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A project of composing a philosophical dictionary on the work of Georges Didi-Huberman immediately runs into trouble. To fit into an encyclopaedic form his voluminous, highly diverse and multifaceted writings in art history, image philosophy, photography, cinema, critical aesthetics and psychoanalysis, to name only the key areas, risks becoming reductive and clichéd. What is more, any reference guide to Didi-Huberman’s work that seeks to systematise or offer a comprehensive overview of his ideas will inevitably jar against his philosophical (and perhaps also ethical) commitment to the plurality and irreducibility of visual forms – paintings, photographs, films – which challenges attempts at systematisation or linear sequencing. Such an encyclopaedic undertaking would contrast with Didi-Huberman’s attention to modes of viewing, reading and listening that resist the paradigm of masterful gaze, of object appropriation and of the certainty of knowledge. Rather, he explores relational and non-appropriative modes of engagement with images, texts and sounds – a fleeting glimpse; ‘a new inflection of the gaze’ (BL, 58); a sudden stir, movement or affect; a surprising occurrence, chance encounter, ‘intrication’ (SI, 325) or ‘implexity’ (IL, 24). The subject finds themselves regarded, touched or ‘rubbed’ (frotté) by the image (BS).
Didi-Huberman helps to articulate what is troubling about the encyclopaedic project when he unfavourably compares dictionaries and archives to atlases (see AH; AA). While an atlas embodies visual epistemic form that is multifaceted, juxtapositional, non-linear and ‘impure’, a dictionary, in its classical form, sets out to classify and organise the world, and to compress a philosophical body of work into absorbable and self-contained information units. This model of reading a text or of viewing an image is akin to an act of absorbing and ‘metabolising’ the object and is utterly foreign to Didi-Huberman’s project (see Hagelstein’s entry on phantom). For Didi-Huberman, images (and texts) defy the subjective urge for appropriation. Instead, they are capable of exerting effects in and upon the world; of intruding, incriminating or demanding a response from the viewer/reader. Images and words alike, Didi-Huberman writes, ‘brandish and position themselves like weapons in a battleground’ (FH, 277).
Didi-Huberman writes that while a dictionary ‘dreams of being [the] catalogue [of words and images], ordered according to an immutable and definitive principle’, an atlas ‘is guided only by changing and provisional principles, ones that can make new relations appear inexhaustibly […] between things and words that nothing seemed to have brought together’ (AA, 5).
The afterlife according to Didi-Huberman is the memory that is ingrained in an image. In order to understand an image, one must take into account its specific historicity, which is conveyed through the paths and detours of time. Didi-Huberman shares this conviction with Aby Warburg, who was interested in the discontinuities and overdeterminations of history throughout his work and tried to consider the ‘powers of the image’ along the deposited material of an unconscious memory (Warburg, 1998: 172). Even more firmly than Warburg, Didi-Huberman argues for a method of historical reconstruction that deals with the presence of the past under the sign of a non-linear temporality. The afterlife in particular cannot be understood as latently persisting in concrete images, motifs and paradigms, as if it could outlast the times like a trace (Derrida, 1982). On the contrary, Didi-Huberman’s concept of afterlife emphasises a form of time that disorients past, present and future, opening them towards anachronism. Thus, the afterlife can only be adequately grasped if ‘temporal periods are no longer fashioned according to biomorphic stages, but, instead, are expressed by strata, hybrid blocks, rhizomes, specific complexities, by returns that are often unexpected and goals that are always thwarted’ (SI, 12).
The afterlife refers to a ‘psychological time’ (SI, 178) that always subverts the notion of historical time. This is one of the key theses of L’Image survivante (2002b; SI), in which Didi-Huberman examines the affective aspects of afterlife. Hence, Didi-Huberman uses the Freudian notion of the symptom (see Freud, Sigmund; psychoanalysis) as a model to not only mark an ‘entangled’ temporality, but also to address the plasticity of a body ‘agitated by conflicts, by contradictory movements: a body agitated by the eddies of time. It is a body from which there suddenly springs forth a suppressed image’ (SI, 198). The symptom thus possesses an extreme mobility: it forms configurations that are subject to repression, that is, remain latent, and yet retain a capacity to act. In this dialectic between fixation and distortion, disappearance and emergence, the entire dynamic of the afterlife is implied. Just like the symptom, the afterlife is to be endlessly interpreted (BI) and defies symbolic translation, as Didi-Huberman argued in Devant l’image (1990a; CI).
The Didi-Huberman Dictionary is a specialized introduction to the thought of contemporary French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman, best known for his path-breaking philosophy of image and for his impact on the 'visual turn' in theoretical humanities.
With over 150 entries, including 125 main entries, the dictionary is a useful research tool for students coming to Didi-Huberman's work for the first time. Entries range from Theodor Adorno and Anthropology through to Materiality and Memory and on to Aby Warburg and Witnessing. Researchers already familiar with his work, but who want to develop a multi-faceted and more comprehensive understanding of the philosophical and cultural references woven into his thought, will gain deeper knowledge of the nuances of his conceptual apparatus, given the interreferential and intertextual aspects of his work.
The dictionary identifies and explains his key figures, inspirations and philosophical metaphors as well as introduces Didi-Huberman's polemics with other contemporary philosophers, including Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Rancière. Entries on concepts and motifs from Didi-Huberman's major texts that are (as of yet) not translated into English - 'Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde' (1992), and 'Ninfa moderna' (2002) - are also included.
This is your one-stop, go-to resource for learning more about the innovative, exciting work of Georges Didi-Huberman.
The cleaning of the Sistine ceiling in the 1980s brought unexpected insights into Michelangelo’s approach to painting. The dirty surface had contributed to the idea that the artist was not much interested in colour and was more obsessed with forms and especially the form of the human nude. Nevertheless, the cleaning revealed what appeared to be unusual colour combinations. In addition to modelling with single hues, from light to saturated, Michelangelo also used different colours for shadows and highlights. The lunettes, however, presented interesting challenges. There, one found especially contrasting colours. The Asa-Josaphat-Joram lunette, for example, features the Asa figure on the left with a cloak modelled from apple green to deep orange and red.
In the symposium dedicated to the unveiling of the restored frescoes, costume historian Edward Maeder interpreted these colours in the lunettes as ‘shot-silk’ – in Italian, cangianti, a kind of silk woven with contrasting colours that appear iridescent when seen in the light. According to Maeder, who had singled out the figures of the ancestors in his arguments, colour changes are used to make these Eastern ancestors of Christ more exotic. While it is true that colour changes have been used to represent shot-silk in Italian painting, Maeder went on to suggest that since this fabric was most commonly available from the Near East, it would carry Oriental associations and therefore serve ideally for the ancestors.
Maeder constructed his argument in a typical art historical way: we see figures that evoke associative meanings. But he was challenged strongly by the English art historian, John Shearman. Shearman had written a dissertation on the colour of Tuscan painters like Michelangelo and emphasised the great artist’s dependence on his teacher, Ghirlandaio, an artist who had practised the Tuscan tradition of ‘isochromatic colour composition’ in the ceiling. This system, according to which broad, flat fields of colour are decoratively balanced along the picture surface, is frankly medieval in origin. According to Shearman, decorative fresco was required to create surface unities to aid visibility even more than making possible narrative associations.
Years later, Shearman prominently titled his contribution to the postrestoration volume on the Sistine ceiling, ‘The Functions of Michelangelo’s Colour’, explaining how the high-key colours were in large part a response to the conditions of visibility, illumination and decoration that Michelangelo was facing.
this is equally true of our later description of the
architectural ‘world’ of Borromini. A pedagogical
introduction to the study of this architecture
would be a completely different task.
The work that announced the methodology of the New Vienna School was Hans Sedlmayr’s Die Architektur Borrominis of 1930. A brilliant and difficult book, it has had scattered influence but, like all of Sedlmayr’s work, is tainted by its author’s name. Martin Raspe, who attempted a similar syncretic view of the architect to move beyond the standard catalogue was at pains to distance himself from Sedlmayr’s example, which loomed so large in his own German-language tradition. Indeed, language has been a barrier to fairly assessing Sedlmayr, as was his own notorious characterological interpretation of Borromini. But the book advances a remarkable analysis of Borromini’s work, which is worth the effort to understand.
The model of Sedlmayr’s self-reflexivity that I have sketched in the last two chapters can be confirmed in the book on Borromini. Indeed, if the author gets ahead of himself with his later speculations on Borromini’s personality, the overall aim of the book is reasonable – to give a phenomenological account of Borromini’s architecture. This is the propadeutic use of phenomenology as a basis for any critical discipline, in line with the appropriation of Kurt Lewin’s idea of a proper vergleichende Wissenschaftstheorie. If Sedlmayr’s approach is self-conscious about its own contribution, then we have to regard it not only according to its stated aim but the discipline of architectural history at the time. With his lens of Gestalt psychology, Sedlmayr achieves a remarkable deal of self-reflexivity in his discussion of Borromini.
After expanding the idea of Sedlmayr’s method, I will pass on to a full exposition of his analysis. Next, I undertake a full discussion of Sedlmayr’s notorious use of characterology – the use of the morphology of the body to infer into a person’s personality – as a means to make conclusions about Borromini’s own personality. While I fault Sedlmayr’s reliance on Ernst Kretschmer’s ideas, I also clarify how many things thought to be true about the theory are in fact inaccurate.
Anyone who takes an unlabelled work of art and defines it as Italian, German or Byzantine is implicitly accepting the existence of constants.
Otto Pächt, The Practice of Art History
If Hans Sedlmayr’s monograph on Borromini stated the outlines of the method of Strukturforschung, its next most impressive articulation came in Otto Pächt’s extensive discussion of the formative principles found in Late Gothic painting in Northern Europe in his ‘Design Principles of Fifteenth- Century Northern Painting’, published in the second and last volume of Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen. This lengthy study is just as influential as Sedlmayr’s, and indeed more rigorous and imitable in many ways. It is furthermore methodologically self-aware and usefully stakes out a scholarly way of proceeding that is aware of its competitors, namely Panofsky’s Iconology.
The most interesting and controversial element developed by Pächt was the fruitfulness of using concepts of ‘national’ constants in investigating art history. Pächt argued that in examining the variety of Late Medieval painting in western Europe, he could define distinct ‘constants’ that involved the relationship of figural content to ground. For example, he found that Netherlandish (not Flemish) is characterised by a flat surface, in which figure and ground interlock on the surface. As we shall see, in understanding such a concept everything hangs on what ‘national’ means.
Pächt utilised this theory throughout his long career and it found echoes in his students’ work. Like Sedlmayr’s characterological analysis of Borromini, his method has a speculative and potentially suspicious element attached to it. Pächt was criticised quickly by Meyer Schapiro and while many agree that Pächt practised the method scrupulously, its findings were immediately tarnished (as Pächt himself saw) – a confirmation of the instability of such concepts for those more critical like Schapiro – by the recklessness of those engaged in Kunstgeographie and especially Ostforschung.
Always less objectionable in studies of anonymous ancient art (in the same volume of Kunstwissenschaftliche Forschungen, Kaschnitz-Weinberg’s paper on Egyptian art appeared), the idea of stylistic constants continues to have its adherents, sometime inflected with semiotic theory (which perhaps assures the reader it is entirely ‘conventional’), but for the most part is considered a dead proposition.
Freedom and compulsion … turn out not to be incompatibles.
Otto Pächt, ‘Alois Riegl’.
If Strukturforschung was devoted to the integrity of the work of art it also had a theory of history that, in a sense, was committed to the integrity of history. Jan Bakoš calls this a ‘structural evolutionary conception of art history’. One could say that in this conception the structure of the work of interlocking that moved real history beyond mere ‘genetic’ links of the ‘first’ task of art history. This evolutionism ultimately comes to terms with Riegl’s mysterious notion of the Kunstwollen, which both Sedlmayr and Pächt embrace with qualifications.
In a very provocative way, Sedlmayr ended his essay on Riegl asking us to accept the theoretical premises that his forbear had established for contemporary art history:
The notion that art is not an autonomous,
irreducible, and irreplaceable expressive
possibility of the human mind, but rather an epiphenomenon.
The view that regards individuals as primary
and the only real entities, and sees groups as
merely a sum or the epitome of such individuals,
and for which, therefore, the collective
intellectual formations grounded in these groups
do not constitute real entities, but instead mere nominal fictions.
Quite specifically, the idea of the unity and
immutability of human nature and reason …
The view that the artist is either imitating or stylizing an unchanging nature …
The thesis that the entire movement of history is
only the result of individual forces working blindly
together, a network of individual causal threads.
The argument – made on empirical grounds – is that contemporary theory has validated Riegl. The result of course was an apparent holistic form of determinism, with obvious ominous tones when seen in retrospect.
Of course, both Riegl’s Kunstwollen and the Vienna approach to Strukturforschung hit a major brick wall in Gombrich’s influential critique of both in Art and Illusion.