This week I was featured in the new publication Looking at Images: A Researcher’s Guide, which was edited by Jane Birkin, Rima Chahrour and Sunil Manghani. The publication was produced to address “the development of skills in image-related research [to prompt] dialogue within and between the subject areas [of] Art & Design and Media & Communication.” Looking at Images: A Researcher’s Guide was launched at the British Library on Tuesday 4th November 2014. An excerpt of my essay ‘The Genealogy of the Image’ is below:
The Genealogy of the Image
The genealogy of the image and its relationship to reality can be traced from Plato’s Republic, through to Walter Benjamin, and more recently, Hito Steyerl. Each of these accounts discusses the ‘poverty’ of the image in comparison to the original, but they also consider the production, reception and dissemination of the image, thus suggesting the possibility for the image to change or enhance reality through “[placing] the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original itself”.
The relationship of the image to reality is also addressed in the field of image studies, which aims to investigate the complex interdisciplinary nature of the image as it relates to the study of different genres such as art, aesthetics, anthropology, cultural studies, history, philosophy and science. Sunil Manghani introduces the concept of image studies by using the metaphor of ‘an ecology of images’, as he believes that “the classificatory, comparative, and systems-based approach of ecology can be made pertinent to image studies, as it too seeks to locate how and why images operate in certain ‘environments’ or systems of meaning”…
My use of the term ‘genealogy of the image’, rather than Manghani’s ‘ecology of images’, is specifically intended to evoke the idea of ‘families’ of images. As W.J.T. MItchell describes in his 1984 essay, ‘What is an image?’: “If we begin by looking, not for some universal definition of the term, but at those places where images have differentiated themselves from one another on the basis of boundaries between institutional discourses, we come up with a family tree… [which] designates a type of imagery that is central to the discourse of some intellectual discipline.
A ‘genealogy of the image’ also suggests a network of cultural production which could function as a kind of visual anthropology. This is expressed in Aby Warburg’s study of cultural artefacts and traditions in the development of a theory of the psychological dimension of culture, whereby the human experience produced patterns of reasoning which would be evident within works of art.
My particular interest in image studies relates to the visual arts, and the ways in which image reproduction has developed as a medium for disseminating and analysing artworks, the contribution this can make to creating new dialogues between works of art, and the role of image memory in facilitating a deeper engagement with the art object…
The history of image collecting can be explored through the creation of illustrated catalogues where, as early as the 17th Century, collectors sought to capture and distribute images of their treasures in more portable means. As such, artists were commissioned to produce printed reproductions of artworks for study, comparison and distribution.
In 1660, David Teniers the Younger produced the ‘Theatre Pictorium’, the first printed catalogue of a major paintings collection. The collection was owned by his patron the Hapsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, who was cousin to King Philip IV of Spain. His first depiction of the collection however, was in the form of the painting ‘Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery’, which detailed Leopold and his fellow collectors surrounded by a selection of his paintings. As a historical artefact, this painting not only reveals the extent of Leopold’s collection, but also documents elements of the Archduke’s social relationships.
Teniers continued to document the collection through the selection of 243 of the approximately 1300 works to depict in his ‘Theatre Pictorium’. He created miniature reproductions of the paintings in oil, which were then used as models by a team of engravers to ensure the accuracy of the printed copies. Despite the inaccessibility of the private collection, the catalogue made it possible for the images to be used for reference up until the 18th Century, “and had an enormous influence on the way that collections came to be organised, understood and published”.
Networks of influence
The impact of image memory in understanding how ideas proliferate across temporal and geographical boundaries was of particular interest to German born art historian Aby Warburg. He was influenced in part by the methods of his teacher Karl Lamprecht, who believed that “the visual arts provided the only clear manifestation, or objectification, of intellectual culture that could offer access to the mentality and collective psyche of the era in which the artforms were produced.”
This prompted Warburg to consider artworks as more than simply cultural products, but also as a monument, illustration or documentation of a historical period [and he] began to construct a vast library called the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg. It was here that he began to develop his work on the ‘Mnemosyne Atlas’, a series of exhibition screens onto which were pinned photographs that explored the relationships between visual images.
Producing this work at the turn at the 20th century, concurrent with the development of photography, afforded Warburg a great advantage in visualising these relationships, which he often reconfigured and photographed to explore new themes within the work. The use of images also allowed him to create multiple narratives as “every [image was]… not only connected forward and backward in a ‘unilinear’ development [but] it could only be understood by what it derived from and by what it contradicted.” This dialectical method was conceived as an ‘iconology of intervals’, where objects were not to be classified according to art historical narrative, but rather through considering “the contrasts, analogies, tensions, and anachronisms among them”…
These examples of image reproduction have shown how images in the visual arts operate to enhance the life of the object. From Enlightenment philosophies of classification and cataloguing of the image, through to photography and online image sharing, each process explores the complex networks surrounding the production, collection and dissemination of the image.