Formalism & history of art: “Framing the problem”

The initial session of the seminar will focus on the multiple perspectives that have accompanied the concept of style.

Perspective over the notion of style

Author:  Bèatrice Joyeux-Prunel, Nicola Carboni, Université de Genève


Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel

Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel is Full Professor on the new chair in Digital Humanities at the university of Geneva. She studied in France at the university Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, and at the Ecole normale supérieure, in history, philosophy, and social sciences. Agrégation d'histoire in 1999, PhD in history at Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne university (2005), Habilitation 2015 from Sciences Po Paris. From 2007 to 2019 she was Associate Professor (maître de conferences) in modern and contemporary art at the École normale supérieure in Paris (ENS, PSL), where she taught modern and contemporary art history and the digital humanities. Since 2009, Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel has founded and lead Artl@s, an international research group on artistic and visual globalisation. Artl@s publishes digital sources and tools such as BasArt, a global database of exhibition catalogues, and GEOMAP, an interactive cartography of the Parisian art market (1855-1955), and a biographical dictionary of the French Academy in Rome. The aim of Artl@s is to decenter our approach to art history, its so-called centers and peripheries. Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel also leads Postdigital, a research group on contemporary digital cultures launched in 2016. Postdigital gathers scholars, contemporary artists and actors of the digital economy. Since Automn 2019 she has led the Jean Monnet Excellence Center IMAGO, for the study and teaching on visual globalization and European visual convergences, fund by the European Commission. IMAGO is part of a bigger project, VISUAL CONTAGIONS, a project that uses computer vision to trace the global circulation of images in the 20th century. VISUAL CONTAGIONS is fund by the Swiss Research Fund (2021-2024). Joyeux-Prunel’s research and publications encompass the global history of the avant-gardes, the history of visual globalization, the visual culture of petroleum, and the digital turn in the Humanities. Among her publications: with Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Catherine Dossin (ed.), Circulations in the Global History of Art (New York: Routledge, 2015); and a trilogy on the global history of avant-garde art : Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel, Les Avant-gardes artistiques. Une histoire transnationale – Vol. 1: 1848-1918 (Paris: Gallimard, Folio Histoire pocket Series, 2016). Vol.2: 1918-1945 (Paris: Gallimard, Folio Histoire pocket series, 2017) ; and Naissance de l’art contemporain. Une histoire mondiale, 1945-1970 (Paris, CNRS Editions, 2021).

Nicola Carboni

Nicola Carboni is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Geneva. Previously Research Fellow for the Swiss Art Research Infrastructure at the University of Zurich. He completed his PhD in Engineering, on the topic of Knowledge Representation and Visual Heritage, at the CNRS & NTUA where he was also previously appointed Marie Curie Fellow. His research focuses on the conceptualisation and semantic description of tangible/intangible aspects of the heritage. He was awarded a Digital Humanities Fellowship at Villa I Tatti - Harvard University, an Erasmus Mundus MA Scholarship in Digital Library and he holds a B.A. in Heritage Science from the University of Pisa. His interest lies in the multi-interpretation of the spectrum of visual representations, iconography, ontological conceptualisation and linked data.

Computational Formalism: Art History and Machine Learning

Author: Amanda Wasielewski, Stockholm University


This presentation addresses how the computational formalist methods of computer vision and machine learning today mirror or relate to traditional formalist methods in the discipline of art history. For both old and new formalisms, categorization and analysis by style is of paramount importance. In simple terms, style can be defined as the distinctive manner in which an object is made, as identified by certain formal characteristics. This distinctiveness, of course, can only be identified in comparison to other distinctive manners of making, implying that style is a highly relative quality. It is therefore an unstable and slippery foundation upon which to peg the mathematical ‘certainty’ that the use of computational methods often implies. Computational image recognition, sorting, and categorization techniques have increasingly become a part of daily life for many people around the world, whether they are consciously used or more covertly applied. Applications range from the sinister, such as state and commercial surveillance, to the mundane, such as automated photo sorting by mobile phone software. For those who deal with the theory and understanding of images, i.e. art historians and visual theorists, machine learning techniques continue to increase in use and relevance and will likely soon be applied to most major image collections of both art and other visual material in some way. Such techniques have the potential to significantly aid researchers in their work but they are not a panacea for perceived weaknesses in humanistic study, namely the lack of objectivity or dispassionate empiricism.


Amanda Wasielewski is a researcher in Art History at Stockholm University and is currently part of the Metadata Culture project Sharing the Visual Heritage, focusing on the impact of digital tools in art historical scholarship and collections. She is the author of Made in Brooklyn: Artists, Hipsters, Makers, Gentrifiers (Zero, 2018) and From City Space to Cyberspace: Art, Squatting, and Internet Culture in the Netherlands (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), and Computational Formalism: Art History and Machine Learning (MIT Press, under contract). Wasielewski has taught social media and internet studies at the University of Amsterdam, architectural history at the Spitzer School of Architecture, and modern art history at Lehman College in New York.