Napoleon Crossing the Alps
romantic version by Jacques-Louis David in 1805
Quelle Wikipedia

In the agony of symbol systems (systems of expression) an image is painting’s most boring and wearing opponent. However, it has consistently been the case that one is mistaken for the other.

Perhaps they are not rivals after all, and there is no difference at all between a painting and an image?

In the summer of 2005, a student of the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in Wuhan showed me a painted self-portrait. It was a small canvas where she copied (depicted) her face from a photograph in oil paint. The surface of the canvas had been treated so perfectly that neither brush traces nor color ductus could be seen. The surface of the canvas was like a screen showing the face of a girl. 

I didn’t know what I should say about it. At that time I saw a lot of images like this. It was always the same, some kind of a ploy (a manner). The images differentiated only technically: some of them were well depicted and colorized, others were less so. 

I asked the student if she ever portrayed herself without copying a photo. The girl was embarrassed and became shy. She showed me a self portrait she had painted by using a mirror. The student was very dissatisfied with her work, and the brush traces and color ductus were erratically organized on the surface. In several areas, the paint marks lay on top of each other making various layers of paint, so it was not possible to identify a clear hue (color). The color and the light-dark contrast supported neither motif nor coloring of the painting. The nose and eyes were placed neither symmetrical nor on the right place on the face. The painting reminded me strongly of early Cézanne.

It was a bad painting, but it was painting. The first self-portrait was an image. Why?

After each victory Napoleon Bonaparte ordered an image. He imposed the theme, the portrayal of persons and even dictated the image size. Napoleon imitated other kings and wanted to be imitated as a king. The art student from Wuhan imitated other students with her perfect colorized self portrait, and wanted to be imitated as well. Parents make images of their children to put them on the table or to carry them with them in their wallets to show (exhibit) them by occasion. They are imitating other parents and want to be imitated.

Hieratic Suprematist Cross (large cross in black over red on white), 1920-1921
Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Quelle Wikipedia

Initial point of the mimetic theory of René Girard is the determination that copying (imitation) generates rivalry, envy and jealousy. It is contagious and leads rapidly to an escalation of violence, where the original (primary) copied object doesn’t matter any more.   

The assumption, that images, image makers and image mongers can be held responsible for an outbreak of violence, is proved in a comprehensive exhibition catalogue on the topic image wars Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. It can be assumed that prohibitions of images have repressed the escalation of violence and still do.

A comparison of the works of Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich illustrates concisely the difference between painting and an image. Both were contemporaries who changed the human point of view: Malevich was delivering new images and Mondrian painted anew.

Kasimir Malevich was interested on realization of new images, icons, while Piet Mondrian changed the way to paint. The native-born Ukrainian colored, figured or painted in his motives, but he never painted. In contrast, the motifs come into being while painting by the Dutch painter.

Piet MondrianVictory boogie woogie 2009S0948
Victory Boogie Woogie (1942–44)
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
Quelle Wikipedia

The difference between a painting and an image is in the origin and in the resulting properties (characteristics) of the painting and the images.

To make an image one needs a motive, material and an image maker. To create a painting one needs a motivated painter and the necessary material. It is thus evident that an image maker is an interpreter of a narrative motive, in contrast the motif of the painter is to paint.

In the bookshelf scene in Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia Justine brutally replaces the images of Kasimir Malevich with the images of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. If Justine would have replaced the images of Malevich with painting, she probably would not have fallen back into the depressive cycle.

Oleksiy Koval
Munich, December 2017

Thanks for help realizing this text to Simon Eastwood, Daniel Geiger, Henri Jacobs, Prof. Bernhard Lypp, Veronika Wenger and Michael Wright

Melancholia (2011)
Bookshelf scene


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