From “lusus naturae” to “Picasso in the Snow,” and back
2023-2024 (September - October)
Dario Gamboni is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Geneva and a Honorary Fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. His research interests include iconoclasm, visual ambiguity, aniconism, and museums created by artists and collectors. Among his books, translated into many languages, are The Destruction of Art (Reaktion, 1997), Potential Images (Reaktion, 2002), The Brush and The Pen (Minuit, 1989; Chicago, 2011), and The Museum as Experience (Brepols, 2019; Hazan, 2020; Wallstein, 2021). He is one of the editors of The Aesthetics of Marble (Hirmer, 2021).
This project starts from the reception of John Dewey’s major contribution to aesthetics, “Art as Experience” (1934), by the philosopher’s friend, student, and sponsor, the art collector Albert C. Barnes. In a heated exchange of correspondence, Barnes exposed what he regarded as a weakness in Dewey’s notion that the perception of a work of art is connected organically (as a sort of reenactment) with the making of this work, by referring to a “Picasso” he had seen on a roof covered with snow, while Dewey argued that no one except Barnes would care about such a “lusus naturae”. The point was crucial to Barnes, however, as it touched another notion that he was developing in relation to the art of Matisse, that of “transferred values,” and justified the introduction of furniture, the decorative arts, and ironwork into the “ensembles” of paintings that he was displaying at the Barnes Foundation. My study aims at exploring the part played in this debate by the contemporary reception of the medieval and Early Modern notion of lusus naturae, and by the then popular use of the term “value” (in the sense of formal property) in art theory and aesthetics. A link to Bernard Berenson is provided by a 1956 comparative study of Dewey’s and Berenson’s concepts of “art” by the Italian historian of philosophy Domenico Pesce.