Caroline van Eck: Art, Agency and Living Presence in early modern Italian art from a rhetorical and anthropological perspective


Viewers all over the world, and in all periods treat works of art as living beings - that is, they speak to them, kiss or beat them, or claim that statues move or speak, and that painted eyes gaze at the beholder. In a research program that run at Leiden University we considered this very old, and probably global, phenomenon from two perspectives: on the one hand that of classical rhetoric, because that discipline was one of the first to develop a body of theoretical thought about representation that could be so vivid that viewers mistook the representation for what it represented; and on the other the present-day anthropological approach as developed by Alfred Gell in Art and Agency (Oxford 1998). The members of the Art and Agency project studied a series of case studies in close detail, ranging from Venetian portraiture to Roman sculpture, and from papal portrait medals to African fetishes, to gain a closer understanding of the ways in which such viewers' response can be understood, both in the terms of present-day anthropology and psychology, but also in the terms in which viewers at the time made sense of such paradoxical, and apparently irrational behaviour. In this seminar I will present a few of these case studies, and also consider some the conceptual, methodological and historiographical issues we had to confront.

Caroline van Eck is Professor of Art and Architecture to 1800 at Leiden University. She has also taught at the University of Amsterdam, Ghent, Groningen and Yale, and was a visiting fellow at the Warburg Institute and the Yale Centre for British Art.

Recent and forthcoming publications include: Classical Rhetoric and the Arts in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge 2007; with Stijn Bussels (eds.), The Arts, the Theatre and Theatricality in EarlyModern Europe, special issue of Art History 32/2 (Spring 2010); Enargeia ou fétichisme: Le rejet de l'image vivante dans les discours sur l'art des années 1750, in: C. Michel and J. Lichtenstein (eds.), De la Quête des règles au discours sur les fins. Les mutations des discours sur l'art en France dans la seconde moitié du XVIIIe siècle, Lausanne 2011 [in press]; Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne and the Life of Art, in: U. Fleckner, I. Wenderholm and H. Ziegler (eds.), Bildmagie, Hamburg [in press]. The books resulting from the Art and Agency project will be published in a series, published jointly by Akademie Verlag, Berlin, the Warburg-Haus, Hamburg, and Leiden University Press.

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