Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 7, 2022
Chari Larsson Didi-Huberman and the Image Manchester University Press, 2020. 208 pp. Cloth $130.00 (9781526149268)

Didi-Huberman and the Image by Chari Larsson is the first book-length study in English of the work of French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman, with a focus on his theories about images. Given the fact that Didi-Huberman has written over fifty books in a career spanning four decades and that he is one of the most well-known French theorists of images, such a study is long overdue. In French, German, and Spanish art history and visual studies, Didi-Huberman’s work is an established reference point, awarded with prestigious accolades such as the Adorno Prize. That his work has never received a similar reception in the English-speaking academic world as that of some of his French contemporaries is a bit of an enigma. As possible explanations for this, Larsson points to the “French-ness” of his work (5) building on a specifically French tradition of art history, as well as some theoretical disagreements early in his career with prominent scholars in the American discourse about art and photography, such as Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois (over the interpretation of Georges Bataille’s notion of l’informe).

While around a dozen of Didi-Huberman’s books have been translated into English, he is mostly known in the US in Holocaust studies for his book Images in Spite of All. In it, he analyzes four photographs that were taken in Birkenau in an effort to defend their importance against critics who argue that images can never convey the full horror of the extermination camps. Although his approach in Images is characteristic of his output around this topic, it is only one aspect of his vast and ever expanding body of work, which consists of studies of topics as diverse as the paintings of Fra Angelico, the photographs of Jean-Martin Charcot, and the work of Georges Bataille, Aby Warburg, Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Bloch, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. His oeuvre multiplies by several volumes annually, exploring similar concerns in seemingly diverse subject matters. Because of the interrelated aspect of his books and the recurrence of similar topics throughout various works, his corpus is starting to resemble one vast archive, in the tradition of the unfinished projects of the two authors who are the biggest influences on Didi-Huberman’s work: the Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin and Mnemosyne Atlas by Aby Warburg. The sheer number of books written by Didi-Huberman can make finding one’s way through them rather daunting.

In Didi-Huberman and the Image, Larsson follows a largely chronological approach and much of the book is devoted to Didi-Huberman’s earliest writings in art history. She helpfully situates his early theoretical approach within a particularly French art historical tradition, namely that established by the scholars at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in Paris which critiques the prevailing Hegelianism and focus on mimesis in the history of art as well as philosophers such as Louis Marin. Situating the beginnings of Didi-Huberman’s theories historically within a specifically French art historical and philosophical context is one of the strongest and well-researched aspects of Larsson’s book.

In the first chapter, Larsson traces the influence of Foucault’s notion of “archeology” and Freud’s theories about the symptom on Didi-Huberman’s work. In his early study of the photographs made by Charcot of his so-called hysterical patients in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, Didi-Huberman distinguished Charcot’s approach from Freud’s approach to symptoms. While Charcot wanted to reduce the multiplicity of symptoms to visible patterns, Freud emphasized the diversity and complexity of symptomatic expressions. Following Freud, Didi-Huberman sees in images the complex, entangled, and singular manifestations of desires. This is further developed in chapter 2, which clarifies Didi-Huberman’s reading of the work of Vermeer and Fra Angelico, making a distinction between what he calls the “pan” and the detail. While the detail allows for a mimetic reading of a painting, the pan disrupts any attempt at doing so. The pan, small patches of color, cannot be explained in terms of resemblance to something. Instead, Didi-Huberman regards them as symptomatic expressions which cannot be understood in terms of figurative iconography. In chapter 3, Larsson clarifies how Didi-Huberman rethinks the temporality of art works under the influence of Benjamin and Warburg. As opposed to chronological art histories, Didi-Huberman is interested in gestures that recur in various images across time, appearing as anachronisms in different contexts. In his view, these gestures cannot be traced back to one specific origin but appear in various contexts and interwoven temporalities. Chapter 4 focuses on one rather specific aspect of Didi-Huberman’s work, namely his theory about the imprint (empreinte) and how he uses this to critique prevailing theories about indexicality. As opposed to the photographic theory of the index as developed by Rosalind Krauss and others, Didi-Huberman uses the liminal art form of the imprint to propose a theory of indexicality as a lack, or as he calls it, a vestige. Chapter 5 explores his theories about images and the Holocaust, as developed in Images in Spite of All and other books as well as his reading of the movie Son of Saul. Finally, chapter 6 clarifies the role of montage in Didi-Huberman’s work, which he regards as an epistemological tool. Throughout the series of books that he calls The Eye of History (L’oeil de l’histoire), Didi-Huberman explores various kinds of montage of images as a form of knowledge. Montage, in his view, is an invaluable method to explore and comprehend traumatic historical events, from Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel to Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma.

With such a massive and diverse oeuvre, a book about Didi-Huberman will always have to balance what to include and what to omit. Larsson’s interests extend mainly to the earlier art historical writings, while the topics and approaches Didi-Huberman explored in the last decade are only briefly covered by comparison. She devotes, for example, a section of the book to Didi-Huberman’s reading of the work of painter Simon Hantaï, but his recent writings and curatorial activities concerning the topic of uprisings and his exploration in various recent books of what he calls a political iconography are left aside. Scholars interested in the more explicitly political turn of Didi-Huberman’s recent books will find less about this in Larsson’s book. Larsson manages nevertheless to superbly clarify all the key concepts, concerns, and influences that are important to understand his work.

For Didi-Huberman, crucial for the activity of critique is a certain style or form, and one of the reasons his work is so admired is his highly literary and shamelessly beautiful writing style. He regards writing—more specifically, writing in a style which will affect the reader—as an important aspect of his work. I believe it is here that the obstacles surface around his reception in the English-speaking world. English readers will remain lukewarm about his books unless excellent translators are able to convey the sheer beauty of his writing. Didi-Huberman himself seems to have given up the hope that his particular writing style can be adequately rendered into English. In Pour commencer encore, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the English translation of his study of Warburg, The Surviving Image (96). Hopefully, future translators will be able to give English readers as much joy exploring the fascinating works of Didi-Huberman as his French readers. Meanwhile, scholars studying his work now have a well-researched and very helpful monograph to help them find their way through the labyrinthine oeuvre of Didi-Huberman. Hopefully, more studies of his work will follow to give Didi-Huberman the scholarly attention in the English academic world that he deserves.

Stijn De Cauwer
Postdoctoral researcher, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven