Dr Jeremy Howard, Deputy Head of School of Art History, University of St Andrews, Scotland
Strange as it may seem Gothic never died. Appropriately perhaps it has been living in an art-historical netherworld where the struggling forces of formal modernism and social realism seem to have reigned for nigh on a century. Yet the very struggle of these forces belies the place, and strength, of the Gothic: in their attempts to suppress it, the different parties acknowledged both its grip and its mystery. Let our conception of the Gothic Modern be one of vaults. For vaults, as we know, are underground chambers for the living, dead and treasured, as well as arched structures and the heavens. The pointed rib vault, from four-part to stellar and fan, represents the dynamic span of Gothic. Of course vault also means vigorous leap and, with that, transcendence. Here we focus on Gothic Modern’s Russian vaults.
We can conceive our vaults as vessels of matter and spirit. On the one hand they are grounded in craft and collectivity, this while simultaneously being celestially aspirant, a romantic questing for spiritual uplift. On the other, they are dark and decadent, an irrational foray into horror and descent. They can offer the sublime and the grotesque. Urged on by the writings of Wilhelm Worringer, Richard Sterba, Josef Strzygowski and Karl Scheffler, among many others, our vaults are identifiable in artworks from seemingly disparate movements and centres. So far from just spanning inflections of Expressionism and Surrealism, they cross Cubism, Constructivism and the International Style, while deriving much of their esprit from Symbolism and Art Nouveau. In the spirit of the Gothic Modern vault let us move backwards to move forwards, let us spring from a subversive alliance of bold post-revolutionary avant-garde architectonics to fin-de-siècle painterly anxieties and apparitions (and back).
Featured image: Isaak Rabinovich (1894-1961), The Martian City, still from the silent film Aelita, 1924, directed by Yakov Protazanov. Courtesy of the BFI National Archive
Read more — Download ‘Gothic Modern Sensibilities: Vaults of Matter and Spirit via a Russian Arch’, by Jeremy Howard, as a PDF