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Visiting Scholar Lecture Series: the First Lecture on “The Study of Historical Images”

---- “The Trend of Using Images as Historical Evidence”

Author: Feng Yunpeng Date:2018-12-20

On October 31, 2018, a lecture entitled “The Trend of Using Images as Historical Evidence” was held in Room 1901, West Main, Guanghua Tower, Fudan University. It was the first lecture of the International Center for Studies of Chinese Civilization (ICSCC) Visiting Scholar Lecture Series entitled “The Study of Historical Images”. The lecturer was Professor Li Gongming from the Department of Art History at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and the host was Professor Dong Guoqiang from the Department of History at Fudan University.

The lecture included three parts. In the first part, Professor Li Gongming briefed us on the origin and development of the study of historical images. First, he analyzed the possibility of “using images as historical evidence” in historical studies, by using examples of “The Narmer Palette” in the “The Outline of Ancient History” and the image of “The Latin Warrior” in Michael Rostovtzeff’s book “The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire”. Additionally, Professor Li also shared his experience in compiling “Guangdong Art History”. He had interpreted bronze head-shaped cylindrical objects and “animals’ faces” by referring to historical and anthropological literature and adopting the method of “the mutual reference of images and history”. Later, he discussed the development of the study of historical images from different dimensions of “disciplinary history”. First, he introduced the interpretation of the study of historical images in “History and its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past”, a book written by the English art historian Francis Haskell. Second, he introduced the evolution of the subject from “image chronicles” to “image studies” and then to “the study of historical images”, including different views on “history and image studies” of many iconographers, such as Cesare Ripa, Bellori, Lessing, Warburg, Panofsky, Gombrich and Tom Michel. Professor Li deeply regretted that the image research method had not been emphasized and developed, and that the academic community had not made a detailed comparison between images and literature to explore the inner feelings of the ancients from it. He considered it an indispensable part of the current work of summarizing academic history.

In the second part, Professor Li mainly shared his thoughts on the methodology of Haskell’s “History and its Images”. Professor Li believes that historical researchers should consider historical contexts, listen to various arguments and opinions in all kinds of actions and events, and carefully distinguish any subtle influence of these words on the images and social history of the time. In the study of the relationship between images and history, we must attach importance to the factors of human nature in humanities such as intuition, sensibility, and imagination. We should also take this opportunity to reintroduce factors, such as aesthetics, emotion, and imagination, which are often neglected in historical empirical research. Meanwhile, in the study of historical images, we should analyze images and read documents extensively and carefully, and look for the actual influence of images on history by examining various small details in historical records. However, Professor Li reminded us to remain cautious, alert, careful and patient in the study of historical images, which “looks closely at images to establish links with the past”, because “it is trivial and difficult, and full of traps and divergences.”

In the third part, Professor Li discussed the “turn” and methodology in the study of historical images in two different disciplines including art history and intellectual history. For example, he believes that the biggest difference between image research in the studies of art history and intellectual history and image research from pure artistic angles is that the former focuses primarily on its own history, while the latter studies the basis of the historical materials of art. However, the two may be connected, as social history may restrict art, or art may shape history. In this regard, by reviewing the realistic value and historical significance of “The Narmer Palette”, Professor Li proposed that art itself could be a tool to change and construct history. In addition, he also demonstrated the possibility of “using images as historical evidence” in the study of intellectual history with many examples of Ge Zhaoguang’s research.

Finally, Professor Li Gongming had an in-depth question and answer session with the audience. He urged those interested in the study of historical images to explore concrete and specific research methods step by step, and using specific problems, to find the methods matching the application. They need to expand the research field, and make full use of images and historical records to explore interdisciplinary interpretation. Meanwhile, they should try to appreciate its unique beauty.