Skip to content

The Argument Against Linear Art History

In the Hegelian perspective, art reflects the spirit of the times. Linear art history is a history of styles in which this zeitgeist is expressed, which follow each other chronologically.

French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman questions the traditional view of anachronism and art history, from which the term ‘displaced resemblance’ emerged. In his opinion, the model of time is dynamic, and is something that goes against the linear progression of history that Hegel proposes. Art historical fact, he proposes, is not something that has always existed, rather it comes into being, and is created, by individuals who are expressing their own historical perspective. Indeed, he attacks the ‘historicity of history itself’.

0b33095d040af037198f05667966a668.jpg
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, ca. 1438-45

Didi-Huberman does this by analyzing the paintings of Fra Angelico and arguing that they, like all paintings, are a collage of different, heterogenous times. He explains that the notion that a painting can have a stable origin in time is impossible simply due to the many influences, some perhaps undocumented or lost to history, that a painter and a painting is subjected to. Should one consider this aspect, then it would become problematic to apply a cultural-historical approach of context or a stylistic, chronological analysis to any artwork or artist. There is an undeniable dynamic between past and present, and it is us who give meaning to history, not history itself. The idea that art historians might be able to understand the contemporary meaning of a Fra Angelico painting for example, and what the contemporary viewer would infer from it, is therefore somewhat preposterous.

To be anachronistic is to commit the cardinal sin of art history. In Didi-Huberman’s thesis however, this notion is turned on its head by arguing that you cannot do without an anachronistic approach. By arguing that art history is inherently (and inescapably) an anachronistic discipline, Didi-Huberman is suggesting that history is fluid and that anachronism could be applied as a strategy. Indeed, this notion that a painting can be placed in dialogue with the present and other pasts is an intriguing one. That scholars have come to the presumption that certain ideas or notions were not possible at a specific time in history is not difficult to imagine. The trans-historical concept of detaching oneself from this idea of a ‘zero-point’ or historical absolution stirs the pot of the established linear art history approach. As stated by Art Historian Ada Cohen, Didi-Huberman’s embrace of anachronism «counter the simplistic understanding of temporality merely as linear change and make us reflect on our rhetoric of contextualization» (Cohen, 11). Certainly, this concept has made me re-think the approach to which I have studied art history.

Cohen, A. (2010). Art in the era of Alexander the Great: paradigms of manhood and their cultural traditions. Cambridge University Press.

Didi-Huberman, G. (1995). Fra Angelico: dissemblance and figuration. University of Chicago Press.

Inspired by Prof. Dr. Robert Zwijnenberg’s lecture ‘Didi-Huberman on Fra Angelico’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: