July 13, 2014

For several years I have engaged in an email exchange with the young French scholar Karine Bouchy, who just completed her doctorate in Paris on the gesture in contemporary calligraphy and art. I described to her an experience I had in Samarkand. After visiting endless madrassas and mosques, all decorated with exquisitely patterned tiles, I went to a pre-Islamic building and suddenly saw a fresco of a human face. The shock of coming eye to eye with dead matter, of seeing a human psyche look back from a painted layer of mud, was intense. From this arose an exchange about the power of mimesis (representation or imitation of the visual world in art) versus abstraction and calligraphy. It is a fascinating, but difficult topic. I think that the big question for me is, “What would it be like NOT to be soaked in the art of images?” What does Islamic society have that we do not have, because we are addicted to images and they are not (or were not, before television, and why does TV escape the prohibition on images???). What price do we pay for creating ourselves in our own likeness, and is that what the Semitic law against images is all about? Can we go back to the Ur-moment when an image, scratched in dirt with a stick, first spoke to our eyes, and the first image maker was shocked by dead matter looking back at him, showing him his own face?? In this sense, abstract art and calligraphy are very advanced, images very primitive. It could never have begun with abstraction. With the first image mankind was suddenly different to the animals. Animism could be questioned, the long road to creating gods and then god could begin. In Samarkand: acres of patterned tiles and then, suddenly, a face and a psychology. The reverse would be just as powerful. Rooms and rooms of Rubens, as at the Louvre, and then a page from a Koran. The sharp black lines would shock and draw one in by their purity. Perhaps calligraphy and drawing can be seen as studies of the laws of nature, or at least of our visual perception of nature. Distillations of the laws of form and contrast by which we recognize things as separate from one another. This would be the “truth” element in art. I will never figure it out. Time to go back and check what Gombrich says. I forgot long ago.


  1. I often wonder about this myself. The irony to me of the Muslim attitude is to reject the depiction of something God has made in favour of text and pattern, which is way more of a human artefact. I’m also inclined to ask why it more humanist to celebrate writing and pattern than it is to portray humanity?

    But that’s a minor question. When I read this blog post of yours it got me thinking about mimesis from the point of view of another very interesting concept that has gripped me for the past few years: historicism. They say hindsight is 20-20 but I don’t think we see at all well back past the inventions and precedents of our forebears and routinely make judgements which based on precedents which had not yet been set – technological precedents, precedents of law and infrastructure, precedents in the recording of history, moral precedents. It’s very hard to imagine what it was like, what thought was like before drawing, before writing, before sound or photographic recording. It takes a lot of hard thought and research to see back past that.

    One of the things I wonder, is if we’d have people believing in a literal hell of flames or a devil with horns if no-one had tried to represent the metaphors graphically; if we didn’t have Hieronymus Bosch or all those little demons painted in old Bibles. Could it be that believers were less literal back before the pictures? To personify God or the devil or death (have you read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak which he has narrated by a personified Death?) is one thing, to paint a picture of a person is another. Could depictions such as these be behind the literalism, the fundamentalism so strong in some sectors of Christianity? It seems to have some explanatory power but then we have the fundamentalism in Islam which forbids such depictions.

    And could we have had Christ more readily in our hearts if we didn’t always see him reified in plaster with his side still bleeding? Nothing like taking a metaphor literally to empty it of its meaning.

    Another aspect I wonder about is the impact of photography. I’m pretty sure photography has irrevocably altered the way we see all images. How easily do we look at pre-photographic images without bringing the precedents of photography to bear on them? I wonder if perhaps before photography images were more readily seen as a kind of narrative, as not so different from words, and as produced by the same skills of hand for a similar purpose. In contrast, in photography we have more the replaying of a recording than the telling of a story. It is a machinisation of the telling, the taking of a physical impression, a kind of rubbing.

    Not that a photograph can’t or doesn’t tell a story, it just can’t so easily hold a timeless narrative. It’s too specific, like a Kwak beer glass when you just need a cup. It jars with expectations when you put water in it. Compare telling a story of global and timeless environmental significance using the Podocarpus latifolius with using Truffula trees and thneeds.

    In photography we also have a new precedent in the ease of the replaying, with the result that we no longer have to choose so carefully what we take the time to tell or depict. Another result is that telling in the old way can be seen as a poor recording, and hated or loved precisely for that.

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