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Theodora’s complaint.


Portraiture and Iconoclasm in Recent Fiction.



Recent writers have faced an effective anti-mimetic taboo that has emanated as much from academe as from Exodus.

IN HER BOOK, Salome and the Dance of Writing: Portraits of Mimesis in Literature, the literary scholar Françoise Meltzer helpfully demonstrates how ancient mythic and Biblical taboos reined in the mimetic impulse in Western visual art, as reflected in texts about art as late as those of Hawthorne and Poe. “Literature is filled with stories of what happens when art imitates life to perfection—success is often followed by a grim punishment, thus reinforcing the law against imitating life, the law the taboo signals.” Meltzer argues, however, “that the taboo against an overly successful imitation of life has not been inherited by writing, only by the plastic arts. If there is a superstition against art that is too lifelike, writing is supposed to imitate the world around it well—that is, writing is meant to be descriptive, and the more lifelike, the better”1 While this was the case at certain times in the past, including the era covered by Meltzer’s book, it is no longer so. Recent writers have also faced a subtler but nonetheless effective anti-mimetic taboo, but it has emanated as much from academe as from Exodus. A resurgence of interest in portraits among fiction writers in the last forty years has been, in part, a response to these iconoclastic pressures.

Everyone knows that iconoclasm, emanating from the Hebraic Commandments, has played a major rôle in the histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” More specifically, Deuteronomy warns believers not to “corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female.”2

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What these famous statements amount to is a total negation of any image depicting something. The “graven image” and the “likeness” are forbidden, no matter what they depict. It is clear, then, that here the text is not concerned with the image of God, and does not specifically prohibit this specific icon. One notices that in this specific context the danger of idolatry—that is, of worshipping the image of God as if it were the god itself—is not mentioned at all. What is prohibited is the pictorial representation as such, “mimesis,” as a humanistic scholar might have translated it into his or her conceptual vocabulary.3

It is true that these Biblical passages proscribe all images, but the Deuteronomy passage does specify “male or female” (זָכָ֖ר  א֥וֹ  נְקֵבָֽה), implying human figures, and the Hebrew phrase can, with equal justice, be translated as “a man or a woman,” as it has been in major Jewish and Christian translations (Tanakh and NIV). Human images are singled out for special attention.

Christianity, of course, inherited these prohibitions and elaborated upon them, in some cases casting doubt even upon seeing itself, much less representing what is seen. “St. Paul’s celebrated warning against the speculum obscurum, the glass (or mirror) through which we see only darkly, vividly expressed this caution about terrestrial sight.”4 The chief flash points were the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth-ninth centuries, ending only when Empress Theodora finally restored the images after the death of her iconoclastic husband Theophilus, and the schisms of the sixteenth-century Reformation. In the Islamic world, as well, most art has always been non-figurative for essentially the same religious reasons. Kenneth Clark, like others before him, observed that the Prophet Mohammed “took the [Biblical] commandments literally” and that “monotheism, in a pure form, is inevitably hostile to images. To represent minor gods is to encourage idol‑worship, to represent the true god is to limit and debase him.”5

We have lived for millennia, then, in a culture formed by these prohibitions, and their effects upon the arts have been prodigious. This is not to say, of course, that most artists or writers have avoided mimesis. Painters from Leonardo to Ingres strove for mimetic likeness, even while they were influenced, in more or less subtle ways, by the iconoclastic element at the roots of Judæo-Christian culture.

In the West, non-figurative art became increasingly dominant through the first half of the twentieth century. This took place for several reasons, such as the perceived exhaustion of the possibilities of the figurative mode, much like the perceived exhaustion of the possibilities of traditional tonality among composers of the same era. Still, there was an important religious side to the shift as well.  In 1911, at just the time that he painted what he considered to be the first true abstract painting, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he showed that his work “depended on philosophico-religious concepts and that his paintings were a consequence and proof of them.” Mondrian “was a genuine mystic,” “struggling to preserve religious values in art,” for whom “abstract painting was not primarily a goal in itself, but rather a method for making a universal, absolute truth material and thus perceivable.”6 We can see this impulse in much abstract art, such as the paintings of the Rothko Chapel, up to the present day. Alain Besançon, in his history of iconoclasm, elucidates “the religious motifs, implicit or explicit, that will allow us to link the birth of so-called abstract art to an iconoclastic impulse, in the narrow and ‘historical’ sense of the term.”7

In addition to the push to ex­clude figura­tion al­to­geth­er, vari­ous forces have com­bined to in­fluence how things, especially people, may be represented. I­ron­i­cal­ly, a single section of The New York Times that I read some years back included both an article about the prohibition of representations of living things under the Taliban in Afghanistan and an article on a controversy over the representation of race in a memorial statue for the victims of the World Trade Center attacks.8 Within a week of that, the British press was angrily divided over Lucian Freud’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth, with comments ranging from “It is probably the best royal portrait of any royal anywhere for at least 150 years” to “Freud should be locked in the Tower for this” 9 The depiction of people is a subject liable to excite powerful feelings in many contexts for many reasons.

FOR A COMBINATION of reasons, then, abstraction—or, at the very least, antimimetic distortion—became an orthodoxy for visual artists. Representational painting was typically dismissed as reactionary, and genres such as portraiture and landscape were seen as particularly embarrassing. A discussion between the painters April Gornik and Chuck Close is amusingly instructive:

April: I was working in my studio one day, and I got an image in my head that I felt like making. It had been a long time since that had happened to me—maybe never—so I took pieces of one by fours and glued them together; I cut them off and made a rectangle; I drew out this image; I painted it in; I stepped back; and it was a landscape. I looked at it, and basically my first thought was, “A landscape, oh man. This is really bad. The first thing that comes to mind that I really want to do in my life and it’s a landscape.” It was the most retardataire, the most black-sheep genre of art history, a bad idea.

Chuck: It may have been even dumber than painting portraits. It’s right in there. It’s a tossup.10

Perhaps, until the 1970s, it was even a bit worse than a tossup for portraitists. Consider that the 1970 (and still current) edition of The Oxford Companion to Art, with its 1277 double-column, small-type pages, has the expected entries for “Landscape Painting,” “Still Life,” and so on, yet no entry at all for “Portrait” or “Portraiture.”

While any kind of mimesis has been suspect, the representation of anthropomorphic figures, primarily divine but also human, has always been the iconoclasts’ ultimate target. Ernst Van Alphen points out that “since no pictorial genre depends as much on mimetic referentiality as the traditional portrait, it becomes the emblem of that conception”11 As Martin Jay notes, “the nonfigural, antimimetic impulse of modernism at its most abstract generally meant the denial of the human figure as a worthy subject. As a result, some commentators [such as Ortega y Gassét] have even talked of the ‘iconoclastic’ impulse in modernism.”12

Kenneth Clark was one such commentator, and his argument, in an essay called “Iconophobia,” is enlightening. In the 1960s, at the apogee of the influence of Abstract Expressionism, he wrote:

When I was in New York a few years ago, not only were three of the chief public galleries—the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney—almost exclusively devoted to nonrepresentational art; but in the Metropolitan Museum, which was instituted for a very different purpose, the whole main floor had been emptied—Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Degas, Cézanne—all banished, and in their places hung pictures that contained no image of anything on the earth or in the waters.

He warns us against the assumption that this is unrelated to the iconoclasm of past centuries:

It may have seemed to you that when I associated the second commandment with Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian I was indulging in a fanciful analogy: that the earlier hostility to images was religious and theological, and the later purely aesthetic. I believe that the analogy is correct. The words ‘purely aesthetic’ will not stand up to analysis. Works of art do not merely arouse physical sensations, but involve memories, associations, self-identification and the unconscious recognition of symbols. They are created out of the same imaginative conviction that created objects of devotion.

It is true that modern “aesthetic” iconoclasm is a legitimate heir to earlier manifestations of this ideology, emanating, to some degree, from the same causes, and taking a similar form.

Clark argues “that non-representational art still has a long run ahead of it; not perhaps the five hundred years of Islamic art, but at least another fifty.”13 He was, however, wrong. While abstract art is alive and well even now, it lost its unquestioned dominance rather quickly. The pace of change in the art world, as in most aspects of late-twentieth-century life, became faster than anyone could have predicted. There was a constant cry for something different, and movements such as Pop Art and, ironically, even hyperrealism successfully challenged the hegemony of abstraction. Nevertheless, abstract art has powerfully influenced all subsequent serious figurative art, which has been forced to react to it, whether absorbing its lessons or deliberately contesting it. Duchamp’s readymades, for example, are radically antimimetic, presenting instead of representing. Even hyperrealism scarcely seems like mimesis, since “the ‘difference’ from the model . . .  has now been erased . . ..”14

Even after the resurgence of figurative painting, artists were still likely to avoid painting portraits, or, if they did so, to fully accept the genre.

Even after the resurgence of figurative painting, artists were still likely to avoid painting portraits, or, if they did so, to fully accept the genre. Chuck Close, for example, said that, through much of his career, “I was denying any connection with the history of traditional portraiture. . . . It’s just been in recent years that I realized that whenever I went to a museum, I tended to look at portraits more than anything else.” Philip Pearlstein, painter of people, insisted: “I’m not painting people.” And portraitist Don Bachardy says: “I am not sure that such a thing—a portrait—really exists.”15

One particularly striking response is Anselm Kiefer’s 1976-80 series of paintings called Iconoclastic Controversy (Bilder-Streit). In them, he depicts military tanks firing across a photograph of a painter’s palette. In some early versions of the painting, “he named some of the key figures in the historical debate”16 right on the canvas, seemingly taking an iconoclastic side in the controversy by naming rather than portraying them. Kiefer’s oeuvre, however, includes collections of portraits, such as Ways of Worldly Wisdom and Germany’s Facial Type, as well as collections of names, such as Varus. His work, in fact, embodies the iconoclastic controversy, in its generic rather than historical sense. As Rosenthal notes (79), Kiefer is himself a controversial artist, often attacked for the subject matter of his paintings. He has clearly felt the pull of iconoclasm, and has sometimes accepted it, sometimes resisted it, and sometimes, as in Iconoclastic Controversy, explicitly probed its meaning.

Recent novelists have been among the most perceptive observers of this situation. Their own stake in the controversy is clear from their writing so often and so movingly of the suppression of portrait painting. The novelists themselves have been less directly affected by iconoclastic practice in the visual arts than by antimimetic impulses in recent psychological, social, and literary theory.

Martin Jay writes, for example, of “the firm association between the reception of psychoanalysis and Jewish iconoclasm, which emerged in the 1970s.”17 This is especially pronounced in the work of Lacan, as Jean-Joseph Goux compellingly demonstrates in an essay called “Lacan Iconoclast.” He shows how Lacan tries “to banish completely, irrevocably, once and for all, the very urge to formulate by means of images.”

To a student who suggests some representation of the subject, he replies: “Well, you are a little idolater.” Read the little book by Serge Leclaire entitled Psychanalyser, and you will see that this student got the message: a rap on the knuckles, and he got rid of all but the letter.18

Lacan considers images “as mirages to be denounced not only for their falsity but also for their impurity.” He seeks another form of the purity explicitly sought by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Rothko:

Thus, in the era of the patriarchal family and the alphabet, iconoclasm was based on the commandments of a Holy Scripture. In an era conditioned by the triumph of technology, with the machine mastering nature and informing matter, Lacan decrees a supericonoclasm, grounded in mechanographic functions bespeaking a symbolic order that transcends human subjects.19

Susan Handelman, too, finds that Lacan focuses upon the “antimimetic aspects of Freud’s thought.”20 Lacan’s pervasive influence upon recent literary thought has assured that this decree has had its effect. Leclaire is not the only “little idolater” who “got the message.” Whether directly, or filtered through literary theory, many writers have heard, and sometimes heeded, the call of the iconoclast.

Theodor Adorno and Laura Mulvey have been described as “foundational voices of iconoclasm in the postwar era.” 21 Roland Barthes in his enormously influential essay on “The Death of the Author,” argues “that writing can no longer designate an operation of recording, notation, representation, ‘depiction’.”22 Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy has been seen as “fundamentally non-representational” and “essentially anti-mimetic.”23 Jean-François Lyotard writes that the postmodern is that which “puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself.” Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum, a copy without an original, has supplanted, for many, the mimetic representation. He argues “that the iconoclasts, whom one accuses of disdaining and negating images, were those who accorded them their true value, in contrast to the idolaters who only saw reflections in them and were content to venerate a filigree God.”24

Portraiture is likely to seem an ostentatiously humanistic endeavor in an age in which humanism is pejoratively “connected to the sense that human beings, male human beings especially…are the lords and masters of the world,”25 but one need not arrogantly privilege humanity in the universe of beings to recognize that the human image has special status for human viewers. Studies have shown that “babies just nine minutes old, who have never seen a human countenance, prefer a face pattern to a blank or scrambled one.” “The image of the human face is a ‘preferred pattern’ in that faces seem to take precedence over all other images when the visual scene is at all unclear.”26 Our interest in faces—and, by extension, their representations—is hard-wired in us.

Marcel Cornis-Pop recognizes a “current critical emphasis on formalistic, anti-referential aspects of postmodernism,” but notes, “in recent fiction,” an “engagement with the ideologies of representation.” Herbert Lindenberger demonstrates a “mimetic bias” in early- to mid-20th-century literary criticism, and finds its antidote in “the anti-mimetic climate that has prevailed in America” more recently. John Johnston writes “that the theory of postmodernist writing as a self-reproducing ‘text’ also accomplishes a complete reversal of the mimetic theory, or fiction understood as a credible representation of the world.” W.J.T. Mitchell goes so far as to argue, credibly, that “the dominant tendency in Western literary theory is resolutely iconoclastic, that is, antipictorial, antivisual, antispatial, even, at the most general level, antimimetic.” 27

In a more general way, modern novelists have felt pressure to do something new. The realistic novel had been perfected and endlessly repeated. What, many novelists have asked themselves, is the point of continuing to produce such novels? They watched the leading innovators in the other arts try thoroughly new approaches, from abstract painting and atonal music on through the century. Mikhail Bakhtin had taught them that the novel is not merely the genre that did something new back in the eighteenth century, but rather the genre that is always doing something new, “the sole genre that continues to develop.”28 In response, many novelists experimented with language, structure, and other elements. Since the novel had been, from its origins, a mimetic genre, it was also inevitable that some writers would feel impelled to test the limits of fictional mimesis, sometimes attenuating or even abandoning the novel’s mimetic function.

Some recent writers have, consciously or not, shared or accepted this position, creating texts that seem largely amimetic or aniconic, such as certain works of Raymond Federman, Ronald Sukenick, Arno Schmidt, Maurice Roche, Walter Abish, Gilbert Sorrentino, Kathy Acker, and Julián Ríos. Sukenick, for example, called for a kind of fiction that “is nonrepresentational — it represents itself. Its main qualities are abstraction, improvisation, and opacity.”29

Language itself, however, poses limits. Unlike a Rothko painting, even the most hermetic texts of Gertrude Stein retain a representational basis.

Language itself, however, poses limits. Unlike a Rothko painting, even the most hermetic texts of Gertrude Stein retain a representational basis. Since words were created to represent things, and they will inevitably continue to do so for the reader, a writer can’t altogether abandon representation without giving up words themselves, as in certain sound-poems, and that route has, understandably, attracted very few writers. Indeed, even some of the literary iconoclasts have come to make a kind of peace with mimesis, as seen, for example, in Sukenick’s late novel Mosaic Man.

Many important recent innovative fiction writers have recognized the iconoclastic pressures and have, to one degree or another, resisted them. They have done this not by ignoring them, but by probing their nature and choosing how far to go along with them. To do this, they have found pictorial portraiture—along with religious painting a prime target of iconoclasm through the ages—to be invaluable. Just as “artists who have made it their project to challenge the originality and homogeneity of human subjectivity or the authority of mimetic representation, often choose the portrait as the genre to make their point,” 30 so, for essentially the same reasons, do novelists use the portrait. By considering how portraiture has been affected by, and responded to, iconoclastic pressures, the writers have gained and provided insights into the possibilities available to their own art when it is subjected to such pressures.

A familiar and relatively simple example is the destruction or desecration of portraits of despised and deposed political figures. In The Public Burning, for instance, Robert Coover depicts Czechs “pissing in Pilsen on portraits of dead Puppet Gottwald,” while John Berger wrote, in his novel A Painter of Our Time, that Stalin’s “portraits are now being removed.” Again, one may destroy portraits for emotional reasons. In Edward Carey’s novel Observatory Mansions, for instance, a family destroys nearly all of its photographs of a dead son, since their presence is too painful. When a woman is murdered in Coover’s Gerald’s Party, her friends find that someone has scratched her face out of a painting. For complex personal reasons, a character in Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes “vengefully attacked” a portrait painting with makeup, turpentine, chisel, and hatchet until he had utterly destroyed it.31

Guy Davenport recalled that “the public has scratched out the eyes of paintings in the Uffizi.”32 and Susan Daitch, in a short story, catalogues iconoclastic incidents, most of them aimed at human images: “Rembrandt seared by acid in Kassel; Guernica splattered with red paint during the Vietnam war; Velasquez cut to ribbons in London after World War I; Correggio’s erotic Leda decapitated in 1726 by a duc d’Orleans whose confessor had persuaded him of the painting’s corrupting influence.”33

ATTACKS UPON PORTRAITS take many forms. Sir Winston Churchill was so appalled by Graham Sutherland’s impressive 1954 portrait of him that Lady Churchill had it destroyed. When the Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid first showed their deliberately provocative Portrait of Hitler, in 1981, “a viewer slashed it with a knife.” Some Robert Mapplethorpe portrait photographs nearly brought down the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989. At the 1997 Sensation exhibition in London, “one protester threw eggs and another ink on Marcus Harvey’s gray and white, larger-than-life Myra…, a portrait of the convicted mass murderer and child-killer Myra Hindley.” When Maurizio Cattelan’s The Ninth Hour, a sculpture depicting Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, was exhibited in Warsaw in 2000, “two members of the Polish Parliament tried to vandalize the work, saying it was disrespectful to their beliefs.”34 Whether motivated by religious, moral, or political fervor, or simply by madness, actual iconoclasts do still seek and destroy representations of people, and the significance does not escape writers of fiction.

Daitch’s protagonist, a restorer of vandalized paintings, gradually becomes increasingly complicit with the iconoclasts. She argues against restoring the Rembrandt. “The marks were now part of the picture’s history and ought to be preserved as well.” She shares a television interview with “the man who slashed the Metropolitan’s Vermeer.” While restoring a Courbet self-portrait, she finds evidence that it is a palimpsest, with another face beneath the painted surface. “Like Siamese twins with one heart or one liver, one could be saved, but the other had to be destroyed.”35 She, trained to be a savior of the image, is ultimately forced to choose between passive or active iconoclasm.

Another professional restorer, Aoi Uë, is forced, at gunpoint and through imprisonment, to destroy the upper layer of a palimpsest portrait in Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. When she is finished—and the portrait of Aurora Zogoiby, the narrator’s mother, is revealed—her tormentor shoots her in front of the painting: “A hole appeared in the canvas, over Aurora’s heart; but it was Aoi Uë’s breast that had been pierced. She fell heavily against the easel, clutching at it; and for an instant — picture this — her blood pumped through the wound in my mother’s chest.”36 Here, the analogy between portrait painting and fiction is made explicit, with Rushdie’s character, a figure so verbal that her name consists of the set of vowels, sharing the precise fate of the painted subject.

Turning to another variety, Goux argues that “Lacanian thought is a technological iconoclasm. . . ,” fit for “an era conditioned by the triumph of technology,” and Clark notes that “several times in its history iconophobia has been associated with revolution, and has switched from purification to mere vandalism.”37 In Georges Perec’s A Gallery Portrait, a story is told of “a group of fanatical iconoclasts” in Rochester in 1891 who

set about systematically pillaging Eastman Kodak’s factories, storehouses and shops. Almost four thousand cases, five thousand photographic plates and eighty-five kilometres of nitrocellulose film had been destroyed before the authorities could intervene. Pursued by half the town, the sect members threw themselves into the lake rather than give themselves up.38

Even when iconoclasm has mundane technological roots, it is still powerful enough to be seen as a matter of life and death.

In Da Vinci’s Bicycle, one of Guy Davenport’s story collections, we read that an ancient Greek oracle has forbidden a statue of Akhilleus. Elsewhere in the same book, in one of Davenport’s own illustrations, we see a full-face drawing of a young nineteenth-century boy, holding still for the camera’s long exposure. Turning the page, we see a portrait photograph of Poe with an enormous fist evidently about to smash it from above, and three athletes standing on their heads.39 After the traditional portrait, we find the portrait attacked and turned upside down.

A portrait may even be attacked, paradoxically, for its appeal. In Perec’s A Gallery Portrait, the enormously popular painting is mobbed by viewers until “the inevitable finally happened: an exasperated visitor, who had been waiting all day without being able to get into the room, suddenly burst in and threw the contents of a large bottle of Indian ink over the painting, managing to make his getaway before he was lynched.”40 Even though the painting is attacked out of frustrated admiration rather than aversion, it is never exhibited again. Perec’s literally one-dimensional portrait painting, which the huge crowds thought they could understand, is mutilated—given another, ironically obscuring, dimension—specifically because of its popularity.

The most relevant examples, however, are those that examine portraiture in terms of traditional religious iconoclasm. Lucy Dawidowicz notes that, into the twentieth century, many Eastern European Jews, “mindful of the biblical prohibition against sculptured images, avoided” photography, until

with the German occupation of Poland during World War I, photography became mandatory, for every document used for purposes of identification was required to show its bearer’s likeness. Weeping and wailing, the Hasidic Jews, who had been the last holdouts against the camera’s legitimacy and who regarded the German regulation as an evil decree, nonetheless obeyed the law of the land. Even the rebbes—heads of the various Hasidic dynasties—betook themselves to the local atelier, where, tense and anxious, they looked into the camera’s evil eye.41

Indeed, Chaim “Soutine arrived in Paris a cripple, the victim of his schoolmates who threw stones at him when they saw him painting a portrait of the rabbi.”42 David Markson writes that “Soutine was in fact once beaten so badly for sketching someone’s portrait that he was able to collect damages.” 43

We see this in a range of modern fiction on Jewish themes. In Chaim Grade’s Yiddish novella “The Rebbetzin,” for instance,

Sarah-Rivkah had quickly hidden their [dead] daughter’s photograph under the pillow when she heard her husband’s approaching footsteps—she did not want him to be aggrieved over her inability to let go of their little Blumele’s picture. When Reb Moshe-Mordecai entered the room, Sarah-Rivkah was sitting stiffly, staring at a large portrait photograph of her mother on the wall. A heavy wig framed her long face and sharp-angled jaw; a pained, taut smile played on her lips. Sarah-Rivkah remembered that her father had never wanted to be photographed—”idolized,” he would call it. “What am I, a sacred inscription, the name of the Almighty engraved on the cover of the ark, that the living have to look at me?” He hadn’t wanted to leave any remembrance of himself for the children. That was why, Sarah-Rivkah thought, her mother’s smile had been so pained when she had had her own picture taken without her husband.44

This makes clear the direct connection, in the minds of the faithful, between the depiction of God and that of people. One might “idolize” a spiritual teacher or one’s own lost child, so one must avoid their graven images.

In Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, the Jewish writer E.I. Lonoff “chose not to be photographed, as though to associate his face with his fiction were a ridiculous irrelevancy.” Here the connection between portraiture and fiction is again explicit. The iconoclastic Lonoff, heir to both the Commandments and the New Criticism, won’t countenance, so to speak, a joining of his work and his image. Roth, on the other hand, a more self-aware product of the same traditions, challenges his own character by providing detailed verbal descriptions of Lonoff.45

In Cynthia Ozick’s The Cannibal Galaxy, a Jewish boy in Paris admits to his mother that he has visited a museum. His mother instantly saw his trouble—she knew what a museum signified. A pagan hall had enticed him, an image had ensnared him. In such a place there would be throngs of sculpted, unclothed women, an offense to modesty and a scandal of piety. “Save yourself from shame,” she warned Joseph; “keep away from such a sty.”

He defends himself by innocently insisting that the only artwork at which he had looked was a depiction of “Rachel the Mother of Israel,” not realizing that the statue marked “Rachel” actually represented a French actress. The distinction is, in any event, irrelevant to his mother: “‘An image is an image,’ she said, and he caught the burning of her eye”46 This attitude may seem benighted to us, but it reflects the thrust of iconoclasm: to purists, depictions of God, figures from sacred history, or ordinary human beings are all proscribed images. As W.J.T. Mitchell wrote, “an idol, technically speaking, is simply an image which has an unwarranted, irrational power over somebody; it has become an object of worship, a repository of powers which someone has projected into it, but which it in fact does not possess.”47 The boy is captivated by the statue, the only one in the museum he has chosen “to stare at and moon over and remember.”48 As his mother fears, he has, in fact, made the portrait an idol.

In Harry Mulisch’s The Procedure, Rabbi Löw, the Maharal of Prague, ventures out of the ghetto and

is welcomed by churches and pathetic images of saints, which disgust him, because one shouldn’t make a graven image or any figure of what is above in heaven or below on earth, nor what is in the waters under the earth. All bastards of the Golden Calf, all the work of his overinflated colleague, the false Messiah, who has degenerated into the Savior of the anti-Semites. Although … did not JHVH, praised be his name, trespass against his commandment when he created Adam in his own image? What is man but a living image?49

Here is the paradox at the root of Judæo-Christian-Islamic iconoclasm. God may make a human image, but man must not.

Here is the paradox at the root of Judæo-Christian-Islamic iconoclasm. God may make a human image, but man must not. The ambitions of artists push them to join, or even compete with, God as a creator, but one of the most fundamental Commandments of the faiths—right up there with “Thou shalt not kill”—forbids it. Rabbi Löw, for all his piety, goes on to create a golem, a clay automaton, though he recognizes his own hubris: “What else is a golem but a graven, or at least a kneaded image?”50

In another novel, The Discovery of Heaven, Mulisch has a less devout character say,

the fact that it was not fitting to make images was only, apparently, an anti-artistic judgment, because it derived from the one who made human beings in his own image—typically the remark of an artist, who not only wanted to be the best but also the only one; and consequently he said immediately afterward that he was a jealous God.51

If even God’s iconoclasm is this self-serving, what are we to make of the iconoclasm of art critics and social theorists? Indeed, The Procedure draws a direct parallel between the temerity of Rabbi Löw in creating the golem and that of a modern scientist in creating an organism from inorganic material.

MOST BRANCHES OF Christianity have, at least in recent centuries, come to terms with figurative art, but one may still find traces of Christian iconoclasm in recent fiction. We see it first in a novel steeped in Christian theology: William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, which was published in 1952, but was forward-looking in many respects. A character there says, in his peculiar idiom, that he has never seen a picture of God because “if some artist paint His picture it become quite a hindrance to the faith. . . .” In the same novel, a statue of a saint had “her nose broken off a century before by a suppliant whose prayers had gone unheeded, her arm raised in her niche as though to stay him.” And another character paints a portrait in the early Flemish style, intending to pass it off as an original. To do so, he must then simulate the damage that would have been wrought by the centuries, and, in doing this, he all but obliterates the subject’s face. His business partner is appalled: “What you’ve done to this picture here, it’s a crime.”52

In his novel Picture This, Joseph Heller relates an incident involving Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch:

In 1975, a former schoolteacher assaulted the lower section of the canvas with a serrated bread knife taken from the downtown Amsterdam restaurant in which he had just eaten lunch, making vertical cuts in the bodies of Captain Banning Cocq and Lieutenant van Ruytenburch. The painting was slashed in a dozen places. On the right leg of the captain, a strip of canvas twelve by two and a half inches was ripped away. The attacker told bystanders he had been sent by the Lord.

In a novel in which painters and sitters, historical figures and fictional characters, mingle freely, this suggests more than just an attack on an object, however beautiful or valuable. It is significant that “a description of the damage to the painting reads like a coroner’s report”53 The attention of another novelist, David Markson, was caught by the same incident.54

In Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone, we are told that the protagonist’s nanny, Bella-Mae Elphinstone, had a “lack of respect for the holy ikons which hung on the nursery wall.” These turn out to be portraits of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, given their “holy ikon” status by the mind of three-year-old Francis. The same nanny had a

contumelious attitude, expressed physically but not verbally, toward the other picture in the nursery, which was of A Certain Person. Bella-Mae did not hold with images or idols; she belonged to the small assembly of the Salvation Army in Blairlogie, and she knew what was right, and a picture of A Certain Person, in a room like the nursery, was not right.55

The “Certain Person” turns out to be Jesus Christ, and Francis’ father also disapproves of the picture’s presence in the room. One must neither treat portraits of people, even royalty, as “holy ikons,” nor degrade a holy image by placing it where one might expect ordinary portraits. The rules are strict.

The adolescent Protestant protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye studies, with fascination, a picture of the Virgin Mary she finds on the ground. She recognizes it as a Catholic image, and she knows that those around her “speak of Catholics . . . with contempt.” “I look at the picture up close. But I know it would be dangerous to keep it, so I throw it away.”56

She has lost her connection with God because she has no anthropomorphic image of him: “God is not Our Father at all. My image of him now is of something huge, hard, inexorable, faceless and moving forward as if on tracks. God is a sort of engine”57 Attracted by the human image of the Virgin, complete with a sad face and a heart, she responds to its iconic force: “I decide to do something dangerous, rebellious, perhaps even blasphemous. I can no longer pray to God so I will pray to the Virgin Mary instead. This decision makes me nervous, as if I’m about to steal.  My heart beats harder, my hands feel cold. I feel I’m about to get caught.”58 Atwood understands the draw of the human image, both for a girl seeking spiritual comfort and for readers of fiction, who respond to a character like this girl.

In the same novel, a woman hurls a bottle of ink at a portrait by the protagonist, “veiling Mrs. Smeath in Parker’s Washable Blue.” People rush to console the artist.

“Who was that?” they ask.

“Some religious nut case,” says Jody. “Some reactionary.”

I will be looked at, now, with respect: paintings that can get bottles of ink thrown at them, that can inspire such outraged violence, such uproar and display, must have an odd revolutionary power. I will seem audacious, and brave. Some dimension of heroism has been added to me.59

Standing up to iconoclasm brings rewards with its hazards; in an iconoclastic milieu, the portraitist may become a hero.

Moving eastward, Rushdie’s Muslim movie star Gibreel Farishta, in The Satanic Verses, plays Gods on the screen.

After he departed the ubiquitous images of his face began to rot. On the gigantic, luridly coloured hoardings from which he had watched over the populace, his lazy eyelids started flaking and crumbling, drooping further and further until his irises looked like two moons sliced by clouds, or by the soft knives of his long lashes….Even on the silver screen itself, high above his worshippers in the dark, that supposedly immortal physiognomy began to putrefy, blister and bleach; projectors jammed unaccountably every time he passed through the gate, his films ground to a halt, and the lamp-heat of the malfunctioning projectors burned his celluloid memory away: a star gone supernova, with the consuming fire spreading outwards, as was fitting, from his lips.

It was the death of God. Or something very like it; for had not that outsize face, suspended over its devotees in the artificial cinematic night, shone like that of some supernal Entity that had its being at least halfway between the mortal and the divine? More than halfway, many would have argued….60

While his face is the face of a God, prophet, or emperor—he plays Hindu, Muslim, and even Buddhist rôles—it is welcomed and multiplied in this polytheistic land. His status is not, in fact, so far from that of movie stars and other top-level celebrities in our own culture: people who are virtually worshipped by “adoring” fans. Like Gibreel’s, their images are everywhere. While social theorists may sometimes proscribe imagery, the populace, immersed in it, has no problem with it. But, like Western celebrities, Gibreel merely has to slip briefly from view and his portraiture falls to pieces horribly like the picture of Dorian Gray. “It was the death of God,” and it manifested itself in spontaneous iconoclasm. Muslim Gibreel is caught between a monotheistic background and polytheistic personae. “That face. In real life, reduced to life-size, set amongst ordinary mortals, it stood revealed as oddly un-starry.”61 His two faces—public and private, reproduced everywhere and unworthy of reproduction—reflect his two natures and those of his society. We see it all most clearly in his portraiture.

Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red examines Islamic iconoclasm more directly and at greater length. We are told, for example, of the master painter Sheikh Muhammad, who both “depicted Our Glorious Prophet” and was also “the first to take an interest in and be influenced by the portraiture that had come by Western ships from Portugal and Flanders.”

Later, in his old age, he became the disciple of a pious sheikh, and within a short time, changed completely. Coming to the conclusion that every painting he’d made over the previous thirty years was profane and ungodly, he rejected them all. What’s more, he devoted the remaining thirty years of his life to going from palace to palace, from city to city, searching through the libraries and the treasuries of sultans and kings, in order to find and destroy the manuscripts he’d illuminated.62

He is ultimately burned to death while burning a library full of his books, making iconoclasm again a life-and-death matter. It is also no coincidence that, in his campaign to obliterate images, including portraits, Sheikh Muhammad destroys books and, ultimately, a great library. Of course a painter of the Sheikh’s time and place would have been primarily an illuminator, but, beyond that, Pamuk, whose books reside in libraries, stresses the analogy. Some forms of iconoclasm target literature as well as painting.

In the same book, Enishte Effendi explains this iconoclastic impulse more fully. While younger rulers seek immortality in commissioned paintings and manuscripts,

later, each of them comes to the conclusion that painting is an obstacle to securing a place in the Otherworld, naturally something they all desire. This is what bothers and intimidates me the most. Shah Tahmasp, who was himself a master miniaturist and spent his youth in his own workshop, closed down his magnificent atelier as his death approached, chased his divinely inspired painters from Tabriz, destroyed the books he had produced and suffered interminable crises of regret. Why did they all believe that painting would bar them from the gates of Heaven?

A younger painter, Black, replies:

Let it not be forgotten that in the Glorious Koran, ‘creator’ is one of the attributes of Allah. It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.63

This echoes Mulisch’s paradox: God both creates and prohibits creation. The Jewish and Muslim traditions share this. A writer such as Pamuk understands, moreover, that if “it is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless” and “no one ought to compete with Him,” that logically applies to fiction writers as much as to painters.

Black goes on to say Enishte Effendi “supposedly rendered the face of a mortal using the Frankish techniques, so the observer has the impression not of a painting but of reality; to such a degree that this image has the power to entice men to bow down before it, as with icons in churches.” He warns, significantly, that some say that Enishte’s “mingling of our own established traditions with that of the infidels will strip us of our purity.” Once again, mimesis, and specifically portraiture, are equated with impurity, as they have been by Lacan and by the abstract painters. The challenge affects Pamuk, writing in 1998, as much as it does Enishte, painting in the sixteenth century.

Enishte Effendi replies that “nothing is pure….To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated”64 As he speaks of painting, he echoes the words of the Muslim-born Rushdie, who says “I refuse to choose” between East and West, and says that The Satanic Verses “rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure.”65 Later, when Enishte is dying, he confesses that “there was even a time when I wanted my own portrait painted in that method and style, but I was afraid,” and a universal God confirms that “East and West belong to me”.66

Even the glories of Turkish illumination, all richness and subtlety, were not enough to save the form, but seeing ourselves in the artist’s glass might have done so.

Finally, Pamuk tells us that, not long after the events of the novel, a new Sultan “turned his back entirely on all artistry” and “painting itself was abandoned . . . .” All former illuminators turned “to drawing ornamental designs for carpets, cloths and tents.” “No one behaved as though abandoning illustration were any great loss. Perhaps because nobody had ever seen his own face done justice on the page.”67 As always, the key is portraiture. Even the glories of Turkish illumination, all richness and subtlety, were not enough to save the form, but seeing ourselves in the artist’s glass might have done so.

In Michel Tournier’s The Golden Droplet, Idris, a Muslim Berber boy in an Algerian oasis, is photographed by a French woman passing through. He asks for the photograph, and she promises to send it to him.

After the Land-Rover had disappeared, raising a cloud of dust, Idris was no longer quite the same man. There was only one photograph in Tabelbala. In the first place because the oasis dwellers are too poor to bother about photography. And next because the image is feared by these Muslim Berbers. They attribute a maleficent power to it; they believe that it in some way materializes the evil eye.68

Here the Muslim religious prohibition, stemming from the seventh century and reaching the North African Berbers much later than that, appears to have reinforced much older fears of images, on the one hand, and extended specifically to photographic technology, on the other.

“It’s a bit of yourself that’s gone…,” Idris’ mother warns. “If after that you get ill, how shall we be able to cure you?”69 The anthropologist Michael Taussig observes that, in many cultures, “the making and existence of the artifact that portrays something gives one power over that which is portrayed,” and that The Golden Bough is “useful for the analysis not so much of magic but of the magic of mimesis,” especially effigies.70 Idris’ distant ancestors would have shared his mother’s concern.

Still, something had changed. “From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, mimetically capacious machines reinvigorated the mimetic faculty….”71 Susan Sontag’s analysis of the difference is helpful: “What is written about a person or an event is frankly an interpretation, as are handmade visual statements, like paintings and drawings. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.” As a result, “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”72

The most significant difference between painted and photographic portraiture is not a function of the technology itself, but of its effect of democratization.

The most significant difference between painted and photographic portraiture is not a function of the technology itself, but of its effect of democratization. Before, only a few had images of themselves to which they could react. Today, nearly everyone in western society does. The modern camera’s accessibility, speed, and convenience also make it an unprecedented intrusion. Celebrities must obtain restraining orders for protection from paparazzi, and even these are typically ineffective. The most celebrated cosmopolitans are, ironically, placed in the same situation as a Saharan boy unknown outside of his oasis. The camera’s aiming procedure makes it seem weapon-like, an analogy that has been exploited by makers of spy and suspense films, giving a new dimension to older fears.

Walter Benjamin showed how many nineteenth-century Europeans, long reconciled with painting, had their Biblical iconoclasm aroused by photography. Faced with the news of the discoveries of Nièpce and Daguerre in France, a chauvinistic German paper, the Leipziger Stadtanzeiger, wrote:

To try to capture fleeting mirror images is not just an impossible undertaking, as has been established after thorough German investigation; the very wish to do such a thing is blasphemous. Man is made in the image of God, and God’s image cannot be captured by any machine of human devising. The utmost the artist may venture, borne on the wings of divine inspiration, is to reproduce man’s God-given features without the help of any machine, in the moment of highest dedication, at the higher bidding of his genius.73

Even in France, and even among intellectuals, there were fears about the new process. Balzac thought that the camera “would strip the subject of his layers of ghostlike skin,” and he tried to avoid being photographed.74

Idris, Tournier’s Berber boy, himself has ambivalent feelings about the photograph. He shares the apprehension, to a degree, but he also covets the image. “The first words that Idris uttered” were “Give me the photo.”75 The brief phrase is deliberately ambiguous, suggesting a desire to get the picture away from the woman, but also to have it for himself. His ambivalence echoes that of Europeans faced with photography a century before, and with religious painting a millennium before that. Tournier’s geographical shift enables us to revisit the issues without the historical distance, although we must still grapple with the cultural distance. He writes of Oum Kalsoum, the enormously popular Egyptian singer, and “the first time her photo appeared in a newspaper. This was the start of her glory, but to her father it represented ineffaceable dishonor. From then on, all her life she had had to fight against photographers thirsting to pry into her private life and reveal its most trivial images.”76

Idris is eventually drawn from his oasis as far as France, where the representational demands upon him mount up, as does the visual barrage of a European metropolis on the eyes of a desert dweller. A calligrapher warns him of how “Moslem adolescents, submerged in the big occidental city, were subjected to all the assaults of the effigy, the idol, and the figure. Three words to designate the same servitude”.77 At one point Idris is plunged in rapidly drying alginate to make a mold for mannequins. This procedure strips him naked and even claims bits of him: specifically, the bits—eyelashes and eyebrows—which offer him a bit of protection from the visible world. After this, a French merchant asks him to work as a living mannequin in a store window, along with “the other dummies, your twin brothers.” Idris is to become an image himself, and specifically an image of himself. The merchant tells him that “the hardest thing is the eyes. You mustn’t blink. Yes, you mustn’t close your lids. The eye suffers a bit at first from desiccation, but you get used to it.”78 Again, he must keep his denuded eyes constantly open “to all the assaults of the effigy, the idol, and the figure.”79

Just after this, a story is told of a portrait of a beautiful queen, a picture so enthralling that it destroys many lives and its owners repeatedly try unsuccessfully to destroy it. Finally, a young man, Riad, learns how to avoid the portrait’s baleful influence. His master teaches him that the portrait’s “fascination is only irresistible to the eyes of the illiterate. Indeed, the image is no more than a jumble of signs, and its maleficent force comes from the confused, discordant sum of their meanings…. It is only a question of being able to read….”80 Riad protects himself by creating a verbal, calligraphic version of the portrait. Like many of these novelists, he not only controls the portrait through language but, in his choice of texts, he demonstrates a range of relationships between pictorial and literary portraiture. This approach succeeds where the iconoclasm of the portrait’s previous owners had failed.

Portraiture was arguably the central genre of painting through much of Western history. As Wendy Steiner notes, however, “the obstacles in the path of a modernist portraiture are enormous….” She points to the new approaches to psychological insight which sweep “aside the entire tradition of character depiction in portraiture,”81 to which we might add the competition from relatively easy portrait photography and the changing interests of wealthy patrons.

Most important artists, scholars, and critics in the early and mid-twentieth century gave up on the genre. As Joanna Woodall observes,

portraiture occupied an anomalous and therefore debased position within an academic hierarchy based on the degree of invention demonstrated in a work of art. This was because its ideological conviction depended upon an elision of image and ‘reality’ which denied any fabrication on the part of the artist.82

In the face of all this secularized iconoclasm, John Berger even began an essay on portraiture by saying: “It seems to me unlikely that any important portraits will ever be painted again.”83

Beginning around the 1970s, however, many of the most innovative visual artists have devoted serious attention to depicting recognizable individuals in strikingly new ways, and, in many cases, to explicitly examining the nature of such depiction. Prominent examples include Eleanor Antin, Christian Boltanski, Fernando Botero, Francesco Clemente, Chuck Close, Marlene Dumas, Richard Hamilton, Anselm Kiefer, R.B. Kitaj, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Bruce Nauman, Claes Oldenburg , Tom Phillips, Marc Quinn, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, Lucas Samaras, Cindy Sherman, Luc Tuymans, and Andy Warhol. The artists Michael Clegg and Martin Guttmann, for example, say that “one of the most important tasks of art in our opinion is the making of portraits while reflecting on the process,”84 and the scholar Ernst Van Alphen argues that “the portrait returns, but with a difference, now exemplifying a critique of the bourgeois self instead of its authority; showing a loss of self instead of its consolidation; shaping the subject as simulacrum instead of as origin.”85. This renaissance of portraiture has taken place, in part, as a reaction against the seemingly secular iconoclasm, with its half-buried religious roots, which so powerfully influenced earlier twentieth-century art.

We can see  a similar surge of interest in portraits—paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs—in the work of dozens of innovative fiction writers of the same era, including Kobo Abe, Walter Abish, Isabel Allende, Martin Amis, Max Apple, Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks, Nicola Barker, Julian Barnes, John Barth, Marcel Bénabou, John Berger, Heinrich Böll, Harold Brodkey, Michel Butor, A.S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, Edward Carey, Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Robert Coover, Julio Cortàzar, and so on through the alphabet. Their motivation has usually been similar to that of the artists. Neither wholly rejecting nor naïvely accepting received mimetic assumptions, contemporary writers have been impelled to rethink them, and the portrait has proved to be an ideal test case.

Fiction writers such as the nineteen discussed here, then, have found continuing or resurgent iconoclasm, specifically aimed at anthropomorphic images, in all three branches of the Judæo-Christian-Muslim monotheistic world, as well as in secular society. Confronted by questions, doubts, and curiosity about the mimetic possibilities of their own genre, they have turned to beleaguered portraiture as a surrogate. In doing so, they have given readers much to consider with regard to the nature of our present image-saturated yet often iconoclastic age.

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Paul Cohen, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Texas State University, has written on literature, art, music, film, computing, pedagogy, and, for The Fortnightly Review, on ‘PataphysicsRemy de Gourmont, and Tom McCarthy.


  1. Meltzer 73-74.
  2. Exodus 20:4 and 4:16, KJV.
  3. Barasch 15.
  4. Jay 13.
  5. Clark 37 and 33-34.
  6. Besançon 340, Clark 48, Rosenthal 76, and Cheetham 40.
  7. Besançon 319.
  8. Landler and Murphy.
  9. The Guardian, in Searle, and The Sun, quoted in “Freud Royal Portrait Divides Critics.”
  10. Kersten 447-48.
  11. Van Alphen 240.
  12. Jay 161, n. 36.
  13. Clark 30, 46, and 49.
  14. Besançon 382.
  15. Quoted in Kesten 214-15, Herrera 47, and Inside/Out 30.
  16. Rosenthal 79.
  17. Jay 337.
  18. Goux 114 and 115.
  19. Lacan 116.
  20. Lacan 155.
  21. Saltzman 47.
  22. Image—Music—Text 145.
  23. Bogue “Word” 95 and 77.
  24. Baudrillard 81 and 5.
  25. Schechner Preface 9.
  26. McNeill 4 and Landau 62.
  27. Mitchell 127, 14, 172, and Iconology 91.
  28. Bakhtin 3
  29. Sukenick 211.
  30. Van Alphen 242
  31. Mathews 14, 164, 221, 55, and 71-73.
  32. Davenport Geography 319.
  33. Geography 20.
  34. Alley 138, Ratcliff 126, Steiner Scandal 9-59, Greenberg 88, and Vogel 3.
  35. Daitch 21, 22, and 24.
  36. Uë 431.
  37. Goux 116 and 46.
  38. Perec 167.
  39. Davenport 135, 61, and 63.
  40. Perec 133
  41. Dawidowicz 177 and 178.
  42. Revault d’Allones 60-61
  43. Reader’s Block 38.
  44. Grade 50.
  45. Grade 11.
  46. Ozick 9.
  47. Mitchell 113.
  48. Mitchell 9.
  49. Mulisch 22.
  50. Mulisch Procedure 35.
  51. Mulisch 642.
  52. Gaddis 371, 57, and 384.
  53. Heller 23 and 24.
  54. This Is Not a Novel 104.
  55. Davies 64.
  56. Atwood 194.
  57. Atwood 192.
  58. Atwood 194.
  59. Atwood 371
  60. Rushdie 15-16.
  61. Rushdie 17.
  62. Pamuk 157.
  63. Pamuk 159-160.
  64. Pamuk 161.
  65. East, West 211 and Imaginary 394
  66. Pamuk 230.
  67. Pamuk 410-12.
  68. Tournier 6.
  69. Tournier 14.
  70. Taussig 13 and 261.
  71. Taussig ix.
  72. Taussig 4.
  73. Quoted in Benjamin 502.
  74. Jay 111-12.
  75. Tournier 4.
  76. Tournier 177.
  77. Tournier 184-5.
  78. Tournier 174.
  79. Tournier 185.
  80. Tournier 192.
  81. Exact Resemblance to Exact Resemblance 24.
  82. Woodall 5.
  83. The Look of Things 35.
  84. Quoted in Riemschneider and Grosenick 106.
  85. Van Alphen 242.

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