Hanneke Grootenboer: The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking

Kayla Dold

The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking Book Cover The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking
Hanneke Grootenboer
The University of Chicago Press
Cloth $35.00

Reviewed by: Kayla Dold (Master’s of Arts student in the Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario)

Why is there being instead of nothing? Hanneke Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image: Art as a Form of Thinking takes this Heideggerian question as it’s starting point. Like Martin Heidegger, Grootenboer’s task is to reflect on what constitutes philosophical thinking about being. In a discipline like philosophy, with its wide array of methodological approaches, traditions, and applications, it is easy to lose sight of simple yet profound questions like Heidegger’s. In this sea of approaches, Grootenboer’s book provides an accessible, clear, and innovating means of thinking about being by revealing a new philosophical subject: artworks.

In a succinct five chapters, Grootenboer describes a means of doing philosophy with pensive images. This is an ambitious task; however, for all its brevity (its body is approximately 170 pages), The Pensive Image remains philosophically vigorous and firmly rooted in the philosophical traditions that precede it, including German idealism, romanticism, phenomenology, post-structuralism, and of course, modern and contemporary art history. It is a blend of modern Western philosophy and art history; while Grootenboer discusses some contemporary artworks (like Richard Estes’ photorealism in chapter five), their focus is on seventeenth century Dutch artworks and modern continental philosophy. Its blend of continental philosophy and modern art produces a hybrid means of philosophizing and expands our conception of what is philosophically relevant to include modern artworks.

Despite their blend of philosophy and art, Grootenboer’s attention to detail and clear prose is consistent throughout, making The Pensive Image a valuable resource for art historians, philosophers, students, and the general public. Its clarity and wide range of commentary makes The Pensive Image interesting and accessible for a general audience, while its theoretical contributions to philosophical methods makes it valuable to the undergraduate and highly trained researcher alike.

Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes a novel philosophical subject—the pensive image—and prepare it for application in art history (15). Grootenboer justifies this task by arguing that philosophy (insofar as it is interested in reflection, being, essence, and thinking) needs artworks to articulate complex and layered clusters of concepts that are difficult, or impossible, to articulate with words (5). Visual arguments articulate clusters of concepts that are related yet cannot be systematically explained using cause and effect, logic puzzles, or thought experiments. Therefore, visual arguments add invaluable tools to our philosophical tool belts; however, this methodological implication is not the book’s sole source of value.

The Pensive Image does not only describe a new philosophical subject and means of thinking about being. Grootenboer’s meticulous invocation of the Western philosophical tradition, ranging from Descartes to Deleuze, offers us clear and descriptive secondary literature on great philosophical minds. The Pensive Image provides excellent commentary on those whom Grootenboer builds their theory (including Descartes, Diderot, Kant, Locke, Hegel, Herder, Goethe, Heidegger, Barthes, Lessing, Rancière, and Deleuze, amongst others). For example, the description of Heidegger’s conception of uncanniness [unheimlich] from Being and Time in chapter three is as clear and succinct as the description of dewdrops on flower petals in chapter four. Its balance between commentary and description makes The Pensive Image an indispensable handbook to anyone interested in the history of the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of art, and their intersection in the Western continental tradition.

While The Pensive Image provides clear and detailed commentary on other thinkers, it is primarily methodological. Despite its engagement with artwork, it is not hermeneutical. Instead, it follows Edmund Husserl’s original phenomenological directive: to pay close attention to things themselves. Grootenboer’s approach depends on describing artworks as autonomous philosophical subjects. Through a careful consideration of images and their effects on their viewers, Grootenboer describes a relationship between artwork and viewer that does not depend on interpretation, cracking a code, or deciphering a message. Instead, Grootenboer pays close attention to the visuals presented—a open door, a vast black background, the translucent shine of dew on a flower petal—and how these direct our thoughts. Throughout The Pensive Image, Grootenboer acknowledges that these effects may or may not have been the intension of the artist (5, 59, 60, 97, 99, 122, 146). Either way, intentionality (or lack thereof) does not change the artwork’s effect, its capacity to mediate our process of reflection, or to direct our thoughts (10-11). Whether or not Grootenboer’s description and conclusions are possible without an interpretive element is the topic for another book; regardless, Grootenboer describes interactions with artworks readers have likely experienced themselves. It is their description of our shared experience of artworks that makes Grootenboer’s conception of the pensive image and its application so compelling.

What exactly is a pensive image, and what are its effects? Grootenboer’s first section, “Defining the Pensive Image,” describes this philosophical subject and justifies its relevance to modern continental philosophy and art history. Grootenboer sets up their description with an account of the relationship between philosophical thinking and artworks over time. They situate the pensive image in two related traditions: the phenomenology and the relationship between modern artworks and contemplation. Thus, Grootenboer does more than simply revive Heidegger’s question of why there is being. They also situate the pensive image in a tradition of phenomenological approaches to art taken by Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1-5).

Grootenboer then surveys the historical relationship between modern artworks and philosophy. Grootenboer describes their thesis as a secular extension of the medieval tradition of contemplation, which uses images as mnemonic devices to transcend the secular domain (3). Grootenboer also notes how many modern philosophical ideas were explained using visual representation, though the intimate relation between art and philosophy generally declines after the seventeenth century (4). Thus, Grootenboer’s thesis revives and expands upon a previous philosophical tradition and is legitimized by its relation to phenomenological approaches to artworks.

The Pensive Image argues for the relevance of artworks to philosophy on multiple levels. Broadly speaking, it argues that artworks are a form of thinking. Artworks offer viewers entrance into a mode of thinking we would not enter on our own (1). This does not mean the artwork offers a particular narrative or meaning but that it inspires a new train of thought (22). Grootenboer writes that pensive images are “those that confront us in such a way that our wondering about the work of art—its subject of meaning—is transformed into our thinking according to it” (6). Rather than offering a narrative, a pensive image offers us the opportunity to think by guiding our thoughts in ways we might not have gone without its inspiration. This presupposes artworks can be effective: they do something to us. Therefore, pensive images are not meant to be interpreted but experienced.

Specifically, The Pensive Image argues that modern Dutch painting includes pensive images that guide our thoughts and reflections on being. (Though its focus is modern Dutch art, the book includes commentary on film and photography that helps us understand how different forms of art are concerned with different questions.) The first chapter, “Theorizing Stillness,” is devoted to describing the particulars of the pensive image as it applies to Dutch painting. The pensive image has two chief characteristics: firstly, while its meaning is indeterminant, a pensive image redirects our thoughts to contemplate being in new ways. It initiates a line of thinking we can follow indefinitely (9). It is not there to draw conclusions but to serve as an opening that allows a multiplicity of ideas to exist at the same time. Secondly, a pensive image visualizes a snapshot in time. This frozen moment, the anticipation of something more that is not visually articulated, is what directs our thoughts (24). A pensive image is therefore characterized by a movement paradox. Its stillness arrests us and from this arrest comes a flow of thought; pensive images generate “a passive, uneasy, and indeterminant state of openness that allows for the unthought to surface” (26).  A pensive image is open, tense, and suggests the possibility of movement (37). It stops our thoughts to redirect them in a new direction undetermined by specific signs or signifiers, meanings or narratives.

If the pensive image does not signify meaning nor tell stories, what does it contain, or, in other words, what is its essence? Chapter two, “Tracing the Denkbild,” answers this question. Instead of a specific signification, the pensive image is the embodiment of thought. This chapter describes different means of understanding an image as embodied thought over time. Through an analysis of stillness, it argues that the pensiveness of a pensive image can be understood as a moment of anticipation (47). Here, stillness is characterized by the theoretical potential for movement, rather than a lack of movement. Thus, tension, anticipation, and potential define a pensive image; it is open, uneasy, and ambiguous. Its openness and ambiguity make the pensive image a valuable philosophical subject worthy of our engagement.

While the idea that painting can be more than images on a canvas is not new, Grootenboer invites us to see painting as a partner in philosophizing that guides us where ‘it’ wants us to go (11). This metaphor of movement, guidance, and journey is central to Grootenboer’s pensive image and recurs through the book. For example, landscape paintings are “maps” that help viewers shape their interior selves, “entrances” into the pictorial realm (2, 1). They invite us to “dwell” within them, they reach out and touch us, set things in motion, and vibrate with potential (5, 26, 43). We are invited to get lost in the image, to rest in it, or to bord it like a vehicle (77, 78). Like Lucy, Edmond, and Eustice in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who are literally pulled into a painting of an ocean, allowing the pensive image to direct our thoughts is like being carried away by a wave (58). The tension between stillness and motion, journey and rest are fundamental to the pensive image.

Chapter three expands upon these relationships to think through what Grootenboer pithily calls philosophy’s housing problem. In this chapter, Grootenboer’s philosophical subjects include paintings of bourgeois Dutch homes and a dollhouse. These artworks provide a place for our thoughts to dwell, or, in Grootenboer’s words, “a home for the philosophical self,” by offering the opportunity to reflect on the permeable membranes between publicity and retreat, inside and outside (79). This chapter describes how artworks serve as metaphorical spaces where we can house our thoughts and subjectivities, thereby solving philosophy’s housing problem.

Drawing theoretical support from René Descartes’ construction metaphor and Heidegger’s conception of dwelling, Grootenboer demonstrates how Emanuel De Witte’s Interior with Woman at a Virginal (c. 1660–1667) and Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse (1686– 1710) host our thoughts. Descartes compares self-reflection to construction: in order to achieve self-understanding, we must clear away old foundations and build anew (81). Descartes himself formulated this approach while traveling. In his home-away-from-home, Descartes constructs himself a metaphorical home to house his thoughts and reflections (82). To philosophize is therefore conceived of as being on a mental journey while physically at rest. This implies that the philosopher’s home is not an actual resting place but their journey: the act of philosophizing itself.

Grootenboer builds on this tension between journey and rest by invoking Heidegger’s conception of dwelling. Heidegger argues that constructing something implies we already dwell there (85-86). To dwell implies a movement towards materiality. For Heidegger, dwelling is not a static condition but a constant movement towards something that cannot be achieved (to achieve it would no longer be to dwell). It is to be drawn towards something without ever arriving, a constant becoming (87). De Witte’s interior painting, as a pensive image, helps us understand this situation. It allows our thought to dwell within it. Our eyes and subsequent thoughts are drawn through doorways to the vanishing point beyond, a point we will never actually behold.

While we cannot inhabit De Witte’s painting, Oortman’s dollhouse appears inhabitable. Yet, because the dollhouse replicates Oortman’s home on a miniature scale, it is ultimately uninhabitable, what Grootenboer calls “a borrowed home” (105). That being so, the dollhouse contains elements, like a collection of seashells, that provide an opportunity to think through the dialectics of inside and outside and journey and rest. For example, what was once the travelling home of a sea creature is now an empty shell. The dollhouse allows us the opportunity to think through the uncanny nature of uninhabitable spaces that appear inhabitable. What these artworks offer us is not the ability to determine what is inside and outside, on journey or at rest, but to recognize that as philosophical subjects, we are wanderers (109). It is the pensive image, which offers a temporary place to dwell, that saves us from getting lost.

In chapter four, “The Profundity of Still Life,” Grootenboer analyzes pensive images that guide us through the relationship between finitude and infinity. For example, Adriaene Coorte’s Three Medlars and a Butterfly (1696-1705) mediates our understanding of the relationship between the infinitively large and the finitely small by visualizing a small butterfly approaching three fruits against a black background (119). The painting serves as a plot point between two extremes: the expansive background and the small butterfly. We can use this point as a reference when thinking through the implications of each extreme. This pensive image provides perspective; the butterfly and fruit in the foreground impose a sense of proportion, direction, and space onto a painting that would otherwise stretch into infinity. Grootenboer’s analysis suggests that as situated subjects, we are unable to think through the implications of limitlessness or infinity without a mental anchor or reference point. We can only understand infinity through its comparison with the finite, which Three Medlars and a Butterfly provides. By describing Three Medlars and a Butterfly in detail, Grootenboer demonstrates its philosophical relevance. By mediating our conceptualization of infinity, it embodies a form of thinking and self-reflection (133).

Grootenboer moves past self-reflection in the final chapter, “Painting as Space for Thought,” to invoke G. W. F. Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness. Hegel writes that painting’s function is not to reflect the world, but to provide some permanence for contemplation (135). For Grootenboer and Hegel, what inspires contemplation is shine. Painting is unique amongst artistic mediums in its capacity to represent light and to, therefore, shine (136-138). In this chapter, Grootenboer contrasts Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness with self-reflection, arguing that photorealism is a self-conscious genre whose self-consciousness helps us better understand Hegel’s concept. Grootenboer argues this point via an analysis of shine in Richard Estes’s photorealism.

Where does a reflection lie? In the object that reflects, or the subject that is reflected? Richard Estes’s Central Savings (1975) mimics a photograph of a storefront, in which the objects on the street are reflected and layered on top of each other so that we are unsure what is inside or outside the store. Estes’s painting serves as a means to reflect on reflection, visualizing both the reflected subjects and objects in which they are reflected. The painting is therefore both itself and its negation or mirror image, providing us an opportunity to think through the dialectic of self and other. The painting, whose self-consciousness comes from its ability to facilitate a synthesis of reflected and reflection, helps us think past this dialectic and synthesize the two (142-143).

Estes’ painting does not separate inside from outside nor opacity from transparency. Instead, it allows us to see how what is reflected always meets itself in its reflection, preventing an endless cycle of reflection in a synthesis of reflection and reflected (156). Central Savings, like Hegel’s conception of self-consciousness, is bold enough to think through and overcome oppositions (159). Grootenboer’s analysis of Central Savings reveals that the philosophical tradition of reflecting on reflection is not exclusive to written philosophy. It is enacted by pensive images as well.

Grootenboer concludes The Pensive Image with commentary on the relationship between philosophy and wonder. Grootenboer reminds us that according to Plato, Socrates believed wonder was the beginning of philosophy (167). Do artworks offer a similar starting point? For Heidegger, wonder is a basic element of ordinary life (168). According to Grootenboer, the association between wonder, philosophy, and ordinary life is what makes seventeenth century Dutch artworks such fruitful contributors to philosophical investigations of being. Their focus on the ordinary and their reward of slow looking leads us to new discoveries. Ultimately, the pensive image is a valuable philosophical subject because it provides the opportunity to philosophize from, and about, ordinary experience. They stop us in our tracks and suggest a new courses for our philosophical journeys. In contrast to trompe l’oeil, panorama, of other kinds of illusionism that overwhelm us by enchantment and delight to lift us out of our ordinary experience, pensive images slowly overtake us. They do not to lift from the ordinary but to push us deeper into it, guiding us home (169). The Pensive Image thus concludes with all the optimism a new philosophical approach deserves, the hope for new discoveries that bring us home to ourselves.

The Pensive Image has the potential for broad application. Its description of the pensive image, its commentary on painting, film, and material culture, and its overlapping imagery with literary analysis implies the possibility of using the pensive image to understand the philosophical importance of other cultural products. The pensive image, applied metaphorically to literary imagery, might reveal an intimate relationship between image, text, and mind, in which the text’s imagery compels us to follow its logic. This, combined with its phenomenological approach, provides a framework we can apply to the existential literature of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. For example, Beauvoir’s imagery of barren wastelands in her 1946 novel All Men Are Mortal guides us through a similar meditation on finitude and infinity as Grootenboer describes in chapter four, implying an opportunity for comparison and new perspectives. Grootenboer’s The Pensive Image describes an approach potentially more far reaching than its introduction’s humble proposal, which could potentially be applied to imagery in literature, film, performance art, and even music.

While it is sometimes difficult to discern whether Grootenboer argues in favour of artworks as aids to understanding philosophical ideas articulated elsewhere (as is the case for Heidegger’s dwelling or Hegel’s self-consciousness) or as containing autonomous philosophical arguments themselves (as is the case for Three Medlars and a Butterfly), their oscillation between the two demonstrates that for artworks to be taken seriously as philosophical subjects, we do not have to decide between one and the other. As a philosophical subject, a pensive image can clarify an idea articulated elsewhere without depending on others’ ideas to articulate its own arguments. Its status as independent philosophical subject does not preclude its ability to aid our understanding of others.

Some aesthetic purists might balk at the idea of using artworks this way. They could argue that art is meant to be enjoyed, valued for its own sake, rather than used for philosophical ends. Grootenboer successfully counters such arguments by describing how the pensive images’ effects are part of its being. We do not use a pensive image for our own purposes. Instead, we let it guide our thoughts according to its own logic. Grootenboer thus avoids accusations of the ‘use and abuse’ of artworks for philosophical ends by focusing on the artworks themselves, their effects, and their autonomous properties. Rather than using a pensive image to achieve our own goals, we enter into a relationship with it. We following it where it needs to go without the added baggage of hypotheses, interpretive frameworks, or ulterior motives. Engagement with pensive images allows us to engage in a philosophy of free play, curiously, and wonder, rather than one of hermeneutic or analytical investigation. It is an appreciation of the things themselves without contorting them by imposing artificial frameworks and hypothesis.

In addition to its methodological implications, The Pensive Image challenges the artificial distinctions between art and philosophy, perceiving and thinking, reason and emotion. It models how to challenge disciplinary boundaries, which can get in the way of innovative thinking. Grootenboer conceptualizes the pensive image as a “predisciplinary blueprint” because it directs the thinker on a journey that knows no disciplinary bounds, be they philosophical, historical, literary, or artistic (71). Its most valuable contribution to philosophy is its emphasis on philosophy as a conscious reflection unbound by discipline, subject, or object.

In chapter three, Grootenboer writes that their main concern is not what thought is but how artworks help house it. The Pensive Image might not focus on defining thought but implies a simple yet profound definition of philosophy: a free flow of reflection, contemplation, and investigation mediated by permeable boundaries, boundaries that allow for movement so that dwelling and journeying merge. The Pensive Image provides us with a vision of philosophy and art in a mutually constituting relationship, a roadmap to theoretical places yet unexplored, and thereby a philosophical home.

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