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Forgive my lack of skill. I am not an art historian. From Panofsky, until last month, I had read nothing.

Two translations appear simultaneously: the famous Essays of Iconology, published nearly thirty years
ago (they are five studies on the Renaissance, preceded and linked by an important reflection of
method, Bernard Teyssèdre presents the French edition), and two studies on the Gothic Middle Ages,
brought together and commented by Pierre Bourdieu.

After such long delays, this simultaneity strikes. I am in no position to say what benefit specialists can
derive from this publication so long desired. In panofskien neophyte, and of course enthusiastic, I will
explain the destiny of the master by the words of the master, and I will say that the benefit will be
great: these translations are going to transform the distant and foreign iconology into habitus; for the
apprentice historians, these concepts and methods will cease to be what we must learn and will become
what we see, read, decipher, know.

But I will not advance. I would like to say only what I found again in these texts which, for others, are
already classic: the displacement to which they invite us and which risks, I hope, to disorient ourselves.

A first example: the analysis of the relationship between discourse and the visible.

We are convinced, we know that everything speaks in a culture: the structures of language give shape
to the order of things. Another version (very fruitful, as we know) of this postulate of the sovereignty of
the discourse that was already supposed by classical iconography. For Émile Mâle, the plastic forms
were texts invested in stone, in lines or in colors; to analyze a capital, an illumination, was to manifest
what "it meant" to restore speech where, to speak more directly, she had stripped herself of her words.
Panofsky removes the privilege of the speech. Not to claim the autonomy of the plastic universe, but to
describe the complexity of their relationships: intercrossing, isomorphism, transformation, translation,
in short, all this festoon of the visible and the dicible which characterizes a culture in a moment of its

Sometimes, elements of discourse are maintained as themes through the texts, copied manuscripts,
translated works, commented, imitated; but they take shape in plastic motifs, which themselves are
subject to change (from the same text of Ovid, the kidnapping of Europe is bathed in a miniature of the
fourteenth century, violent abduction in Dürer); sometimes, the plastic form stops, but hosts a
succession of various themes (the naked woman who is Vice in the Middle Ages becomes love stripped,
so pure, true and sacred, in the sixteenth century). Discourse and form move relative to each other. But
they are not independent: when the Nativity is no longer represented by a woman in childbirth,
but by a kneeling Virgin, it is the emphasis on the theme of the Mother of the living God, but it is also
the substitution of a triangular and vertical schema for an organization in a rectangle. It finally happens
that speech and plastic are both subjected, as by a single movement, to a single overall arrangement.
The scholastic discourse, in the twelfth century, breaks with the long continuous flow of proofs and
discussions: the "sums" reveal their logical architecture, spatialising both writing and thought: divisions
into paragraphs, visible subordination of the parts, homogeneity of elements of the same level;
visibility, therefore, of the whole argument. At the same time, the warhead renders the rib of the
building perceptible; substitutes for the great continuity of the cradle the partitioning of the spans; gives
the same structure to all elements that have the same function. Here and there, one and the same
principle of manifestation.

Discourse is therefore not the common interpretative basis for all the phenomena of a
culture. To reveal a form is not a devious way (more subtle or more naive, as one likes) to say
something. All that men do is not, in the end, a decipherable rustle. The speech and the figure each have
their mode of being; but they maintain complex and entangled relationships. It is their reciprocal
functioning that is to be described.

Another example is the analysis, in the Essays of Iconology, of the representative function of painting.

Until the end of the twentieth century, Western painting "represented": through its formal layout, a
painting always related to a certain object. Problem tirelessly resumed to know what, of this form or
meaning, determines the essence of a work. Panofsky substitutes for this simple opposition the analysis
of a complex representative function which traverses, with different values, the whole formal thickness
of the painting.

What a sixteenth-century painting represents is present in him according to four modes. The lines and
colors include objects men, animals, things, gods - but always according to the formal rules of a style.
There are ritual places in the paintings of an era that make it possible to know whether one is dealing
with a man or an angel, an apparition or a reality; they also indicate expressive values-the stench of a
face, the melancholy of a forest-but according to the formal rules of a convention (the passions at Le
Brun do not have the same characteristic as in Dürer); in turn, these characters, these scenes, these
mimicry and these gestures incarnate themes, episodes, concepts (the fall of Vulcan, the first ages of the
world, the inconstancy of Love), but according to the rules of a typology (in the 16th century, the sword
belongs to Judith, not to Salome); finally, these themes give rise (in the strict sense of the word) to a
sensitivity, to a system of values, but according to the rules of a kind of cultural symptomatology.

The representation is not external nor indifferent to form. It is linked to it by an operation that can be
described, provided that one discerns the levels and specifies for each of them the mode of analysis that
must be specific to it. Then the work appears in its articulated unity. The reflection on forms, the
importance of which we know today, is, after all, the history of art that gave birth to it in the nineteenth
century. For about forty years she had emigrated to the regions of language and linguistic structures.
But many problems - and very difficult to solve - pose when one wants to cross the limits of the
language, from the very moment when one wants to treat real speeches. It might be that Panofsky's
work is an indication, perhaps a model: it teaches us to analyze not only the elements and laws of their
combination, but the reciprocal functioning of systems in the reality of a culture.