Leonida Kovač: Sebald’s Dialectical Images

KIC, Preradovićeva 5, Zagreb

14 November 2022

KIC, Preradovićeva 5, Zagreb

Leonida Kovač’s lecture “Sebald’s Dialectical Images” marks the inaugural session of the Art Pavilion’s new program “Landscapes of Simultaneous Times: On Memory Practices in Contemporary Art,” in which the program’s author, art historian, and theorist Leonida Kovač focuses on exploring the complex relationships between the concepts of image, time, and memory in contemporary interdisciplinary artistic practices.


The theme of the first lecture is the resemantization of some of the canonical works of European painting in the literary oeuvre of one of the most important writers of the late 20th century, W.G. Sebald (1944 – 2001). Sebald, a professor of European literature at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and the founder of the British Centre for Literary Translation, refused to label his literary works as novels and referred to them as “prose books of an indeterminate kind.” Resisting all disciplinary and genre definitions, his writing, existing at the intersection of poetry, novel, essay, (auto)biography, and travelogue, establishes distinctive relations between the world of words and the world of images with rare virtuosity of narrative trajectories. These are not manifested only in ekphrastic descriptions but also in the specific practice of embedding images into the fabric of the text.


The lecture “Sebald’s Dialectical Images” examines the effects of the writer’s specific practice of appropriation, or “citations without citation marks,” in the context of the term “memory project.” Specifically, it focuses on Sebald’s operationalization of the concept of dialectical image introduced into theoretical discourse by Walter Benjamin. Benjamin writes: “History deals with connections and arbitrarily elaborated causal chains. But since history affords an idea of the fundamental citability of its object, the object must present itself, in its ultimate form, as a moment of humanity. In this moment, time must be brought to a standstill. The dialectical image is an occurrence of ball lightning that runs across the whole horizon of the past. Articulating the past historically means recognising those elements of the past which come together in the constellation of a single moment. Historical knowledge is possible only within the historical moment. But knowledge within the historical moment is always knowledge of a moment. In drawing itself together in the moment – in the dialectical image – the past becomes part of humanity’s involuntary memory.”

In his essay on his contemporary and friend, the painter Jan Peter Tripp, Sebald poses a rhetorical question: “And painting, what is it, anyway, if not a kind of dissection procedure in the face of black death and white eternity?”, and asserts that “remembrance, after all, in essence is nothing other than a quotation. And the quotation incorporated into a text (or painting) by montage, compels us – so Eco writes – to probe our knowledge of the world. This, in turn, takes time. By spending it, we enter into recounted time and into the time of culture.” Sebald’s writing process, with its interference between words and images, disenacts that narrated time which is historiography. His digressive and tangential narrative approach, constantly questioning the authenticity of words and images, delineates historical transversals that insist on reading what, in the words of Hofmannstahl, was never written. With this imperative of reading what was never written, Walter Benjamin argues the claim that “the historical method is a philological method based on the book of life.” (Leonida Kovač)

Leonida Kovač is an art historian and theorist, curator, and full professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, University of Zagreb. Her focus of interest lies in contemporary art and critical and feminist theories. She has conceived and realised over forty exhibitions in Croatia and abroad, as well as several international professional and scientific conferences. She has served as commissioner and curator of national presentations at major international exhibitions, including the International Biennial of Visual Arts in São Paulo (2002) and the 50th Venice Biennale (2003). She has held positions in the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) based in Paris, where she was a member of the Board of Directors (1998-2002), Vice President (2002-2005), and again a member of the Board of Directors (2005-2007). In 2002, she received the annual award from the Croatian section of AICA for outstanding critical and curatorial work. She is a member of the International Council of the Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation. She has delivered a series of invited lectures at prestigious European universities and numerous public lectures in Croatian and international museum and gallery institutions.

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