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Good News for Art History?

Bruno Nassim Aboudrar
Traduction de Simon Pleasance
Cet article est une traduction de :
De bonnes nouvelles de l’histoire de l’art ?
Référence(s) :

Marin, Louis. Opacité de la peinture : essais sur la représentation au Quattrocento, Paris : Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2006, (L’Histoire et ses représentations)

Perspective : actualités de la recherche en Histoire de l’art, Paris : Revues Armand Colin, 2006

Texte intégral

1The publishing fate of Louis Marin’s Opacité de la peinture is an exemplary case in point. It was published in 1989 by a promising if short-lived publisher, but remained impossible to find for many years. The articles brought together under this title represent a high point in the theoretical thinking of their author, adapting to objects that are central to art history: some of the most famous of Italian Renaissance fresco cycles, a corpus of Tuscan Annunciations, methods of thought and concepts hitherto formulated essentially in the linguistic and then literary field, where semiology has been enjoying a boom. Which is not to say that art history is being overlooked, particularly in its iconological dimension, in these essays, where Marin also reveals his impressive culture. It is true, however, that art history is subject to the greater importance of a theoretical investigation intended to once again grasp the way pictorial objects function as such, as well as in their use for the purposes of producing an iconic narrative. For many years it was feared that, precisely because of its theoretical ambition, served (or otherwise) by a “dated” form of writing, in so much as it hides nothing of the notional ferment underpinning the line of thought, the book might be buried by an art history that didn’t seem to be taking any interest in its lessons. And it is the very opposite that occurred. Here it is once again, complete, this time around, with colour illustrations and plates that are so beautiful that they almost turn it into an art book, as well as an index which blazes within it various “cross circuits” which would have delighted Louis Marin.

  • 1 See notice n°011 in Critique d’art nº 27, spring 2006, p. 40.
  • 2 Careri, Giovanni. Envols d’amour. Le Bernin : montage des arts et dévotion baroque, Paris : Usher, (...)
  • 3 Nau, Clelia. Le Temps du sublime. Longin et le paysage poussinien, Rennes : Presses Universitaires (...)

2But this book’s comeback is not, single-handedly, going to usher in a revival of art history in France. It can only be interpreted as a sign of such a development if it concurs with others–which is the case. Without reverting to the publication of Giovanni Careri’s1 Gestes d’amour et de guerre, except to advertise the reissue of Envols d’amour2, his other book published by the same publisher as Marin’s, at least three recent books attest to the new awareness on the part of art history of the theoretical challenges of its object or–which comes to more or less the same thing–attest to a reconciliation-in-progress between art history and the philosophical dimension inherent to it. Clelia Nau’s Le Temps du sublime3, is a profoundly Marin-inspired book, if only because Marin laboured more than anyone else on the comparison between Poussin’s œuvre and an aesthetic notion hitherto associated, by way of a Kantian then Romantic prism effect, with the terribilità of Michelangelo and the Baroque movement. But Nau achieves a balance between art history and art theory which was not Marin’s prime concern. For her, first and foremost, theory is an historical fact, whence its toings and froings between Longin’s treatise with its Aristotelian sources, the interpretation of this text in the classical age and its distribution, in particular from Tasso to Poussin. In this configuration there emerges a sublimeness of restraint not to say asceticism–of the same ilk as Poussin turned into one of his own styles of painting. C. Nau thus reveals the aesthetic and moral line of thought espoused by Nicolas Poussin by way of his two major landscape series.

  • 4 Cousinié, Frédéric. Beautés fuyantes et passagères : la représentation et ses “objets-limites” aux (...)

3Unlike C. Nau, who was close to Daniel Arasse, Frédéric Cousinié does not a priori follow in Marin’s footsteps. The design that joins together the studies for Beautés fuyantes et passagères4 is just as much that of an art history that is keenly attentive to the effects of meaning in the objects it offers itself. The author is quite clear when he draws up his project: questioning a “set of objects [...] which function like so many critical operators whose property [...] is to introduce the differences and boundaries earmarked for the different artistic, disciplinary, social and even political fields of any given society.” The pictorial representation of the word and the architectural representation of glory, or the sculptural rendering of the gentle gracefulness of flesh are all artistic involvements (and Cousinié takes a close look at several others, too) which exercise the definition of their own praxis, using the reflective wherewithal of art; the links between art and the other disciplines in the configuration of an epistémè that is all the more complex because it has seen, throughout the classical age, the religious and theological paradigm of gradually yielding to a scientific approach to the physical world; and lastly art history itself, which has to face up to the history that art presents itself with, forever re-adjusting its relationship to its own ancient origin, to its progress where relevant, to the end purposes it assigns itself, and to the challenges it creates for itself. Sagging at times beneath the weight of their erudition, Cousinié’s studies do in any event have the great merit of accepting the epistemological risk that the work of art incurs.

4Lastly, in its first issue, the magazine Perspective is almost the manifesto of this new trend which seems to be coming to the fore in art history as practised in France. Published quarterly, its contents are billed as encompassing a diachronic approach (Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Modern period, the Contemporary period), a geographical approach (the year’s second issue will be combined with a special section on art history in a particular country), and a thematic approach. By some happy surprise, the Antiquity section opens with a lengthy interview with Vernant, in which the Hellenist goes back over his works on imagery and the category of the double in ancient Greece, specifying their link with art history and archaeology, before developing nothing less than a personal interpretation of dreams, that is at once mind-boggling and enthralling. Historians of ancient art are thus agreed with Vernant in thinking about this difference, before coming up with two rich prospects for works on Greek painting and Roman sarcophagi. Mediaevalists are not to be outdone, either: a lengthy and helpful study of the recent historiography of art in France around 1400 is preceded by a discussion between art historians assessing the mediocre reception in France of Meyer Shapiro’s works on romanesque art. We can only welcome the birth of an art history magazine under such auspices. The publishing comeback of Marin, the reference to Shapiro–who adds his weight to the contents of the magazine’s editorial, referring to “the fruitfulness of art histories, plural” and the involvement of the discipline in the contemporary debate–all signs, mutually backing one another up, that things are on the move where art history is concerned in France.

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1 See notice n°011 in Critique d’art nº 27, spring 2006, p. 40.

2 Careri, Giovanni. Envols d’amour. Le Bernin : montage des arts et dévotion baroque, Paris : Usher, 1990, (Histoire et théorie de l’art)

3 Nau, Clelia. Le Temps du sublime. Longin et le paysage poussinien, Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2005, (Æsthetica)

4 Cousinié, Frédéric. Beautés fuyantes et passagères : la représentation et ses “objets-limites” aux XVIIe-XVIIIe siècles, Paris : Gérard Monfort, 2005

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Référence électronique

Bruno Nassim Aboudrar, « Good News for Art History? », Critique d’art [En ligne], 28 | Automne 2006, mis en ligne le 01 février 2012, consulté le 19 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/critiquedart.985

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