Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1925–1929) is a prescient work of mixed media assemblage, made up of hundreds of images culled from antiquity to the Renaissance and arranged into startling juxtapositions. Warburg’s allusive atlas sought to illuminate the pains of his final years, after he had suffered a breakdown and been institutionalized. It continues to influence contemporary artists today, including Gerhard Richter and Mark Dion.
In this illustrated exploration of Warburg and his great work, Georges Didi-Huberman leaps from Mnemosyne Atlas into a set of musings on the relation between suffering and knowledge in Western thought, and on the creative results of associative thinking. Deploying writing that delights in dramatic jump cuts reminiscent of Warburg’s idiosyncratic juxtapositions, and drawing on a set of sources that ranges from ancient Babylon to Walter Benjamin, Atlas, or the Anxious Gay Science is rich in Didi-Huberman’s trademark combination of elan and insight.
Alberto Giacometti’s 1934 Cube stands apart for many as atypical of the Swiss artist, the only abstract sculptural work in a wide oeuvre that otherwise had as its objective the exploration of reality.
With The Cube and the Face, renowned French art historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman has conducted a careful analysis of Cube, consulting the artist’s sketches, etchings, texts, and other sculptural works in the years just before and after Cube was created. Cube, he finds, is indeed exceptional—a work without clear stylistic kinship to the works that came before or after it. At the same time, Didi-Huberman shows, Cube marks the transition between the artist’s surrealist and realist phases and contains many elements of Giacometti’s aesthetic consciousness, including his interest in dimensionality, the relation of the body to geometry, and the portrait—or what Didi-Huberman terms “abstract anthropomorphism.” Drawing on Freud, Bataille, Leiris, and others Giacometti counted as influence, Didi-Huberman presents fans and collectors of Giacometti’s art with a new approach to transitional work.
The traditional story of Renaissance painting is one of inexorable progress toward the exact representation of the real and visible. Georges Didi-Huberman disrupts this story with a new look—and a new way of looking—at the fifteenth-century painter Fra Angelico. In doing so, he alters our understanding of both early Renaissance art and the processes of art history.
A Florentine painter who took Dominican vows, Fra Angelico (1400-1455) approached his work as a largely theological project. For him, the problems of representing the unrepresentable, of portraying the divine and the spiritual, mitigated the more secular breakthroughs in imitative technique. Didi-Huberman explores Fra Angelico's solutions to these problems—his use of color to signal approaching visibility, of marble to recall Christ's tomb, of paint drippings to simulate (or stimulate) holy anointing. He shows how the painter employed emptiness, visual transformation, and displacement to give form to the mystery of faith.
In the work of Fra Angelico, an alternate strain of Renaissance painting emerges to challenge rather than reinforce verisimilitude. Didi-Huberman traces this disruptive impulse through theological writings and iconographic evidence and identifies a widespread tradition in Renaissance art that ranges from Giotto's break with Byzantine image-making well into the sixteenth century. He reveals how the techniques that served this ultimately religious impulse may have anticipated the more abstract characteristics of modern art, such as color fields, paint spatterings, and the absence of color.
Of one and a half million surviving photographs related to Nazi concentration camps, only four depict the actual process of mass killing perpetrated at the gas chambers. Images in Spite of All reveals that these rare photos of Auschwitz, taken clandestinely by one of the Jewish prisoners forced to help carry out the atrocities there, were made as a potent act of resistance.
Available today because they were smuggled out of the camp and into the hands of Polish resistance fighters, the photographs show a group of naked women being herded into the gas chambers and the cremation of corpses that have just been pulled out. Georges Didi-Huberman’s relentless consideration of these harrowing scenes demonstrates how Holocaust testimony can shift from texts and imaginations to irrefutable images that attempt to speak the unspeakable. Including a powerful response to those who have criticized his interest in these images as voyeuristic, Didi-Huberman’s eloquent reflections constitute an invaluable contribution to debates over the representability of the Holocaust and the status of archival photographs in an image-saturated world.