MSB brainstorming

10 July 2013

"Mannerism is Now," --- Mark Staff Brandl

This is an article I wrote an published about 8 years ago. It appears to have vanished from the archives here. So I thought I would put it up again.


Yes, we are in a manneristic, academic transitional cultural period. We all hope to come of age in a time such as the High Renaissance, the peak of Modernism or the like, but unfortunately it cannot always be so. For every Renaissance there is a Mannerism, for every Baroque a Rococo, for every Classicism an academy. We have, and are, PoMo. Furthermore, no matter what a barrage of architects have begun to assert , there is no "reverse" on this dashboard. Anything that appears to return is reborn dramatically changed. There may be a Neo- or Pseudo-Modernism, although I hope not. There will certainly be a Post-Postmodernism, under another name. But there will be no return to Modernism, or pre-Modernism.

Postmodernism thus far has been an ever-duller period of transition. The shadow of High Modernism hangs over us, much as that of the Renaissance did over the Mannerists. In place of Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, etc., — and most of all Michelangelo, we have the School of Paris, the Action Painters, Pop, the Conceptualists, Minimalists, etc., — and most of all Duchamp.

The postmodern artworld is dominated by distended copyists of Duchamp. Mannerists such as Vasari endlessly ”sampled” and combined aspects of Michelangelo’s work. As summed up so well by famed art historian Walter Friedlaender, Mannerist art’s traits tended to be stretched proportions, capriciously patterned rhythm, broken symmetry, willful dissonance, unreal and unresolved space, overly fashionable (although not intellectual) theorizing, coldly calculated style, exaggeration of borrowed forms — in short, confused over-refinement.

This list can be easily converted by anyone knowledgeable of contemporary art into a description of the various Neo-Styles of Postmodernism. Exaggerated spectacle, capricious ”shoddy-chic” structure, unresolved technological borrowings, overly fashionable poststructuralist theorization, and so on. 

Where Mannerism had great artists such as Rosso Fiorentino, it also included Alessandro Allori ”who flooded all Tuscany with his insipid pictures,” as stated by Friedlaender (in Mannerism and Anti-Mannerism in Italian Painting, originally published in 1925). Substitute the postmodern junk installation, commodity critique, or spectacle artist of your choice in that phrase.

However weak, historical Mannerism was not merely a bewildered conjunction between the Renaissance and the Baroque. It was a necessary and meaningful passage, allowing the development of that less bizarre and more natural successor to the Renaissance, the Baroque. Some things simply must be worked through.

In this vein, we have required Postmodernism in art and culture at large. Nevertheless, we have dragged out the learning phase far too long, for various commercial and sophistically careerist reasons. Many others have noted the parallel between Mannerism and Postmodernism, such as John Haber here (

This observation is often discussed behind the scenes by curators, critics and artists. However, very few people seem to want to do so openly, as it throws all our values, chosen "greats" and the current hierarchy into question. I know of several writers on art whose articles on this phenomenon have been rejected or edited into meaninglessness by important publications, myself included. Due to fear? Of what? The art academy? Our own positions? The powerful elite? Our hopes for the "canon"?

Mannerism transmuted into the Baroque by achieving an aggressive purposefulness, a vigorousness that was the reverse of the Renaissance in technique (painterly as opposed to linear), yet similar temperamentally. Artists made Mannerist dissonance more practical, more individual, seemingly natural, less abstruse, more corporeal, more playful. They were able to accept influence without being driven into pastiche. The way was shown by Cigoli, Cerano, the Carracci and most importantly Michelangelo da Caravaggio. These artists believed they were returning to a more classical form, when in fact they were integrating and uniting Mannerist traits into a new whole. Caravaggio gave density back to hue, brought forthright vision back through reference to everyday life, and replaced clutter with dynamic effect. His tools importantly included naturalistic reference and chiaroscuro — that amazing effect of simple light and dark which allowed him to plastically retain distortion by transforming it into theatrical space. The realistic portrayal of a pre-framed, mediated yet real event, the stage. His simple breakthrough was astounding in its implications, empowering such later masters as Rembrandt and Rubens.

This could serve as both an astute parallel to our period and a promising roadmap of where to go. I believe the path is being cleared now by many artists --- often those "underexposed", yet also by "hits" such as Jonathan Lasker, Mary Heilmann and others, most notably by David Reed. But they are our "Carraccis." (as of the time of this re-posting in 2013, I would add to this "forerunner" list: certain forms of Social Practice Art, when it diverges from mere event art; Green or Ecological Art; and Extended Painting)  What are they pointing at?

As I discussed in my blog on gallery comics and iconosequentiality as a compositional breakthrough, there is a necessity now to rethink --- and openly discuss --- the invention of fresh artistic techniques, to re-examine the "problems of the artist" with critical eyes and minds: composition, context, presentation, subject matter, content, surface, facture --- in short every element of artistic creation. Most of these have now settled into memorized, unexamined, endlessly repeated techniques --- academicism in the pejorative sense, the creation of imposing, pastiche-"machines" of received notions.

Analysis and any resultant practical, theoretical and tropaic discoveries could lead to a much needed anti-Postmodernism which incorporates the discoveries of this period into a healthier whole. This will establish the next phase, a parallel of the change to the Baroque, yet decidedly not a neo-Baroque (which would be merely another postmodern Neo-ism). The desire for such an evolution, though, helps explain the frequent emergence of citations from the Baroque in contemporary art.

I will attempt to discuss aspects of these artistic inventions in future blogs. Please join me. I'm not certain where I'm going with this either, but I think such scrutiny is vital, and it is necessary to begin now.

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