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International Conference // Unseeing the Evil Eye: Powers and Politics of the Apotropaic



29.11.2023 um 00:00 bis
30.11.2023 um 00:00


Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Katharina-von-Bora-Str. 10, München, Vortragssaal 242, II. OG | Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, Gabelsbergerstraße 35, 80333 München

Termin übernehmen

Since the nineteenth century, the ghost of apotropaism has haunted the humanities. Coined by classicist Otto Jahn (1813–1869), the term quickly gained traction in historical scholarship denoting all actions or objects conceived as provocative, obscene, and therefore offensive to the sensibilities of the time. Depictions of threatening animals, glaring faces and disembodied eyes, exposed genitalia and arcane symbols found throughout history, according to Jahn, served as protective devices warding off evil by mirroring its appearance. Patterns of “irrational” behavior in this reading transcend culture and history linking past artistic phenomena with present “superstitions,” especially those belonging to non-Western cultures. In art history, the apotropaic continues to be evoked for the uncommon, whenever visual and textual evidence seems insufficient, or it undergirds ambitious theories on art’s efficacy. Museums commonly situate the apotropaic within everyday culture, while art institutions shun the anonymous and uncommon in favor of artist genealogies and iconographic themes. With recent attention to our discipline’s colonialist stakes and a push towards cultural and methodological diversification, the evil eye is due for a critical review.
This two-day international conference explores the relationship between contentious materials and anxious historians, and gauges the apotropaic’s potential for recuperating marginalized voices. Its approach is two-fold: on the one hand, speakers center the term’s nineteenth-century historiographic and museum legacies, its colonialist and primitivist attitudes, as well as the moral politics that sustain its use up to the present; on the other, they examine the term’s stakes within current methodological and critical debates across the humanities. Diachronic and interdisciplinary in nature, the conference traces the apotropaic from its scholarly “invention” to its prehistoric origins and classic motifs in ancient art, through medieval and early modern magic and back to its impact on modern and contemporary art, as well as on museum practices and ethics today.
With its long history of pooling non-canonical art and non-normative experiences, the apotropaic is emblematic of scholarly erasure and rich in lessons to learn; and yet its uncompromising embrace of the so-called material misfits of history and its commitment to fostering emotional community across times and cultures warrant further attention.

ORGANIZED BY | Dr. Felix Jäger (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Asst. Prof. Dr. Miriam Said (Tufts University)

[Caption: Mask, painted iron, 17th–18th century, London, Tower of London, obj. no. XVIII.39, © Royal Armouries]


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