The Pennsylvania State University
Cover for the book Confronting Images

Confronting Images

Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art Georges Didi-Huberman
  • Copyright: 2004
  • Dimensions: 5.5 x 8.5
  • Page Count: 336 pages
  • Illustrations: 18 b&w illustrations
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-271-02471-4
  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-271-02472-1
“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.’”

When the French edition of Confronting Images appeared in 1990, it won immediate acclaim because of its far-reaching arguments about the structure of images and the histories ascribed to them by scholars and critics working in the tradition of Vasari and Panofsky. According to Didi-Huberman, visual representation has an “underside” in which seemingly intelligible forms lose their clarity and defy rational understanding. Art historians, he goes on to contend, have failed to engage this underside, where images harbor limits and contradictions, because their discipline is based upon the assumption that visual representation is made up of legible signs and lends itself to rational scholarly cognition epitomized in the “science of iconology.”

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.

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

Translator’s Preface

Question Posed

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



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