Project Summary - The Portrait of the Author as Iconic Authorisation

Images are powerful instruments in regulating public opinion and cultural (self-) perception. The title ‘politics of the image’ indicates this potential, which has prompted the development of various and historically variable practices far beyond the realm of the strictly political to incorporate all aspects of culture – economics, academia, and education, as well as religion, the fine arts, and sport. More generally, here the term ‘politics of the image’ is understood as designating all forms of the strategic employment of images to engage large target audiences. Within this analytical framework, the research project is devoted to the multifaceted subject area of the author’s portrait.


Across a number of different contexts and artistic genres, the project examines the conditions of production and functionalisation of images explicitly and primarily created for the portrayal of authors in the public sphere. Much emphasis is placed on the specific social, economic, and artistic productivity that could develop such images, as well as the conditions under which these images could become part of a cultural imagology. Using the concept of iconic authorisation as a guiding principle, the central functions of the author’s portrait are authentication, verification, and valorisation of works of literature, media, and people. The term thus possesses three heuristic dimensions. These provide an analytical framework for all research strategies and areas of investigation in each of the three sub-projects.


(1) Valorisation

As iconic paratexts, author’s portraits primarily serve the enhancement of texts or works of literature by means of the ascription of symbolic or cultural capital. It is not only the particular pictorial elements that are signs of personal attributes, but the image-worthiness of the author – asserted by the image and its public circulation – that already brings a personal accumulation of prestige, which, in turn, can have a considerable impact upon the general perception of texts and literary works. From this perspective, the exact circumstances of production, those involved (authors, publishers, artists, patrons), and their respective motivations will be explored. Furthermore, forms of reception and modes of use will be inspected, in order to grasp their cultural meaning and significance. From a perspective spanning several epochs, it is also necessary to consider the significant factor of the varying spatial proximity of the author’s portrait to the particular work: with regard to the relationship between person and work, which is modelled by the image, there is a difference between whether the portrait is a component of the material volume or whether it circulates independently of a source text as a common representation of both an author and his or her written work. It is worth considering how the dissociation of the author’s portrait from the concrete book promotes the inception of the modern concept of the work of literature.


(2) Authorship

The portrait of the author is part of the cultural complex of artefacts and practices through which, increasingly from the 14th century onwards, the specific modern interpretation of authorship has developed. In principle, what can be seen here is that the reproduction and circulation of author’s portraits, along with the increase in biographical literature during the Early Modern period, fostered the establishment and stabilisation of particular author-images. Therefore it contributed considerably to the concealment of the actual conditions of literature and book production, which was not comprehensively criticised until the 20th century by postmodern literary theory. This discrepancy provides the point of departure for the three subprojects which seek to address the personal, publishing, and political-institutional basic principles, motivations, and expectations connected with the production and publication of author portraits. Portraits which in turn were intended to stage the author as, for instance, a credible scholar, national poet, or critical contemporary. The focus is thus, if nothing else, on the historical fluctuations of the concept of the author as reflected by the holdings and collections in Marbach, Weimar, and Wolfenbüttel.


(3) Mediality

It has to be considered that, as a result of the rapidly increasing production of authorial portraits from the early modern period onwards, this genre itself underwent a revaluation as a medium within literary and scholarly discourse. The ways in which the authorisation of the portrait (typically occurring through iconic practice) is addressed will be examined – not only by using the portrait itself, but also in literary documentation. Therefore, attention should also be paid to alternative and satirical images, and counter concepts to the authorial portrait, in order to comprehend its cultural scope. In this context, the specific politics of the images of the three participating institutions will be investigated, in order to reflect current strategies of the functionalisation of authors’ portraits with respect to the different collections.