Michele Matteini

There is always something ‘static’, ‘still’ associated with form, even in its most provocative formulations.

Form possesses the object, binds it, some would say regulates and disciplines it, assigning it definite boundaries. Form comes out a thick coat of accidents, and these accidents dissipate when form reveals itself. Form seems to become relational, repeatable, when it ceases to be in relation to its own accidents and material constraints. Accidents, movement, matter then become the dominion of those operations that take the destruction of form as their goal: the informe, the entropic, the chaotic. For some time now, I have been thinking about instances in which movement, rather than destroying or destabilizing, actually structures form. Can form exist as movement within the object? And what would a theory of form in kinetic terms entail?

For Aby Warburg, the greatest seismographer of art, form exists in movement. The nymph strides, turns, her drapery draws sinuous arabesques in a precarious balance between figuring and disfiguring. The nymph fluctuates in the world of the image, but her movement extends from image to image, medium to medium, discipline to discipline. The image’s survival depends on its capacity to move. When the nymph stops, she collapses upon herself. The fallen nymph, the ninfa moderna described by Georges Didi-Huberman, is a formless lump, an amorphous stock of debris. Art history collides against the brute materiality of the fallen nymph, her formlessness, revealing the limits of its intellectual foundations. If the object loses form so does the art historian’s analytical apparatus. Warburg’s poetics of movement is a powerful, liberating proposition. Art history becomes an inexhaustible quest for the nymph across time and space; her movement coincides with our ability to evade static historical, semantic, and disciplinary vantage points. I am constantly drawn to this idea of artworks existing in a perpetual state of vacillation, on the brink of dissolution. Form is in movement, and movement enables form, but movement has no form in itself.

Detail Huang Gongwang mountain edges
Huang Gongwang, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains [DETAIL], 1347-1350, Handscroll, National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Warburg’s eye is anchored on the painting’s surface: form and composition are as intimately linked as anti-composition and the formless. Again, a tension is set up between what confers stability and what deprives it. But there is a difference between form-in-movement and form-as-movement. In some modes of Chinese painting, my area of specialization, painting is essentially about painting, in the present continuous tense. Process takes over the image, and composition is contingent upon execution. By making process visible, painting never settles into a definite, ‘complete’ form, but can be endlessly reenacted. If painting has no end, it has a beginning, in the instant the brush tip first hits the surface. That initial stroke has a shape, a thickness, an orientation. It has a low degree of individuation; it is form in a state of potentiality that is actualized only in combination with other strokes. Brushwork, the disciplined layering of strokes around and above the initial strokes, gives substance and appearance to objects, over time. That first stroke is the trace of a movement, and movement’s initiator. Movement here is not the unregulated, unpredictable outgrowth of accidents; it is a movement from within that structures the painting’s own becoming. That first stroke is the source of the entire painting, a form that exists as movement, and a movement that in matter finds its form.


Michele Matteini thinks and writes about Chinese art history, with a special focus on eighteenth and nineteenth-century painting. He has written on antiquarianism, stone collecting, Buddhist mummies, and paintings on desiccated leaves. He is currently at work on a manuscript that reconstructs the artistic practice of Luo Ping and the scholarly circles of Beijing at the end of the eighteenth century. Michele Matteini [Department of Art History, New York University/Institute of Fine Arts,]