Pandora's box

Marco Buti, Human Resources, 2021


Commentary on the book by Dora and Erwin Panofsky.

Pandora's box presents the history of the representation of this myth, from Greco-Roman antiquity to the works of Paul Klee and Max Beckmann, with the subsidy of the analysis of a wide range of literary sources and figurative documents. It represents both an admirable example of the application of iconological methods in the history of art, the story of an image condensing many contradictory aspects of the relationship between man and woman, and the document of the life of a couple.

Pandora is, in fact, the name that brings together, as in a single being, the lives of Dora (Dorothea) and Erwin Panofsky. The name of his wife, who is also an art historian, on the cover of the book, appears as a mutual declaration of love, after a lifetime of common work. The two scholars investigate the transmission and transformation of the myth of Pandora, a “beautiful and evil” gift from the gods to men, her vase or her box, invention of Erasmus of Rotterdam, perhaps an unconscious image of the female sex, containing evils (in Hesiod's version), the errors (in the Socratic version), the sins (in the Christian version), which would spread throughout the world. Or would the piggy bank perhaps contain the virtues that would return to heaven, disdaining the world of men?

Dorothea, then, is also “Pandora”, because the encounter with a woman means the encounter with all the images of femininity sedimented in the memory of our culture. But is it possible to make a history of images? Is there an order in the birth, multiplication, combination, undoing and recomposition of images? This book demonstrates that, despite its confusing appearance, the world of images is an orderly world and that it is possible to do art history as the history of images.

Aby Warburg and his Hamburg circle, from which Panofsky and his wife were trained, demonstrated with patient philological research that the artistic culture of the modern West lives on the heritage of images received from the past as a lexical repertoire of a language: a historical process of “ long duration” by which in Western culture the history of forms constitutes its own memory, in a triple movement of production, transmission and transformation of ancient models. The image is a sign, the attribution of a meaning to it is a cultural and social process.

The path of the image, as Panofsky presents it, is tortuous, haphazard, full of ambiguities, turns, sudden diversions: it certainly does not have a logic, nor a direction, nor a finality. But perhaps it is possible to discover an order in it. The artist is a man who participates in the culture of his time. Figurative culture always builds with materials from the past, adapting them to the present, based on experiences that are often remote, sometimes erased. The mnemonic data is often cut, undefined, even mistaken, but in the order of culture, the error itself produces meaning.

Both historians know that they cannot afford to work with selected materials of established artistic value to study the creative process. They gather the largest possible number of documents directly or indirectly related to the theme they determined to study. Like geographers studying a stream of water, they seek to find its source, draw its path, understand its behavior. It may happen that the theme appears in some famous masterpiece, more often its presence or its transformation is documented by images intended for commercial consumption or for utilitarian purposes such as book illustrations, popular prints, coins, suits etc.

The image worn out, consumed, replicated hundreds of times and deformed by the carelessness with which it is adapted to the most varied situations is often much more eloquent, for historians of the image, than the erudite version, fixed with a precise formal structure. Sometimes associated or combined with new contents due to confusions or assonances with other images from the repertoire of collective memory, it is the document of a culture, a sign to which it is possible to attribute, as to words, several meanings.

For those who already know Panofsky's theoretical essays, or for those who want to get closer to the methods of iconology, reading this fluid and pleasant writing in Portuguese translation is a truly rewarding experience. The presence of appendices on the sources and works analyzed and a useful index helps to offer the reader a guide to orient himself in the immense erudition mobilized by the authors.

* Luciano Migliaccio Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at USP.

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 3, July 2009.


Dora and Erwin Panofsky. Pandora's box: the transformations of a mythical symbol. Translation: Vera Pereira. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 252 pages.


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