Attempts to reconstruct how early modern Europeans understood the workings of visual representation have usually conceptualized the mimetic picture as either a mirror reflecting the world or a window looking onto it. This important and challenging monograph, first published in German in 2013 and now accessible to English readers in Russell Stockman’s translation, intriguingly raises a third possibility. Karin Leonhard argues that by the seventeenth century, the mimetic picture could also have been understood as a fertile field, earth, soil, or ground, or as a life-generating cave, underworld, or uterus. The visual genres at the heart of the book are the sottobosco, comprising pictures of the forest floor teeming with fungi, wild plants, and “low” creatures such as snakes, insects, and lizards, and its precursor and antitype, the “Baroque” still life.
The term “mimesis” has been subject to widely competing definitions, but the short introduction identifies a distinctive type of mimetic structure that was characteristic of sottobosco painting and, Leonhard suggests, more central to early modern artistic culture than has previously been recognized. Rather than the generation of “dead replicas of nature,” mimesis in this context means “re-presentation, understood as a biotic reproductive and procreative force that frees forms from the depth and brings them to the surface” (10). This force was associated particularly with the “ground” or “ground layer” (in Dutch and German sources of the mid-fifteenth century and later, the grund, grunt and gront) out of which lifelike images arise. Here, and throughout the book, Leonhard contrasts this dynamic picture field with the notion of the painting-as-mirror, leading the reader to wonder if premodern subjects had quite such a static sense of the mirror, and specular images, as the book at moments implies. The alternative notion of the painting, or its material ground, as a fertile field comes close to ideas of the immanent potential of the picture space in earlier strands of Italian painting (for example, the integration of ground and figure in certain works by Leonardo), with the crucial difference that the tradition Leonhard is concerned with was mainly nourished by natural philosophy, in particular questions concerning the origins and organization of life.
Highlighting still-life and nature-painter Otto Marseus van Schrieck (ca.1613-1678) and his connections with learned circles in Amsterdam and Rome and at the Medici courts, the first chapter relates the sottobosco to debates about whether generative forces are present in matter, and how the morphology of different species is conserved from one generation to the next. These debates were mobilized by Aristotle’s influential ontological model that positioned humans above (in descending order) animals, plants, and inorganic entities. The fungi, reptiles and amphibians that feature in sottobosco paintings, which were commonly believed to emanate from putrefaction, clouded the distinction in this model between inert matter and organic vitality, prompting speculation by Aristotle and later thinkers such as Athanasius Kircher about the possibility of spontaneous generation from the earth itself. Eventually, models like the Great Chain of Being and their Christian adaptations came to be aligned with the genre hierarchies that were gaining traction after 1650, which privileged the movement of human history over both creatural existence and “still” life. Set against these hierarchies, the sottobosco occupied an ambivalent place as a low, but lively and artistically fertile, painterly mode. Imagining the field of painting or the terrestrial field as “a receptive matrix striving for form” (45) troubled the period’s standard account of reproduction as the imposition of a male formal principle on female matter – a point that Leonhard interestingly links to hints in Walter Benjamin’s work that postulating a material, maternal basis for life could inspire new political formations and an “anti-paternal poetology” (49). This hints at the sottobosco’s capacity to allegorize the dialectic between human history and the archetypal substrata out of which it emerges, a philosophical issue upon which it reflects from its “grassroots” position.
The next two chapters, which are interrelated, focus on the innate potentiality of painterly materials. Chapter two deploys the concept of the pharmakon – the substance that is both poison and antidote (the term could also mean a pigment or artificial color) – to link the sottobosco to the pharmaceutical discourse that had surrounded painting since antiquity. Leonhard shows that Marseus van Schrieck and his colleagues juxtaposed poisonous plants and antidote species in their compositions, and occasionally depicted noxious fungi with pigments known to be toxic. This visual and material analysis supports a wide-ranging discussion of the paintings in relation to literary accounts of the origin of poisonous animals (notably the myths of Python, or Pytho, and the Medusa), tarantism, the healing properties of plants, and the Medici’s somewhat paranoid interest in poisons, antidotes, and protective objects such as snakestones. Turning from therapeutics and toxicology to the regenerative powers of materials, chapter three takes as its unifying theme palingenesis, an expansive notion of rebirth that in the seventeenth century encompassed Christian resurrection and alchemical transmutation. Color and pigment choices seen in the sottobosco and in flower still life, as well as their visual references to insect metamorphosis, were associated with ideas of salvific regeneration that crossed over into hermetic symbolism. While the paintings thus countenance the prospect of rebirth and transformation, in presenting the beholder with arrested glimpses of these processes and of the seemingly endless struggle between life forms at the ground level of creation, they also refuse to resolve the question of whether an authentic or complete palingenesis is possible. In this respect, as Leonhard suggests, their outlook resonates with period ideas of the interrelatedness of good and evil, such as the Miltonic notion of the fortunate Fall, whereby evil, like the pharmakon, has to enter the world “as a poison that itself becomes an antidote” (153).
Chapter four relates the still life genre to new understandings of color that were gaining acceptance in the seventeenth century. The idea of color as a substance or proper quality of objects was being challenged by theories that stressed its relational and dynamic character. This transition was gradual, owing to the intricacy of the conceptual vocabularies that investigators inherited from classical and scholastic sources, which distinguished between color as a stable, innate property, as a material (like a paint or dye), and as an optical experience. There also existed a range of views, none wholly dominant, about the natural processes that generated color and color change, involving, among other factors, the warming, ripening effects of sunlight, shifts in atmospheric opacity, and the mixing or splitting of certain principal colors, including white and black. Leonhard argues that because still life and landscape were relatively free of didactic obligations, they became test sites for exploring these phenomena via the depiction of effects like chiaroscuro, flickering candlelight, reflections, sparkles and glimmers, and tinting (when the color of one object affects that of another). Increasingly, the world the paintings showed was not one of “true” or proper colors but a “transitory, ephemeral space” of gradations of light and hue produced by interactions between objects unfolding in time, and by concomitant changes in the artist’s or beholder’s perceptions (181). This temporalizing, vitalizing perspective challenges still life’s longstanding association with vanitas, or, conversely, with a kind of deadened timelessness. Moreover, insofar as it insists on the embodied beholder’s share, it offers new reasons for the uncertainty in the period about images’ capacity to grasp eternal truths, an anxiety that much previous scholarship has explained with reference to iconoclasm.
Spanning histories of art, science, medicine, philosophy and alchemy, Leonhard’s book addresses issues of fundamental concern for scholars interested in the connections between visual images and theories of life and organic development prior to the nineteenth century. A notable aspect of the book is the way it returns again and again to key visual examples, such as Marseus van Schrieck’s Sottobosco with Snakes, Toad, and Tulip (1662) now in Braunschweig, which gain interpretative complexity as layers of contextual data accrue around them. However, its main strength lies in pinpointing the stimulus that natural philosophy and artistic developments in object and “low” painting gave to each other, an approach that generates surprising insights. For example, the “repetitiveness” of still life, in both subject matter and compositional strategy, has been criticized by art theorists virtually since the genre appeared, yet it emerges from Leonhard’s discussion as a fundamental aspect of the paintings’ poetics: “repetition is precisely one of their strengths, especially if one admits that their mechanical, organic status implies a veritable theory of the medium” (86). The consistency of sottoboschi specifically was also due, in part, to the close links between the leading artists – something Leonhard stresses to make the case that there was a shared body of knowledge and practice that informed the paintings. Future research will uncover how new or revived ideas in areas such as entomology, alchemy and toxicology circulated in the centers where the genre sprang up. In this respect, the book’s findings are usefully supplemented by the efforts that Gero Seelig and Eric Jorink have made (in catalogue essays for the 2017–18 Medusa’s Menagerie exhibition in Schwerin and Enschede) to investigate the networks that linked practitioners of the genre, collectors, investigators, and their patrons.
Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London