In 1990 French art historian and philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman announced he would undertake what he termed an ‘aesthetics of the symptom’. What exactly this symptomatic approach may mean for art history has often been overlooked in appraising his historiographic project. This essay traces the trajectory of Didi-Huberman’s retrieval of the Freudian symptom in relation to Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 short story The Unknown Masterpiece.While Frenhofer’s failed portrait of his mistress Catherine Lescault has long symbolised the irrecoverable gulf between reality and artifice, model and copy, I argue there is an alternative way of imagining Lescault beyond the terms of mimetic failure by drawing on Didi-Huberman’s aesthetics. If it is possible to recast Frenhofer’s masterpiece not as unsuccessful imitation, but as a successful presentation of the human body, as is proposed in the 1985 book La peinture incarnée, the terms of this aesthetic production need to be re-examined in light of Didi-Huberman’s reception in English. With its origins located in Sigmund Freud’s early studies of hysteria, the attendant issues of overdetermination and the pan of the image provide an entry point into Didi-Huberman’s critique of mimesis and his particular approach to art history.
CHARI LARSSON | And the Word Becomes Flesh: Georges Didi-Huberman’s Symptom in the Image