Contextual research: Juhani Pallasmaa – ‘The embodied image’


“One of the greatest paradoxes of contemporary culture is that at a time when the image reigns supreme the very notion of a creative human imagination seems under mounting threat. We no longer appear to know who exactly produces or controls the images which condition our consciousness.
Richard Kearney ‘The Wake of Imagination’, 1994

I placed this quote by Kearney at the top of this post as it outlines Pallasmaa’s motivation and intention in this book to look at different perspective of the image in contemporary culture. It is about the hegemony of the image due to an ‘Unending rainfall of images’ (Italo Calvino) and the nowadays ‘Image addiction‘ (Richard Kearney). According to Pallasmaa the excess of images anywhere, anytime, to anyone alongside a decline of language skills what basically means we are falling back to primal culture of communicating with gestures and images.

Spectacle: -> turning into a society of surveillance and manipulation beyond visual mode See: ‘multi-sensory marketing that manipulates experiences, feelings and desires through sounds, tactile sensations, tastes and smells.’ (See also John Berger ‘Ways of Seeing’)

Images of control and emancipation: Two types of images 1. For political and consumer conditioning => narrows down, confines, weakens the freedom choice and individuality of the subject by focusing and channeling attention and awareness into a forced pattern 2. For emancipatory poetic and artistic images => opens up, fortifies, liberates by strengthening personal imagination, emotion and affect. -> relation of fiction and reality is turning upside down (JG Ballard), ‘task of the writer is to invent reality’

This is the second part of my contextual research on Juhani Pallasmaa, the finish architect. First one was one cinema and architectural images (Schaffeld, 30 Nov 2016). There I was intrigued by the importance of architectural elements, mental images, and the use in cinema. Using architectural imagery to create emotional states in cinema and film. How the space around the subjects are depicted, what kind of architecture is shown, makes a different to the viewer in their embodied experience of the movie – and of paintings as well. As Pallasmaa says “Cinema teaches us how the poetic dimension can be fully integrated with a sense of life.”

In the book ‘The embodied image‘ Pallasmaa looks from a wider angle on images as such. He takes references from philosophy, psychology, art history, and of course architecture arcross the world. Quite a fascinating book that I can read more than once. He explores the different aspects of image, its really in artistic work and its relationship to the emotional response of the viewer.

The architectural image (related to above mentioned essay)

The house as the landscape is a ‘psychic state’ (G. Bachelard).  The ultimate condensations of existential meaning are the images of one’s room and home. The experience of ‘homeness‘ condenses our feelings of self, belonging, security, and meaning. Authentic experiental or mental elements of architecture are confrontations, encounter and acts which project and articulate specific embodied and existential meanings. Our domicile – and “the large cradle” – is the refuge and projection or our body, memory and alienation.

Visual art reality

The thread today is that information is replacing knowledge and the ‘the image precedes the reality it is supposed to represent‘ (R. Kearney). It is not any longer a representation of reality as done since the early days of the Renaissance and oil painting in the 15th and 16th century. The image creates its own reality that at times is more ‘real’ than the existing physical and human world Imagination today. Due to fragmentation of information, increasing speed and short attention span, the consequence is a  simplification of both text and image. ‘The accelerated communication reduces nuances and flattens space of individual imagination.

Once Merleau-Ponty asked “How could the painter or poet express anything other than his encounter with the world?” In visual arts there is a sort of distancing between the reality of making the work and the reality of experiencing it.

Constantin Brancusi said: “Art generates ideas, it doesn’t represent them – which means that a true work of art comes into being intuitively, without preconceived motives, because it is the motive and there can be no accounting for it a priori.”

And Semir Zeki: “Art is an extension of the functions of the visual brain in its search for essentials.” and also “Great artists intensify the imagination of the beholder by intuitively imitating the manner in which the visual cortex constructs images. (‘Inner Vision’)

Pallasmaa continues his investigation with by mentioning that ‘The shift from perceptual to imaginative consciousness determines the character and quality of the work.’

In e.g. painting there are two realities that can go to one or the other extreme: imaginary (the image as such) and reality of matter (paint etc.). If the imaginary overwhelms than the work appears sentimental or kitsch. Its the reality of matter overwhelms than the work tends to appear crude and unarticulated, incapable of evoking a credible imaginary world. His conclusion his that a powerful work always maintains a tension between those two realities.

I found the thought fascinating that the artist ‘must keep her/his role as the creator of the imaginary reality apart from that of the onlooker/reader’s‘. The artistic motifs should not be excessive or overly dramatized, because our ‘imagination will reject them‘ (Jorge Luis Borges ‘The Duel‘)

There is a timeless reality in art. The experiential and emotive reality of the work is re-created in each successive encounter.

J.P. Satre explains once the difference between the reality and the unreality of the artistic image “It is not the Prince of Danmark who becomes real in the actor, but the actor who becomes unreal as the Prince.” (referring to the stage play of Shakespeare’s Hamlet).

Relating visual reality with objects and matter, Pallasmaa cites G.Bachelard “One cannot dream profoundly with objects. To dream profoundly, one must dream with substances.” In this context objects mean form, vocal, geometry and contour.  Matter means color, no boundaries, materials and surfaces used, applied. Here the question is open how the virtual and non-materialized reality impacts us and our encounter with the world, in or dreams, in our emotional response ?

The collaged image:

A collage gives a new context to fragments by layering, juxtaposition of old and new, layering of time. This was a famous exploration by the surrealists e.g Max Ernst with his surrealistic novel in collage ‘Semaine de Bonte’.

Images of incompleteness and destruction

An incomplete or ambiguous work will be scanned by the human brain for a potential meaning (e.g. Rorschach ink-blot figures). Some work can trigger a more or less emotional dense response. Referring to architecture Pallasmaa emphasises that  ‘abandoned, damaged or destructed architectural settings evoke richer and more emotional associations than perfected contemporary architecture ‘.

Illusionary image:

Our technologised world brings dreamlike unreality that operate beyond the threshold of sensory perception and materials whose properties cannot any longer be detected by the senses. Glass can be considered as the  ultimate material of a modern dream world and a source of the illusionary world of transparency, reflection and mirroring. Attraction and seduction but also estrangement and fear. I can see here a link to a contemporary sublime. Mirrors do create doubles, and doubling is experienced as disturbing and threatening.

In architecture this is reflected by the use of opaque and transparent matter. Opaques creates separation, privacy, and shadow. Transparent provides connectedness, visibility, and light.

There is a poetic world in images. In the film ‘Beyond the clouds‘ film by Michelangelo Antonioni he speaks through an actor that ‘through our capacity for emotive identification, the imaginary obtains the authority of the real and the real turns into a mystery.’ And that behind one image there is another image etc.  At the end it is up to the viewer/reader to envision such worlds beyond the physical reality of matter. This is quite close to the exploration of symbolist artists (see also my research on surrealism and symbolism, Schaffeld, weblog post, 24 Nov 2016)


The metaphor is for me an fascinating topics. As a practicing art therapist I do work intensively with metaphors. In my research on ‘Sublime‘ (Schaffeld,weblog post, 18 Oct 2016) I came across A Tarkovsky and his intimate approach in cinema with metaphors (e.g. the salient lake in ‘Solaris‘)

According to Pallasmaa metaphors evoke, guide, strengthen and maintain our thoughts, emotions and associations. He is citing Arnold H Modell who explains his phenomenological approach that  “as a mode of cognition, metaphor is doubly embodied; first as an unconscious neural process, and, accordingly, in that metaphors are generated from bodily feelings, so that it is possible to speak of a corporeal imagination.


Pallasmaa explores a bit the archetypal image in architecture. The use of basic forms (square, triangle, circle) do convey a symbolic meaning in art history. For him the perceptual qualities of those basic forms seem to be more important. E.g. the circle that focuses perception and energy in a centripetal manner. It also expands and issues energy centrifugally. The circle is a symbol of self, expressing all dimensions of the psyche, and man-nature relationship. It is considered as the unity of life (eg Mandala = a special configuration of the basic forms circle, square and triangle).

There is a constant struggle or collaboration in the artistic work between the conscious ego and the suppressed unconscious contents of the mind. The true force and meaning of an artistic work always arises from its rich unconscious soil and motifs, not surface symbols or conventions.

Image as condensation:

There are various approaches in condensing the essence of an image:

  1. By abstraction: This means condensing complexity into simplicity of meaning, it is not empty of life but rather the essence of it (see Anton Ehrenzweig, Brancusi)
  2. By use of imperfection and vulnerability: This means that eroding spaces, eg architectural spaces and buildings are metaphor for the vulnerability of human (see A. Tarkovsky)

Language, thought and image:

We think and communicate through mental images and models, or neural patterns. We keep constantly building, comparing, storing and exchanging mental, or neural, models which are mediated and elaborated through linguistic structures and words.


Jean Paul Sartre: “imagining is to be distinguished from perceiving not by reference to the objects it intends, but by reference to the act of intending. The mental image is not just a thing existing alongside other things, it is a unique orientation of consciousness towards things.” (The Psychology of Imagination’)


I really enjoyed reading this book, thought provoking and providing new insights. Really helpful for me in my visual encounter and exploration of my artistic way forward. I am intrigued by the phenomenological approach to some aspects. At times I found the articulate threads a bit too extreme. Nevertheless, I find that Pallasmaa brings a wide perspective onto the table and challenges me on the way of seeing. Like the book by Berger ‘The Way of Seeing‘ I spend many more time in reading and re-reading this book. Not everything so clear to me at this stage and how I can transfer this to my work. It will be a steady companion that I will refer to later on. Especially I find Pallasmaa exploration of the visual reality and the role of the artist, citing at times other people, fascinating. I can related to this and some discussions on the OCA discussion forum supported me with other perspectives on that matter. I do find now aspects from architecture, photography and cinema (alongside my earlier research point on Pallasmaa) beneficial in finding new visual perspectives for my painting.
In the context of this course and especially landscape painting, I can benefit from this book. Another book I am currently reading now is ‘Land Matters‘ by Liz Wells.


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