Bewegtes Beiwerk, Nachleben, and shi 勢 (energy)

Bewegtes Beiwerk, a term coined by Aby Warburg in his dissertation on Botticelli’s (1445–1510) Spring and Birth of Venus in 1891, refers to portrayals of certain moving accessories like draperies and wind-swept hair. He studied these as an expression of inner energy, animation, and lifelikeness. Botticelli, as Warburg showed, found the models for such forms in ancient Graeco-Roman sculpture and reliefs and the idea of the renewal of classical elements and concepts had interested the art historian since then. The Mnemosyne Atlas (1927–29) can be understood as the Warburg’s final attempt to investigate the “Leben” and “Nachleben” of artworks from various periods.

The revival of certain elements such as bewegtes Beiwerk was certainly due to the “period of discovery” that Botticelli witnessed in the early Renaissance. In this period, the circulation and migration of human beings, artworks, and knowledge started to become a part of daily life. Something similar, one might add, occurred in the sixteenth century; at this time, the Portuguese merchants and, shortly after, the Jesuits arrived in China. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, new painting techniques, innovative compositions, new types of subject matter and renewed philosophical and scientific interests and thoughts emerged. Interest in creating new techniques and new terms in painting and aesthetics can be understood as a response to Western art. As James Cahill has insightfully pointed out, encountering Western art forced Chinese painters “to confront fundamental issues in the native tradition, and particularly to become aware of the highly conventionalized character of traditional Chinese painting, of the qualities in which it excelled but also those it lacked or devalued.” (Cahill 1982: 71)

Mei Qing梅清 (1623–1697). The Tiandu Peak of Huangshan Mountains 黃山天都峰. Hanging scroll, undated, ink on paper, 184.2 × 48.5 cm, Beijing Palace Museum

In Chinese art, the term shi is comparable to bewegtes Beiwerk. Its connotations vary with respect to position, posture, composition and also to inspiration, power and energy. By using techniques such as cun brushwork and shade and light effects, shi can be observed, for example, in Mei Qing’s 梅清 (1623–1697)  depiction of mountains in his The Tiandu Peak of Huangshan Mountains 黃山天都峰 (Fig.). The representation of shi provides rhythmic patterns and gives movement to the mountains.

In the seventeenth century the term shi was revived in painting techniques as well as in aesthetics. Shi was firstly used in texts on politics and military strategies meaning position, power, and energy in ancient China. Its first use in aesthetic contexts is in calligraphy treatises during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220). A core idea behind is that shi is considered to be connected with qi (vital force) of all things in nature or Universe, as shi derives from yin and yang movement from nature. It is reinforced and developed in literature, aesthetics, and Daoist writings on feng shui 風水 (geomancy) referring to configurational force from the third to sixth century. In Zang shu 葬書 (Book of Burial), a Daoist writing on feng shui attributed to Guo Pu 郭璞 (276–324) it reads: “The shi of the earth originates from vein. The shi of the mountains originates from bone. It snakes either west to east or north to south. 地勢原脈, 山勢原骨, 委蛇東西, 或為南北.” After the Song dynasty (960–1279) however hardly any extensive discussion of the term shi can be found in aesthetic writings. It was forgotten.

The revival of shi in paintings and aesthetics in the seventeenth century is also related to the highly developed geomancy and Daoist internal alchemy in the late Ming (1368–1644). The geomantic manual book Dili renzi xuzhi 地理人子須知 (What people must know about geomancy) with about fifty volumes from the sixteenth century had spread widely; it was remarkably popular not only in China but also in Korea and Vietnam. Numerous writings on Daoist internal alchemy including yangsheng 養生 (nurturing life and longevity techniques)—manuals on shi (posture and movement) in martial arts, for example, are omnipresent among those used by every social group in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries China.

It can be assumed that Chinese painters made use of Daoist and geomantic texts in combination with Western light-and-dark techniques—including the much-stressed brush strokes and reinvented shi in a new cultural and social context. Considering both shi and bewegtes Beiwerk with respect to Botticelli’s painting reveals not only the coming of a new era addressing pictorial naturalism. It also reveals a dynamically changed world with new associations and implications due to re-contextualization. In other words, with respect to the Nachleben of shi, issues such as temporal (in-)continuity or iconographical and historical development are not the only aspects that should be taken into consideration; more importantly, one has to bear in mind the mutable philological and cultural associations in renewed historical and social contexts. To this point, Didi-Huberman has elaborated insightfully as follows:

“It is completely foolish, though often enough done, to see Warburg as someone whose sole concern was the discovery of historical “facts” and iconographic “contents,” a so-called antiformalist incapable of distinguishing between a mass-produced image and a unique masterpiece. What he attempted, rather, as his final project, the Mnemosyne Atlas, clearly attests, was to reformulate the problem of style, that problem of linkages and formal efficacy, by always joining the philological study of the singular case with the anthropological approach to the relationships that render these singularities historically and culturally viable.” (Didi-Huberman, 2017: 24)

Cite this blog post
nyao (2021, November 22). Bewegtes Beiwerk, Nachleben, and shi 勢 (energy). BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

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