Erin Dickey

Art Historians, Digital Art History

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 Atlas
Screenshot 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 workspace
Screenshot 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.



  1. Erin,

    Thanks for your thoughtful insights into Doulkaridou’s article. I think you really bring out and nicely articulate her main points – largely, that art historical research has to an extent always been influenced by the materiality of its methods and that we can use this commonality to draw some continuity between ‘traditional’ and digitally based scholarship. I feel as though all things digital are caught up in a web of many contemporary competing discourses, and so it can be much easier to see where digital art history breaks with past scholarship than to see points of continuation and dialogue with previous scholarship.

    Thinking critically about the conditions and constraints of these digital tools exercise on the art historian can also help us to turn back to ‘analog’ methods of scholarship, and to see more clearly the influences the materiality of method exerts there as well. We have perhaps become so inured to how physical images have been used in art history that we no longer see the frame; on the other hand, huge visualizations (such as the example you provide from NYPL Labs) are still novel, especially in the context of art historical research, and so the frame of the computer interface remains strikingly clear. With Mirador, another example that you bring up, the facility with which users can zoom and manipulate the view of objects, as well as the capacity to annotate and share thoughts as you mention, will certainly have a dramatic effect on the kind of scholarship that can be done—and indeed how the images themselves are viewed.

    Despite the relative novelty of these capabilities, Mirador has much in common with Vasari’s scrapbook: both methods ‘frame’ images for scholarly purposes, providing a way to see the image/object in a new way while also actively placing the image/object is a somewhat constructed context. Every such frame can be a way to hold a group of images/objects together, opening up new insights into the artworks, but the materiality of that frame will undoubtedly influence what can be seen or said and what kinds of questions can be asked. The material characteristics of how Warburg constructed and arranged his “Atlas” surely influenced his research, just as a scholar generating questions while viewing NYPL impressive visualization would certainly be influenced by the nature of this sweeping arrangement.

    I think this is what you are getting at, Erin, in your closing questions – and I really appreciate this line of inquiry. As I’ve mentioned, I think the sheer novelty of these digital tools makes the ‘frame’ more apparent than physical images in a scrapbook; but the novelty also means that we have not had as much time to consider the full range of implications that come with the digital material nature of these frames.

    1. To supplement Colin’s comments–Mirador resembles nothing so much as a lightbox, which is a physical means of ordering slides that my colleagues often say they miss, precisely because it becomes a ground for arranging, rearranging and contemplating, discovering new connections and pathways of inquiry. Too often, when they were using light boxes, it was in the context of being in a rush to get ready for a class, missing crucial slides that they couldn’t find in the catalog (in part because they admitted that they couldn’t remember where they were in the catalog), and putting “things that did not fit” off to the side for a later day. With Mirador, you can have all of the images, save your work in progress, and come back to it when the rush of pedagogy is not most urgent, so this can mimic and improve upon already familiar investigative modes.

  2. Hi Erin,

    I also found Doulkaridou’s use of the term “nodal” when describing function of the framing device in the Warburg project thought-provoking because I connected it to the terminology often used to describe the Semantic Web, a complex web of nodes of data and the edges that connect them. You mention that Warburg’s goal was to trace the construction of meaning, and the ways the current Mnemosyne project has translated that into a digital experience. I connected that to Flood’s description of his vision for what digital art history as a method could be in Objects of Translation: the process of tracing the provenance of a material object digitally, allowing for new connections and ways of understanding previously limited by the physical separation of various records.

    Doulkaridou uses the term “hermeneutics playground” when referencing these projects, which I think ties into this idea of the freedom of digital space, an unlimited “place” for inventive and unfettered scholarship. If this occurred with Warburg and Vasari’s relatively limited knowledge collection, imagine the possibilities of scholars accessing petabytes of visual information. I think this is what Flood is pointing towards, the semantic web as a place where traditional frames are removed.

    Mirador is an exciting project, especially considering art historians past reticence in collaboration, but I think you are right to look critically at these new ways of seeing. Like you mentioned, traditional frames have been removed, but only to be replaced by new iterations. These frames are much less accessible and readily grasped than a material, physical construction or placement, particularly for those without an information technology background (presumably most art historians.) Hidden from the user, the underlying architecture of the software constructs entirely the user’s experience, to an even greater degree than Warburg’s projects might have. As Colin points out, the novelty of this technology means we are only just beginning to ask these questions and I think currently the nascent quality of the field could be both its strength and its weakness.

  3. Hi Erin, I was interested to read your response to Elli Doukaridou’s article, since I found her writing to be full of new insights I had never considered before with regards to the continuity of the frame and other tools to mediate images, and she also presented some challenges to grapple with. My response was very much a thinking-aloud exercise for me so that I could be sure I understood the article as best as I could, so I am very impressed that you have dug deep and really engaged with the text.

    In our first class discussion you brought up how Kirsch’s New Republic article, which to me served as a kind of caution against jumping on a supposed academic bandwagon of digital humanities as be-all, end-all (communicated in a very jumpy, reactionary tone) was by someone who didn’t seem to know what he was talking about in terms of being in the trenches of academia in the humanities – as he is not a current student or holder of any academic Humanities position. Of course I am paraphrasing that I took to be your point; correct me if I am wrong. I think that Doulkaridou brings to that conversation is a firsthand account (by way of Doulkaridou being an active doctoral student and instructor of Art History at the Sorbonne) of the real state of the analog/digital divide in Art History, and not the perceived crisis offered up by Kirsch. You say this, concisely in your opening paragraph, that Doulkaridou “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” and by pointing out that her aim here is to see what happens, practically in the digital sphere, that hasn’t exactly called for a paradigm shift in how we think of Art History or the Humanities.

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