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Cordula Bachmann: Wenn man die Welt als Gemälde betrachtet. Studien zu den Eikones Philostrats des Älteren, Heidelberg: Verlag Antike 2015, 268 S., ISBN 978-3-938032-84-8, EUR 45,90
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Rezension von:
Michael Squire
Department of Classics, King's College, London
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Michael Squire: Rezension von: Cordula Bachmann: Wenn man die Welt als Gemälde betrachtet. Studien zu den Eikones Philostrats des Älteren, Heidelberg: Verlag Antike 2015, in: sehepunkte 16 (2016), Nr. 4 [15.04.2016], URL:

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Cordula Bachmann: Wenn man die Welt als Gemälde betrachtet

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The Imagines is a virtuoso Greek artwork of the early third century A.D. In it, the Elder Philostratus paints a remarkable feat of rhetorical ecphrasis, guiding readers around a purported gallery of paintings. While these self-declared 'images' (eikones in Greek) give voice to a series of supposed pictorial tableaux, Philostratus' anthology also acts out the challenges of art criticism tout court: by evoking a visual space for subjective fantasy, the Imagines explores the limits of artistic and literary make-believe; the work gives form, in other words, to both the intersection and impasse between what can be seen and what can be said.

The difficulty in writing about the Imagines lies in finding a format true to the creative ingenuity of Philostratus' original. Should one proceed image by image - which is to say textual passage by passage - through the 'gallery'? [1] Or should one attempt to step back (to 'look away', as Philostratus puts it at Im. 1.1), devising some larger thematic or conceptual framework? [2] Wherever we turn, and whichever interpretative mode we privilege, we find Philostratus one step ahead of us, winking at his readers across the centuries. For the ultimate masterstroke of the Imagines lies not in simply decoding its depicted/spoken/drawn 'images'. Instead, like visual artists themselves, Philostratus might be said to immerse his audience in a world of hypotheticals: the text constructs an indeterminate space, beguiling audiences with its illusionist games ...

Given Philostratus' wide-ranging recourse to all manner of literary, philosophical and art historical themes, it calls for a brave student to tackle the Imagines within the context of a doctoral dissertation. Bachmann's book, based on her 2013 Munich thesis ('Fachbereich Griechische Philologie', 9), begins with four brief paragraphs on 'Bildbetrachtung als ästhetische Erfahrung'; Bachmann then explains her model of reading the text in relation to the 'Kommunikationsprozess' between image and viewer (12). The overriding aim, we are told, is to show 'welchen praktischen Mehrwert der Rezipient der Eikones aus diesen Texten gewinnt, damals wie heute' (13).

After a broad-ranging introduction to the text and its reception (14-68), the bulk of the volume (69-233) is dedicated to commentaries on just six tableaux, all drawn from the second book of the Imagines (Im. 2.1, 2.4, 2.10, 2.14, 2.16, 2.21). With each analysis, Bachmann proceeds not just image by image, but also paragraph by paragraph ('der griechische Text und die deutsche Übersetzung werden im Folgenden abschnittsweise vorgelegt und interpretiert': 69, n. 1). A short 'Schlussbetrachtung' (234-6) then explains the choice of case studies. As the author had hinted earlier (66-68), her examples aim at demonstrating the variety of Philostratus' narrative/descriptive technique: 'Die sechs im Kommentar behandelten Gemälde wurden ... ausgewählt, möglichst vielfältige malerische Strategien abzubilden, die Philostrat in den Eikones "zur Sprache bringt"' (236).

There is much to admire here. The general introduction does useful service in summarizing the manuscript tradition (21-7), also incorporating a solid discussion of Goethe's combined 'wissenschaftliche' and 'kunstdidaktische' interests in the text (53-9). [3] Although rarely straying from the cautiously conservative, the commentaries themselves prove especially sharp in their discussion of allusive literary fabric. The most important conclusions arguably come in the author's analysis of Im. 2.1 (69-99). Here, in the context of the tableau opening the second book of the Imagines, Bachmann brilliantly demonstrates how the image of 'Hymnensängerinnen' revises the compositional principles of the proem: 'Bei Im. II.1... werden die im Proömium angerissenen kunsttheoretischen Überlegungen ganz bewusst wieder aufgegriffen und auf praktische Beispiele angewandt' (67). [4]

For all the book's valuable contributions, some difficulties with structure, conception and theoretical framework nonetheless remain. Quite apart from Bachmann's essential lack of interest in ancient artistic traditions [5], one might question the underlying assumptions about Philostratus' own cultural milieu. For Bachmann, Philostratus merges into a familiar sort of modern 'Professor für öffentliche Vortragskunst' (13): his didactic remit is to deliver the 'Entschlüsselung des Bildinhalts' (11) on the one hand, and to explain the 'Kongenialität' of the verbal and visual arts on the other (234).

The difficulty here is that the 'professorial' image leaves minimal room for artistic colouring. In her discussion of the all-important Imagines proem (28-37), for instance, the book underplays the rhetorical ambiguities, parsing Philostratus' terms in relation to their supposed German equivalents (alêtheia = 'Wirklichkeitstreue'; sophia = 'Phantasie'; logos = 'Prosavortrag', etc.). [6] The subsequent commentaries also at times risk collapsing the work's polychrome semantic registers into monotone shades of black and white. One notable casualty comes in Bachmann's translations of the verb graphein and its cognates. In my view, the fluid semantics of this word are absolutely intrinsic to the visual/verbal fabric of Philostratus' text: graphein never simply denotes 'to paint' or 'to write', but always plays with the overlap between the two. [7] This explains why the Imagines has such programmatic recourse to the term, and on so many occasions - using the noun graphê sixty times, and likewise graphein seventy-two (including in the final word of the last description: Im. 2.34.2). In Bachmann's commentaries, that playful ambiguity is written out of the text - not least when grammata recur within Philostratus' graphai (cf. 204-11 on Im. 2.21.1).

This is a question of epistemological approach as much as translation. Where Philostratus acts out the difficulties of finding a language to talk about images, Bachmann proves more interested in 'Dekodierungsprozess' (43), attempting to 'solve' his make-believe enigmas (cf. 99 on 2.1.4); 'dabei geht es keineswegs um Medienkonkurrenz', she concludes, 'die manche Interpreten aus den Eikones herauslesen wollen' (234). Whatever one makes of Bachmann's position here, a difficulty lies in the way that 'Professor' Philostratus emerges as a wholly familiar sort of 'teacher', prefiguring the 'Museumsführer' and 'Audioguides' of modern-day galleries (12-13). As a result, the Imagines is rendered into a familiar kind of undergraduate Vorlesung: 'Erst wenn der Bildbetrachter die Zeichen, die er von einem Gemälde empfängt, mit Kenntnissen und Erfahrungen aus anderen Kontexten vernetzt und zu einem sinnvollen Ganzen zusammenführt, kann er die Sprache des Gemäldes richtig deuten' (12).

This sort of framework leaves little space for rhetorical subtlety or intellectual play. Indeed, even before turning to Philostratus, Bachmann's talk of 'Zeichen' is premised on a straightforward 'mediale Beschränkung': she assumes a neat dividing-line between visual and verbal media, in which the 'räumliche Vorstellung' of images stands apart from the 'Zeit oder Handlungsfortschritt' (11) of words. The ultimate debt in all this is to Lessing's 1766 Laokoon essay - a fact that explains numerous aspects of Bachmann's subsequent commentary (not least its preoccupation with 'pregnant moments': e.g. 123, 124, 166, 170, etc.). Yet Bachmann never asks whether this framework is valid in its own conceptual terms. More damningly, she leaves unquestioned the legitimacy of imposing such post-Enlightenment frameworks back onto Philostratus' own imaginary landscapes. This is what makes the criticism above about graphein and its cognates so important, in my view: approaching the Imagines as a straightforward work of art-historical exegesis, Bachmann underplays the specific theories of visual-verbal relations that gave rise to Philostratus' text in the first place. [8]

Dissent here by no means betokens disapproval. Wenn man die Welt als Gemälde betrachtet certainly does perform a useful service: in walking readers through six Philostratean tableaux, Bachmann proves a meticulous and methodical guide, especially when it comes to matters of literary allusion. The inevitable difficulty, however, is that Bachmann's 'Studien' must invite comparison with Philostratus' own acts of commentary and explication. As with most (arguably all) classical scholars, the analogy does Philostratus' modern-day counterparts few favours: in as much as this volume teases out the creative brilliance of the Imagines, it does so through its shortcomings as well as through its strengths.


[1] On the structural sophistication, see most recently M. Baumann: Bilder Schreiben. Virtuose Ekphrasis in Philostrats "Eikones", Berlin 2011.

[2] For the latter approach, see e.g. N. Bryson: Philostratus and the imaginary museum, in: S. Goldhill / R. Osborne (eds): Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture, Cambridge 1994, 255-283, and Z. Newby: Absorption and erudition in Philostratus Imagines, in: E. Bowie / J. Elsner (eds.): Philostratus, Cambridge 2008, 322-42. Both go without reference here. For the programmatic function of Im. 1.1, cf. M. Squire / J. Elsner: 'Homer and the Ekphrasists: Text and picture in the Elder Philostratus' Scamander (Imagines I.1)', in: J. Bintliff / K. Rutter (eds.): In A Giant's Footsteps. Contributions to Greek, Roman and Wider Archaeology and History Inspired by the Life and Work of Anthony McElrea Snodgrass, Edinburgh forthcoming 2016.

[3] There are nonetheless some notable oversights in bibliography - including I. Guillot: L'ekphrasis dans Les Tableaux de Philostrate de Goethe, in: P. Auraix-Jonchière (ed.): Écrire la peinture entre XVIIIe et XIXe siècles, Clermont-Ferrand 2003, 127-138, and G. Siebert: Goethe, lecteur de Philostrate, in: REG 123 (2010), 387-396. More generally on the reception of the Imagines, the author might have profited from the essays in S. Ballestra-Puech / B. Bonhomme / P. Marty (eds): Musées de mots. L'héritage de Philostrate dans la littérature occidentale, Geneva 2010.

[4] Bachmann seems unaware of Jaś Elsner's seminal contributions here (above all his 'Making myth visual: The Horae of Philostratus and the dance of the text', in: MDAI(R) 107 (2000), 253-276); cf. also V. J. Platt: Facing the Gods. Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion, Cambridge 2011, esp. 1-27.

[5] Observe the absence of images in the book, bar a schematic map of the 'Saal der Philostratischen Gemälde in Karlsruhe' (237). There are likewise some rather strange ideas about ancient image-making (not least in the opinion that 'die Antike keine abstrakte Malerei kannte', 11, n.1).

[6] Fundamental here (but also missing from the bibliography) are: S. Maffei: La sophia del pittore e del poeta nel proemio delle Imagines di Filostrato Maggiore, in: ASNP 21 (1991), 591-621; M. Boeder: Visa est Vox. Sprache und Bild in der spätantiken Literatur, Frankfurt 1996, esp. 145-149; L. Abbondanza: Immagini della phantasia: i quadri di Filostrato maior tra pittura e scultura, in: MDAI(R) 108 (2001), 111-134; cf. also C. Michel: Die "Weisheit" der Maler und Dichter in den Bildern des älteren Philostrat, in: Hermes 102 (1974), 457-466. In her discussion of the proem, Bachmann has learned in particular from O. Primavesi and L. Giuliani: Bild und Rede: Zum Proömium der Eikones des zweiten Philostrat, in: Poetica 44 (2012), 25-79.

[7] Cf. M. Boeder: Visa est Vox, op. cit., 165, and compare M. Squire: Apparitions apparent: The parameters of vision in Philostratus the Elder's Imagines, in: Helios 39 (2013), 97-140, esp. 106-119. On the longer history of the pun, cf. F. Lissarrague: Graphein: écrire et dessiner, in: C. Bron / E. Kassapoglou (eds.): L'image en jeu: de l'antiquité à Paul Klee, Paris 1992, 189-203; I. Männlein-Robert: Stimme, Schrift und Bild. Zum Verhältnis der Künste in der hellenistischen Dichtung, Heidelberg 2007, esp. 123-7; M. A. Tueller: Look Who's Talking. Innovations in Voice and Identity in Hellenistic Poetry, Leuven 2008), esp. 141-154; M. Squire: The Iliad in a Nutshell. Visualizing Epic on the Tabulae Iliacae, Oxford 2011, esp. 237-243; M. Squire / J. Grethlein: "Persuasive in appearance but deceitful in character": The enigma of the Tabula Cebetis', in: Classical Philology 109 (2014), 285-324, esp. 316-318 (with further bibliography).

[8] Bachmann herself anticipates the critique, contrasting the Imagines with the 'Wettkampf-Gedanken' of Lessing's Laokoon (234). But by this stage it is too late: Lessing's Grenzen have already predetermined Bachmann's conceptual frame - and indeed her very choice of case studies ...

Michael Squire