Networks and Labyrinths
Helena Santidrián Mas
Edited by Laurine Heerema
MISE EN ABYME: THE WORLD AS AN ENTANGLED NETWORK
A SHORT EXCURSUS INTO THE VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF LABYRINTHS IN ART HISTORY
“Networks and Labyrinths” suggests Dedalus and Icarus, Theseus, the Minotaur and Ariadne, the Cretan Labyrinth and all the myths surrounding it. When reading these two words, “networks and labyrinths”, paintings, films, photographs, and ideas persistently enter my mind. They all create an unexpected network, intertwined by a fil rouge which is the visual representation and the idea of a labyrinth. The entangled excursus into the representation of labyrinths in art history starts with Greek mythology, it goes through Renaissance painting, Surrealism, cinema, literature. It is not a linear path; it is a maze. It seems evident that human beings have constantly represented labyrinths in visual arts and in literature due to a permanent need to give an image of what the world is: an infinite network, a labyrinth, which creates a sort of mise en abyme. Follow me —I am just chasing threads (like Theseus…)— through the labyrinth of labyrinths; we might get lost. Although, this is not necessarily a bad thing to happen.
In the history of art, the first representations of the Cretan Labyrinth can be found in Ancient Greek coins and in mosaics. There, the labyrinths are drawn as simple lines, as a planimetry. No perspective is represented, nor is there volume. The visual interest of these images —at least for me— is not particularly worth mentioning. One of my favourite representations of a labyrinth, albeit not easily discernible, is located in Milan. A small oil on panel that depicts Theseus killing the Minotaur (figure 1) can be seen in one of the rooms of the Poldi Pezzoli Museum. It was painted around 1505 by the Italian Renaissance painter Cima da Conegliano. It has been compared to a cassone by the Maestro dei Cassoni Campana which is situated at the Petit Palais in Avignon (Zeri 1976, p. 83) (figure 2). This comparison has allowed the recognition of the iconography, which would have otherwise remained undetermined and ambiguous. In the Milan panel two figures fight in front of a sandstone wall. The figure on the left is represented wearing armour, whereas his opponent appears as a kind of centaur. As aforementioned, they have been identified as Theseus and the Minotaur thanks to the juxtaposition with the Avignon cassone, in which the Minotaur is painted in the same way: not as a creature with a human body and bull’s head, but as a man whose lower body is that of a taurus (Natale 1982, p. 123). In the cassone, the subject is clear due to the presence of a labyrinth in the background. The Poldi Pezzoli panel has also been linked to another piece in the same room that depicts Bacchus and Ariadne. According to the coherent themes and similar dimensions, one can assuredly affirm that they belong to the same cycle. But there is still one open question about the small Theseus and the Minotaur panel: what is the sandstone wall depicted in the background? It is not merely a way of covering the canvas’ surface, because, if so, the artist could have otherwise painted one of his refined landscapes in Venetian pictorial style. The beige wall is the labyrinth, but Cima da Conegliano has not had the audacity of the Maestro dei Cassoni Campana when representing it. His solution has been to increase the height of the wall towards the centre of the composition so that the observer can imagine the planimetry of the construction as a somewhat spiralled shape. Five to ten years later, the labyrinth has been appropriately represented, not from a parallel and horizontal point of view, as in the Milan panel, but from a higher one, a “bird’s-eye view”. The parallel view has also been used by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones (figure 3) and it gives to the scene a naive appearance, typical of this movement that looks back Medieval art and to the first half of Italian Quattrocento.
The “bird’s-eye view” idea recalls Japanese culture. Some handscrolls (emakimono) of the Medieval period, such as the Genji Monogatari Emaki, are painted with the fukinuki yatai technique, which means “blown off roof” (Mason 2005, pp. 117-118). Rooms of traditional Japanese palaces are seen from above without their roofs. This way the reader of the hand roll, the observer of the drawing, can see what is happening inside these spaces. Plus, Japanese palaces were divided into different rooms by paper panels that could be shifted and moved according to the master’s will or to the necessities of the families that lived inside. No walls were fixed: one could leave and later return to a house distributed in a completely different way: a kind of labyrinth. One can easily get lost in a place where walls move. Following our “bird’s-eye view” thread that has shown how a Japanese palace can be a labyrinth, one is led back to Sixteenth-Century Italy, to observe Nunzio Galizia’s Veduta prospettica di Milano (‘View of Milan’) (figure 5). In 1576, Milan was a chaotic city. Not only had the Spanish invaded the Duchy 50 years prior, but, the city’s topography, with its narrow streets, making it difficult for one to follow and orientate. In addition to the existent turmoil, 1576 was also the terrible year that accommodated what was later called Peste di San Carlo, the plague that engulfed the city. A city that is presented by Galizia in an apocalyptic view. It is easy to lose oneself in such a place. Possible, even, to lose one’s mind. A chaotic and apocalyptic city: a labyrinth. Another entangled network can be found in Milan: the trompe l’oeil painted by Leonardo in the Sala delle Asse inside the Sforza Castle (Belpoliti 2019). It is an intertwinment of plants and roots and it is dated around 1498.
If one follows again the “bird’s-eye view” thread, which is intertwined with the “labyrinth” leitmotiv, one finds that it is also entangled with the “madness” thread (we have just mentioned it in the apocalyptic 16th Century Milan). In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the characters are forced to go into a maze to find a cup, the ultimate prize of a competition of courage. This labyrinth is enchanted, bewitched. It moves —like the paper panel walls of the Japanese palace…Not even Ariadne’s thread would save anyone here. One knows how to get in, but not how to get out. It makes people go insane (Rowling 2000, pp. 538-551). Furthermore, in the film version of Rowling’s novel, the first image of the labyrinth is from above: a bird view.
If one now connects the madness thread with the myse en abyme concept, one cane arrive to Ariosto’s poem Orlando Furioso, to Escher’s disturbing drawings…that somewhat takes the wanderers of the labyrinth —of the world: us— to Surrealist images and concepts. In the work of the Italian painter Fabrizio Clerici (1913-1993) one finds again with the labyrinth topic in paintigs as Gli orti lunari— which is a bird’s-eye-view…It reminds me of the Theseus and the Minotaur’s labyrinth from Avignon. And —what a coincidence— one of the most famous paintings by Clerici is The Minotaur publicly accuses his mother. Following now the thread of Clerici’s life and work, one can get to a text written by Gustav René Hocke (Archivio Fabrizio Clerici 2013), a writer and art critic about the painter’s aesthetics, where he reflets about the oniric and theatrtical athmosphere of his paintings. Another coincidence (coincidence?): Hocke’s most well-known work is titled The World as a labyrinth, where he explores this leitmotiv; he links Bomarzo, Kafka, the Surrealists and many other artists, authors and movements (Belpoliti 2019).
In this Baroque world, if one does not want to get lost or lose their mind, one has to follow a thread. Mine is art. It guides me through the chaotic and wonderful labyrinth the world is. It helps me to create a network of ideas, connections, images, emotions. Art is my fil rouge; it is Ariadne’s thread in my world. But art itself is also a labyrinth. It is a labyrinth within a labyrinth. A network of networks. An entanglement and intertwinement of networks and labyrinths. A mise en abyme.
Helena Santidrián Mas
1. Mise en abyme is an expression introduced by André Gide in 1893 to define narrative or pictorial structures that repeat infinitely. They present themselves in the form of stories within stories, images within images, paintings within paintings…
2. For more information on this painting: Natale, M. (1982), Museo Poldi Pezzoli: dipinti. Milan: Electa.
3. It is also worth mentioning Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini’s Pesaro Altarpiece, which can be linked to the mise en abyme concept. The image might be useful to illustrate and stimulate the mind of the reader, although introducing it in the text could have been counterproductive. It would have made the network of ideas even more difficult to follow and the threads even more entangled…
4. The Genji Monogatari Emaki is a Japanese handscroll created in the 12th Century, based on the Japanese literature classic titled The Tale of Genji, written in the 11th Century by Murasaki Shikibu. For more information on this topic: Mason, P. (2005), History of Japanese Art. Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. pp. 117-118.
5. Called “Peste di San Carlo” after Carlo Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584, canonised in 1610 by Pope Paul V.
6. I have deliberately chosen to avoid talking about the literature that adresses the “Networks and Labyrinths” topic, but it is inevitable to mention Jorge Luis Borges and Umberto Eco.
7. To know more about Fabrizio Clerici and his aesthetics: Archivio Fabrizio Clerici (2013), Fabrizio Clerici. Milan: Skira.
8. About the connection between the conception of the world as a labyrinth and its “Baroque” facet, it is worth going over Bukdahl, E. M. (2017), The Recurrent Actuality of the Baroque. København: Controluce.
Figure 1. Theseus Killing the Minotaur, Cima da Conegliano, 1505, oil on wood panel, Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan. Public domain, image courtesy of Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan and Google Arts & Culture.
Figure 2. Theseus and the Minotaur (detail), Maestro dei Cassoni Campana, 1510-15 circa, oil on cassone panel, Petit Palais, Avignon. Public domain, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 3. Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, Edward Burne-Jones, 1861, pencil, brown wash, pen and ink on paper, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Public domain, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 4. Genji Monogatari Emaki, scene from the yadorigi gi chapter, illustrated handscroll, Tokugawa Museum, Nagoya. Public domain, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 5. Veduta prospettica di Milano, Nunzio Galizia, 1576, Civica raccolta delle Stampe “Achille Bertarelli”, Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Figure 6. A frame from the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire film, 2005.
Figure 7. Gli orti lunari, Fabrizio Clerici, 1967, oil on canvas, private collection, Milan. Image courtesy of Tommaso Calabro Galleria d’Arte.
Archivio Fabrizio Clerici (2013), Fabrizio Clerici. Milan: Skira.
Belpoliti M. (2019), ‘Gustav René Hocke, Il mondo come labirinto’, Doppiozero. [online] 18 August. Available at: https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/gustav-rene-hocke-il-mondo-come-labirinto
Bukdahl, E. M. (2017), The Recurrent Actuality of the Baroque. København: Controluce.
Mason, P. (2005), History of Japanese Art. Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, Inc. pp. 117-118
Natale, M. (1982), Museo Poldi Pezzoli: dipinti. Milan: Electa.
Rowling, J. K. (2000), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury.
Zeri, F. (1976), Diari di lavoro. Turin: Einaudi.