Looking and Geological Time

Staring into the Abyss of Time

by Stephanie O’Rourke

The essay begins:

Beneath the rock, more rock. It stretches deep into the earth in layered deposits of sandstone and shale, whose limits extend far beyond the edges of the plate. The engraving of the Harz Mountains [above], first published in 1785, depicts the textured surface of a quarry face recessed within a grassy landscape. To the right, a single figure ascends a hill toward a built enclosure. To the left, the curtain of the earth’s surface has been cut away to reveal a hypothetical cross section of its unseen depths. The composition symmetrically divides the realm of the human from that of the geological, with the quarry in the center acting as a fitting intermediary; it is, after all, a site where matter is “unearthed” by human labor and converted into resources. But within a few decades of this print’s publication, the preferred geological illustration of choice looked rather different, as an early example of a “stratigraphic diagram” found in Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart’s Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris makes clear [right]. Decorative elements borrowed from topographical landscape drawing have been abandoned, and the human figure is excluded altogether. Instead, rock strata are organized along a vertical axis whose annotations reflect both their relative depth and the geological era in which they were thought to have formed. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stratigraphic diagrams, geological history came into view for the first time, pictured as a function of depth.

The distinctions between these two kinds of illustrations may seem subtle, but the emphasis the stratigraphic diagram placed on geological history reflected a broader scientific preoccupation with the relative age of different rock formations. While not itself antagonistic to human-centric time scales, this kind of illustration participated in the emergence of a new model of geological history that left little room for human history, human agency, or human experience. Whereas the cross section of the Harz Mountains integrated the human scale and the geological scale, whose compositional elements were presented in symmetrical harmony, human elements were purged in later stratigraphic illustrations or relegated to a small detail atop the uppermost strata along with the mise-en-scène of the landscape. In the intervening decades, scientists and savants alike were coming to terms with radically new accounts of how and when the earth was formed. The chronological scale used to measure geological history continually expanded as naturalists attributed ever-greater temporal depths to the rock formations that populated their world. And, correspondingly, human history occupied an increasingly small portion of that geological record; the human figure in [the Harz Mountain] illustration was, in a sense, shrinking. This trend reached its fullest expression in the concept of “deep time” put forward by the Scottish geologist James Hutton in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Hutton proposed that the earth’s formation took place over such a long period of time that it could not even be comprehended in terms of the time scale of human history, rendering human history comparatively inconsequential. As the sweep of geological time grew in the early nineteenth century, “human tenure on the planet” came to seem, in the words of Noah Heringman, “insignificant.” But in other quarters, the geological and the human were still being figured alongside each other.

Atop the rock, man. The German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, known for his love of the Harz Mountains, pictured a strikingly different early nineteenth-century encounter between the human and the geological in his Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds. From a granite outcropping, an eponymous wanderer placidly surveys the rocky mountain formations shrouded in mist below him and the faintly rendered peaks that flicker into view in the distance. The figure’s physical elevation over his environment and his panoramic view suggest the fantasy of a geological landscape visually possessed and perhaps also physically mastered by the human subject. Long used as a kind of art-historical shorthand for European Romanticism in general, the painting has more recently been taken as emblematic of a model of early nineteenth-century bourgeois subjectivity concomitant with the rise of modern spectatorial practices: “the ascendancy of newly realized bourgeois aspirations, fantasies of autonomy” that, Jonathan Crary writes, “permitted at least an optical appropriation” of the natural world, if not a literal one. Like Crary’s, a number of influential accounts of the painting grant interpretive priority to how the painting frames the role and status of the human figure qua a perceptual encounter with nature, whether mediated or direct.

Yet as a cursory inspection of the two aforementioned geological illustrations makes clear, this was a period in which the relationship between the human and the natural was undergoing extraordinary changes within mainstream scientific discourses—and in ways that posed significant challenges for the dominance assumed by a very model of subjectivity predicated on the unconstrained visual appropriation of the natural world Friedrich’s protagonist seems to experience. Might this figure be poised not on a precipice but along a widening fault line between conflicting models of historical and natural time? After all, [the Harz Mountain] illustration and Friedrich’s painting are not as intellectually and historically distant from each other as we might assume. Mining and geology were important elements of a constellation of cultural practices within which European Romantic thinkers like Friedrich engaged with and conceptualized nature. “It would have been difficult,” Theodore Ziolkowsi notes, “to assemble a group of intellectuals in any of the centers of German Romanticism without including at least one or two guests who were somehow involved with mining” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Both Johann von Goethe and Georg von Hardenberg (better known as Novalis) were employed overseeing regional mines. Goethe even wrote rapturous lines about geological formations in his 1785 essay “Über den Granit.” As several scholars have noted, Friedrich himself possessed a genuine interest in geology and mountaineering and lived near one of Europe’s foremost centers of geological research for most of his adult life. It is apparent that Friedrich’s work might have both practical and conceptual points of contact with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century geological discourse.

From this perspective, we might consider whether several of Friedrich’s works—and especially Wanderer—picture a perceptual encounter between the human and the natural that discloses not the sovereignty of bourgeois subjectivity in this period but rather its precarity in the face of divergent models of historical and natural time. In what follows, I reexamine Friedrich’s art with a particular eye to how it frames nature and history, on its own terms and also in relation to larger trends in German Romantic thought. By placing the “geological” aspects of his work within its broader scientific context, it becomes clear that a model of subjectivity predicated on spectatorship—and particularly the act of observing the natural world—was coming under extraordinary pressure in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As an encounter between the human and the geological, do paintings like Wanderer point toward the ascendance of bourgeois subjectivity or to its imagined annihilation? Continue reading …

Art historian Stephanie O’Rourke here examines the role of geological time in the work of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. Her essay foregrounds the challenges this model of time posed for the relationship between the human and the natural—a relationship usually considered central to Friedrich’s work—and for the perceptual powers of the viewing subject.

STEPHANIE O’ROURKE is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, where she specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and visual culture.

Resistance by Art

Slow Protest in the Occupation of Cambodia’s White Building

by Brianne Cohen

The essay begins:

 

In 2011, artist Khvay Samnang offered “piggyback” rides to residents and visitors of the White Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of his performance piece, Samnang Cow Taxi. Titled colloquially with his given name, it was a humble undertaking. Khvay wore handmade cow horns (fig. 1) and, despite his svelte frame, humorously carried people on his back as if he were a robust workhorse. Evoking the water buffalo, a laboring animal crucial to Cambodian agricultural practices, seemed an odd choice for someone ferrying people around the more urban setting of the White Building. Moreover, the taxi ride seemed to grant a touristic gaze for nonresidents of the dilapidated public housing complex. Yet the physical intimacy of the gesture, as well as the slowness and toil of it, lent a critical edge to the playful jaunt around the famous white apartment structure, transformed into a muddy gray from decades of neglect. The White Building was erected in 1963 as a modernist, utopian experiment in public housing. It was created soon after Cambodia’s independence in 1953 as part of a socially optimistic, homegrown wave of New Khmer Architecture, and it was intended to house civil servants and municipal workers. After the devastating Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, many returned to the city in need of housing, and the modest apartments were repopulated with dancers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. Khvay’s own practice has been deeply indebted to the site and people of the White Building, and his slow, caring, arduous gesture highlighted a community of residents who, like the building itself, have been historically subject to state neglect, inattention, and habitual violence.

Today the building no longer stands. It was razed in July and August 2017 in order to make way for a new $80 million development by a private Japanese firm. The government had long threatened demolition of the White Building, claiming that the neighborhood was overrun with drugs, petty crime, prostitution, and poverty. Against this stigmatization, the artist collective, Stiev Selapak, roughly translated as “Art Rebels,” established an experimental arts space in the building, Sa Sa Art Projects, in order to raise positive publicity for its vibrant neighborhood of skilled cultural and municipal workers. “Sa Sa” is an abbreviation of Stiev Selapak, and the group is composed of three members: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, and Vuth Lyno. Yet despite their community efforts, the White Building’s five hundred households were more or less forced to sell their apartments to the development company and were evicted with minimal compensation. The land, after all, is in a desirable central location near the riverfront. After many years of resistance, the dynamic neighborhood was finally dispelled.

In this article, I argue that the artistic efforts of Stiev Selapak and many others to save the White Building constituted a form of what I term slow protest. In a sense, they worked to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to validate its importance for local, national, and international audiences. This process of art institutionalization was effected through more “official” programs, such as educational initiatives, a physical and online archive, and the establishment of a regionally oriented artist residency. Yet it also assumed more “vernacular” avenues of institutionalization, through temporary experimental performances and collaborations with neighborhood residents, which emphasized the everyday, changing life of the building. Samnang Cow Taxi is an instance of the latter….

…In the end, Stiev Selapak’s and other artists’ attempts to institutionalize the White Building signaled an ethos of slow protest through occupation. Plainly, the building was a site of inhabitation, but by “occupation,” I mean also to evoke questions of political assembly and resistance to regime-made disasters. In light of actions such as Occupy, Arab Spring, and the Umbrella Movement, scholars have recently underscored the importance of such movements’ transience. In contrast, in analyzing the longer-lived, slower protest enacted by artists for the institutionalization and preservation of the White Building, I aim to tease out temporal nuances between resistant acts of occupation and inhabitation, and, in the end, I argue for the value of more permanent, intergenerational, and infrastructural forms of resistance that often receive less critical attention. The idea of slow protest signals the need for a type of activism that may not be immediate or spectacular, as in the case of revolution, but that could be more habitual, accretive, or eroding; less instantly recognizable; and geared more toward questions of maintenance and transformative infrastructure. Continue reading …

In this short Field Note in our current issue, art historian Brianne Cohen describes a resistance process she calls slow protest. She argues that through this process the Cambodian art collective Stiev Selapak and many others attempted to save Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building by working to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to visualize and scaffold a more “official” space of appearance – physical and virtual – for its precarious inhabitants. Such slow protest served as a more durational instance of occupation, or resistance to state violence through political assembly.

BRIANNE COHEN is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research focuses on contemporary art in the public sphere, primarily in Europe and Southeast Asia, and she is the co-editor of the anthology The Photofilmic: Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture (Leuven University Press and Cornell University Press, 2016).

The Embodied Habitus

Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

by Mitchell Merback

The essay begins:

No amount of contextualizing or revision, it seems, will ever free the European Middle Ages from its reputation as an era overcome by social and religious violence, riven by conflicts and cruelties, accustomed to the sight of death, poor in hygiene and other forms of self-care, and possessed of a devotional culture deliriously intimate with pain. Long central to the idea of the premodern as Other, this dreamlike historical image was once dubbed by Umberto Eco the “shaggy” Middle Ages. Its leitmotifs are the presumed plenitudes of violence and pain as well as contemporary attitudes toward them. Inhabitants of this medium aevum, the “shaggy” narrative tells us, did not labor under the neurotic need to eliminate bodily pain but accepted it as a fact of life and, indeed, celebrated it as useful on the path to salvation. Physicians and confessors alike understood pain in this way—as essentially therapeutic—so medieval culture in general, we hear, was not pain-averse but quite the opposite, “philopassianic,” to use a recent scholarly coinage.

As far as medieval-modern comparisons go, this one concerning attitudes toward pain is probably as good as any other; but to take it any further requires making two fundamental distinctions, both of which will be important to the theme of this paper, which is the interdependence of memory training and pain in the formation of an early modern habitus. The first of these is the distinction between pain thresholds and pain tolerances. Pain thresholds are best regarded as neurobiological facts of the species, part of a “hardwiring” that changes little over time (early in the twentieth century, for instance, Charles Sherrington defined pain experiences in terms of nociception, as the “psychical adjunct of a protective reflex”). Pain tolerances are something far closer to cultural products, variable and largely determined by group values and narratives, cultural practices, and the whole ecology of social life. We can be fairly certain that the majority of medieval people, living under conditions that produced an array of ailments and physical discomforts, developed pain tolerances higher than ours in the modern era. Accounting for this difference requires that we attend to the complex conceptualization of pain as both a primary “sensation”—if not the paradigmatic form of individual sensation—and a “hybrid emotion,” that is, an emotion that merges otherwise distinct affective states and modalities of response. And that, in turn, requires us to think in terms of the symbolic significance of human suffering wherein it holds to a positive purpose or end, as well as the degree to which it then stands open to whatever agencies of consolation, therapy, and cure a culture can make available to its members at a given time. Viewed in this biocultural light, medieval Christians appear to have approached pain as any other stratified cultural group would do: they attended to it, worked to alleviate its excesses, and furnished certain members with codes for conceptualizing and communicating what would otherwise be a wholly subjective, internal experience. Such codes and norms translated into more or less conventionalized “scripts” for pain behavior. Through such cultural conventions medieval culture succeeded, at least notionally, in stabilizing pain’s significance—taming and harnessing its uniquely “world-destroying” powers—thus rendering it productive for individuals and groups.

Trying to understand pain tolerances as a symptom of culture already gets us entangled in a second distinction: that between pain experiences and pain expressions. Here we enter upon a field of investigation in which the historian of art feels right at home, since questions surrounding the representation of pain in the visual arts have always been part and parcel of imitative art’s charge to represent psychic states and moral virtues—or their opposites—through coded bodily movements, gestures, and physiognomic signs. But questions of pathetic naturalism only get us so far in explaining why, for example, the famous clenched brow of the Trojan priest Laocoön in the eponymous figure group in Rome, as a physiognomic token of pain, communicated to its beholders a “pain-experience” so different from the one conveyed by its counterpart in the Master of Flémalle’s image of a Crucified Thief. We could rehearse the clichéd contrast between heroic death in pagan tragedy and sacrificial suffering in Christian theology to see that distinct narratives of human suffering and conflict are what drive the transferences between pain experiences, pain representations, and pain perceptions. Would we find that it is the very possibility of narrative that makes pain culturally intelligible in the first place? What’s clear is that the full implications of a culture’s narrative-ideological meanings for pain expression in the visual arts would be lost if we failed to attend to the situated functions of images, the peculiar agency they are granted to enlist the beholder’s effort in realizing their effects and completing their meanings in historically specific situations of use. Something of the logic of that agency can be recovered and measured by the forms of response demanded and structured by the image. We may begin, then, with one kind of image that, in portraying the very response it demands, tells us something about the peculiar way spectacular pain expressions registered in late medieval culture. Continue reading …

Describing the essay, the author writes: “Between the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, pain and memory became interdependent in three domains of social and religious life: religious devotion, education, and criminal justice. The grounds for this affiliation were prepared by a training of individuals in the control of affect and the acceptance of memory training as a regimen of virtual self-wounding, often facilitated by violent imagery. Across the three domains examined here, Christian subjectivity was quietly reformed and an embodied habitus inculcated to meet the demands of an age no longer anchored in unquestioned truths.”

MITCHELL MERBACK is the Arnell and Everett Land Professor in the History of Art at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Perfection’s Therapy: An Essay on Albrecht Dürer’s “Melencolia I” (Zone Books, 2017). Current projects include a reevaluation of the European tradition of the identification portrait and a study of tragic recognition as theme and metatheme in Christian art before 1500.

New Special Issue: THE SOCIAL LIFE OF PAIN

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 146, Spring 2019

Special Issue: The Social Life of Pain
Edited by Rachel Ablow

“The essays collected here counter [the] fantasy of pain as a knowable sensation that lies within that is then represented, or misrepresented, in language. Instead, they consider pain as always already enmeshed in social life, and representation as the means through which we can engage this imbrication. In so doing, they demonstrate the importance of bringing together two approaches to the problem of pain that have often been kept distinct. The first is the anthropological insight that pain behavior constitutes a mode of social engagement and, hence, that suffering is necessarily bound up with shifting, often unpredictable, cultural, familial, and interpersonal dynamics. The second involves a historical and literary-critical account of representation’s complex and productive relations to both experience and culture.” –from the editor’s introduction

RACHEL ABLOW
The Social Life of Pain

DARIUS REJALI
Is There Truth in Pain?

NANCY SCHEPER-HUGHES
A Finger in the Wound: On Pain, Scars, and Suffering

MITCHELL MERBACK
Pain and Memory in the Formation of Early Modern Habitus

SHIGEHISA KURIYAMA
‘‘No Pain, No Gain’’ and the History of Presence

RACHEL ABLOW
An Interview with ELAINE SCARRY

Seeing the Illustrious Past

Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

by Randall Meissen

Francisco Pacheco, portrait of Benito Arias Montano, c. 1580–1644. IB 15654, Biblioteca Lázaro Galdiano, Madrid.

The essay begins:

Pacheco was the foremost art theorist of his generation, a longtime member of Seville’s famed humanistic academy, and both father-in-law and mentor to two of the most prominent artists of the Spanish baroque, Alonzo Cano (1601–67) and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). Pacheco’s unfinished manuscript book, Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos, de illustres y memorables varones (Book of description of true portraits of illustrious and memorable men), currently held at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, was a work in progress for most of his professional life, as he gradually compiled it from 1599 until his death in 1644. The manuscript consists of fifty-six portrait drawings by Pacheco and forty-four short biographical texts on authors, artists, ecclesiastics, and other men of accomplishment. Most of the biographies are straightforward, consisting of a description of the individual’s education, notable military or literary achievements, any written or artistic works, connection to Seville (however slight), and occasional brief anecdotes highlighting the individual’s moral character.

In his treatise Arte de la pintura (On the art of painting; Seville, 1649), Pacheco indicated that he had drawn more than 170 portraits in black and red pencil with the intention of selecting from them up to one hundred eminent individuals representing all fields of learning. The physical construction of the Libro de retratos, evident from several of the unfinished sections, demonstrates Pacheco’s process, as he described it, of drawing, retaining, and selecting the portraits over many years. Seven loose, single-sheet portrait-biographies that he chose not to incorporate into his manuscript book still survive at the library of the Palacio real in Madrid. Pacheco cut each portrait from its original sheet, pasted it onto a sheet of the manuscript, and then framed it with architectural ornamentation drawn in ink and washed in sepia tones. At the top of each finished frame, Pacheco added a biblical verse, and along the lower edge he placed the individual’s name in capitals.

A completed portrait and biography in Pacheco’s Libro consisted of a single sheet folded in half to form two folios. A succinct two- to three-page biographical description followed each finished portrait and often concluded with an epithet or poem. Most of the biographies recorded the death of the individual, and some portraits of individuals who survived Pacheco have blank pages where the biography would go, a detail that suggests Pacheco avoided writing a person’s definitive biography until the ink upon the pages of their life had dried.

Pacheco chose to adopt a genre of historical writing with a classical genealogy for the preservation of Seville’s recent historical memory. The De viris illustribus (“on illustrious men”) genre, which can be traced back to Plutarch and Cicero, experienced a renewed popularity during the Renaissance. Pacheco was familiar with the illustrated editions of famous men by the Italian humanist Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) and the subsequent work on the lives of artists by Giorgio Vasari (1511–74). Pacheco lamented that although in other nations, “particularly Italy,” art itself was honored by those who wrote the lives of illustrious artists, “only our nation lacks that praiseworthy endeavor,” and artists themselves were to blame. Apparently Pacheco took it upon himself to remedy this shortfall, and he was uniquely well suited for such an undertaking. Unlike Giovio or Vasari, who depended on artists and engravers to translate their projects into print, Pacheco had complete control over both the text and the images of his manuscript book.

The Libro de retratos is in fact a visual history. In its recovery and preservation of a visual record of an illustrious past, it confirms that such a practice existed in Pacheco’s era. It was a practice manifested in a transmedial application of methods adapted from humanistic textual scholarship and early modern antiquarianism as they were applied to artistic media for the preservation and communication of historical knowledge. To understand his Libro it must be recognized that Pacheco constructed his images by basing them on other credible visual sources (employing a method I call visual philology). One might mistake the portraits for illustrations of the text, but instead the texts “illustrate” or describe the portraits, as Pacheco made explicit by titling the collection of works Book of Description of True Portraits.

His Libro is thus a useful object for exploring questions of material culture relevant to visual studies scholars, historians of the book, and early modernists. Pacheco’s claim to produce true portraits was closely related to the distinctive ways antiquarians and ecclesiastics of his era used material evidence to stake truth claims about the ancient world and about the virtuousness of historical personages, respectively. Pacheco attempted to show certain qualities of historical personages—such as prestige, prosperity, illustriousness, and holiness—that were tightly bound to display, pageantry, costume, and liturgy in Seville. My essay, then, will demonstrate how three intertwined visual cultures produced by the antiquarian reimagining of Seville’s Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image theory, and the publishing conventions of Sevillian humanism shaped Pacheco’s expectations about how an illustrious past should look. Let’s consider first how Seville’s elites used reimagined classical imagery to celebrate the glory of their city and how Pacheco employed that visual vocabulary in his Libro. Continue reading …

Francisco Pacheco (1564–1644), the foremost Spanish art theorist of his generation, worked on his manuscript Libro de verdaderos retratos (Book of true portraits) for more than forty years. In this essay Randall Meissen addresses how the visual cultures of Pacheco’s Seville, especially the city’s reimagined imperial Roman past, Catholic Counter-Reformation image praxis, and visual conventions of Renaissance humanism, shaped Pacheco’s conception of how an illustrious past could be recovered and shown.

RANDALL MEISSEN is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Southern California and predoctoral fellow at the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. He has held short-term fellowships at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island; and the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

New Special Issue, Representations 145

NOW AVAILABLE!

Number 145, Winter 2019 (available free for a limited time from UC Press)

Special Issue
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

“If, as this issue suggests, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.” —from the editors’ introduction

The volume, edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz, defines the category of “visual history” and introduces its operations in essays dealing with the impact of visual narratives on and within their historical contexts. It proposes that visual histories can be seen not simply as guides to the times, but as  guides to time itself.

DANIELA BLEICHMAR and VANESSA R. SCHWARTZ
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

RANDALL MEISSEN
Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

EVONNE LEVY
Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED
Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

ALLEN DOYLE
The Medium Is the Messagerie

BILLIE MELMAN
Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

AARON RICH
The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Upcoming in Representations 146: The Social Life of Pain: a special issue edited by Rachel Ablow, who provides an introduction, including essays by Darius Rejali on truth and torture, Nancy Scheper-Hughes on social representations of pain and the kidney trade, Mitchell Merback on pain and memory in the formation of early modern habitus, Shigehisa Kuriyama on the historical and metaphysical roots of the idea of “good” pain, and an interview with Elaine Scarry. Coming in June.

 

Sneak Peak: Visual History Special Issue

Coming in March! (watch this space)

Representations 145
SPECIAL ISSUE
Visual History: The Past in Pictures
edited by Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz

 

 

 

 

 

The following is adapted from the introduction to the issue by its editors, Daniela Bleichmar and Vanessa R. Schwartz:

Visual histories—pictorial accounts of the past—are as old as art, but they have been little recognized as constituting their own genre.

In the Western tradition, visual histories have since early modernity played an important role in geographic and economic expansion, imperialism, and capitalism and in the global circulation of information through reproducible media, from the printing press to photography, film, and digital media. As such, the rise and spread of visual history has an important legacy for contemporary culture. We see the news more than we read it; historical fictions and documentaries play on screens small and large to enormous audiences; new museums dedicated to national and world heritage exhibit the past and visualize historical narratives primarily through combinations of objects and images. The essays in this special issue of Representations, taken together, also delineate a centuries-long trajectory of visual history; one that has been variously embraced, ignored, and challenged by different audiences. There is little doubt that the contemporary digital-image revolution makes us now, more than ever, both able to see the long life of visual history and curious about its workings.

In proposing and exploring the notion of visual history, we aim to contribute to the study of images in the broadest sense, addressing all pictures and formats across categories such as fine art, popular or folk art, and nonart. Central to our approach is the belief that images not only reflect or provide access to a period’s views but also actively participate in creating those views in the first place. As the essays in the volume suggest, the history of images has an impact on the making of other images, which itself constitutes a valuable record of people’s past actions in the world. Additionally, the essays we present here investigate how images shape meaningful change rather than embodying, containing, or reflecting changes that happen elsewhere. Visual history is thus particularly important because it suggests that images have shaped how people lived in earlier times as much as they can be used in the present to address other issues that concern students of the past, among them evidence and truth claims, the organization and presentation of knowledge and information, and temporality and the experience of spatial and temporal distance.

If, as we suggest, visual histories rupture the metronomic pace of history, they also allow time to simultaneously compress and expand, to make some things more proximate and others more distant. In fascinating, unexpected, and at times unpredictable ways, images time-travel and take us with them. They also take up our time, the minutes and hours of looking and seeing. And they have their own kind of time, because the experience of seeing history is phenomenologically different from that of reading it in words.

Table of Contents

DANIELA BLEICHMAR and VANESSA R. SCHWARTZ
Visual History: The Past in Pictures

RANDALL MEISSEN
Francisco Pacheco’s Book of True Portraits: Humanism, Art, and the Practice of “Visual History”

EVONNE LEVY
Eyewitnessed Historia and the Renaissance Media Revolution: Visual Histories of The Council of Trent

SUSAN L. SIEGFRIED
Visualizing History in Eighteenth-Century France

ALLEN DOYLE
The Medium Is the Messagerie

BILLIE MELMAN
Ur: Empire, Modernity, and the Visualization of Antiquity Between the Two World Wars

AARON RICH
The Accent of Truth: The Hollywood Research Bible and the Republic of Images

Glebova Essay Wins Prize

Warm congratulations to Aglaya Glebova, whose “Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature” has been awarded the 2018 Emerging Scholar Prize by the Society of Historians of Eastern European, Eurasian and Russian Art and Architecture  (SHERA).

The prize jury praised the essay, calling it “highly innovative in its approach to the interpretation of a famously problematic episode in the career of Aleksandr Rodchenko: the work produced during his visit to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps, in the early 1930s.”

 

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.

 

Visual Form and the Beholder’s Share

“Reading-In”: Franz Boas’s Theory of the Beholder’s Share

by Whitney Davis

The essay begins:

Franz Boas (d. 1942) was born into an educated Jewish family in Westphalia in 1858; by 1888, at the age of thirty, he had settled permanently in the United States, in New York City. Today Boas is perhaps best known for his lifelong critiques of racialist theory and its concomitants in anti-Semitism and Nazism. He broadcast his arguments indefatigably from Columbia University (where he taught from 1899 until his death) into the public forum; one such statement was his memorable 1924 letter to the New York Times, “Lo, the Poor Nordic!,” in which he set out to refute Henry Fairfield Osborn (chief paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History), who was advocating the innate superiority of the “Nordic race.” By the 1920s, the German-Jewish immigrant Boas was writing with immense authority as one of the internationally recognized founders of American anthropology—that is, both of Americanist anthropology and of anthropology in North America (the United States and Canada; Boas did much of his fieldwork in the latter nation).

In this essay, I consider a somewhat neglected contribution made by Boas to the anthropology of visual culture and, more narrowly, to the methods and principles of art history—namely, his prescient theory of the beholder’s projection of verbalized meaning into visual form and symbolism. Boas worked out his ideas in relation to certain background intuitions about human seeing and image making in interaction with natural language. But they remained undeveloped, and they have not much been followed up beyond the specific ethnographic context in which they were formulated. Still, they remain suggestive from the vantage point of a present-day world art history. I will contextualize them analytically in relation to comparable but distinct approaches to the “beholder’s share”—a beholder’s active identification and interpretation of visual form and meaning, including the most basic matter of recognizing the things that might be depicted or symbolized in a conventionalized visual pattern. My aim is not only—not primarily—to provide an exegesis of Boas. Instead, I aim to frame and phrase his ideas—as I see them in their “best case”—in ways that give them the greatest interest and relevance for certain present-day concerns in the study of visual culture worldwide. Continue reading …

Basing his essay in part on Boas’s book Primitive Art (1927), Whitney Davis considers the Boasian theory of the beholder’s share in constructing the significance of visual form and in interpreting its meaning. Boas’s analysis of what he called “contradictions” between his indigenous informants’ exegeses of form lay at the heart of his conclusion that individual agents “read-in” to form some of the most crucial aspects of social experience that are most salient and specific to them. “Reading-in,” Davis argues, is the verbal speaking of visual “seeing-as,” and it infuses visual form with the diversity and particularity of a speaker’s grammatical choices undertaken within their natural human language(s). This model might now seem self-evident. At the time, however, it opened up the possibility of an “anthropology” of art and, to an extent as yet unrealized, the possibilities of its sociology and history. The essay evaluates Boas’s model in relation to other well-known accounts of the beholder’s share in art history, philosophy, and elsewhere and concludes with a discussion of the uptake of his idea in the “structuralism” of Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss.

WHITNEY DAVIS is Pardee Professor of History and Theory of Ancient and Modern Art and Chair of the Department of History of Art at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is Visuality and Virtuality: Images and Pictures from Prehistory to Perspective (Princeton, 2017).

 

The Formalist in Nature

Elements of Photography: Avant-garde Aesthetics and the Reforging of Nature

by Aglaya Glebova

The essay begins:

“This is where we should go on vacation—in winter. What snow, light, mountains!” These lines were written by Aleksandr Rodchenko to his wife, Varvara Stepanova, from the White Sea-Baltic Canal, which was then being constructed by prisoners at an eponymous forced labor camp, one of the Soviet Union’s first, where more than twenty-five thousand—and possibly as many as fifty thousand—inmates lost their lives from 1931 to 1933. Had the photographer not yet seen the atrocities of the camp? Was he highlighting holiday pleasures in case his letter was read by someone other than its intended recipient? Rodchenko’s pronouncement is so utterly damning in its willful ignorance of the human toll of the construction of the canal as to render any possible justifications moot. This description of a gulag—bracketed, to top it off, with declarations that the sun and the air are “wonderful”—effectively bars any interpretive engagement. One’s only recourse, it seems, is to denounce Rodchenko’s deliberate blindness to the grim efficiencies of the state machine.

Yet I open with this letter not to offer additional evidence against the artist. Rather, while keeping the letter’s dismaying omissions firmly in mind, I want to move past the screen that its glibness presents and focus on what it reveals about Rodchenko’s time at the canal: there he experienced a landscape, a place. Descriptions of nature—uncharacteristically for Rodchenko, since he was hardly enamored with the romantic notions of an earlier century—fill his brief letters home, and landscape appears, far more forcefully than ever before, in his photographs from the canal. These images of nature are remarkable in the context of the ideological climate from which they emerged. As the first Five-Year Plan (fulfilled in four years, 1928–32) unfolded, the Soviet state looked for ways to rationalize both the breakneck industrialization and mass repressions—developments joined at the hip, for the latter powered the former—that it undertook. The philosophy that underwrote both was the call for the complete transformation of the existing “old” world into a “new” socialist universe. The ideology crystallized and reached its apex in the rhetoric surrounding the White Sea-Baltic Canal project and its policy of “reforging” (perekovka), the term coined at the time to denote the discourse of molding both criminals and landscapes resistant to Soviet rule into productive, socialist beings through labor. The environment became, in essence, the most obdurate class enemy of the socialist state, whose intent was to transform the landscape’s sublimity and unpredictability into a pliant, rational, and productive entity. If, as the by-now canonical way of thinking in art history has it, landscape helps naturalize ideology, what happens when a state declares that nature must be radically, even totally, refigured? And how, then, might we begin to explain the aesthetic of Rodchenko’s canal landscapes, their quasi-romantic qualities above all? Continue reading … 

In this essay art historian Aglaya Glebova  traces the evolution of landscape imagery in Aleksandr Rodchenko’s photographic oeuvre, focusing especially on images produced during his journalistic trip to the White Sea-Baltic Canal, one of the first Soviet forced labor camps. Through close reading of photographs, she argues that Rodchenko’s abandonment of avant-garde aesthetics, in particular the emphasis on photography’s transformative powers and its medium-specificity, in these images did not represent a shift toward socialist realism but, rather, held critical potential in the face of contemporaneous official censure of formalism and “contemplation” in both science and art.

AGLAYA GLEBOVA is Assistant Professor in the departments of Art History and Film and Media, as well as the PhD Program in Visual Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently completing a book on Aleksandr Rodchenko and photography under Stalin.