Art Theory as Visual Epistemology III

S21 Art Theory as Visual Epistemology III: Presence

Session chair:

Harald Klinke, Ph.D., Lecturer, Department of Art History, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany,


Truth of Nature – Empiricism in the Mid-Nineteenth Century Landscape Painting in Düsseldorf

Anne-Maria Pennonen, Ph. D. cand.

Helsinki University, Finland

Already during the first decades of the nineteenth century, artists in Dresden were interested in drawing and painting studies after nature. The same trend continued in Düsseldorf in the 1820s, where it was considered essential to observe the landscape in a proper fashion, and expressions like “the new naturalism” and “the truth of nature” were widely used. The artists would make painting trips not only in the surrounding areas of Düsseldorf, but also farther south along the river Rhine as well as to the mountain ranges of Eifel and Harz. The proponents of this movement drew and painted wide panoramic views from mountain tops, close-ups of trees, brooks, plants and stones as well as topographic features of the Earth. In addition, they considered the careful study of cloud formations and atmospheric phenomena to be of great importance. When we now look at the artworks the artists composed after nature, should we regard them only as artistic representations or could they also be regarded as scientific representations?

The separation of art and science as two distinctive realms took place gradually during the nineteenth century. At the peak of the Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century, a lively discussion developed around the question of whether art had distinguishable goals from science. When talking about the production of knowledge, we are inclined to think that art invents and science discovers. This paper aims to discuss what this “new naturalism” and the” truth of nature” came to specify. This leads to questions such as: How is the landscape to be understood in light of modern visual theory, e.g. When do we regard the artworks as representations? How objective or subjective are they? How accurate and scientific are the studies artists made after nature? What is the relation of sketches and studies to finished works of art? What is the role of artistic imagination here? What is the role of knowledge and observation?

This paper discusses the relationship between landscape painting and natural sciences in Düsseldorf in the nineteenth century. The natural sciences here are comprised of meteorology, geology, geography and biology. The main focus is on Finnish artists, but also German and Norwegian artists and their artworks provide essential comparison material. I suggest that the movement of Düsseldorf landscape painting shows how the development of natural sciences influenced the idea of landscape.


Historical discoveries and their significance for the virtual image in art

Romana Schuler

University of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria

“Why does man have two eyes?” is the title of a paper by the physicist Ernst Mach and the question he asked of his audience in 1866. Mach’s question reflects the great interest in stereoscopic vision throughout the nineteenth century and the fascination that inventions like the stereoscope (Wheatstone, 1838) and stereoscopic photography (Brewster, 1849) exerted. 150 years later, this paper asks why the early perception experiments by experimental physicists and physiologists in the nineteenth century are attracting increasing attention in contemporary art.

Using modern neurological scanners today’s scientists are able to localise and visualise perception processes in the brain such as the perception of movement. Meanwhile artists often resort to historical scientific experiments so as to aesthetically revive antiquated laboratory experiments – sometimes with great success – and implant and promote them in the art world as a form and artistic expression in contextualised transfer art. The aesthetic transfer from the laboratory to the art world is not performed in the same way by all artists; there are many who resuscitate historical processes of discovery such as perception research.

This also means that there are different artistic approaches to historical experiments and their scientific research and presentation. Today’s exhibitions frequently historicise scientific experiments of the 18th and 19th centuries, effectively transferring them to the context of art. Jean Baudrillard sees this as a trans-aesthetic process: the real object is transformed into a hyper-real work of art. In other words, historical experiments actually carried out in laboratories take on an aesthetic presence as works of art. These hyper-real artistic works are reminiscent of romantic “reprises” and show a material and pictorial “real” representation of knowledge, without producing any new findings. Today, we can recognise a similar structure in the presentation of historical epistemic systems in contemporary art. Representatives include prominent artists like Olafur Eliasson with his elaborate reconstructions of perception installations, or Carsten Höller with his upside-down glasses, which he borrowed one-for-one from the American experimental psychologist George Stratton (1896) and the spectacle experiments at the Institute of Experimental Psychology in Innsbruck (1929–50).

The reference points for this notion of art can be found in the traditional classical definition of art in antiquity in which the term téchne puts art in the category of artes mechanicae and not artes liberales. It was not until Renaissance engineer artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Alberti or Dürer that art acquired the status of ars inveniendi. Today this position, achieved with difficulty over five hundred years ago, is now being relativised – no doubt on account of changed market aspects – and is clearly losing its value. But is it not the investigation of scientific concepts that evokes and characterises a progressive experimental idea of art? Should experimental art not establish itself alongside science as an additional creative instance that is not confined to imagery but has its own creative epistemic programme and initiates a process of renewed discovery?


(Re-) Creating Order: Narrativity and Implied World Views in Pictures

Michael Ranta, Ph. D.

Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund, Sweden

The philosophical debate on the nature of narrative has been mainly concerned with literary narratives, whereas forms of non-literary and especially pictorial narrativity have been rather neglected. Within traditional art history, however, the narrative potential of the visual arts has usually been taken for granted, though rarely by attempting to elucidate any deeper cognitive, semiotic, and philosophical aspects involved. Erwin Panofsky, one of the most influential art historians with outspoken theoretical concerns, may be credited for having elaborated the so-called iconographical or iconological methods. According to Panofsky, a fruitful investigation of works of art should be striving for an analysis of their meaning-aspects (in contradistinction to their formal aspects).

These aspects occur on several levels. First, we have a pre-iconographic level – the depiction of human beings, animals, natural or artificial objects, etc. A second interpretative level – the iconographical analysis – consists of identifying the subject matter or the theme of the artwork. Last, according to Panofsky, such so-called iconological meaning level is “apprehended by ascertaining those underlying principles which reveal the basic attitude of a nation, a period, a class, a religious or philosophical persuasion – unconsciously qualified by one personality and condensed into one work…[T]hese principles are manifested by […] both ‘compositional methods’ and ‘iconographical significance’.” Now, although this iconological approach towards works of art is well-known and prominent among art historians, the world view-concept (and its cognates) is not very precise and can be used in several senses. Thus it cannot only overlap with (or result in) specific philosophical doctrines, but also religious, epistemic, political, moral or otherwise ideological convictions, interests and desires as well as patterns of behavior. Moreover, the term is not only applied to groups of persons as well as historical periods, but sometimes also to certain individuals. Iconological research in general, as sometimes in Panofsky´s case, has sometimes tended to abstract specific philosophical doctrines (e.g. neoplatonic thought in Renaissance art) from works of art; still, a broader world view cannot be reduced to a particular philosophy.

Generally speaking, narratives contribute to the human endeavor to reduce the unpredictability of worldly changes, and human existence in particular, attempting to establish order in our experiences of transitoriness and existential vulnerability. In this paper, I will present and discuss some possible criteria of narrativity with regard to their applicability to pictorial objects. I will argue that (i) pictorial works may express or imply high-level narrative structures or, put in another way, wider world views or schemata, and (ii) that our comprehension of and need for these schemata can be explained by taking recent research within cognitive psychology, schema theory, and narratology into account.


Tracing Out Space In Videoperformance

Riikka Niemelä, M. A.

University of Turku, Finland

An amount of research on video art has focused on spatiality. It demarcates different genres of video art ranging from three dimensional, spatial quality of video sculptures and aesthetics of narcissism of closed-circuit videos of the early video art, to more recent, immersive practices of video installations creating the environments of sensory involvement for the audience merging with the projected image. Video performances, instead, often display an event of self-presentation taking place when an artist exposes her moving body to the video camera. This paper approaches the space of video performance and reviews phenomenological notion of space by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908–1964) with the aim of discussing how they can be of use in understanding lived, embodied experience as producing knowledge.

The philosophical problem of space is discussed for some length by Merleau-Ponty in Phénoménologie de la Perception (1945). Merleau-Ponty contrasts concepts of “spatialised” and “spatializing” space, the former referring to space understood as physical setting with determinate coordinates, the latter to the conception of geometrical space traced out by subject. In his account, to understand experience of space we still need third spatiality, a possession of the world by means of body.

Video performances can be seen as re-enacting the embodied production of knowledge passing through the projection. The role of a performer as producer of meanings has recently gained more stature in performance studies and theorizations on contemporary theater, such as in the notion of ‘post-dramatic theater’ (Hans-Thies Lehmann), based rather on body, space and time, than on text, and therefore accentuating presentation rather than representation. The tendency to depart from text towards the particularities of performing has nonetheless deeper roots stemming from much earlier writings, as in the attempts to define “Theater of Cruelty” by Antonin Artaud who called for a transition in theater from textual to ‘spatial poetry’. This spatiality stemmed from a new theatrical expression that encompasses a whole of bodily gestures and other multisensory elements.

This paper examines the idea of bodily poetics with the notion of space generated by the moving body. The aim is to analyze video works by two Finnish artists working with medium-related performances in two different periods: Mervi Kytösalmi, considered the first Finnish video artist, studying video art while it was still an emerging art form under Nam June Paik in the 1970’s in Düsseldorf, and nowadays London-based Eeva-Mari Haikala, an artist of the 21st century’s digital age, both of whom nevertheless focus on similar, fairly minimalistic and unassuming mode of self-presentation to the camera.