This year’s annual theme concerns expression as an artistic faculty of nature, on the one hand, and as a natural faculty of art, on the other. The variegated conceptual field described by the term “expression” (Ausdruck) demarcates a zone of indistinguishability between nature and culture, subject and object, form and matter. During the 2017 year, the research group will engage diverse notions of expression to investigate images of nature beyond such binary oppositions.
Expression appears to reveal an inner life. This is true both of animate and inanimate beings: one may perceive an outdoor setting as alternately inviting or threatening – much as one might apprehend sublime exhilaration and terror in a painting by Turner. Such basic, affect-laden relations to the world form the matrix of daily experience. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write, “the world does not exist outside its expressions.”
Yet what precisely is understood under the term “expression” remains far from transparent. Unlike concepts such as representation and signification, “expression” has always denoted a meaningful immediacy that seems to lie closer to nature than to convention. Following Aristotle, the early modern psychological tradition held that both humans and animals perceive the formal characteristics of an object as the spontaneous expression of its qualities: the sheep sees the wolf and feels fear. More recently, it has been proposed that human facial expressions, as well as their interpretation, have innate and even instinctive foundations. On this view, infants discern their mother’s moods long before they can identify geometrical shapes – to say nothing of more abstract concepts.
When we witness another person’s expression of surprise, the emotion (or mental state) is not somewhere “inside” this other person; it manifests itself in her or his gesture or attitude. Expression can be described in this sense as a dynamic interpenetration of psyche and physis. What Goethe once wrote about nature, in fact, applies to all expressive phenomena: it has “neither kernel nor shell; neither outside nor inside” (“weder Kern noch Schale”; “weder Außen noch Innen”). Even if, as the Heraclitean adage goes, Nature loves to “hide”, this very concealment or disguise comprises part of its expression.
Images, too, are “expressive” – they always show, even when they conceal. Their expression always aims to create a corresponding impression. Some have sought to determine dynamic correlates between images and emotional effects, representing an important tendency in both 20th century modernism and contemporary neuroaesthetics. Others still have sought the answer in the phylogenetic records of evolutionary history. But it has been far too often forgotten that “expression” describes foremost an aesthetic concept, which figured in the theory and practice of the visual arts long before becoming an object of scientific study.
Artists like Albrecht Dürer, Paolo Lomazzo or Charles Le Brun counted physiognomic expertise among the decisive preconditions for an artwork’s success. Leonardo da Vinci was likewise convinced that psychic states were expressed directly through gestures, and that they were likewise universally understood. Leonardo and his milieu interpreted nature as a complex expressive event, in which things and bodies continually emanated images, odors, sounds and “qualities”. Ensouled bodies absorb these emissions, or perceive them as intensities – an idea going back to Epicurean natural philosophy. Natural being communicates through expression and produces resonances by impression. Drawn together by this fundamental conviction, art and the study of nature overlap. For the early modern period, the keywords for this crossover were physiognomy; the doctrine of signatures; “sympathy”.
Aby Warburg’s work provides another important impulse ("Ausdruckskunde"). His scholarship investigated how even inanimate forms and movements – whether impassioned gestures or billowing drapery – are always affectively charged and historically sedimented. Nature’s fundamental capacity for creating meaningful representations of itself has been taken up since by the modern approaches in cognitive biology (i.e., autopoeisis, self-referentiality). Nature appears in this light once more as a producer of its own “images”, as a “surplus” of meaning in sensible forms.
Images of Nature, which comprise the primary subject of this research group, resist exacting explorations of fundamental oppositions between nature and culture, presentation and representation or reality and fiction. These types of images further resist a number of traditionally rich divisions and connect in various ways to that which they seem to oppose. Herein lies the challenge of our research group’s collaborative efforts: how do we precisely capture the relationship between art and nature as presented by specific images and artifacts, and how do we understand this relationship’s historical authenticity? To what extent might we offer a broad assessment of cultural and scientific images of nature?
Studying images of nature also implies that we grapple with the theories and practices of imitation. Following previous annual themes - Forces & Intensities and Matter & Qualities - our third annual research theme focuses on the concepts and phenomenon of Naturalism. For clarity and focus, our research retains art historical epochs and individual emphasis given to “naturalism in the twentieth-century” or “naturalism in the Renaissance.” More broadly, however, we question what makes something naturalistic? Can this be historically specified? What distinguishes historical notions of naturalism, especially in cross-cultural comparisons, and what kinds of continuities exist? Which aesthetic principles in nature gain import? Not only in close relation with such aesthetic principles, these notions should also be concerned with the systematic aspects of the term which were often used normatively i.e. in strict opposition to cultural constructions and medialisations. The corresponding implications extend far beyond questions of art to include ethics (natural law) and philosophy (natural fallacy). The rapid evolution of modern natural science both informs and sheds light on the human experience and questions the role of traditional concepts (character, freedom and awareness) as a basis for cultural and social dynamics. Exploring images of nature in art, science and technology provides a crucial foundation from which to review a one-dimensional “naturalisation” of human culture.
This year’s annual theme, “Naturalism” also has a historical focus in the Early Modern period, when the need to imitate nature was characterised by an underlying polarity that spanned nature’s dynamic activities and art’s figurative materialisations of nature. Processes of mimesis, for example, provide multiple foundations from which to understand nature, its methods and potential, and from which to also modify its forms. Conversely, mimesis aims to precisely reproduce nature’s sensory qualities and therefore questions regarding reception or viewer participation are equally important to our group’s approach to, and understanding of, naturalism.
The polarity of matter and form is one of the most influential concepts of classical philosophy. Art history, with its juxtaposition of form and content, was for a long time more Platonic than Aristotelian: from the perspective of iconology, artistic materials themselves were seen as mere signs leading to a higher, ideal level of meaning. It is only recently that the facticity of artworks has begun to drift more towards the center of art historical attention.
In keeping with the Aristotelian notion of an analogy between human technology and the formative powers of nature, natura naturans came to be understood in medieval natural philosophy as both an artist and a technician, who shaped and qualified her materials with inexhaustible variety. The aim of imitating nature, which arose as an ideal of post-medieval art, thus seems to have been ambivalent from the start. On the one hand, art now aimed at a mimetically accurate representation of natural objects and bodies; on the other, it also claimed to be similar to the processes and operations of natural creativity itself. Art reworks matter and thereby modifies and articulates its sensual qualities. Artists must possess intimate knowledge of such qualities – the granularity of stone, softness and hardness, the texture of canvas, the viscosity of oil – before accentuating or disguising them in their works.
Realms where art operates in analogy with nature thus lie beyond the dialectic of nature and culture. They present these polarities as irresolvably rooted in each other, and the intelligible content of art as a flourishing of its physical aspects. Until well into the modern era, the qualities of artworks were understood to be inextricably connected with the products of nature, and nature’s generative processes and the operations of artificial manufacture were described along the same horizon, even if the precise mechanisms of each remained enigmatic, as they do even today.
With this second annual theme of the research group “Naturbilder / Images of Nature,” we anticipate a synergistic effect with another project likewise based at the Kunstgeschichtliches Seminar in the University of Hamburg: “Natura - materia - artificio: reflections on natural materials in the visual arts and art theory from the 15th through the early 18th century.” Like last year’s theme, “Forces and Intensities” (2014), this one is formulated in an intentionally broad way in order to create the most open possible forum for the dialogue between multiple disciplines.
Forces/Intensities: Traditionally understood by means of numerous paraphrases (energeia/potentia, impetus, virtus, vis, vehementia, forza etc.), “force” lies at the center of aesthetic strategies of effect whose aim is to make the vitality of the artifact manifest to the viewer. At the same time, art and technology have always drawn reference to the forces of nature, which they seek at turns to imitate, restrain, and surpass. Early Modern art discourse worked to differentiate between forces or intensities that act-upon (quantitative) and ones that constitute or build (qualitative). We are interested in the transformations of a notion that for centuries offered art, physics, and even politics and religion a common ground. ‘Force’ gradually disappeared from the realm of the axiomatic in physics – while at the same time beginning its career as a cultural, psychological, and aesthetic category that continues to influence art discourse as a quality criterion.
Beginning at the latest with Leonardo da Vinci’s appreciative words about the power of music to render its listeners ‘half dead’ with admiration, art discourse characterized the relationship between artwork and viewer in terms of overpowering. In the sixteenth century, force (forza) and its semantic derivatives (for example terribilitá) became a category in the aesthetics of effect. The connotations of force thus allude to the dominant model of ‘violent motions’ developed in medieval impetus physics, but also to the roots of this model in classical rhetoric (movere). Artworks, in this perspective, contain a collective power that is able to touch and move their viewers. (Religion and natural magic could therefore be seen as the godparents of impetus physics.) The paradigm of the interaction between work and viewer as a kind of dialogue or exchange became enriched, in the sixteenth century, through the idea of the ‘activated’ work of art whose visual energies are unleashed in the beholder.