Source: DAH Post #1 – Ella Doulkaridou’s “Reframing Art History”

Couched within the series of articles in The International Journal of Digital Art History that attempt to position Digital Art History, not just disciplinarily but also ontologically, Elli Doulkaridou’s “Reframing Art History” calls attention to what is not new about Digital Art History—namely, that the objects of art history have always been conditioned and mediated not merely by the historians themselves, but by the tools historians use to frame and study them. Doulakaridou seeks to determine what happens to the practical facets underlying art historical practice in the digital sphere, and in doing so, bridge “analog and digital art history.”[1]

Doulkaridou, a French scholar of illuminated manuscripts, begins by identifying the framing device as a common denominator in two strands of her research, one “analog” (early modern decorative systems) and one digital (the use of the image as document by art historians), defining the framing device as “an instrument of cognitive perception that encourages the articulation of visual elements and their appropriation by the viewer.”[2]

As examples of the “analog” use of frames, Doulkaridou cites Giorgio Vasari’s scrapbooked compilation of drawings by artists included in his Lives of the Artists, as well as Gustav Ludwig’s 1904 method of reconstituting a cycle of Carpaccio paintings by experimenting with different combinations of the works within a wooden model of Venice’s Sant Orsola Church. In these examples, the framing devices allowed their authors to “play” with images before and during the mapping of their arguments.[3]

Doulkaridou’s final example of an analog framing device, Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, now has its own digital counterpart. Constructed and reconfigured over decades (1866-1929), Warburg’s Atlas was not just a collection of notable icons of Western art, but an attempt to map “how images of great symbolic, intellectual, and emotional power emerge in Western antiquity and then reappear and are reanimated in the art and cosmology of later times and places.”[4] The last version of the Atlas consisted of 63 panels (far fewer than Warburg originally intended to complete) with about 971 images. Though the Atlas was never published, Warburg used his panels to chart historical change in gestures and images in order to determine the constitution of meaning across time and space, deploying them in his lectures.

Online, in partnership with the Warburg Institute, the Cornell University Library has presented 10 of the photographed panels with commentary, called Mnemosyne: Meanderings through Aby Warburg’s Atlas. Users can zoom in and out on the panels and images, as well as determine identifying information for the images. Approximating the meaning construction that Warburg conducted himself, contemporary scholars offer panel and image interpretation through the “Guided Panels” function. Using Warburg’s Atlas as a framing device, each “Guided Pathway” demonstrates a possible production from the frame (while also serving as a framing device in turn for users of the website).

Screenshot from Mnemonsyne: Meanderings through Aby Warburg's AtlasScreenshot of Mnemonsyne: Meanderings through Aby Warburg’s Atlas

Doulkaridou argues that Warburg’s method, inclusive of both nodal elements (the images) and flexible “montage” operations (moving them around in different combinations on the panel), enabled “comparison, combination and recombination, closelooking, rearrangement and of course, linking.” [5] In this context, the web interaction of Meanderings approximates the spirit of Warburg’s project.

Doulkaridou stresses that the frame becomes a nodal element when integrated into a system. In the Mnemosyne Atlas example, an image becomes a nodal element within the larger system of a panel. NYPL Labs provided a more recent example of how a frame might function as a node in this visualization of the 187K digital items released at the beginning of this year to the public domain for hi-res download.

Screenshot of NYPL Labs visualization of Jan. 6th, 2016 public domain release of images.Screenshot of NYPL Labs visualization of Jan. 6th, 2016 public domain release of images.

In her discussion of digital framing devices (the Ornamental Prints Online meta-catalog and the Virtuelles Kupferstichkabinett catalog), Doulkaridou notes, “By virtue of such features such as multiple selection, comparative zooming, light tables and linking series of prints together the platform becomes not just a finding aid but a research resource adapted to its object of study, capable of becoming a denkraum – a space for reflection.” The user is able to “concentrate solely on the object of study”, with “the intensity of the framing device calibrated according to the context of use.” [6]

Screenshot of sample Mirador workspaceScreenshot of sample Mirador workspace

It is beyond the scope of Doulkaridou’s paper to probe the degree to which these digital devices, in their creation of hyper-real, intricately scalable “spaces for reflection” condition the perceptions and eventual habits or expectations of their users. Tools like Mirador already reflect the increasingly global and collaborative nature of art historical scholarship, allowing collective users to annotate and edit together, while maintaining individual frames. But in what ways might these interfaces and they various ways they structure our viewing begin to condition our not just our visual understand of and arguments about art, but also our perceptions more broadly?


[1] Doulkaridou, Elli. “Reframing Art History.” International Journal for Digital Art History, no. 1 (2015): 71.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 73

[4] Johnson, Christopher D. “About the Mnemosyne Atlas,” accessed January 19, 2016,

[5] Doulkaridou, 73.

[6] Ibid., 78.