The Generalized Image: Imagery Beyond Representation in Early Avant-Garde Film

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Ulrik Schmidt


The dichotomy between the figurative and the abstract has often been evoked as a key element in the understanding of the modern image, as it was the case, for example, in influential art historians such as Wilhelm Worringer and Clement Greenberg. However, if such a rigid opposition between the abstract and figurative has ever been qualified, an unlimited number of images after 1900 – whether painted, printed or screen-based – have significantly obscured any clear distinction between the two.

Hence, if one wishes to understand the very nature of modern images it is indispensable to ask what it could mean to conceive of images beyond the opposition between the abstract and the figurative: How could we think of images that are neither figurative nor abstract, or perhaps are both at the same time? How could we think of images that are not either signifying and representational or non-signifying and non-representational but rather a-signifying and a-representational in the sense that they operate and find expression beyond the very question of signification and representation?

The aim of this text is to explore some of the key elements in such imagery beyond representation. I will investigate the issue by revisiting a series of iconic images in early 1920s avant-garde film by the artists Man Ray and Fernand Léger. On this background, and in dialogue with film theorists and philosophers such as Malcolm Le Grice and Gilles Deleuze, I outline the basic properties and aesthetic potentials of what I term the generalized image as an imagery that operates and affects beyond the very question of representation. 


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