Works of Art as Meta-images: 
On the Use of Photographs for the Study of Art History

Auteur / Author: 
Jorgelina ORFILA (Texas Tech University, États-Unis)
Jeudi 25 Août 2011 - 17:17


The widespread availability of photographs of works of art enabled the institutional formation of art history as a scholarly discipline. Serving as methodological tools to research, teach, and disseminate knowledge of art history, use of these photographs as “illustrations” has shaped the understanding of the art of the past, and has influenced the production and promotion of modern art. Arguing that the discipline’s dependence upon photographs has favored the interpretation of works of art as meta-images, i.e. as images that embody a transcendent historical or aesthetic meaning, this paper presents the analysis of a case study: the use of site photographs in the study of Paul Cézanne’s landscape paintings in the 1930s.
In 1935, John Rewald published the first of a series of articles in the art magazine L’Amour de l’art. Rewald’s work compared photographic reproductions of Cézanne’s landscapes with photographs of the sites the artist had represented in those paintings. These site photographs can be considered inter-images since the visual information presented by photographs of Cézanne’s landscape paintings served as their compositional basis. The site photographs’ alleged epistemological value derived from their theoretical indexicality. As a normative component of art historical comparisons, they fostered interpretations of Cézanne’s art based on the reconstruction of the process through which the artist transformed his sensations into artistic notations. This methodological approach influenced not only the perception and interpretation of Cézanne’s paintings but also of the natural sites. 
Understood as meta-images, works of art are the product of an inter-texual/inter-imaging methodology whereby the ontic character of photographs determine the parameters of the interrelation between images. The examination of the site photographs in the 1930s scholarship on Cézanne provides a unique opportunity to examine the workings of this inter-imaging signifying mechanism.