Don’t look

Julian Bell

  • Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science by Hans Belting, translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider
    Harvard, 303 pp, £25.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05004 4

‘A daring undertaking’, the German art historian Hans Belting calls his book. Florence and Baghdad is his attempt to get two civilisations to define each other in terms of their attitudes to eyesight and, more specifically, in terms of what Ernst Cassirer, writing in the 1920s, called ‘symbolic form’. A symbolic form is a cohesive set of symbols within which you might give shape to the world. In classical Islam – Islam, that is, between the tenth and 13th centuries – a set emerged that centred on abstract geometry; in 15th-century Italy a related but different symbolic form came together in pictorial perspective, a principle later mechanised by photography. The hinge to Belting’s argument is that the perspective familiar to Western modernity is an application of a visual geometry devised within classical Islam.

People sometimes suppose, when they look for instance at Pompeian architectural frescoes, that the ancient Greeks and Romans must have had some geometrical system of perspective, but they are reading the clues wrong. Artists in antiquity were adept at making use of observed effects such as the diagonals at which rooflines recede from view, but they had no conceptual back-up from theorists. Plato, Euclid and Ptolemy were fixated on the active, probing aspects of vision: the way we peer out and construe the world before us. Their formulation, which now seems at once kooky and clunky, described eyesight as ‘extramission’ – a kind of radar. The eyes send out rays of light, rather as the sun does. These rays reach out to objects through the supporting medium of sunlight and bring back to the brain little copies of themselves that the objects have generated – copies termed ‘images’ or ‘simulacra’.

Aristotle saw there were problems with this hypothesis, but for a long time it remained the default account of vision – probably because it answers to the intuition that if I see you, I have some sort of hold on you. It was only under the Fatimid caliphs of Cairo, around the year 1000, that investigations of vision moved significantly forward. The scientist who is central to Belting’s story, Ibn al-Haytham, Europeanised as ‘Alhazen’, was born in Iraq, but the book’s title misleads: he left Baghdad, then under a dry and doctrinaire Abbasid caliphate, to spend most of his working life in a relatively open-minded Egypt.

Alhazen was a proto-Popperian. ‘The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists,’ he wrote, ‘if learning the truth be his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and, applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side.’ Suspect your faith in the writings of the ancients, he counselled, and submit it to experiment. So doing, Alhazen elegantly reduced visual theory. There was no need for little object copies and there was no need for visual rays zapping out to obtain them. All you needed was the single physical phenomenon of light, the light-receiving mechanism of the eyes, and then the brain, which interprets incoming information and translates it into images. Alhazen described the geometry by which light runs from objects to eyes, and, extending his research into light’s workings, devised the first known camera obscura.

Alhazen’s Kitab al-Manazir (‘book of optics’) was translated into Latin in Spain around 1200, under the title Perspectiva. The text, though opposed by some philosophers, soon became a standby of European academic life. It wasn’t until around 1420 in Florence, however, that Filippo Brunelleschi thought of applying Alhazen’s geometry to painting, designing images of objects by means of ‘artificial perspective’ – a truly momentous innovation. Much of Belting’s task is to account for the contrast between the two men’s achievements by setting them in their respective cultural contexts. But he also has historical complications to consider. Though Alhazen invented the camera obscura, with its aperture projecting light onto a back wall, he didn’t relate that wall to the eye’s retina, an anatomical feature of which he was unaware. This connection was made by Johannes Kepler around 1600, with the result that images inside the head returned as the dominant issue, sidelining the 2D analogues to a 3D world generated by Florentine perspective. For theorists from Descartes onwards (and indeed arguably for painters), the way the brain apprehends the world via the lens and retina settled in as an increasingly complex, if not inscrutable conundrum. Meanwhile the physical mechanism of the camera, conjoined with 19th-century chemistry, has helped to persuade us that a certain type of one-point perspectival picture constitutes a ‘normal’ representation of the world.

But pictures themselves were not normal, Belting argues, in the context in which Alhazen first developed ‘perspective’ – a workable theory, that is, of the way we see the world. The symbolic forms of classical Islam swing into view in girih, muqarnas, mashrabiyya: knot-patterns, honeycomb vaulting and lattice windows. Each invites the viewer to acknowledge and contemplate, through line, a potentially endless multiplicity of foci. There is a sense, as Belting notes, in which these geometrical abstractions represent the world: a sense dependent, though he does not mention this, on the way the Qur’an points to broad structuring rhythms that offer ‘signs’ for the reasoning mind:

Most surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day, and the ships that run in the sea with that which profits men, and the water that Allah sends down from the cloud, then gives life with it to the earth after its death and spreads in it all (kinds of) animals, and the changing of the winds and the clouds made subservient between the heaven and the earth, there are signs for a people who understand.

In Islamic visual constructions, lines interweaving in intricate alternations and subserviences draw the viewer away from local, individual concerns and out towards general proposals about how things might hold together. This abstract sacred art, which, Belting says, came into full maturity around the year 1000, provided a model for science. Light, for Alhazen, a strictly rational theist, was a physical component of the cosmos, not a miraculous force transcending it, and as such it conformed to geometric necessities. It was when it entered the mind via the eyes that light’s progress became hardest to track: the private recesses of the mind were inherently prone to confusion and fantasy, and at the same time it was there alone that images arose. The notion that images were generated externally, by the objects themselves, was one Alhazen found easy to dismiss – because, Belting claims, external images had no place in his experience. They would not have been encountered in Fatimid Cairo: ‘We cannot speak at all of pictures in Arab culture.’

Ever since its inception in the seventh century, Islam had marginalised figurative art, if not banned it outright. Even more alert than its antique predecessors to the thought that eyesight was inherently dynamic and potentially aggressive, Islamic society aimed to submit it to strict discipline, from the aniconism of sacred art to the insistence on the veiling of women. Contrast this to the context that Alhazen’s optics entered after their Latin translation. By the 13th century, Western European culture was already on the course that would set the human viewpoint in apposition to the divine. Roger Bacon, writing about optics in the 1270s, interpreted Alhazen’s mental images as if he meant actual pictures, and the principle that perceptions might resemble paintings would soon be demonstrated in reverse by Giotto, with his new effects of trompe l’oeil and sculptural volume. The picture, formerly an adjunct to scripture and ritual, began to be regarded as a record of what a certain individual might look at. Conceptually, the lines that moored art to theology had already been loosened long before Brunelleschi invented a system to simulate the way objects would appear to a single viewer.

It is crucial for Belting that this innovation happened at the same time as portraiture took off. The picture that offered the viewer fictive depths receding to a vanishing point and the picture that fictively stared out at him from the wall were, he argues, two sides of the same coin. The psycho-historical nexus in question is ‘the gaze’. This is where the book’s bold transcultural project overlaps with much else written in art history over the past few decades, and where its edges start to blur. ‘The gaze’, for these purposes, is a field of visual tension within which subjects and objects separate and polarise. The concept enables us to approach relations between the watcher and the watched (whether paired as male with female, master with servant or audience with artwork) not just as a base opposition but rather as a psychological ecosystem. Theorists have tracked ‘the gaze’ through many phases of European art since Jacques Lacan lent the concept its current complexion. Commonly they salute this conceptual tool as if it were some macho, malevolent dictator, a habit Belting too falls in with. Of the 14th century he writes: ‘The gaze was demanding pictures of the world and wanted to procure them.’

The pressure of such a demand, Belting goes on, brought about the new, Brunelleschian picture that opened up a window on the world for a viewer to look through. And this motif of the window, which ‘permits a viewer to be “here” with his body but to go “there” in a disembodied form’, is ‘pivotal’ because it gives rise to the split in Western thinking between the interior – ‘the symbolic location of a subject’ – and an exterior world ‘reached only in the gaze’: a world over which the gaze would become ‘sovereign’. Belting’s arguments here draw on the radical philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and also relate to various critiques of ‘ocularcentrism’, stretching as far as Foucault’s accounts of social systems of surveillance. The keyword he invokes unlocks a storehouse of political connotations. All-mastering and unitary, ‘the gaze’ ends up presiding over just about everything that is problematic about Western modernity.

Florence and Baghdad started out as a study of the gaze in Western art, and its later chapters offer some subtle readings of Renaissance art history within that frame. Belting at his best writes with an infectious, ingenuous intellectual excitement, and though his prose can sometimes be dense it never means to be mystifying. Nonetheless, his treatment of the gaze strikes me as the driest, most campus-bound aspect of the book. James Elkins, a shrewd surveyor of art studies, remarked several years ago that the whole concept had become ‘both overdetermined (burdened by contradictory theories) and radically underdetermined (worn too thin to have much purchase on individual artworks)’. Belting refreshes the discussion when he contrasts the sovereign gaze of the secularising West to the theocentric context in which perspective was first conceived. Against a window that rules over the visible, he pits the mashrabiyya, the lattice window which, scrambling the view, ‘tames the gaze and purifies it of all sensuous external images through its strict geometry of interior light’. In that description the gaze reappears again, before and beyond Western modernity. It turns out that it is, quite literally, wherever you look. This louring demigod not only has to function as an omnipresent source of subjectivity: it has to take a lead in history as it subjects things to its command, and moreover it has to be subject itself to historical change. Insisting on its indivisibility, the theology that attends on it sags under the strain.

A less inturned discussion might be had about the historical reliability of Belting’s thesis, and what bearing, if any, it has on current cultural tensions. The book’s main remit is to spell out a sequence of conceptual changes in the meanings of vision and visual art running from antiquity to Islam and Western Christendom, and in this it is memorable and convincing. It’s a task, however, undertaken with the aid of some swingeing essentialisations. ‘Islam’, ‘Arab culture’ and ‘the Middle East’ are spoken of more or less interchangeably, and it is never clear how far Belting has explored these zones in person. Well, he does insert one sly snapshot of his own showing an Istanbul trinket stall in which madonnas jostle with Qur’anic texts. This underlines his contention that ‘“Seeing” means something utterly different in the two cultures. Since images were understood in Arab culture to be purely mental ones, they could not be copied or depicted as analogues of nature in physical artefacts.’

He allows for the fact that Arab, Persian and Turkish courts, all the way back to Abbasid Baghdad, employed painters who did indeed produce physical images. But these, he argues, were exclusively miniatures tied to the texts they illustrated, available only for private experience. I check the assertion against my own touristic observations and think of the sensuous, life-size frescoed damsels adorning the Ali Qapu palace in Isfahan and, perhaps more to the point, the large and entirely public scenes of battle painted around the gateway to that city’s bazaar. Admittedly, these paintings are from the 17th century and are in Iran, whose painting tradition goes back to pre-Islamic, Sogdian forebears, and so might be a special case. Uneasy, nonetheless, with Belting’s generalisation, I turn like him to the library – but to the other end of the shelf. He insists that for Alhazen, analogue images ‘did not exist even as a possibility’, but Jonathan Bloom’s study of the Fatimid era, Arts of the City Victorious, quotes al-Quda’i, a near contemporary of Alhazen’s who compiled a survey of Cairo’s painters and who relates that in a court contest among them,

Ibn Aziz said: ‘I will paint a figure in such a way that when the spectator sees it, he will think that it is coming out of the wall.’ Whereupon al-Qasir said: ‘But I will paint it in such a way that when the spectator looks at it, he will think that it is going into the wall’ … So they each designed a picture of a dancing girl, in painted niches opposite one another … al Qasir painted a dancing girl in a white dress in a niche coloured black, as though she were going into the painted niche, and Ibn Aziz painted a dancing girl in a red dress in a niche that was coloured yellow, as though she were coming out.

We can only guess, needless to say, at the range of illusionistic effects these painters used to win their robes of honour from the vizier. The lead in Islamic societies has habitually been taken by those who disapprove of images and very often by those who erase them: even Bihzad’s Yusuf and Zulaykha, the most revered of all Persian miniatures, has come down to us with Yusuf’s facial features scratched piously away. But was the pre-modern Middle East a picture-free preserve, as Belting imagines? That might be a historical fantasy.

Picture-making – an activity hard to un-invent – has probably always existed in tension with suspicions of the visual, and this matters because of its impact on the present. Belting has made a careful, honourable contribution to contemporary debates about culture clash. He has thought hard about what it means to avoid Eurocentricity and at the end of each chapter, whether on developments in the East or the West, he presents a Blickwechsel, a swap of viewpoint in which the other culture gets to parenthesise what’s been described. Perhaps it’s inevitable that, in the attempt, life as it is experienced gets sidelined. ‘The veil,’ Belting informs us, ‘which today is becoming a symbol for the suppression of women in Islamic societies, was once part of a visual culture with fine gradations that imposed duties on both sexes.’ Ah, ‘once’ upon a time! The fine gradations, the mutual obligations of yesteryear! Here is a lofty, intellectualised version of our East-leaning dreams.

Those dreams, however, have become ineradicable from European culture. An example on a more sensuous level would be Matisse’s pursuit of notions of Persia and then Morocco in the paintings of his early forties. The results were axiomatically Orientalist, touristic through and through – and at the same time, undeniably, they enlarged the scope of Western art. As Matisse felt his way around the different values given to colour, figure and decoration in those cultures, he significantly extended what the Western tradition might express.

It happens that I was a tourist in Morocco for a week this spring. Returning to England, I reinspected shots of souks and alleys and noticed in them hands I hadn’t registered before, raised to shield the faces of female passers-by who wished to avoid capture by my camera. It was another reminder that a Dar al-Islam that seeks to repel ‘the gaze’ is by no means a thing of the past. Equally, that the gaze in its role as psycho-dictator had been pulling me along to do its bidding. How uneasy should I feel? Sight is ineluctably dynamic and however you try to temper its aggression, these kinds of to and fro are deeply built into the culture we inhabit. The snapshotting impulse is a surface tremor from the same seismic force that surges through the work of Picasso, Matisse’s rival and modern art’s other progenitor. Think of the Demoiselles d’Avignon and all the other melodramas of subjecthood and objecthood produced by the Andalusian with his mirada fuerte, his X-ray, rapacious eyes.

Mindful of those examples, perhaps we could reshuffle the culture clash – in effect, bring it nearer to a class divide. For those of us, at least, caught up in the service of that contemporary symbolic form known as the white cube, a common set of tensions now applies, whether we come from London or Tehran, from Cairo or Berlin. We find ourselves grandchildren of both Matisse and Picasso. We probably have it in us to admire the workers in the souk tapping away at the inlay of some spatially dynamic, historically invariant design; to feel interest in their daily rhythm, with its punctuation of prayer; more, to revere the visual effects their art has to offer and the release these may bring into contemplative pleasure. (Much as we hope to respect the wish of people not to be stared at.) And then, remembering that if we are looking on, this art will most likely be either tourist merchandise or tied to some ‘heritage’ project, we are soon brought back to the globalisation in which we all now participate, and the only honest artistic register of its glare seems to be some form of gnarled, self-conscious, confrontational howl.