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The dirty thumb – About Albrecht Fabri

Albrecht Fabri’s collected works fill just one volume. But this single book is a very concentrated distillate of interesting thoughts. One of my favorite books!

File:Albrecht fabri.jpg

(for the source of this picture see )

After Fabri died in 1998, his collected writings appeared as a book titled “Der schmutzige Daumen” (The dirty thumb). It looks like an English translation does not yet exist. Well, some of the things he is writing are playing on words and would hardly be translatable, but maybe some of the texts can be translated. They would be worth it. Until then, sorry for you, folks, you will have to learn German (see on the German Wikipedia).

The piece after which the book is named is some kind of philosophical dialog between some people in an artist’s atelier (it remains unclear if this talk actually happened in this or a similar fashion or if it is pure fiction). Here is a translation of the central section of it, giving some of Fabri’s central thoughts about aesthetics:

“Well”, D. said, “everything A. is writing is a little bit what is called trop poussé in French. He has worked a little moment too long on all of these things; and this moment has sufficed to drive out of it what gives life to a work. I call that the dirty thumb, you just can’t define it.”

D. had said the last words with a resigning shrug. But since neither I nor E. showed signs of “understanding” – cause if we had “understood”, the discussion would have been over -, D. continued to explain. This time again, he took refuge in metaphor, in addition, he accompanied his words with a illustrative pantomime: he grasped a nearby drawing, moved both thumbs over it as if he wanted to wipe them on it, put some creases into it and said:

“The sheet of A. is, so to speak, a little bit too white. The marks indicating its use are missing.  To be perfect, it would have to be a little bit dirty, a little bit creased, a little bit lacerated at the rims. This way, it is too flawless, but that is not enough.”

Fabri, born in 1911, was a literature and arts critic, an essayist and aphorist, writing mostly short texts between one line and a few pages long, about a variety of topics. Many of his more or less philosophical texts are about art, literature and aesthetics. For some time, he gave writing courses at a university. He wrote speeches for openings of art exhibitions (mostly of abstract art) or articles for journals and for the radio. Some of his writings where published in books. One of those (containing the text just cited) gave its name to that volume of collected writings. Fabri knew many artists and writers and was a friend of some of them, and he was a friend of the philosopher Max Bense. He also translated several books into German, mostly from French, and worked as a lector in publishing companies.

If blogging had existed in his days, he might have been a blogger. In a way, this book is one of the blogs I am following.

6 thoughts on “The dirty thumb – About Albrecht Fabri

  1. One of my lecturer’s loved his works. At the time I didn’t understood half of what he meant but reading through it now makes more sense! I suspect that alot of the meanings are still going over my head though!

  2. A few thought about this:

    I see a connection of Fabri’s ideas here with my own thoughts on aesthetics. In my article “What is beauty” ( I have sketched the outlines of a theory of beauty which is based on the notion of creative systems and analytical spaces (see This is also behind my comments to Alberto Alborghetti’s works that he compiled into an article (which I reblogged, see

    There is also a connection to the work of Max Bense, who happened to be a friend of Fabri. I think the two of them exchanged ideas and influenced each other. Bense wrote about the application of information theory to aesthetics. There is a connection of this both to my own ideas about aesthetics and to Fabri’s.

    All these connections might not yet be so clear here, but I plan to write about this topic again in order to clarify them

  3. Pingback: “And so on and … | The Asifoscope

  4. Pingback: On Beauty | The Asifoscope

  5. This post has open my eyes as to some problems I was having to where the thoughts came from (both sides of the fence).

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