The Image in Question: Anachronism and the Theoretical Object

Mieke Bal, Professor of Theory of Literature, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam

Mieke Bal is a guest of the ‘Image in Question’ conference hosted by the Department of Philosophy and the Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney


5 August, 2014

Some artworks seem to have a timeless, if not eternal value. This durability does not depend on fixed forms or meanings. On the contrary: these works tend to have an enigmatic quality; they cannot be fully explained.

Numerous art historians keep returning to what seems already almost comprehensively interpreted except for something that remains resistant to interpretation. They turn these art works into “theoretical objects”. One example is Albrecht Dürer’s small engraving Melencholia I. Dürer’s engraving, was made almost exactly 400 years before Sigmund Freud, in Vienna, during the First World War, explained the affliction of melancholia in psychoanalytic terms, without reference to Dürer’s image. Yet, in the history of interpretation the two have been bound together.

In a wilfully anachronistic reading of Dürer’s Melencolia I, Professor Bal stages the artist as responding to Freud. This “theoretical fiction” – after all a Freudian term – allows her to contend that in the engraving, the theory of melancholy Freud proposes seems to have been given shape, figured, to the letter. Freud’s comparison between mourning and melancholia resonates in Dürer’s image, not as a unified representation of melancholia but rather as an internal dialogue between mourning (indifference to the world) and melancholia (an empty self; she does not look at her own reflection). The engraving thus undercuts the binary opposition Freud put forward. Along with this case, in order to posit anachronism as a methodology, Professor Bal brings in Stan Douglas's Clown, 1946 from 2010.

Mieke Bal

Mieke Bal is a cultural theorist and critic based at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam. Her areas of interest range from biblical and classical antiquity to 17th century and contemporary art and modern literature, feminism and migratory culture. Her many books include A Mieke Bal Reader (2006), Travelling Concepts in the Humanities (2002) and Narratology (3rd edition 2009).

Mieke is also a video artist, her internationally exhibited documentaries on migration include Separations, State of Suspension, Becoming Vera and the installation Nothing is Missing. With Michelle Williams Gamaker she made the feature film A Long History of Madness, a theoretical fiction about madness, and related exhibitions (2012). Her current project Madame B: Explorations in Emotional Capitalism is exhibited worldwide.

Mieke occasionally acts as an independent curator. Her co-curated exhibition 2MOVE travelled to four countries. For more about Professor Mieke Bal click here