Pseudomorphism, a term adapted to art history by Erwin Panofsky, refers to the ostensible similarity between two works of art that actually emerge from distinct historical and artistic lineages.1 What initially piqued our interest in the term, was not a particular instance of the phenomena, i.e. when two unrelated artworks strike the viewer as similar, but rather the paranoid circumstances in which the word comes up. In some cases, it is used to voice pause and self-doubt about an association one feels compelled to make. In others, the word deals a more dismissive blow, making someone else’s act of comparison seem superficial.

These situations are related: in the first, a single person begins to question their assumptions and methods, asking herself if she may have gone astray, as Pamela Lee does in Think Tank Aesthetics: “[C]ould there be any more of a cliché—any more of a joke, really—than equating an inkblot and a Jackson Pollock?”2 In the second, the conflict is socialized, one person stakes their territory, the other, having dared to question relations, ends up feeling foolish.

At a recent seminar in Budapest, art historian Tomáš Pospiszyl displayed abstract canvases by the Czech modernist Andrej Bělocvětov alongside Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings.3 Challenging the art historical model in which motifs and techniques diffuse from the center, New York, to the periphery, Eastern Europe, he insisted, despite the near identical appearance of the works, that the similarity in the work of the two painters was mere pseudomorphism. Pospiszyl has researched the exchange of visual and written information across the former East-West divide through the circulation of art publications, letters, and people. In his opinion, there is no evidence that Bělocvětov would have seen Pollock’s works before painting his own. A reversion to expertise, although a very different form of it, is also performed by Yve-Alain Bois in his essay “On the Uses and Abuses of Look-alikes.”4 In the face of preoccupying morphological similarity, Bois not only moves from appearances to a discussion of structuralism and semiotics, but also opens the door to modernist iconology, the structure’s meaning at a specific juncture in history. Whereas Pospiszyl dismisses pseudomorphism with material facts of transfer, Bois unseats the vagaries of form, alongside its bewitched enthusiasts (Wöfflin and Warburg), with structural analysis. Both combat the epistemological weakness of pseudomorphic comparisons by means of established scholarly methods.

Bois’s essay is psychoanalytically rich. Its total arc evinces a deeply ambivalent relationship to pseudomorphism. At the beginning, he states outright, “I loathe pseudomorphism,” making clear how unpalatable the type of bad curation that simply places rhyming geometric shapes next to one another is to him. In the essay’s last line, however, he imagines the potential of audacious comparisons if their scholarly correctness can be grounded in evidence: a case of pseudomorphism that turns out not to be pseudo after all “could be the occasion of a redistribution of the art-historical cards… the only really interesting part of the game in which we are all so passionately participating” (149). Unusual for an academic article, Bois shares several first-person accounts of visits to museums, describing the “pseudomorphic frisson” when an object suddenly triggers the thought of another (134). Over the course of the essay, then, we get two Boises: the scrupulous expert, who applies honed skills to diffuse his excited rush, and the impassioned gambler, who could, speculatively, revolutionize the discipline. The goal here is not to dismantle Bois’s argument, but to point out that these are the two personas rigorous academic training conditions us to alternate between. The erudite, disaffected scholar both relies on and restrains the art lover’s refined instinct, afraid it may tip into folly.

To summarize, pseudomorphism haunts comparison, one of art history’s most common tools. The ongoing search for global methods raises the political stakes of this seemingly formalist issue. In a “Questionnaire on Global Methods,” published in October, Finbarr Barry Flood cautions against the juxtaposition of contemporaneous artworks from different geographic contexts: “at its most reductive, such comparison risks producing a series of pseudomorphisms that erase the particularities of culture, history, language, and politics.”5 But it is also possible to imagine comparisons in which sensitivity to difference, even in a situation of likeness, is heightened rather than erased. Instead of a conflation, doubleness would be recognized and tarried with. In addition, pseudomorphism and comparison are not necessarily the same: Bois’s frisson of likeness is, foremost, a function of involuntary memory, jolting an image into presence that had been intermittently buried by time and experience; pseudomorphism here can be recognized as an uncontrollable mechanism of the psyche. Flood worries about authoritative moments when such flashbacks harden into reductive visual arguments or a methodology.

Given that globalization paradoxically both expands and standardizes the pool of images, pseudomorphism has the potential to accompany visual memory with ever greater intensity and frequency. The term convergence, which has been cropping up in studies of global modernism and contemporary art, signals the emergence of formal similarities in different geographical contexts, responding to transregional or transnational forces.6 In an article on Gutai (which translates to concrete) in Japan and Neo-Concretism in Brazil, Pedro Erber claims that these two movements converged as local responses to the “politics of abstraction that framed the transnational discourse on painting throughout the 1950s.”7 Erber, like others, forfeits critical reflection on his terminology, leaving the connection between convergence and biology unacknowledged. “Convergent evolution” refers to the development of a similar part, organ, or trait, called an “analogue,” in two organisms whose most recent common ancestor does not share the same feature. Panofsky’s 1964 definition of pseudomorphism draws on the same vocabulary as this evolutionary theory: “The emergence of a form A, morphologically analogous to, or even identical with, a form B, yet entirely unrelated to it from a genetic point of view [emphasis added].”8 Cultural convergence and pseudomorphism are thus two sides of the same coin, both referring to the emergence of formal similarities.9 But while the latter is a scientific no-go, assuming visual evidence to be deceptive, the former makes for an acceptable academic argument that is based on the recognition of larger socio-historical forces. Taken together or pitted against each other, pseudomorphism and convergence allow us to consider the psychological processes that underpin scholarly reasoning and rhetorics: which similarities count as wrong or right for what reasons? How does scholarly protocol establish control over involuntary flashes of recognition, based on the very mental data banks of images that designate art historical erudition?

The fourth issue of re:visions engages with troubling instances of visual likeness. Hadley Newton’s point of departure is the coincidence of This is Tomorrow and Exposição nacional de arte concreta in the historic year 1956, which saw the Suez Crisis, Hungarian Revolution, and start of Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency. At the exhibitions, works by Lygia Clark and Richard Hamilton destabilized figure-ground relations, not within the picture frame like Picasso’s early collages, but of the surrounding environments encapsulating the viewer. By tracing the branching genealogy of Gestalt Theory from Austria towards Brazil and England, Newton shows that these almost simultaneous experiences of aesthetic vertigo in São Paulo and London share a common source in the field of psychology. Ultimately, though, by paying close attention to local politics in each country, she argues that Hamilton and Clark mobilized figure-ground reversals to different forms of perceptual and political emancipation. Newton’s inquiry also complicates the intuitive notion of similarity: the memory recall of pseudomorphism is triggered not just by similar shapes, colors, and iconography, but also by perceptual tricks or visual structures in otherwise dissimilar artworks.

A preoccupation with the emergence of similarity also runs through Johannes Sange’s contribution, “Porträts und die Entbehrlichkeit von Ähnlichkeit” (Portraits and the Expendability of Likeness), which considers how and when likeness comes into recognition. Drawing on the work of philosopher Nelson Goodman, according to whom “denotation,” the capacity of a symbol to represent something other than itself, is decisive for the recognizability of a portrait, Sange analyzes Picasso’s painting of Getrude Stein as well as a photograph by Man Ray, which shows Stein in front of the portrait and thereby throws into relief as well as mediates the difference between sitter and representation. He concludes that the recognition of likeness is based on highly subjective habits of seeing, shaped by history and social context.

In their essay “Digital Doppelgängers,” Leander Gussmann and Alexandra Samoylova explore pseudomorphism as a digital method, which could “significantly enhance art history and visual culture studies were it adapted into digital archival research.” They describe how Content-Based Image Retrieval (CBIR) and other technologies can be used to analyze images based on formal qualities detached from linguistic signifiers, such as colors, textures, and shapes. Gussmann and Samoylova acknowledge the limitations and biases of computational methods, but conclude that these digital tools can be combined with art historical inquiry to benefit research. 

Continuing the computational recognition of likeness, Kathrin Rollmann’s essay “Jenseits der Oberfläche” (Beyond the Surface) charts the relationship between Artificial Intelligence and art through the work of Mario Klingemann. She emphasizes that AI-art is not merely the automatic reproduction of styles, but a form of conceptual art whose potential lies in the manipulation of data. Recalling a core aim of conceptual art, Rollmann emphasizes idea and process over final product, and calls for the development of a nuanced critical  approach to recognize the potentials of this medium.

Cautioned against by art historians, pseudomorphism nonetheless proliferates in artistic practice. Artists often work associatively, bringing things together for compositional resonance or to suggest unexpected connections. This issue’s questionnaire gives space to artists, writers, and curators to consider creative approaches to the juxtaposition of images and forms. Rather than focusing on the objects of comparison themselves, dwelling on the split or gap between them may open a space of non-identity.

Tobias Rosen & Luise Mörke

New York, February 2024

[1] Yve-Alain Bois reconstructs the genealogy and shifting meanings of the term pseudomorphism: first used in the field of mineralogy to describe a mineral that takes on the external form of a different substance or mineral (eg. the quartz crystal taking on the appearance of wood in petrified wood), the term was taken up by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West for historical interpretation, and later introduced to art history by Erwin Panofsky. Panofsky’s first use of pseudomorphism is in his 1939 book Studies in Iconology [(New York: Icon Editions, 1972), 70-71] where it refers to the appearance of anachronistic formal features that become imbued with a different meaning. 25 years later, in Tomb sculpture: four lectures on its changing aspects from ancient Egypt to Bernini (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1964), he returns to the term (pp. 26-27), which by then signifies the appearance of similarities in apparently unrelated artworks.
[2] Pamela M. Lee, Think Tank Aesthetics: Midcentury Modernism, the Cold War, and the Neoliberal Present (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), 93.
[3] Tomáš Pospiszyl, “Pollock in Czechoslovakia," (presentation, Linking (Art) Worlds: American Art and Eastern Europe from the Cold War to the Present, Budapest, Hungary, 13-17 September 2022).
[4] Yve-Alain Bois, “On the Uses and Abuses of Look-alikes,” October 154 (Fall 2015), 127-149.
[5] Finbarr Barry Flood, “A Questionnaire on Global Methods,” eds. George Eliot and David Joselit, October 180 (Spring 2022), 29.
[6] In cultural anthropology, “cultural convergence theories” designate “[a] broad category of theories about globalization that emphasize increasing cross-border alignments of material culture, cultural norms, power relations, and/or social processes. Varieties of convergence theories focus on the effects of industrial technologies on social organization and economic lives; the alignment of worldwide consumer preferences and corporate practices along principles found in the fast-food industry (‘McDonaldization’); the imposition of dominant cultures and socio-political forms over less powerful societies (‘cultural imperialism’); and the creation of a common world culture.” Oxford Dictionary of Cultural Anthropology, ed. Luis A. Vivanco (Oxford University Press, 2018), https://www-oxfordreference-com.ezproxy.princeton.edu/view/10.1093/acref/9780191836688.001.0001/acref-9780191836688-e-66.
[7] Pedro Erber, “Gutai and Brazilian Concrete Art,” Gutai: Splendid Modernisms, eds. Ming Tiampo and Alexandra Munroe (New York: Guggenheim, 2013), 274. We would like to thank Nicole-Ann Lobo for pointing out this source.
[8] Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture, 26-27.
[9] Irene V. Small directed our attention to the relation between convergence and pseudomorphism in her seminar “The Global Contemporary,” taught at Princeton University in Spring 2024.

Contributions by
Fionn Adamian
Sammy Baloji
Flora Brandl
Janne Ellhöft
Leander Gussmann
Andrea Khôra
Martina Kutsch
Basim Magdy
Hadley Newton
LJ Rader
Irving Ramó
Katrin Rollmann
Alexandra Samoylova
Johannes Sange
Sila Ulug
Stefanie Unternährer

Hattie Graham
Josefin Granetoft
Carolin Greifenstein
Martina Kutsch
Luise Mörke
Tobias Rosen
Franka Schmuck
Savannah Turner
Stefanie Unternährer
Meryem Özel
Managing editors
Josefin Granetoft
Stefanie Unternährer

Copy Editors
Sabrina Blembel
Corey Ratch
Swantje Pieper
Tobias Rosen
Luise Mörke
Savannah Turner
Meryem Özel
Janna Erdmann

Website and graphic design
Julia Grüßing
Jérémy Landes

Social media
Swantje Pieper

Cover image
Sue de Beer, "Making Out with Myself" (1997), Film still.

Journal der Freien Universität Berlin

Berlin, 2024