Above: Selbstbildnis (»black cube or visage«), 1992, Paris, 20,5cm x 30,3cm
Below: verso, »black cube or visage«, dedication from Georges Didi-Huberman, Munich 16.12.2004

Selbstbildnis (»black cube or visage«) – investigations in composition and ambiguity

Beginnings – Paris and J.S. Bach

»Selbstbildnis« is a seminal work. It is one of my very first images and my first selfportrait, done in Paris 1992, being 21 years old. I had been in Paris in the years 1991-1993 several times (my girlfriend these days had been an au-pair), walking around the town for hours, doing my very first photographical compositions, my first images, my first works, while listening to J.S. Bach. I do stress that I did listen to J.S. Bach particularly, because musical composition is the root of my work regarding the crucial role of composition. Investigating the relation between musical and visual composition has always been a central practise of mine, and 2005, when I did my Diploma in »Gestaltung«, I did present images and compositions for guitar. In addition to the works I did write my first philosophical text about »Polyphonie und Gestaltung«, where I did investigate the phenomenon of polyphony regarding music and images. As an introductory text I did write »Sichtweise«, a somehow poetical text about the »Selbstbildnis«, where I did describe possible experiences while watching the image (see some excerpts of the diploma text below). Around that time I had been very fascinated by the texts of Georges Didi-Huberman. The diploma text relates to Huberman partly, also the introductory text. It had been a beautiful coincidence and great joy to meet Huberman at a conference in Munich while writing the final passages. After talking with him about my fascination for his texts and showing him the »Selbstbildnis«, he did dedicate the beautiful lines to me: »black cube or visage«. These lines do not only describe core aspects of »Selbstbildnis«, but stand for me in an exemplary way for some crucial aspects of my work approach, regarding the correlation and coherence between the composition (including the sensual quality) of the work and the conceptual levels, particularly entangled through structures of ambiguity. Some notes on these aspects:

»black cube or visage« – correlations between composition, ambiguity and conceptual levels

The work »Selbstbildnis« exemplifies in an exemplary way core elements of my work approach. My basic concern is always to realize a correlation between composition and concept. More specifically, I try to compose works, where the conceptual levels do evolve from the sensual aspects of the work. Even more specifically, I particularly try to establish ambiguous structures, that can be experienced through the composition. When you look at the »Selbstbildnis« a bit longer, your eyes will tend to »fade out« the impression of a »visage«. The »visage« is vanishing, and only the pure formal, iconic form of an »image« appears, finally, even the image character vanishes and only the »black cube« remains . Simultaneously, your own face is mirrored in the glass (this effect is less present on the computer screen). Through physiological phenomenons, an ambiguous experience between a pure »formal« work (»black cube«) and a portrait (»visage«) is established in a moving way. The conceptual level of caducity is also expressed and performed in a sensual way. Beyond these aspects, the vanishing of the image is also plainly adressing the »nature« of photography. These phenomenons are described in »Sichtweise« in a poetical, yet meticulous way, see below. The reference for my diploma text regarding Huberman has been particularly his Was wir sehen blickt uns an (Huberman 1999), and here specifically his notions on Tony Smith's work »die«. Obviously, also a »black cube« and also related to caducity.

Above: Tony Smith: »die«, 1962
Below: excerpt from Huberman's book, showing »die«

»black cube or visage« – the motif of »two figures« in »Selbstbildnis« and »stroke / sirens«

Above: nicolas constantin, stroke / sirens, (2017), 5 voice audio-visual composition, 3:41 min.

A beautiful correlation regarding the motif of »two figures« and the constant transition between »black cube or visage« can be drawn between the early »Selbstbildnis« from 1992 and the 5 voice audio-visual composition stroke / sirens, 2017, on view at the show »this is so wrong!«, Museumsquartier – Q21 – Electric Avenue, Raum D, Museumsplatz 1, A-1070 Vienna, 25th November 2017 to 31st January 2018. Curated by Ehrlich Speiser & González / ephemeral spaces, related as Austrian Embassy to The Wrong, New Digital Art Biennale.

2020 – slide

nicolas constantin: slide, (2020), 32x32cm, aluminium, mirrors

Evocing the childhood memory of playing with a slide-puzzle, embodied paths to reflections about the nature of images constituting ourselves come into effect. Personal or philosophical considerations might be equally enclosed by a seemingly simple, yet iconic structure, increasingly puzzling on closer inspection.

From the »Selbstbildnis« to »Variations IX« – investigations in portraiture and self-conceptions

Above: A dancer in the final phase of »Variations IX« (2015), experiencing a »self-reflection« in the black screens. This »self-reflection« has been an important reference to the early »Selbstbildnis«.

The »Selbstbildnis« is the first appearance of the portraiture motif in my work. This motif has been present in my work over several decades, sometimes in a more subliminal way, since »Variations IX« in a more obvious way. See the related works including notes on the portraiture motif:

watch, braid, re-move make-up, girl descending a staircase. From special interest and character are the participatory, performance based works, evolving from central aspects of »Variations IX«: liebenswert, also ball room are – beside other aspects – investigation in modes of portraiture.

Selfportraits are a rare topic of mine. Important versions: triptych / selfportrait and »Autoritratto«, both Urbino 2004, see below and on top of the about section.

Above: nicolas constantin, selfportrait (»autoritratto«), 2004, urbino, italy

Regarding the significance of »Selbstbildnis« as an exemplarily outstanding work for me, particularly also the portrait situation has been crucial. Some remarks regarding portraits: for a long time i did do pictures only from very close friends, with one seminal exception while studying in italy, Urbino. This experience has been – in retrospect – an important early preliminary step to my focus on the human figure after Variations IX. Below: nicolas constantin, triptych / selfportrait, 2004, Urbino, Monastero die Santa Chiara

Above: Portaits done in Urbino

The first experience with the portrait situation I did have while studying in italy, urbino, by chance. While i did do my early photographical works always only through walking practice, never in a studio situation, in Urbino i did have the chance to do experiments with a »Großformatkamera«. I did do quite a lot polaroid trials. Due to the fact, that the camera has been way to heavy to practice my favourite »walking work«, I did, just in lack of other possibilities, I started to do selfportraits. I had been very surprised and satisfied by the »triptych / selfportrait«, from my point of view also a homage to Francis Bacon. After this selfportrait studies, I did ask my fellow students, to do portraits of them. Actually, I have been very surprised by the very moving experience through the intimate, very calm and concentrated atmosphere. But after this I did not do further portraits for quite a long time with one further exception in Urbino, see below. Only the joy of doing images from my son, experiencing his movements, gave me some idea that this might be possible with strangers again. The idea unfolded, as so many other aspects, through Variations IX and the two series separate assignments (braid, re-move make-up, shape) and two figures (watch, girl's game, stroke). Particularly insightful regarding these portraits is, that I deliberately wanted to incorporate the aspect movement in these images. As mentioned already: in my early photographical practice I have been always walking while taking my images, it has been an important aspect for me. Guess, through the »studio« situation, I had to be forced not to move, so I wanted the persons to provide movement. What I do like particularly about the right portrait (see detail) is its classical renaissance impression, fitting quite beautifully to Urbino.

Monastero di Santa Chiara, Urbino

Another Urbino portrait – Cornelia, Kleist and Kafka

cornelia, 2004, italy, urbino, monastero di santa chiara

Another Urbino portrait – Cornelia, Kleist and Kafka
After the experiences with the »Großformatkamera« in Urbino I did only one further portrait. An important thing about this image for me is, that it has been made just in one moment, while walking together through the crowded library of the monastero di santa chiara (see picture of the library below). The light and the situation seemed perfect to me, also particularly the wave forms of her clothes coincidentally suiting beautifully to the wave forms of the window curtains. We did talk just without the intention of taking a picture (in that situation) about something and I did make this portrait deliberately just alongside, not wanting to disturb her natural posture. Actually I had been quite afraid in these seconds, that she could loose her self centered but unselfconscious expression. We had talked about taking pictures, she has been surprised after this situation, when I said, that I already have my image and we do not need to do further ones. When we later were looking at this image, we both had been astonished about the intimacy and sensual expression, as we both knew that we had been in such a crowded place and not in a studio situation with some intended »posing«. For me this circumstances are an important aspect, because this image would not mean that much for me, if it would have been taken in an artificial studio surrounding. Here you can see the original library space, where the image has been done spontaneously. While taking the picture the library has been crowded with students.

Looking today at this image, after more as a decade, it makes me think of Kleist's »Marionettentheater«. I guess, if she would have been aware in that moment about her fragile grace, she would have changed her movements and would have acted too self-conscious. I did have this impression from the beginning at these days already, but learned only recently about Kleist's wonderful text.

An excerpt of Kleist's text:

»Ich sagte, daß ich gar wohl wüßte, welche Unordnungen, in der natürlichen Grazie des Menschen, das Bewußtsein anrichtet. Ein junger Mann von meiner Bekanntschaft hätte, durch eine bloße Bemerkung, gleichsam vor meinen Augen, seine Unschuld verloren, und das Paradies derselben, trotz aller ersinnlichen Bemühungen, nachher niemals wieder gefunden. – Doch, welche Folgerungen, setzte ich hinzu, können Sie daraus ziehen? Er fragte mich, welch einen Vorfall ich meine?

Ich badete mich, erzählte ich, vor etwa drei Jahren, mit einem jungen Mann, über dessen Bildung damals eine wunderbare Anmut verbreitet war. Er mogte ohngefähr in seinem sechszehnten Jahre stehn, und nur ganz von fern ließen sich, von der Gunst der Frauen herbeigerufen, die ersten Spuren von Eitelkeit erblicken. Es traf sich, daß wir grade kurz zuvor in Paris den Jüngling gesehen hatten, der sich einen Splitter aus dem Fuße zieht; der Abguß der Statue ist bekannt und befindet sich in den meisten deutschen Sammlungen. Ein Blick, den er in dem Augenblick, da er den Fuß auf den Schemel setzte, um ihn abzutrocknen, in einen großen Spiegel warf, erinnerte ihn daran; er lächelte und sagte mir, welch eine Entdeckung er gemacht habe. In der Tat hatte ich, in eben diesem Augenblick, dieselbe gemacht; doch sei es, um die Sicherheit der Grazie, die ihm beiwohnte, zu prüfen, sei es, um seiner Eitelkeit ein wenig heilsam zu begegnen: ich lachte und erwiederte – er sähe wohl Geister! Er errötete und hob den Fuß zum zweitenmal, um es mir zu zeigen; doch der Versuch, wie sich leicht hätte voraussehen lassen, misglückte. Er hob verwirrt den Fuß zum dritten und vierten, er hob ihn wohl noch zehnmal: umsonst! er war außer Stand, dieselbe Bewegung wieder hervorzubringen – was sag’ ich? die Bewegungen, die er machte, hatten ein so komisches Element, daß ich Mühe hatte, das Gelächter zurückzuhalten: –

Von diesem Tage, gleichsam von diesem Augenblick an, ging eine unbegreifliche Veränderung mit dem jungen Menschen vor. Er fieng an, tagelang vor dem Spiegel zu stehen; und immer ein Reiz nach dem anderen verließ ihn. Eine unsichtbare und unbegreifliche Gewalt schien sich, wie ein eisernes Netz um das freie Spiel seiner Gebährden zu legen, und als ein Jahr verflossen war, war keine Spur mehr von der Lieblichkeit in ihm zu entdecken, die die Augen der Menschen sonst, die ihn umringten, ergötzt hatte.«

Heinrich von Kleist: Ueber das Marionettentheater.
In: Berliner Abendblätter. 63tes Blatt.
Den 12ten December 1810, S. 247–249; 64tes Blatt. Den 13ten Dezember 1810,
S. 251–253; 65tes Blatt. Den 14ten December 1810, S. 255–257; 66tes Blatt.
Den 15ten Dezember 1810, S. 259–261.
Erst am Ende des letzten Teils findet sich die Sigle »H.v.K.« für Heinrich von Kleist.
Rechtschreibung und Interpunktion der »Berliner Abendblätter« wurden beibehalten.
link: Kleist: Über das Marionettentheater

Whole text, german, audio on youtube:

Heinrich Kleist, Über das Marionettentheater

Link to the whole text, english translation:
Kleist: On the Marionette Theatre

On the Marionette Theatre
Author(s): Heinrich von Kleist and Thomas G. Neumiller
The Drama Review: TDR,
Vol. 16, No. 3, The "Puppet" Issue (Sep., 1972), pp. 22-26
Published by:
The MIT Press

While wondering about Kleist's »Marionettentheater«, another two beautiful texts came to my mind again. Franz Kafka's »Der Fahrgast« and »Kleider«:

Franz Kafka, Der Fahrgast

Der Fahrgast

»Ich stehe auf der Plattform des elektrischen Wagens und bin vollständig unsicher in Rücksicht meiner Stellung in dieser Welt, in dieser Stadt, in meiner Familie. Auch nicht beiläufig könnte ich angeben, welche Ansprüche ich in irgendeiner Richtung mit Recht vorbringen könnte. Ich kann es gar nicht verteidigen, daß ich auf dieser Plattform stehe, mich an dieser Schlinge halte, von diesem Wagen mich tragen lasse, daß Leute dem Wagen ausweichen oder still gehn, oder vor den Schaufenstern ruhn. — Niemand verlangt es ja von mir, aber das ist gleichgültig.

Der Wagen nähert sich einer Haltestelle, ein Mädchen stellt sich nahe den Stufen, zum Aussteigen bereit. Sie erscheint mir so deutlich, als ob ich sie betastet hätte. Sie ist schwarz gekleidet, die Rockfalten bewegen sich fast nicht, die Bluse ist knapp und hat einen Kragen aus weißer klemmaschiger Spitze, die linke Hand hält sie flach an die Wand, der Schirm in ihrer Rechten steht auf der zweitobersten Stufe. Ihr Gesicht ist braun, die Nase, an den Seiten schwach gepreßt, schließt rund und breit ab. Sie hat viel braunes Haar und verwehte Härchen an der rechten Schläfe. Ihr kleines Ohr liegt eng an, doch sehe ich, da ich nahe stehe, den ganzen Rücken der rechten Ohrmuschel und den Schatten an der Wurzel.

Ich fragte mich damals: Wieso kommt es, daß sie nicht über sich verwundert ist, daß sie den Mund geschlossen hält und nichts dergleichen sagt?«

Particularly the last sentence: »I did ask myself back then: How come, that she isn't astonished about herself, that she keeps her mouth closed, not saying anything the like« describes perfectly my feelings about that »portrait« situation back then, and generally, watching movement around me.

I have been very aware of »Der Fahrgast« for a long time. By including the text here I did come again across »Kleider«. I have not been that impressed by this text before, compared to other Kafka texts, but today, reading it, there's an astonishing, beautiful reference appearing to re-move make-up. Fine to see the network of interrelations keep growing and changing continuously.

Franz Kafka, Kleider

»Oft wenn ich Kleider mit vielfachen Falten, Rüschen und Behängen sehe, die über schönen Körper schön sich legen, dann denke ich, daß sie nicht lange so erhalten bleiben, sondern Falten bekommen, nicht mehr geradezuglätten, Staub bekommen, der, dick in der Verzierung, nicht mehr zu entfernen ist, und daß niemand so traurig und lächerlich sich wird machen wollen, täglich das gleiche kostbare Kleid früh anzulegen und abends auszuziehn.

Doch sehe ich Mädchen, die wohl schön sind und vielfach reizende Muskeln und Knöchelchen und gespannte Haut und Massen dünner Haare zeigen, und doch tagtäglich in diesem einen natürlichen Maskenanzug erscheinen, immer das gleiche Gesicht in die gleichen Handflächen legen und von ihrem Spiegel widerscheinen lassen.

Nur manchmal am Abend, wenn sie spät von einem Feste kommen, scheint es ihnen im Spiegel abgenützt, gedunsen, verstaubt, von allen schon gesehn und kaum mehr tragbar.«

by Franz Kafka
Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

»Often when I see clothes with manifold pleats, frills, and appendages which fit so smoothly onto lovely bodies I think they won't keep that smoothness long, but will get creases that can't be ironed out, dust lying so thick in the embroidery that it can't be brushed away, and that no one would want to be so unhappy and so foolish as to wear the same valuable gown every day from early morning till night.

And yet I see girls who are lovely enough and display attractive muscles and small bones and smooth skin and masses of delicate hair, and nonetheless appear day in, day out, in this same natural fancy dress, always propping the same face on the same palms and letting it be reflected from the looking glass.

Only sometimes at night, on coming home late from a party, it seems in the looking glass to be worn out, puffy, dusty, already seen by too many people, and hardly wearable any longer.«

more works done in Urbino:
triptych / selfportrait

Preliminary studies – »one minute portraiture«

Though no artworks in a closer sense, a series of portraits done 2014 in context with my courses at the University of Applied Sciences Augsburg have been from seminal importance on the way to the unfolding of the portraiture motif after Variations IX. After the few portraits done in Urbino 2003/2004 (see notes above) I did not realise other portraits. The only exception have been and still are the images I did from my son over the years since his birth 2008 and continuously. From invaluable value from a personal perspective, and not meant for public view, I realized beyond the personal importance, that it might be possible to do portraiture also from other people. 2014 I did ask a few students quite spontaneously to realise what I call now »one minute portraiture« in the context of courses or exhibitions we organized. These portraits have been done very deliberately only in spontaneous situations in a public / academic space with other people around (one time, actually when I did introduce the project for the first time, even my son joined the course coincidentally) to guarantee the neutrality regarding the portraiture situation. To show these images here is also in first place a thankful gesture to all the fine students I had the honor and joy to share and develop insights with over the years.

Above: portrait done at a show with my students at »Weltraum«, Munich, here a student from another course (left). Right: portrait done in a lecture context, no studio situation, a genuinely spontaneous action done in a few moments from a very fine student, he is a great musician, we did share inspiring thoughts, particularly about making music.

Above: The right portraiture is from a very dear friend, Ben Ali. I did study with him Gestaltung, we had magical moments doing free calligraphy together. In context with my Bachelor supervision of Bewegungsformen als Lebensweisen, a comparison between Scateboard, Dance and Budo, he did provide my my own new skateboard. He had been the director of a wonderful skateboard space these days, the »Blue Box«. On the left you see a dear student at the opening night of our show at »Weltraum«, driving my board. Seminal moments. The student on the right, Alisa, had been in my course to open minds, where she developed a fascinating work regarding interconnections between the perception of sound and images, closer description upcoming on the project page of »to open minds«. Below my first »drop in« right after getting my new board from Ben in the Blue Box. The »drop in selfportrait« stands in a metaphorical way for the experimental and »Dojo« approach, particularly expressing the will to cultivate persistence against setbacks.

Below: Over a period of 7 years I used to go for a few times in summer in a beautiful forest / park, the »Siebentischwald« with a fine »Biergarten«, to discuss media-philosophy in distance to the quite sterile atmosphere of the University. The portrait below on the left is done spontaneously one minute before starting the course. On the right also a »one minute portraiture« during the course to open minds from a fine student, she is particularly interested and participating in critical movements like »Greenpeace«. One idea of these portraits has been to capture the thoughtfullness and sensibility of my students, who inspired me so much with their course contributions.

Below: The moment when I did introduce spontaneously the »one minute series« has been special, because my son (6 years old these days) did join the course because of school holidays. I actually did do images of my son working with oil paint (what had been basic practise in the course to open minds), what did lead me to the possibility, to talk about the project in relation to my work, with the necessary distance through the presence of my son, a crucial condition. On the left my son and me buying oil-paint for the course. After returning from our shopping-tour, I did some pictures of him and in this context I spontaneously introduced the idea. The student has also been working on concepts regarding her experiences with being »categorized« superficially by other people because of her clothing. Actually I did avoid to document the course working with her in view because of the related missinterpretations of her clothing style. Our both decision, to do this portrait has also been deliberately a critical act against such superficial views. Later she developed a project, where she did let take pictures from her every hour from people, she did meet coincidentally at that point of time. The project did start from a profound criticism regarding superficial views on persons and has been finally a reflection about authenticity. Great joy, that my decision to start the project is now embedded in the context of the unfolding of »Variations IX«.

Above: Another very special portrait I did in context with the Bachelor supervision of a very dear student, Benedikt Möller. In his project Elyssa he did compose a opera like piece and did sketch a video version of a stage performance. The portrait has been done particularly for the documentation of the working process.

Kaleidoskop (2014) – Performance based Video Art by Regina Degenkolbe (partly in colaboration)

In context with the documentation of the »one minute portraiture« I did remember a beautiful project from my student Regina Degenkolbe, »Kaleidoskop«, done in my course to open minds 2014 at the University of Applied Sciences, Augsburg, Department »Gestaltung«. Great joy Regina did like the idea to present her project in this context. The piece did unfold on the base of our studies in color perception with reference to Josef Albers' »interaction of color« with the aim to cultivate a sensibility in perception to transfer this experience to our projects. »Kaleidoskop« did evolve starting from a quote, remembered from Regina in context with our discussions: »Die menschliche Seele ist wie ein vielfarbig schimmerndes Kaleidoskop« (»The human soul is like a polychromaticly shimmering kaleidoscope«). Regarding the vulnerability of the human soul, combined with aspects of liberation through meditative practise and other considerations, the piece did develop. I like particularly the very rough and disturbing quality of the work, chosen of course deliberately, regarding the visuals and the sound. The sound layer is dissolving increasingly in an unsettling way from the movements you see. Many thanks to Regina for her work and the possibility to colaborate partly (a rare exception) regarding the video, and to show it here. I will document the work also at the project page of to open minds.

Above: Kaleidoskop, Videostills
Below: Installation view in »Weltraum«, Munich, with additional »polychromatic« shards of mirrors

Excerpts of the Diploma text on »Polyphonie und Gestaltung«


Below: cover and content of the diploma texts

Image and philosophy – from early phenomenological enthusiasm to Goodmanian understanding

When I did write my diploma thesis (2005), I had been very enthusiastical about phenomenological approaches regarding images and art. Huberman's writings are also related to a phenomenological approach. When I did study »Bildwissenschaft« at the Danube-University Krems, I did discover the work of Nelson Goodman through Prof. Klaus Sachs-Hombach . From a philosophical point of view, this introduction has been a seminal experience for me. I did write my Master Thesis on Pictorial Ambiguity, based on Goodman and now I am working an my PhD: Medien der Erkenntnis – Experimentalsysteme in Wissenschaft und Kunst, also starting from Goodman's approach. A lovely coincidence regarding George Didi-Huberman has been, that 2011 I did present at the same conference as he did at the famous »Kunstakademie Düsseldorf«. Our texts are published in the same volume. His Experimentieren, um zu sehen and my Experiment, Exemplifikation, Erkenntnis. I still do really appreciate the phenomenological enthusiasm, but I actually prefer the meticulous clarity and the understanding, one can get from a Goodmanian point of view. It is kind of sad, that there are still borders between the phenomenological approaches and the more analytical. I guess these academic oppositions are not helpful, because the phenomenological enthusiasm and sensibility can be linked to analytical clarity. (See some notes about the unfortunate opposition of phenomenological and more analytical approaches in my review on Handlungstheorien des Bildes from Silvia Seja). Somehow ironical has been, that during my Diploma time, there has been no teacher who wanted to engage with image philosophy, I had been very disappointed there has been no support in understanding. After my diploma, it has been great joy to discover the »Bildwissenschaft« course in Krems. Actually, I did get a grant, partly based on my diploma text. At a point, where I already had »switched« to the analytical rigor, I did become a »late« appreciation for my »phenomenological« text from a teacher of the »Hochschule für Gestaltung« in Karlsruhe, who did a lecture at the center for image science. I did learn a lot from this late appreciation, after having »switched« to another approach: just go on working on your projects without aiming at applause, I try to practise this approach in my work and in research. Beside this aspect, I still am very honored by the lines I did receive from Martin Schulz. I hope to be able to add some »beauty« in my philosophical texts, still, though I did abandon the phenomenological, unfortunately often quite puzzling style of writing, that has indeed poetical qualities in the best sense (meant without any irony), but not supporting philosophical understanding in a way I do expect for me since I discovered Goodman. Below the notes regarding my text. These lines are always a fine reminder for me to work carefully on my texts to be as »precise, subtle, philosophical, and yet not least poetical and beautiful« alike as possible.

[all works from nicolas constantin © nicolas constantin romanacci]