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Common Knowledge 8.2 (2002) 417

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Book Review

The Forbidden Image:
An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm

Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, trans. Jane Marie Todd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 544 pp.

Are we aided in understanding the appeal of abstractionism in twentieth-century painting by linking the meaning of that appeal to the history of religious disputes about idolatry? Would we be missing anything essential if we tried to understand the pictorial meaning of, originally, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich, without reference to Gnostic heresies, Patristic controversies over the meaning of the Incarnation, or the Protestant Reformation? Do those lines, swirls, drips, and blotches express "the unavailability of the image for representing the divine"? Finally, is it significant that it was in a country with a puritanical—that is, a Calvinist—and severely iconoclastic tradition that abstractionism gained the most influence and authority in the art world? Besançon argues that, in the absence of this context, we would fail to understand something like the essentially religious motivation behind the quest for purity, the asceticism, the dissatisfaction with finitude, or the "constants" of iconoclasm that are played out yet again in abstractionism. These, he claims, contributed to abstractionist aesthetics a "mystical religiosity deeply informed by fin de siècle esotericism." He also provides a provocative interpretation of Hegel's narrative of the history of art, and so of Hegel's claim that in modernity fine art has become, with respect to our "highest" interests, "a thing of the past."


—Robert Pippin



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