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Anachronism is not, in history, something that must be absolutely banished . . . but rather something that must be negotiated, debated, and perhaps even turned to advantage.—Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images
At the waning of the nineteenth century, the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob portrayed the painter Paolo Uccello (c. 1397–1475) in his Vies imaginaires (Imaginary Lives): “he could never remain in a single place; he wanted to glide, in his flight, over the tops of all places.”1 Schwob’s book purposefully departs from historically rigorous inquiries, presenting a motley collection of fictionalized biographies of real and imaginary characters that encompasses Lucretius, Pocahontas, William Kidd, and Sufrah, who he claims is a sorcerer in the story of Aladdin. In his chapter on Uccello (notably the only visual artist in the book), Schwob neglects common biographical remarks. That the painter allegedly received his nickname as a result of his interest in painting birds is glossed over. The sobriquet Uccello, attached to the given name Paolo di Dono, obtains a literal meaning in Schwob’s essay: “Uccello, the Bird.” In Schwob’s account, the painter is unhinged and liberated from the constraints of pictorial unity, geometry, and naturalism: “For Uccello was not the least bit concerned with the reality of things, but instead with their multiplicity and the infinitude of lines.”2 Schwob’s fantastic approach to Uccello was later embraced by Antonin Artaud in his 1926 “Uccello le poil” (“Uccello the Hair”). Published in La révolution surréaliste, Artaud’s short text concentrates on Uccello’s aesthetics through the metaphoric trope of hair (le poil), which comes to denote “the medium of an obscure pictorial language peculiar to Uccello.”3 An unstable signifier in “Uccello the Hair,” the image of a vibratile hair oscillates, invoking bristles of a brush, eyelashes, wrinkles, and painted lines: “From one hair to the next, how many secrets and how many surfaces.”4
Given their fantastic and surreal tone, it is hardly surprising that Schwob’s and Artaud’s portrayals of the Tuscan painter have largely been neglected by the art historical scholarship. The historian likely finds in Schwob and Artaud anachronistic and incorrect fabulations, however intriguing or evocative at a literary level. The search for artistic intentionality and period responses has traditionally motivated art historians to bracket out such modern resonances and poetic interpretations. At the same time, these modern recognitions retain a sense of intuitive validity that goes beyond what some may reduce to rhetorical flourishes. At a historiographical level, the question has been asked: “what happens if instead of denying or discounting the materiality of the work, we take our experience of it explicitly into account?”5 And diverse future anterior approaches have begun to enter the current discourse through authors like Mieke Bal and Georges Didi-Huberman. Within accounts that incorporate historical slippages and resonances, Uccello has often occupied a difficult position: even Gilles Deleuze, committed to fostering atemporalities over historical linearity, backed away from Schwob’s interpretation of a free-flying Uccello, concluding that the painter ultimately remained anchored in the strict regulations of geometry.6 Yet a modern eye, engaging with Uccello’s artworks, can easily discover an appealing dynamic aesthetic sensibility, or even a compulsive sense [End Page 87] of vitality. Such an eye, looking through the rearview mirror, may discover in Uccello permission to revel in the hermeneutics of contingency, to borrow a notion from T. J. Clark. For when contingency enters and invades the process of artistic creation, it is able to muster or even conscript dormant allies from its past.7 Indeed, Schwob and Artaud, along with visual artists like Carlo Carrà (1881–1966) and Fernando Botero (b. 1932), found something radically modern in the quattrocento painter. Attunement to such alliances seems pertinent and productive, chronological instabilities notwithstanding.
In contrast to the art historical gap, a number of literary texts address the polysemic vitality ignited by the fictive biographies of Imaginary Lives: scholarly articles on Schwob and Artaud, creative non-fiction, and even a book-length reimagining of Uccello’s life, Jean-Philippe Antoine’s La...