Herbert L. Kessler, Shira Brisman, Davide Stimilli, and Angelos Chaniotis on “From Kairos to Occasio through Fortuna. Text / Image / Afterlife” by Barbara Baert

Herbert L. Kessler
Professor Emeritus, History of Art, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

“As the title itself indicates, Barbara Baert’s From Kairos to Occasio through Fortuna moves. Beginning with the Mantuan grisaille painting of Occasio and Poenitentia in Andrea Mantegna’s style, which Aby Warburg included in his seminal Mnemosyne Atlas, the analysis transgresses the limits of art history to reveal how, together, artistic visualization and the writing about it enact imagery’s fundamental significances. Subtitling her study Text / Image / Afterlife. On the Antique Critical Moment, a Grisaille in Mantua (School of Mantegna, 1495–1510), and the Fortunes of Aby Warburg (1866–1929), the author puts pressure on works of art from a range of cultures and times including classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, Renaissance Italy and Germany; and, never coming to rest, she pendulums between time and materiality, text and image, transparency and petrification, object and historiography. Baert energizes her surprising intellectual moves through a sensibility to language that is an integral aspect of the persuasiveness of her arguments. She is a poet. At a time of intellectual chaos in the field, she is also a scientist. Baert’s profound knowledge of art, texts, history, and theory provides, simultaneously, a radical reading of a paradigmatic Renaissance painting and a paradigm for a new and productive art history. The book is an occasion.”

Shira Brisman
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

“This is a captivating book, both timely and timeless. Through a deep engagement with the iconological methods and writings of Aby Warburg, Baert fixes our gaze on an Italian Renaissance fresco of Kairos—the personification of a critical moment for an opportunity to be seized. Tracking her form from ancient Greece and the attributes that adhere to her along the way, Baert reveals through vivid writing the manipulation of Kairos’s image over time, arriving in the hands of early modern merchant men who believed they could mold their own fates and grasp the occasion for good luck. Along the way we are treated to studies of the wild fecundity of hair, the turbulence of the sea, the expectancy of grisaille images waiting to burst into color, and the legacy of Warburg’s belief in a future for art history brought about by the winds of change.”

Davide Stimilli
University of Colorado, Boulder

“Like the three deities that adorn the title and the pages of her lavishly illustrated book, Barbara Baert performs effortlessly in From Kairos to Occasio through Fortuna a virtuoso balancing act of erudition, connoisseurship, and exegesis. It is a feat of scholarship and an interpretive tour de force, which accomplishes seamlessly what it sets out to do and much more: to situate the Mantegnaesque grisaille of the Occasio, which is ostensibly the subject of the book, in the continuum of an iconographic tradition that goes back to classical antiquity, and to show its importance in the development of Aby Warburg’s methodology. In the process, she makes a strong case for the centrality of that striking image in that tradition and of that methodology in the development of a future art history. It is a treasure trove of ideas and images, but also a book to be treasured for its sheer beauty and lightness of foot and touch.”

Angelos Chaniotis
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

“What determines people’s lives and the course of history? For millennia intellectuals and people in general have been asking this question and seeking to find an answer in factors ranging from destiny, fate, the laws of nature, and the unpredictable actions of supernatural forces, to a divine plan, chance, and human free will. Written by one of the world’s leading experts in art history, this richly illustrated book explores the development and visual representation of the interrelated concepts of opportunity, chance, and fortune from Greek Antiquity, through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and beyond. Barbara Baert has written an authoritative and fascinating account of how complex abstract ideas were personified, deified, and visualized.”

From Kairos to Occasio through Fortuna
Text / Image / Afterlife

On the Antique Critical Moment, a Grisaille in Mantua (School of Mantegna, 1495-1510), and the Fortunes of Aby Warburg (1866-1929)
By Barbara Baert

Scheduled for Summer 2021
More Info

The author discusses the Mantuan fresco’s key position in the iconographic Nachleben of the Kairos/Occasio figure, and the way the theme was accustomed in the Quattrocento and the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

The ancient Greeks had a name for the joy as well as the sorrow of an occasion that suddenly presents itself, but disappears just as swiftly: kairos, or in Latin occasio. Using the Mantua grisaille as starting point and leading motif, Barbara Baert guides us in her own intriguing way through the history of the representation of this figure in art. How did the archaic Greek Kairos model survive in the Quattrocento? Which appearances did Kairos take on along the way and how can we explain his mutations?

The author shows us how the semantic and rhetorical expansion of the concept kairos/occasio brought about gender switches and conflations with other personifications of time and fate. Grasping the lock of hair of Kairos/Occasio, spinning the wheel of fortune of Tyche/Fortuna, acting as the mast of the ship and holding the billowing sails, she steers us through depictions of the motionlessness of the moment throughout history before dropping anchor in the fascinating vocabulary of Aby Warburg. During this journey, she invites us to go offshore looking for a new critical moment that presents itself as a powerful opening of possibilities.

Barbara Baert (1967) is Professor in Medieval Art, Iconology and Historiography at the KU Leuven. Her research involves the methodological space between text and image, the impact of the sensorium in the visual arts, and critical reflection on the art historical discipline. Barbara Baert was honored with the prestigious Francqui Prize for Human Sciences in 2016.