An impressionistic account misses the bigger picture

April 12, 2002

Ever since his classic study, The Renaissance Sense of the Past (1969), Peter Burke has been regarded as something of a trailblazer in his use of, and openness to, non-traditional evidence and to approaches borrowed from cognate disciplines from art history to anthropology. But in this latest book, which tries to answer the question, "what places do (visual) images hold among other kinds of historical images?", the very breadth of the chronological and thematic range of reference makes for thin analysis and jejune conclusions.

The book suffers from the decision to exclude the consideration of the use of images as historical evidence prior to what Burke refers to as the recent "pictorial turn". This has the effect of presenting the reader with a teleological narrative in which this pictorial turn is but the latest chapter in the ever-unfolding progress of historical understanding. No one, on the basis of this book, would be aware that in western Europe the systematic study of material evidence from the past was central to the humanist project, from the 14th century onwards, of reconstructing the classical world in all its aspects or that the explosion of sacred erudition consequent on the Reformation engendered, inter alia, the birth of archaeology, numismatics and iconography. Burke might argue that Francis Haskell's History and its Images (1993) and Alain Schnapp's Discovery of the Past (1996) have rendered the inclusion of such themes redundant. But their exclusion leaves an infuriatingly impressionistic account of the problems historians should take into account when using visual evidence to supplement the written record. Like Raphael Samuel in his celebration of heritage as people's history in Theatres of Memory (1995), Burke stereotypes "mainstream" history in terms of Stubbesian archive positivism, but unlike Samuel, without such a clearly articulated polemical purpose.

However, Burke not only condescends to his fellow historians. He also constructs a stereotype of current art-historical practice, which more or less stops with the work of Michael Baxandall (with a PC nod to Griselda Pollock) and so passes over the work of several of the most influential practitioners of the "new art history" such as T. J. Clark, Marcia Pointon or Thomas E. Crow. Moreover, while Craig Clunas's pioneering treatment of visuality in early modern China (which appeared in the same series as the book under review) at least makes it onto the useful bibliography, the work of his fellow series editor, Ludmilla Jordanova, author of a highly original study of scientific and medical portraiture, does not. If Burke finds "the methods by which art historians have traditionally analysed imagesI insufficient to deal with the complexities of visual imagery", this is because he has been highly selective in his characterisation of art history.

Simon Ditchfield is lecturer in history, University of York.

Eyewitnessing: The Use of Images as Historical Evidence

Author - Peter Burke
ISBN - 1 861 89092 3
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £25.00
Pages - 240

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