art history

David Wojnarowicz and Donna Gottschalk: A Meditation

By guest contributor Hannah Leffingwell

As I walk through the rain toward the neon sign reading BOOKS, I am aching for some guidance—or what might otherwise be called “theory”—in the likeness of a known name. Having just left the David Wojnarowicz exhibit at the Whitney, I find myself unable to simply return home.

“I’m looking for Susan Sontag,” I tell the man at the bookstore.

“She’s in a graveyard somewhere,” he responds flatly. “She told me once this was her favorite bookstore.”

Affirming at once Sontag’s mortality and her fame, the bookseller answered a question I hadn’t asked in a tone I didn’t expect. It should have been obvious, I thought, that the work of the author existed, while the author herself had ceased to be.

But perhaps the bookseller had a point. I had gone in search of someone, a voice to guide me. And in truth she was nowhere—only words on a page.

These are strange and dangerous times. Some of us are born with the cross hairs of a rifle scope printed on our backs or skulls.

Wojnarowicz Untitled (Face in Dirt) 1992-1993

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Face in Dirt), 1992-1993


Two nights later, alone in my New York apartment, sleep eludes me. I have been reading Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives in the dim light of street lamps through the window. I think perhaps something will be revealed to me this way, attuning myself to the artist’s hallucinatory rambles. He was meant to be a writer, after all, a secret they say was deeply buried in him for years.

I think of the friend who helped to bury him and then took a photograph—for posterity.

I think of everyone we have buried, most lacking the privilege of a wall text, of a frame.

The fear of AIDS imposes on an act whose ideal
is an experience of pure presentness (and a creation of the future)
a relation to the past to be ignored at one’s peril.
Sex no longer withdraws its partners,
if only for a moment from the social.
It cannot be considered just a coupling;
it is a chain, a chain of transmission, from the past.

I realize I have come in the wrong way of the exhibit, beginning at the end. It is no gentle transition into skeletons, this way, but death first: full-frontal. In the final gallery, the desperate attempt to say it all—to get it all out. One must work, ironically, to take it all in. And I do, walking slowly from one image to the next, deciphering. The final image, hung along the wall between the end and the beginning, is fittingly that of a child. His toothy grin and earnest features belying a framing of destruction.

Wojnarowicz One day this kid... 1990

David Wojnarowicz, One Day This Kid…, 1990


Throughout, the black and white invectives deconstruct the framing. Not only the cause of his destruction (his naked body on the naked body of another boy) but the effect (He will be subject to loss).

When I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted
a diseased society, as well.

There is word and there is flesh but not always where you would expect it. There is black and white, but then there is color and there is whiteness.

Wojnarowicz Untitled (Buffaloes) 1994

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (Buffaloes), 1994.


I pause to consider the falling buffalo, the burial ground, the reference to a “Native American boy”—scattered through the rest of the room as though part of the same history. I wonder about the ramifications of this reproduction, the taking of something already taken, believing this calculation ends in some kind of double negative. Not the negation of death, per se, but of its pre-invention.

I have my camera in hand, in the spirit of must-not-forgetting, but I find I cannot pull the trigger. Not on the skeletons. But also not on the face, the hands, the feet of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowicz’s dead “brother,” “father,” “emotional link to this world.”

There are some things, I think, that are sacred.

When the eyes finally open, they reveal nothing
new about the world except a slight shift in landscape proving
that increased mortality teaches me nothing.

In the Donna Gottschalk exhibit, the next day, I think I will begin at the beginning for once. There is no double entrance this time, only the one. I follow the progression laid out for me—from young to old. I experience aging, this way, as a foregone conclusion. I follow the black and white portraits along the wall as though dragging my fingers along fenceposts, touching the faces of ones more familiar, less obscured.

Gottschalk Revolutionary Women's Conerence, Limerack, Pa. 1970.

Donna Gottschalk, Revolutionary Women’s Conference, Limerack, Pa. 1970. Image courtesy of Donna Gottschalk.


A woman naked, in the eyes of her lover, stepping into a bathtub; naked bodies, sleeping, packed like sardines onto a mattress on the floor; the smiling portrait of two lovers on a journey to the coast; a woman’s face half-obscured by the face of her child.

And there is, I think, a not unnoticeable sense of relief. The Man has no place here, no crosshairs aimed. By halfway through I think maybe they have escaped him.

A lesbian is the rage of all women
condensed to the point of explosion. –

It is said that Wojnarowicz skipped town the day he found out he had made it. He left his apartment and headed West. I do not know the reasons, only that his journey felt familiar. The writing on the wall: Young man, disillusioned, goes West in search of Something. A rough translation of the actual wall text that reads: “his rightful place is also among the raging and haunting iconoclastic voices, from Walt Whitman to William S. Burroughs, who explored American myths, their perpetuation, their repercussions, and their violence.”

In the other museum, in a room as small as one of his eleven galleries, the wall text speaks not of Gottschalk’s rightful place, but of her invisibility. Not of an iconoclast, but of a woman “protective of the lives and trust of those who had revealed themselves to her camera.”

There is the question of preservation. Whom to preserve, and how.

The purpose of my book was to calm the imagination, not to incite it.
Not to confer meaning, but to deprive something of meaning:
to apply that quixotic, highly polemical strategy, ‘against interpretation,’
to the real world this time. To the body.

Halfway through his eleven rooms, I study the four elements, beginning with fire and ending with earth. There is the dream, and behind it the reality, and behind that the fear. Not of destruction, I realize, but of nothing. As I trace the red chord out of the baby’s head, through the window, into the hands of the soldier, I notice that something is missing. Not color, or the lack of it, but a sense of its creation. Amidst a succession of childhoods, I realize, there are no mothers, only Gods.


Wojnarowicz Wind (For Peter Hujar) 1987

David Wojnarowicz, Wind (For Peter Hujar), 1987


On the left side is a typical representation of Coatlicue, the Aztec
goddess of the earth and war. Pictured as a woman wearing a skirt
of snakes and a necklace made of human hearts, hands, and skulls,
Coatlicue is presented as not only a nurturing mother but also
a monster that consumes every living being.

With Gottschalk, there is no shortage of mothers: dead center in a world without men. The story is cleaved in two—youth, age, but in between: an exuberant, collective becoming. Not only the “woman-identified-woman” but her children. And in the center of that center, the whiteness of her body—a Madonna of the lesbian agenda—eyes half-closed as though she hadn’t taken the time to see where she was going. A prophecy not of destruction, but of cleavage: of a movement cleaved by color, or the lack of it.

I am your worst fear / I am your best fantasy

At the end (the beginning) of his art is darkness. A cage of black walls surrounding a papier-maché globe, a burning face. I am told that Wojnarowicz’s series of disembodied heads means something, politically speaking. The outsider. War. Corruption. Perhaps, I think, the blackness is meant to put the other colors in relief—the brightness, an endeavor to prove difference. To prove that he is not-one-of-them.

And it’s not that I don’t believe him or want to. It’s not a matter of believing, really, but of attunement. The hallucinatory rambles have led me somewhere, after all. Not the haunting I was expecting, given the ending of things. But a young man, poised on the brink of his life, playing with masks.

The center is something outside of what we know as visual,
more a sensation […] It’s all swirling in every direction
simultaneously so that it’s neither going forward nor backward,
not from side to side, embracing stasis beyond the
ordinary sense of stillness one witnesses in death.

I was wrong about the ending, or lack of it. The assumption being that if the artist lived—survived the work, like Gottschalk—the aching could be for something else. Not guidance, but transmission—the continuation of the known into the unknown.

I was wrong to think that death belonged only to the dead, as I watched first Gottschalk’s friend Marlene, and then her sister Myla disappear in snapshots, becoming a “Xerox” of their former selves, as Wojnarowicz would say of himself in the dying years. Her brother, her sister, her “emotional link to this world”—ravaged, all the same.


Gottschalk Marlene Resting with a beer, Oregon, 1974

Donna Gottschalk, Marlene resting with a beer, Oregon, 1974. Image courtesy of Donna Gottschalk.


I’m getting closer to the coast and realize how much I hate
arriving at a destination. Transition is always a relief.
Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever
in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain
in a state of perpetual freedom.

At the beginning of the beginning (the end of the end) is not darkness, not light, but illumination. The past by the present. A role reversal in line with all the others.

I have come out, into the light, and they are not who I thought they were. He, the “angel of history,” she, the “brave beautiful outlaw”—both of them catapulted into fame, into tragedy. Neither of them, dead or alive, able to escape the gaze of the present on their past.

I think, perhaps, it was not the repetition of history that kept the artist awake at night.

It was the burden—his, and hers—of making it.

David Wojnarowicz: “History Keeps me Awake at Night” closes at the Whitney Museum of American Art on September 30th.

“Brave, Beautiful Outlaws” is open at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art until March 17th, 2019. There will be a special opening reception featuring the artist on September 29th.

Hannah Leffingwell is a doctoral candidate at New York University. Her research interrogates the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class in contemporary French feminism. More of her work can be found on

J. M. W. Turner’s “Dissolving Views”

By guest contributor Jonathan Potter

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J. M. W. Turner, War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (1842)

Reviewing the 1842 Royal Academy of Arts exhibition, the art critic John Eagles wrote of J. M. W. Turner’s paintings:

They are like the “Dissolving Views,” which, when one subject is melting into another, and there are but half indications of forms, and a strange blending of blues and yellows and reds, offer something infinitely better, more grand, more imaginative than the distinct purpose either view presents. We would therefore recommend the aspirant after Turner’s style and fame, to a few nightly exhibitions of the “Dissolving Views” at the Polytechnic, and he can scarcely fail to obtain the secret of the whole method […] Turner’s pictures […] should be called henceforth “Turner’s Dissolving Views” (“Exhibitions—Royal Academy,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, July 1842, p. 26).

The comparison is no doubt intended to reduce the stature of Turner’s paintings from high art to the level of popular performance. Eagles was not a fan of Turner’s work – he begins by suggesting Turner suffered hallucinations—and he reused the dissolving view comparison the following year to note with approval that there were few imitators of Turner’s ““dissolving view” style” (“Exhibitions,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Aug 1843, p. 188). But Eagles was not alone. Much of the press for Turner’s paintings at the 1842 exhibition was negative, concentrating primarily on various aspects which broadly fall into the category of realism: clarity, recognisability, and believability of depiction, amid others.

Part of the problem also lay in Turner’s subject matter—reviewers struggled, for example, to relate the exiled Napoleon and the limpet in War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet with the sea burial of the artist David Wilkie in Peace – Burial at Sea. These two subjects (or three if you include the jarring juxtaposition of emperor and limpet) do not naturally fit within a traditional historiographical narrative or seem to follow a sequential logic.

Peace - Burial at Sea exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

J. M. W. Turner, Peace – Burial at Sea (1842)

The paintings contradicted reviewers’ expectations by disregarding realist principles of depiction in both form and content. In order to understand them, we need to look beyond the traditions of fine art painting. This, indeed, is what Eagles suggested when he called the paintings “dreamy performances” and directed the reader to consider them as “dissolving views.”

A successor to the phantasmagorias, the dissolving view was a magic lantern show that used a gradual transition (the “dissolve”) from one image to another. This could utilize superimposition or, more often, involve a gradual dimming and elimination of light through one lens whilst proportionally increasing light through another. Dissolving view shows came to prominence sometime in the first part of the nineteenth century (Simon During suggests around 1825 [Modern Enchantments, 102-3]), taking over from the phantasmagoria as the chief magic lantern entertainment.

The dissolving view is unstable and, potentially at least, destabilising, offering an alternative to traditional sequential historiography. The dissolving view presents paired images that blur together as they transition. In dissolving, the images attain, lose, and regain focus and clarity, and, for transitory moments, appear to coincide and coexist with no clear distinction from one to the next. The dissolve blurs the visual field, but it also blurs the semantic fields of content and context.

A handbill for dissolving views at the Adelaide in London, for example, promises a variety of different subjects seen in different states or time frames. The “Water Girls of India” for instance appear in daylight and then in moonlight, followed by the Tower of London in daylight, then moonlight, then on fire. As the lantern changes from one lens to the other, the scene dissolves from day to night and the viewer is given the sense of time passing. Because the subject remains the same, often there is very little movement beyond the changing light or incidental details. The first image (either night or day) implicitly reiterates an aspect (in this case, diurnal/nocturnal light) of the next image which is the past—i.e. the nocturnal image acquires meaning in relation with the diurnal image—and this semantic return of the past implies the next stage in the cycle. The implied sequence follows a causational rationale (day to night to day) but its progression from past to present to future is also a progression from past to present to past. This rhythmic logic is further complicated by the progression to the next subject. There is no clear logical connection between the water girls of India and the Tower of London except that both share a rhythmic temporality (both transform from day to night). The teleology of cause and effect is replaced by coincidence and shared rhythms that are not causation but do allow a certain predictive logic.

This destabilisation is not without form or structure. These kinds of dissolving view present a cycle which intermittently reinstates something resembling linearity and perspectival order, but this linearity is caught in a revolutionary whirl from one to the next and (potentially at least) back again. This is a visual whirl in more than one sense: the blur of the images replicates the visual field of motion and, in fact, dissolving view images were often circular. In essence, the whirling of the dissolving view contains a sense of rhythmic regularity. In images which oscillate between summer and winter or night and day, as magic lantern dissolving views often did, a natural sequential rhythm supplants the linear progressions of dominant conceptions of time and history. Rather than succession and disjunction, the dissolving view infers repetition and conjunction. It acts as a conceptual counterpoint to the linearity of conventional historical thought that emphasizes the sequential logic of cause and effect.

We can see such effects in much of Turner’s paintings at the 1842 exhibition. Turner experimented with circular, octagonal, and square canvases of proportions reminiscent of lantern slides, on which colours characteristically whirl around a central point, and his images suggest forms of motion—most famously in his later painting Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), but also in the angled column of smoke in “Peace”, or the vortexes of colours in the two deluge paintings.


If we follow Eagles’s suggestion and consider these as “dissolving views,” then we might consider the two most difficult paintings, Peace and War, as a cyclical binary. The bright sunshine of War melts into the dark clouds of Peace much as magic lantern slides might melt from day to night or summer to winter. The light sources also share a structural unity – that central beam of brightness eviscerating the darkness of Peace is mirrored by the sun’s reflections in War. Thematically, too, there is some unity in the shared representation of the sea, though in War this is a watery shoreline rather than sea proper.

But what about the difficulty of the central subjects? Exiled Napoleon does not so obviously dissolve into David Wilkie’s burial at sea, and any notion of the latter returning back again to the former is more than a little jarring. Perhaps these difficulties are part of the point. They are the difficulties faced by viewers looking for conventional socio-historical links in paintings that, as the metaphorical dissolving view often does, seem to defy such conventions. Turner’s paired paintings demand that the viewer think beyond established norms to reflect upon the meanings of teleological historiographical practice. In pairing Napoleon with the limpet, the human figure of the man is pulled away from the mythology of the emperor.

Turner’s “dissolving views,” notably blurred and indistinct except for their central subjects, seem to be locked in the moment between two images. The space of actual physical objects—the focal point of visible reality and the space of event—is very small in these pictures, confined to only thin bands of land the run across the mid-sections of canvas between water and sky. This is true of all of the 1842 exhibition paintings. The space of visible definition and physical solidity is caught between the indistinctions and contradictions of watery reflection and vaporous sky. The vast majority of painted space is given to indistinction, as though the whirling visual chaos around physical phenomena were as important as the phenomena themselves.

Turner might be, as various critics have suggested, drawing attention to the embodied subjectivity of vision, but he is drawing attention, too, to the ambiguity of interpretation. In the paired paintings, War and Peace, viewers used to history being “for” something (for understanding progress, nationhood, divine provenance, or a multitude of other values) are prevented from resolving the images into a coherent narrative. This is not history as chronology or ideology but as event, to be set within an interpretive framework only by individual observers in full knowledge that such frameworks are not naturally occurring, but imposed, and so necessarily reduce events to certain structures and values. This relates to the metaphorical dissolving view in precisely its insistence that visibility does not equate understanding and that, in the blurry vague expanse around the focussed subject, the flaws and ambiguities in our understanding are rendered visible—great gaps that rupture the certainty of the visible space.

The more certain we, as viewers, are that this is a view of Napoleon on Elba and this is a view of Wilkie’s funeral, the more uncertain we become of our interpretation of the pairing, and the more they converge in contradiction. These two events are juxtaposed, so that their meaning and relational dynamic is left more or less open to the viewer’s interpretation. The structures of historical force (of sequence, of continuum) are rendered visible. In the British solider for instance, Napoleon’s historical past is made visible, as are his imprisoned present and future. However, these forces are not the main agents of meaning in the images—they are peripheral, there to be identified, but attention is not purposely drawn to them. In this sense, these are extra-historical images which probe and question the history they ostensibly project. As dissolving views, these images do not resolve uncertainty, they generate it, they blur conventional structures and obscure dominant historical relations. They inculcate a historiographical perspective of complex relations that evade the organising structures of cause and effect, of sequential succession, of contradistinction and perspectival clarity.

Jonathan Potter recently completed his first book, Discourses of Vision in Nineteenth-Century Britain. He completed his PhD at the University of Leicester in 2015 and currently teaches at Coventry University. Find him on twitter at @DrJonPotter

Graduate Forum: Writing Art in the Present Tense

This is the second in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which will be running this summer. You can read the first piece, by Andrew Klumpp, here.

This second piece is by Contributing Editor Cynthia Houng.

Truism: All histories are subjective.

Truism: All historical narratives are the products of a series of choices and decisions–of evidence and argument, of style, emplotment, tone.

Truism: All narratives are representations.



Douglas Crimp, Before Pictures (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is obviously a work of memoir. It is–less obviously–also a work of history. Less obvious, because Before Pictures is so clearly grounded in the experience–in the mind and body–of a single person, Douglas Crimp, and so the work’s claims to truth and to knowledge remain, at least in our more conventional (or academic) ways of thinking about history, too narrow, too personal, too subjective. How do we leap from this single data point to broader deductions about a society and an age? Here we have one experience, one voice, one point of data — but can it be serialized, integrated into ever broader series of documents, or data points, until finally we come to a bird’s-eye view of the situation?

Crimp’s answer: maybe we do not. Maybe that leap is impossible–and undesirable. Maybe we acknowledge the limits of our ability to know.



T. J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Since 1999’s Farewell to an Idea, T.J.Clark has grown increasingly increasingly skeptical of conventional art history, which Clark finds, on the one hand, hopelessly positivistic, shackled to dreams of objectivity and universalism, and on the other, excessively logocentric, more interested in text and context than in the artwork itself. The Sight of Death (Yale University Press, 2008), Clark’s diaristic account of his encounter with two Poussin paintings at the Getty, marked a decisive turn toward a different mode of writing, one that emphasizes the experiential, subjective nature of all writing on art.

The practice of art history proceeds along two axes–the critical and the historical. The critical component occurs in the present tense–it is bound up with the historian’s experience of the work, and it harkens back to art history’s roots in connoisseurship, which emphasized that beholder’s critical judgment of a work’s quality. This turn (or return) to the subject and to experience is only partially a consequence of postmodernism. It carries with it a degree of faith in the integrity of both subject and experience, an insistence that by grounding narrative and argument in the personal, the private, the contingent–we can come up against something both material and real. Doubt must end somewhere. It ends with the touch of flesh and blood.

In that sense, in their recourse to the personal, the subjective, to the first-person experience, neither Clark nor Crimp are decisively breaking with the art historical tradition. Neither the insistence on the primacy of the object nor the turn towards a transparently subjective mode of writing are new. What, then, is new? The answer lies in the logic behind this emphasis on the subject’s relationship to the object, and the insistence that we–both writer and audience–remember that this relationship occurs in the present tense. Ontologically speaking, it is the only tense possible, as one material being confronts another — object to object, one might say, existing in the same temporal plane.

These two books, though very different in their interests and investments, share a certain common ethical and political grounding: they refuse transcendence. They take immanence as a basic condition of experience. There can be — there will be — no God’s eye dream of meta-vision, no fantasy of transcending the boundaries of space/time or of this material world. This commitment–to remaining immanent in this time, this world, fully contained and bounded by its material constraints–is both political and ethical. It grounds the writer in the present, and so the writer must remain both agent and participant in the now. Transcendence can also be a mode of escape, a turning away from the exigencies of the moment, a refusal of responsibilities, even of agency.



Opening Reception, Pictures, Artists Space, September 23, 1977. Photo courtesy of Artist’s Space.

This refusal of transcendence has different resonances for Clark and Crimp. For Crimp, it represents a kind of freedom, or liberation, from the burden of history–but of a specific kind of history. Before Pictures is ostensibly a memoir of Crimp’s life before “Pictures,” the 1977 Artists Space exhibition that launched Crimp’s career and also gave name to the “Pictures Generation.” In that sense, it is a personal bildungsroman (and closely follows the conventions of that genre). Before Pictures is also an intellectual history, an account of how Crimp moved away from the practice of conventional academic art history towards something more personal. And here, “Pictures” is not the inflection point. The “change of direction” is precipitated by his 1989 essay, “Mourning and Militancy.” This essay, “the final essay I published in October during my thirteen-year stint as an editor there,” was also “the first in which a personal experience formed the germ of the argument.” In an interview with Jarrett Earnest, Crimp described the two dialectical poles in Before Pictures as “autobiographical and critical.” This is the moment when the autobiographical and the critical come together. And it is also, in a way that would become important to the subsequent shape of Crimp’s career, the moment when Crimp’s two worlds–the gay world and the art world–are no longer separated. One self need not be alienated from the other self. It is also a re-imagining of the subject position of the writer, as both critic and historian. That subject is no longer imagined as one that conforms to the ideal subject of the liberal/capitalist regime, that of a heteronormative, white, bourgeois male.

“One thing I can say for certain,” Crimp wrote, in the final paragraph (echoing the denouement of Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays), “When I wrote the Pictures catalogue essay, and even more when I rewrote it for October, I was convinced that with sufficient insight a critic could–even should–determine what was historically significant at a given moment and explain why. That conviction was a result of my intellectual formation as an art historian and aspiring art critic. Moreover, it was possible to believe such a thing then: the art scene as I experienced it from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true now, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then. In the meantime, coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts  me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it. No doubt that is why I respond to the reception of Pictures with ambivalence. It historicizes me.”

Note the final word here, the choice of the verb form, to historicize, over the noun. Note the resonance with historicism. Note Crimp’s ambivalence about submitting to this process, with all of its overtones of pastness, of being finished, of belonging to the past–and therefore being shut out of both present and future).

To be historicized is to become historical — and it comes with its own sense of triumph, as well as sadness. (For Crimp, who would become very involved in AIDS activism in the 1980s, this is a melancholic victory, won by virtue of having survived.) It also means submitting to historical representation, finding one’s self shorn of its particularities and slotted into a narrative–submitting, in other words, to being shaped, edited, and represented by another.

And this carries the danger of being re-inserted into tradition, being made to carry the burden of that grand history, when the point was to work oneself loose from it.



Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim: 5. Joachim’s Dream, 1303–1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

“I am with Walter Benjamin in thinking the pretense of the historian to enter the lost mental world of a long-ago maker a hopeless fantasy,” Clark declared in a 2017 lecture on “Joachim’s Dream,” one of the episodes in Giotto’s fresco cycle for the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel in Padua. “In front of Joachim’s Dream, I don’t believe it can ever be me who time travels to the Trecento, on the contrary, it’s this stubborn fragment of an utterly unknowable past that brings, or refuses to bring, its now with it, into my present, putting my picture of pastness and continuity in doubt. I either own up to my naive claim on the work, the way the work answers or resists that claim, the way it suspends my usual pragmatic sense of history, or I settle for that far flight of historicist fancy called looking with a period eye.”

Crimp shares, with Clark, a radically constrained sense of the possibilities of making knowledge via conventional academic historical approaches. What any individual can really, truly know–what one can deduce from historical evidence–is narrow, straitened, far from the promise of universal history. While neither Clark nor Crimp is quite as radically skeptical as, say, Hayden White–who came to hold an unfavorable view of the relationship between professional historians/historiography and state ideologies and apparatuses–they share a sense of discontentment with the status quo of institutional historical practice. They share a discomfort with the profession’s conventions and structures, and Clark, at least, is also uncertain of its value (even while continuing to practice as an academic art historian, a disjunction between theory and practice highlighted by James A. van Dyke in his review of The Sight of Death).


Clark closed The Sight of Death with a gloss on a Hugh MacDiarmid verse: “The present may be theirs,/but a’ the past and future’s oors.” MacDiarmid’s “bluster,” Clark argues, “at least has the virtue of pointing to what an antithesis to modern life will now have to be made from.”

And this is where Clark diverges from Crimp. For Clark sees, in the past, the tools for making the future–and poignantly, perhaps, for making the future revolution. Let me finish, then, with Clark’s own words. The antithesis to modern life “will have to live in the past–retrieving the second term in MacDiarmid’s last line will mean (will depend on) retrieving the first. It is never the present that dreams the future, for the present has no past life with which to to make the non-existent real.”

A Reflection on the Phenomenology of Tibetan Space

By guest contributor Joshua S. Daugherty

Image 1

Milarepa, Tibet, 11th-14th century, Kagyu lineage, Taglung style. Ground pigment on cotton. 55.24×46.99cm (21.75×18.50in) HAR 65121. Rubin Museum of Art, accession no. C2002.24.5

Image 2

Milarepa, Tibet, 1600-1699, Kagyu lineage. Ground pigment on cotton, HAR 30508. Private collection. (

While exploring the pictorial depth displayed in traditional Tibetan scroll paintings known as thangkas, a rather abstract concept continually resurfaced: the notion of space. Early paintings appear shallow or flat, yet, in later centuries, the surrounding environment was expanded to include landscape elements. Questioning whether this change is material evidence of a shifting zeitgeist, I have begun to trace a thread running throughout the Tibetan imagination, one that links topographical ideas with soteriological aspirations. By looking to theories of phenomenology, it is possible to begin unravelling the way space structures lived experience in the Tibetan context.

Numerous studies trace the impact of concepts such as love and hate (Hadreas 2007), evil (Hamblet 2014), perception (Merleau-Ponty 2002), and the sacred self (Csordas 1994); each of these dissect how concepts set up a matrix of presuppositions and expectations that govern lived experience. Prior to engaging with Tibetan ideas, it is useful to briefly consider the work of Western academics who have defined phenomenological methodologies. Henri Lefebvre theorized the “spatial body” in which the conception of reality is predicated on perceptions experienced through a human form (Lefebvre 1991:194-6). The body orients the mind within the environment, which organizes the development of understanding just as language gives structure to thoughts. Considering that thoughts are formed in words, they are therefore limited by vocabulary and syntax; likewise, the mind struggles to imagine a reality beyond the known environment. Just as it becomes impossible for the human mind to experience thoughts beyond the limitations of language, the use of the five sensory perceptions to navigate reality limits the mind’s understanding of that reality. An environment which does not contact the mind via these sense faculties is unfathomable.

Moreover, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty explained, “Our perception is entirely dominated by a logic which assigns each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest…” Consequently, once the facts of spatial perception are perceived by sense faculties, they are organized according to logical dualism: near and far, above and below, inside and out, etc. To propose that space is underpinned by a type of logic originating from the human body, one that demarcates zones of being based on practicalities of physical movement, and superimposes notions of the metaphysical, ontological, and soteriological dimensions derived from a sense of self, requires that space take on “an essential and necessary structural role” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:313). Consequently, both Lefebvre’s spatial body and Merleau-Ponty’s logical dualism allow us to glimpse the conceptual object of ‘space’ as a structure of consciousness. Yet, such a statement can be brutal in its hegemony.

Accepting space to be a fundamental structure of human consciousness risks totalizing all human experience under the yoke of a single paradigm. Gavin Flood provides an important counterpoint in his assessment of the limitations of phenomenology when applied to religion, that it “carries with it Husserlian assumptions about the transcendental ego and an overarching rationality… [and] smuggles into the phenomenology of religion a Husserlian philosophy of consciousness.” (Flood 1999:155) While both Lefebvre and Merleau-Ponty assert that space underlies perception—and certainly, parallels between Tibetan concepts of sacred geography and macro-microcosmic spiritual domains suggest an overarching thought-structure—Flood is wise to warn us against essentializing phenomenological structures as a fact of consciousness. In many ways, Tibetan concepts of space mirror the prevailing notions of South and Southeast Asia prior to vernacularization, a time when “Mount Meru and the Ganga were locatable everywhere” and as Sheldon Pollock explained, this is “nothing in the least mystical” but rather “a function of a different, plural, premodern logic of space” (Pollock 2006:16).

In the Tibetan language, there is an inherent connection between notions of location and materiality. The word sa means both “place” and “earth;” a concise twofold definition which poetically demonstrates the problem at hand. To stand on soil is to be somewhere, which may seem rather obvious, but in the case of Tibet, topographical features possess complicated layers of attributions. A single point in space can be the form comprising a deity, a vessel of sacred energy, the domicile of either divine or demonic beings, a site embedded with residual power left behind by spiritual adepts, or some combination thereof, which can change depending on the inhabitant’s religious affiliations. Moreover, beyond these immediate details pertaining to individual sites, all locations are subsumed within a cosmic system. Therefore, to stand on Tibetan earth is not simply to be somewhere in a cavalier sense, but rather a very specific place within a complicated network of locations and ontological stratifications.

In his assessment of Heidegger’s essay ‘Art and Space’ (1969), Paul Crowther wrote, “Place comes into being not only through the relation between things, but through the event of their coming together to define a certain location, and even more importantly, through their enduring together, and individually, through time” (Crowther 2013:70). Physical space can be described as a matter of distances and directions, but also exists as an omnipresent aspect of the cultural milieu. Areas defined in relation to an ‘object’ or localized essence, are termed “place” or gnas, as the site possesses a distinct identity. Conversely, locations like yul lha or mountain gods, where consciousness is believed to be active in the site, are identities which acquire a place and possess agency. Examples of sites expressing agency include Tsibri and Mount Potalaka. The former is a mountain in Tsang, Tibet believed to have relocated from Bodhgaya, India to conceal a poisonous lake while the latter is the home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, which also originated in India and supposedly moved to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet (Quintman 2008:367). As the conceptualization of locations as gnas or conscious yul lha endured through time, characterizing the culture of Tibet, they inspired the continued identification of newly recognized sacred places, leading to a proliferation of moveable spaces and single sites which simultaneously exist in multiple locations.

Therefore, in Tibetan civilization, geography is not uniformly fixed in place; rather, it is subject to change over time, resulting in an ongoing, shifting amalgamation of spaces. There are many examples of locations being transported to Tibet, like the eight charnel grounds utilized in tantric rites, or sites in India replicated elsewhere. The latter includes the Mahābodhi temple, the site of the original Buddha’s enlightenment, which has been replicated in Bagan, Burma and Patan, Nepal (Buffertrille 2015:135). Another Mahābodhi temple can be found at Lung Ngön monastery in the Golog area of Tibet, where Kusum Lingpa (1934-2009) carried out several building projects in the 1990s. Other duplicated sites included at this location are the Sarnath Stūpa, Samye monastery’s Tsuklakhang, and the Bodhnāth Stūpa (bya rung kha shor). Although these structures are apparently not organized according to a larger composition, they establish links with important sites from the historical Buddha’s life, significant masters of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and important figures active during the Tibetan empire period (Buffertrille 2015:138, 142). During her investigation, the scholar Katia Buffertrille was informed of Kusum Lingpa’s motivation, “When the pilgrim could not go to the pilgrimage, the pilgrimage was brought to the pilgrim” (Buffertrille 2015:144). While the reasons for these relocations are diverse, ranging from religious veneration to economic prosperity and legitimization of power, this quote demonstrates the visiting practitioner’s pragmatic reception of these events, which in other cultural perspectives would be nothing short of mystical.

Further, the replicated sites are considered to possess the same power believed to imbue the original location, so the circumambulations performed by pilgrims at the replica bestows a similar quality of spiritual merit. Buffertrille points to several incidents in which actions done at one site are equated with actions performed at another more prestigious location. She provided the example that thirteen circumambulations around Mount Tarab are considered equal to one circuit around a more culturally significant site, Mount Kailash. Also, a site’s ability to attract pilgrims has economic dimensions. This may partially motivate claims that some sites are as potent as—or even the combined embodiment of—other well-known locations, like Tsibri in the region of Tsang, which is considered a combination of three sites: Lapchi, Tsari, and Kailash (Buffetrille 2015:145).

Lastly, although the complexity of the subject extends well-beyond the scope of this reflection, mountains also contribute a cosmological template, which is outlined in the Abhidharmakośa and the Kālacakra Tantra. The cosmic mountain as axis mundi stands at the centre of a composition comprising a macrocosmic world system, which is analogous to a second mountain-based network visualized inside the body of the practitioner. Utilizing this macro-microcosmic duality, it is possible to conceptualize processes which hover on the brink of non-conceptual thought. The subtle body is a catalyst for reversing the supposedly confused perception that the universe causes the human form to come into being, and that this form creates the mind, which in turn creates consciousness. By reversing this conception of universal-to-internal space generation and discovering the primordial awareness believed to predate material reality, the three layers of topographical, microcosmic, and macrocosmic space are united as a single entity. By locating the individual’s notion of self within Buddhist cosmology, and simultaneously recognizing a microcosm within that self, pilgrimage sites—such as the twenty-four pīṭhas identified in the Chakrasamvara Tantra—act as physical spaces where it is possible to concurrently operate on all three levels of space.

As it exists in the Tibetan imagination, space can neither be considered an “ether” wherein “things float,” nor a common characteristic; rather, it should be considered “the universal power enabling them [phenomena] to be connected” (Merleau-Ponty 2002:284). From the immediate experience of an individual, space includes a perception of the self and external objects in a cohabitated environment. Material reality composed of self, objects, and landscape are all easily recognized from the vantagepoint of the individual. Tibetan Buddhist philosophy seeks to complicate or problematize this idea by deconstructing the dualism of microcosmic and macrocosmic spatial divisions, that is to say, the internal world of the self and the larger universe in which it is contained can merge. Dualistic distinctions of interior/exterior or self/other can be obliterated. The great yogi, Milarepa (1052-1135), once said, “Having meditated on gentleness and compassion, I have forgotten the difference between myself and others” (Odier 2003:104). Milarepa demonstrates that, from a Buddhist perspective, space not only encompasses perception, sacred geography, and micro-macrocosmic metaphysics, but is the medium through which soteriological aspirations are accomplished.  While there are many nuances regarding the conception of Tibetan space, it is clear they are not somehow affiliated with a super-consciousness. Rather, these conceptions form a thought-structure upon which cultural representations of reality have been projected throughout time and from which individuals derived a variety of interpretations that bear similar characteristics

Joshua S. Daugherty is a graduate fellow at the University of Washington pursuing a PhD in the history of Art. He has previously studied art history at the University of London, SOAS and Tibetan & Himalayan Studies at the University of Oxford.

Cups with Memories: Ainu Lacquer and Skeuomorphs

By guest contributor Christopher B. Lowman

If you have a smart phone handy, take a look at your phone application icon: when was the last time you saw a receiver shaped like that? Even the language associated with phones reflects physical actions no longer required: there is no dial to “dial,” and no hook on which to “hang up.” Think about this too: when taking a photograph on a phone, the sound effect is still that of a “kachunking” camera shutter, despite its absence. These are all symbols that have outlasted their original functional counterparts.

Visual or auditory symbols that retain aspects of older, defunct design are called skeuomorphs. In the last decade, the heavy use of visual metaphors in Apple’s iOS led to discussions of skeuomorphism’s definition, and its pros and cons. Listicles of skeuomorphs and other visual metaphors have been popular reading on Mental Floss and other design blogs. Skeuomorphism is not just digital: it also describes physical objects retaining material characteristics no longer functionally necessary. Horsepower describes the capabilities of vehicles long since stripped of accompanying horses. Patterns of circular holes in concrete structures, formerly imprints from the pouring process, continue to be made even when not all processes require them. Skeuomorphs can be “found in nature as well”: the orchid Ophrys apifera produces flowers shaped to attract Eucera bees, even though the bees have disappeared from much of the plant’s modern range, as illustrated by xkcd. This illustrates how skeuomorphs can occur without intention, yet still indicate an object’s origins through no longer functional physical phenomena.

Despite the popularity of the term to describe digital design, its origins have more to do with artifacts than phone applications. Dr. Dan O’Hara at London’s New College of the Humanities described skeuomorphism as “unintentional side-effects of technological evolution.” It is in this evolutionary sense that skeuomorphs become useful to anyone interested in the history of material culture: as O’Hara put it, “skeuomorphs, as a kind of ‘memory’ capacity of artifacts, can show us the processes that guide the evolution of the forms of technology.” A look at the Google Ngram Viewer, which gauges the popularity of a word over time based on publications in Google Books, reveals that “skeuomorph” was in use at the turn of the twentieth century. Henry Balfour in The Evolution of Decorative Art (1893) and Alfred Cort Haddon in Evolution in Art: As Illustrated by the Life-histories of Designs (1907), among others, used skeuomorphs as crucial evidence for studying object designs over time. For example, Balfour, the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, described how indigenous people in the Andaman Islands had traditionally used large shells as plates, and continued to make wooden plates with decoration recalling shells (1893, 114).

Academic interest in skeuomorphs was rooted in some of the hierarchical assumptions that defined much of nineteenth century anthropology. Skeuomorphs offered evidence of change in the types and materials of objects over time; this played into what many anthropologists believed to be a universal and linear evolution of human culture. Haddon specifically uses skeuomorphs to describe supposedly universal material transitions, such as tapa giving rise to matting, and basketry giving rise to pottery (1907, 116). Both archaeology and ethnography developed as disciplines guided by the assumption of cultural evolution, that studying “primitive” people would reveal linear developments toward “civilization,” defined as Western European cultures. Balfour describes his work as the “study of the Art of the more primitive of the living races of mankind, with a view to explaining, by a process of reasoning from the known to the unknown, the first efforts of Primaeval Man to produce objects which should be pleasing to the eye” (1893, v). This conflation of past and contemporary cultures drove ethnographic interest in the collection of objects for museums, particularly from cultures believed to be on the verge of disappearing.

Are skeuomorphs still useful for the study of material culture? Doing away with the assumption that material changes imply progression toward any particular cultural zenith, the study of skeuomorphs continues to reveal chronologies of connections between objects and people. Archaeologists use them to discuss invention, innovation, and replication (Knappet 2002, Blitz 2015), especially across cultures (Howey 2011). An example of this is a type of lacquer cup called a tuki, used in religious ceremonies by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands north of Japan. Comparisons of different tuki over time indicate origins and meanings invisible when any one example is considered by itself.

In traditional Ainu religion, any physical being or thing that can perform in ways that humans cannot is considered a god, or kamuy. Kamuy could only be contacted through the use of specific instruments, including carved wooden prayer sticks called ikupasuy, and cups, called tuki, which held offerings of sake. Ikupasuy would be dipped into tuki and drops of sake scattered to please kamuy.


Two Ainu men using prayer sticks (ikupasuy) and lacquer cups (tuki) in prayer. Photography by Burton Holmes from Ewing Galloway, 1917.

Nineteenth century visitors to the Ainu mistakenly called ikupasuy “moustache sticks” because the Ainu prayer ceremony involved lifting both cup and stick together toward the mouth, leading observers to assume the purpose of the stick was to lift the moustache when drinking. The uniqueness of ikupasuy led to them becoming prized by collectors. When Romyn Hitchcock conducted his collecting trip for the Smithsonian Institution in 1888, his pursuit of ikupasuy earned him the name “Mr. Moustache Stick” while in Hokkadio (Houchins 1999, 149-150). Anthropologist Frederick Starr, who helped to organize the Ainu exhibit at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, also stated that ikupasuy “had a great attraction for us and we secured scores of them” (Starr 1904, 65). While museum collections contain dozens of ikupasuy, tuki were rarely collected: fewer than a dozen were collected for United States museums prior to 1920.


Romyn Hitchcock’s illustration of ikupasuy and tuki, from “The Ainos of Yezo” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1890, 459.

The reason for the cups’ absence from collections is connected to the same theories that drew nineteenth century anthropologists to study skeuomorphs. Anthropologists lacked interest in tuki because they were trade goods rather than Ainu-made. Ainu lacquerware, including tuki, was acquired through trade with the Japanese, particularly the Matsumae clan. Exchange ceremonies appear in Japanese paintings, such as this one by Hirasawa Byōzan from 1876. However, anthropologists seeking only “pure” Ainu culture systematically ignored trade items. Anthropologist Stewart Culin dismissed lacquer and swords among the Ainu, believing that “not one of them have any artistic or pecuniary value” (75). Why was this? Recall that according to cultural evolution theory, so-called “primitive” cultures were understood as keys to the collective human past. Trade items like the tuki were corruptions: they clouded the anthropologists’ ability to observe supposedly preserved past practices. Ikupasuy were fascinating because they seemed to stem from Ainu material culture alone. Since trade items did not fit within a pure progression, but seemed wholly introduced from another culture, items like tuki were believed to lack research value.


AMNH Anthropology catalog # 70/4223

Tuki made of brass and ornamented with the mon of the Matsumae clan. Catalog No. 70/4223, Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

However, tuki do possess skeuomorphic properties that are clues to their changing significance as they passed from a Japanese to an Ainu context. Japanese crests, called mon, adorned possessions belonging to noble houses (for example, the diamond motifs on the banner in this 1867 image of an Ainu ritual welcoming Matsumae merchants). While some tuki have none, or only single mon, others are decorated with multiple mon from different noble houses. Why would this be? One explanation is that Ainu interest in acquiring highly decorated lacquer may have outweighed the Japanese social meaning of the mon. Linguistic evidence of the importance of shining things and metallic surfaces is preserved in Ainu words such as “treasure,” ikor, literally “shining things,” or “metal,” kane, a word used as a synonym for “magnificent,” and used to describe tuki specifically in Ainu epic poetry (Phillipi [1979] 2015). The shining decorations, that in a Japanese context represented noble ownership, were appreciated for aesthetic reasons once in Ainu hands, which in turn changed the way Japanese artisans applied the mon during production.


Wooden tuki and ikupasuy on display in the Ainu Cultural Center, Sapporo. Photograph by the author, August 2016.

In addition to decoration, the shape of tuki influenced Ainu woodcarvers, who produced their own skeuomorphic versions out of new materials. In one example, a carver created a tuki and stand from wood, which were subsequently lacquered by a Japanese artist. Others, like the one pictured above from the Ainu Cultural Center in Sapporo, are decorated wood without any lacquer but still retain the same vessel form. While the Ainu possessed other styles of cups, tuki specifically were made in the shape of Japanese lacquer cups and stands.

Tuki are an example of an object transformed through cultural context—a decorative cup that became integral to religious practice once in Ainu possession. Viewed over time, the transformation is a physical one as well, as they accumulated decorations that transformed in meaning because of an Ainu, rather than a Japanese, aesthetic. The shape of the lacquer vessels was preserved even as the Ainu produced tuki out of new materials. Tuki as skeuomorphs show how objects simultaneously influence and are influenced by their cultural context, and how their form and material act, as Dan O’Hara said, with a capacity for memory.

Christopher B. Lowman is a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on intersections between historical archaeology and museum anthropology, with a focus on immigration, colonialism, and the history of museums.

Evolution Made Easy: Henry Balfour, Pitt Rivers, and the Evolution of Art

by guest contributor Laurel Waycott

In 1893, Henry Balfour, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, conducted an experiment. He traced a drawing of a snail crawling over a twig, and passed it to another person, whom he instructed to copy the drawing as accurately as possible with pen and paper. This second drawing was then passed to the next participant, with Balfour’s original drawing removed, and so on down the line. Balfour, in essence, constructed a nineteenth-century version of the game of telephone, with a piece of gastropodic visual art taking the place of whispered phrases. As in the case of the children’s game, what began as a relatively easy echo of what came before resulted in a bizarre, near unrecognizable transmutation.

Plate I. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

In the series of drawings, Balfour’s pastoral snail morphed, drawing by drawing, into a stylized bird—the snail’s eyestalks became the forked tail of the bird, while the spiral shell became, in Balfour’s words, “an unwieldy and unnecessary wart upon the, shall we call them, ‘trousers’ which were once the branching end of the twig” (28). Snails on twigs, birds in trousers—just what, exactly, are we to make of Balfour’s intentions for his experiment? What was Balfour trying to prove?

Balfour’s game of visual telephone, at its heart, was an attempt to understand how ornamental forms could change over time, using the logic of biological evolution. The results were published in a book, The Evolution of Decorative Art, which was largely devoted to the study of so-called “primitive” arts from the Pacific. The reason that Balfour had to rely on his constructed game and experimental results, rather than original samples of the “savage” art, was that he lacked a complete series necessary for illustrating his theory—he was forced to create one for his purposes. Balfour’s drawing experiment was inspired by a technique developed by General Pitt Rivers himself, whose collections formed the foundation of the museum. In 1875, Pitt Rivers—then known as Augustus Henry Lane Fox—delivered a lecture titled “The Evolution of Culture,” in which he argued that shifting forms of artifacts, from firearms to poetry, were in fact culminations of many small changes; and that the historical development of artifacts could be reconstructed by observing these minute changes. From this, Pitt Rivers devised a scheme of museum organization that arranged objects in genealogical fashion—best illustrated by his famous display of weapons used by the indigenous people of Australia.

Plate III. Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, The Evolution of Culture, and Other Essays, ed. John Linton Myres (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906).

Here, Pitt Rivers arranged the weapons in a series of changing relationships radiating out from a central object, the “simple cylindrical stick” (34). In Pitt Rivers’ system, this central object was the most “primitive” and “essential” object, from which numerous small modifications could be made. Elongate the stick, and eventually one arrived at a lance; add a bend, and it slowly formed into a boomerang. While he acknowledged that these specimens were contemporary and not ancient, the organization implied a temporal relationship between the objects. This same logic was extended to understandings of human groups at the turn of the twentieth century. So-called “primitive” societies like the indigenous groups of the Pacific were considered “survivals” from the past, physically present but temporally removed from those living around them (37). The drawing game, developed by Pitt Rivers in 1884, served as a different way to manipulate time: by speeding up the process of cultural evolution, researchers could mimic evolution’s slow process of change over time in the span of just a few minutes. If the fruit fly’s rapid reproductive cycle made it an ideal model organism for studying Mendelian heredity, the drawing game sought to make cultural change an object of the laboratory.

It is important to note the capacious, wide-ranging definitions of “evolution” by the end of the nineteenth century. Evolution could refer to the large-scale, linear development of entire human or animal groups, but it could also refer to Darwinian natural selection. Balfour drew on both definitions, and developed tools to help him to apply evolutionary theory directly to studies of decorative art. “Degeneration,” the idea that organisms could revert back to earlier forms of evolution, played a reoccurring role in both Balfour’s and Pitt Rivers’ lines of museum object-based study. For reasons never explicitly stated, both men assumed that decorative motifs originated with realistic images, relying on the conventions of verisimilitude common in Western art. This leads us back, then, to the somewhat perplexing drawing with which Balfour chose to begin his experiment.

Balfour wrote that he started his experiment by making “a rough sketch of some object which could be easily recognized” (24). His original gastropodic image relied, fittingly, on a number of conventions that required a trained eye and trained hand to interpret. The snail’s shell and the twig, for instance, appeared rounded through the artist’s use of cross-hatching, the precise placement of regularly spaced lines which lend a sense of three-dimensional volume to a drawing. Similarly, the snail’s shell was placed in a vague landscape, surrounded by roughly-sketched lines giving a general sense of the surface upon which the action occurred. While the small illustration might initially seem like a straightforward portrayal of a gastropod suctioned onto a twig, the drawing’s visual interpretation is only obvious to those accustomed to reading and reproducing the visual conventions of Western art. Since the image was relatively challenging to begin with, it provided Balfour with an exciting experimental result: specifically, a bird wearing trousers.

Plate II. Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Art (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1893).

Balfour had conducted a similar experiment using a drawing of a man from the Parthenon frieze as his “seed,” but it failed to yield the surprising results of the first. While the particulars of the drawing changed, somewhat—the pectoral muscles became a cloak, the hat changed, and the individual’s gender got a little murky in the middle—the overall substance of the image remained unchanged. It did not exhibit evolutionary “degeneration” to the same convincing degree, but rather seemed to be, quite simply, the product of some less-than-stellar artists. While Balfour included both illustrations in his book, he clearly preferred his snail-to-bird illustration and reproduced it far more widely. He also admitted to interfering in the experimental process: omitting subsequent drawings that did not add useful evidence to his argument, and specifically choosing participants who had no artistic training (25, 27).

Balfour clearly manipulated his experiment and the resulting data to prove what he thought he already knew: that successive copying in art led to degenerate, overly conventionalized forms that no longer held to Western standards of verisimilitude. It was an outlook he had likely acquired from Pitt Rivers. In Notes and Queries on Anthropology (1892), a handbook circulated to travelers who wished to gather ethnographic data for anthropologists back in Britain, Pitt Rivers outlined a number of questions that travelers should ask about local art. The questions were leading, designed in a simple yes/no format likely to provoke a certain response. In fact, one of Pitt Rivers’ questions could, essentially, offer the verbal version of Balfour’s drawing game. “Do they,” he wrote, “in copying from one another, vary the designs through negligence, inability, or other causes, so as to lose sight of the original objects, and produce conventionalized forms, the meaning of which is otherwise inexplicable?” (119–21). Pitt Rivers left very little leeway—both for the artist and the observer—for creativity. Might the artists choose to depict things in a certain way? And might the observer interpret these depictions in his or her own way? Pitt River’s motivation was clear. If one did find such examples of copying, he added. “it would be of great interest to obtain series of such drawings, showing the gradual departure from the original designs.” They would, after all, make a very convincing museum display.

Laurel Waycott is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University. This essay is adapted from a portion of her dissertation, which examines the way biological thinking shaped conceptions of decoration, ornament, and pattern at the turn of the 20th century.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics

by guest contributor Emelyn Lih

The work of Swiss literary critic, hermeneut, and historian of ideas Jean Starobinski can be characterized by its dedication to depth and diversity: diversity of periods explored (from Montaigne to Baudelaire to Claude Simon, to say nothing of the eighteenth century), of genres and mediums studied (from poetry to art to political philosophy to opera), of objects analyzed (from melancholy to acrobats to hermeneutics itself to the idea of liberty). Many of these strands twined together during his stint at Johns Hopkins University (1953-1956), where he engaged with such luminaries as the literary critic Georges Poulet, historian of medicine Owsei Temkin, and Arthur O. Lovejoy, founder of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Starobinski himself (Babelio)

Jean Starobinski

The recent conference at New York University’s Maison française devoted to Starobinski’s œuvre represented this diversity and paid tribute to the depths his myriad studies plumbed. Most immediately, the publication last year of a new collection of Starobinski’s writings La Beauté du monde (2016) under the direction of Martin Rueff (Université de Genève) prompted the day-long exploration of his work “High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics.”

Denis Hollier (NYU) introduced the first half of the program. Hollier began by commenting on the choice of Titian’s The Andrians for the conference poster, quoting Starobinski’s expressions of admiration for the painting, discovered in the summer of 1939 when the masterpieces of the Prado were evacuated from Spain and exhibited in Geneva. Hollier traced Starobinski’s treatment of the theme of the oppositions and transitions between life and matter, vitalism and mechanism, through various literary and artistic manifestations, including several representations of Pygmalion and Galatea. Here, as elsewhere, Starobinski proved acutely aware of the risk presented by art springing too readily to life. Pygmalion’s gesture was not a true encounter with the other, but a narcissistic fusion with the sculpture he has himself created. In criticism, this facility must be avoided: it is difficult to accurately present another writer “in his own words,” according to the principle of the Écrivains de toujours collection to which Starobinski contributed Montesquieu par lui-même, his first published book (1953).

Titian painting.jpg

Titian, The Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-1526)

Philippe Roger chose a different point of entry into the question of the appropriate distance between the critic and his or her object. How can the critic shake free of the text’s paralyzing fascination without allowing the work to lose its power of enchantment? In a careful reading of the 1974 article « Le texte et l’interprète » (reprinted in La Beauté du monde), Roger explored the complex balance of power between a text and its interpreter as theorized by Starobinski, a relationship in which distance and intimacy do not prove mutually exclusive. The duty of the critic is to consolidate the object in its autonomy and specificity, to make it (in an apparent paradox) more resistant to analysis and thus to appropriation. This close reading then widened into a consideration of the roots of the ethical considerations discernible in the origins, margins and ending of Action et réaction: vie et aventures d’un couple (1999), in which Philippe Roger finds a return to the relationship between poetry and resistance identified in Starobinski’s first published texts, which came out during the Occupation. The strange conclusion to Action and reaction, where Starobinski quotes Valéry in a way that appears to invalidate the entire book’s objective, in fact proves a way to reintroduce value and thus an ethics into the dangerous infinite regression of actions and reactions. The critical relation can thus be read as a critical reaction and an assumption of critical responsibility.

The question of the appropriate distance from and sympathy with the object of one’s study ran through the day’s presentations, and prompted many speakers to interrogate their own relationship to Starobinski. Laurent Jenny (Université de Genève) evoked Starobinski’s preface to Jenny’s book La Parole singulière. His talk explored various means suggested by Starobinski of parrying the risks represented by the absence of a metalanguage that plagues the relationship between the hermeneut and a textual object: the interpreter’s gaze must seek to be gazed back at in return (« Regarde, afin que tu sois regardé » / “Look, so that you may be looked at in return,” as Starobinski advises in L’Œil vivant), a position that Jenny linked to Merleau-Ponty and to Cassirer. The object must be apprehended as visible, not as merely a fragment of language to be commented on in language. Starobinski’s appreciation of Leo Spitzer’s stylistics stems from this drive to identify (and indeed, to introduce) layers of opacity and silence between the text and its commentary.

Lucien Nouis (NYU) also discussed Starobinski’s relationship to Spitzer, as one of a series of three critical « égarements » – wanderings, detours, wrong paths taken – that Starobinski retraced both in deep sympathy with his subjects and in the desire to construct what one might call methodological cautionary tales. The hermeneutic circle may at any point collapse into a tautological circle, by bringing the text back to the interpreter, from alterity to sameness. Spitzer, for example, despite his opposition to Georges Poulet’s critique d’identification, treats the text like a woman to be seduced (a desire itself often prompted by the presence of a critical “rival”), with a passionate and jealous attention where the man is more present than the scholar. Nouis brought out the quasi-religious high fidelity required to watch steadily over a beloved writer’s shoulder even as he (Spitzer, Saussure, Rousseau) lapses into narcissistic mirroring.

Starobinski picture 3.jpg

Conference participants (from left to right): Martin Rueff, Julien Zanetta, Laurent Jenny, Anthony Vidler, Joanna Stalnaker and Richard Sieburth (author’s photograph)

Richard Sieburth (NYU) introduced the second series of four presentations by describing a personal connection to Starobinski’s Geneva. The first panelist, Joanna Stalnaker (Columbia) used the motif of the bouquet and its cousin the florilegium or anthology – a bouquet of texts – to retrace Starobinski’s interpretation of the late Rousseau, beautifully punctuating her reading with other floral gifts: pages from Rousseau’s herbarium, late poems by Mallarmé, bouquets and scattered flowers as painted by the poet’s friend Manet. A bouquet is what holds things together, whether it be a bunch of flowers or the social order; in Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire, Rousseau’s faith in the possibility of such cohesion falters, and in Stalnaker’s reading, Starobinski gives new voice to this worry, lending it ecological overtones.

Anthony Vidler (Cooper Union) ended his own talk by alluding to the rich potential for environmental analysis offered by such texts as Action and reaction; he focused, however, on Starobinski’s importance for historians and theorists of architecture as early as the 1950s and 60s. Read from a spatial perspective, La Transparence et l’obstacle helped imagine and interpret eighteenth-century French architecture, including the utopian fantasies of Revolutionary writers like Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (who elaborated a particular version of Rousseauist architecture) and Étienne-Louis Boullée. Vidler explained how this fertile cross-disciplinary reading continued with the publication and translation of L’Invention de la liberté and 1789: The Emblems of Reason, two “masterfully a-art-historical” works whose approach to symbolism, to the notion of the event, and to the translation of political and social traumas into collective aesthetic norms nonetheless provided architectural historians with precious analytical tools.

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Plan of the ideal city of Chaux by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux

Since Julien Zanetta, co-organizer of the conference, had entirely lost his voice, Laurent Jenny read his paper. It focused on Starobinski’s readings of Paul Valéry: the strong affinity between the poet and the critic was evident as early as Starobinski’s undergraduate thesis on self-knowledge in Stendhal, inspired in part by Valéry’s 1927 preface to Lucien Leuwen. Zanetta compared their readings of Stendhal, in that preface and in « Stendhal pseudonyme » (the last chapter of L’Œil vivant). Where Valéry critically situates himself behind Stendhal’s gallery of masks, Starobinski faces these multiple masks, examining their different functions. Both texts contain discreet nods to Valéry’s Monsieur Teste, he who observes « à distance de loge » (literally, from the vantage point of a box at the theater), an image that serves as a powerful metaphor for a hermeneutics poised between fascination and clear-sightedness. In Zanetta’s view, Valéry’s desire to “impersonalize” himself through his valorization of text over author is in the end not so different from Stendhal’s histrionic role-playing; Starobinski sees Valéry and Stendhal as equally Protean, both masked and demasking.

The day’s last talk was given by Martin Rueff. After a detailed explanation of Louis Althusser’s concept of theoretical practice, he set about justifying the parallel he proposed between aspects of Starobinski’s and Althusser’s thought, which might at first appear surprising since Starobinski’s method – and more generally, what Rueff called the Swiss brand of French theory – is so rooted in practice and in constant, concrete confrontation with the text, and so wary of systematization and overarching structure. By identifying similarities in the two writers’ attitude toward theories in history of science and of medicine (in Starobinski’s case, especially in three articles from the early 1950s, on Speransky, Sigerist and Canguilhem), Rueff arrived at a definition of Starobinski’s method as a hermeneutical theoretical practice (« une pratique théorique herméneutique »).

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La Beauté du monde (Gallimard, 2016)

The conference concluded in a lively discussion, much of it centered on Martin Rueff’s statements about Starobinski’s relationship to philosophy (that he is one of the last thinkers to refuse to give in to its prestige) and to history (that it represents, for him, the ultimate horizon of the real). Many of the presenters underlined the profound continuity of Starobinski’s thought (with Philippe Roger sketching out some of the differences between the Swiss critic and Roland Barthes), and how this continuity allowed for important convergences between the day’s presentations, despite the diversity of discipline and approach. The challenge of combining sympathy and distance, affect and rigor, adhesion and lucidity, ran through the day’s presentations, producing the sense of a renewed commitment—I am tempted to say a vow, as in taking vows—to the highest fidelity in critical practice.

My own first encounter with Starobinski was in the context of his article « La journée dans Histoire », in which he mobilizes his lasting interest in the shape, order and occupations of the day as a signifying structure to explore its expression in Simon’s beautiful and difficult novel Histoire (1967). The shape of the day or « la forme du jour », which Starobinski has explored in a multitude of instances, from antiquity to the Nouveau roman, seems apt for capturing the well-ordered, polyphonic and coherent progression of this Friday in February devoted to his work. All eight presentations had clearly been inspired by Starobinski in multiple ways: for the group of speakers coming together from Paris, Geneva and New York, this occasion served as an invitation to return to Starobinski’s own favorite objects of study; to explore the sophistication and subtlety of his reflections on literary-critical and historical method; and to be reminded of his unfaltering standards of truth, care and accuracy in the exercise of criticism.

High Fidelity: Jean Starobinski’s Critical Hermeneutics was held at the Maison française of NYU on Friday February 17, 2017 and was sponsored by the Center for French Civilization and Culture of NYU and the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York.

Emelyn Lih is a graduate student in French at New York University. Her master’s research at the École normale supérieure in Paris focused on literary representations of the Spanish Civil War, from Georges Bernanos to George Orwell and Claude Simon. She is preparing a dissertation on the relationship between autobiography and history in postwar French literature.

Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London

by guest contributor Audrey Borowski

The imperial red hits you as soon as you enter the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition, “Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932,” which sets out to explore the frenzy that gripped the Russian artistic scene between 1917 and 1932.

The artistic avant-garde initially enthusiastically extolled the ideals of the new Bolshevik regime. A new age had dawned on Russia, and its artists embraced their roles as apostles of this new vision. This exhibit explores the remarkable vitality and versatility of Russian art during that short but turbulent window, often presenting the viewers with lesser-known artists. From Isaak Brodsky’s studious portraits of its leaders Lenin and Stalin to Boris Kustodiev’s depiction of enthused masses, many artists set out to capture the euphoria that followed the revolution and the hope that it would be extended to the whole world.

At the heart of their endeavor lay the desire to create innovative paintings, sculptures, ceramics, crockery, textiles, and even architectural designs that would reach a mass, and for the most part illiterate, audience. New technologies were enlisted to convey these political messages and aestheticize the experience of the worker and peasant; through the magic of film and photography, the latter were refashioned as muscular heroic figures and Russia transfigured from a still overwhelmingly agricultural nation into a great industrial super-power. And whereas in the pictures, workers and peasants emerged liberated and sublimated, in reality, these machine-men and women were generally little more than slaves, dying of starvation in the name of communal collective agriculture. Reality, as this avant-garde movement would soon find out, fell dramatically short of its ideals.

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Pavel Filonov, Formula of the Petrograd Proletariat, 1920-21 (State Russian Museum, St Petersburg)

Radical innovations had already been under way for a few years, but this artistic avant-garde seized the momentum of the revolution to precipitate change and formulate new art for a new world, exploring the full range of abstraction. In this era of radical experimentation, each artist developed his own particular visual language and vocabulary across a wide range of media. The painter Alexander Deineka deployed his characteristic use of geometric lines and collages of drawings, graphic images, and photo montages to convey workers’ dedication to the cause. Pavel Filonov’s method of “universal flowering” produced anguished phantasmagorias merging urban landscapes, heads, and geometric shapes in his “Formula for the Petrograd Proletariat.” Mikhail Matiushin projected pure cosmic teleology in his 1921 “Movement in Space.” Blok’s symbolist poetry greeted the revolution as a quasi-religious second coming. El Lissitzky designed new apartments for the new soviet lifestyle. The theatre director Vsevold Meyerhold designed biomechanics, a system in which emotions were experienced primarily through bodily movements and gestures. Vladimir Tatlin imagined flying gliders, Sergei Eisenstein recreated the revolution in his films, and Vassily Kandinsky conjured up symphonic abstract explosions.

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set "Metal," 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

Mikhail Mokh, State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, tea set “Metal,” 1930 (The Petr Aven Collection)

The artist Kazimir Malevich took geometric abstraction to a whole new level with his invention of “suprematism” in 1915. Art, he thought, should first and foremost express spirituality, away from the “dead weight of the real world.” The Royal Academy’s exhibition recreates his display at the original 1932 exhibit in which he famously exposed “Black square,” the work he claimed marked the “zero point of art.” And yet, as artists were increasingly urged to depict social realities, the soviet man caught up in a dynamic vision of the cosmos soon began to give way to visions of faceless figures far removed from the utopian visions of cheery peasants laboring for the cause in the golden fields of collective farm labor that the Party extolled. As artists grew more ambivalent towards the regime, they started deploying their art to subvert its imagery.

A particularly striking and, for western viewers, unusual piece is “Insurrection” (1925) by Kliment Redko. In it, the painter has replaced Christ with Lenin, surrounded by his disciples in a diamond of fire that burns the city. The atmosphere of the painting is dark and infernal; the city has turned into prison. The revolution was slowly morphing into state repression. While the Revolution of 1917 had heralded a new age of hope and equality for most, repression had already started to kick in by 1921, with artistic freedom increasingly constrained in favor of the collective ideology.

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Kliment Redko, Insurrection, 1925 (State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

The exhibit not only showcases the gradual shift in power over the years, but also brings to the fore the inner contradictions of the age. In the face of extreme conditions and growing misery after the collapse of the economy and the urban infrastructure in the wake of the civil war, many artists looked back towards an idealized Russian past with its birch trees, snowed-under villages, troikas and countryside churches. They sought comfort in a world they felt had been lost forever before one that was failing to materialize, like Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, a lesser-known painter who sought to discern the “optical magic” that coursed through reality. His pieces hark back to a more peaceful, curiously atemporal time, away from the tumult and prospect of hardship.

Over the years, the window for creativity and freedom of expression gradually narrowed, until Stalin decreed that socialist realism would be the only acceptable art form in the Soviet Union. 1932 simultaneously signaled the apex and the end of this artistic revolution; it was the year Nikolai Punin curated the exhibit “Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Republic” at the state Russian museum in then-Leningrad; it showcased more than two thousand works of art and has served as the inspiration for the present exhibition. That same year also sounded the final death knell of that era of dazzling creativity. Overnight, the Soviet state’s fittingly-named “People’s commissariat of Enlightenment” became the sole commissioner of art, and socialist realism the only acceptable art form. The soaring spirit of the avant-garde was brought to an abrupt halt.

While Lenin had envisaged art in mainly pragmatic terms as a tool of propaganda, Stalin had an acute understanding of the power of art and, with social realism, was intent on harnessing it towards the cultivation of his own legacy. His utopian vision celebrated physically perfect sportsmen and parading workers as the new heroes of this politically unified and collectivist vision. Art was to be in the image of regime: insipid, impersonal and soulless.

Disillusionment gradually set in. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930; Meyerhold was executed in 1940; Punin died in a gulag in 1953. Many others would be purged in the following years.

Ultimately, the exhibit charts one of the human spirit’s greatest experiments in hope, as it first soared and was then violently repressed and crushed by a dream-turned-nightmare. Each piece documents a different facet of this human epic in striving and aspiration and bears testimony, in spite of mankind’s fragile memory and constant attempts to rewrite history, to the indomitable nature of the human spirit. That much is certain – and as I was walking away from the Royal Academy, Vladimir Mayakovsky’s fateful and all too timely words from 1921 continued to resonate in my ears:

“And since the crisis exists the world over—worldwide revolution is at their door—As clearly as two times two is four.”

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, London
Until 17 April

Audrey Borowski is a DPhil student in History of Ideas at the University of Oxford.

Images of history

by John Raimo

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.


Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.


Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.


Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?


Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).

Fortune. Failure. Fetish. Fest. Aby Warburg’s glorious Nachleben

by guest contributor Dina Gusejnova


Aby Warburg (c. 1900)

Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the philosopher of culture, art historian and psychopathologist of modernity extraordinaire, famously described himself as an “Amburghese di cuore, ebreo di sangue, d’anima Fiorentino.” Having renounced the inheritance of his father’s bank, Warburg became known for his purpose-built library, devoted to the study of what he called the afterlife of antiquity (Das Nachleben der Antike). In 1921, two years after the founding of the Weimar Republic, it grew into a dedicated research institute based in Hamburg. Aby was anxious about the times he lived in, yet some grounds for optimism remained. A core member of his research community, Ernst Cassirer, had been appointed Rector of the University of Hamburg a year prior to his death: the first Jewish Rector in German history. Warburg, suffering a mental breakdown after the First World War, did not live to witness the near destruction of his Institute following its eventual expulsion from Germany to Britain after the Nazi rise to power, nor its resurrection in two locations, London and Hamburg, after the Second World War and the reunification of Germany, respectively.

Few would contest that it is the library in Bloomsbury where the aura of the founder most continues to be felt. The current chief archivist, Claudia Wedepohl, had the initial idea to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Warburg’s birth this July. Though Wedepohl kept a low profile throughout the event, the conference proved her own resounding success. An initial restricted list of free tickets were snapped up within days of the quiet announcement. To make the Warburg Fest happen, the organizers switched to one of the largest lecture halls in the University.

Work. Legacy. Promise

Photo courtesy of the author

As current Director of the Warburg Institute in London, David Freedberg, reminded attendees, however, paradoxically the fortune of the institute had never been less secure than now. It has recently come under great financial pressure from the University of London, and only survived after a 2014 court ruling in its favour. A recent major research project, operating under the enigmatic name of Bilderfahrzeuge (named after a concept Warburg has once used in a postcard), owes its existence not to British but to German taxpayers. It has recruited a majority of its postdoctoral scholars from German institutions. It is worth adding to this that the two Warburgian havens of culture exhibit some anachronisms. They do not appear to attract non-Europeans or non-North Americans. Besides, all but one of the Institute’s Directors have been men, with the only woman, Gertrud Bing, having served from 1954 to 1959. It was particularly puzzling that two distinguished women who have broken paths for Warburg-inspired scholarship, former Archivist Dorothea McEwan and Librarian Jill Kraye, did not speak at the conference.

It is obviously the idea of Warburg’s personality or, more precisely, his elusive fondness for humanism that resonates with some of our contemporaries as it had with his. Intellectuals in Weimar Germany praised his invigorating effect on modern society, particularly at a time, as one scholar put it, when “humanism in Germany is constantly in decline” (Eduard Fraenkel to Aby Warburg, 16 May 1925). Warburg’s case also inspired works on mental illness in cultural history itself. For the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and many others, Warburg’s library gave hope and meaning. Cassirer liked to put it in the words of William Shakespeare: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact [….] / And, as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, sc. 1).

It was not surprising that the celebration Work. Legacy. Promise also took material possession as one of its themes. Martin Warnke offered a particularly moving vignette in this connection, which highlighted the importance of material memory to the heirs of Warburg’s foundations. He chose to tell the biography of an object. Warburg’s paperweight, a snail, ended up in the possession of a Hamburg art historian, who then bequeathed it to the chief custodian of the Hamburg Kunsthalle Eckhard Schaar, who in turn had made provisions in his will that the snail was to become the rightful property of the Warburg Institute after his death. The snail never reached its destination, however, until one day Mr Schaar’s sister made a sudden appearance at Warnke’s door. She admitted that she had grown unusually attached to it since her childhood. Asked why she was returning it now, she replied that her brother had recently appeared in her dreams, scolding her for not fulfilling her obligations as the executor of his will. The snail’s return had prompted the question which of the two Warburg institutes, the Haus in Hamburg or the Institute in London, would be the rightful owner. In the end, they decided to make a copy. It is then that they realised that the snail which the sister had returned was in fact not made of brass, as Aby Warburg’s notes had described it, at all but of a cheaper alloy. The Hamburg team dutifully produced a brass copy, and Warnke personally used this celebration of Warburg’s birth to hand it over in front of the audience. Curiously, this copy matched Warburg’s own idea more closely than the purported original.

The snail handover

Photo courtesy of the author

So, what are we to make of Warburg’s act of cultural patronage in historical perspective? Horst Bredekamp suggested comparing it to Wilhelmine foundations such as the Bode Museum. Funded with capital sourced from the private banking sector, it emerged at a time when the German state was in severe crisis, but the memory of the public wealth of the Wilhelmine era was still vivid. Scholars of Jewish background were visibly represented there mainly because limitations in the career progression of academics were still in place throughout the Wilhelmine era. In the end, this theme – Warburg’s fraught relationship with his own Jewish identity – was strangely absent in the conference with the exception of Bredekamp’s brief treatment of the so-called “imperial Jews.”

Warburg himself encouraged thinking of his own work as an art historian and ethnographer as a process of “undemonizing the phobically imprinted inherited mass of impressions” [der Entdämonisierungsprozess der phobisch geprägten Eindruckserbmasse]. Did his madness precede Warburg’s method, or is it an occupational risk for anyone trying to think of visual culture both in terms of pedigree and in terms of synchronic association, as Claudia Wedepohl suggested? Was there an aesthetic purpose to Warburg’s assemblages, as George-Didi Huberman’s idea of a knowledge-montage might suggest? Or was Warburg’s way of thinking about lineages and pedigree Darwinian, as Sigrid Weigel insinuated? Like a snail’s path, the life of Warburg’s mind and its afterlives emerged in different ways at this conference.

“Sometimes it appears to me,” Aby Warburg wrote in his diary on April 3, 1929, “as if I, the psycho-historian, were trying to deduct the schizophrenia of the West from the imagery of autobiographical references” (Gombrich, Warburg, p. 302). On this occasion, the most stirring example of this intimate link between Warburg’s persona and the precariousness of our personal present came from W.J.T. Mitchell. Sharing his current work on insanity and visual culture, he sought to make sense of his own son Gabriel’s suicide by placing his project in a comparative perspective with the history of Warburg’s mental life-world.

As Freedberg made clear, the boundary between Enlightenment encyclopaedism and what he called Warburg’s “genealogical” approach, “pathetic in its reliance on reproduction and multiplication,” has always been porous. This critical remark would have felt almost dismissive were it not for the double entendre, which was impossible to miss for those familiar with Warburg’s work. For those doubting Warburg’s powers of logos, he remains a beacon of insight with his pathos. Warburg was not the first to signal the role of the emotions as a factor in the form and transmission of ideas, and in fact had been inspired in this by Darwin as well as his contemporary Richard Semon. His term Pathosformel captures his belief that emotions, like languages, can be captured and transmitted in the form of an engram, gesture, or symbol, and thus become the objects of study. Some papers used Warburgian formulae with a pathos that came close to magical incantations, speaking of Seelenraumbekenner, Engramme höchster Ergriffenheit, Wunschräume and Denkzwischenräume.

As Carlo Ginzburg suggested in advancing his own intellectual genealogy of Warburg’s Pathosformeln, Warburg’s method could be equally seen as a forensic approach to cultural genealogy. By extension, the task in tracing the fortune of an idea is not merely antiquarian but also moral in the way in which aesthetic practice had always been deeply embedded in theories of moral sensibility, if we only think of Burke, Kant, and, in Ginzburg’s case, Pseudo-Longinus. For some art historians, tuning our eye to the veins of the marble from which ancient sculptures were made as if they were indeed the blood vessels of a living being (Frank Fehrenbach) becomes a Warburgian practice. It makes the analysis of form a matter subservient to the understanding of the emotions.

Yet, just as the copied snail turns out to be a more authentic piece than the purported inherited original, some of the less eulogistic papers were in fact far more self-evidently Warburgian. Robert Darnton did not speak about Warburg but returned to an old question: What books did the French read on the eve of the French revolution? He applied Occam’s razor to formulate a more manageable question, namely, what books did the French buy before the French revolution? This allowed him to “use maps to highlight diachronic processes” (Claudia Wedepohl’s phrase), a feature of the Mnemosyne atlas, by tracking the paths of Swiss booksellers. This produced a literary Tour de France which could perhaps have linked back to his own studies of the visual. In the end, however, a fortune history of books and their sellers might not satisfy those seeking to know the fortune histories of ideas.

Contradicting Lorraine Daston’s curious observation that the humanities do not tend to think about the epistemological value of case studies—though without saying as much—Quentin Skinner performed an act of iconographic hermeneutics with his usual rhetorical finesse. In picking up on previous work by Horst Bredekamp on the frontispiece of Hobbes’s Leviathan and his own work on this subject, he effectively articulated a question which had been missing from a room full of answers: Why engage in studies of the Afterlife of Antiquity at all?


Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse, with input from Hobbes (1651)

The answer emerged from his performance of thinking. Without the knowledge of this transmission, we may not be able to discern the meaning of past communications at all, be they textual or visual. (At least not those communications which had themselves been produced by highly erudite authors.) When it comes to the place of Hobbes’s Leviathan in the genealogy of the idea of sovereignty, nobody has developed a more rigorous way of assessing the place of the frontispiece in the architecture of Hobbes’s argument than Skinner himself. His charted path – a genealogy of visual persuasion — leads to the biography of the artist who designed the frontispiece (something which Horst Bredekamp had provided before), as well as to the portraiture of sovereignty itself. Panofsky, Warburg’s mentee, can help with the formal side of this analysis, highlighting the frontispiece’s merging of two opposing traditions of representing power: the triangle of the Trinity (the power of God), and the triangle emerging from tracing the sovereign’s sword and the crozier upwards (to represent the power of the mortal God, or Leviathan). But something more than this is needed

in order to answer the old question which has haunted Hobbes scholars, namely, whether the Mortal Man in the Leviathan was a likeness of Charles I or of his de facto murderer, Oliver Cromwell. Iconology, it turns out, is not the only path to persuasion. Skinner concluded his own hypothesis – that the man is the state itself — with an affective gesture towards a detail so self-evident that it is almost invisible: “Look at that moustache! Look at that hair!” The hair of that mortal man looked remarkably like the phenotype of all the other rulers drawn by Abraham Boss’s pen for his previous patrons. It felt as though a Warburgian Mnemosyne had lifted a veil of confusion through the language of common sense.

Perhaps it is this persistent yearning for a world in which a tiny, ‘pathetic’ detail can suddenly reveal more significant meanings, which might explain Warburg’s persistent appeal to scholars today. To adopt the phrase of an older contemporary of Aby Warburg’s, being determines Nachleben. In the end, who needs a Schrift when you can have a Fest?

Note that video of the full conference proceedings of Aby Warburg 150. Work. Legacy. Promise at the Warburg Institute, London, has been posted online.

Dina Gusejnova is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. After a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, she held a Harper-Schmidt fellowship at the University of Chicago and a Leverhulme fellowship at UCL’s Centre for Transnational History. Her interests range from the intellectual history of Weimar Germany to twentieth-century European political thought and the cultural and intellectual history of statelessness. She has just published European Elites and Ideas of Empire, 1917-57 (Cambridge University Pressavailable here with open access), in which she explores the lifeworld of fading empires.