Source: “Framing” Digital Art History

The inaugural issue of the International Journal for Digital Art History: “What Is Digital Art History” contains a few different types of essays. Noted new media theorist and digital humanities pioneer Lev Manovich kicks it off with “Data Science and Digital Art History”[1], a primer on the realistic application of data science techniques that work within a Humanities context, especially for those studying art and visual cultural of the Internet age. Benjamin Zweig, in his “Forgotten Genealogies: Brief Reflections on the History of Digital Art History”[2] and Anna Bentkowska-Kafel in her “Debating Digital Art History“[3] both present thoughtful historiographies on the discipline; Zweig focusing charting the history of the categorizations of “digitized” and “digital” art history, and Bentkowska-Kafel supplementing the discourse with her experience after 20+ years in a hybrid career of Art History and Digital Technology.

So far, the first issue of this new journal is dedicated to coming to a deeper understanding of the technological possibilities for the discipline during what Manovich calls our “quantitative turn.”[4] The contributors also call out the problems of practice at this point in Digital Art History, including , a platform for networking professionals, a discussion about what types of data are important and what technologies will assist traditional methodologies or become one of their own, and issues of “computer vision, reproduction technology, copyright issues, and so on.”[5]

And then we arrive at “Reframing Digital Art History” by Elli Doulkaridou[6]. Doulkaridou was, at the time of publication in the summer of 2015, a PhD candidate in Art History at the Sorbonne. Her research focuses on Roman illuminated manuscripts of the first half of the 16th century, and on the methodological changes that come with new digital practices. Doulkaridou first acknowledges the aim of the new journal to “examine the epistemological and methodological assumptions in the field of art history at the verge of its digital turn”[7], and what she offers to the conversation is a refreshingly creative application of the theoretical framework of the “frame.”

The semiotics of the frame: Doulkaridou argues, convincingly with examples from canonical art history, including Giorgio Vasari’s Libro de’ disegni, that art historians have always used the image as document. Analog and digital art history can be bridged, she argues, by the continuity of this practice of interpretation and manipulation of the image as document through framing by the art historian. To concisely summarize what Doulkaridou means by “framing”, here, I think we can focus on Vasari’s techniques. When Vasari was a young historian, he collected drawings of artists, pasted them in a scrapbook, and drew decorative frames around each drawing. The choices to impose order and frames on to other artists’ drawings reflects Vasari’s impulse to tell his own story with the work. Doulkaridou goes so far as to say that “Vasari’s method proves the systemic nature of image appropriate and that of framing as its primary method, a need inherent in our modus operandi, which transcends the technical aspects of the medium across time.”[8] In other words, framing is all about de- and re-contextualization. It is about the subjectivity of art history. In a way, her argument is as simple as the wonder of popping any 2-dimensional work into a frame. The work takes on a different character, and the choice of frame will assist the exhibitor of the art (in the home, in the gallery, in the marketplace) impose a story, or a new air of sleek sophistication, or a level of gaudiness and luxury, or conservatism, on that drawing or painting. This is more than what art historians do; this is what the discipline of Art History is and what it has always been.

As art historians or professionals who work primarily with the visual, if we think of our interpretive projects concerning images, our use of them for our own ends, and our sometimes the physical manipulation of them, we are doing these things to and with images in order to tell a story. So the idea of the use of a framing device in order to further along a visual narrative, is helpful here.

Doulkaridou’s article was at first a bit of a trudge for me. She drops a lot of semiotic theory out of the gates, which is appropriate for this scholarly journal of course, but it becomes tricky when she keeps using the term “framing device”, which contains a variety of connotations across disciplines. It was difficult for me to discern when she was using “framing device” as a literary term in the narrative sense, or in a visual semiotic sense, or referring to the physical frame built for two-dimensional art objects, or a frame strictly in the cognitive-structural sense. My guess is that Doulkaridou intentionally decided not to parse the different meanings out, as part of her thesis is that a narrative or physical frame is used to communicate a cognitive “framework” anyway. Though in the end I am convinced by her provocative thesis, I think the ambiguity surrounding the term “framing device” is less intriguing and more needlessly headache-inducing. Additionally, I was relieved to see relevant images, especially the photograph of Aby Warburg’s Picture Mnemosyne Atlas, which Doulkaridou describes as a collection of “subjective frames” imposed for Warburg to design his argument.

I think Doulkaridou’s article most reinforces a message from the editorial preceding it: “[What] we today call digital art history, will soon be just called art history.”[9] Of course, as a new practitioner of digitized and digital projects in the Humanities and specifically in Art History, I am heartened to read articles like Doulkaridou’s, that at once open the door for new innovation and assuage the Art Historian’s sometimes-technophobic fears that the emergence of a Digital Art History does not signal an epic shift away from the important research questions in the Humanities, but rather an inevitable opportunity to collaborate, and to look both forward and back through thought-provoking interpretations and theoretical frameworks.


[1] Manovic, Lev. “Data Science and Digital Art History.” International Journal for Art History, no. 1 (2015): 12-35.

[2] Zweig, Benjamin. “Forgotten Genealogies: Brief Reflections on the History of Digital Art History.”International Journal for Art History, no. 1 (2015): 38-49.

[3] Bentkowska-Kafel, Anna. “Debating Digital Art History.” International Journal for Art History, no. 1 (2015): 50-64.

[4] Manovic, 14.

[5] Klinke, Harold & Surkemper, Liska. “Editorial.” International Journal for Art History, no. 1 (2015): 7.

[6] Doulkaridou, Elli. “Reframing Art History.” International Journal for Art History, no. 1 (2015): 66-83.

[7] Ibid., 67.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Klinke & Surkemper., 8.