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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Negation, Possibilisation, Emergence and the Reversed Painting


My recent work has been a book project on the reversed painting in Western art, where the reversed painting is defined as a pictorial motif that depicts another painting or paintings turned against the viewer (think of the huge canvas back that dominates the left-hand side of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, 1656). This essay addresses research on a core aspect of the project as pursued at Durham. Under the aegis of ‘emergence’ it involved thinking about the political potentiality of the reversed painting in negative and positive lights. In respect of the motif’s negational role, the image of the reversed canvas resembles acts of iconoclasm that stimulate the memory or imagination not only of an obscured image, ‘but all that has attached itself to it in the course of the fight for and against it and all that this fight has brought to light’ (Dario Gamboni). The powerful negational significance of the reversed canvas depends, therefore, on its potential effacement of the entire history of the frontal image it occludes, namely, the complex emergence of the portable easel painting as the central and most meaningful form of Western culture amongst many other competing media. Mutatis mutandis, the negation of the world depends on a prior, constitutive representation of the world. Seen in a positive light, therefore, the reversed painting can be read as a symbol of collective imagining that might bring into being a new ideal world – aesthetically and politically – by inducing an abstract kind of collective longing. The essay considers some concrete examples of politically emancipatory imagining in the works of particular artists, as well as theoretical justifications for it in the aesthetic writings of Friedrich Schiller and Hans Belting, the philosophical writings of Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl and the political writings of Giorgio Agamben.

Insights Paper