GEMS in portraits: Stijn Bussels

schrieck Our next interviewee is Stijn Bussels. After obtaining his MA in theatre studies at Ghent University, Stijn wrote a PhD that he reworked and published as The Antwerp Entry of Prince Philip in 1549. Rhetoric, Performance and Power (Rodolpi, 2012). His postdoctoral research resulted in The Animated Image. Roman Theory on Naturalism, Vividness and Divine Power (Akademie Verlag/LUP, 2012). Stijn is currently affiliated to the University of Leiden as an assistant professor, and is also leading the ERC project Elevated Minds. The sublime in the public arts in seventeenth-century Paris and Amsterdam. He has published widely on theatre and spectacle in the early modern Netherlands.

How did your interest for your research arise?

What has always intrigued me is the impact of art, the effect it has on its onlookers. Even if my research projects have covered a variety of historical periods, the question of how art works is what connects them. Solving that question requires the analysis of individual artworks, just as much as the study of contemporary theories or models of perception like rhetorics. Take for example the ERC project I’m leading right now. It’s about the early development of the concept of the sublime, which most people connect to Kant and Burke in the eighteenth century. But in fact the concept became popular much earlier, when Longinus’s classical treatise on the sublime was printed for the first time in the middle of the sixteenth century. The project aims at understanding the concept of the sublime within its cultural historical context. That would not be possible if we stayed within the old separate categories of art history and literary history. Making a broad cultural reconstruction of meaning demands a transmedial approach that looks both at texts and images, be it of the sublime or of anything else.

You have already answered part of the following question: do you consider your research in general as interdisciplinary and/or groundbreaking?

I am definitely more interested in studying a period horizontally than in focussing on a single medium. Or even better, comparing different periods to one another. I was a student of modern theater before moving on to history, and I’ve had projects on the sixteenth and seventeenth century, my postdoc was about ancient Roman theories on the power of the image, and now I’ve entered a new application on Neoclassicism which can be placed within my larger interest in classicisms. To a certain extent many historical periods I’ve studied were classicist in one way or another. Classicist as in drawing back on a historical period in times of crisis in order to understand the evolutions in one’s own society. I’m just realising this now. Think of the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, as well as the French Revolution,. Looking for answers they idealised a distant past, while the near past is often scorned.

And groundbreaking?

Academic research has to try to be groundbreaking! Why move a pebble if you could move a rock? One has to at least have the ambition to perform something new, instead of lingering in scholasticism. What we’re doing with the ERC project is pretty ambitious as well: writing a history of the sublime, a concept that has been essential to art history. I remember one day I was listening to a broadcast of the radio station France Culture, when they asked a Racine expert to discuss Racine’s ties to the Jansenist movement. Quite a straightforward question I thought, but the expert was so absorbed by his own specialism that he couldn’t answer. It’s one thing trying to be correct, but you can’t always hide behind the argument that a subject is too complex, I think.

Have you ever experienced a Eureka-moment during your research?

I don’t experience sudden moments of lucidity in my own research – the reconstruction of historical phenomena. That’s more of a gradual process for me. But I’ve been influenced greatly by certain writers. I remember reading De Certeau’s alternative to Foucault’s definition of power. That was my Eureka-moment, understanding the interaction between two theories, how they complement and influence each other. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience a breakthrough of the same intensity again.

What is the most inspiring (literary) study you have ever read? And the most recent one?

Surprisingly I should answer that it were the Ancients who inspired me the most, especially the Second Sophistic school with Callistratus, the two Philostrati (the elder and the younger), and Lucian. They aren’t very well-known anymore, even if they were very influential in their own day and in the early modern period. But like us, they struggled with their knowledge legacy. In the second and third century AD, these writers tried to find answers to similar questions as we are faced with today. How to position oneself in a highly specialised research culture, how to do something significantly new? The Second Sophistic succeeded in turning the accumulated knowledge of their ancestors into groundbreaking analysis.

The most recent one? I would say Mona Ozouf’s classic La Fête révolutionnaire 1789–1799 (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), that I read only a while ago. Its hypothesis is very interesting but outdated. She supposed the political reality of executing dissenters on the guillotine stood in stark contrast to the large festivities of the time, that created the ideal of a close-knit, authentic society. This binary way of analysing has now evolved to a much more complex understanding of art and culture. Even if art can be used as a means of propaganda aimed at the manipulation of reality, it is never produced in a unilateral culture. Every individual still has a personal interpretation, that can’t be captured in such a binary conclusion. I was intrigued to read Ozouf’s book and to realise that a work that had such merit and authority, can be falsified by the evolution of a research culture.

The image is Forest Floor with a Snake, Lizards, Butterflies and other Insects by Otto Marseus van Schrieck (dated 1650-1678, 76x62cm). Schrieck invented this still-life subgenre in the 1650s, after which it became much sought-after by collectors all over Europe. Cosimo III de’ Medici for example owned approximately ten sottoboschi. They are a typical example of the sublime in seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Schrieck’s meticulous rendering of botanical and zoological life in dark brushwood inspires both wonder and horror, as the animals are consuming each other and the plants look repulsively arid and stingy. Consult the image in high resolution here.

By Yannice De Bruyn