Kim H. Veltman
Review: Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing,
(Chicago, 1983), Kunstchronik, Munich, Bd. 37 (7), (1984), pp. 262-267
SVETLANA ALPERS, The Art of Describing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1983. 273 Seiten mit 175 Abb., £ 48,75.
This is an excellent book because it raises basic questions concerning the nature of pictures. The author presents a brilliant argument with clarity and elegance: there are two distinct kinds of art. One is developed in Renaissance Italy and derives, according to the author, from Alberti's definition of a picture whereby a viewer looks through a picture plane at a substitute world or stage on which humans perform actions based on poetic texts. In this narrative art the dictum ut pictura poesis explains and legitimizes images (p. XIX) "through their relationship to prior and hallowed texts". These verbal roots of Italian art explain why so much of it stems from handbooks and treatises. The author claims that, by contrast, Northern art is produced by craftsmen who are guild members, artists who ignore verbal description and focus on visual description. Whereas Italian art centres around representation of the human body, Northern art is concerned with (p. XXXIII) "representing everything else in nature exactly and unselectively" (cf. p. 78).
This contrast between Italian and Northern art is a conscious development of earlier ideas by Hegel (p. 249), Riegl (p. 251) and is intended as a visual equivalent of Foucault's approach (p. 79). It is also a reaction against and challenge to Panofsky's view which saw the North in Italian terms (pp. XXI-XXIV).
Professor Alpers is concerned, and this makes the book so exciting, with establishing a context for pictorial phenomena of the North in terms of seventeenth century theories of knowledge (p. 249). A first chapter explores the views of Constantijn Huygens expressed in his Autobiography and his Dagwerck: his fascination with camera obscuras, with purely visual evidence and the interplay of art, experimental science and knowledge. A second chapter develops these themes in relation to Kepler's model of the eye as a camera obscura: (p. 35) "that border line between nature and artifice that Kepler defined mathematically, the Dutch made a matter of paint".
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