Logic of invention

The Borrowed Gaze/Variations GTB was realized between June 2010 and September 2011 as a preliminary investigation in the doctoral project Karin Hanssen is working on at the moment within the framework of a collaboration of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Antwerp. When Hanssen suggested me to help think about the doctorate the debate on research in the arts was in full swing. The consensus prescribed innovative artistic work linked to a thorough reflection on that work and its cultural conditions. It was, however, less clear where that critical reflection would be situated and how it had to externalize itself. Can an artist be expected to write up her experiences as theoretical considerations? Should the visual artist willy-nilly master academic skills? Or, conversely, is the sovereignty of the work of art to be respected, because it is eminently capable to speak for itself? This choice then in turn would raise the question what makes a doctorate in the arts distinctive against the background of a century in which art is, almost of its own accord, meta-art, because the avant-garde discounts the statute of art in our society as a problem in the work of art. The image as such versus reflection by text – there still seems to be no answer. I cannot escape the impression that the discussion regarding the doctorate is stuck between both positions today. This way it seems doomed to reproduce the truism that research in the arts precisely wanted to undermine: the incommensurability of word and image, the fundamental inability to convert both into one another. To the extent that this is particularly the case in the institutional discourse this can lead to the logic of conformism. The artist is then confronted with continually changing criteria and is expected to conform to them. And the adaptation to the standard of the prevailing debate is then, cynically enough and ‘en cours de route’, labelled as ‘research’. It is obvious what threatens to get lost on the way: a certain boldness, or at least courage, of the artist and – what else may be expected of her? – the willingness and the strength to make precisely this incommensurability of word and image productive.

Instead of an exhausting search for the hermeneutics that bring together word and image the artist could decide to sidestep the problem. She would then come close to what Gregory Ulmer has called ‘heuretics’, prompting the connotation of heresy within the field of interpretation. Heuretics originate in theology, but indicate its flip-side, the dark or repressed margin of conventional strategies of art and its interpretation. One could, according to Ulmer, interpret texts and images, or one could employ the unstable dialectics between words and pictures as a means of invention and thus use it heuretically. Hermeneutics ask what can be made of a work. Heuretics ask what can be made from a work:

'The relevant question for heuretic reading is not the one guiding criticism (according to the theories of Freud, Marx, Wittgenstein, Derrida, and others: What might be the meaning of an existing work?) but the one guiding a generative experiment: Based on a given theory, how might another text be composed?'(1)

This shift of emphasis takes the attention away from a uniform model to a logic of invention and creativity. Ulmer mentions Breton, who's re-reading of Freud and Marx presented a surrealist critique of bourgeois ideology by proposing and performing alternative attitudes and thus fusing artistic and theoretical concerns in one move. It is also probably possible to hear in Ulmer’s inventional project an echo of Susan Sontag’s earlier plea Against Interpretation, which stated that '(i)nstead of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art'(2). It is also quite conceivable that Michel Foucault recognized a similar aim in the work of Paul Klee when he described it as 'a space without name or geometry by intertwining the chain of signs and the network of figures'(3). Correspondingly, it might be possible to delineate a heuretical line of thinking, a tradition of both artists and critics who, in the 20th century, did not want to cling to the belief in a central, unifying methodology of arts and art theory, from which all questions and topics subsequently emanate.

As far as I know, that heretical compendium still has to be written. And as any repertory, however divergent and unfaithful, it presupposes a selection; in a broader sense this means that not every artist is suitable to aspire to a doctorate in arts, because it implies a certain predisposition of the work of art to blend art and reflection. If that book is ever written, Karin Hanssen would get a place in it, as far as I am concerned. In this short contribution I will try to show in what respect her remake of ter Borch bypasses the many truisms of research in the arts to audaciously, with vigorous yet graceful lines, create an installation that, as Walter Benjamin would put it, enhances 'die Geburt der Kritik aus der Geiste der Kunst' ('the birth of criticism from the spirit of art').(4) Benjamin saw this birth happen, more specifically, in the allegorical work of art, that 'gewissermassen schon in sich (...) die kritische Zersetzung [trägt]' ('already and to a certain extent carries the critical laying-apart in itself'). (ibid.) That way The Borrowed Gaze/Variations GTB represents the quintessence of research in art. Via the allegorical nature of the images the work externalizes, as if by itself, a critical and analytical impulse with regard to art history, and the exteriorization of the process appears to be inherent.

Allegorical doubling
The quotation from Benjamin is not only telling because of his highly accurate, one might say, heuretical way of aligning art with criticism (initially meant as a reaction against Nietzsche’s artistic creed in terms of myth and universalia). Above all, Walter Benjamin seems to be an excellent dialogue partner considering Hanssen's work in general and this installation in particular. It is probably no coincidence that Beatrice Hanssen, the renowned author of various books that have influenced, not to say shaped, the reception of Walter Benjamin worldwide, is her sister. The artistic work of Karin Hanssen can indeed be understood while referring to the allegorical image language that was so dear to Benjamin in his writings about the German tragedy and, later, the poetry of modernity. What is more, the work at the basis of this catalogue has, according to Hanssen herself, originated from her lecture of Benjamin’s key essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction ('Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit'). Moreover, Variations GTB thus bears witness to her ongoing dialogue with Walter Benjamin, elaborating the latter's views on allegory and aura, yet at the same time making work from Benjamin rather than of the German literary and cultural critic.

Benjamin's theory of the allegorical image, which proceeds from the observation that allegory is an approach as well as a performance, a perception as well as a technique, defies summary. The allegorical can be minimally formulated as one work re-enacted through another, however fragmentary or discontinuous their relationship may be. As a rule, then, its structure corresponds to the logic of the doubling, because the artist generates an image through the ruthless appropriation of other images. Benjamin more particularly studied this process as it takes place within the structure of the work of art. There the original becomes something other ('allos' meaning other, 'agoreuein' meaning speaking), that might still bear faint traces of the original but that first and foremost generates another meaning, originating in the excess that occurs when original intentions and connotations are supplanted by new ones. The allegorical temperament resists hermeneutics and the act of interpretation altogether, because it signals an unbridgeable distance to the original instead of seeking out, disclosing and preserving seminal meaning. This is also the disposition at the heart of Hanssen's art.

Karin Hanssen has enjoyed international recognition and acclaim with paintings that thematize the flash-back through the appropriation of photographic and cinematographic imagery from the 1950s to the 1970s. The situations and figures depicted in her work bring to mind the decades that discovered leisure and experienced the advent of consumerism. On a more personal note, Hanssen thus poses as the interpreter of her own formative years, her entry as a child into adolescence, and, ultimately, her evolving into an artist. When we look at these emblematic appropriations, however, the first thing that draws our attention is the peculiar way in which the paintings do not acknowledge but transcend the historical conditions of the original image, giving the specific a more general implication through a dream-like abstraction of the setting, the strange aloofness of its inhabitants and, generally spoken, the diversion of the pure gaze. In a general way this approach is comparable to the painted images of - to name the most important artists - Gerhard Richter, Neo Rauch or Luc Tuymans, yet it displays specific characteristics and shows a personal signature in manipulating the archive of images that make up our collective imagination. Hanssen's paintings clearly elaborate on the themes of social determinism, yet they somewhat ambiguously also retain a resilient quality, allowing for a strong emotional and poetic appeal through a paradoxical mix of empathy and criticism.

Sensual appropriation
Hanssen's unique style is most apparent in the current installation. Variations GTB takes its cue from the Dutch Golden Age, an era in which art as commerce, morality and social value are all entwined. More concretely, the series of works take as their subject a historically famous scene, the so-called Paternal Admonition by genre painter Gerard ter Borch, (1617–1681). The title denotes a father reprimanding his daughter, but today it is believed that ter Borch rather wanted to depict a customer propositioning a prostitute in a brothel. The portrait of the woman, a Rückenfigur (back figur) in a fine dress, seems to have been immediately popular at the time. Gerard ter Borch himself made several copies of the woman, and there are approximately thirty versions known that were made by other artists. Interestingly, these duplicates all detach the female figure from the original setting and reinsert her in ever new situations. Time and again, she appears with her back turned towards the beholder, a hollowed-out figure and an empty signifier, mediating her readiness to be appropriated at the intersection of the economic (the duplicates: serializing images for commercial success), the aesthetic (the depicted gesture) and the narrative (prostitution). A confiscated image on several levels, then, the woman in the fine dress has previously entered the consuming process of appropriation. An image there to be used once more in a different context, she has always already been subject to sexual and commercial commodification, a body necessarily mediated by the gaze of the artist and - when sold - of the beholder. Hanssen somehow continues this layered procedure, meanwhile probing the status of the woman permeated by the perception and memory of the Golden Age. Inherent in this approach is an oscillation between commodification and reanimation, as if aiming at reviving the fossilized shell of the female body. This dialectics can be called rather unique, it is the source of the theoretical significance of the installation. More specifically, in allegorizing Gerard ter Borch’s iconic figure, Hanssen, in her typical style, both recaptures the commercialized woman as object in its own right, and at the same time somehow restores the identity of the commodified body, saving it from oblivion.

More specifically, Variations GTB consists of ten paintings that are each a variation on the same Rückenfigur such as it first shows in Paternal Admonition by ter Borch and furthermore in Lady in White Atlas, presumably by Caspar Netscher, ter Borch’s son-in-law and an apprentice in his studio, and the The Messenger, purportedly also painted by ter Borch. Whereas the woman remained unchanged in all her varying appearances at the time of ter Borch and was inserted as an ideal image in new situations time and again, every painting by Hanssen articulates the mysterious figure in a different way. Not only the settings vary, also the woman herself changes and acquires singular features. Hanssen approached each work individually; they were not painted as a series, so that each execution ultimately keeps its own power of expression. At the same time the individual work in the setting of ten paintings interacts with the other images, reinforcing its own character by contrast and increasing the appeal of the woman in the total image. In other words, the serial character of this presentation enriches the identity of the woman represented. This inversion of the logic with ter Borch, who put the identical woman in different settings, is the core of this installation. It presupposes that, in this case, the reproduction does not lead to a further disembodiment of the woman as a figure, but, on the contrary, under Hanssen’s hand grows into a woman who appropriates her figuration. That way the multiple personage in the installation gradually discards the principles, methodologies and ethical conducts that she embodied before and that transformed her to parti pris. This step by step emancipation can best be understood by discussing the three main groups the ten paintings are divided into in order of their creation.

The first group originated from Caspar Netscher’s image in which the female figure is put before a canopy bed with next to her a nonreflecting mirror on a small red table and a taboeret covered with the same red cloth. There is also one pasticchio, the version with the letter, which is composed of The Messenger and Netscher’s image. The woman in the picture turns away from the public even more, as if she wants to shield the words in her hand from the beholder. Her pose increases her attraction and stimulates the spectator’s curiosity. This fact will later be fully exploited in the third group, which closes the series with a comparable image. Also today the woman does not face the beholder and this sets the tension between the works from the Golden Age and those by Hanssen. There is no way that the woman will show herself. But, whereas this pose was formerly an object of a courtly morality, it will really withstand this objectification in Hanssen’s work. In an article of 1993, Allison Kettering has suggested that ter Borch’s painting embodied common Petrarchan poetics of the woman as the distant, indifferent, beautiful mistress, forever turning away from her suitor, and in this case also from the viewer.(5) In ter Borch's days, the artist's sister, Gesina, the model for this painting and its many copies, as so many other burghers collected courtly poems depicting the supreme female and the devoted man. More specifically, in the bourgeois era of ter Borch the exciting combination of chastity and sensuality proved to be possibly even more erotizing than in late medieval and Renaissance poems. And here the incomparably realistically painted dress plays the central role. The satin dress constructs an ideal of female beauty, that, above all, dresses the woman in the image of her submission to the male morality of the era, in the unequalled elaboration of the cloth, its texture and play of light. She is her dress. And the reason why the painting was so immensely popular in its many versions must probably be looked for in the fetichizing of the female body just as much as in the mastery of ter Borch’s craft: together they constituted the commercial value of the work. In the seventeenth century shiny satin more particularly stood for becoming reservation, but in the painting it just as well possessed the same sensual sheen that can be seen in the beautiful female neck. It is clear that the function of the dress is toned down by Hanssen, so that the woman can free herself from her silver straitjacket. At the same time the emphasis remains on the neck, which in ter Borch’s work is marked as the area of femininity between dress and hairdo. By deleting the shiny effect of the satin – an intervention that is underlined by including the darkened mirror next to the woman – she is so to speak first liberated. It is characterizing for Karin Hanssen’s personality that she does not do this while abandoning the woman's sensuality, which indeed formed the core of her ambivalent position with ter Borch. She cuts out the woman, but keeps her sensuality. Hanssen even goes so far as to accentuate the main pleats in the dress, which straightly directs the erotic gaze. The result is that the woman is saved as a sensual individual. 

Hanssen’s artistic determination in her dialogue with the formation of theory is situated in this rescue. Benjamin's Artwork essay has been referred to before as a source of inspiration for the installation. It is well-known that in this essay the author proposes the thesis that the painted image, and by extension all art, loses its essential core when it is reproduced by new technologies such as photography or cinema. Benjamin called this lost core the aura of the image. He referred to the melancholic description by Pirandello to underline the devitalisation that takes place in the logic of the doubling, in this case of the actor’s body by the film image:

'The film actor, (...), feels as if in exile - exiled not only from the stage but also from himself. With a vague sense of discomfort, he feels inexplicable emptiness: his body loses its corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice and the noises caused by his moving about, in order to be changed into a mute image (...)'(6)

The melancholy that arises as a consequence of the grief for a lost origin is the same as the one in the heart of the allegorist. In the allegorist appropriation the image is incapable of generating any meaning or significance of its own. Life flows out of it, and any meaning it has, it acquires from the allegorist. Therefore, according to Benjamin's description of the Baroque 'mourning play' (Trauerspiel), allegorical appropriation is consistently attracted to the fragmentary and the incomplete, to transience and decay, depicting history as an irreversible process of mortification - Richter en Tuymans involuntarily spring to mind, as Benjamin states that:

'... in allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica of history as a petrified, primordial landscape. Everything about history that, from the very beginning, had been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face - or rather in a death's head.'(7)

Projected onto the age of ter Borch, an era in which copies were made freely and openly, Benjamin’s thesis nonetheless also sounds like a pre-eminently historical idea, the tenability of which is limited to modernity. In other words, the tension between original and reproduction is essentially a snapshot in time, which does not agree with the reality of the Golden Age as far as the past is concerned and which does not appear unequivocal either today. Although the 17th century also utilized new technologies such as the camera obscura in the production of copies, by no means did it attach the same value to the original and consequently the copy could never imply a toning down of the original. For Benjamin the image lives on thanks to its reproduction (also the allegorist ‘saves’ in this way), but it pays the price of its innocence. In Variations GTB the woman does not renounce her identity in order to degenerate into a melancholy image of the woman as a whore (according to Benjamin, for that matter, the pre-eminent allegory of modernity in Baudelaire). With Hanssen her sensuality does never contradict her dignity as a woman. Maybe she succeeds in allowing the woman to be a woman, because the original image can hardly be explained as original. In any case, the woman in the installation seems to assess Benjamin’s thesis critically. As a consequence of this resistance in regard to Benjamin the latter's own poetical metaphors suddenly resound all the louder, for instance when he compares the allegorist to 'a stern sultan in the harem of objects', whose invasion of the original is characteristic of 'the sadist ... [who] humiliates his object and then - or thereby - satisfies it'.(8) In the same logic the aura is a female principle, which is lost under the groping gaze of the man and leaves her devitalized. By contrast, in Karin Hanssen's variation on ter Borch – who himself is in turn objectivized to ‘GTB’ in the name of the installation – the woman is a subject who does not renounce her aura. It is a matter of agency.

Possibly because of the same reason Hanssen also removes the cord with which ter Borch attached the canopy to the ceiling. The removal of the anecdotal elements of the space is consequently continued in the second group of images, in which the image is further emptied to make room for the woman. The first painting of this group is a reduced image based on a fragment of Paternal Admonition, the second one a reprise of the fragment with a background that is even more reduced – also the furniture has gone now – but with the inclusion of the floor from the painting Helena van der Schalcke. Paradoxically enough this abstraction enhances the mystery of the turned-away figure up to the point that it acquires an almost religious aura. One can imagine that Hanssen reaches another boundary here, which reflects the fetishizing objectification by conversely giving the image an almost transcendental aura. If carried through and if dialectically reversed this once more could have an objectification of the woman as a consequence. It could, to use the same imagery as a little while ago, result in a cultic image of the woman as the Madonna. The third group, all of them pasticchio's derived from Helena van der Schalcke, which shows the woman in a grandiose and monumental way in a vague spaciousness, seems to strengthen this impression at first sight, she nearly becomes an icon of femininity. Still, this is ultimately not the case and Hanssen manages to keep the aura of her personage in a dialectical tension, so that she does not fully grow into an emblem or yet another ideal either, thus in the end losing her private character. For this reason this group is dearest to me: because the three paintings, the culmination of the whole installation, display the singular beauty of the woman in a timeless and undefined space, celebrating her emancipation at the same time as her serialization. In this sense the letter in the final image punctuates the aura. It refers to the singular situation of the woman, which extends beyond the frame, and at the same time again formulates an appeal to the beholder, whose voyeurism is fueled, so that we become aware that this dimension has never disappeared from the work since ter Borch.

At the end the portrait of the woman becomes the site for a debate that poses crucial questions for our times when considering the aesthetic, commercial and moral values involved in the serialized copying of the figure of a prostitute. The field of tension between original and copy is one of these crucial questions. But just as well – to paraphrase a book of W.J.T. Mitchell – the loves and lives of an image.(9) Because in Hanssen’s attempts to wrest this woman from the codes and duties of her time, by continuing the series, she raises questions about the capacity of the image to exist on itself despite the template that fixes her time and again, in years past but also now, in the triangle between artist, canvas and beholder. The question of what the image itself wants is probably the most far-reaching. If we consider the image to be an organism, how does it meet us? It is the most improper reversal, because it defers hermeneutics, which traditionally probes for meanings and firm ground, and requires an almost archaic, magic change of place. This inversion unsettles the modern approach of the image. Averse to all explanatory schemes from art history and theory, apart from artistic training programmes and endless notions of spectatorship, even against the economy which invariably impregnates the work of art beforehand with a commercial value – the question is: what does the picture really want?

'What pictures want from us, what we have failed to give them, is an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology. (...) Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language. They want neither to be leveled into a "history of images" nor elevated into a "history of art" but to be seen as complex individuals occupying multiple subject positions and identities.'(10)

This suggestion boldly shifts the question from restriction to desire, from the dominant model of the gaze to be opposed to the invitation to the subaltern and the objectified to raise its voice. Thus, the question of the agency of the image flirts with a superstitious attitude toward images, one that returns us to animism and idolatry. Surely, it contains a heuretical impulse. It turns our attention to a possible life of the image of the woman in the satin dress, an (after)life that has acquired increasingly clearer contours as the paint of the portraits dried.

Kurt Vanhoutte, Antwerp, March 2012


(1) Gregory L. Ulmer, Heuretics. The Logic of Invention, Baltimore and London 1994, pp. 4 -5.

(2) Susan Sonntag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York 1965, p. 36.

(3) Michel Foucault, 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe', in: October, N° 1 / Spring 1976, p. 14.

(4) Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Band I-3, Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 952.

(5) Alison McNeil Kettering, 'Ter Borch's Ladies in Satin', in: Wayne E. Franits (ed.), Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Realism Reconsidered, Cambridge 1997.

(6) Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, New York 1968, p. 229.

(7) Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, London & New York 1998, p. 166.

(8) Ibid., pp. 184-185.

(9) W.J.T. Mitchell, What do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago 2005.

(10) Ibid., p. 47.