Haser lma it: A
APOLLO FEBRUARY 2021
Here we are again, confined to our barracks – in the UK at least – until the third national lockdown is over. With museums and galleries off limits, for most of us access to art is restricted to the browsing of images, in books or online, and to imagining textures and surfaces. As Walter Benjamin set out, mechanically reproduced images are drained of the aura of the real thing. That has only come to seem more true the longer this goes on.
Needs must, I suppose. And besides, might there not be a type of local aura to some of the reproductions of artworks that many of us hoard or display, in all those posters, postcards or clippings? Something that seeps into them by dint of their personal significance to us, as we carry them around with us or our lives putter along around them? That sense is conveyed strongly in this issue in an article by Ben Street. He dwells on a postcard of a fresco in Rome that he has long used as a bookmark, its image coming to act as a commentary on whatever he is reading (see Diary, pp. 19–20). I can sympathise with that: one of the postcards propped on my bookshelves, of a medieval manuscript illumination of a monstrous, headless man, has just now evolved into a figure of reprimand as I battle to write this to deadline. And he always used to look so friendly.
Working on Apollo with colleagues remotely, I have become more conscious than ever of how artworks beget so many images, which are in turn compressed into data and fired towards someone else’s screen at the click of a button. That context is prominent in Kathryn Murphy’s essay on the recent reconstruction of Aby Warburg’s Bilderatlas as a book and exhibition (see Reviews, pp. 72–75). Although she was only able to visit the display of Warburg’s remarkable, esoteric project through its reproduction online (the exhibition ran in Berlin last autumn, and is due to open in Bonn this month), this is as much an opportunity as a frustration: here is the culminating intellectual expression of one of the great thinkers about images, rebooted for a time when we have no choice but to rely on them.
Perhaps the ‘digital humanities’ – the joys of academese! – are finally having their day. The Bilderatlas project, along with the online publication by the Uffizi of Federico Zuccari’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy (see Reviews, pp. 64–65), would certainly suggest that is the case. What such initiatives aren’t so good at, at least for now, is communicating the material qualities of paintings, drawings or other works of art. When you zoom in, eventually everything has the same type of surface on a screen. It is a wall made of pixels.
From that perspective, I envy Robert Hanks for gaining access, before the current lockdown was imposed, to an exhibition about touch at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (see Reviews, pp. 66–67). Hanks writes evocatively about being alone in the rooms of this exhibition, surrounded by representations of clasping and grasping hands at a time when human touch is restricted, our intimacy policed. His account of the display calls to mind the unnerving reach of that short poem by John Keats: ‘This living hand, now warm and capable / Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold / And in the icy silence of the tomb, / So haunt thy days […] That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood […]’.
Will we have to train our eyes to look at materials again, when this is all over and we are not compelled to glut on images of works of art? Going by Adriano Aymonino’s review of Painting in Stone, Fabio Barry’s new book about the many meanings of marble, it sounds like a good place to start limbering up for that day (see Reviews, pp. 78–79). I, for one, am looking forward to the return of a more varied diet: surfaces, textures, chips, cracks and dents, with helpings of images on the side. o Thomas Marks, Editor