The Defeat of Time

December 17, 2009

For and easy to print version click: The Defeat of Time PDF


This beguiling hyper-realistic portrait of a cat must have been even more amazing when Cornelia Saftleven painted it in 1607. It would be two centuries before anyone could see a photograph.

It’s next time again.

What a profound joy it is to be provoked by Art. A new exhibition, in Florence, at the Palazzo Strozzi has me jazzed. It’s got everything I like; great craftsmanship, the sexy combo of old & new, a sense of humor, and huge ideas. In a burst of museum-quality genius the very smart curators at the Palazzo Strozzi decided to combine a painting show of Trompe l’Oeil, with a photography show of digital images. The exhibition titles connect the dots: Art And Illusions – Masterpieces of Trompe l’Oeil from Antiquity to the Present Day, and Manipulating Reality – How Images Redefine the World.

Tromp l’Oeil is one of those maddening, impossible to pronounce French phrases. As you undoubtedly know, it means “trick the eye” and as a genre of painting it is sort of like a Golden Retriever; completely adorable and hard to dislike. The show is about technical skill and clever painting effects but it is also about perception and well-intentioned deceit. It has the entertainment value of a really good magic show. It features not only the technically adept from past and present but also genuine Renaissance superstars including works by Titian, Veronese, Tiepolo and Tintoretto.


Renaissance master Titian shows off his skill painting translucent drapery in this portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto painted in 1558. Many believe this portrait influenced Francis Bacon’s "Screaming Pope" series.

There are many still lifes in the show. Most go beyond photo realism into more expressive realms. It is hard to remember many of them were painted before photography even existed.

Stock Market

Click the photo to go to a higher quality link for this gorgeously detailed still life representing the stock market crash of 1929. It was painted by Otis Kaye in 1937.

Art and Illusions took a good idea and made it great through the hard work of a talented curator, Annamaria Giusti, and a museum management determined to reach out to the public in highly creative ways. You were encouraged to find guards with special "Ask Me" buttons who acted as docents when you had a question. There was an acoustic guide for adults and another one for kids. The labels were in Italian and in English, and (this is the really hard part) all the people were friendly and seemed like they wanted you to have a great time! The curators cherry picked great paintings, sculpture and displays from all over the globe and combined them (not in chronological order) with wit and skill. The show was a delight. Be sure to check out the wonderfully done website.

Paolo Ventura

This image feels uncomfortably strange because it was shot with "G. I. Joes" in Paolo Ventura’s New York studio instead of Iraq. Title: Iraq 2008, C-Prints 120 x 100 cm Courtesy of the artist © Paolo Ventura

It was, however, the companion, more contemporary exhibition on Digital Photography that put me on a fast train to Florence. I love the spanking new tech of it. What put the great in Manipulating Reality was the taste and reach of the curator, Franziska Nori (and her International team) combined with the big ideas of the top notch artists.

The curators seductively tossed out some intellectual catnip when they credited the French Philosopher, Roland Barthes (1915-1980) and his famous book Camera Lucida in the introductions to the exhibition. Those of you who know me and are familiar with Roland Barthes are probably saying to yourself, “It’s about time . . . “ and so it is. The Defeat of Time is a quote from Mr. Barthes and the rest of this essay expresses my delight in just three of his amazing ideas.


French critic and philosopher Roland Barthes circa 1960. His controversial and provocative book on Photography, Camera Lucida, was published in 1980 shortly before he was killed in a car accident.

Roland Barthes wrote about still photography in a philosophical and experiential way. It strikes me that he, and many others before him who wrote about Photography in the twentieth century, were caught up in the fresh fascination of a new medium. Photography, for them, was a new art form exploring issues and ideas contemporary with their lives. Professor Harvey Buchanan (who posts here now and then when I’m lucky) often talks about contemporary artists (for him it was Jasper Johns) having special resonance with young people who are growing up at that particular time. This connection reminds me of nostalgic rush you get when you hear the music that was playing on the radio when you got your first car.

For the 21st century, Digital Media and the related arts is surely the new wave. Maybe it is not so new. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London is currently doing an exhibition Decode which examines Digital Art from the 60’s and 70’s. In a similar way, Photography was not really a new technology for Barthes and his contemporaries but, what was being done with it and the effect it was having on our world, was new.


Promotional still from James Cameron’s, 3D digital masterpiece: Avatar.

There is no doubt that Digital Art is now. Look no further than James Cameron’s new 3D blockbuster Avatar or the disturbing Chinese “news” animations of the Tiger Woods scandal which combine animated fabrications with real news footage. (Their creators defend these as trendy journalism because “young people don’t take the time to read.”)

What I find fascinating about the Strozzi show are the conceptual hooks – the curator’s connection to Trompe l’Oeil, the artistic manipulation of reality, the experiential nature of these art forms and the provocative ideas outlined so brilliantly through the (not new but new to me) ideas of Roland Barthes.

I need your help here. Barthes first idea is called studium. It is a Latin word and the translation of his French is so convoluted and confusing perhaps those of you who better know his work or know Latin can help us out. Barthes, in horribly stilted translation, explains:

"I believe this word exists in Latin: it is studium, which doesn’t mean, at least not immediately, "study," but application to a thing, taste for someone, a kind of general, enthusiastic commitment, of course, but without special acuity."

Used in this way, Barthes seems to be saying studium is sort of like “field of study.” It is the ground on which the more interesting parts of his theory take place. His next idea, which he calls punctum, is much easier to understand and he describes it vividly.

"The second element will break (or punctuate) the studium. . . it is this element which rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me. A Latin word exists to designate this wound, this prick, this mark made by a pointed instrument: the word suits me all the better in that it also refers to the notion of punctuation, . . . for punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole – and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)."


Lucio Fontana’s sensuous and violent slash paintings make Roland Barthes theories tangible for me. Lucio Fontana – Concetto spaziale. Attese, 1959, private collection.

Both these ideas remind me of Lucio Fontana’s sexy and somehow violent slash paintings where he takes a canvas (perhaps the studium) and cuts through it or pierces it (which might be the punctum). Barthes is pointing to something that takes Photography beyond the documentary or reportage stage and propels into the realm of Art. Photography, in the 20th century, took over the burden of representation from painting. It then grew into something more mysterious.


This photo taken of would be assassin Lewis Payne by Alexander Gardner in 1865 haunted Roland Barthes.

Barthes then drives home his philosophical nail quite close to my heart as he describes his reaction to a photograph of a jailed young assassin. "I now know that there exists another punctum (another "stigmatum") than the "detail." This new punctum, which is no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme ("that-has-been"), its pure representation. In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W. H. Seward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged. The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die."

If you love photography you will love his next part. "Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe. This punctum, more or less blurred beneath the abundance and the disparity of contemporary photographs, is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them . . ." How gorgeous is that? All this stuff slays me.

In the Strozzi show time bends, breaks and stands still. Waking becomes dream. Reality gets twisted. Amazement turns to wonder and then blooms, first into a smile and then a thrill.

See now the carpeted forest of Rosemary Laing (Australia, 1959). Click the photo to go to a higher quality version.

Screen shot 2009-12-17 at 7.34.46 PM

Groundspeed (Red Piazza) #05, 2001, C-Print, 106 x 163 cm, Courtesy the artist: DZ Bank Kunstsammlung © Rosemary Laing: Galerie CONRADS, Düsseldorf.

I can’t be completely sure, but I think from reading the catalog perhaps this carpet is actually installed in the forest and then photographed. I suppose it is crazy to even care, digital or physical is not the issue – it is the graceful impact she creates. I don’t think this was her intent. Considering the work more thoughtfully, it is more of an environmental statement about Colonialism in Australia but I find the image restful. I could so easily live with this image and I would smile at it every day.

Moira Ricci 1

Mamma, Maura e Claudia – " 20. 12. 53 – 10. 08. 04", 2004-2009 Lambda Print, Aluminum, Courtesy of the artist; Galleria Alessandro De March, Milano, © Moira Ricci

The images in the show that really pierced me, however, were the poignant photographs of Moira Ricci (Italy, 1977). Moira (seen above in the green T shirt) decided to insert herself into her mother’s early life and she does so with the skill of one of the painstaking Trompe l’Oeil still life painters in the companion show. Her series is titled 20. 12. 53 – 10. 08. 04 ; the dates of her mother’s birth and premature death. Moira’s body language in all of the insertions has the expressive and haunting quality of certain figures in mannerist paintings; the ones who stare at you and make you uncomfortably aware of your observation.

Moira Ricci 2

Mamma sulla moto da nonna – " 20. 12. 53 – 10. 08. 04", 2004-2009 Lambda Print, Aluminum, Courtesy of the artist; Galleria Alessandro De March, Milano, © Moira Ricci

Moira Ricci 3

Fidanzati – " 20. 12. 53 – 10. 08. 04 ", 2004-2009 Lambda Print, Aluminum, Courtesy of the artist; Galleria Alessandro De March, Milano, © Moira Ricci

What started as an homage to her mother from a grieving and talented daughter turned into, for me, the talisman of the show. I found myself getting goose bumps as I felt the inherent loss in these photographs. As I marveled at her craftsmanship and thought about her core idea I could not help but think both her Mom and Roland Barthes would have been so proud.

Until next time with much love,



  • John Grabowski says:

    I did go back to your blog after writing my email. There I landed on, and fixated upon the Ricci photos. I then followed the link to the expanded site for her work. I, like you, am totally taken by this work. It is technically perfect — the shadows, the manner in which the bodies touch, etc. all are astounding. But what really resonated with me is the concept of a time machine. Yes, she has literally moved back into her past. I suspect many of us fantasize about watching ourselves, our families and friends during past times in our lives — simply standing by the side and observing what we have lived. She has achieved that and I am tempted to try to virtually and visibly reconnect myself with my father, my old neighborhood, etc. Certainly, I don’t have the expertise, but I’ll give it a try.

  • juan bastos says:

    Dear Tom,

    Another fascinating blog Tom, thank you for sharing.

    We certainly have gone a long way…! Not only having arrived to 2010, but also in the visual world. It’s interesting to see the roots of the first magicians, creating with their skill and imagination the Trompe l’Oeil paintings you described, fast forwarding to the age of the digital art today. Thanks to technology, it seems like most people have a chance to become a wizard nowadays! Lately I have been adding on my facebook pictures taken 20 years ago of my multiple trips home. Not that these pictures were works of art, however, there are some lovely portraits that I was able to photograph then, but what’s interesting, is the response of my friends when they see them. It seems that I was the only person recording momentous of our youth, parties, lovely historical houses that have been destroyed, and so on. When I received my first Kodak Instamatic camera on Christmas of 1969, it helped me tremendously to train my eye to become an artist. Nevertheless, film was expensive for a boy like me, and I had to think twice before ending my roll of 12 pictures. The result, for example, was maybe three pictures taken on my 12th birthday, a gathering with my friends in one shot, the predictable cutting of the cake, and a badly cropped photo taken by a friend of mine. Now it seems that everyone takes pictures every day.It can be done with a cell phone, and one can record their life without any expense. Of course, these pictures are not all works of art, but certainly we’ll have a new generation of people that since an early age, has access to the tools to create amazing images.. A new age indeed,from a brush to a keyboard, visual artists today have the luxury to express their world and to share it. Still, when I am bored and have a pen in my pocket, it’s still fun to play magician and doodle on a piece of paper.

  • Liz Hager says:


    Welcome to Twenty Ten!

    As usual much to absorb and respond to here. But most of all, thank you for bringing this show and, in particular, the work of Moira Ricci to our attention.

    As a true believer in the validity of the manipulated photo as art, I find Ricci’s seamless execution (in the grandest tradition of trompe l’oeil) stunning. But, as is the case with all excellent art, it is her sophisticated statement on the universal experience of loss that propels this work above the fray. This series appears to operate on so many levels: the uncomfortable of a viewer knowing the “punctum”; the elusive search by a daughter to capture (figuratively, through literal means) her mother (those plaintiff gazes!); the pain of missing the loved one, of wanting to remain a part of her life, etc. It’s brilliant! Thanks for calling out this thought-provoking work.

    PS Make sure you read Roberta Smith’s piece “Time, the Infinite Storyteller” in the NY Times this morning. It’s a wonderful elaboration on time travel through art.

    And finally, you may be interested in VR’s salute to art in the aughts. See>

    Keep up the good work! I look forward to more profundity on these pages.

  • martina says:

    Dear Tommaso,

    Wonderful reflection– best yet! I love all of what you present, especially the Barthes’ idea of studium/field, and punctum/punchline; and how marvelous are the images of Moira Ricci’s photos! I am very much thinking about time, unfolding, and the fragility as well as the tenacity of life. In this time of Christmas, I find the kernel of father/mother/child– blessed by the Divine– the building blocks of life. Ricci’s idea of placing herself into her mother’s photos is so powerful. I live inside my mother’s dreams for me, as well as in the world I now engage in– but as my mom just turned 88, we have had time to struggle together to create a relationship which has had tenacity and our dreams have been both burnished, changed, crushed and rebuilt. And she is on the verge of dying. So these have gripping force for me– the wound, the punctum, as you quote Barthes’ saying. Bob Clancy’s story of the man and the Campbell’s soup can and Warhol remind me of my husband. He would appreciate that cat, painted in the 1500’s. It would satisfy his eye– which is tuned to the photographic. He would be more satisfied with the soup can label than the painting, and more sure the 35 cents he paid was “fair” than the crazy money they paid for the painting. So why would one want a painting in the time of the photographically real? And the digitally remastered photos, and the ability to put oneself inside of a photo from the past, as though one were the white rabbit, in Alice in Wonderland! It is a marvelous question. Wrestling with time is an intriguing issue, and it so concretely works in the body, in medicine. Recently I wrote a poem about death, in which I said

    “Death does not come to get us;

    It arises from our exhausted cells

    Claiming us on the day ordained;

    It does its duty.”

    To look at these images, and think about the brevity of life, the vermilion carpet under the emerald trees, the cat in the window from 400 years ago, and so forth, is mind-boggling!

    Happy new year and thanks for the food for thought!

  • Robert Clancy says:

    Thanks Tom. The film-maker Errol Morris also probes this subject in a series for the New York Times — what is really “truth” in art, especially photography. I remember a director friend once telling me, “Sometimes you have to change ‘reality’ in order to make it more accurate — and believable.” The most important element, however, isn’t whether something looks “real” or not (whatever that means) but the idea it evokes.

    I once heard a story from an art student in Savannah who’s uncle lived in NYC in the early 1960’s. This man lived near an avant garde painter named Andy Warhol. He was intrigued by Warhol’s Campbell Soup silkscreens and was interested in buying one. He hesitated, however, at paying several hundred dollars for this work. He asked the artist if he thought it was a good investment and Warhol told him absolutely not. He suggested that he go to the grocery store and buy a real Campbell Soup can, take off the label, frame that and hang it up. He’d not only have the real thing, Warhol explained, but he’d get a hot meal out of his 35 cent investment as well. The uncle agreed to what seemed like a sensible recommendation.

    In 2006, one of Warhol’s Campbell Soup (Pepper Pot) paintings was sold at auction for $11,776,000.

  • abe frandlich says:

    hello tom,

    thanks for a fascinating blog on seeing and trompe l’oeil. i actually believe all seeing is fooling the mind’s eye and is trompe l’oeil. and you do, as always, open a veritable pandora’s delightful box of mind and eye teasers in this installment. i really think the truly grand wonder for us humans and especially us artists, is sight itself. is there anything more magical than the fact of seeing itself? from that point all manner of things proceed and we are the recipients of all that bounty.

  • Jurgen Faust says:

    Hi Tom, very impressive… have a great Xmas and New year. All best to you Jurgen

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