• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Edge of Delusion

The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response

by David Freedberg
University of Chicago Press, 534 pp., $39.95

This learned and heavy volume should be placed on the shelves of every art historical library. It makes accessible, for the first time within the covers of one book, a large range of miscellaneous lore about the role of images in cult, folklore, and culture. As a classical scholar and as a trained historian the author has devoted many years to the study of the religious controversies concerning images, particularly in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. He is an authority on pagan and Christian attitudes to the representation of sacred personages, the miracles attributed to them, and the legends, pilgrimages, and ex votos to which they gave rise.

He deals with the links between religious art and devout meditation, the role of effigies in legal practice and mob violence, and the hostile reaction to images resulting in censorship and vandalism. His text and his notes thus provide an invaluable guide to material frequently neglected by historians of art. This is indeed the purpose of the book, but the subtitle, Studies in the History and Theory of Response, also reveals more ambitious aims. He wishes to establish what is specific in the psychological effect of images, and here his range turns out to be more restricted. The response of laughter or of disgust is barely mentioned; nor is the effect of contagion, mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci, as when the sight of a yawning figure in a picture makes us yawn.

Maybe it was Freedberg’s second aim that here supervened. In his own words the book has “a polemical edge.” He is convinced that “much of our sophisticated talk about art is simply an evasion”—an evasion of our more instinctual reaction. “The kind of evidence,” he writes, that he found “to be most germane was exactly that which art historians usually avoid in their concern with more intellectualized forms of response.” It is this strong anti-elitist bias that inspires the author to seek for the raw and unrefined attitude to images among the “common people.” Once in a while the egalitarian reformer here gets the better of the disinterested scholar and proposes a variety of generalizations that can hardly stand up to criticism.

Freedberg announces at the outset that his process of investigation will be “inductive” and the impressive array of data he has assembled is in tune with this approach. Alas, however, the outcome also confirms the Popperian case against induction: any number of sightings of white swans cannot justify the inference that all swans are white, while a single black swan can refute it.

It so happens that the reviewer’s aviary contains at least one such black swan, which weakens the author’s case against art historians. Anyone who can consult my book The Story of Art will find that the first chapter deals with what is there described as “the power of image making.” It is true that this power is exemplified in a discussion of primitive art, but far from confirming Freedberg’s charge that the relevance of these observations to our own response is habitually denied, the chapter also says, “Instead of beginning with the Ice Age, let us begin with ourselves,” recommending a variety of experiments that should invite introspection about our response to the mutilation of an image and a drawing of eyeless faces. And if Freedberg in his summing up insists on “the uselessness of the category of art” the book in question argues that case right from its opening lines.

The point at issue is not one of priorities, of who said what first. One merely regrets that Freedberg sometimes spoils a good case by making such strenuous efforts to force open doors. One of the powers of images that must naturally concern him is their capacity to elicit an erotic response. In writing about one of Titian’s naked Venuses he admits that he may seem to labor the obvious, but he still makes heavy weather over the question of how to assess the response of a sixteenth-century beholder. Now the period in question was anything but inarticulate, and a number of contemporary texts might have helped here: “If the painter wants to see beauties to fall in love with, he can create them,” writes Leonardo, whose lost Leda was probably the first of the seductive nudes that became so popular at the courts of Renaissance Europe. And Pietro Aretino recommended the sculptor Sansovino to Federico Gonzaga with the promise that he would “fashion a Venus so truthful and so much alive that she would fill anyone with lust who sees her.” Aretino’s other friend, Titian, was slightly more discreet when writing to the King of Spain about a mythological painting he was about to deliver:

Because the Danae, which I have already sent to Your Majesty, was visible entirely from in front I have wanted to introduce a variation in the other composition, and make the figure show the other side so that it will make the room in which they are to hang more pleasing to the eyes.

Nor can it be seriously argued that the majority of writers on art failed to take account of that particular power of the image. Thus John Ruskin, pursuing his vendetta against Renaissance architecture, maintained that it was wholly destroyed by pride.

But passion, having some roots and use in healthy nature, and only becoming guilty in excess, did not altogether destroy the art founded upon it. The architecture of Palladio is wholly virtueless and despicable. Not so the Venus of Titian, nor the Antiope of Correggio.”1

And touching on the very theme of the book under review, John Addington Symonds wrote,

The spirit of Christianity and the spirit of figurative art are opposed, not because such art is immoral, but because it cannot free itself from sensuous associations.2

Much nearer our own time Ulrich Middeldorf took Otto Brendel to task for his symbolic interpretation of Titian’s Holkham Venus:

It is…inconceivable to me that a Venus by Titian should have only a profoundly philosophical meaning, while there is much evidence for the preoccupation of the Renaissance with quite different reactions to the beauty of women.3

Freedberg certainly has predecessors.

It is altogether hard to accept the author’s diagnosis that art historians habitually “repress” their own response to the arousing power of images. After all, the psychoanalytic term “repression” applies to a denial of feelings which can only survive in the unconscious. But there is a difference between repressing and disregarding. If anyone would be interested in the font in which this review is printed he might examine the letter forms without paying attention to the text. Without such shifts in attention in what psychologists call “mental set” we could never handle the totality of our visual impressions.

Painting an exact copy of Titian’s Venus an artist may well disregard the erotic effect of the picture and so may the restorer who examines its state of preservation. What is even more relevant: the art student in the life class may have to disregard his response to the model and to concentrate on getting the shapes and proportions right. Maybe it is this shift of attention that has led to the aesthetic doctrine of disinterested contemplation. This reaction may have occasionally been overemphasized for reasons of prudery, but it is certainly rooted in the very demands of artistic creation. In fact, it may be argued that the discipline of the life class rests precisely on the teaching of such detachment.

If we must have the Freudian term “repression” we would also want to hear that other term, “reality principle”—not to mention the more elusive concept of sublimation, which might have to be included in a psychoanalytic discussion of these issues. Whatever form such a discussion would take, it is sure that the conflicting pulls between instinctive response and our wide-awake reason remain to be analyzed. Aby Warburg, whose interest in the power of images concentrated on the arousal of fear rather than that of desire, jotted down as a motto of his proposed theoretical papers “Du lebst und tust mir nichts” (“You are alive but will not hurt me”).4 Both of these reactions are equally relevant, for what matters in our response to the image is not only its power but also its lack of power, its inherent inadequacy as a substitute for reality.

The author devotes an important chapter to the realism of the renderings of Christ’s Passion, which he rightly links with the religious injunction to visualize these biblical events with maximum intensity. But he nowhere reflects on the difference between such endeavors and the terrible realities to which they refer. Even the attempts of the faithful to picture in their minds the agonies of the Passion must of necessity fall short of a reality that is mercifully unimaginable. But surely the same applies to the highly realistic sixteenth-century calvaries of Northern Italy, which Freedberg describes with such vivid empathy.

Statues and dioramas do not move, nor do they scream or whimper. Hence, perhaps, Leonardo’s observation that while pictures can move us to laughter, they cannot move us to tears. Hence also the common experience that the effects of pictorial realism tend to wear off. It is the addition of novel features that is likely to shock and impress. The whole history of Western art can thus be seen as an effort in escalation, the surpassing of expectations by a further approximation to realism.

This, in a way, is the subject of my book, Art and Illusion, and it is hard to understand how the author could find in it a denial of the possibility of realism. After all, the formula of “Schema and Correction” on which it is built implies a standard of correctness. Looking back on the recent past of art Vasari describes how the public of Francia and Perugino had come to think that it was impossible to do better, but the works of Leonardo da Vinci convinced them that they had been mistaken.

The last few generations have experienced a similar development in the field of technology. The author nowhere even alludes to our present-day concern with the power of images—the omni-presence of television. Yet it is again from this vantage point that we can observe the effects of increasing realism, from the photograph to the stereoscopic image and the moving picture, the impact of which must have been enormous precisely because it unfroze the “still.” Some of us remember a similar thrill when the image ceased to be mute with the coming of the “talkies.” The additions of color and of the wide screen were nine-day wonders which soon wore off, and the same would probably be as true of the proverbial “feelies” and “smellies” as it would be of the holographic film. Each of these techniques will take us to the edge of delusion but leave us dissatisfied. Is this not also inherent in the power of images?

  1. 1

    Modern Painters, Vol. III, part 4, chapter 5.

  2. 2

    The Renaissance in Italy, Vol. III, pp. 17–18.

  3. 3

    The Art Bulletin, Vol. xxix, p. 67. Freedberg certainly has predecessors.

  4. 4

    See my Aby Warburg, p. 71.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print