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HomeThe visionary drawing and its knowledge: artists’ diagrams

The visionary drawing and its knowledge: artists’ diagrams

Le dessin visionnaire et ses savoirs : diagrammes d’artistes

Die visionäre Zeichnung und ihr Wissen: Künstlerdiagramme

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Published on Wednesday, July 19, 2023


If ever there was a graphic line that carried the desire to visualise the invisible, it is the diagram. This workshop aims to examine the way in which artists used diagrams in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By favouring case studies, it aims to renew the study of artists’ and writers’ diagrams that have already been identified and to bring to light previously unidentified artistic works, in order to understand how they function as images and thought processes, as well as their relationship to the scientific modes of visualisation of their time.


Workshop organised as part of the research programme The visionary drawing and its knowledge. From the study and valorization of the archives of Théophile Bra (University of Strasbourg Institute of Advanced Studies – USIAS).

I made a coffee grinder that I blew up; the powder falls to the side, the gears are on top and the handle is seen simultaneously at several points in its circuit with an arrow to indicate the movement. Without realising it, I had opened a window towards something else. The arrow was an innovation that I really liked, the diagrammatic aspect was interesting from an aesthetic point of view. (Marcel Duchamp, Entretiens avec Pierre Cabanne, Paris, 1967, p. 38-39)

The diagrammatic methods of the “new math” have led to a curious phenomenon. Namely, a more visible math that is unconcerned with size or shape in any metrical sense. The “paper and pencil operations” that deal with the invisible structure of nature have found new models, and have been combined with some of the more fragile states of mind. (Robert Smithson, « Entropy and the New Monument » [1966], in J. Flam (éd.), Robert Smithson. The Collected Writings, University of California Press, 1996, p. 10-23)


If ever there was a graphic line that carried the desire to visualise the invisible, it is the diagram. This workshop aims to examine the way in which artists used diagrams in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. By favouring case studies, it aims to renew the study of artists' and writers' diagrams that have already been identified and to bring to light previously unidentified artistic works, in order to understand how they function as images and thought processes, as well as their relationship to the scientific modes of visualisation of their time.

By its etymology, the Latin diagram-ma – borrowed from the ancient Greek diagraphein (διάγραμμα), from dia (to cross) and graphein (to write) – associates line, inscription and the process of passage. The definition of the diagram is fluctuant, but it usually includes schematic graphic representations that relate abstract data, such as trees (genealogical or historical), celestial or terrestrial cartography, relational lists and tables as well as multidirectional, circular, radial, curved or columnar configurations. As Laurence Dahan-Gaida explains, “although it immediately calls to mind the idea of graphics, the diagram stands out because of its composite nature, which makes it a hybrid of writing and drawing, with cognitive capacities that exceed those of each of these two classes of signs [...], whose more general function is to render thinkable and comprehensible something that cannot be spoken of through verbal representation” (Dahan-Gaida 2023, p. 12). This is how most diagrams relate elements of image, text and sometimes numerical data in a two-dimensional space. They bring together the dissimilar or the diachronic in a topological and synchronous way (Bender/Marrinan 2010). In the medieval context, Madeline H. Caviness compares cosmic and religious diagrams to a “third way of seeing”, between the bodily eye and spiritual vision, and intervening just before the latter (Caviness 1983). Diagrams also have a mnemonic and didactic function (Schmitt 1989 and 2019, Norman 2006, Müller 2008). From the Renaissance onwards, technical and functional diagrams appeared for scientific purposes. They were increasingly used to visually organise geographical, economic, social and political data, as in the case of statistics (Gormans 2000). The development of prints, followed by the press in the nineteenth century, intensified the circulation of a truly modern graphic method, which facilitated its reception by artists (Schneider 2014). Intended to reduce the gap between the visible on the one hand, and scales, forces or invisible evolutions on the other, the scientific diagram seems to be driven by the desire to master the acceleration and accumulation of knowledge, and to respond to the uncertainty and anxiety caused by chaos and change. The order suggested by diagrams is therefore often rooted in a certain vision of the world and of society, whether it establishes hierarchies, as is often the case with tree diagrams, or treats data in a more egalitarian way, as in circle or rhizome diagrams (Poggenpohl/Winckler 1992). However, with the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, the apparent immobility of the diagram was challenged by its ability to stimulate ideas. The belief emerged that it was an “epistemic thing” rather than a simple illustration (Rheinberger 2001). By making them a subclass of icons, Peirce is interested in their relationship of similarity and analogy with their object of reference, as well as their pictorial dimension, while at the same time recognising them as a medium of thought capable of participating both in the acquisition and production of knowledge. Peirce insists on the relational dimension of the diagram, whether it concerns objects, concepts or ideas, or even different fields of knowledge, a dimension that requires experimental and operative manipulation and interpretation of the figures, captions, symbols, numbers, points, lines or arrows that it brings together (Dahan-Gaida 2023, Krämer 2009). The diagram thus involves both its configuration by the designer and its reconfiguration by its audience, the deduction of its functional rules as much as an ability to unravel its mysteries (Stjernfeld 2007). For this reason, from the perspective of an epistemology of science, Gilles Châtelet sees diagrams as “multipliers of virtualities” and “producers of ambiguity” capable of condensing and amplifying an intuition in a way that links past and future (Châtelet 1993, Saint-Ours 2004). Châtelet also emphasises the fact that they are rooted in the gesture of tracing, which renews the links between practice, theoretical activity and semantic-poetic reactivation. On these premises, the interest in the study of diagrams joins that in visual creativity in the practice of science (Galison/Jones 1998, Daston/Galison 2012). It is reinforced within the pictorial and iconic turns that aim to dethrone logocentricity in favour of a recognition of how images work (Mitchell 1994, Böhm 1994 and 2010) and of the role played in them by the “thinking hand” (Bredekamp 2007). This interest is so widespread that in 2002 Steffen and Felix Thürlemann called for a diagrammatical turn (Bogen/Thürlemann 2002), which opens the way to a rich range of reflections (e.g. Stjernfeld 2007, Bauer/Ernst 2010, Krämer 2009, 2012 and 2016). The idea of a “diagrammatology” has led to the use of this prism to interpret images or texts that do not at first glance appear to be diagrams (Bogen 2005, Dahan-Gaida 2023). It should be remembered that in Logique de la sensation, Gilles Deleuze had already envisaged as a diagram the “marks” (dashes-lines, spots-colours) affecting Francis Bacon's figurative image, and whose function was “to provoke disorder and chaos by destroying an already existing significant regime” while generating a new “capture of forces” (Dahan-Gaida 2023, p. 53). The questions raised by this extension of thinking about the diagram are likely to feed into the workshop discussions. We suggest, however, that the speakers place an examination of the diagrams drawn by artists and writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at the centre of their presentations before turning to the possibility of a generic diagrammatisation of the arts. For example, we might look at the way in which artists interact with the vast amount of religious and scientific diagrams, both Western and non-Western, in order to examine their similarities and differences. On the one hand, diagrams introduce creativity and aesthetics into scientific practices (Baigrie 1996). On the other, their display puts the intangible realities they evoke to the test of the image. This is why, as Brian Rotman points out, diagrams have always seemed suspect, both to scientists because of their formal inadequacy and their openness to subjective interpretation, and to humanists because of their kinship with science and its belief in universal truth (Rotman 1999). How did artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries deal with this tension? This is one of the questions we would like to address during this workshop.

In art history, scientific diagrams have been studied from an aesthetic perspective, for example by examining the differences between their drawn and printed forms (Bredekamp 2022). Researchers have also taken a keen interest in art historical diagrams, of which the cover of Alfred Barr's Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) or Aby Warburg's Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (1828-1829) have become paradigmatic examples (Maldonado 2006, Schmidt-Burkhardt 2012, Cortjaens/Heck 2014, Fontán del Junco 2019). These studies have also uncovered the participation of artists in the visualisation of artistic genealogies, particularly in Italian Futurism (Hanson 1983) and Russian Constructivism (Hemken 1991), among American artists (e.g. Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell), within the SPUR and CoBrA groups (Birtwistle 1994). Finally, the diagrammatic techniques used by artists and writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been identified and analysed (see the anthology of examples in Caraës/Marchand-Zañartu 2011 and Marchand-Zañartu/Lauxerois 2020). Without being exhaustive, we might mention Walter Crane (Brockington 2013), Rudolf Steiner (Schweigler 1941, Scotti/Kugler 2011), Paul Klee (Rehm 2017, Rottmann 20202), Vassily Kandinsky (Leonhard 2005) or, more broadly, the Bauhaus (Troels 1974, Fer 1993, Gough 2005, Rohde 2020) in the context of teaching. From this perspective, several studies have highlighted the participation of artists in the graphic visualisation of data, such as Otto Neurath's collaboration with Gerd Arntz (Hartmann/Bauer 2003) or El Lissitzky and Hans Arp's Les ismes dans l'art (Schmidt-Burkhardt 2005). The context of the technical drawing has also led to an assessment of its role in the lists and genealogies of Surrealism (Werner 2002) and in Dada diagrams (Nesbit 1991, Joselit 2005, Bogen 2006, Wild 2015, Wildgen 2015). Their importance in the American context has been highlighted (Shiff 2005, Buchloh 2006) and some of their occurrences studied in Pop Art (Buchloh 1989, Vogt 2008, Gilbertson 2009), the Fluxus movement (Harren 2008, Bardiot 2006, Schmidt-Burkhardt 2003, 2012, 2013), minimal, conceptual and serial art (Geelhaar 1980, Holert 2012, Buchloh 2013, Rottmann 20201). These latter examples show that the diagram is part of an emancipation from figuration, an extension of the field of art - we are also thinking of its role in Situationist International – and even the phenomenon of the dematerialisation of art theorised by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler (Harren 2008). However, artists' diagrams also have a material dimension, resulting from their inscription on a medium, be it paper. This is particularly noticeable when gestural subjectivity manifests itself, as in the diagrams of self-taught artists known as “outsider” (e.g. “Hétérotopies scientifiques”, in Decharme/Safarova 2014 and Barbara 2021). Furthermore, artists' diagrams often combine abstraction and figuration, as is the case in Pop Art in contrast to serial, conceptual and early attempts at computer art (Rottmann 20201 and 2021). These tensions in artists' diagrams adds to the question of a shared truth by art and science. These tensions in artists' diagrams are similar to the tensions between art and science. Oscillating between the artist's withdrawal from the data and subjective reappropriation, they continue to question the visionary faculties of drawing in modernity, as was explicitly the case, for example, with Théophile Bra, Walter Russell, Hilma af Klint, Emma Kunz and Joseph Beuys (Harlan/Zumdick 2020). All in all, as Max Holert argues, “the question of why and how more and more forms of representation were used and put into circulation that may have looked like highly useful images, but as a rule merely suggested functionality, surrounded it with scepticism and irony, and even criticised it, can only be answered on a case-by-case basis” (Holert 2012, p. 141, see also “Der Witz im Diagramm”, in Schmidt-Burkhardt 2012, pp. 293-302). In other words, if “the space of freedom that the diagram leaves for reception is an indicator of the room for manoeuvre that a culture tries to take advantage of in the world” (Bogen 2011, p. 233), what is the space that artists' diagrams provide?

To address these questions, the proposals will focus on the works of nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists and writers, in order to encourage discussion of the archaeology of the artistic use of diagrams prior to the 1980s, when the revolution in computer-generated digital diagrams reached a crescendo.

Submission guidelines

Workshop scheduled for the 6th and 7th of June 2024 at the University of Strasbourg.

Languages: French, English.

Proposals for papers, including a title, a presentation of approximately 3,000 characters with spaces and a biographical note of approximately 1,000 characters with spaces, should be sent to the following address: dessin.visionnaire.usias@gmail.com

before the 31st of December 2023.

The selected speakers will be asked to provide a synopsis of their presentation by the end of April. A publication compiling the programme's three workshops – “Portraits and Faces” (19-20 Oct. 2023), “Orients” (7-8 December) and “Artists' Diagrams” (6-7 June 2024) – will be prepared once they have been held.

Scientific committee

  • Laurence Dahan-Gaida, professor of comparative literature, University of Franche-Comté, director of the Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires et Transculturelles and of the journal Epistémocritique.
  • Hugo Daniel, head of the École des Modernités, curatorial officer, Fondation Giacometti.
  • Marine Pagès, artist and teacher, École européenne supérieure de l’image, Poitiers.
  • Julie Ramos, professor of contemporary art history, University of Strasbourg, USIAS fellow.
  • Michael Rottmann, Postdoctoral candidate in the ERC-Project COSE at the Institut für Kunst- und Baugeschichte (IKB) at the Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT).


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Barbara J.-G. 2021 : Art brut et science. L’utopie cybernétique de Jean Perdrizet, Éditions Hermann.

Bardiot C. 2006 : « The diagrams of 9 evenings », in Morris C. (éd.), 9 evenings reconsidered : art, theater and engineering, 1966, MIT List Visual arts center, p. 45-53.

Bauer M./Ernst C. 2010 (dir.) : Diagrammatik. Einführung in ein kultur- und medienwissenschaftliches Forschungsfeld, transcript Verlag.

Bender J./Marrinan M. 2020 : The Culture of Diagram, Stanford University Press.

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Gormans A. 2000 : « Imaginationen des Unsichtbaren. Zur Gattungstheorie des wissenschaftlichen Diagramms », in Holländer H. (dir.), Erkenntnis, Erfindung, Konstruktion. Studien zur Bildgeschichte von Naturwissenschaften und Technik vom 16. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert, Gebr. Mann Verlag, p. 51-71.

Gough M. 2005 : The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructionism in Revolution, University of California Press.

Hanson A. C. 1983 : The Futurist Imagination. Word + Image in Italian Futurist Painting, Drawing, Collage and Free-Word Poetry, cat. exp. Yale University Art Gallery.

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Holert T. 2012 : « “A fine flair for the diagram”. Wissensorganisation und Diagramm-Form in der Kunst der 1960er Jahre: Mel Bochner, Robert Smithson, Arakawa », in Leeb (dir.), Materialität der Diagramme. Kunst und Theorie, b.books, coll. « PoLYpeN », p. 135-178.

Joselit D. 2005, « Dada’s Diagrams », in Dickerman L. et al. (dir.) The Dada Seminar, Center for Advanced Study in Visula Arts, National Gallery Of Art, p. 221-239. 

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Wild J. 2015 : « Apollinaire’s Aura. Picabia, the Diagram, and Early Film Stardom » et « Duchamp’s Diagrams: Film, Spectator, Star, in The Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900-1923, University of California Press, p. 62-101 et 104-134.

Wildgen W. 2015 : « Sculpture, Diagram, and Language in the Artwork of Joseph Beuys », in Bundgaard P. et Stjernfelt F. (dir.), Investigations Into the Phenomenology and the Ontology of the Work of Art. Contributions To Phenomenology, vol. 81, p. 243-257.


  • Strasbourg, France (67)


  • Sunday, December 31, 2023


  • art, diagramme, représentation, sciences, visuel, invisible


  • Julie Ramos
    courriel : j [dot] ramos [at] unistra [dot] fr

Information source

  • Julie Ramos
    courriel : j [dot] ramos [at] unistra [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

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« The visionary drawing and its knowledge: artists’ diagrams », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, July 19, 2023, https://doi.org/10.58079/1blm

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