Art History

Trace of the work. Surface and work process


Prof. Dr Magdalena Bushart, Henrike Haug

In Aristotelian thought, a work is above all the result of a form drive that acts on matter and materialises in it. In this sense, Antonio Maria Venustis, in his Discorso Generale of 1563, sketched a model of artistic creation in which the finished work was understood as completely detached from the process of creation. For Venustis, the finished work, although resulting from the interaction of artist, material and tools, was exclusively materialised thought; the factors that had conditioned its creation were no longer present in the final product. As long-lived as the ideal model of an "autonomous" artefact, freed from all traces of origin, was (and is), it has little to do with artistic practice.

It is above all the surface that refers back to the work process in many ways - in the form of (working) traces that have been left (intentionally or unconsciously) in the work. This is by no means only true of modernism, in which surface design has become an essential moment of a "technique of originality" (Richard Shiff), but also of older art. Here as well as there, traces of work can be found that provide information about artistic attitudes and actions. They can be deliberate, for example when the materiality or the medial character of the works is emphasised, or when a spontaneous gesture and with it a performative act is asserted. In these cases, they are to be read as a "handwriting" with which the creators have inscribed themselves in their work, as an indication of the processuality of creative activity, of the virtuosity in the mastery of the means or of specific properties of the material (hardness, malleability, consistency), which is thus attributed its own artistic value. But they can also provide information about the working process contrary to the artist's intentions: for example, when the work is abandoned unfinished or the processing of the material is unsuccessful, or when everything that points to the author, his hand and his tool should actually be erased in order to suggest the highest possible degree of perfection. Here, one should think in particular of complex processes that require several work steps. Finally, the traces can be intentionally misleading; in this case, the information given by the surface treatment does not correspond to the actual work steps, or only to a limited extent.

The different manifestations of material traces that point back to the genesis of works are the subject of the third conference in the series "Interdependencies. The Arts and Their Techniques" at the Institute of Art History and Historical Urban Studies/Department of Art History at the TU Berlin. The question will be whether and how the traces of artistic action are inscribed in the surfaces of the artefacts, whether they have been intentionally laid, and if so, with what intention this was done and what perceptual and reception behaviour is associated with it. The evaluation of surface treatment in art theory and art historiography will also be discussed.

In order to address the phenomenon of the 'trace of labour' as comprehensively and multifacetedly as possible, the conference is designed to span both epochs and genres.



Call for Papers