The palladium and platinum salts – Part 1: The Object

Jean-Claude Mougin shares his text on Palladium in 3 parts, The palladium and platinum salts, Part 1: The Object (this article), The palladium and platinum salts, Part 2: The Technique and Part 3: The Recipes and Bibliography.

Writer and photography / Jean-Claude Mougin

Palladium mougin

The substance of art is not substance
The matter of art is not matter
The subject of art is not the subject
The object of art is not the object
The manner of art is not the manner
Technique in art is technique
Qualities in art are qualities
Ad Reinhardt: Art as Art

1. The Words

1. The Words
palladium / pal-la-di-om’ ; also pronounced as pal-la-di-on /.

  1. Statue of Pallas considered as a pawn for Troy’s conservation. The palladium, although fallen from heaven, was nothing else than the sacred pawn of Pallas’ protection; through the palladium, it was the goddess that was worshipped. By extension, name given to various objects which were representing their life expectancy for some cities or empires. The sacred shield, fallen from the sky during Numa’s reign, was the palladium of Rome and its empire.
    In its figurative sense: guarantee, protection. “Civil law is the palladium of
    property”, Montesq. Espr. XXVI, 15.
  2. palladium / pal-la-di-om’ / .
    Chemistry term. It designates a rare and lustrous silvery-white metal, very
    difficult to melt and quite malleable, discovered by Wollaston in crude platinum
    ore, and named with reference to the goddess Pallas.

pallas / pal-lâs /.

  1. Term from the Greco-Latin religion, equivalent to Minerva.
    Pallas’ or Minerva’s bird: the owl
    Pallas’ or Minerva’s tree: olive tree created by this goddess
    Pallas’ or Minerva’s fruit: the olive.
  2. Planet discovered by Olbers. Its distance from the sun is about 49 million
    myriameters, and its orbit completed in 1682 days. It belongs to the telescopic
  3. Variety of tulips. (Littré dictionary (French) ).

2. Athena Pallas and the Origin of Art

Homer calls Athena “polymetis”, the goddess of many counsels.

What is the meaning of counseling? It means premeditating something, providing for it in advance and making sure it will succeed. For this reason, Athena reigns wherever men are producing, updating, implementing or completing something, wherever they are acting and doing…

Everyone who excels in producing, who is capable, skilled and has an expertise in its profession is technites”. The way we understand this word when we translate it by “craftsman” is much too restrictive. Even those who erect monuments are called “technitaï”. This because their action is directed by a comprehension which bears the name “techne”.

The word designates a form of knowledge, not the work or production itself. Knowledge means: having a clear view from the beginning of what is at stake in the production of an image or a work of art. The work may as well be a creation of science , philosophy, poetry or eloquence.

Art is “techne”, but not technique.

The artist is technites, but neither technician nor craftsman.

Because art as “techne” relies on knowledge because such a knowledge is a preliminary beholding of what shows the shape and gives the measure, but still is invisible and has first to be brought to the visibility and perceptibility of the work

– for these reasons, looking into what hasn’t been given yet to be seen singularly requires a vision and clarity.

This prior vision borne by art needs illumination. By whom could this be given to art, if not by a goddess who, while being “polymetis” – of many counsels – is also “glaukopis”? The adjective “glaukos” means the radiant glow of the sea, the stars, and the moon, but also the shimmer of olive trees. The eye of Athena is the eye which lights and glows. Therefore the owl, “glaux” is attributed to her, as a sign of her capacity: the owl’s eye has not only the intensity of fire, it also crosses the night and makes visible what would otherwise be “invisible” (ref Martin Heidegger: La provenance de l’Art et la destination de la Pensée. in “ Les Cahiers de l’Herne“. (English title: On the Origin of Art and the Destination of Thinking) ).

3. The Idol, the Icon, the Image

Palladium, Pallas, these words remind us that originally, the image is an idol. In Greek, ”eidôlon” means image, but above all form, figure, face; in brief “what looks at us”. Such is the palladium, the antique “xoana” fallen from heaven, and hidden in the “cella”, the secret of the temple, which cannot be approached without being paralyzed with fear and caught by the sacred. In what is revealed, in the presence of the invisible, it is the goddess herself who appears, simultaneously showing up and standing behind. With the idol, the image is the thing itself.

With Christianity and the Incarnation mystery, the idol becomes an icon. The sacred image is internalized and offered to contemplation. It becomes anagogical, a way for the soul to go back from the image to its model. “The honor paid to the icon is transferred to the prototype,” said St. Basil. Also, as stated the iconophile Nicephorus, the icon is “chora tôn achoretôn” an otherness that “gives place” for being but that cannot contain, an emptiness that can only be filled with light and divine grace. The image has lost its material reality. It becomes ecstatic. Its reality lies elsewhere, in a “beyond the visible”.

And then the image becomes effect of art, a product of human freedom, as stated by Kant. This leads to aesthetics judging the artwork, not by itself anymore, but according to its effect on the sensitivity of the beholder, of those who enjoy it. The next step is the emergence of the figure of the genius, of the creative artist, “the beloved child of nature”; a full individuality assumed in an ego: “this is how I see the world.” Henceforth the subject, idol or icon, doesn’t matter. This is the beginning of the reign of representation, of the idea, of the concept. Hegel can announce the death of art.

Evidence of the image’s dissolution in representation and concepts, and of art’s death announced over and over again, is given by the reign of pretenses and of the Virtual on the walls of our contemporary art museums as well as on our screens.

“Everything is art”, this slogan which could have been from Duchamp and was illustrated so well by his “Fountain”, finds its counterpoint in the “Merda d’artista” by Piero Manzoni. Art is nothing or better “anything”. Only remains the genius of the artist, the idea, the “we could have thought of it before! “. Art has become empty, empty of objects, and aesthetics a discourse running idle on tasteless objects devoid of any substance.

Result is that scanned and computerized images pass everywhere on our screens, making up our images’ emptiness with a constant stream of video recordings. The vacuum’s aesthetics meet the vacuousness of our fiction; constantly duplicated images like mass consumption objects; ready-to-use, pre-digested, used forever, obsolete images.

4. The Aura

Walter Benjamin was a perfect witness of this disenchanted world, a world of desolation where the gods have fled, and of the collapse of the sacred. His slogan is well known: facing the increasing risk of politics aestheticization, it is urgent to politicize art. Faced with the danger of an imaginary serving the established authorities, it is important to return to the images their power of changing the world.

Hence the importance of Benjamin’s symptomatic reading of the history of photography which repeated, in the time span of a century (we are in 1936) and in a surprising shortcut, several millennia of pictures’ history.

This history has three key moments:

  1. a golden age, that of the photography primitives, such as the first calotypists Hill, Bayard, Hugo, and the great portrait painters that were Nadar and Julia Margaret Cameron. The photographic image shows all the characteristics of the idol, and the strangeness of its appearance, its “aura”.
  2. an age of popularisation and industrialization. The image becomes a commodity (Disdéri) dedicated to a middle class, hungry for “trivial images,” in the words of Baudelaire.
    For Benjamin, the return to art for the sake of art advocated by the pictorialists in response to this popularisation is only leading to a stalemate. The aura becomes nothing more than a pretense.
  3. Arrives the redeeming moment, the end of the bourgeois illusions. Exits the picturesque, Atget invents the aesthetics of vacuum, “the crime scene.” Exits the portrait, the “trivial image”; Sanders doesn’t create a picture book, but an “atlas of exercises.” Exits photography as art, making room for “art as photography.”
  4. Finally, the line is clear for the project to politicize art. “Art must unmask and build.” This will be the programme of Moholy-Nagy, Rodchenko or Eisenstein.

Thereby the history of photography at the age of mechanical reproductibleness actually is the symptom of the world’s uniformization and standardization process, which is a property inherent to all mercantile societies. Its terminus is the “liquidation of the aura”.

The aura of a work is what happens “here” to the work in its beauty. But this “here” remains inaccessible, because as said by Goethe, “the beautiful is what, in essence, only remains similar to itself provided it stays veiled”. Such is the weirdness of the work of art, summarized by Benjamin as follows: “What is the aura, strictly speaking? A singular frame of space and time: a unique appearance of the distant, as close as it might be”.

Therefore the artwork exists, in its authenticity, in what’s giving it the “authority of the thing” and yet “reality does not allow itself to be reached ” through it. Its dimension is the sacred.

“By defining the aura as the unique appearance of the distant, as close as it might be, we simply transposed into space and time categories a formula referring to the worship value of the work of art. Distant as opposed to near. Distance is essentially the unapproachable. As a matter of fact, the main quality of a worship image is to be unapproachable. By its very nature, it is “always far away, as close as it might be. ” it is possible to approach its material reality, but without prejudice, to the remoteness, it keeps once appeared”.

The aura might eventually be wound up with the “age of mechanical reproductibility”, when objects lose their character of things and become merchandise. Without mystery and uniqueness, they are exposed and moved around, as they are designed to be appropriated and consumed. “In front of a painting, the onlooker never gets satiated, while photography is rather like food that soothes the hunger, like the beverage that quenches thirst”.

So, what else remains from the earlier world, if not the image of a world that Baudelaire describes as “veiled by nostalgia’s tears”.

This yearning for pictures was experienced by Benjamin when looking at Octavius Hill’s photography of New Haven’s Fisherwomen, where he felt “that something impossible to silence, requesting insistently the name of whom lived there”.

But this aura would not have existed without the specific technical approach of the calotypist. As Brentano, quoted by Benjamin, said: “an 1850’s photographer rises to the challenge of his instrument”. He still considered photography as a “big mysterious experience”. Qualified, skillful and experienced, the photographer excelled in discovering the secrets of texture, revealing the images and fixing them forever in the grainy thickness of the paper. The paper negative was then like a score available to all sorts of interpretations. The image was a single object, enigmatic in its extreme softness, and in the depth of a third dimension, that of its presence amongst the fibers of the paper.

Walter Benjamin:

  • Short History of Photography
  • The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
  • On Some Motifs in Baudelaire

5. The World and the Earth

Athena’s palladium, as well as the “aura” of Benjamin, put us on the path of the origin of art; its roots in the sacred which is the limit of our mortal condition, in a world that is our residency.

The world, as demonstrated by Heidegger, is the framework gathering those worldly things: stones, trees, houses, temples, sacred places of worship, herds and men busy about their business. The setting is the world in which things unfold in their being of things. It gives the world its image.

In it sings the quartet, the harmony that brings together four in simplicity.

  • Land and its free stretch of rocks, sand and water, offering itself as plant and animal, stay and transhumance for mortals
  • The sky and the measurement of the sun, the path of the moon, light and dusk, the accumulation of clouds and depth of the azure
  • The divine and the signs of divinity, their sacred power
  • The mortals who in the quartet are those who live and have the custody of the site: saving the earth and taking care of it, giving free rein to the sky, and to a fair appreciation of the happy days and seasons, being alert to the gods’ signs, “keeping the mind open for the secret”

In this harmony of the quartet, comes the work of art as object. Quite as the antique idol, the work of art represents nothing. ” The work of art never presents anything, and this for the simple reason that it has nothing to present, being itself what initially creates what enters the open for the first time thanks to it”. Such is indeed the mystery of appearing that, in the open, what shows itself stands back quite at the same time. This conflict is called by Heidegger the “fight of the world and the earth”.

The world in the work of art is what joins, gathers and unifies people in their history, in their fate. It is what gives its meaning to the work, makes it accessible to our intelligence, in our desire to understand and to subject it. Because of the world, the work of art seems bright, obvious to us. It is close.

“Settling a world, the work calls for the earth”. The earth is at first the dark influence of the beginning when the possibilities of the work to come are still hidden.

It is thereafter the material itself, the marble of the temple, the pigments of the painting, the metallic thickness of the palladium. The earth is what reaches the brightness of its appearance in a work, while keeping veiled its secret, because in the earth something holds on and withdraws and, in its strangeness, remains inaccessible.

But above this, the earth is the home, the close friend, the regular visitor of our house. It is the nature where all come to life, the “phusis” where everything grows, blossoms and comes to die. But such is the power of Eros, that in a single day he grows, dies and is reborn. In his desire to procreate in the beautiful, the artist participates of this ” regrowth of the being” for a long time, as for a long time the alive aspires to the divine, and longs to overcome the death.” Isn’t indeed the initial appearance of man heavy of what is in his own eyes the initial mystery of birth? Isn’t it connecting at the same time this mystery to eroticism and death?”

Martin Heidegger: Building Dwelling Thinking
The Origin of the Work of Art
Plato: The banquet
Georges Bataille: The Tears of Eros

6. The Offshoot

In presence of a devastated world, what is left to us after this progress through the words, ideas and images, apart from the nostalgia for the origins, the nostalgia for the aura that knew how to say the nearness of the gods, and finally this truth, that the work of art is like the living, an object rooted in the darkness and the withdrawal of the earth?

Can we then hope for a return to the origins? Certainly not, and there will be no question here to redo images in the old fashion. We know too well the misguided ways of pictorialism and its impasses.

We should rather be rethinking here the modernity, as a “new twig from the root”, as “rejection” (term borrowed from Hubert Damisch in Art minimal II). Rejection of what became worn out, but also offshoot, in the sense of “regrowth of the being”.

The following presentation is not merely technical. Let us remember that “art is techné but not technique”, and that art rests on a knowledge that requires preliminary looking, like Athena Pallas whose eye shines and glitters.

“And bright-eyed Pallas’ self their hands endowed With more than mortal skill her rarest
works to mould”

Pindar: 7th Olympian.

After reading the German philosopher Walter Benjamin and discovering the Niepce museum treasures, including “The Pencil of Nature” by Fox Talbot, Jean-Claude Mougin became interested in alternative techniques. In the 1980s he started working in the platinum and palladium technique and is now a well established French artist.

Continue to Part 2: The technique

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