- Burckhardt in Love: A Response to Lionel Gossman
John Madden’s recent film, Shakespeare in Love, accrues its historical and indeed historiographical interest not from any antiquarian impulse, but rather from the way it links Shakespeare’s artistic achievement to his engagement with the life and work of another dramatist, Christopher Marlowe. In the film, Marlowe’s flamboyant farcicalness, grandiloquent poetry, and short, violent life lay the groundwork for the mimetic achievements of Shakespeare, who took both his inspiration and his negative example from the extremes mapped by Marlovian virtuosity. The film even introduces a third term: the Artaudian excess of the young John Webster, who confesses in the film to having “played the head in Titus Andronicus,” and who is thus given the historical task of enunciating within Shakespeare’s early work a theatre of cruelty at odds with the representational canons of the high Shakespearean tradition. Moreover, through its very liberties with history, the film manages to replicate some of the definitive moves of that most creative of historians, William Shakespeare. By applying the plot of Romeo and Juliet to the war of the theatres, the film reproduces not Shakespeare the man but rather that battery of playful revisionary and allusive techniques, of incessant double-plotting, that characterizes Shakespeare’s relation to his own historical and literary sources.
Like the Marlowe-Shakespeare couple in Madden’s film, the Rembrandt-Rubens dialectic charted by Lionel Gossman visualizes modernity as a set of competing paths laid out by the traditions and anti-traditions mobilized by artists of the past, a complex of alternate [End Page 929] routes that lead to an as-yet undetermined future of art. Gossman shows how Burckhardt’s coupling of Rubens and Rembrandt sheds light not so much on these painters themselves as on the choices and constraints, the values and valences, that define Burckhardt’s own contribution to and contextualization within the world of nineteenth-century historiography. Whereas the younger Burckhardt had preferred the fully classicist Raphael to the painterly Rubens, the older Burckhardt, acknowledging the inevitability of modernity, finds in Rubens a helpful and hopeful balance between classical and Romantic impulses, in contradistinction to Rembrandt’s willful and subjectivist disregard for past tradition.
Gossman finds embedded within the work of the art historian, dedicated to reconstructing the world of the past, the project of the art critic, who speculates about the art of the future. Will German art, wonders Gossman’s Burckhardt, go in the direction of Rubens or Rembrandt? In Burckhardt’s calculus, Rembrandt is modern, all too modern, and his “Promethean” overreaching finds dramatic precedent in the rebellious heroes, the Faustusses and Tamburlaines, of Marlowe and his Romantic imitators. Rubens, on the other hand, is modern, but not too modern; his Existenzbilder, like those of Shakespeare, are characterized by their “ennobled naturalism, individual depth, distinctive character and beauty”—words that Burckhardt could have borrowed from August Wilhelm von Schlegel’s Shakespeare criticism to describe his own private Rubens. (When the younger Burckhardt somewhat disparagingly characterizes Rubens as the Shakespeare of painting, he is in a sense reading Shakespeare as Marlowe, as pure Romantic.)
The comparison of two artists, rather than the abstraction of a set of aesthetic principles (such as line and color or classical and baroque), allows Burckhardt to do this work in an historically grounded fashion. Although Burckhardt was Heinrich Wölfflin’s teacher and mentor, he was temperamentally incapable of producing a drama of generalities. Gossman demonstrates how for Burckhardt, the work of every artist instantiates a particular arbitration between the artistic tradition, the extra-aesthetic demands of the cultural moment, and the talents of the artist himself. Thus Burckhardt’s analysis of Rubens is as much about the conditions for artistic production represented by the Catholic mercantile culture of Antwerp as it is about Rubens’ painterly appropriations of linear classicism. And these reflections on Antwerp in turn allow Burckhardt to engage indirectly, through the mediating mirror of the past, with the history and promise of his own city-state of Basel within the troubling arena of the new nationalisms of post-Revolutionary Europe. [End Page 930]
The foundational model of this reasoning by duet is...