Playing Peek-a-Boo with History

[ an essay written during Spring 2013 for GRFA 622 ]

Hinged Polyptychs (and How They Might Work)

Whether an artwork is good, bad, or mere kitsch depends on context far more than any mythos of the infallible arbiter of taste.  The Greenbergian formalist bias blights our understanding of art history because it ignores the fact that our predecessors’ art was made in a different context, for another audience, and in reference to concerns other than our own.  This combination of situational bias and predisposition to teleological paradigms of history encourages us to underestimate our artistic ancestors.  Until and unless time travel becomes an option, one of the most promising ways in which to increase our understanding and appreciation for old artworks is to closely examine and work in similar styles, formats, or processes.  Provided we never ignore the guesswork and anachronism involved, this constitutes an intriguing, humbling, and empowering way to approach art history.  Polyptychs provide fruitful ground for such investigation.

The modern incarnation of the triptych is three paintings hung in a cluster or row on the wall.  The older, hinged polyptych [1] delivers a similar type of meaning, but with added complexity and power.  Pedantic as the difference may seem, consider Thomas McEvilley’s assertion that “by foregrounding an element of content usually taken for granted and invisible, a whole new artistic mode or direction can be discovered” (Art & Discontent 88).  Susan Stewart’s observations in On Longing pioneer this mode of discovery.   Her analyses demonstrate that in general “the miniature represents closure, interiority, the domestic, and the overly cultural, [while] the gigantic represents infinity, exteriority, the public, and the overly natural” (70).  Stewart’s work profoundly deepens our understanding of how scale affects content, but scale is only one of the many formal aesthetic influences on content.  The hinged polyptych format lends itself particularly well to transformations, ambiguity, and multiple points of view.

The critical aspect of this format’s relationship to content is its simultaneous revelation and reticence.  A polyptych quotes itself.  The juxtaposition of images highlights or forces a relationship between them, and thus claims that any content in one relates somehow to the others.  They are each other’s context.  To quote Stewart on quotation, “without this repetition, without this two-in-the-place-of-one, the one cannot come to be, for it is only by means of difference that identity can be articulated” (20).  When polyptychs take the form (as well as symbols) of older art traditions, they demonstrate her assertion that “in the repetition difference is displayed in both directions” (21).

The absence of clear and consistent standards for presenting such artworks exacerbates the likelihood that they will be underestimated.  Well-known polyptychs such as Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights frequently appear in print in a piecemeal fashion.  The open version in Fig. 1 should be familiar to many artists and art historians, but how many would as easily remember its closed appearance in Fig. 2?  I will use four of my own polyptychs to demonstrate the necessity of linking the open and closed views of such polyptychs by exploring ways in which their content relies on the mutual exclusivity of codependent images.

bosch_garden of earthly delights_open

Fig. 1. Hieronymus Bosch.  The Garden of Earthly Delights, open. (ca. 1490-1510) of earthly delights closed.creation of world

Fig. 2. Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, closed. (ca. 1490-1510)

In the beginning

If it was a diptych rather than a hinged polyptych, then In the beginning would be a dualistic dialectic between Eve on the left and Mary on the right.  This highly logical and traditional pairing in Christian art often connotes the concepts of original sin and its eventual defeat.  While valid, this describes only a static and partial apprehension of the polyptych. The literal reversal of these grisaille figures on either side of the wings bolsters an exponential transformation of interpretation.

wampole_in the beginning

Figs. 3 and 4. In the beginning, closed and open. (Fall 2012)

Comparing the obverse and reverse of each wing shows that the figures shift in slight but meaningful ways (Figs. 3 and 4).  These alterations reflect different analyses of their source texts.  The comparison between left, right, outside, and inside becomes less about specific characters than literary lenses, degrees of skepticism, and time periods.

The figures are presented with equal care and detail, so any hierarchical ranking is up to the viewer.   This equality of emphasis relates directly to the concept of a collection.  The trompe l’oeil niches on all five panels and what they contain suggest the shelves and cabinets that simultaneously store and display a collection.  As Stewart explains, “the collection is a form of art as play, a form involving the reframing of objects within a world of attention and manipulation of context” (151).  She further describes this dynamic by stating that “to group objects in a series because they are ‘the same’ is to simultaneously signify their difference” (155).  The physical impossibility of seeing both versions of Mary or Eve simultaneously is an essential aspect of this polyptych’s ability to preserve and present the tension inherent in mutually-exclusive paradigms.

[Not So] Pathetic Fallacy

The hinged polyptych format is hardly limited to collecting and presenting multiple points of view.  [Not So] Pathetic Fallacy parallels the rhetoric of persuasive writing.  The structure assumes that a viewer approaches the closed polyptych, opens it to view the interior, and then returns it to the closed position.  This sequence of iterations casts the closed view of the polyptych as both introduction and conclusion to the whole (Fig. 5).  The interior panels provide details, but the basic theme of power and gender relations is fully symbolized by the red ribbons interlaced in a white power cord ouroboros on a faux marble plane (Fig. 6).


Fig. 5. [Not So] Pathetic Fallacy, closed. (Spring 2013)

hair_delilah_5.14fallacy center_5.22hair_mary_5.14

Fig. 6. [Not So] Pathetic Fallacy, open. (Spring 2013)

While In the beginning relies on reversals and alterations to achromatic centralized figures, Pathetic Fallacy uses physical juxtaposition and repeated formal elements to force or highlight a conceptual link between:  narratives (Delilah from Judges and Mary from St. Luke’s Gospel); seemingly content-neutral visual elements (hair, banderoles, and similarly attenuated items); and counterfeits of value (metal leaf, mica powder, clay coins, and faux painting).  Each narrative posits a woman’s ability to empower or undermine a man through grooming. [2]  The narrative premise is as paradoxically absurd and culturally reasonable as fiat currency or shaved legs.  Thus, the narrative symbols also present a continuum of questionable signifiers of value, from candy wrapper rebuses to polymer clay counterfeits of ancient and imaginary coins.  Flat patterns, volumetric gradation, and black outlines imply and deny space.

The center panel omits the conspicuously fore-grounded elements of the other panels but continues the tongue-in-cheek display of ambiguous signifiers.  Inserting a “blank” panel between two highly activated figurative panels asserts their thematic similarity while maintaining their narrative and historical integrity.  The omission suggests a void, which can only be filled by pondering the ostensibly blank faux marble field.  This faux marble painting contains subtle anthropomorphic signals that echo the bogus personality and hierarchical clues we glean from hairstyles, fashion, and other physical cues. [3]

These false signals relate to John Ruskin’s term pathetic fallacy, which he described as “the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy” (Modern Painters 157).  Appearances, whether of valuable objects or physical attractiveness, can be deceiving.  All three inner panels play semiotic games and self-consciously employ pathetic fallacies in order to reinforce the outer panels’ hints that true power comes from cooperation and inner worth rather than competition and ostentatious display.

Nor against yourself

Nor against yourself compares the interior and exterior of a café to public and private testimony.  When the wings are closed, this painting positions viewers outside the café (Fig. 7).  A banderole litters the scene with the Biblical injunction against bearing false witness against your neighbor.  Seen from certain angles, however, Mary’s golden halo provides the postscript:  nor against yourself.    As the wings open, the windows appear stationary but the point of view slides from the bright outdoors to a dim interior (Fig. 8).  Instead of homilies, the patrons’ self-abusive inner dialogue appears on twisted banderoles like a gossipy ticker tape.

nor against yourself_exterior_6.3   

    nor against yourself_inside right_6.3nor against yourself_inside center_6.3nor against yourself_inside left_6.3

Figs. 7 and 8. Nor against yourself, closed and open. (Spring 2013)

Nor against yourself responds to the commandment against injuring others with falsehoods by arguing that fairness to our fellow man requires extending similar charity to ourselves.  The polyptych’s closed view presents the topic through a priori reasoning, while the open iteration relies on empirical evidence.  Like the polyptych, only one of these linked and equally valid modes of reasoning can be considered at a time.

Remember [the Sa]bbath to keep it holy

The hinged polyptych can relate to opening doors, but it is equally reasonable to compare it to a manuscript.  As Stewart points out, the physical embodiment of a book, our progressive experience of reading its text, and our overall conception of its content are dramatically different things signified by the word “book”  (xi).  The same can be said of travel, and especially of a trip repeated at regular intervals.  Remember [the Sa]bbath explores the Biblical commandment regarding holy days by representing a Sunday trip repeated at least a thousand times by the artist, and does so both as a glimpse of a specific moment during the trip and as a map of landmarks.


Fig. 9. Remember [the Sa]bbath, closed. (Spring 2013)

sabbath_inside leftsabbath_center_5.22sabbath_inside right_6.2

Fig. 10. Remember [the Sa]bbath, open. (Spring 2013)

The closed view of this polyptych presents itself as a view through a car window (Fig. 9).  This window provides a current location (alongside an almond orchard in spring bloom) and what has been left behind (roadkill in the side mirror), but the destination remains unclear.  As the wings open, the artwork unfolds a map of sorts (Fig. 10).  The map’s legend straddles the hinge between two panels, just as critical information so often falls on the worn gutters of folded maps.  It mimics the Google maps’ format by combining satellite imagery (generalized or universal conceptions of travel) and local landmarks (particularized experience and memory) to describe the route between two towns in northern California.

The polyptych’s hinged format and images’ source align Remember [the Sa]bbath with tradition, but the pop art elements introduce ambiguity.  Each figure or landmark derives from the Limbourg brothers’ illustrations for the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.  Traveling between the agrarian rural town in the map’s southwest corner to the university town in the northeast can feel much like time travel, so the anachronism is apropos.  In an essay titled “Labeur and Paresse,” Jonathan Alexander presents compelling arguments that what seem like idyllic illustrations of the fifteenth century are in fact “an ideological representation showing the peasants as uncultured, boorish, and vulgar” (439).  These figures’ anachronistic modifications satirize contemporary regional class tensions.

McEvilley describes the overall effect of such art by explaining that “when an artist quotes a familiar icon from the past in a clearly contemporary work, we sense semiotically the difference between the Then and the Now of the work and at the same time the relationship between them” (102).  Locally brewed beer, inner tubes, and John Deer machinery combine with the appropriated imagery to satirize a sense of place, just as the polyptych format and modern details present the paradox of temporal subjectivity.

A traveller must consider both their origin, destination, and their own shifting relationship to the two.  Similarly, the outside and the inside of this polyptych present paradigms for describing and experiencing travel and the passage of time.  Time can only be measured by the movement or decay of matter in space, reminding us that awareness of time’s passing requires comparing memories or past records to present experience.  One can see evidence of time’s passage, but not time itself.  Similarly, one can conceive of but never see the relationship between the polyptych’s inner map and outer point of view.

Generalizations about polyptychs and options for their future

Polyptychs aptly suit ideas about change and our relationship to history.  Transformation, the passage of time, and multiple points of view risk conflation or oversimplification in static two-dimensional art.  The mutability of a hinged polyptych can present the similar complexity and changeability of its topic.  As McEvilley phrases it, “a work demonstrates a type of reality by embodying it” (81).  He adds that “representations in these [artworks] is not based on the naive assumption that it resembles nature.  What are being represented are modes of representation themselves” (92).  His statements describe Renaissance and medieval art as accurately as contemporary art.

The problem is that hinged polyptychs are no longer common in contemporary art.  General art history survey books and visual resource databases like ARTstor present images of polyptychs but often omit alternate iterations or hints that such iterations exist.  This concerns me both as an artist who works with this format and as an individual who feels strongly that non-specialists and even fellow artists risk underestimating the complexity and significance of many European religious artworks from the middle ages and Renaissance.

A triptych can be approximated in print by placing images in proximity to one another on a blank field.  How should a polyptych be presented?  Viewers aware of this concept can use imagination to approximate the actual import of polyptychs summarized by the two images.  Popup illustrations could be prohibitively expensive and absurd, though Hans Belting’s book on Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights advertises a fold out reproduction of the eponymous artwork.  I sometimes provide context with a brief video clip of myself opening and closing the polyptych.  This strategy works online, but would its printed equivalent necessitate a risible presentation of film stills as in Figs. 11-15?

Untitled 3

Untitled 2


Untitled 4

Figs. 11-15.  Stills from a video demonstrating the hinged polyptych format. (Fall 2013)

Hinged polyptychs present similar difficulties in galleries.  Unless all viewers are guaranteed to have clean hands, the gallery would have to provide either gloves or a docent to manipulate the polyptych on demand.  Perhaps the polyptychs could remain in a fixed position except for supervised alterations at advertised times.  Such performative or privileged views could provide an incentive to attend opening or closing receptions, but they would also contradict a quiet and private relationship of a viewer to the polyptych.

It is a tricky problem to solve, but the current and inadequate state of affairs should not continue.  The results are worth the inconvenience and experimentation, since the hinged structure provides significant opportunities for expression and complexity.  It seems likely that my approach to the polyptych format suits private ownership or contemplation better than public display or consumption.  Thanks to this attempt to understand art traditions by imitating them, I am convinced that we as artists, critics, and historians ought to carefully acknowledge in our writing and discourse that these artworks are more than their photographs suggest.  We need this art and what it signifies.


[1] To call a hinged painting a triptych is a misnomer.  A hinged “triptych” features two paintings when closed, and an additional three when opened.  To differentiate between this and the contemporary motif of three paintings hung in a row, I shall refer to the hinged version as a polyptych.

[ 2 ] Delilah cutting Samson’s hair while he slept sounds like a laughably arbitrary way to remove his strength, but it relates to Samson’s Nazirite vows and a book-long comparison of human and spiritual leadership.  This panel includes symbols of Samson’s story before this haircut (violating those vows through touching corpses and eating unclean food) and after (his blindness and death)  Overall, the panel on the left hints that when things go wrong between men and women, everyone shares the blame.

The other narrative panel features mutual empowerment rather than betrayal.  The usual summary of Mary’s story in Luke is that a show of platonic affection and penance (washing a man’s feet with tears, kissing them, and wiping them with her hair) earned the remittance of her sins.  Context once again shows that it goes both ways.  Jesus’ authority as a prophetic figure was threatened because the men around him assumed that:  (1) a prophet’s power includes supernatural knowledge, and (2) this woman was infamous.  By that reasoning, no true prophet would allow Mary to touch him.  Refuting these allegations before they were spoken turned the tables and asserted Jesus’ authority as much as his statement that Mary’s sins were forgiven.

[ 3 ] The psychological term by which to describe this phenomenon is pareidolia, or “the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features” (Collins English Dictionary).


Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan. “Labeur and Paresse:  Ideological Representations of Medieval Peasant Labor.”  The Art Bulletin 72.3 (1990): 436-452.  College Art Association. JSTOR. Web. 1 Sept 2013.

Bosch, Hieronymus.  The Garden of Earthly Delights. ca. 1490-1510. Oil on wood.  Museo del Prado, Madrid.

McEvilley, Thomas.  Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium. New York: McPherson and Company, 1991. Print.

“Pareidolia.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers.  Web. 29 May 2013.

Ruskin, John.  Modern Painters.  Vol. 3.  New York: National Library Association, 1856.  Project Gutenberg. Web. 29 May 2013.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. Print.

One Reply to “Playing Peek-a-Boo with History”

Comments are closed.