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A Theory of /Cloud/

Reviewed by Brian Curtin, Raffles Design Institute Bangkok

Damisch, Hubert. A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 313 pages. ISBN: 0804734402

The “destruction”of linear perspective by modern art did in fact everything but — given the extent to whichlinear perspective preoccupied twentieth-century thought on European art and its histories. Amidst a plethora of texts including Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, there is John White’s The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space and James Elkins’s more recent and comprehensive account of the historical shift from geometry to metaphor in The Poetics of Perspective. Though concerned with how linear perspective can be linked to its “opposite,” the affective indeterminacy of the image of clouds, Hubert Damisch’s book is more than an adjunct to these writings. Damischis also concerned with establishing the necessity of semiotics to challenge his recognition of limits in how art and art history are written. /Cloud/ appears between forward slashes in order to render a signifier rather than representation and cloud appears in italics for denotation and “cloud” for that which is signified. A Theory of /Cloud/ thus serves a dual function and though originally published in French in 1972 the author’s methods should appear fresh to Anglophone readers. As Ian Verstegen has commented, “No one can write philosophy-imbued history like the French.”

Focused initially on the illusionism of Antonio Allegri Correggio’s painted cupolas, Damisch observes that Correggio’s rendering of clouds negate architectural space as the result of his concern with a vertical relationship between the viewer and the scene depicted. This is in contrast to, for example, the Venetian scheme of quadro riportato where the norms of horizontal perspective from easel painting are simply applied to a vault or ceiling and the viewer has to “perform a feat of veritable optical gymnastics,” all the while affirming architectonic space (7). Other examples include the use of clouds as thrones for the figures in distinction from Correggio’s understanding of clouds as a spatial feature which functions as a counterpoint to and reveals the limitations of linear perspective. These innovations, however, were not to be influential for over a hundred years, spreading from Rome to the rest of Europe, and Damisch takes issue with how Correggio’s position as central to the development of European canonical artbetween antiquity and Impressionism has been interpreted. Jacob Burckhardt, Anton Raphael Mengs, Alois Riegl and Heinrich Wöfflin are extensively engaged and quoted to unsettle and disrupt formal, technical or stylistic analyses and establish questions of the signifying process as central. At one point he enigmatically deploys Aristotle’s suggestion that meteorological phenomena represent, or are harbingers, of change to ask if insights into the very nature of painting were made possible once artists historically began to borrow from that which cannot be measured or fixed: namely, /cloud/. Such a point fits well — though other readings are possible — with later remarks on Cézanne and Suprematism.

The chapters proceed with varying degrees of intense engagement with the theories of Leon Battista Alberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, Erwin Panofsky, et al. One begins to envisage the manifestations of cloud-as-apparition or cloud-as-miraculous ascension as poised to overtake all sureties or knowledge offered by linear perspective but, in Damisch’s hands, it is the tension of the relationship between both that requires explanation. The celestial realm of /cloud/ and terrestrial realm of perspective require each other in terms of exclusion and dependency; placelessness defined against place and the impossibility of the analysis of shape set against methods of measurement. Here, however, a more radical analysis is suggested. Damisch’s understanding that European painting thrived on transgressing the laws it gave itself – in this case, linear perspective is revealed as not a matrix but a theoretical, and regulating, device – is a familiar (and not unproblematic) point (128). Instead, a strength of the book is in the possibilities generated by comparisons with Chinese and Japanese painting, where semiotic readings can persuasively skirt issues of anachronism. Damisch’s work could impact, and be considerably developed by, contemporary discussions on the terms for more global accounts of art history and production.

Bibliography

Elkins, James. The Poetics of Perspective. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Panofsky, Erwin. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Verstegen, Ian. Review of ‘A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting’
by Hubert Damisch [online]. Leonardo Reviews, 2005 [cited 1March 2005]. Available from World Wide Web: http://mitpress2.mit.edu/e-journals/Leonardo/reviews/apr2004/theory_damisch.html

White, John. The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.

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