Miks kõneleb Laokoon kirjasõnas ja ei kõnele marmoris?


  • Juhan Maiste University of Tartu




Laocoön, Winckelm ann, Les sing, Herder, Goethe, Sublime, Phenomenology


In this article, the author focuses on the work called Laocoön, which was one of the most popular subjects for 18th century art writers. The first description of the work was provided by Pliny the Elder who, in the 36th volume of his Naturalis historia, calls it the best work of the art in the world – be it painting or sculpture. Pliny identifies three artists from Rhodes – Hagesandros, Polydoros and Athenedorus – as the authors of the Laocoön Group. After the sculpture was found in the vicinity of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Laocoön has repeatedly aroused the interest of art historians. Johann Joachim Winckelmann raised the sculptural group into focus during the Age of Enlightenment. And his positions, and sometimes opposition to them, form the basis of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s, Johann Gottfried Herder’s and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s writings on the Laocoön. I am sure that their thoughts deserve also attention today, when we speak about the fundamental change in philosophy, philology, and partially also in art history. In seeking an answer to Lessing’s question, “Why does Laocoön not cry in marble but in poetry?” Can art speak? And if it can, how? The first stage of the article explores the contradictory nature of word and picture, in which regard both Lessing and Herder preferred the former. The second question that arises in the article is: What are the framework and boundaries of art writing as a method of art history for ascertaining and describing the internal nature of a work of art? And further, do words enable one to arrive at the deeper layers of a work and the reason for the act of creation? And if so, to what extent? The third and most important issue examined in the article is the two possible approaches to a work of art, and visual images more generally – the analytical and phenomenological. By relying on history, and the broadly accepted methods of the narrative, sociological, biographical, and other sciences contingent on it, the epistemological nature of art has remained outside the conceivable limits of scientific language. And as such, it has reduced the possibility of understanding pictures and finding them a place in today’s scale of assessments; of speaking not only about the external and measurable parameters, but also about works of art as unique phenomena, in which an invisible and metaphysical content exists in addition to that which is inherent to the visible and the describable. Just as much as our rudiments of rationality and logical analysis help us to understand works of art, their impact relies on a subjective readiness to receive artistic experiences, which according to Goethe, transform the Laocoön into something affectively animated in the torchlight. Art is usually revealed by in-depth sources via the contemplative reflection that follows sensory experiences. Since Longinus’s time, this has been described as sublimity, and it garnered supporters in the form of the Neo-Platonic authors of the Renaissance, whose role in 18th century aesthetics is just as significant as the art history tradition based on classical archaeological research. In the writings of Winckelmann, and those who followed him, the two poles of this approach to art are tightly merged. The author’s goal is to draw attention to ways of understanding and writing about art, besides the descriptive methods and those related to history; to those that focus on the processes related to the gnoseological side and to subconscious creation, and provide a place for words and their power to create ever newer and more expressive metaphors. One possibility for translating visual images into verbal form is to adopt the breadth of poetry and its language, which truthfully, being just as ambiguous and inexplicable as art, enables us to make the indescribable describable; via a work of art as the initial idea, and the work that informs us of this idea as a series of formed images that can be assessed as pictures that describe the spiritual image (or eidolon in Greek).


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Author Biography

Juhan Maiste, University of Tartu

Juhan Maiste (b. 1952) is a professor and Head of the Department of Art History at the University of Tartu. As a prolific writer he has authored a large number of monographs and articles on architecture, classicism, cultural heritage, the philosophy and poetics of art history. His scholarly interests include Estonian and Livonian manor architecture, the phenomenon of park landscapes as well as the work of Johann Wilhelm Krause. In addition to teaching and research, Professor Maiste is the editor-in-chief of the Baltic Journal of Art History.




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