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Shedding light on darkness

After a gap of 20 years, a monumental series about the representation of black people in Western art is back on track

Rembrandt van Rijn, Two Africans, 1661, Hieronymus Bosch, Black King from the Adoration of the Magi (detail), around 1510, and Jean d’Aix-la-Chapelle, Black King from the north portal of Strasbourg Cathedral, 1497-1503

For a supremely educated Roman of the first century AD, black people were literally monstrous—prodigies of nature, good for challenging assumptions based on limited experience. “Where people who live far beyond the sea are concerned,” the elder Pliny argued reasonably, “I have no doubt that some facts will appear monstrous and, indeed, incredible to many. For who could ever believe in the existence of black people, before he actually saw them?”

A long list of monsters followed, including the cyclopean Arimaspi; the hermaphrodite Nasamones; creatures whose eight-toed feet were turned backwards; the dog-headed Cynocephali; the single-footed Sciapods; the Troglodytes with “no necks and with eyes in their shoulders”; tailed men; anthropophagi, and men who could enfold themselves in their huge ears.

The perception of black people as one lot of monsters among many explains the ambiguity with which western artists represented them, reflecting the debate on the monstrous that convulsed western tradition. For St Augustine, monstrosity was a deformity only in the eye of the beholder, incapable of seeing the beauty God had encoded in all creation. Agreement with his point of view animates one of the most celebrated works of medieval art—the portal of the monastery church of Vézelay, where Christ spreads his arms to welcome most of Pliny’s monsters, along with the rest of humankind. Other works celebrated Cynocephali as saints, or hairy wodehouses as morally superior to Christian knights. Yet Albertus Magnus, for instance, insisted that perfect reason could only dwell in a “normal body”, relegating the similitudines hominis to the nether rungs of the ladder of creation. Most of the putative monsters did not exist. So art could assign them to the margins of the human moral community without grave consequences. Black people did exist. So the way they were represented proved fateful.

This context might help the authors and editors of The Image of the Black in Western Art—a vast attempt to describe and explain the conflict between appreciative and pejorative representations of black subjects from ancient Egyptian antiquity onwards. Launched in the 1960s, the project stuttered to a halt more than 20 years ago, amid problems concerning funding, copyright, and the mutual jealousies of collaborating institutions. Now the original patrons—the Menil Collection and Foundation—have joined the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and Harvard University Press in re-igniting the scheme, under the general editorship of David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Of the three previously published volumes, two have appeared in a sumptuous new edition with much additional material and copious colour pictures. The final volume of the original series, on the 19th century, according to the publishers’ promise, will get the same treatment. Meanwhile, the 16th and 17th centuries, which were a gap in the first edition, fill two new volumes, of which the first has appeared and the second is imminent. Two more volumes, still in preparation, will add coverage of the 20th century.

The books are a wonderful resource: a glitteringly decorated window into the Du Bois Institute’s unrivalled archive of relevant images. The accompanying essays, which are models of erudition, are inescapable reading for anyone interested in the subject. The editorial principles underpinning the work, however, are inscrutable. Some of the original contributors’ essays appear alongside new contributions that often contradict them. Others form appendices. The new chapters hardly address the main problem of the old ones—the uneven coverage of the topics included. The medieval volumes are updated only by way of an introduction by Paul Kaplan. They reproduce the texts of Jean Devisse, Michel Mollat, and Jean-Marie Courtès, which, while heroic for their day, are now seriously out of date. Before disarmingly expressing dissatisfaction with their work, Devisse and Mollat concluded that a new sensibility in the treatment of black people began with the late 14th-century Catalan Atlas; real experience of Africa humanised black people and made their portrayal more sympathetic. The new editors allow these assertions to go unchallenged, whereas they do not fit the chronology the images disclose, and conflict with cartographic evidence that Mollat, as a specialist, might have taken into account. The authors were closer to the truth in arguing elsewhere that “real contact with Africa opened…under ambiguity and contradiction”.

Ambiguities and contradictions are seams that run through the work. As the general editors point out, Dominique de Menil, the project´s founding patroness, believed in art as “an antidote to prejudice”. She saw the publication of historical images of black people as vindicating the Civil Rights Movement—demonstrating that “Western artists…included black figures in positive…and often celebratory ways”. The new generation is less sure. Jean Vercoutter’s study of black people in ancient Egypt finds unambiguous representations only of enemies and captives, while Jeremy Tanner, introducing the first volume, sees “parallels between the different ancient societies…and the modern West in terms of some of the characteristic tropes used to demean racial others”.

To represent the opposite point of view, the editors leave intact the magnificent essay Frank Snowden contributed to the original edition. He acknowledged that Greek representations “reflect the cosmopolitanism of the age and prompt the inference that the sentiment…‘I am a man; I consider nothing human foreign to me’ was not limited to philosopher or dramatist”. Snowden found no evidence of a “stereotyped concept of the Negro as ugly, apotropaic, or comic”, but many instances of “sympathy and attraction”.

Similar tensions dapple the new volumes’ treatment of the vexed question of whether medieval artists equated blackness with evil. David Bindman deprecates the oversimplified identification popular in recent scholarship. Yet he accuses Devisse and Mollat of minimising the negative connotations of black skin, especially in connection with Bosch’s Adoration, where, he points out, a black figure stands next to the Antichrist. The black king and page in the same painting, however, are more prominent on the side of good. Devisse and Mollat seem to have got this much right in their account of the uncharacteristically wide range of types with black faces or features in Western art. The metaphorical blackness of sin afflicted all humankind, and with it “went sadness, death, and danger”.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

The Image of the Black in Western Art: Volume I: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire; Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 1: From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood; Volume II: From the Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”, Part 2: Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World; Volume III: From the “Age of Discovery” to the Age of Abolition, Part 1: Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr, eds. Published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. £69.95, €75, $95 (hb) each volume or part

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