No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

by Jonah Coman, University of St Andrews

Coman1In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C),[i] one can find one of the most bizarre depictions of human interactions with the crucifix. The miniature shows a kneeling Benedictine nun, her black and white robes flowing in front of her, calmly looking at a crucifix with her hands folded in prayer. From the textured wooden crucifix, an emaciated but smiling Christ has descended and stands on her ample habit, maybe even pinning it down. Both of his feet, and one of the hands, are pierced through with three massive iron nails, and all of his limbs are marked with the bleeding sores of crucifixion. His right hand hovers in front of the nun’s face, as if to show her from up close the bleeding wound left by the fourth nail in his palm. But that fourth nail is not affixed to his body anymore; in fact, the big iron peg is now stuck in the nun’s face, both ends visible on the surface of her cheeks. Is this a ‘compassio Christi’ gone remarkably literal?

The story accompanying it locates the event under the influence of English kings, at the (unidentified) Benedictine convent of Fontanblay.[ii] The nun kneeling was said to be of an unsurpassed beauty, and an equal devotion to her convent’s sculptures of Mary and Christ. Every time she would pass by the figures, she would kneel and greet them with an Ave and a cross. This nun nevertheless has captured the attentions of a young knight in the town, and she returned his affections. So much so, that she has planned to one day sneak out of the convent and run away with him; but in order to do that, she would have to go by the two sculptures she usually venerated. The nun, either still out of devotion, or so that she wouldn’t tip her sisters off, or still out of a quasi-animistic concern that she would tip off the statues themselves, went by and kneeled in front of the figures on her way out. At that point, Mary, who understood her intent, started scolding her, and Christ himself descended from the cross, removed one of his nails, and struck the nun with it across the face, so that it went through her cheeks. ‘After dealing the blow, Christ crucified returned to the cross just as he had been before, except that his right arm forever after remained in the position in which it had wounded the nun’. The modified position of the sculpture itself worked another miracle in the conversion of the knight, through visual confirmation if the truth: ‘When the knight heard about it, he could not believe it. To be sure he went to the convent to see what had happened. Once he has learned the truth about what had happened he considered himself a great sinner and repented of all the sins…’[iii]

The story above, like others mentioned in this chapter, are tales of interaction of medieval audiences with what appears to be life-size, mobile Christs. Nevertheless, very few scholars explicitly associate them with a specific typology in the plastic arts, and especially sculpture, of the middle ages. Such life-size Christs were not just the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but have existed in Europe throughout the middle ages – massive wooden bodies, from the size of a small adult up to three metres tall, were habitually hung on the crosses above the nave. A special subset of these is formed by sculptures capable of moving their hands, bowing down, or even rolling their eyes and wagging their tongue, what Kamil Kopania terms ‘animated sculptures’.[iv] These sculptures appear in scholarship on established communal theatrical rites, such as processions and Easter sepulchral dramas, which used articulated Christ from the local cross as a multi-purpose prop for enacting the descent, burial and resurrection. [v] Nevertheless, their presence in the community outside of these ritualized moments, and their significance as presences, rather than props, has not been yet enquired.

Kamil Kopania considers this work on sepulchral drama as preliminary studies that explain the function and liturgical use of such statues, but do not address provenance, survival, construction and over-all physical aspects of the sculptures.[vi] His comprehensive cataloguing study comes as new knowledge in an art historical field already disgruntled with traditional analysis of art based on materials. His Animated Sculptures of Christ is, nevertheless, a needed addition to the field – as three-dimensional and emotional objects, these sculptures cannot be studied in isolation of their materiality. Only by taking into consideration their size and physical presence can their emotional impact be assessed. Coman 2and3In this essay, I take the materiality of the sculptures as a starting point, and, through the exploration of what this materiality implies, I arrive at the same destination as the knight in our story: at a meditation on the questions of truth that this sort of life-size figures pose.

The medieval story I started with is one of many taken from exempla as well as vitae, where sculptures of the crucified Christ become animated. Lukardis of Oberweimar reacted out of compassion for the man when, dreaming of walking around in her convent ‘into a certain portal’ (per quoddam ostium), she saw ‘Jesus Christ as if recently crucified on a cross’ (in quo Iesum Christum recenter cruci quasi iam affixum). Seeing a dangling hand (implicitly jointed) that has come loose from its peg and therefore left all Christ’s weight resting in only two nails, she tried to allay the pain of the crucified by tying it back to the rood.[vii] Rupert of Deutz saw the big crucifix above the altar he was praying at not only bow down to embrace him, but also ‘sensed how joyfully [a sculpted crucifix] received this gesture of love, since as he was being kissed he opened his mouth, that I might kiss him more deeply.’[viii] In 1340s, Margaret Ebner’s similar desire to kiss the altar crucifix came true in a dream when ‘my Lord Jesus Christ bent down from the cross and let me kiss His open heart and gave me to drink of the blood flowing from His heart’.[ix] This kind of feeding at Christ’s side-wound is not unusual for mystics of the period, although this story, and the one of Luitgard of Luxemburg, emphasize the concrete sculptural form the crucified takes in these encounters:

Christ came to meet her at the very entrance of the church, all bloody and nailed to the Cross. Lowering his arm which was attached to the Cross, he embraced her who was standing opposite and pressed her mouth against the wound in his right side.[x]

In MS Ludwig IX.7, St Hedwig of Silesia prays ‘prostrated’ in front of a crucifix that comes to life to gesture and talk ‘with a loud voice’ to the woman.[xi] The illuminator directs the extra-textual spectator’s reading of the right-arm motion of the crucified towards Hedwig in a concrete way emphasizing its body: ‘Here, detaching his right hand and arm (manum et brachium dextrum) from the cross beam, the image of the crucified (ymago c[ru]cifixi) blesses St. Hedwig’.


In all these narratives, as well as in images accompanying or independent of this sort of texts, the dangling right arm (always dextra, as counterpart of sinistra, where the sinners would rest) of the explicitly sculptural crucifix is read in multiple ways. It slaps the English nun, embraces Rupert, droops painfully in front of Lukardis, presses Luitgard’s head to Christ’s side, or points towards his side-wound in a donor portrait in the prayerbook of Bonne of Luxembourg.


This gesture of the crucified interacting with believers are treated as visionary or miraculous events, but they benefit from concrete, material support onto which the medieval imagination was able to map familiar gestures. Christ’s arm movement, kisses and intense gaze can be explained as the effect of articulated Christ sculptures witnessed in motion. Even though not all, not even a majority, of crucifixes were articulated, the stark impression the few animated Christs make on anybody witnessing it can then be mapped on a regular, unmoving crucifix. Once the viewer acknowledges the reality of sculptures in motion, any crucifix has the potential to animate, especially the highly affective, highly dynamic ones characteristic of the high and late middle ages. This contamination of imagery and imagination can be observed by comparing the manuscript images of crucifixion encounters with 12th century Romanesque Christs. Sculpted in a dynamic pose as if frozen during the descent from the cross, originally part of a larger devotional group, these images of the crucified alone could have been, by the 14th century, viewed in isolation from their original ensemble. [xii]

Coman 6 through 9

With their dramatic bend of the torso and the drooping arm, not quite fully surrendered to gravity, they seem to extend their right hand to caress, slap or hug the viewer. Not a lot of imaginative effort is required to envision these sculptures as suddenly animated, especially if moving sculptures of Christ already exist in the experiential horizon of the viewer.

The capacity for mutation and contamination of medieval religious sculpture has been demonstrated by scholars specifically working on medieval crucifixions. Sara Lipton asserts that ‘we can trace in these [diachronically] different depictions of Christ’s body visual characteristics that seem to align with contemporary devotional trends’,[xiii] while Lutz notes that artists and viewers adapted to and influenced each other in the design and reception of crucifixes.[xiv] This way, the 12-13th  century meditations on the crucifix imagine Christ bloody on the cross, even though the long-established iconography of the time was still the unbroken, quietly dignified pose that Rachel Fulton called Redeemer Christ;[xv] and Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the crucifix reveals that the materiality of his stigmata are quite plastic, closely mimicking the sculptural conventions  – not cavernous wounds but protruding simulacra of nails grown from his own flesh, and a side-wound where ‘the flesh was contracted into a sort of circle, so that it looked like a beautiful rose.’[xvi]

Coman 10

The relation between text and imagery, as well as the extent to which the trope of the moving sculpture infused the psychology of the medieval believer, can be mapped by using Sara Lipton’s case study. In cataloging viewer interaction with crucifix statues, Lipton has identified and collected one specific trope of the crucified slumping body of Christ read as one of the gestures compiled above: the motion towards an embrace and a kiss.

Therefore S. Bernard said: Who is he that is not ravished to hope of affiance which taketh none heed to the disposition of his body? He hath his head inclined to be kissed, the arms stretched to embrace us, his hands pierced to give to us, the side open to love us, the feet fixed with nails for to abide with us, and the body stretched all for to give to us[xvii]

This specific image appears in fourteen variations across the medieval Latinate and vulgate Christianity, spanning four hundred years.[xviii] The trope of the embrace, associated by Jacobus of Voragine with Bernard, was already a commonplace imagery in English miscellanies before it was widely disseminated by the Passio Christi chapter in the Latin Legenda Aurea and its vernacular translations. Manuscript copies of this work abounded even before being given a boost by Caxton’s own translation and print of the Legenda. This is just one of many tropes; the diversity of meaning the gesture has (blessing, punishment etc), as well as the wide geographical area of its spread attests to a quasi-animistic lay thinking about local sculptures of Christ.


If the statue moves for Easter, and for other special sermons, why could he not move in personal encounters with true believers? If the statue is capable of animation, then what keeps it from springing into life at any point?

The likeness with live humans was not just a result of the lifelike size and the affected poses of the statues of the crucified. Exceptional survivals like the ‘Mirakelmann from Döbeln’, highly jointed, with real human hair, fingernails and flexible skin, and capable of bleeding, should not discourage the scholar to investigate farther this type of sculptures. Kamil Kopania catalogues more than 150 figures with different degrees of articulation (see map), and he does not take into consideration other non-jointed, but still quasi-skeuomorphic sculptures.


The credibility of these sculptures was preserved by concealing the joints articulating head, hands (shoulders, elbows and wrists, as well as fingers), knees and hips of sculptures – which allowed it to perform a far larger set of movements than those required during the Easter sepulchre dramas – with skin-coloured leather, parchment or bone glue paste.[xix] The Christ sculptures of Burgos, Valvasone and Orense are covered in calf leather over a soft wool padding, which makes their body give to pressure – these sculptures are especially designed to be touched, and not just witness from a distance. Several examples have human hair and horn nails;[xx] other narratives of sculptures covered in parchment or leather imitating skin can be found in literature.[xxi] The Burgos, Döbeln and Boxley Christs could bleed from the side wound thanks to a liquid tank in the chest cavity. Another three sculptures, including the Boxley rood, the best documented but by no means the first or the only English artefact, have movable tongues and eyes, allowing them to conceivably perform the kissing, whispering and gazing that contemporary descriptions of animated Christ mention: ‘the iȝen of the ymage be turned hidirward and thidirward, and that the ymage semyngli speke.’[xxii]

So how did these animated sculptures of the crucified Christ perform in a medieval, emotional version of the Turing test? As the stories collected at the beginning of this essay demonstrate, this sort of moving images suffused the collective imagination of the Christian believers and cropped up as miracle tropes as well as in mundane depictions of interactions with the crucified. If from afar, and in candlelight, these Christs flickered between animated and static, between object and subject ‘hover[ed] in the gap between the visible and the visionary’, closeness to the statue could bring even more awareness in the spectator of the status of the image as human. [xxiii] Their size and weight, experienced in the process of (re)moving, cleaning, or praying to, the way they filled the space with presence creating slight changes in the air pressure, the way the breath and whispers of the believer bounced off the material reality of the body, imbuing it with its own echoed breath and whispers, and especially the somewhat uncanny give of the skin and slight sway of the hair, are all tools for emotional recall. This is a process Sara Lipton calls

‘resemblance and relation. The [spectator] roams freely within his visual memory, personal history, and cultural world in his search for images and gestures similar to, and therefore of significance for, the images and gestures of the artwork before his eyes…’[xxiv]

Jacqueline Jung also considers these statues as interpretable multi-dimensional texts that draw their power from memory and imagination: ‘the figures are best thought of as embodied templates for imaginative projection.’[xxv] These assessments are as poetic as they are deeply attuned to the medieval mnemonic and meditative practices, but I would like to slightly challenge the direction of their argument.

Sara Lipton’s focus on the gesture of the embrace emphasizes the dialogical dimension of these encounters. On two different occasions, she prompts the modern reader to see devotional art ‘as initiating a dialogue or conversation’, whether in one specific moment or ‘across many centuries’.[xxvi] This narrative of the dialogical relationship emphasizes difference of bodies and creation of ‘other’ in relation to an abstracted self. I communicate with him therefore he exists outside my body; I touch him therefore he is a physical entity separate from my own. Instead of the ‘other’ that dialogue presupposes, I propose reading these encounters through the Lacanian ‘mirror’ perspective. Lacan’s mirror, that stands at the core of the formation of self, is not a literal, but a metaphorical one: it is the body of mother or lover mirrors the self and represents the ideal ego.[xxvii] Recognition of these Christ images as human – by their size, materiality, and ability to move, speak and bleed – (re)materializes the self as reflection of Imago Dei. This is a concern prevalent in mystical and theological discourse of the 13-15th centuries, but, as Alexa Sand demonstrates, it is also reflected in the lay concern with mirrors, death and the body mortal.[xxviii]

The humanness, three-dimensionality, credibility and especially – and this is crucial – the essentially Christian incarnational belief of the spectator faced with an image of God embodied all collaborated toward a moment of visceral recognition, of heightened sense of presence and of identity.[xxix] Through acutely human, self-actualizing experiences like pain, revulsion, arousal, and terror, the believer is reminded of self as Imago Dei and, faced with his image, of Christ as god incarnate.[xxx] I touch him and he touches me; he suffered pains that I could suffer and I bleed like he bled; I understand his pain because he is like me – human fully. The three-dimensional sculptures of the crucifixion especially, but also visual and narrative cues (the blood of the crucifixion, the pains and tortures described) more generally, drive home one of the most important truths of the Christian church: the incarnation. Sand’s intuition about statues of Mary – that it is not her lifelike appearance, but her humanity (which allow her to give birth to Christ but also to be vengeful) make her statues so effective[xxxi] -productively maps on the crucified Christ examples. The impact of the imago crucifixi is doubly effective since Christ’s humanity – that allow him to caress the viewer as well as to suffer on the cross – is the fundamental dogma of the medieval church, and one that was over and over rehearsed through theological works as well as popular sermons.

Modern as well as medieval scholars have been concerned with the authenticity these statues assert with their presence. Echoing Lollard and other medieval iconoclastic ideas, Elina Gertsman re-emphasizes the incongruity between the ontological status of the figures and the recognition they demand.

‘The statue makes a claim for reality, for truth, not least through the use of real epidermis to render skin, real keratin to render nails, real human hair to frame his face. But this reality produces a corpse, pale and leeched of life.’[xxxii]

Nevertheless, the truth that is constructed in the encounter between the statue and spectator is, as I theorize it, in the body of the believer and not in the manufactured simulacrum of a human. The pale corpse is alive through the inspiration of the believer, through the act of imagining or believing, which makes it move not by ropes and pedals, but by imagination – Margaret Ebner, Lukardis and Rupert of Deutz gave life to the statues because they believed they were indeed alive. The real epidermis shell is filled with animation/animus by the human who understands the skin as part of the stuff of incarnation; this (re)animation of statues is, in a way, building a real presence from material and inspiration just like the Creation (Genesis 2:7 Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae, et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae) and, by its Chalcedonian nature, the Incarnation does.

This theoretical approach might seem to be a far-fetched animistic approach spurred by modern familiarity with robotronic fantasies that glorify, nonetheless, the human intellect behind the machine. Yet the Welsh-born bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock (d.1461), made the same kind of comparison between the ontology of animated sculptures (idols) and that of Christ:

People thought that the spirits would join themselves with the images in a complicated process incomprehensible to human perception, and that the spirit and the image combined in some inexplicable way would be a perceptible god; somewhat like the way we Christians believe that God descended into humankind and united to himself a human individual.[xxxiii]

For Pecock, idolatry was akin to the incarnation; but in the case of the sculptures of Christ, where the believer would not (or at least, was supposed not to) believe that the actual Christ resided, the similar process taking place was in fact not idolatry. The arguments of Lollards, a group that so adamantly condemned multiple practices of the institutional church, against image-based devotion construed it as ‘ner of kyn to ydolatrie’, but not idolatry quite yet.[xxxiv] The idol-worshipper believed that his god resided in the image – the image would be animated with the spirit of the god; the orthodox Christian believed that her god did not reside in this one specific image, but that the image signified him – in a sophisticated Christian semiology seen best at work in the Eucharist[xxxv] – and that the sculpture was animated by her imagination and belief.

So why do all the images that I found in narrative and illumination resemble the semi-detached Christ of the deposition? What makes this motif so appealing and iconic that it appears over and over again across time, space and story matter? One can use stylistic shifts around the period in order to explain the different approach of the viewer to the new motif, and therefore a feeling of uncanny and uncertainty around the new, more expressive sculptures, like Sand did with sculptures of Mary.[xxxvi] Nevertheless, this essay offered an alternative possibility predicated on the Europe-wide examples of jointed sculptures of Christ. By their ability to prompt the thrill or fear of the crucified suddenly coming alive because of their inherent animation mechanisms, I have shown that artifice – that is, the fabricated and staged sculpture, that represents the incarnated Christ in his most human of moments – can substitute, or better still, re-actualize nature. Contact with a credible simulacrum of embodiment and pain can bring one to recognition of the self, and therefore of the human, in her god. This process rests on witnessing the physicality of the sculptures, and on coming into close proximity, or even contact, with the inviting body of these figures. Intimate touch, therefore, is the key to this incarnational epiphany, a direct body contact that crucial to the very scene of the deposition, and sought by the medieval believer.

Coman14 and 15

Direct body contact produces an extremely visceral sense of truth, and body contact with a material Christ produced the truth of his incarnation. That that body is art, or artifice, idol, or inspired representation of god, it does not matter in the end; what matters is the knowledge that this contact brings.

Visiting the Christ of Burgos in the middle of the 19th century, Theophile Gautier was seriously disturbed by its appearance and the myths surrounding it:

Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle. It requires no great effort of imagination to give credence to the legend that it bleeds every Friday.[xxxvii]

For him, this sculpture was the pinnacle of ‘the craving for the true, however revolting,’ a characteristic that he ascribed to Spanish art as a whole, but which could be said to be the impulse for a lot of high and late medieval art. For Gautier, as well as for the nun that I started with, the tangible, credible materiality of the crucified sculpture provides a visceral jolt of (self)-recognition and maybe, a return to belief in the fundamental Christian paradox, a dead god made human.


[i] One of the seven surviving medieval copies of the Castilian mirror for princes attributed to King Sancho IV (1258-1295) ‘Castigos del rey don Sancho IV’. Colbert I. Nepaulsingh, ‘Notes for a Study of Wisdom Literature and Literary Composition in Medieval Spain’, in Hispanic Studies, Madison, Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies 1986, ed. John S. Miletich, pp.217-222; Barry Taylor, ‘Old Spanish Wisdom Texts: Some Relationships’, La corónica 1985 (14), pp.71-85.

[ii] The story closely resembles one episode (vol. I, distinction VII, capitulum XLIV) from Cesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1220-1235), with the twist of the end action by the statue of Christ and not of Mary. See Alexa Sand’s summary in ‘Vindictive virgins: animate images and theories of art in some thirteenth-century miracle stories’, Word & Image 26 (2010), p.155. Cesarius’ story quickly found its way in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Sancho IV’s father, Alfonso X (1221-1284), but the mutation is peculiar to the Castigo.

[iii] ‘Castigo del Rey don Sancho’, chp.19, translated by Emily C. Francomano, Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English translations, ed. Mark David Johnston, Kathleen M Ashley, (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2009) pp.217-221.

[iv] Kamil Kopania, Animated Sculptures of the Crucified Christ in the Religious Culture of the Latin Middle Ages (Warszawa: Wydawn. “Neriton”, 2010).

[v] Easter sepulchre animations: Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Early drama, art, and music reference series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI : Medieval Institute Publications, 1987); Clifford Davidson, ‘The Bodley ‘Christ’s Burial’ and ‘Christ’s Resurrection’: Vernacular Dramas for Good Friday and Easter’, European Medieval Drama 7 (2003), pp. 51-67; Osborne Bennett Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, (Baltimore 1965), pp. 253-283; Peter Meredith, ‘The Bodley Burial and Resurrection’: Late English liturgical drama?’, in Alan J. Fletcher, Wim Hlisken (eds.), Between Folk and Liturgy, (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 133-155.

[vi] Kopania, ‘”the Idolle That Stode There in Myne Opynyon a Very Monstrous Sight”: On a Number of Late-Medieval Animated Figures of Crucified Christ’, in Materiał Rzeźby, ed. Aleksandra Lipińska (2009), pp.132-3.

[vii] “Vita venerabilis Lukardis,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1899), pp.305‒67 (314) cited in Jacqueline Jung, ‘The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination’ in Looking Beyond: Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), pp.217-18 and n.63.

[viii] Sara Lipton, ‘”The Sweet Lean of His Head”: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages,’ Speculum 80 (2005), pp.1175-6.

[ix] Margaret Ebner, “Revelations,” in Margaret Ebner, Major Works, transl. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p.96.

[x] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, transl. Barbara Newman, Margot H. King, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), p.228.

[xi] ‘Ubi dum in oracione prostrata moram faceret, ut solebat, ymago iam dicta manum et brachium dextrum de ligno crucis absolvens extendensque ipsam benedixit dicens voce sonora: Exaudita est oracio tua et, que postulas, inpetrabis’ transcribed in Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.215 n.58

[xii] Carla Varela Fernandes, ‘Pathos – the bodies of Christ on the Cross. Rhetoric of suffering in wooden sculpture found in Portugal, twelfth-fourteenth centuries. A few examples.’ RIHA Journal 0078, 2013.

[xiii] Sara Lipton, ‘Images in the world: reading the crucifixion,’ in Medieval Christianity in Practice, ed. Miri Rubin (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.180.

[xiv] Gerhard Lutz, ‘The Drop of Blood: Image and Piety in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.37.

[xv] Lutz, ‘Drop of blood’, p.39; Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[xvi] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, pp.223-4 n.85

[xvii] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, ed.F.S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 1900), Chp 12 ‘The Passion of our Lord’.

[xviii] Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, indexes several primary texts, of which I give a selection: Verse appended to the English text of the Ancrene Riwle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, fol. 131v) England, c. 1225-50; Collection of biblical and patristic distinctions (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 23447, fol. 23v), 13C; Devotional verse in Latin, French, and English (London, British Library, Add. MS 11579, fol. 36r-v), England, 13C; Middle English devotional verse or excerpt (Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol. 83v). England, c. 1250; Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, Italy, ca. 1260-63. Other famous medieval writers adopted the trope: Ramon Lull, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Richard Rolle of Hampole.

[xix] Kopania, Animated Sculptures, passim; Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.135.

[xx]Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.139.

[xxi] An interesting example is 13th and 14th C mechanic monkeys ‘with real (regularly replaced) skins.’ Jessica Riskin, “Machines in the Garden,” Republics of Letters 1:2 (2010), p.31.

[xxii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, Churchill Babington cited in Sarah Salih, “Idol Theory”, Preternature 4 (2015), p.31; Leanne Groeneveld, ‘A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet’, Early Theatre 10.2 (2007), p.18; Kopania, Animated Sculptures, pp.118, 156 n.117. Misericords with movable tongues in Winchester and Halifax, St John’s cathedral, are mentioned in Paul Hardwick, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p.167, and Kopania mentions a ‘bad thief’ with a similar construction.

[xxiii] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.155.

[xxiv] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.181

[xxv] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.219,220

[xxvi] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.185 Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, p.1201

[xxvii] Tamise Van Pelt, ‘Lacan in Context: An Introduction to Lacan for the English-Speaking Reader’, College Literature 24 (1997), p59.

[xxviii] Alexa Sand, ‘The fairest of them all: Reflections on some fourteenth-century mirrors’ in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed by Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 535, 544-5.

[xxix] In a somewhat similar manner, Hans Belting sees the body as a big organ receptive to reality from within: “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images, as it were… it is within the human being, and only within the human being, that images are received and interpreted in a living sense.” An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 37.

[xxx] Sand, ‘Reflections on mirrors’, pp.536, 558, touches on the latter two experiences, but does not give the rationale for their effectiveness.

[xxxi] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.157.

[xxxii] Elina Gertsman, ‘’Bewilderment Overwhelms Me’’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.8.

[xxxiii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), I.244–45 cited in Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.28

[xxxiv] Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.15

[xxxv] Michel Camille suggests to take the Eucharistic theology as framework for understanding late medieval ‘perception of images, for here a visible thing was itself capable of becoming and not just signifying its prototype.’ The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.217.

[xxxvi]  Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.150.

[xxxvii] Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1865.

On Matters, Materiality, and Materialism Entanglements with Art History

by Vanessa Badagliacca, New University of Lisbon

Addressing the significant role covered by materiality and matter as more than a superficial texture or feature to display the inherent meaning of artworks—whose content is generally considered as the unique herald to define and analyze them—it seems worthwhile mentioning Daniel Herwitz’s Aesthetics (2008) referring to Canova’s marble in sculpture.


Change the material and everything changes with it. The materiality of the finished form is something that cannot be abstracted from visual experience, or from meaning and effect. […] These things give truth to Hegel’s adage that ‘not all things are possible in all media of art’, and related, that it is the discovery of the potentialities of any given medium, their exploitation and indeed, creation, that defines the history of an art form as much anything else.”[i]


Herwitz’s assertiveness could lead the reader (a general reader external to the investigation in art history) to think about the central role of materiality in art as a given issue, but it is not. After a long marginalization of materiality in the arts over the last century, an interest in this field of enquiry finally emerged in the 1990s: the art historian Florence de Mèredieu provided an outstanding contribution with Histoire Matérielle & Immatérielle de l’Art Moderne (1994). In the introduction to her book she argued that “art history has always appeared as the result or the encounter of two opposed, and consequently, complementary factors: matter and form. […] Therefore, art history, for a large part, is that of its materials.”[ii] Nevertheless, she also acknowledged that, at least within the field of Western art, “it is noteworthy that these materials were relatively limited. […] Art, therefore, remained quartered for a long time in a relatively closed field of materials.”[iii] Moreover, she stated that every technique also evolved over the centuries, and consequently, de Mèredieu highlighted that, especially in the realm of European Avant-gardes at the beginning of the 20th century, artistic practices enriched and diversified themselves through the use of non-traditional materials .

Poor, recycled, industrial, inferred from nature, and even involving the human body, the materials of the 20th century inform one of an expansion in the realm of art, going hand in hand with the historical, economic, cultural, and societal developments of the century. In 1997 the art historian Adalgisa Lugli developed her investigations on Wunderkammern. Her approach—as Krzystof Pomian pointed out in the introduction to her volume—was stimulated by the conviction that an artwork cannot be treated as a text, in other words, “an artwork cannot be separated from its materiality.”[iv] This statement means that the choice of using one medium instead of another is not, and should not, be indifferent to the art historian, since that difference is foundational for the producer as well as for the consumer of a given art object.

At that time, the last decade of the 20th century, digital media were encountering a wide spread, which provoked the rise of visual studies as a field of interdisciplinary encounters. In this context, art history, traditionally the discipline devoted to the analysis of images and art objects, would lose its centrality. In that same period, art historian Carol Armstrong also emphasized the attention to the difference in materiality, in other words, to the use of a material instead of another for artistic purposes. Her statements, in fact, appeared in the “Visual Culture Questionnaire” published on, the journal October (1996), and directed to several art historians including Carol Armstrong.[v]

As a first remark, my aim is to follow Armstrong’s attention to artifacts in their materiality in a context broader than art history—as that of visual studies is. To that extent, I will appropriate a sentence formulated in 1980, “Do Artifacts have Politics ?”, the question entitling an article by Winner (1980). By transposing it into an affirmative sentence, inverting the order of the question, I would, therefore, argue that “artifacts do have politics,”[vi] and for this reason materiality should not be overlooked by art-historical studies. However, if we consider that art history might tend to privilege the visual aspects rather than the material ones, the image over the object, these references could be observed just as sporadic examples in this discipline. Nevertheless, more recently—precisely in the second decade of the 21st century—literature on art history and materiality have finally started to pay serious attention to this everything less than secondary aspect of art history.

Conversely, an essential part in archaeology research since the inception of the discipline in the 19th century, always involved the materiality of objects. “Material culture” is grounded on an analysis of material objects inherent to a specific context in which they were produced—especially in cases in which objects are the sole resources of information due to a lack of written documents. Apt to provide elements for knowledge on a specific culture, material culture has therefore been at the core of anthropology and sociology research as well. Regarding the relationship between material culture and art history, the art historian Michael Yonan argued


Materiality […] has been an implicit dimension of art-historical inquiry for more than a century, one that has suffered at the expense of other artistic qualities. Art history has tended to suppress its status as material culture even as it has flirted continuously with materiality, and this has evolved into a serious intellectual limitation. The prestige recently accorded to dematerializing approaches to art, which have resulted in a diminished concern for materiality in general, has only exacerbated the situation.[vii]


The issue of dematerialization stressed by Yonan underlines the importance of materiality in art. Moreover, Yonan also associated the disregard to material culture in art history as a theme which inevitably “overlaps with the larger concerns of historical materialism, which in art-historical discourse has meant a Marxist (or Marxist-inspired) history of art interested in the economic and therefore material conditions from which art is produced.”[viii] The materialist approach— inspired by Marxist historical materialism—would lead us to consider artworks as a commodity, an overly reductive perspective that has caused major resistance for applying it to art history.

At this point, it is important to underscore that the defense of materiality’s art as a perspective for art history research, neither me or Yonan (recalled here as a useful reference) or the art historians mentioned above, attempt to pursue any prevarication of materiality over the visual, but rather “to some extent it is possible to imagine visual culture and material culture as interrelated aspects of the same scholarly project.”[ix] Even“the digital image”, in its disembodied bi-dimensionality, “still requires a material means of conveyance […] to be seen.”[x] Moreover, I would add that the same technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they affect the way we access information differently, and interact with people, facts and things; in this case, the way we see an image.[xi] Afterwards, Yonan referred to the position previously defended by Armstrong in 1996. According to the latter, whether the advantages of including visual studies in art history, it threatens to conceal  the importance of materiality. She, therefore, concluded her intervention to the questionnaire arguing:


The material dimension of the objects is, in my view, at least potentially a site of resistance and recalcitrance, of the irreducibly particular, and of the subversively strange and pleasurable. It is again, at least potentially, a pocket of occlusion within the smooth functioning systems of domination, including the market, the hierarchical thought-structures, and subject-positionalities: a glitch in the great worldwide web of images and representations. […] [T]o subsume material objects within the model of “text” is to discredit and misunderstand the particular intelligence involved in material facture. And least, I would propose that the differences between kinds of production, be they literary, or pictorial, painterly, sculptural, photographic, filmic, or what have you, matter absolutely, that they are the source of whatever philosophical work it does, and that to ignore those differences is to submit utterly to the system of exchange and circulation in which any cultural object undeniably participates.[xii]


In continuity with Armstrong’s insight, Yonan pointed out that “the interdisciplinary practices of material culture” must be taken into account, and suggested “mov[ing] toward a more complete synthesis” between art history and material culture, also highlighting “that art has a physical, sensual dimension, and not just a visual one. […] The physical dimension is an indissoluble component of art’s capacity to mean.”[xiii] He eventually proposed, instead of the allegory of shadow represented by Plato’s cave in The Republic, to consider Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “in which the philosopher conceives the world not as traces of something else but as organized embodiments of matter and form.”[xiv] Following this path, according to Yonan, could have the only beneficial result of empowering art history.

Nevertheless, this attention to materiality in art historical and theoretical investigation has just begun, if we also consider the position of the Dutch art historian Ann-Sophie Lehmann. She opened up her recent essay “The Matter of the Medium: Some Tools for an Art-theoretical Interpretation of Materials” (2014) declaring: “Materials, in spite of their decisive role in determining the meaning and effects of visual artifacts, have long been overlooked in art-theoretical discussion.”[xv] According to her colleague and scholar in gender studies and philosophy Iris Van der Tuin, Lehmann coined the “4Ms”, which attempt to define “the precise relationships between matter, materials, materiality, and materialism.”[xvi] Her approach must be framed in the broader intellectual context of cultural theory, whose interest in matter has determined in recent years the so-called philosophy of New Materialisms. According to the initial theorists of this current, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost


For materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable. In sum, new materialists are rediscovering a materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transformation that compel us to think of causation in far more complex terms; to recognize that phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and focus and to consider anew the location and nature of capacities for agency.[xvii]


As Yanbing Er pointed out, the New Materialisms’ focus on matter involved also investigations in the fields of “material culture, eco-critical discourses, material feminisms, and science studies,” in the attempt not to abandon “the historical legacies of materialist thought,” but rather “to reconsider the notion of matter in “acknowledgement of the powerful constellation of geopolitical and biotechnological forces acting in the world today.”[xviii] These connections and inclusions towards pluralistic theoretical approaches, overcoming “the otherwise narrow boundaries of traditional academic disciplines,”[xix] highlight the transversal orientation of New Materialisms. The terms transversal, transversally, and transversality are repeatedly emphasized in Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies (2012) regarding different aspects.

In the first place, this theoretical approach dismantles the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. This cultural theory

Does not privilege matter over meaning or culture over nature. It explores a monist perspective, devoid of the dualisms that have dominated the humanities (and sciences) until today, by giving special attention to matter, which has been so neglected by dualist thought. Cartesian dualism, after all, has favored mind.[xx]


In second place, the transversality of New Materialism is also proposed as a “shift” from the

Dualist  gesture of prioritizing mind over matter, soul over body, and culture over nature that can be found in modernist as well as post-modernist cultural theories. […] In other words: a new materialism is constituted by demonstrating how the canonized relations between the aforementioned terms are in fact the outcomes of “power/knowledge” according to which Truth is an instantiation of a politics or régime, as Michel Foucault (1980) would have it.[xxi]


Moreover, renewed concern about the matter, materials, and materiality in artistic practices realized in the first years of the 21st century also coincides with a different approach to the objects in the ocean of production and consumption of them. In the realm of pollution, nature devastation and increasing amounts of waste, strategies such as recycling, reusing and even using less interrogate our own attitudes towards materiality even in our most ordinary activities. These concerns do not only belong, or can be relegated to, behavioral practices to which we can sympathize with, or have an interest in, but rather they have became a crucial necessity calling us to participate and take responsibility. Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (2012) is just an example of this kind of reflections in the artistic practices.

Particularly remarkable Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’ statements at the core of the theories around the New Materialisms:


As critically engaged theorists, we find ourselves compelled to explore the significance of complex issues such as climate change of global capital and population flows, the biotechnological engineering of genetically modified organisms, or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless, and virtual technologies. From our understanding of the boundary between life and death and our everyday work practices to the way we feed ourselves and recreate or procreate, we are finding our environment materially and conceptually reconstituted in ways that pose profound and unprecedented normative questions. In addressing them we unavoidably find ourselves having to think in new ways about the nature of matter and the matter of nature; about the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human.[xxii]

Facing “the elements of life, the resilience of the planet, and the distinction of the human,” the way the authors put them, in a time in which other philosophical perspectives replaced anthropocentrism, we should approach, more than ever, materiality as a resource for further investigations in the realm of art history. Regarding the most recent practice and theories of art, it is remarkable, in this context, the pivotal exhibition for the 21st century held in Kassel in 2012. In fact, curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev conceived Documenta 13, with a program that was the fruit of a “‘holistic and non-logocentric vision,’ whose associative structure insisted upon ‘a more balanced relationship with all the non-human makers with whom we share the planet and our bodies.’”[xxiii]  This kind of perspective may be adopted not only for the analysis of artistic practices occurring in our present time, but also to re-read and propose renewed perspectives in the study of past artistic practices. In a nutshell, the discipline of art history would be enriched by including materiality in lateral sense in its field of research.


[i] Daniel Herwitz, Aesthetics. Key Concepts in Philosophy, London, New York: Continuum, 2008, 139.

[ii] “L’art est toujours apparu comme la resultante ou la rencontre de deux facteurs opposés et, par voie de conséquence, complémentaires: la matière et la forme.” […] L’histoire de l’art est ainsi, pour une large part, celle de ses matériaux.” Florence de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Bordas, Paris, 1994, 1.

[iii] “Mais, si l’on reste dans le seul champ de l’art occidental, il convient de remarquer que ces matériaux son restés en nombre relativement restreint. […] L’art est donc resté cantonné longtemps dans un champ matériel relativement clos”. F. de Mèredieu, Histoire matérielle & immatérielle de l’art moderne, Cit., 1.

[iv] K. Pomian, “Adalgisa Lugli: materialità e significato dell’arte”, Introduction to Adalgisa Lugli, Wunderkammer. Le Stanze delle Meraviglie, Torino: Allemandi, 1997, 14.

[v] See “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October 77 (Summer 1996): 25–70. Available at <> (accessed in September 2015). Quoted by Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 239.

[vi] Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?, Daedalus, Vol. 109, No.1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), 121-136. I find extraordinary this kind of reflection having appeared already in 1980 and I think it can be useful to summarize its key points and arguments. In this article Winner suggested that technology is generally considered as a symptom by which we might recognize an authoritarian versus a democratic society. “We all know that people have politics, not things”, he argued and later added, “What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded.” He also noticed that this would be a easy conclusion for social scientists and, therefore, proposed a theory of technological politics, in the attempt of, not replacing, but rather complementing theories of social determination and technology (Marxism, for instance). The approach would pay “attention to the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.” For instance, Winner distinguished two ways that artefacts can contain political properties: 1) a specific invention, design or technical device can determine a particular social effect in a community (I would call it inductive) or; 2) when a particular political situation is the essential condition to establish a specific “man-made system” (I would call it deductive). He afterwards offered some examples of both ways, like Robert Moses’s buildings of roads, parks and public works (infrastructures) between the 1930s and 1970s in New York to create borders between upper and lower classes, white and black people; and the atomic bomb as “an inherently political artefact”.

[vii] Michael Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, in West 86th, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Fall-Winter 2011), The University of Chicago Press, 232-248: 233.

[viii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 235.

[ix] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239.

[x] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 239. Moreover, I would add that even technological devices are not neutrally interchangeable, since they different affect the way we access information, in this case, the way we see an image.

[xi] It seems appropriate remembering the writer Evgeny Morozov’s statement “Why technologies are never neutral”, which entitles the last part of the 10th chapter of his E. Morozov, The Net Delusion. The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

[xii] Carol Armstrong, in “Visual Culture Questionnaire”, October, Cit., 28.

[xiii] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 243.

[xiv] M. Yonan, “Towards a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies”, Cit., 245.

[xv] Ann-Sophie Lehmann, “The Matter of the Medium. Some Tools for an Art Theoretical Interpretation of Materials”, in The Matter of Art: Materials, Technologies, Meanings 1200-1700, in C. Anderson, A. Dunlop, P. H. Smith (eds.), Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014, 21-41: 22.

[xvi] Iris Van der Tuin, “On the Threshold of New Materialist Studies”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Jessica Legacy and Yanbing Er (eds.), Issue 19, Autumn 2014, 1-12: 4. Available at <> (accessed in December 2014).

[xvii] Diana Coole & Samantha Frost, “Introducing the New Materialisms”, in D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010, 1-43: 9.

[xviii] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 1-6: 2-3.

[xix] Yanbing Er, “Editorial Introduction: The New Materialisms”, Forum: University of Edinburgh Post-Graduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, Cit., 3.

[xx] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, Open Humanities Press, University of Michigan Library, Ann Arbor, 2012, 85. Available at <> (accessed in December 2014).

[xxi] Rick Dolphijn and Iris Van der Tuin’s New Materialisms: Interviews and Cartographies, cit., 119.

[xxii] D. Coole and S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Cit., 5-6.

[xxiii] C. Christov-Bakargiev, “The Dance Was Very Frenetic, Lively, Rattling, Clanging, Rolling, Contorted, and Lasted for a Long Time”, dOCUMENTA (13), The Book of Books, Catalog 1/3, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2012, 34. Quoted by Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik, “Introduction”, in Christopher Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik (eds.), Realism Materialism Art, Cit., 15-31: 28. Regarding the relationship among human and non-human agents sharing the planet and the human, in her essay Christov-Bakargiev made reference to D. Haraway, When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Living in the Material World: Making Sense of Material Matters in Relation to Temporary Artworks

by Sophie Kromholz, University of Glasgow

The traditional idea of the artwork as a singular and stable art object was destabilized by practices of the early vanguards of the twentieth century, who challenged institutionalized ideas around art objects.[i] The continued exploration of new art forms alongside the inclusion of new art materials has brought into question how to carry an artwork forward – forcing consideration of how to stabilize materials which are difficult, if not seemingly impossible to preserve, and what to do when the art object cannot be preserved. American artists Ann Hamilton (b. 1956) and Kathryn Clark’s (b. 1944) collaborative work palimpsest (1989) is a perfect illustration of the problems which go hand in hand with the diversification and expansion of material possibility.[ii] palimpsest consists of cabbages, live snails, and an electric oscillating fan in a steel and glass vitrine within a room covered in beeswax tablets, under which, encased in the wax, lies nearly illegible yellowed newsprint.

Figure 2
Ann Hamilton and Kathryn Clark, palimpsest, 1989.

The cabbages inevitably rot. The snails die. The fan gives out and needs to be replaced. Should the original fan brand and design go out of production, how should this element of the piece be sustained? As for the wax tablets, these begin to accumulate the debris brought in by the artwork’s audience, as the debris slowly becomes embedded in the wax. Hamilton discusses the work as ‘a meditation on memory, its loss and our finitude.’[iii] These are common themes among temporary artworks, evoked in part by the material selected, and in part by how the material moves and acts. The work’s material is vulnerable, and thus potentially the piece itself, depending on how important the original material is. The work in its fullness is experience driven, focused on a kind of immediacy in its interaction with the audience. Indeed, Hamilton is known for creating ephemeral environments which catapult the audience into immersive experiences as they stand in the work and interact with it.

Despite the highly impermanent selection of materials that are bound to change and degrade quickly, palimpsest (1989) still exists. From analysing the work’s physical composition, as well as reading the artists’ statement about the work, one would initially assume that the work is indeed a temporary artwork. This surprising twist raises the following questions, namely how do we recognize a temporary artwork? What role does material, both its selection and movement, play in shaping the work’s reading and experience? These questions will be addressed in this paper, in order to come closer to considering what it might mean to conserve the artwork without its material form and what a temporary artwork can be for non-primary audiences.

Theories and Concepts

With the inclusivity of materials and structural methods brought on by contemporary art, many materially unstable works are in fact not temporary artworks. The significance in exploring the ambiguity of material and how it determines the longevity of a temporary artwork illustrates the argument put forth by cultural theorist Fernando Dominguez Rubio and sociologist Elizabeth Silva, namely that, one has to explore the trajectories of these artworks, how they come to occupy different object-positions in it, and how these object-positions shape the specific ways in which subject and institutional positions, as well as boundaries, are distributed and transformed over time.[iv] The term ‘object-position’ is borrowed from the field of Material Studies.[v] It refers to the relationship between the material object and human social and cultural practices and experiences. The material object is significant because of what we think it might tell us.[vi] A temporary artwork is interesting because it straddles the line between object and non-object. There is a distinction to be made between works the transience of which is mitigated by making them permanent and those which become non-objects, which is to say works which physically cease to be. Whether an artwork is a permanent object or a transitory object is not evident from the material selection, as palimpsest (1989) illustrates. Rather, to recognize whether the artwork provides a stable material reference point – whether it can be repeated or replaced – requires additional information. An artist must disclose what the role of the material is within the work as a whole in order to discern the most appropriate treatment of their work.

Parallel to the material selection, the manner in which the material moves – specifically referring to the material’s inherent physical properties and behaviour – and acts, also impacts the way the artwork functions as a whole and how it engages with various stakeholders (which include the artist, the exhibiting body, the collecting body, the art audience, the curator, and the conservator). For instance, returning to the example of palimpsest (1989), which consists of many organic components, including snails and cabbage, the ability to replace both the snails and the cabbage inherently changes the shelf-life of the work and the manner in which the work is carried into the future.

The material’s role within the artwork and how the artist envisions this impacting the audience’s encounter and experience with the work can be divided into three main categories:

  1. Artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials for which the artist supports conservation methods and measures which keep the work viable. These may be applied by the artist or can be applied in collaboration with a conservation team.
  2. Artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials which make the work as a whole temporary, according to the artist’s intent.
  3. Artworks made out of stable materials which are destroyed and therefore become temporary nonetheless.

The first category concerns works which are in fact not temporary artworks, though due to their material selection they could be, were it not for the artist’s collaboration in countering the work’s material instability. palimpsest (1989) clearly falls into this category. The second and third categories both comprise temporary artworks, with the third category being fairly commonplace in commissioned work. The second category is primarily the focus of this paper. This is because it is notably difficult to determine on the basis of material alone whether an artwork is indeed meant to be temporary. There is a tension created by the difficulty of distinguishing between artworks made of fugitive or otherwise vulnerable materials for which the artist supports conservation methods and measures that keep the work viable, and artworks for which the artist does not support measures to sustain the physical work. It is particularly interesting, in relation to how an artwork is experienced, to consider how to relate the first and second categories, and to evaluate exactly what they say about each other. In both categories, artists use difficult-to-conserve materials, and the artist’s intent cannot be read from the material selection and action alone.[vii] Art critic Michael Archer discusses the challenge of seeing material purpose as the ‘conflict between transience and persistence’.[viii] In both categories, the material’s instability does not function as inherent vice, but rather as a form of creative hubris. Exploring the significance of the medium how its symbolism and duration play a role in the work, is a means of excavating the underlying narrative that material plays in constructing and supporting the artwork as a whole. The artist’s intention nonetheless becomes a necessary component in understanding what the possible future of the work is. Whether an artwork needs to completely cease to exist, or can be replaced infinitely, much like palimpsest (1989), depends on the artist.

In short, the physical properties of the artwork as a whole, the material selection, movement, and manner in which the audience is aware of and participates in its action, inform the relationship between the artwork as object and its transition to non-object. These dynamics shape and underpin what it means for the temporary artwork to continue to exist outside its original material form. Understanding the relationship between the artwork as a whole and its material provides insight into what is lost or gained through the temporary artwork’s material loss. How we understand the artwork both short-term and long-term is affected by these primary dynamics, which include the material significance and changeability of the work.

Artist’s intent and modern and contemporary art materials

There is a shift with works from the twentieth century onwards between what the work offers and what additional information needs to be disclosed alongside the work in order to read and understand it. Moreover, further information is lost when the artwork ceases to be physically present at all, as is the fate of a temporary artwork. There has been what critic and curator Francesco Poli refers to as an ‘epistemological break’ in artistic practice and theory.[ix] Poli uses the concept of the ‘epistemological break’ to describe the shift in creative practice that we see in the twentieth century. This shift in thinking and creative practice, including the use of unconventional materials, has changed the kind of art made and how we can think of collecting and conserving for posterity. While the presence of unstable and unconventional media as art materials is no longer unusual, now including everything from foodstuffs, taxidermy and excrement, the artist’s intent cannot be read from the selection and application of these materials alone. As art historian and conservator Lydia Beerkens observes:

‘The conservation practice of modern and contemporary art has become increasingly  complex and dynamic. A thorough analysis of the artwork and the collection of detailed material knowledge no longer suffice to solve conservation issues. The artist, the choices   made by the artist and the history of creation of the artwork play an increasingly prominent part as (additional) sources of information.’ [x]

In order to begin to understand how we might read the artwork, additional knowledge of the artist’s intent has become critical. The artist’s intent can be understood as the artist’s ideas and wishes surrounding the artwork, and where he or she envisions the identity of the work as a whole lying. This has an impact on the perimeters of how the work’s material can be altered and interacted with, determining the treatment of the artwork.

The difficulty of understanding the role of material and artist’s intent is illustrated, among other cases, by the works made by German-born American artist Eva Hesse (b.1936 – 1970) in the 1960s. Hesse pioneered the use of latex, fiberglass and plastics in the Sixties, when little was known as to how these materials would age and affect the work as a whole. Hesse ultimately developed cancer and died at the tender age of 34 while her work was still gaining recognition.  Due to the heavy use of chemicals within Hesse’s work, as well as the material selection, Hesse’s oeuvre has aged poorly. As it was not known at the time how the material would age, and due to the untimely death of the artist, it is difficult to read from the material alone what Hesse would have wanted to happen to her work. In an interview, Hesse is recorded having said she was confused about the longevity of her works, elaborating to indicate that the complete properties of her materials were still unknown, and that her own stance was unclear.[xi] She discussed her awareness that the rubber she used in some of her works did not last, but that the creative use of the material might be more important than its longevity.[xii] However, she also indicated that she had thought about making more durable works to counter some of these problems. The interview makes apparent the artist’s own lack of clarity about her ultimate intentions. Mostly, the works seemed to be produced with a kind of immediacy and only later, when confronted with the work’s material change, did the artist begin to think about the work’s future.[xiii] The ambiguity of the material’s future is paralleled by further enigmatic statements made by the artist, including “Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.” which are often applied to considerations of how Hesse’s work should be treated.[xiv] Arguably, in the case of Hesse, the reading of her choice of materials is influenced by an imposed reading of her illness. Art historian Anne Wagner criticizes this romanticisation of Hesse, stating that it creates a myth which does a disservice to the artist’s work.[xv] In the absence of the artist, traditionally one could expect the work to speak of the artist’s intention. Yet as we see with Hesse, and with some other artists’ works from the twentieth century, this is problematic. When deciding upon possible treatments, camps are divided. Art critic Stuart Morgan argued that ‘any attempt to ‘restore’ these late pieces by Hesse would be a travesty.’[xvi]  However, in opposition, fellow artist and friend Sol Lewitt argued that Hesse would not have wanted her work to completely vanish, arguing ‘She wanted her work to last’.[xvii] Yet this seems contrary to some of Hesse’s statements about her work, such as: ‘I think people should see it in all its faded glory.’[xviii] Discussions around Hesse’s work have formed part of the discourse on contemporary conservation and display practice and come to grips with material and artist’s intent – both shaping and being shaped by current conservation ideas on when to intervene with a material work, how to display it and when a work should be deaccessioned.

Moreover, the extent and manner in which an artist should control their work, particularly after the work has already been completed, is controversial.[xix] The artist is not always right. Artists’ concerns for their work are at times different from the conservators and the collectors. Furthermore, the artist’s original intent is a concept in flux, as artists may change their minds.[xx] In particular, later interventions suggested by the artist may no longer represent the artist’s own original intent when they first conceived of and made a work. This is notably a question of ethics, raising the issue of trying to evaluate at which stage the artist’s intention is most authentic, and equally when it ceases to be.

Taking an anthropological approach, philosopher and sociologist Renée van de Vall and art theorist Vivian van Saaze both propose that the artwork can be understood as having a biography, which is layered and dynamic.[xxi] The idea of an artwork as having a biography is indebted to anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who first used the concept of a biography in application to things and whose work focused on the ‘life’ of things.[xxii]  Additionally, the notion that an artwork can have multiple authenticities is also acknowledged.[xxiii] It therefore follows that the artist’s earlier and later ideas can both be seen as part of the work. Through having a series of interviews with an artist over time, where possible, a change in the artist’s ideas can be documented and taken into account.[xxiv] However, at times artists may change their minds and express interests which are ‘either unachievable or undesirable by current owners.’[xxv] In these instances there is a clear conflict and the artist’s interests and intent cannot always be accommodated. When the artist’s intent is converted into action, it becomes what art theorist Sherri Irvin discusses as the ‘actionable sanctions’ which must relate to the identity of the artwork, lest this identity be changed and the work ultimately transformed into another work.[xxvi] The artwork’s identity is at the heart of what is at stake.

Temporary works are created with a particular limited lifecycle in mind, within a particular time and context. What defines the artwork and is critical to its state(s) is dependent on the conditions that the artist has intended and specified for the work.[xxvii] In cases such as German artist Gustav Metzger’s (b. 1926) auto-destructive art, the artist intriguingly decided to recreate his acid action painting from the Sixties for a retrospective of his work for Tate Britain in 2004. The remade work’s relationship towards the first work, made more than four decades prior, is not straightforward and how it is understood depends in part on how the artist sees this relationship. The compilation ‘Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979’ sets the framework for much of the discourse around the debate of performance and object and how to keep artworks ‘alive’.[xxviii]

Figure 3
Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1999.

Related to the complex discussion of remaking work and the life of the artwork, British artist Damien Hirst (b. 1965), infamously replaced the core material, namely the shark, in his piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1999) when the work was sold from one collector to another in 2004, and the artwork had aged poorly. The work consisted of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde solution suspended in a glass and steel vitrine. After the artist replaced the contents, the vitrine was the sole ‘original’ material from the initial work. Nevertheless, Hirst maintained that it was the same artwork. The conservation treatment of the work in question poses considerable ethical questions around how to define and understand the ‘authentic’ artwork and where the boundaries of its integrity lie. Hirst has claimed that material posterity is not one of his concerns, but rather that he is focused on communicating an idea.[xxix] Cases such as Hirst’s are interesting because they signal the artist’s voice as the primary source of authority. They mark the stark shift away from a focus on original material.

Working with the artist at the time that a work is created and directly documenting their ideas regarding the constraints of the work is desirable, where possible. This helps to avoid the confusion, or later change of heart, which comes from reflection and time and might interfere with the work. We need to rely on the artist to disclose additional information which cannot be read from the work’s material alone, but we must also be sensitive to factors which are introduced and which may change and influence the artist’s understanding of their own work. These include considering when the artist’s intent is recorded – right after the work is made or much later, whether the work behaves as the artist has anticipated, and being wary of not influencing the artist. Jill Sterret, Director of Collections and Conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, notes ‘the artist’s intent is still our touchstone. But it shifts. You interview artists when their work first comes into the collection and then, years later, call for a clarification.’[xxx] It is worth noting here that for some of the works in question, there are no years.

The process of material unmaking as used in temporary works removes the focus from the object and places it instead on what curator Maria Lind refers to as the ‘performative structures’ – that which the material object ‘does’.[xxxi] The essence of the artwork and the purpose of the object are reconsidered through its material unmaking. The process of material obsolescence becomes part of how the work is read. The reality of its inability to physically survive is in accordance with the artist’s wishes.

Keeping a temporary artwork relevant, and indeed whether a work should be kept at all, for future generations of audiences depends on understanding how the artwork is made, and in this exploration also on figuring out where the artwork draws its perimeters, how it is defined, and the point at which is ceases to be – the artwork’s ‘death’. By necessity, the future of the work includes a kind of variability in understanding that what the work is in its material presence is not the same thing as the experience of the work in its absence. The artwork that no longer physically exists can continue to resonate with new generations of audiences and new experiences can be shaped from second-hand information. In trying to keep the work relevant, what matters is how its absence is contextualised. What exists after the work’s initial primary existence is no longer the material artwork, but rather as traces of the work, documentation and the memory of something that no longer is. The experience of absence does not replace the experience of the material presence of the artwork, but rather complements it, and could even be said to be an extension of the artwork’s life.


The importance of a temporary artwork’s material life is highlighted through an examination of the role that material selection, action and singular physical embodiment play in the work as a whole. The examples given illustrate the difficulty of placing a work in a stable object-position based on material alone. The changed nature of material and how it shapes the artwork conflates the idea of what it means to care for an artwork, and what it means for a work to endure. As the role of material within the art object has opened up with practices from the twentieth century onwards, our understanding of when and where there is material irretrievability has been challenged, and the myth that the work’s longevity can be read from material alone has been dispelled.

Conservators Salvatore Lorusso et al. maintain that in considering treatment for the artwork, ‘One must employ a methodology based on the critical study of not only the materials used, but also the philosophy and creative conceptual intentions of the artist.’[xxxii] Temporary artworks can be made out of traditional materials which include but are not limited to: bronze, wood, oil paint, marble, terracotta, as well as the non-traditional, including for example: perishables, fat, flowers, twigs, ice, blood, excrement, and cardboard. Knowledge is needed not only of the material, but also the artist’s philosophy behind using and applying the material. Where possible this requires direct input from the artist, or else from the artist’s associates who can clarify the artist’s intention. And even here we need to be wary of how time influences opinion, even that of the artist. What becomes clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer, but that all of these works pose similar questions and issues. Critically, materialism puts into question the desirability of permanence. And yet, if there is a desire to preserve these works, it is necessary to understand how their temporary nature is framed, so that we might conceive of ways to address the works’ evanescent quality while still conserving some aspects for future non-primary audiences. Understanding the role of material becomes the first step towards understanding how the artwork is made present and experienced.


[i] Martha Buskirk, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (London: MIT, 2003).

[ii] The use of lowercase within the title of the work is a conscious decision made by the artists.

[iii] Jonathan Padget, ‘For Snails, The Slimelight Is Fleeting’, The Washington Post (December 22, 2005),, (accessed, March 7, 2015).

[iv] Fernando Dominguez Rubio and Elizabeth B. Silva, ‘Materials in the Field: Object-trajectories and Object-positions in the Field of Contemporary Art’, Cultural Sociology vol. 7 no. 2 (June 2013):161-178, 164.

[v] The field of Material Studies researches the relationship between people and material objects, including their history, making, use, preservation and interpretation. Material Studies takes an interdisciplinary approach, drawing from multiple fields, including art history, archaeology, anthropology, history, and museum studies.

[vi] Webb Keane and Christopher Tilly, ‘Subjects and Objects’, Handbook of Material Culture, ed., Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, and Susanne Kuechler-Fogden (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013), 198.

[vii] Note that these can be organic e.g. foodstuffs, or inorganic e.g. plastics.

[viii] Michael Archer, ‘Contemporary art is not ephemeral’, The Guardian, (November 18, 2009),,

(accessed March 7, 2015).

[ix] Francesco Poli, ‘Preface’, Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods, Materials, and Research, ed., Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los Angelos: Getty Publications: 2012), 7.

[x] Ibid., 9.

[xi] Eva Hesse, ‘Eva Hesse on Impermanence of Her Materials’, (accessed March 9, 2015).

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Tate Modern, ‘Teacher and Group Leaders’ Kit – Eva Hesse 13 November 02 – 9 March 03’, 12,, (accessed April 19, 2015).

[xv] Mignon Nixon and Cindy Nemser, Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

[xvi] Stuart Morgan, ‘Oh! More Absurdity!’, Frieze Magazine, Issue 11, (June-August 1993)., (accessed February 19, 2012).

[xvii]Jonathan Keats, ‘The Afterlife of Eva Hesse’, Art and Antiques Magazine, (April 2011),, (accessed February 17, 2012).

[xviii] Washington Pullman, ‘Eva Hesse sculptures deteriorating at WSU museum’, North County Times (October 4, 2006),, (accessed February 16, 2012).

[xix] This is indicated throughout conservation discussion by amongst others: Barbara Ferriani, ‘How to Pass on an Idea’, Ephemeral Monument – History and conservation of Installation Art, ed., Barbara Ferriani and Marina Puegliese (Los Angelos: Getty Publications, 2009), 120.

[xx] David Lowenthal, ‘Changing Criteria of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed., K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995): 121-135; David Lowenthal,  ‘Managing the Flux of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed., K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995):  369-370.

[xxi] Renee van de Vall et. al., ‘Reflections on a biographical approach to contemporary art conservation’, Proceedings ICOM-CC 16th triennial conference, Lisbon, ed. J. Bridgland (Critério, 2011); Vivian van Saaze, ‘authenticity in Practice: An Ethnographic Study into the Preservation of One Candle by Nam June Paik’, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context, ed., Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske (London: Archetype Publicaitons, 2009): 190-198.

[xxii] Arjun Appadurai, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 3-63.

[xxiii] Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context,  (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190-198.

[xxiv] Crystel Sanchez, ‘VOCA’S Artist Interview Workshop: Crystal Sanchez’s Experience’, Voices in Contemporary Art (June 6, 2013,, (accessed March 4, 2015).

[xxv] Glenn Wharton, ‘The Challenges of Conserving Contemporary Art,’ Collecting the New, ed., Bruce Altshuler (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[xxvi] Sherri Irvin, ‘The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 63 (2005): 315-326.

[xxvii] Pip Laurenson, ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based Media Installations’, [Im]permanence. Culture In/Out of Time, ed., Judith Schachter and Stephen Brockman (Pittsburgh: Center for the Arts in Society, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008).

[xxviii] Paul Schimmel and Kristine Stiles, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949-1979 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998).

[xxix] Alison Bracker, ‘Oh, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear’, Conservation Journal, Issue 35 (Summer 2000),,-the-shark-has-pretty-teeth,-dear/, (accessed August 20, 2015).

[xxx] Jill Sterret, ‘Competing Commitments: A Discussion about Ethical Dilemmas in the Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art’, The GCI Newsletter 24, no. 2 (Fall 2009): 18–24,, (accessed March 11, 2015).

[xxxi] Carlos Motta, ‘Relations in Real Time: A conversation with Maria Lind’, Sjónauki 3, (2008), 1.

[xxxii] Salvatore Lorusso et al., ‘The Traditional, The Innovative, The Ephemeral: Conception, realization, intervention in contemporary art’, Conservation Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 9 (Mar. 2009,): 170-214.



Appadurai, Arjun, ‘Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value’, The Social        Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986): 3-63.

Archer, Michael, ‘Contemporary art is not ephemeral’, The Guardian, (November 18,        2009),  art-ephemeral, (accessed March 7, 2015).

Bracker, Alison, ‘Oh, The Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear’, Conservation Journal, Issue       35 (Summer 2000),           journal/issue-35/oh,-the-shark-has-pretty-teeth,-dear/, (accessed August 20, 2015).

Buskirk, Martha, The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art (London: MIT, 2003).

Dominguez Rubio, Fernando, and Elizabeth B. Silva, ‘Materials in the Field: Object-         trajectories and Object-positions in the Field of Contemporary Art’, Cultural      Sociology vol. 7 no. 2 (June 2013):161-178.

Ferriani, Barbara ‘How to Pass on an Idea’, Ephemeral Monument – History and   conservation of Installation Art, ed., Barbara Ferriani and Marina Puegliese           (Los Angelos: Getty Publications, 2009).

Hermens, Erma, and Tina Fiske, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material,      Concept, Context,  (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190-198.

Hesse, Eva, ‘Eva Hesse on Impermanence of Her Materials’, (accessed March 9,           2015).

Irvin, Sherri, ‘The Artist’s Sanction in Contemporary Art’, The Journal of Aesthetics          and Art Criticism, 63 (2005): 315-326.

Kean, Webb, and Christopher Tilly, ‘Subjects and Objects’, Handbook of Material             Culture, ed., Christopher Tilley, Webb Keane, and Susanne Kuechler-Fogden        (London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2013).

Keats, Jonathan, ‘The Afterlife of Eva Hesse’, Art and Antiques Magazine, (April        2011),,       (accessed February 17, 2012).

Laurenson, Pip, ‘Authenticity, Change and Loss in the Conservation of Time-based           Media Installations’, [Im]permanence. Culture In/Out of Time, ed., Judith       Schachter and Stephen Brockman (Pittsburgh: Center for the Arts in Society,       Carnegie Mellon University, 2008).

Lorusso, Salvatore, et al., ‘The Traditional, The Innovative,           The Ephemeral:           Conception, realization, intervention in contemporary art’, Conservation            Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 9 (Mar. 2009,): 170-214.

Lowenthal, David, ‘Changing Criteria of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara   Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed.,        K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995): 121-135.

Lowenthal, David, ‘Managing the Flux of Authenticity’, Proceedings of the Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage Convention, ed.,        K. E. Larsen (Norway: Riksantikvaren 1995):  369-370.

Morgan, Stuart, ‘Oh! More Absurdity!’, Frieze Magazine, Issue 11, (June-August 1993)., (accessed         February 19, 2012).

Motta, Carlos, ‘Relations in Real Time: A conversation with Maria Lind’, Sjónauki 3,        (2008).

Nixon, Mignon, and Cindy Nemser, Eva Hesse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

Padget, Jonathan, ‘For Snails, The Slimelight Is Fleeting’, The Washington Post     (December 22, 2005),        dyn/content/article/2005/12/21/AR2005122102274.html, (accessed, March 7,     2015).

Poli, Francesco, ‘Preface’, Conserving Contemporary Art: Issues, Methods,             Materials, and Research, ed., Oscar Chiantore and Antonio Rava (Los   Angelos: Getty Publications: 2012).

Pullman, Washington, ‘Eva Hesse sculptures deteriorating at WSU museum’, North           County Times (October 4, 2006),           and-theater/visual/article_0c0a1951-8ea5-5f58-8dd4-       9ce196b3d30c.html#ixzz1ng3n3jXq, (accessed February 16, 2012).

Sanchez, Crystel, ‘VOCA’S Artist Interview Workshop: Crystal Sanchez’s            Experience’, Voices in Contemporary Art (June 6, 2013,, (accessed March 4,             2015).

Schimmel, Paul, and Kristine Stiles, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the             Object 1949-1979 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1998).

Sterret, Jill, ‘Competing Commitments: A Discussion about Ethical Dilemmas in the          Conservation of Modern and Contemporary Art’, The GCI Newsletter 24, no.        2 (Fall 2009): 18–24,       alogue.html, (accessed March 11, 2015).

Tate Modern, ‘Teacher and Group Leaders’ Kit – Eva Hesse 13 November 02 – 9 March 03’, 12,,   (accessed April 19, 2015).

Van de Vall, Renee, et. al.,  ‘Reflections on a biographical approach to contemporary        art conservation’, Proceedings ICOM-CC 16th triennial conference, Lisbon,   ed. J. Bridgland (Critério, 2011); Vivian van Saaze, ‘authenticity in Practice:         An Ethnographic Study into the Preservation of One Candle by Nam June             Paik’, Art, Conservation and Authenticities: Material, Concept, Context, ed.,           Erma Hermens and Tina Fiske (London: Archetype Publications, 2009): 190- 198.

Wharton, Glenn, ‘The Challenges of Conserving Contemporary Art,’ Collecting the         New, ed., Bruce Altshuler (Princeton University Press, 2005).

Forming the Symbolist Identity: the Materiality of Fernand Khnopff’s Sculptures

by Maria Golovteeva, University of St Andrews

Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren described the artworks of his compatriot, symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff, as “suggestions of thought” due to their visionary and symbolic character.[i] Indeed, his œuvre is predominantly characterised by allegorical and emblematic symbolism, but it would be rather simplistic to dismiss the material aspect of his art. First, the physicality of works of art characterises artists’ intentions, as they choose specific materials and employ specific techniques to obtain a certain effect. Thus, as a versatile craftsman, who worked with paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, and sculpture, Khnopff must have paid careful attention to the material aspects of his creations. His articles on various materials he employed and their physical characteristics demonstrate his interest in materiality (photography, ivory carving, etching and engraving, etc.). Second, considering the Kantian idea of the “aesthetic experience”, art can function through its physicality, as the viewer’s engagement with a work of art includes not only its intellectual aspect, but also the interaction with its physical components: “the immediate relation to the sensational apprehension of the objects is what forms the primary basis of experience”.[ii] Third, according to the Symbolist Manifesto, the objective of the movement was to wrap the idea in a sensual form, with the form being subjected to the idea, which it is meant to express.[iii] This declaration of the idealist nature of the Symbolism and movement away from naturalism still took the notion of the form into consideration. Moreover, the importance of the material culture within the symbolist subjectivity was determined by the symbolist desire to collect exquisite and unique objects or everyday objects with acquired deeper meaning.[iv] The main character of Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours, Des Esseintes, was an example of this predilection to gather exquisite things and construct an artificial interior in his search for the self-realization.

Khnopff did not produce many sculptures: around seven are known to have existed, but most of them were produced in multiple copies or in various materials. For example, he created two versions of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, both in tinted gessoduro but with slight variations in a turn of the head.

Fernand Khnopff, Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels (Inv. No. 70)


Fernand Khnopff (from Robert L. Delevoy, et al), Photograph of Bust of a Young Englishwoman, 1891, polychrome plaster/photograph, Private Collection, Brussels.

Another variation of this sculpture might have existed in tinted marble.[v] Khnopff also rendered Head of Hypnos in bronze (below) and in plaster (known from photographs).

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As can be seen, in terms of a subject matter, Khnopff explored the themes and imagery of his paintings and drawings in a three-dimensional form. The recurrent symbols comprise images of Hypnos as well as of enigmatic and mysterious women (a young Englishwoman, Sybille, Vivien, Medusa), who embody qualities of both an ideal woman and a femme fatale in different proportions. As already mentioned, the materiality of his sculptures was determined by the Symbolist doctrines, which articulated the physicality of the objects through the concepts of precious or unique objects (collectibles) and a self-expression of an artist or a collector. Moreover, Khnopff was an active participant in the fin-de-siècle milieu, therefore, his considerations of sculptural materiality were strongly influenced by several contemporary trends, particularly the nineteenth-century revival of sculptural polychromy and re-introduction of certain materials.

Almost all the sculptures that Khnopff created were polychromed. He explored the expressive and aesthetic qualities of sculptural colouring. His pictorial approach was to create an image of a mysterious female or androgynous creature, self-contained and withdrawn from reality, as found in his Bust of a Young Englishwoman (above), Sybille (below, known from a photograph), Vivien (below), Mask (above), Future (below).

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His sculptural polychromy evoked the enigmatic and visionary atmosphere of his paintings and drawings. As a Symbolist, who experimented with levels of reality and the coexistence of two worlds, real and ideal, Khnopff employed the sculptural colouring in attempt to add a lifelike resemblance to his visionary characters, which were neither living nor alive. As such, he highlighted certain realistic features of his mystical beings with colour: lips, eyes, eyebrows, and hair of Vivien, a young Englishwoman (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), a two-winged creature (Mask), skin tones of Vivien and the 1891 rendering of a young Englishwoman. However, Khnopff did not use colour to create a naturalistic effect: emphasising the human traits of his creatures, he at the same time made them look like inanimate idols of his own ideal world of symbols and visions. This resulted from a certain tension between form and colour: despite relatively naturalistic colouring, his sculptures did not try to mimic reality or real human beings, as they were always presented as objects – busts, masks, heads, or, as in case of Sybille and Vivien, small statuettes against exquisite backdrops resembling George Frampton’s Mysteriarch (1892). Khnopff emphasised the physicality of his sculptures and thus the visionary nature of the creatures they depicted by an unrealistic slicing of their heads (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Future), constructing elaborate compositions with a backdrop and a support (Sybille, Vivien), leaving an unworked piece of marble under a carefully sculpted face (Future) or simply exposing the uncoloured gessoduro with his monogram (Bust of a Young Englishwoman). Furthermore, Khnopff’s intention to create sculptures resembling some sort of religious idols was related to the Symbolist concept of a studio altar, which the Belgian might have learnt from a German artist Franz von Stuck.[vi] Just as Stuck’s studio, built in 1897, featured an altar to Athena, Villa Khnopff, which was constructed between 1900 and 1902, enshrined an altar to Hypnos (above), topped by a plaster version of his Head of Hypnos and composed of Tiffany glass, a Byzantine medallion, precious books, images of his family, and golden sphinxes, and inscribed with the artist’s personal motto “On ne a que soi” (One has only oneself).[vii] Combining the idea of the studio altar and the collectibles as a way of artistic and intellectual self-expression Khnopff also erected a construction recalling an altar (below), which included an original version of Mask in ivory and gilt bronze crowned with a crystal vase and placed on a blue column against a Japanese embroidered wall-hanging with a white crane flying against a blue background.

Robert L. Delevoy, Photograph of Khnopff’s House

Another German artist, Max Klinger, also dismissed the colour in sculpture as a trace of naturalism, instead praising it for its artistic qualities that allowed the realization of almost any idea. He wrote on sculptural polychromy and was partly credited for formulating a base for its reintroduction in the nineteenth-century arts: “Colour must come into its own here, must structure, fit, speak”.[viii] He stated that sculptural polychromy symbolised a return to simplicity that could help to emphasise the sculptural form and balance each part of the sculptural composition. These ideas of the fellow artist-sculptor must have appealed to Khnopff, who was possibly familiar with Klinger’s art through Franz von Stuck. Furthermore, both Khnopff and Klinger preferred to work with artificial polychromy based on the addition of paint to accentuate the painterly quality of the sculptures instead of natural polychromy represented by a combination of a naturally coloured materials (mainly stones and marbles). This approach to the colour aspect of sculptural materiality reveals the general artistic method of Khnopff and Klinger: they were concerned with colour in the first place and chose materials that granted them certain freedoms in terms of applying colour over the colourful materials that pre-determined the colour of the sculptures themselves. Introducing polychromy into three-dimensional works was a common practice of many nineteenth-century artists, who were equally interested in sculpture and painting: most of them, like Khnopff, were used to working with colour, but lacked training in sculpture.

At the same time, sculptural polychromy experienced an overall revival in the nineteenth-century. It represented a movement away from academic canons, which stood for principles of classical white sculpture. Furthermore, the nineteenth century was marked by medieval polychromy and by a final acknowledgement of the widespread colouring of the ancient Greek sculptures. Within the pan-European romanticism of the Middle Ages and supported by active restorations of medieval buildings around Europe starting from 1830s, coloured medieval sculptures came under the notice of artists and scientists.[ix] Moreover, conservation activities influenced to a certain degree the re-introduction of forgotten arts and crafts, such as gesso painting, fresco painting, stained glass, etc. Even though Medievalism was an international movement, Khnopff’s interaction with medieval subjects and sculptural polychromy was through his fascination with British art. The Neo-Gothic movement in Great Britain resulted in the re-introduction of coloured ceramics and gesso painting as well as the medieval themes (the legend of King Arthur, the War of the Roses, etc.). Khnopff most likely learnt the re-discovered technique of gessoduro during one of his many trips to England, presumably from George Frampton in 1891.[x] The Pre-Raphaelites, whom Khnopff admired and even was rumored to have befriended, also promoted the subject matters and techniques inspired by the Middle Ages.

The gessoduro re-established itself during the British medieval revival and since Khnopff was looking for a medium that united colour and matter, it became his material of choice.[xi] At the same time his works are often described as of polychrome or coloured plaster due to the closeness of these two materials. In his article on gessowork Walter Crane highlights its elasticity and a wide range of “effects and expressions it provides with almost no particular limitations or natural laws.”[xii] He partly attributes its expressive qualities to the variety of existing recipes and mixtures. Hippolyte Fierens-Gevaert, one of Khnopff’s critics, explains the artist’s fascination with the material through its aesthetic potential: it is susceptible to both moulding and carving combining organic and inorganic qualities and at the same time provides an extreme delicacy and softness that no other medium could grant.[xiii] His gessoduro sculptures (Bust of a Young Englishwoman, Vivien, Mask) demonstrate how Khnopff explored the physical characteristics of the material. The medium allowed him to carefully shape even the smallest and the most exquisite details, such as the laurel and flower wreath and small precious wings of the Mask, or convey a movement, such as the flowing hair and gown of the dancing Vivien, without any previous training. The fluidity and opaque texture enhanced the delicate feature of the mask and the young Englishwoman, while the fusion of the colour and the matter created an illusion of an inner glow. The colour receptivity of the gessoduro gave Khnopff an opportunity to control the intensity and shades of applied colours, thus, again, exploit the coherence between sculpture and painting.

Even though gessoduro or polychrome plaster was Khnopff’s material of choice, he turned to wax perhaps in pursuit of a greater artistic expression. As a more plastic material, wax provided more accuracy in details and allowed the creation of more complicated forms or more spontaneous expression. Even though it is possible to study Khnopff’s Sybille only from a photograph, it is obvious that the artist took full advantage of the plasticity of the medium: the mysterious priestess seems to be wearing an elaborate headpiece and a flowing garment with numerous folds along the sleeves. Again, with careful modelling, the artist depicted Sybille’s elegant gesture almost resembling a dance. While working in wax, Khnopff also paid more attention to the sculptural surface: he created a captivating difference between the smooth hands and calm face of Sybille and her vibrant outfit consisting of pleats, creases, and crinkles. It is unknown whether this sculpture was coloured, as the original, which had belonged to a British collection, was presumably lost during German bombing in 1940.[xiv] Nevertheless, the wax itself has a specific colour, which together with its other physical characteristics, including its ability to deteriorate with time, attracted the Symbolists as an intermediate state between human skin and marble and became their favourite material.[xv] In Georges Rodenbach’s famous work Bruges-la-Morte (1892) the makeup of Jane Scott resembled corpselike wax figures contributing to the overall dark atmosphere of that Symbolist novel.[xvi] With the medium experiencing a certain revival in the course of the nineteenth century and polychrome wax sculpture becoming more popular among the artists and more acknowledged by the public, Khnopff most likely became intrigued by the material’s ability to create fascinating fusions of form, texture, and colour (due to its great capacity to hold pigment), again realising his recurrent symbol of a mysterious and distant female. Khnopff’s approach to using wax characterised the changing perception of the material in the course of the nineteenth century. Traditionally wax was employed for its perfectly mimetic qualities: due to the highly naturalistic effect, cheapness and availability of the material, it was used to create votive sculptures, funeral effigies, death masks, and anatomical models. However, as with the sculptural polychromy, fin-de-siècle artists and sculptors attempted to move away from the naturalism bringing the symbolic aspect of the three-dimensional wax works to the forefront.

While Great Britain was going through the gessoduro revival, Belgium was experiencing an ivory movement. To encourage the chryselephantine revival, King Leopold II and the secrétaire d’état to the Congo Free State, Edmond van Eetvelde, invited Belgian artists and sculptors to create works for the Antwerp Interbational Exhibition of 1894.[xvii] This government campaign bordering on a colonial propaganda intended to promote the economic exchange between Belgium and Congo and revive the Belgian craft of ivory carving, which had been almost forgotten since the seventeenth century. In his article on the revival of ivory carving for The Studio Khnopff partly reviewed the exhibition, considering it a success and regarding the chryselephantine sculptures as the products of Congo rather than objects d’art.[xviii] Three years later he praised the organisers of the Tervueren Colonial section of the 1897 Brussels Exhibition for paying more attention to art rather than to the practical side.[xix] This was very representative of the quickly-established status of the recently rediscovered medium. Khopff himself contributed to its artistic acknowledgement: he exhibited his Mask (above) in the Brussels Exhibition. He also created a frontispiece for the catalogue of the exposition L’Etat indépendant du Congo. La sculpture chryséléphantine, Bruxelles-Tervuren. Just as Khnopff never returned to work with wax after the Sybille, he employed ivory to create only one sculpture, quite possibly caught in the overall celebration of the Belgian craft revival. One of the reasons could be that chryselephantine was a complicated material to work with: Khnopff’s ivory mask was mounted into a bronze laural wreath possibly because it was quite challenging for the artist to carve such small and delicate details, which he easily sculpted in the gessoduro version (above). On the other hand, merging ivory and bronze in one image corresponded with the fin-de-siècle love of exquisite materials and symbolist fascination with precious collectibles. The ivory mask was supposedly slightly tinted on the lips, eyes, and wings, but probably in a slightly colder palette when compared to the plaster version, due to the materials’ different capacity to hold colour.

Khnopff explored the expressive qualities of bronze more deeply in his two 1900 sculptures: Head of Hypnos and Head of the Medusa. Obviously inspired by the bronze head of Hypnos in the British Museum, which he most likely had seen during one of his trips to Great Britain, Khnopff stayed true to the material of the original but created a noticeably bigger sculpture. In the spirit of symbolist aesthetics with the form being determined by the idea, Khnopff chose the medium, which evoked the ancient Greek sculptures to render the classical imagery of two mythological creatures, Hypnos and Medusa. At the same time, he was clearly concerned with the aspect of presentation and exhibition: he placed his sculptures on elegant plinths, hiding the fastening behind the writhing snakes in the Head of the Medusa in a particularly clever and creative way. Deriving inspiration from ancient motives and taking into account contemporary aesthetics, Khnopff realised nineteenth-century visions of mythological imagery and produced fin-de-siècle versions of Greek sculptures, which also correlated with the symbolist desire to collect artifacts, even if they were only seemingly rare.

Khnopff’s only marble sculpture Future also recalls an ancient Greek bust, particularly because of the medium used, the form of a herm, and the laurel wreath. However, the Belgian again rendered the object according to nineteenth-century ideas. First, he left an area of crude marble in the form of a plinth building up a tension between the delicate features of the mysterious female and the unworked material. Second, Khnopff added colour to the face and hair, juxtaposing the cold marble and the traces of polychromy. The resulting contrast between the colour and the medium was stronger than in his much warmer plaster busts creating an impression of an almost vampirish beauty. Third, as he rendered the altars enshrining the Head of Hypnos and the Mask in a priestly manner, he also conducted physical manipulations resembling his own special spiritual rituals to change the appearance of the Future several times. Treating the bust as a precious collectible, Khnopff altered not the work itself, but the way in which he fashioned it, which nevertheless affected the presentation and thus the perception of the sculpture. At the first Viennese Secession the work was presented with a scarf sprinkled with little blue stars on her head.[xx] The photograph with Khnopff posing in front of the sculpture depicts it with a bare head revealing a skull cut across the forehead (below). Nowadays the bust is adorned with a laurel wreath. This is a clear example of Khnopff interacting with his sculptures and treating them as an extension of his personality and philosophy and as a means of constructing his artistic identity.

Photograph of Fernand Khnopff

Clearly Fernand Khnopff was attentive to the physical characteristics of his sculptures, adjusting their materiality to his artistic needs. Experimenting with sculptural polychromy and various materials Khnopff was influenced by contemporary trends in sculpture and at the same time supported them with his works, rendering his most recurrent imagery and symbols in a three-dimensional form. Rejecting the naturalism, Khnopff explored the artistic and spiritual coherence of his art as well as aesthetic and expressive qualities of different media. So with his art he constructed his artistic ego, his Symbolist identity, leaving almost no other documentation of his personality: the record found after his death hardly provided any information about the artist himself.



[i] Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891, p. 251

[ii] Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), p. 13

[iii] Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

[iv] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009), p. 165

[v] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996), p. 57

[vi] Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982), p. 112

[vii] Ibid.

Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 165

[viii] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 42

[ix] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 54

[x] Hargrove, J., ‘Painter-sculptors and polychromy in the evolution of modernism’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p.109

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995), p. 136, note 134

[xi] Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xii] Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 47

[xiii] Fierens-Gevaert, H., ‘Fernand Khnopff’, Art et décoration, 4 (1898), p. 123

Quoted in Sloane, R., ‘The Archaeology of Dreams: Fernand Khnopff, Henri Cros and the mask’, p. 175

[xiv] Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987), p. 35

[xv] Héran, E., ‘Art for the sake of the soul’, Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910, p. 99

[xvi] Blühm, A., ‘In living colour’, p. 57

[xvii] Leonard, A., ‘Internationalism in Spite of Themselves: Britain and Belgium at the Fin de Siècle’, Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, CISRA Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009), p. 229

[xviii] Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150

[xix] Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 201

[xx] Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906), p. 33


Banham, G., Kant and the Ends of Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

Blühm, A., P. Curtis, ed., The Colour of Sculpture, 1840 — 1910 (Van

Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996)

Brockington, G., ed., Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and Europe at the Fin de Siècle, Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, Volume 4 (Peter Lang, 2009)

Crane, W., ‘Notes on gesso work’, The Studio, vol. I (2), May 1893, p. 45-9

Delevoy, R. L., C. de Croës, and G. Ollinger-Zinque, Fernand Khnopff (Brussels: Lebeer Hossmann, 1987)

Draguet, M., Khnopff, ou L’ambigu poétique (Brussels, Paris, 1995)

Hevesi, L., Acht Jahre Sezession (Vienna, 1906)

Howe, J. W., The symbolist art of Fernand Khnopff (Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1982)

Khnopff, F., ‘The revival of ivory carving in Belgium’, The Studio, vol. IV, 1894, p. 150-1

Khnopff, F., ‘Studio-Talk: Brussels’, The Studio, vol. XI (51), June 1897, p. 200-2

O’Mahoney, C. I. R., ed., Symbolist Objects: Symbolism and Subjectivity at the Fin de Siècle (High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire: Rivendale press, 2009)

Moréas, J., ‘Un manifeste littéraire: Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, September 18, 1887

Verhaeren, E., ‘Les XX’, Chronique artistique, I (no. 7), 1891