Thursday, 7 August 2008

Sandra Nuy - Flashy Constellations. Illustration and Memory

I. It is neither the case, that the past sheds light on the present nor that the present sheds light on the past, but the picture is the thing, in which bygone things coincide with the present moment in a flashy constellation. In other words: A picture is dialectic on a halt. For as the relation of past and present is one of time, the relation of the bygone things and the present is dialectic: not by nature of time, but by nature of picture.” (Walter Benjamin, 1991, 578)


Pictures are older than scripture: Before perceptions of the world were written down they have been depicted – the cave-paintings of Lascaux and Altamira are among the most important and most beautiful examples. At all times drawings have illustrated reality and saved it for following generations. And it is not by coincidence, that the German words “Zeichnung” (drawing) und “Aufzeichnung” (chronicle) are etymological that close related. For both describe documentation of cut-outs of reality, fixations of frictions and on-passing of relevant cognition.

Also apart from its dispositions from primitive times the picture is regarded the oldest memory-system of mankind. As a vital part of ancient rhetoric, ars memoriae derives from a founding myth formed by picture. The Greek poet Simonides once had left a feast for a moment, when suddelny the ceiling suddenly collapsed and buried the guests. He was then the only person who was able to identify the disfigured guests for he remembered the seating arrangement. This allowed the bereaved to entomb their relatives appropriately. Since then the combination of pictures and places is regarded the ideal way of mnemonic techniques. The myth of the invention of ars memoriae as art to conquer oblivion refers to the fact, that memory is not only an individual, neuronal, and psychical phenomenon. It is a social phenomenon as well – and it is always a phenomenon of communication and media.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Ball au Moulin Rouge (1891)Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Yvette Guilbert(1894)

But what are the characteristics of pictures within the discussion on a social, a collective memory? The following remarks try to give some answers, though necessarily cursory. Too multifaceted is the discussion on pictures, too complex the imaginable perspectives of theories on this topic. The memory-oriented paradigms of research are very popular for some years now: Memory became a “main term of humanities” (Aleida Assmann). Also politic and journalistic practice is constantly dealing with this topic; the different cultures of remembrance are controversial subjects of discussions in public and in politics.
Let’s come back to “dialectic on halt”. How can you describe this in a not only iconographic way, but considering aspects of cultural history and cognitive sociology as well? Ariadne’s threat of this consideration will be outlining illustration as media of cultural memory. Put another way it will be asked, what specific characteristics illustration as form of cultural knowledge-management has.


The discussion on content and expression of collective cognition and the ways of passing it on is a vital point of all concepts describing the memory of civilisations. In his almost classical definition of the cultural memory by Jan Assmann it is a “Collective term for the use of text, pictures and rites […] in every society in all times. In the care of this it stabilizes and mediates its self-image. This is a collective, shared cognition, preferably (though not exclusively) is based on the society’s conscience of its unity and characteristic.” (Jan Assmann 1988, S. 15).

So it is focused on structuring to the pool of a civilisation’s cognition and therefore on a conception of memory as “collective, symbolic construct” (A, Assmann, Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit, Beck 2006, p. 33). However collective memory relies on individual memories and so Aleida Assmann provides a model of memory as a three-dimensional structure:
A neuronal network in the human brain, connected to a network of communication; therefore it stands in a cultural framework and is encoded in yet another cultural level. The latter formation of memory deals with objectifications – symbols, artworks, products of media, certain cultural practices.

Lyonel Feininger - Woodcut of the Bauhaus-Program (1919)Theo Matejko - Poster for the Olympiade-Großflugtag (1936)

“While the social memory derives from social living, verbal exchange, and discussions, collective and cultural memory is based on a pool of experience and cognition, which is detached from its living bearers and devolved onto material data carriers” (ibid. 34). This means that the collective memory – author Harald Welzer names it “communicative memory”- has restricted time limits. It lasts about 80 years, according to average expectancy of a human life. The cultural memory in contrast exceeds the individual’s lifetime. It needs institutions and dramatization in form of symbols and acts of rites and ceremonies apart from everyday-life. The communicative memory in contrast circulates in every-day life.

Nonetheless forms and practices of the three dimensions of memory mentioned above – individual, social and cultural memory – meet in practices of remembrance, the division is analytic. And so memory and remembrance may be understood as a pair of terms: One should keep in mind that the “map of memory” can be partitioned in different areas which are defined as the storage memory and the functional memory by Aleida and Jan Assmann (cf A. and J Assmann, 1994, 122). While the collective memory stores huge amounts of data – some of it useless and irrelevant to society – the “connexion of the past to the present” (ibid.) is characteristic for the functional memory. It can be thought of as an active, sense-construing part on basis of the storage memory.


Media are the relays between these types of memory. This applies particularly to artistic media of memory such as pictures. However media are no neutral containers. Different technologies of media define form and perception of the message. What is passed on is designed remembrance and formed cognition. Not only production is formed but also reception, the flashy actualisation. This is the reconstructive character of memory. Only those elements of the past are saved which can be understood and interpreted by society. It was Maurice Halbwachs who pointed at the social dimension of remembrance. His thesis held in several publications is: “There is no possible memory without the frameworks used by the members of a society to fix and to find memories.” (Halbwachs 1985, p 121). In other words: Memory needs social institutionalisation and utility.

Roy Lichtenstein - M-Maybe (1965)

If memories depend on social structures and the media it uses, these media play a two-faced role in this: they are “containers” of symbolic constructs (and therefore influence the selection of what will be remembered in which way) and on the other hand they are the forum wherein the frameworks of interpretation of the past are discussed. Outcomes of media therefore provide versions of remembrance – they do so not only at the moment of saving, but also when they are perceived and interpreted as they are actualised. In addition the experience of the present is influenced by these media. The comparisons are familiar: “That is just like in the movies!” So versions of present and past are significantly influenced by media and their users.


For examining the double-character of illustration’s function towards the memory, one should take separate looks at production and reception of memory. One way of doing so is offered by works which make memory and/or practices of remembrance a topic. Regarding production, cognition can further be used and passed-on, meaning return of forms of art and artefacts of media. Also illustrations can – be it intended or not – become a manifestation of memory.
Art historian Aby Warburg linked the recurrence of motifs he found in art-history to a theory of remembrance, which contained in its core the concept of a cultural image-memory, as early as in the 1920’s. He draws the outlines of constants within the history of motifs not as much as “result of a conscious adaptation of the antique by artists of later epochs, but traced them back to a power of cultural symbols which cause remembrance.” (Erll, 2005, p. 19). Though Warburg’s “mnemonic energy” of things cannot be verified scientifically, they can well be traced in aesthetic practices of everyday life: a child’s drawings, carefully preserved and recurrently presented by the proud parents, may serve as an example. Particularly in the first attempts of painting regarded as incunables one can understand, that all media are part of the collective memory, if they are regarded as such by a group – even if it never was intended to be a medium of memory. The same applies to professional work: As soon as the perception of a painting causes remembrance it becomes a mediator of the past.

Aby Warburg, about 1900Mnemosyne, Plate 46

If aesthetic forms such as illustrations are from the beginning conceived and commissioned as media of memory to cause persons of the future to remember things of today, we have intentional transfer of cognition. In particular illustrations in context of non-fictional and scientific text are often in this function. Illustrations work as semiotic system, saving and organising information at the same time. If they cause remembrance, this has affective influence. Illustrations have this in common with other memory-making media, but in the case of illustrations one should consider that they are often used to visualise moods – therefore they were intended to retain feelings right when they have been made.

Objectives of memory-media – in general, but in particular in case of intentional media – are basically the three functions storage, circulation, and recall of cognition. These provide the possibility of organising cognition independently from time and space. Sometimes reminding media become both remembered and passed-on. This is the case if they are canonised accordingly like Homer’s “Illias” or Proust’s “In search of lost time”. Regarding illustration Melchior Lechter may be mentioned as an example, who illustrated many books of the poet Stefan George or Aubry Beardsley, who did this for Osca Wilde’s “Salome”.


If cognition is reflected, collected and passed-on in form of and by illustrations, while memory requires (besides other things) institutions, this institutional anchoring needs to be discussed. Based on ILLUSTRATIVE, which embraces as exhibition and by its concept the entire spectrum of artistic illustration and graphic art, this discussion will soon lead to the concept of the museum. Even more so as it stands in the context of architectural imagery, which has always been used to describe memory. This concept evokes two different aspects of memory: On one hand there are the exhibitions open to the public (functional memory), on the other hand they are the depot, the archive (storage memory). Its inventory can in no way be regarded as static, but is in a state of permanent variation as all individual and collective processes of remembrance are to be understood as dynamic.

At present the most dynamic media can be seen in the internet. Regarding our topic a virtual museum has emerged which allows beholding and buying art unbound to time and space.
In particular buying art is a development of the “Imaginary Museum” formed under economic influence, nonetheless convenient. By this term André Malraux described the reproducibility and ubiquity of art by technical media. Since Malraux reflected on the effects of printing and photography on art, media’s technologies have rapidly developed. Computers provide unimagined possibilities of production, storage, and distribution of data, but also of manipulating it. The question vital to a society’s memory and of increasing importance is: “On what basis and with which intend can cognition – if it is relevant as common cognition of a group – be passed on to following generations?” (A. and J. Assmann, 1994, p.117).
Organising cognition nowadays means first of all proceeding of continuously formatted data and the detectability of information. Benjamin’s flash like connection between the present and the past by pictures has therefore to be extended by the category of relevance. For the problem of the information society is not remembrance, considering abundance of information it is oblivion.

Assmann, Aleida and Jan: Das Gestern im Heute. Medien und soziales Gedächtnis. In: Klaus Merten, Siegfried J. Schmidt, Siegfried Weischenberg (Ed.): Die Wirklichkeit der Medien. Eine Einführung in die Kommunikationswissenschaft. Opladen 1994. p. 114-140.
Assmann, Aleida: Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik. Munich: Beck 2006.
Assmann, Jan: Kollektives Gedächtnis und kulturelle Identität. In: idem./ Hölscher, Tonio (Ed.): Kultur und Gedächtnis. Frankfurt/Main 1988. p. 9-19.
Benjamin, Walter: Das Passagen-Werk. Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. V.1. ed. by Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1991.
Erll, Astrid: Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen. Eine Einführung. Stuttgart: Metzler 2005.
Halbwachs, Maurice: Das Gedächtnis und seine sozialen Bedingungen. Frankfurt/Main 1985.
Welzer, Harald: Das kommunikative Gedächtnis. Eine Theorie der Erinnerung. Munich: Beck’sche Reihe 2005.

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