“L’unica presenza era l’assenza” (“The only presence was absence”).
The dichotomy absence/presence is central to representation, which is, simply put, to re-present, that is, to present again, to allow something or someone absent to be present anew. Portraiture has roots in funerary practices: capturing a person’s likeness is grounded in a desire to preserve their memory, allowing the dearly departed to remain present, despite their absence. One can think about the role depictions fulfilled in Ancient Egypt, in particular that of statues meant to house the ka, the life force. Ancient Egyptians believed that the ka continued to reside in the body after death and that it needed to remain there. This is why they perfected mummification to prevent the body from decaying and built tombs that provided a lasting resting place. If, despite such precautions something were to happen to the bodily envelope, then statues would offer the ka a new abode. This explains many of the formal choices of such statuary: Pharaoh Khafre (the builder of one of the great pyramids of Giza) comes across as a powerful ruler, symbolized by his muscular chest and the hard stone it was carved from, diorite, but these qualities also convey a sense of permanence.
Fast forward a few millennia. Even under Roman occupation, Egyptians continued to practice mummification. The wooden tablets that they placed over the faces of the dead capture the subjects’ likeness in some of the most compellingly true-to-life portraits ever made. The so-called Fayum portraits (named after an oasis in Lower Egypt where a large number of such panels were found) demonstrate that naturalism might find its origins and impetus in funerary customs.
The Roman aristocratic tradition of keeping ancestors’ wax masks (known as imagines, which translates to “images”), has been recognized as playing a role in the development of what is known as “verism.” In this style, which became a hallmark of the Republican period, every distinctively personal detail is shown, no matter how unflattering it might be: it is a “warts and all” approach to portraiture. The imagines, along with bronze busts, were displayed in the atrium of Roman villas (where visitors could see them) and were taken out for rituals. A life-size marble sculpture shows a patrician with busts of his ancestors and gives an idea of such a practice, with the man accompanied as it were by his forefathers, all three of them depicted in a manner that captures their individuality.
That a likeness stands in for an absent person—whether dead or far away—is fundamental for this other Ancient Roman practice: displaying portraits of emperors throughout the empire to ensure their presence and assert their authority. We can see the idea of a depiction perpetuating the emperor’s presence transferred to a Christian context in these mosaics from Ravenna. Although Justinian and Theodora never visited the Adriatic town, we see them, accompanied by clergy, soldiers, and members of the court, forever participating in the Divine Liturgy: the emperor holds a bowl for the bread of the Eucharistic and the empress a chalice for the wine. Ravenna’s mosaics initiate a long tradition of donors in Christian art, with their portraits maintaining their presence across space and time. Usually shown praying, they are forever present and their prayers perpetual, lasting beyond the grave.
By the time Piero della Francesca painted the double-portrait of Federico da Montefeltro (count of Montefeltro and duke of Urbino since 1474) and his second wife Battista Sforza, one of the sitters was no more: Battista had died in early July 1472 and so the artist had to rely on the countess’s death mask. Readers familiar with the conventions of European double portraiture might have noticed that, contrary to tradition, Federico is on the left side from the sitters’ point of view. The positioning of Federico on this lesser side can be explained by another absence: that of his right eye. The Duke, a noted condottiere, had lost his right eye and the bridge of his nose during a tournament in 1451.
The Duke reappears in this other painting by Piero, the Brera Madonna. Here as well, he is in profile, turned to the right, hiding his missing eye from the viewer, but this time he is alone: Battista is absent. This altarpiece was probably commissioned by Federico for the church he built after Battista’s untimely death and that was meant to house his own grave. The Virgin sits in front of a Renaissance barrel-vaulted niche. She joins her hands and looks down to the baby Jesus, who sleeps on her lap (an allusion to his forthcoming death). Six male saints and four angels surround them, forming a semicircle that echoes the niche’s concavity. In the foreground, Federico kneels in prayer, his patron saint John the Evangelist behind him. The figures’ harmoniously symmetrical arrangement is disrupted by the empty space across from Federico, affectingly communicating his wife’s absence. (This is confirmed by the figure on the extreme left, directly behind that empty spot: it’s John the Baptist, Battista’s patron saint). The rather puzzling detail of the ostrich egg hanging from the apse has been interpreted in various ways, but the most pertinent here contain personal resonances for Federico: the bird was said to feed on metallic objects, an allusion to the Duke’s armor and military functions, but, most poignantly, the female ostrich was believed to abandon her eggs, leaving them to hatch in the sunlight. Not only was this a metaphor for the Virgin giving birth to Christ without human intervention, but here it acts as a sad reminder of Battista’s death just months after giving birth to the couple’s first son, Guidobaldo. As a result, Piero’s work becomes a meditation on absence and death.
Emptiness is at the core of the humorous and poignant series Espacios Ocultos (Concealed Spaces) by Spanish painter and photographer José Manuel Ballester. Digitally manipulating famous old master paintings, Ballester removes all figures, be it from the palace interior of Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the shore of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or the room of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Gone are Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow or the figures frolicking in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. As we look at the empty room in the Alcazar palace where Velázquez once stood, we are made aware of the transience of the lives lived there, monarchs and their descendants, ladies-in-waiting, courtiers, and the artist himself. In some of the works in the series, details now fully visible take up central stage. Artist and model having left Johannes Vermeer’s Art of Painting, we now can see that the painting on the easel is barely a sketch. Similarly, the objects in disarray on the table by the window suggest a sudden interruption. As a result, the work takes on somber overtones. As Ballester revisits Goya’s The Third of May 1808, we see the execution’s aftermath, with a large blood stain on the ground where the Spanish rebels once stood and bled to death. Writing in August 2020, Francine Birbragher-Rozencwaig noted that the works, which were created between 2077 and 2012, take on a new meaning in a time of lockdowns, reminding the viewer of the similar fate public spaces were experiencing at the time. Birbragher-Rozencwaig notes how in a remarkable reversal, “what in other times would have appeared surreal or implausible, has become a familiar scene.”
Just as Ballester removed figures inhabiting famous paintings, the pandemic did for real spaces. Empty rooms are also at the core of Claudio Parmiggiani’s series titled Delocazioni (“displacements”). Starting in the 1970s, Parmiggiani devised a way to create shadows of objects (such as vases or books) placed along the walls of a room. After producing a heavy smoke, he would remove the objects, revealing a negative impression. Parmiggiani explained that in his “completely bare rooms,”
[t]he only presence was absence, the imprint on the walls of all that once was there, the shadows of the things those places had held. The materials used to produce them, dust, soot, and smoke, contributed to creating the atmosphere of an abandoned place, as after a fire; the atmosphere of a dead city. Only remaining were shadows, almost ectoplasms of missing forms, vanished like the shadows of human bodies dissolved on the walls of Hiroshima.
Delocazioni is a work born from the observation of a space, an environment inside a museum, an abandoned place, where the only presence is the imprints of the objects I had removed. An environment of shadows, shadows of canvases removed from the walls, shadows of shadows, like seeing behind a veil another veiled reality and behind this other reality yet another and other veils, and so on and so forth, losing oneself endlessly, searching for an image and through that image the desire to get a glimpse of oneself. An environment of shadows as a work; a place of absence as a place of the soul.1
Although Parmiggiani compares his impressions to the so-called “Hiroshima shadows” left by the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also relevant are the chalk outlines of crime scenes and the practice that first took place in Buenos Aires in 1983 known as el siluetazo, when body outlines where displayed in the city to demand the bodies of the desaparecidos (the disappeared), the victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War”). Just like Parmiggiani’s ghostly imprints, Hiroshima’s shadows, or police chalk outlines, the siluetazo makes absence visible. But if Hiroshima’s shadows and chalk outlines evoke violent death in all its physical materiality and offer a record of the very spot where the victim once lay, el siluetazo, while similarly calling attention to atrocities, is first and foremost meant to fight oblivion. It manifests that the reality of the body or its representation—be it physical or a mental image—is the condition for memory. Thinking back to mummification and to its aim to preserve the body’s integrity, one must keep in mind the etymology of “remembering”: to put members back together. And indeed, Ancient Egyptians saw the origin of mummification in the story of the God Osiris. Murdered by his brother Seth and dismembered, his wife Isis collected his scattered remains and put them back together.
Remembering and Forgetting
What all the examples mentioned here show, is that presence and absence are intimately linked to the workings of memory and to the role and power with which we endow images. Think how reluctant we are to destroy a photograph with someone’s likeness, as if destroying it would, in a voodoo-like manner, harm the person itself. This is of course why images are obvious targets for iconoclasm, as is so well illustrated by current controversies over Confederate monuments. What is at stake is whether or not such figures are worthy of commemoration; or, simply stated, to be remembered: the Latin etymology of “to commemorate” is the verb commemorare, “to bring to remembrance.” Attempts at eradicating someone’s memory is a phenomenon that appears throughout history. For instance, in Ancient Rome, the senate could vote to remove from historical records all mentions of a person (historians later termed such practice damnatio memoriae, or “condemnation of memory”). So while images help us remember, forgetting requires making images disappear. But as we know, this is wishful thinking and repressed memories come back with a vengeance, indeed, to haunt us, like ghosts. Pentimenti (the traces that bear witness of changes in a work of art) and palimpsests are vivid metaphors for how memories cannot be fully erased—just like Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning is at once negation and affirmation of his colleague’s work. Whilst the act of erasing is destructive, the drawing’s presentation, with mat, frame, and label (“ERASED de KOONING DRAWING / ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG / 1953”) is reverential.2
Remembering and forgetting are two sides of the same coin and ultimately, this is what representation is about. Here as well, our personal experience is helpful: we can all bear witness to how photographs help crystallize our memories, to fight oblivion of past moments, far-away places and people, and the deceased. It is no surprise then, that photographs—all portraits of dead people—figure prominently in the work of Christian Boltanski, an artist whose main concerns are absence and presence, remembering and forgetting. Boltanski explores how we endeavor to store and retrieve remembrances—and how inaccurately we do so. Since early in his work, drawers stand as metaphors for the workings of memory. In Attempt at Recreation (Three Drawers) from 1970–71,3 a metal chest holds three drawers, which contain plasticine objects alluding to the artist’s childhood. The title says it all: it is a mere attempt at conjuring up recollections. The objects, although able to trigger memories, are miniature and imprecise replicas and the drawers are sealed with metal netting. Several works from 1988 feature a drawer, similarly shut with a piece of mesh that prevents seeing the contents properly and accessing them. Above the drawer, hangs a black and white photograph of a face. Despite the lamp that shines light on it, the photograph is a blurry close-up—another recurring motif in the artist’s oeuvre. Boltanski poignantly shows us that the preservation of memory is a vain pursuit: we might collect and safe-keep shreds from the past, but our efforts to retrieve them and to see them as they once were, are irremediably thwarted. And yet, we keep trying: the entire history of art is there to prove it.
- Claudio Parmiggiani, Una fede in niente ma totale, ed. Andrea Cortellessa (Florence: Le Lettere, 2010). Excerpts available online (PsicoArt – Rivista di arte e psicologia 9 2019). Translation V. Plesch.
- To see a digitally enhanced infrared scan of Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, click here.
- To see the Centre Pompidou’s dossier on Boltanski, click here.
Image at top: Khafra, from Giza, diorite, height 66 in. (167.7 cm), c. 2500 BCE, Egyptian Museum, Cairo (photo: Wikimedia Commons).