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Published 01:50 28.12.11
Spotlight on the nameless
One of the world's most influential art scholars was in Israel last week to discuss his current research into the unknown 'extras' in art and film.
By Daniel Rauchwerger
With small, cautious steps Dr. Georges Didi-Huberman walked around the darkened stage in the new auditorium at the TelAviv Museum last week, as untitled black and white images flashed onto the large screen behind him, in a well-considered order he created for the computer presentation he had prepared. "Shall we have some coffee?" he asks quietly, and requests the person in charge of the technical equipment to keep an eyes on his personal computer during his absence for the interview. "Don't worry," the technician reassures him. "This is a museum." "Yes," he chuckles, "There are works by Anselm Kiefer here. They are worth a bit more." This jocularity contrasts sharply with the rest of the conversation with him in which the most "frivolous" subject is the representation of the Holocaust in art.
A few dozen trickle into the auditorium to hear Didi-Huberman. Although he is not an artist everyone knows, he has been one of the major and most influential art scholars of the past three decades and many artists rely in their work on the intellectual breakthroughs he has made for them in his research. Over the years, he has published dozens of books and hundreds of articles, curated exhibitions, taught at all the major universities and analyzed anew the entire history of art.
This is not Didi-Huberman's first visit to Israel. This time he was invited, together with his friend, director and theoretician Alain Fleischer, by the master's degree program at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. In the past, he relates, he lectured here one other time and also came for a family wedding. Didi-Huberman, who is Jewish, says he finds no point in an academic boycott of Israel. "I can't understand," he explains, "the reason to take the necessary criticism of Israel's political decisions and use it in the form of a boycott."
The lecture is based on his current research, entitled "How to Photograph the Nameless" - the "extras" in art and film. It ends with a feeling of a missed opportunity, with the lecturer avoiding any mention of current political issues. The sense is that the audience wants to hear his opinion about additional, more political and social topics beyond the specific history he has presented.
This history goes from the Lumiere brothers' 1895 film "Workers leaving the Lumiere Factory," through Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah"to the works of contemporary German artist Haroun Farouki. He avoids responding directly to questions mentioning reality shows, current events and news documentation. "I don't feel comfortable replying briefly to things I haven't thought through," he explains, but intellectual asceticism characterizes quite a number of researchers at his level.
Didi-Huberman was born in France in 1953. It seems his biography, the story and details of which he kept private during the interview, is not necessarily relevant to his work. However, his record as a historian of art and a philosopher is a rare one. At the end of the 1980s, he relates, he encountered anew the images photographed by Jews from the Sonderkommando unit at Auschwitz-Birkenau which were smuggled out as negatives rolled into shoe polish. These led him, later, to the writing of a number of research books, the best known of which is perhaps "Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz," first published in French in 2004. His attitude towards the photographed images documenting piles of women and children at the death camp and other horrendous images led him to a continuing debate with Claude Lanzmann and Jean-Luc Godard about the ability of the visual image to represent history faithfully, like testimony.
His position in the philosophical-visual argument, though it began before he joined it, has taken him beyond the confines of academia and won him a reputation that transcends borders. Today, he says, he has understood that of all the places in the world he feels most comfortable in Germany, from which part of his family indeed fled in the 1930s but where today he finds many who share his opinions. "My mother once told me," he says, "that I will never know how to speak German, that I dare not learn the language - and so it has been." "I have come here with a piece of my current work and I am presenting a piece of a work-in-progress. I have no idea whether anyone knows me here or not," opens Didi-Huberman, and with reason. He has been insisting for a number of years now that his works not be translated into English. He finds it hard to get along with the American school of art history.
"I taught a course at Harvard and it felt like being the father to a group of little children, who ask for a bibliography and gaze at you like a herd of calves during class," he relates. In his view, a class with him, which today happens only at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS ) in Paris, has to be like a direct continuation of his independent work on his research. The course has no syllabus or title and it can focus on any one of the topics on the broad scale of his interests, from "The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpetiere," through psychiatry, psychoanalysis and art in the "embodiment of the painting," Christian theology, anthropology and more. He is aware that the topics are demanding but that is how he too learned from his teachers.
In praise of German Jewish art scholars
"One of my earliest articles, which was called 'Before the Picture', deals with the analysis of the history of art and relates to the most prevalent research about it, which is American," he explains. "The problem is that I see the German school of art scholars, like Aby Warburg or Erwin Panofsky or even Walter Benjamin before them, as the most significant movement there has been in the West in this field. The main reason for this is that all of them made a close connection between art and philosophy. These were modern, German-speaking Jews who in 1933 had to immigrate to America or Britain, if they hadn't already died. There they had to give up their language and also to simplify their theories. These were very German concepts that no one else understood. It's hard to fathom the absurdity of such significant researchers who had no choice but to resign during the course of research they had begun." According to him, this absurdity has not been resolved to this day. In one of his most important books, he notes, he focused on the early Italian painter Fra Angelico, leaving behind the dry historical research and connected the works to broader critical philosophy and theology. "Through work like this I brought down upon myself the first debates in the profession," he says.
The Sonderkommando photos
Huberman's grasp of the image as a timeless piece of information of manifold significance began, then, with these studies and followed a path laid out by his mentors and guides. The experience of the renewed encounter with theSonderkommando photographs, which he had known as a child at the Contemporary Jewish History Museum in Paris, led him, he says, to political questions despite himself. "I read the studies that are done of these and other photographs and I didn't understand how it was possible that most of them jump from the context of the Holocaust to the easy realms of politics in Israel, in the Middle East."
First, he says, there was the need to understand the visual validity of the image itself and how thinking about it as art can lead to a conceptual change. This very change, however, led him into the polemic that continues to this day, in which he has even been accused of anti-Semitism stemming from his "indifferent," learned and detached analysis, an accusation that has been emphatically articulated by the French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. Nevertheless, his position seems to have had far-reaching influence, posing a question about the essence of memorial museums and engaging a growing number of artists to deal with the validity of the photograph, archival materials as raw materials, alternative history in general and Jewish history in particular.
Historian of ideas
"More than he is a philosopher, Huberman is a historian of ideas. In his lecture, and in certain of his books, he shows how to look at images in a profound way rooted mostly in a phenomenological philosophical context. And that's a lot," says AimDeuel Lusky, in whose lectures Huberman's works are central. "From my perspective, Didi-Huberman very much reinforces the arguments I present and teach," says the Bezalel lecturer."When I am teaching this at a university or at Bezalel and I ask the students to take seriously every detail and every direct and indirect aspect of images, in a painting, in a film (their own or others' and in high or low cinema ), they look at me as though I am crazy and they don't understand why it is necessary to devote time and energy to an image."
In an article entitled "The Silence of the Archive" that Deuel Lusky published this year together with Oded Wolkstein about Israeli director Yael Hersonski's "A Film Unfinished," he noted Huberman's thought on "art and representation, the wisdom that has accumulated and the knowledge of how to decipher an image" - a contemporary way of looking at things as a key element in understanding the film. Hersonski's film, which also connects to his argument through her use of hidden Nazi archival materials, is a clear example of the theory of Huberman's renewed reading of the history of art as a whole.
A living backdrop
For Didi-Huberman, "the nameless" constitute a new opening for thought in his research. He does not pretend to present a position for them, but he is interested in their power in the cinema and art as "people who are a living backdrop." Even though they have participated in a film, a photograph or a painting, their significance is for the most part unimportant and the discussion of them brings him back to the debate with Claude Lanzmann. "If you're a great director," he explains, "or an artist, it is worth thinking about how to present people who aren't starring in your work. It's easy to make a film with famous and good-looking actors; it is less easy to film ordinary people with respect and depth. The image, at its base, is connected to the dignity it acquires for the human." This issue is at the center of Huberman's new book entitled "Exposed Peoples, "which he completed this summer and is due out this coming year. The modicum of disappointment with his lecture in Tel Avivat his not having touched directly upon what is happening in Israel arises from the connection between current events and the topic Didi-Huberman is analyzing. "We are living under a regime that regularly depicts half its population as nameless," says Dr. Ariella Azoulay, who teaches visual culture and contemporary philosophy at Bar- Ilan University, and attendedHuberman's lecture. "Should Huberman be discussing this when he comes to Israel for a short visit? Or should the audience understand that Huberman is raising a question that is more burning than any other in a context in which Israeli photographers, both male and female, are acting toward the Palestinian population that does not have citizenship?
"We are left with our flawed existence, as those who are managing the lives of the nameless while Huberman is only a momentary guest. His lecture has added another dimension to this discussion for those who are engaged in it and understand this is an urgent question if they desire a tolerable civil existence," she added.
Miki Kratsman, an artist whose work has been focusing for years on those very "extras" in the Israeli reality, was also surprised by the lecture's disassociation from politics but, he says, he has continued to discuss it since then. In a new project on which he is now working for an exhibition at the Harvard University Peabody Museum, he has, using Facebook, asked anonymous people he has photographed in the past to identify themselves and say whether they know the other people in the photograph and whether they are still alive. "Through Huberman the photograph gets a broader reading within a visual culture," explains Krasman. "Eight or nine years ago you didn't have anyone to talk to about this and today they are analyzing (Andy ) Warhol and (Christian ) Boltanski through his prism."