surface layers from deep inside.

I wonder what ancient things does our collective subconscious still remember: matriarchal societies? Our nomadic pasts under a great landscape of stars, slavery and ancient wars that still continue today…?

Art is not made in a vacuum, and it makes sense that art is made as a reflex of these latent impulses of remembrance. I suppose that is why it can resonate so profoundly with us, while we subconsciously know that new images, a new layer of continuity, is urgently needed today. Ultimately, we all play a part in (re)making this layer history. Read more over here.

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