The True Image

By Charlotta Krispinsson, PhD, Department of Art and Visual History, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

In the latest issue of Periskop, the editors have chosen a particularly clever theme, namely “Det sande billede.” In his introduction, Michael Kjær describes this theme as a study of the different states of “mellemværender” in terms of truth and reality. What is “a true image”? And why, where, when and how does a “true image” appear? Here, “a true image” has a double meaning as both a metaphor for how the present and the past may or should be depicted (“a picture of reality”), as well as a visual representation of something (like a photograph). This not only opens the way for questions concerning the veracity of images, but also for studies influenced by image theory following in the wake of the pictorial and iconic turns.

In the eight articles in this issue of Periskop, some perspectives reoccur, such as studies on art historiography and reception history, and studies on whether concepts such as “original” and “copy” are meaningful for describing pictures and artifacts created before the modern era. One of the most interesting contributions is Maria Fabricius Hansen’s article “Usynligheder: Historiografiske problemer i fremstillinger af arkitekturens rum og farve.” Fabricius Hansen points out that the phenomenologically perceptible aspects of architecture – space, materiality and color – have often been forgotten in previous research, since architecture has often been mediated through black and white photographs. However, such a critique of the supposed claims of truth of the photograph, as well as its dissociated and equalizing effects, is familiar from other quarters in art studies. What makes this text exciting is how Fabricius Hansen uses the example of a medieval Italian church (Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura in Rome) to illustrate the academic potential in studying the blank spots, usynligheder, in earlier research – in this instance the heterogeneous and polychrome creation of the actual space.

Polychromy and historiography are also the subjects of Jan Stubbe Østergaard’s article “Farven vender tilbage: Et ‘sandere billede’ af antik skulptur.” Stubbe Østergaard reminds us of the fact that the white, classical sculpture that is familiar from museum exhibits and historical sites may not in fact have always been white. Using this observation, the author argues that the emerging field of research on polychromy still has much to offer art history and archeology.

Hanne Kolind Poulsen’s “Det ‘ægte’ og det ‘uægte’ værk: Lucas Cranach den Ældres kunstpraksis og de kvaler, den har forvoldt kunsthistorien” is also a critique of art historiography and previous studies on the workshop of Lucas Cranach. The methodological and ideological lack of earlier art historians are, according to Kolind Poulsen, their preoccupation with “authenticity”, “artistic quality” and attempts to distinguish between “original” and “copy”. Although the modern reception of Cranach definitely constitutes an interesting area of study, I would argue that Kolind Poulsen’s critique of nineteenth century positivism and twentieth century research characterized by modernist sentiments is already familiar at this point. Naturally, this does not mean that criticizing previous art historiography may still not be relevant. However, I would have liked to see the text go beyond a critique of the ideological blinkers that have narrowed the theoretical outlook of past scholars (Max Friedländer et al.). Instead, I would have preferred Kolind to engage in a dialog with more recent research on Cranach, on the early modern context, and on art historiography, since I am quite certain that the more accurate perspectives that Kolind calls for could be found there.

Another historical term for a true image is Vera Icon. This refers to the imprint of blood and sweat on Veronica’s sweat cloth originating from the face of Jesus, which is said to be the first true image. But what is the intellectual, conceptual, and visual history of true images after that? A contribution to such a historiography is offered in Signe Havsteen’s article “Grundbilledets geometri: Perspektiv- og sandhedskonstruktion i tre af Eckersbergs romerske tegninger.” The aim of Havsteen is to analyze whether C.W. Eckersberg’s early perspective drawings of Roman architecture may be interpreted as generating knowledge insofar that they helped him formulate a concept of a true image – en grundbilled – at an early stage in his career. Hav-steen’s ambition to distinguish such a concept on the basis of these fairly conventional drawings is interesting; however, not so much from an art theory perspective, but as a contribution to the intellectual history of image theory.

Just like Havsteen, Anders Kølle also discusses the philosophical superstructure of Romanticism in his article “Den udtømte sandhed og den sande uudtømmelighed.” Unlike the article by Havsteen, however, Kølle’s text does not offer a historical study, but rather a fast and sparkling tour de force from Kant and Schlegel to Claude Shannon and the pornographic image. Among many other things. In one instance, Kølle writes: “Det er ikke en tilfældelighed, at surfbrættets, skateboardets, wakeboardets og snowboardets popularitet falder samman med informationsteknologiernes store revolutioner i det tyvende århundrede. Himlen, havet, bjergene, floderne og jorden opfattes først og fremmest som flader for genomrejse og fart.” This is an interesting observation, but it could also be a fitting description of the feeling of speed originating from reading Kølle’s text. Unfortunately, the text is also held back by the fact that the author wants to do a lot, but without first stopping to articulate a clear aim and build a solid foundation for his claims.

The main character of this issue of Periskop is the French art historian Georges Didi-Huberman. In a longer translated interview, Didi-Huberman comments on the image theory he has developed ever since his 1990 book Devant l’image: Questions posées aux fins d’une histoire de l’art, and which builds upon the iconology of Aby Warburg. Among other things, Didi-Huberman criticizes the intensified interest in defining and exploring the “essence” of images found in recent image theory. He also expresses a fatigue with the repeated, postmodern critique of the “reality effects” of images, and of the production of meaning as representation (such as within semiotics). The only thing we are able to say about images, Didi-Huberman contends, is how they work in certain situations, how they alter and reshape something, or how they transform in various ways.

Michael Kjær’s article “Billedrummet som et levende atlas i verden: En introduktion till Georges Didi-Hubermans billedpolitiske projekt og kuratoriske praksis” offers a rich introduction to Didi-Huberman’s image theory. Kjær moves from Didi-Huberman’s early studies on Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the convent of San Marco in Florence to his recent practices as curator of the exhibition Atlas – How to Carry the World on One’s Back? (2010) at Palais de Tokyo in Paris and Nouvelles histoires de fantomês (2014) at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. Didi-Huberman considers the interaction between images and bodies, and how images may affect us to such an extent that they take over our bodies. Kjær argues that Didi-Huberman’s image theory may thus be understood as a defense of a learned “sensitive image reflexivity.” However, Kjær also argues that Didi-Huberman’s image theory represents a form of image politics. And just like politics, one is free to choose whether or not to follow Didi-Huberman’s defense of images.

The subject of the last two articles and the essays in this issue is contemporary art and architecture. Martin Søberg’s interesting article “Fuldskalamodellen: Arkitekturens sande billede mellem realitet og forestilling” studies the phenomenon of full-scale models in architecture. If architecture is reproduced in “full scale” (but without the ability to be used as real architecture), what is the actual relationship to the building depicted by the model? Is it a representation, a copy, a fictional backdrop? Or something else?

Pernille Leth-Espensen’s article “Som at læse blindskrift med en meget lille finger: Naturvidenskabelige repræsentationer og kunstneriske fortolkninger heraf” concerns the use of image technologies in scientific studies, and artists who appropriate scientific methods and visual expressions as an artistic strategy. An interesting example in this regard is Sabrina Raaf’s Translator II: Grower (2004–2006). This artwork measures the level of CO2 in the air, and translates this value into green lines drawn on a wall by a robotic arm. The tall columns of green lines are reminiscent of both a lawn and an abstract painting. Leth-Espensen’s study on synergies and tensions between science and contemporary art is instructive, even though I would have liked to see her analysis given freer reins.

In four essays, artists Annette Harboe Flensburg, Peter Martensen, Cai Ulrich von Platen and Kehnet Nielsen discuss questions concerning authenticity, representation and the meaning of the concept of “a true image”. In “Gillian Wearings usynlige masker,” Harboe Flensburg discusses the so-called self-portraits of British artist Gillian Wearing, where the artist gets her picture taken while wearing different silicone masks depicting her family members, together with other added attributes. The result is somewhat eerie pictures of subjects who look a bit like silicone dolls, but without the flawless stereotypical finish. The artificially manufactured skin placed on the artists’ body references the classical conflict between presence and absence inherent in the genre of portraiture. As pointed out by Harboe Flensburg, at the end of the day this concerns what ultimately constitutes us as individuals – what is actually the true image of us?

Both Peter Martensen and Cai Ulrich von Platen write about their own work as artists. In “Et øjeblik,” von Platen intimately and delicately discusses his own artistic development, from his youthful ambitions to truthfully and realistically portray the world, to the experienced artist renegotiating his views on what actually constitutes artistic truth. In “Løgets ringe”, Martensen confirms the material aspects of painting, while at the same time arguing for its non-material, visual aspects. His main point is that painting cannot be categorized as either “true” or “false.” Although, it becomes clear that Kehnet Nielsen, eventually, has less of a problem with using true and false images as valid categories. In the essay “Motivets troværdighed,” Nielsen claims that a variety of false and true images emanate from the stream of images in contemporary media, but whereas the false images (as propaganda) trick us, aesthetics offers critical resistance by means of counter-images.

My main objection to this issue is when the analyses end up questioning truth, authenticity and representation, simply due to the fact that the habitual critique of the image as “a false image” (a simulacrum) is a mode of thinking that has a long tradition in the Western history of ideas. It is easy to fall into the habit of coming to the conclusion that images are in different ways deceiving, but it could also – for the sake of originality – be more rewarding to ask whether it is possible to pursue other lines of thinking instead. However, having said that, the overall impression is still good. Speaking as a Swedish art historian, Periskop is an impressive and important journal – unfortunately, without any real Swedish equivalent. The mixture of articles, essays, debate articles, reviews, interviews and ambitious introductions to topics, and not least the design and the large number of color images, results in something that is not all that common in the genre of “peer-reviewed journals,” namely a page-turner – a good read. This is certainly the case for this issue.


Periskop: Det sande billede indeholder følgende bidrag:

Michael Kjær, ”Mellemværender med sandheden. Hvorfor, hvor, hvornår og hvordan det sande billede?”

”Billedernes vilkår. Interview med Georges Didi-Huberman”, ved Fréderic Lambert og François Niney

Anders Kølle, ”Den udtømte sandhed og den sande uudtømmelighed”

Michael Kjær, ”Billedrummet som et levende atlas. En introduktion til Georges Didi-Hubermans billedpolitiske projekt og kuratoriske praksis”

Signe Havsteen, ”Grundbilledets geometri. Perspektiv- og sandhedskonstruktion i tre af Eckersbergs romerske tegninger”

Hanne Kolind Poulsen, ”Det ’ægte’ og det ’uægte’ værk. Lucas Cranach den Ældres kunstpraksis og de kvaler, den har forvoldt kunsthistorien”

Maria Fabricius Hansen, ”Usynligheder. Historiografiske problemer i fremstillingen af arkitekturens rum og farve”

Jan Stubbe Østergaard, ”Farven vender tilbage. Et ’sandere billede’ af antik skulptur”

Martin Søberg, ”Fuldskalamodellen. Arkitekturens sande billede mellem realitet og forestilling”

Pernille Leth-Espersen, ”Som at læse blindskrift med en meget lille finger. Naturvidenskabelige repræsentationer og kunstneriske fortolkninger heraf”

Anette Harboe Flensburg, ”Gillian Wearings usynlige masker”

Peter Martensen, ”Løgets ringe”

Cai Ulrich von Platen, ”Et øjeblik”

Kehnet Nielsen, ”Motivets troværdighed”