Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 10, 2014
Hans Belting An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body Trans Thomas Dunlap Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 216 pp.; 61 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780691160962)

Reading An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body by Hans Belting has been remarkably similar to my experiences recording a performance as an art event in western Africa. The handsome book itself, like the African festival, is relatively short. Yet both the book and the ceremony are packed with layers of complex discourse, and become meaningful only when examined within the context of a particular intellectual tradition. Both require interpreters and the occasional suspension of disbelief. As a scholar based in the United States, I have been invited to observe ceremonial displays in Côte d’Ivoire because the participants wished to share their cultural heritage with the world. As an Africanist, I was asked to review this book because Belting attempts to frame questions that transcend his own cultural background, an approach he defines as “anthropological.”

Belting is a prominent art historian whose extensive publications have addressed a broad historical range of European art and architecture. Many of his scholarly studies have focused on periods he characterizes as “before the age of art,” arguing that Europeans only developed a concept for “art” during the Renaissance (as in Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, a translation published in 1994 by the University of Chicago Press); my own field of study, the “art” of Africa, is obviously excluded from this discourse. Belting has also analyzed the discipline of art history as a field of study invented in nineteenth-century Europe, examining its relevance to photography, video art, and digital art in a series of books starting with the 1983 essay admirably translated into English in 1987 as The End of the History of Art? (also published by the University of Chicago Press). Clearly, as a member of a community of scholars who identify themselves as “art historians” despite our lack of grounding in nineteenth-century German philosophy, I approach An Anthropology of Images as an outsider. My primary task will therefore be to evaluate its utility for readers who also work outside the traditions of scholarship that Belting presents as normative.

The book is based upon Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfe für ein Bildwissenschaft, published in German in 2001 by Wilhelm Fink Verlag and translated into numerous languages. However, a fascinating chapter on relics, effigies, waxworks, and anatomical models (“Das Körperbild als Menschenbild. Eine Repräsentation in der Krise,” which I would render as “The Body Image as Image of the Human: A Representation in Crisis”) has been omitted here, evidently due to problems encountered in the translation process. As Belting points out in his introduction, written exclusively for this edition, each chapter is intended to stand alone. Thus this omission does not have an impact upon the narratives of the other chapters. However, the introduction’s allusion to the “pitfalls of translation” (8) does not entirely explain why some sections were substantially altered when rendered into English. Just as I checked several statements to find how local terms were applied and translated in a western African village, readers may want to consult the German original, or the more reliable (and yet more fluent) French translation, when they encounter passages that are impenetrable here.

The original German edition included more than a hundred illustrations that do not appear in this English translation. For the most part, the missing reproductions were not integral to Belting’s discussions, as he does not often use works of art as visual evidence for his arguments, and rarely asks the reader to engage with them as sources of visual information. Rather, Belting offers illustrations as a visual counterpoint to the text. Thus, Man Ray’s famous photograph of his French model holding a pristine Baule object (reproduced as fig. 1.4 and on the cover) illustrates what Belting calls a “facial mask”—even though this particular carving was never worn by a Baule performer. The illustration does not respond to the text, but tells its own, separate narrative about the colonial encounter and Primitivism. Such tangential conversations occur quite frequently; Belting’s reference to “the Asian picture scroll” is accompanied by a snapshot of his Japanese hotel room, where a scroll hung on the wall is upstaged by a television set, a telephone, and a refrigerator (fig. 1.7), surely a statement about the role of tradition in contemporary visual culture? Another reference to Chinese landscape paintings is paired with an anonymous woodcut whose title and inscription are not translated for the reader (fig. 2.1). Only a few illustrations, such as Belting’s own photograph of visitors’ shadows falling on Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial (fig. 5.1), or Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph of a theater interior (fig. 2.3), are described in any detail.

The first chapter of An Anthropology of Images, as Belting notes in the introduction, was written for a 2001 meeting held at the School for New Media in Karlsruhe, and it includes a provocative (if understandably dated) section on digital images. It shares the title of the book itself, setting forth the basic arguments of the entire text. In addition to drawing upon the earlier publications noted above, as well as upon Belting’s studies of video art and photography published in the 1990s, the chapter is closely related to an essay he wrote for Anthropologies of Art, a volume edited by Mariët Westermann for the Clark Studies in the Visual Arts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005). Here Belting situates his use of the terms “image,” “media,” and “body” within an ongoing discourse on “pictures” conducted by theorists such as W. J. T. Mitchell. In the introduction, Belting had provided the reader with a description of “image” as a mental construct, or what we see in our “mind’s eye”; the “medium” as the physical material in which the “image” is given form in a “picture” (Bild); and the “body” as the site where “images” are produced and processed. The first chapter expands upon each of these formulations and extends his discussion of Régis Debray’s claim that the “gaze” (regard) is “the force that turns a picture into an image and an image into a picture” (4). This, of course, is an extraordinary assertion, especially as Belting dismisses the process of “execution” (the act of physically transforming a medium into an artifact hosting the image) as of interest only to art students (11). I am reminded of conversations with healers in Côte d’Ivoire who claimed to have miraculously discovered their statues in rivers or forests. In both cases, mental or supernatural powers bring art objects into existence ex nihilo.

The second chapter, “The Locus of Images: The Living Body,” discusses the physical and cultural makeup of human beings, and refers to the writings of Marc Augé. In addition to surveying the “images” of memory, Belting addresses film, along with digital technologies that emerged a decade ago. The next chapter, “The Coat of Arms and the Portrait: Two Media of the Body,” applies Belting’s ideas to specific objects from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. In the fourth chapter, “Images and Death: Embodiment in Early Cultures with an Epilogue on Photography,” Belting proposes that “images” arose in response to human experiences of death. His search for the origins of “images” places his references to current research on ancient Egypt, Sumer, Greece, and Rome into a decidedly outdated evolutionary framework, one that echoes German philosophies of the nineteenth century, this time perhaps inadvertently. “Media and Bodies: Dante’s Shadows and Greenaway’s TV” examines the legacy of Dante’s view of the “body” in the work of Giotto, Masaccio, Michelangelo, and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as in a made-for-television version of the Divine Comedy. The final chapter, “The Transparency of the Medium: The Photographic Image,” sketches a brief history of photography to examine “the journey of the image to the photograph” (145), mostly within Europe.

Over the last decade, Belting had been instrumental in organizing symposia on “the global contemporary,” and has reviewed attempts to reconcile “academic art history” with “world art history.” How effectively, then, does he incorporate non-European material into these chapters? His references to art beyond Europe, unfortunately, are shadowed by the ghosts of men such as G. W. F. Hegel (who is not mentioned by name) and E. B. Tylor (cited on 174, n. 6). These specters make their most dramatic appearance in chapter 4 on “early” (i.e., “primitive”) cultures. When Belting writes that peoples in Polynesia, as in Neolithic Jericho, had an “ancestor cult that involved the veneration of statues surmounted by real skulls” (87), it is not the basic misinformation that is jarring (there were no such figures in Polynesia, and a later reference to the “New Hebrides” (90) suggests that he was thinking of Vanuatu in Melanesia). Instead, it is the assumption that Pacific cultures are on the “primitive” rung of Hegel’s evolutionary ladder, working their way through the Neolithic. I had a comparable response to a performance in Côte d’Ivoire, when I needed to overcome my distaste for its references to the slave who would have been ritually murdered during these ceremonies in the pre-colonial period. Both the performance and Belting’s book transmit traditional cultural attitudes that categorize groups of people as less than fully human.

Belting is to be commended for including illustrations taken from Christopher Pinney’s influential Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (London: Reaktion, 1997) (click here for review) in chapter 6. However, Belting’s statements concerning the production and reception of painted photographs in India (156–57) are refuted by the analyses in Pinney’s text. The book would have been enriched by Pinney’s description of darshan, an Indian counterpart to Debray’s “gaze.” Furthermore, Belting’s discussion of the “export of Western visual material” in chapter 2 (58) manages to overlook the importance of the global trade in non-Western visual material; perhaps Bollywood, Nollywood, Egyptian films, and Mexican telenovelas were all unknown to the author in 2001? On the other hand, Belting’s invocation of the Virgin of Guadalupe (fig. 1.9), who crosses easily between “fine art” and “visual culture,” clearly supports his argument that an enduring “image” may transcend the “medium” of the altarpiece within which it first appeared.

Is An Anthropology of Images a useful book for scholars who study the art, history, and culture of peoples outside Europe? Belting’s focus upon the “image” as a visual construct would initially seem to make it irrelevant for those of us who study art experienced primarily through other sensual stimuli. By choosing one physiological response (vision), and ignoring sensory reactions to sound, smell, touch, taste, pose, and kinetic movement, Belting’s approach would severely limit the evaluation of most artistic expression. In fact, even the sense of sight is experienced differently according to the cultural context, as Pinney noted, and as Susan Vogel has demonstrated in Baule: African Art, Western Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). A further barrier would seem to be Belting’s focus upon “image” as “representation.” While the production of a “true likeness” or echtes Bild (8) may well have been a primary aim of artists in late medieval and Renaissance Europe, many non-Western works are not expected to resemble the invisible (and sometimes inchoate) beings that may inhabit or interact with them. I have been repeatedly told that statues look like statues, not like spirits.

Given Belting’s emphasis on the “image” as a guiding presence, I also found it difficult to follow his learned discussion of Michelangelo’s reliance upon texts by Dante (138–42). Although Michelangelo would have been thinking of the Divine Comedy when he wrote his own poems, I cannot help but wonder why Michelangelo would reflect upon Dante’s descriptions while he was painting his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Surely, he would have instead conjured up visions of Luca Signorelli’s resurrected skeletons and newly fleshed nudes in those dramatic frescos up the road in Orvieto? Was Michelangelo’s “tour de force” really “unprecedented” (140), or was he working from Signorelli’s well-developed “image”? Such questions concerning verbal versus visual archetypes are relevant to art historians weighing the importance of praise poetry versus a physical model for a Yoruba sculptor, or the role of the Popul Vuh compared to local architectural conventions in the creation of a Maya monument.

Yet for any reader willing to engage with Belting’s ideas as abstractions, there is much to gain from An Anthropology of Images. Maybe it is true that all cultures participate in “picture-making,” as Belting asserts (10), if the term “pictures” (Bilder) can be untethered from its association with illusionistic painted surfaces. Looking more closely at the mental processes of “image-making” (and setting aside the physical process of fabrication) might be a useful exercise for those who admire the technical prowess of skilled hands and eloquent bodies. This is especially important now, when visual culture around the world is generated by fingers on keyboards. Finally, Belting’s notion of “image” raises questions about artistic agency and embodiment, about the very nature of the creative encounters linking people, ideals, and things. Perhaps Belting’s well-meaning attempt to reach beyond his training as a German scholar of European art will produce fruitful dialogue in the years to come.

Monica Blackmun Visonà
Associate Professor, School of Art and Visual Studies, University of Kentucky