A Imagem Proibida / La Imagen Prohibida / The Prohibited Image

First published in Portuguese, Spanish and English in Julião Sarmento, Fundação de Serralves, Porto, [cat.exh], p.12, 14 and 16


The search has not come to an end… The investigation initiated by a line written by E. H. Gombrich and which leads to insistent visits to the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes in London reaches a partial conclusion in a book or manuscript that perhaps never existed.

In this introduction to The Legend of the Artist by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz in the 1982 Madrid Cátedra Edition (I mention this bibliographical detail since perhaps if I had consulted the 1979 Yale University Press edition or the 1934 Vienna Krystal Verlag original edition, my investigation would have been equally unproductive but at least, for what it’s worth, shorter) Gombrich writes that the Viennese historian Otto Kurz dedicated his last years to the search of material for an important work related to the prohibition of images.

Born in 1908, Kurz died in 1975 in London, the city where he lived and worked as Director of the Warburg Institute library. Among his publications highly unlikely essays are to be found, such as “Four forgotten Works by Agostino Carraci”, “The Romantic Tree in Johan Dahl” or “A Mexican charm against kidney pain” in which he explains how the true etymology of the word “jade” originates from that “hijada” or kidney stone, which the Mexicans carried as a charm against gallstones.

Among the hundreds and hundreds of pages that remain of Kurz’s writings, the supposed text referred to by Gombrich on prohibited images is not to be found. Nor is any reference to be found in the original manuscripts that time or the necessity for revision or even death left without being published.

However, an indication exists, a clue in the investigation. Not just a broken branch, but the remains, the coals, the indication that somebody has lit a fire on the way.

On the shelves of the Warburg Institute and among the never-ending number of folders piled one against another, full of writings by an equally never-ending number of historians and letters that relate moments in the life of a Renaissance artist or of never-ending wanderings in the devotion to aesthetics, exists, however, a file 80 centimetres long, by 12 x 8. And on top of this file, another file, and another leading to a total of six files full of small pieces of cardboard.

Each piece of cardboard measures approximately 10 x 6. They are filled with notes, half finished reviews and references to pages or lines read in other books. Some of which are on other shelves, not far from these files, hardly a few metres away. Others are to be found on the floor beneath, where studies on Greek statuary or the beginnings of architecture are lined up. File after file separated into blocks according to different headings such as Medical instruments or Judaic iconography.

In tiny print, and in several languages, Kurz wrote hundreds of unconnected notes under the heading of “Prohibited”. Like topographical records, these notes must have allowed Kurz to trace out a detailed map of the prohibition of images in the history of representation. Possibly, as in the rest of the texts written by this meticulous Viennese art historian, this book that never existed could have been made up of a continuous, precise and exact footnote. Each note accompanied by the year of publication and page number. Each line dedicated to the geometrical design of the Arabic ornamental calligraphy written with a clairvoyance that those vegetable elements do not correspond to the world of nature.

The absence of that “important work” mentioned by Gombrich, and which the new librarian at the Warburg Institute does not recall his predecessor ever having referred to, makes us think that its potential author renounced it.

The reason can be found both in the hugeness and difficulty of the project and in that story of the Old Testament: during the short time that man lived in the perfection of Paradise, his time was shared and perhaps complemented by the unique presence of an absent and incomprehensible prohibition.

A question:
(In the never-ending multiplicity of shared and complementary images) which one is Julião Sarmento’s prohibited image?

Rome, 15 March, 1992