Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art
Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art
“Art history, Didi-Huberman argues, has had to ‘kill’ the symptomatic image, deny its violence and its ‘dissembling,’ in order to preserve its true object, art. Confronting Images is arguably the most important book-length analysis of the conceptual foundations of the discipline, and critique of the discipline, in any language.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
To escape from this cul-de-sac, Didi-Huberman suggests that art historians look to Freud’s concept of the “dreamwork,” not for a code of interpretation, but rather to begin to think of representation as a mobile process that often involves substitution and contradiction. Confronting Images also offers brilliant, historically grounded readings of images ranging from the Shroud of Turin to Vermeer’s Lacemaker.
“Art history, Didi-Huberman argues, has had to ‘kill’ the symptomatic image, deny its violence and its ‘dissembling,’ in order to preserve its true object, art. Confronting Images is arguably the most important book-length analysis of the conceptual foundations of the discipline, and critique of the discipline, in any language.”
“Though Devant l’image resembles The Pleasure of the Text in its central dialectic, it actually does what Barthes never did: it makes the essential move toward historicizing the text (or image) that builds representational failure into itself, looking for historical reasons both for a particular image’s failure to represent, and for art history’s own insensitivity or blindness to this aspect of depiction.”
“I cannot think of any more important book in the recent history of art. Confronting Images is just what the English-speaking art-historical community needs to help it out of the impasse of debates around ‘cultural studies’ and ‘visual literacy.’”
Georges Didi-Huberman is on the faculty of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. His books include Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Figuration (1995), Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtriére (2003), and The Surviving Image: Phantoms of Time and Time of Phantoms: Aby Warburg's History of Art (forthcoming from Penn State Press).
List of Illustrations
When we pose our gaze to an art image (1) Question posed to a tone of certainty (2) Question posed to a Kantian tone, to some magic words, and to the status of a knowledge (5) The very old requirement of figurability (7)
1. The History of Art Within the Limits of Its Simple Practice
Looking intently at a patch/whack of white wall: the visible, the legible, the visual, the virtual
The requirement of the visual, or how incarnation “opens” imitation
Where the discipline is wary of theory as of not-knowledge. The illusion of specificity, the illusion of exactitude, and the “historian’s blow”
Where the past screens the past. The indispensable find and the unthinkable loss. Where history and art come to impede the history of art
First platitude: art is over . . . since the existence of the history of art. Metaphysical trap and positivist trap
Second platitude: everything is visible . . . since art is dead
2. Art as Rebirth and the Immortality of the Ideal Man
Where art was invented as renascent from its ashes, and where the history of art invented itself along with it
The four legitimations of Vasari’s Lives: obedience to the prince, the social body of art, the appeal to origins, and the appeal to ends
Where Vasari saves artists from oblivion and “renames/renowns” them in eterna fama.
The history of art as second religion, devoted to the immortality of ideal men
Metaphysical ends and courtly ends. Where the crack is closed in the ideal and realism: a magic writing-pad operation
The first three magic words: rinascità, imitazione, idea (89). The fourth magic word: disegno. Where art legitimates itself as unified object, noble practice, and intellectual knowledge. The metaphysics of Federico Zuccari. Where the history of art creates art in its own image
3. The History of Art Within the Limits of Its Simple Reason
The ends that Vasari bequeathed to us. Simple reason, or how discourse invents its object
Metamorphoses of the Vasarian thesis, emergences from the moment of antithesis: the Kantian tone adopted by the history of art
Where Erwin Panofsky develops the moment of antithesis and critique. How the visible takes on meaning. Interpretive violence
From antithesis to synthesis. Kantian ends, metaphysical ends. Synthesis as magical operation
First magic word: humanism. Where object of knowledge becomes form of knowledge.
Vasari as Kantian and Kant as humanist. Powers of consciousness and return to the ideal man
Second magic word: iconology. Return to Cesare Ripa. Visible, legible, invisible. The notion of iconological content as transcendental synthesis. Panofsky’s retreat
Farther, too far: the idealist constraint. Third magic word: symbolic form. Where the sensible sign is absorbed by the intelligible. The pertinence of function, the idealism of “functional unity”
From image to concept and from concept to image. Fourth magic word: schematism. The final unity of synthesis in representation. The image monogrammed, cut short, made “pure.” A science of art under constraint to logic and metaphysics
4. The Image as Rend and the Death of God Incarnate
First approximation to renounce the schematism of the history of art: the rend. To open the image, to open logic
Where the dream-work smashes the box of representation. Work is not function. The power of the negative. Where resemblance works, plays, inverts, and dissembles. Where figuring equals disfiguring
Extent and limits of the dream paradigm. Seeing and looking. Where dream and symptom decenter the subject of knowledge
Second approximation to renounce the idealism of the history of art: the symptom.
Panofsky the metapsychologist? On questioning the denial of the symptom. There is no Panofskian unconscious
The Panofskian model of deduction faced with the Freudian paradigm of over-determination. The example of melancholy. Symbol and symptom. Constructed share, cursed share
Third approximation to renounce the iconographism of the history of art and the tyranny of imitation: the Incarnation. Flesh and body. The double economy: mimetic fabric and “upholstery buttons.” The prototypical images of Christianity and the index of incarnation
For a history of symptomatic intensities. Some examples. Dissemblance and unction. Where figuring equals modifying figures equals disfiguring
Fourth approximation to renounce the humanism of the history of art: death. Resemblance as drama. Two medieval treatises facing Vasari: the rent subject facing the man of humanism. The history of art is a history of imbroglios
Resemblance to life, resemblance to death. The economy of death in Christianity: the ruse and the risk. Where death insists in the image. And us, before the image?
Appendix: The Detail and the Pan
The aporia of the detail
To paint or to depict
The accident: material radiance
The symptom: slippage of meaning
Beyond the detail principle
1 The History of Art in the Bounds of Common Practice
Let’s pose our gaze for a moment upon a famous example of Renaissance painting (Fig. 1). It is a fresco in the monastery of San Marco in Florence. It was very likely painted, in the 1440s, by a Dominican friar who lived there and later came to be known as Fra Angelico. It is situated in a very small whitewashed cell, a cell in the clausura where, we can imagine, for many years in the fifteenth century one monk withdrew to contemplate scripture, to sleep, to dream—perhaps even to die. When we enter the still silent cell today, even the spotlight aimed at the art work does not ward off the effect of luminous obfuscation that it imposes upon first encounter. Next to the fresco is a small window, facing east, that provides enough light to envelop our faces and veil the anticipated spectacle. Deliberately painted “against” this light, Angelico’s fresco obscures the obvious fact of its own presence. It gives the impression that there isn’t much to see. When one’s eyes have adjusted to the light, oddly enough, the same impression persists: the fresco “comes clear” only to revert to the white of the wall, for it consists solely of two or three stains of pale, subtle color placed against a background, slightly darkened, of the same whitewash. Thus where natural light enveloped our gaze—almost blinding us—there is henceforth white, the white pigment of the background, which comes to possess us.
But we are predisposed to resist this sensation. The trip to Florence, the monastery’s transformation into a museum, the very name Fra Angelico: all of these things prompt us to look farther. It is with the emergence of its representational details that the fresco, little by little, will become truly visible. It becomes so in Alberti’s sense, which is to say that it sets about delivering discrete, visible elements of signification—elements discernible as signs. It becomes so in the sense familiar to historians of art, who today strive to distinguish the master’s own hand from that of his students, to judge the coherence of the perspective construction, to situate the work in Angelico’s chronology as well as in the stylistic landscape of fifteenth-century Tuscan painting. The fresco will become visible also—and even primarily—because something in it has managed to evoke or “translate” for us more complex units, “themes” or “concepts,” as Panofsky would say, stories or allegories: units of knowledge. At this moment, the perceived fresco becomes really, fully visible—it becomes clear and distinct as if it were making itself explicit. It becomes legible.
So here we are, capable, or supposedly so, of reading Angelico’s fresco. What we read there, of course, is a story—a storia such as Alberti deemed the reason and final cause for all painted compositions . . . A story historians cannot help but love. Little by little, then, our sense of the image’s temporality changes: its character of obscured immediacy passes into the background, and a sequence, a narrative sequence, presents itself for reading, as if the figures that at first glance seemed static were now endowed with cinematic properties and a dynamic temporality. No longer the crystalline permanence but the chronology of a story. Here, in Angelico’s image, we have the simplest possible case: a story that everyone knows, a story whose “source”—whose original text—art historians need not research, so central is it to the cultural baggage of the Christian west. Almost as soon as it is visible, then, the fresco sets about “telling” its story of the Annunciation as Saint Luke had first written it in his Gospel. There is every reason to believe that a budding iconographer entering this tiny cell would need only a couple of seconds, once the fresco was visible, to read into it: Luke 1:26–38. An incontrovertible judgment, a judgment calculated to make one want to do the same thing for all the pictures in the world . . .
But let’s try to go a bit farther. Or rather let’s stay a moment longer, face-to-face with the image. Quite soon, our curiosity about details of representation is likely to diminish, and a certain unease, a certain disappointment begins to dim the clarity of our gazes. Disappointment with what is legible: this fresco shows itself to be as a story as poorly and summarily told as could be. No striking detail will tell us how Fra Angelico “saw” the town of Nazareth—the “historical” site of the Annunciation—or help us to situate the meeting of the angel and the Virgin Mary. There’s nothing picturesque in this painting: it’s as taciturn as could be. Luke told the story in spoken dialogue, but Angelico’s figures seem frozen forever in silent communion, all lips sealed. No sentiments are expressed; there’s no action, no pictorial theatrics. And the peripheral presence of Saint Peter Martyr, hands clasped, won’t change the story, because Saint Peter has nothing to do with it, this story: he just makes the event seem less real.
The work will also disappoint art historians well acquainted with the formal profusion of Quattrocento Annunciations: they almost always abound in apocryphal details, fanciful illusions, outrageously complicated spatial construction, realist touches, objects of daily life, and chronological reference points. Here—save for the traditional little book clasped by the Virgin—nothing of the kind. Varietà, one of the essential qualities required by the esthetic of his day, which Alberti made a major paradigm for the invention of a storia, appears to be out of Fra Angelico’s reach. His fresco, with its impoverished, austere invenzione, cuts a wan figure in these times of rebirth, when Massaccio in painting and Donatello in sculpture reinvented dramatic psychology.
The “disappointment” we are talking about has its only source in the odd aridity with which Fra Angelico has grasped*a—solidified or frozen, by contrast with an instant rendered “on the wing”—the visible world of his fiction. Space has been reduced to a pure place of memory. Its scale (the figures a bit smaller than “life”-size, if such a word is appropriate here) impedes all vague trompe-l’oeil desires, even if the small represented enclosure extends in a certain sense the cell’s white architecture. And despite the interplay of the ceiling vaults, the painted space at eye level seems to present only an abutment*b of whitewash, its abruptly rising floor painted in broad brush strokes very different from the pavements constructed by Piero della Francesco or even Botticelli. Only the two faces have been emphasized: heightened lightly with white, worked with crimson. The rest is only contempt for details, the rest is only strange lacunae, from the swift pictography of the angel’s wings and the unlikely chaos of the Virgin’s robe to the mineral vacuity of the simple place that here comes to confront us.
This impression of “ill-seen-ill-said”*c has led many art historians to a mixed judgment of both the artist’s work generally and the artist himself. He is sometimes presented as a succinct, even naive painter—blissfully happy and “angelic,” in a slightly pejorative sense—of the religious iconography to which he devoted himself exclusively. Elsewhere, by contrast, the artist’s bliss and angelic temperament are turned to positive account: if the visible and the legible are not Fra Angelico’s strong points, that is because his concern was with, precisely, the invisible, the ineffable. If there is nothing between the angel and the Virgin in his Annunciation, that is because the nothing bore witness to the indescribable and unfigurable divine voice to which Angelico, like the Virgin, was obliged to submit completely . . . Such a judgement clearly touches upon something pertinent to the religious, even mystical status of the artist’s work in general. But it refuses to understand the means, the material in which this status existed. It turns its back to the painting and the fresco in particular. It does this so as to proceed without them—which is also to say without Fra Angelico—into the dubious realm of a metaphysics, an idea, a belief without subject. It thinks painting can be understood only by disembodying it, so to speak. In fact, it functions—like the preceding judgment—within the arbitrary limits of a semiology that has only three categories: the visible, the legible, and the invisible. Thus, apart from the intermediary status of the legible (where what’s at stake is translatability), anyone posing his gaze to Angelico’s fresco is faced with a choice. He either grasps it, in which case we are in the world of the visible, which it is possible to describe; or he doesn’t grasp it, in which case we are in the region of the invisible, where a metaphysics is possible, from the simple, nonexistent out-of-frame of the painting to the ideal beyond of the entire oeuvre.
There is, however, an alternative to this incomplete semiology. It is based on the general hypothesis that the efficacy of these images is not due solely to the transmission of knowledge—visible, legible, or invisible—but that, on the contrary, their efficacy operates constantly in the intertwinings, even the imbroglio, of transmitted and dismantled knowledges, of produced and transformed not-knowledges. It requires, then, a gaze that would not draw close only to discern and recognize, to name what it grasps at any cost—but would, first, distance itself a bit and abstain from clarifying everything immediately. Something like a suspended attention, a prolonged suspension of the moment of reaching conclusions, where interpretation would have time to deploy itself in several dimensions, between the grasped visible and the lived ordeal of a relinquishment. There would also be, in this alternative, a dialectical moment—surely unthinkable in positivist terms—consisting of not-grasping the image, of letting oneself be grasped by it instead: thus of letting go of one’s knowledge about it. The risks are great, of course. The beautiful risks of fiction. We would agree to surrender ourselves to the contingencies of a phenomenology of the gaze, perpetually subject to projection and transference (in the technical sense of Freud’s Übertragung). We would agree to imagine, the sole safety-rail being our poor historical knowledge, how a fifteenth-century Dominican named Fra Angelico could in his works pass on the chain of knowledge, but also break it up to the point of its unraveling completely, so as to displace its paths and make them signify elsewhere, otherwise.
We must return, for that, to what is simplest, in other words to the obscure self-evidences with which we began. We must momentarily leave behind everything that we thought we saw because we knew what to call it, and return henceforth to what our knowledge had not been able to clarify. We must return, then, this side of the represented visible, to the very conditions of the gaze, of presentation and figurability, that the fresco proposed to us at the outset. Then we will remember our paradoxical sense that there wasn’t much to see. We will remember the light against our face and above all the omnipresent white—that present white of the fresco diffused throughout the space of the cell. What to make of this glare, and what to make of this white? The first constrained us initially to distinguish nothing, the second hollowed out all spectacle between the angel and the Virgin, making us think that Angelico had simply put nothing between his figures. But to say that is not to look, it is to be satisfied with what we’re supposed to see. Let’s look: there’s not nothing, because there’s white. It isn’t nothing, because it reaches us without our being able to grasp it, and because it envelops us without our being able, in our turn, to catch it in the snare of a definition. It is not visible in the sense of an object that is displayed or outlined; but neither is it invisible, for it strikes our eye, and even does much more than that. It is material. It is a stream of luminous particles in one case, a powder of chalky particles in the other. It is an essential and massive component of the work’s pictorial presentation. Let’s say that it is visual.
Such is the new term that must be introduced, to distinguish the “visible” (elements of representation, in the classic sense of the word) from the “invisible” (elements of abstraction). Angelico’s white self-evidently belongs to the mimetic economy of his fresco: it provides, a philosopher would say, an accidental attribute of this represented inner courtyard, here white, and which elsewhere or later could be polychrome without losing its definition as an inner courtyard. In this respect, it indeed belongs to the world of the representation. But it intensifies it beyond its limits, it deploys something else, it reaches its spectator by other paths. Sometimes it even suggests to seekers-after-representation that there’s “nothing there”—despite its representing a wall, although a wall so close to the real wall, which is painted the same white, that it seems merely to present its whiteness. Then again, it is by no means abstract; on the contrary, it offers itself as an almost tangible blow, as a visual face-off. We ought to call it what it is, in all rigor, on this fresco: a very concrete “whack”*d of white.
But it is very difficult to name it as one would a simple object. It is more event than painted object. Its status seems at once irrefutable and paradoxical. Irrefutable, because its efficacy is straightforward: its power alone imposes it before the recognition of any appearance—“there’s white,” quite simply, right in front of us, even before this white can be thought as the attribute of something represented. And it is, then, paradoxical as much as sovereign: paradoxical, because virtual. It is the phenomenon of something that does not appear clearly and distinctly. It is not an articulated sign, it is not legible as such. It just offers itself: a pure “appearance ‘of something’”*e that puts us in the presence of the chalky color, long before it tells us what this color “fills” or qualifies. All that appears, then, is the quality of the figurable—terribly concrete, illegible, presented. Massive and deployed. Implicating*f the gaze of a subject, its history, its fantasies, its internal divisions.
The word virtual is meant to suggest how the regime of the visual tends to loosen our grip on the “normal” (let’s say rather: habitually adopted) conditions of visible knowledge. Virtus—a word that Angelico must himself have declined in all its shadings, a word whose theoretical and theological history is prodigious, particularly within the walls of Dominican monasteries since Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas Aquinas—designates precisely the sovereign power of that which does not appear visibly. The event of virtus, that which is in power, that which is power, never gives a direction for the eye to follow, nor a univocal sense of reading. Which does not mean that it is devoid of meaning. On the contrary: it draws from its kind of negativity the strength of a multiple deployment, it makes possible not one or two univocal significations, but entire constellations of meaning, of which we must accept never to know the totality and the closure, constrained as we are simply to make our way incompletely through their virtual labyrinth. In short, the word virtual here designates the doubly paradoxical quality of the chalky white that confronted us in the little cell in San Marco: it is irrefutable and simple as event; it is situated at the junction of a proliferation of possible meanings, whence it draws its necessity, which it condenses, displaces, and transfigures. So perhaps we must call it a symptom, the suddenly-manifested knot of an arborescence of associations or conflicting meanings.
To say that the visual realm produces a “symptom” is not to look for some defect or morbid state floating hither and thither between the angel and the Virgin of Fra Angelico. It is, more simply, to try to recognize the strange dialectic according to which the work, by presenting itself suddenly to the gaze of its viewer, upon entry into the cell, simultaneously delivers the complex skein of a virtual memory: latent, efficacious. Now all this is not simply a matter of our contemporary gaze. The presentation of the work, the dramaturgy of its immediate visuality are integral to the work itself, and to the pictorial strategy specific to Fra Angelico. The artist could very well have executed his frescos on one of the cell’s three other walls, which is to say on surfaces correctly lit and not illuminating, as is the case here. He could also very well have dispensed with such an intense use of white, criticized in his day as producing a tension that was esthetically disagreeable. Finally, the skein of virtual memory that we have hypothesized without, for all that, “reading” it immediately in the white of this fresco and in its very poor iconography—this skein of virtual memory might very well traverse our fresco, pass like a wind between the two or three figures of our Annunciation. Everything that we know about Fra Angelico and about his life in the convent effectively teaches us this: the formidable exegetical training required of every novice, the sermons, the prodigiously fecund use of the “arts of memory,” the armful of Greek and Latin texts in the library of San Marco, only a few steps from the little cell, the enlightened presence of Giovanni Dominici and Saint Antoninus of Florence in the painter’s immediate entourage: all this comes to confirm the hypothesis of a painting virtually proliferating with meaning . . . and to accentuate the paradox of visual simplicity in which this fresco places us.
Such, then, is the not-knowledge that the image proposes to us. This not-knowledge is double: it concerns first the fragile evidence of a phenomenology of the gaze, which the historian doesn’t quite know what to do with because it is graspable only through his own gaze, his own specific gaze that strips it bare. It also concerns a forgotten, lost usage of knowledges of the past: we can still read the Summa Theologiae by Saint Antoninus, but we no longer have access to the associations, to the meanings summoned up by the same Saint Antoninus when he contemplated Angelico’s fresco in his own cell at San Marco. Saint Antoninus certainly wrote some known passages about iconography (in particular, that of the Annunciation), but not a word about his co-religionist Fra Angelico, much less about his perception of the intense whites of San Marco. It just wasn’t in the mores of a Dominican prior (or part of general writing usage) to record the rattling force given rise to*g by a gaze posed on the painting—which obviously does not mean that the gaze did not exist, or that it was indifferent to everything. We cannot content ourselves with relying only on the authority of texts—or on the search for written “sources”—if we want to grasp something of the efficacy of images: for this is made up of borrowings, certainly, but also of interruptions effected in the discursive order. Of transposed legibilities, but also of a work of opening—and thus of breaking and entering, of symptom formation—effected in the order of the legible, and beyond it.
This state of affairs disarms us. It constrains us either to remain silent about an essential aspect of art images, for fear of saying something unverifiable (and it is thus that historians often oblige themselves to say nothing except quite verifiable banalities), or to use our imaginations and risk, in the last resort, unverifiability. How could what we are calling the realm of the visual be verifiable in the strict sense, in the “scientific” sense, given that it is not itself an object of knowledge or an act of knowledge, a theme or a concept, but only an efficacy on gazes? We can, however, advance a little. First by changing perspective: by noticing that to posit this notion of not-knowledge only in terms of a privation of knowledge is certainly not the best way to broach our problem, since it is a way of keeping knowledge in its privileged position as absolute reference. Then we must reopen precisely what seemed unlikely to provide Angelico’s fresco—so “simple,” so “summary”—with its most direct textual source: we must reopen the luxuriant and complex Summa Theologiae, which, from Albertus Magnus to Saint Antoninus, shaped Angelico’s culture and his form of belief; we must reopen the Artes Memorandi still in use in Dominican monasteries of the fifteenth century, and indeed those delerious medieval “encyclopedic” compilations called Summae de exemplis et similitudinibus rerum . . .
Now what do we find in these “summae”? Compilations of knowledge? Not exactly. Rather labyrinths in which knowledge loses its way and becomes fantasy, in which the system becomes a great displacement, a great multiplication of images. Theology itself is not construed here as a knowledge such as we understand the word today, which is to say as something that we can possess. It treats of an absolute Other and submits to it wholly, a God who alone commands and possesses this knowledge. If there is any knowledge at all, it is not “caught” or grasped by anyone—not even by Thomas Aquinas himself. It is scientia Dei, the science of God, in all senses of the genitive “of.” That is why it is said in principle to transcend—to ground in one sense and to ruin in another—all human knowledges as well as all other ways and pretensions to knowledge. “Its principles do not come to it from another science but imminently from God, by revelation [per revelationem].” Now revelation offers nothing for the grasping: it offers, rather, its being grasped in the scientia Dei, which itself remains by right, until the end of time—a time when all eyes will ostensibly open for good—ungraspable, which is to say productive of an inextricable loop of knowledge and not-knowledge. How could it be otherwise, in a universe of belief that ceaselessly asks one to believe in the unbelievable, to believe in something put in the place of everything that one doesn’t know? There is, then, a real work, a constraint of not-knowledge in the great theological systems themselves. It is called the inconceivable, the mystery. It offers itself in the pulse of an ever singular, ever dazzling event: that obscure self-evidence that Saint Thomas here calls a revelation. Now it is troubling for us to find in this structure of belief something like an exponential construction of the two aspects experienced almost tactilely before the utterly simple chalky material of Fra Angelico: a symptom, then, delivering simultaneously its unique blow and the insistence of its virtual memory, its labyrinthine trajectories of meaning.
The men of the Middle Ages did not think otherwise what constituted for them the fundament of their religion: namely the Book, Holy Scripture, every particle of which was apprehended as bearing within it the double power of event and mystery, of immediate (even miraculous) attainment and unattainability, of the near and the distant, of self-evidence and obscurity. Such is its considerable fascination, such is its aura. Holy Scripture was not for men of the period a legible object in our general understanding of the term. They were obliged—their faith required this—to mine the text, to open it up, to effect*h there an infinite arborescence of relations, associations, and fantastic deployments wherein everything, notably things not in the “letter” of the text (its manifest meaning), could flourish. This is not called a “reading”—a term that suggests a process of narrowing down—but an exegesis—a word that signifies going beyond the manifest text, a word that signifies an openness to all the winds of meaning. When Albertus Magnus or one of his followers glossed the Annunciation, they saw in it something like a crystalline unique event, and at the same time they saw in it an absolutely extravagant efflorescence of inclusive or associated meanings, of virtual connections, of memories, of prophecies touching upon everything, from the creation of Adam to the end of time, from the simple form of the letter M (the initial of Mary) to the prodigious construction of angelic hierarchies. The Annunciation was for them neither a “theme” (save, perhaps, in the musical sense) nor a concept, nor even a story in the strict sense—but rather a mysterious, virtual matrix of events without number.
It is in this associative order of thought—an order by nature subject to fantasy, requiring fantasy—that we must again pose our gaze to the white wall*i of Fra Angelico. This whiteness is so simple, yes. But it is so altogether like the blank inside of the little book held by the Virgin: which is to say that it has no need of legibility to carry an entire mystery of the Scriptures. Likewise, it purged its descriptive conditions, its conditions of visibility, so as to allow the visual event of the white its full figuring force. It figures, then, in the sense that in its immediate whiteness it succeeds in becoming a matrix of virtual meaning, a pigmental act of exegesis (and not of translation or of attributing color)—a displacement strange and familiar, a mystery made paint. How is this so? Would it suffice then to imagine the space that faces us “folded” along the line in the floor, in the image of the open but empty book, in the image of the anagraphic Scripture of a revelation? Yes, in a sense this would suffice: I imagine that this might suffice for a Dominican trained, over a period of years, to draw out of the slightest exegetical relationship a veritable deployment of this mystery to which he dedicated his entire life.
Of the few enigmatic words uttered by the angel of the Annunciation, these are central: “Ecce concipies in utero, et paries filium, et vocabis nomen eius Iesum.” “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” The Christian tradition used the exegetical relationship already present in the sentence itself—an accurate citation, except for a change in the person of the verbs, of a prophecy in Isaiah —to open the little book of the Virgin to the very page of the prophetic verse: thus could be closed, from the Annunciation, a loop of sacred time. All this, which is found everywhere in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century iconography, Fra Angelico did not deny; he simply included it in the white*j mystery that these sentences designate. The “empty” (rather: virtual) page in the fresco answers the closed lips of the angel, and both point toward the same mystery, the same virtuality. It is the birth-to-come of the Word made flesh, which in the Annunciation is just taking form, somewhere in the recesses of the Marian body. So it is understandable that the audacious clarification of the image, this sort of stripping-bare or catharsis, aimed first to make the fresco itself mysterious and pure like a surface of unction—like a body sanctified in some lustral water—so as to virtualize a mystery that it knew beforehand it was incapable of representing.
It is, then, the Incarnation. All of the unassuming painter’s theology, all of his life in the Dominican monastery, all of his aims would have turned ceaselessly around this inconceivable, unintelligible center, which postulated simultaneously the immediate humanity of the flesh and the virtual, powerful divinity of the Word in Jesus Christ. I do not say that the bianco di San Giovanni, the pigment used in the little cell of the monastery, represented the Incarnation, or that it served as an iconographic attribute of the central mystery of Christianity. I say only that it was one of the means of figurability used by Fra Angelico—labile means, always mutable, moveable; means in some sense overdetermined and “suspended”—and that, there, it presented itself to envelop the mystery of the Incarnation in an affecting visual network. Much of the intensity of such an art derives from this reckoning, always ultimate—because aiming at its beyond—with the simplest and most occasional material means of the painter’s craft. For Angelico, white was neither a “coloring” to be chosen arbitrarily to emphasize or, conversely, to neutralize the objects represented in his works; neither was it a fixed symbol within an iconography, however abstract. Fra Angelico simply used the presentation of the white—the pictorial modality of its presence here, in the fresco—to “incarnate” on his level something of the unrepresentable mystery onto which his whole faith was projected. White, in Fra Angelico, does not pertain to a representational code: on the contrary, it opens representation in view of an image that would be absolutely purified—a white vestige, a symptom of the mystery. Although it offers itself straightforwardly and almost like a blow, it has nothing to do with the idea of a “natural state” of the image, or with that of a “primitive state” of the eye. It is simple and terribly complex. It delivers the blow—the whack*k—of an extraordinary capacity to figure: it condenses, it displaces, it transforms an infinite and inappropriable given of Holy Scripture. It offers the visual event of an exegesis in action.
It is, then, a surface of exegesis, in the sense we would speak of a surface of divination. It captures the gaze only to provoke an uncontrollable chain of images capable of weaving a virtual net around the mystery that links the angel and the Virgin in this fresco. This frontal white is nothing but a surface of contemplation, a dream screen—but one on which all dreams will be possible. It almost asks the eyes to close before the fresco. It is, in the visible world, that agent of “catastrophe” or foliation, that visual agent fit for casting the Dominican’s gaze toward a realm of pure fantasy—the one ultimately designated by the expression visio Dei. It is, then, in all of the word’s many senses, a surface of expectancy: it takes us out of the visible and “natural” spectacle, it takes us out of history and makes us wait for an extreme modality of the gaze, a dreamed modality, never completely there, something like an “end of the gaze”—as we use the phrase “the end of time” to designate the ultimate object of Judaeo-Christian desire. So we understand how this white of Angelico’s, this visible almost-nothing, will finally manage to touch, concretely, upon the famous mystery of this fresco: the Annunciation, the announcement. Fra Angelico reduced all his visible means of imitating the appearance of an Annunciation in order to give himself a visual agent fit for imitating the process of such an announcement. In other words, something that appears, that presents itself—but without describing or representing, without making visible the content of the announcement (otherwise it would no longer be an announcement, exactly, but a statement of its issue).
There is here a marvel of figurability—in the image of everything that consumes us in the self-evidence of dreams. It sufficed that this particular white be there. Intense as light (we find it, in adjacent cells, in radiant mandorlas and divine glories) and opaque as rock (it is also the mineral white of all tombs). Its mere presentation makes of it the impossible material of a light offered with its obstacle: a patch*l of wall with its own mystical evaporation. Should we be surprised to find the same paradoxical image within the thread of luxuriant Dominican exegeses of the mystery of the Incarnation? It matters little whether Fra Angelico did or did not read this or that commentary on the Annunciation comparing the Word made flesh to an intense luminosity that traverses all barriers and coils within the white cell of the uterus Mariae . . . The important thing is not some improbable translation, term-for-term, of a specific theological exegesis, but an authentic exegetical work that the very use of a pigment successfully delivered. The point of commonality is not (or is only optionally) a shared textual source; it is first of all the general requirement to produce paradoxical, mysterious images, to figure the paradoxes and mysteries that the Incarnation proposed from the outset. The point of commonality is this general notion of mystery to which a Dominican brother decided one day to subject all his savoir-faire as a painter.
If this patch of white wall indeed succeeded, as I believe it did, in imposing itself as paradox and mystery for the gaze, then there is every reason to think that it likewise succeeded in functioning, not as an (isolable) image or symbol, but as a paradigm: a matrix of images and symbols. Moreover, only a few more moments in the little cell are needed to experience how the frontal white of the Annunciation manages to metamorphose into a besieging power. What faces us becomes all encompassing, and the white that the Dominican brother contemplated perhaps also murmured to him: “I am the place that you inhabit—the cell itself—I am the place that contains you. Thus do you make yourself present at the mystery of the Annunciation, beyond representing it to yourself.” And the visual envelope moved so close as to touch the body of the viewer—since the white of the wall and that of the page are simultaneously the white of the Dominican robe . . . So the white murmured to the person gazing upon it: “I am the surface that envelops you and that touches you, night and day, I am the place that clothes you.” How could the contemplative Dominican (in the image of the Saint Peter Martyr within the image) disallow such an impression, he to whom it had been explained, the day that he took the habit, that is own vestment, a gift of the Virgin, already symbolized in its color the mysterious dialectic of the Incarnation?
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