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The Death of Ophelia: A Case Study of the Implications of Intermedial Artistic Translations for Artistic Research

The death of Ophelia reported by Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet is the theme of several works of art, from Eugène Delacroix's oil painting Ophélie (1843) to Shirin Neshat's film Women Without Men (2009). However, understanding this historical fact through the metaphor of linguistic translation appears highly problematic. This research proposes to address some of the issues arising from the idea that the same meaning is transferred from one work to another and re-encoded into a different medium.

After tracing one of the sources of that metaphor to Baudelaire's theory of correspondences and his reception of Wagner's 'total work of art', a naïve theory of artistic translation will be exposed. It will be argued that this Late Romantic theory is based on three covert assumptions: first, that there is a stable meaning embodied in the work of art independently from criticism; second, that the medium of the work functions as an external container for that meaning and third, that the relationship between work and meaning can be understood in the linear historic progress of medium and genre. Walter Benjamin's early aesthetics will be utilised to criticise what he calls a 'bourgeois theory of language'. In particular, his notion of immanent criticism in The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism (1919), of translatability in The Task of the Translator (1923) and of allegory in The Origin of the German Mourning Drama (1928) will offer the elements of an alternative theory and establish the methodology for the case study.

The works considered will be organised around specific interpretations of the allegory of the death of Ophelia and each group will be studied following nonhierarchical principles. This approach, it will be argued, not only supersedes art historical iconology, but also offers allegory as a general tool through which artistic research can understand the process of language building that art works typically perform.

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