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# Dibutade : the origin of creation

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Call for papers (contributions) for the sixth edition of MuseMedusa

Under the supervision of Servanne Monjour


Regarded as a master figure of the visual arts, Dibutade is the involuntary heroine in the founding myth of painting and drawing; saddened by the imminent departure of her lover (for a long journey or, according to the more dramatic and later versions of the myth, for war), the young Corinthian reportedly drew his profile on a wall, following the outline of his projected shadow. However, it must be recognized that Dibutade benefits from an unconditional but anecdotal presence in most theoretical and critical texts on pictorial art and its related disciplines; precisely, the myth of origins efficiently serves different introductory strategies without being subject to further attention. This primary but limited place probably explains the lack of popularity of a figure of which readers have only a passing knowledge.

If Dibutade never had the aura of famous Muses such as Medusa, Narcissus or Pygmalion, it is perhaps above all because she does not exist… The excerpt from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History – incidentally devoted moreover to sculpture rather than to painting – in which the young woman is mentioned for the very first time, indeed acts as a missing birth certificate:

On painting we now have said enough and more than enough. It is now appropriate to consider modelling or plastic art. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first, in Corinth, to invent the art of making portraits with the same earth which he used in his trade, thanks however to his daughter who, in love with a young man about to depart for a distant journey, traced the shadow of his face as thrown upon the wall by the light of a lamp; the father applied clay to this feature and made it a model that he hardened by fire along with his other articles of his pottery. It is reported that this first model was preserved in the Nymphaeum, until the destruction of Corinth by Mummius. Others claim that the first inventors of plastic arts were Rhoecus and Theodorus, in Samos, long before the expulsion of the Bacchiades from Corinth; and that Demaratus, who was fleeing from this city, and who, in Etruria, gave birth to Tarquin the Elder, King of the Roman People, was accompanied by the modellers Euchir, Diopus and Eugrammus, who were among the first to introduce fine arts to Italy. The invention of Butades would then be to have mixed rubric with clay, or else to have modelled his material with red clay.3

Thus, no Dibutade but a “daughter of Butades”, a potter who is generally regarded as the inventor of the bas-relief created from the profile that his daughter had drawn on the wall. It is not until much later, during the Renaissance, that this invented inventor – to use Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux’s expression – reappears as Dibutade (probably from the distortion of the expression figlia di Butadès used in the treaties of the Renaissance) in a more common form that is now familiar to us, first within treaties devoted to painting, then in minor pictorial or literary works.

Since his late invention from a mistranslated passage (perhaps over-translated on purpose) fromPliny the Elder’s work, the myth of Dibutade has not ceased to be reformulated and reinvested in line with the new stakes of artistic expression. Dibutade thus responds to the need to establish the origins of the arts and media, probably in order to explain what motivates artistic creation. In this way, the young Corinthian has at the same time lent herself to the discourse on drawing, etching, painting, sculpture… and even, more recently, to the discourse on photography of which she would recall the principle of indicial theory, as suggested by Derrida in Memoirs of the Blind1:

Dibutade does not see her lover, either because she turns her back on him, more abiding than an Orpheus, or because he turns his back on her, or again because their gazes cannot cross …: as if watching was forbidden in order to draw, as if one drew only on the condition of not seeing, as if the drawing were a declaration of love destined for or suited to the invisibility of the other, unless it is born from seeing the other withdrawn from sight. Whether Dibutade, her hand sometimes guided by Cupid (a Love who sees and is not blindfolded here) follows the features of a shadow or a silhouette, or whether she draws on the surface of a wall or on a veil, in each case a skiagraphia, this writing of the shade, inaugurates an art of blindness. From the outset, perception belongs to the memory. Dibutade writes, hence she already loves in nostalgia. Detached from the present of perception, fallen from the very thing thus divided, a shadow is a simultaneous memory and Butades’ stick is a staff of the blind.

Providing this surprising archaeology of photography, Derrida ends up dispossessing the young woman of her work, attributing it to Love instead, or more exactly to the caecus amor: art, just as passion, appears to be partly related to blindness. From the beginnings of creation, this need to preserve a trace, to fill an absence or to ward off disappearance, would thus have shaped an irrevocably desirous and nostalgic figure of the artist. This edition of MuseMedusa intends to explore the history and timeliness of the myth of Dibutade in order to challenge the notion of artistic creation. Among the issues and topics that can be addressed, let us in particular mention:

  • The invention of the arts and (the) media. From the outset, the fable of Dibutade reveals the importance of discourse – in particular literary discourse – in the construction of media. How does the discourse on art, and in particular the visual arts, then deal with the question of invention and the origin (of the arts, media, or the work itself)? What is the part of chance – some may say serendipity – in the act of creation?
  • The image of the female artist. Often relegated to the status of a muse, the woman as an artist or author has received belated recognition, evidenced by the misadventures of Dibutade whose myth subsequently became feminist. How was the figure of the female artist or author constructed throughout the course of history? Is the feminine act of creation still associated with topoi (dazzling passion and caecus amor) that, like Dibutade, dispossess her of the status of author or artist?
  • The aesthetics of the profile. Closely associated with the myth of Dibutade, the profile (shape) is part of a long and rich artistic tradition, from cave paintings to the art of the silhouette, which in the 18th century involved a whole new kind of portrait. Associated with the idea of sketching, or even of a rough draft, the profile also describes what remains half revealed, yet also half concealed. How has this aesthetic of the profile manifested itself in the history of literature and the visual arts? What is its timeliness at a time when our digital identity is notably being shaped by our user profiles online?
  • Presence of disappearance. If, as Derrida puts it, Dibutade “already loves in nostalgia”, it is because her gesture of creation is closely tied to loss – to the very idea of the loss and absence of the loved being. Tracing the profile of her lover’s projected shadow in this way, Dibutade initially represents a disappearing, not a presence. Moreover, Derrida speaks of an art of blindness. Finally, we can ask ourselves how this art of blindness operates, and analyse its creative power of absence and disappearance.

Contributions may focus on case studies and particular works as well as historical or comparative perspectives. In French or English (maximum 30 000 signs, including spaces), these contributions must be accompanied by a summary (French and English), key words and a brief bibliographic record. The texts are to be sent to Servanne Monjour and to MuseMedusa before 1er March 2018. Please follow the precise instructions of the drafting guidelines



  1. Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, Paris, Réunion des musées nationaux, 1990, p. 54, [our translation].

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