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


On November 7, 2018, a lecture entitled “Problems and Methods of the Mutual Reference of History and Images” was held in Room 2001, West Main, Guanghua Tower, Fudan University. It was the second 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 Associate Professor Sun Peidong from the Department of History at Fudan University.

In this lecture, Professor Li Gongming first introduced the main content of Peter Burke’s book “Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence”. Professor Li believes that “using images as historical evidence” does not help us directly enter into the society of the time, but it lets us know how people looked at that world then. However, we should pay attention to two tendencies when interpreting these images: idealization and criticism of the current situation. Therefore, evidence provided by images needs to be examined in its specific “background” and, more precisely, in a range of diverse backgrounds (such as cultural, political, and material backgrounds). Images in series would be better than single images, because evidence provided by a series of images would always be more credible than that provided by single images. In addition, Professor Li also emphasized that the method of “using images as historical evidence” was not superior to others. Whether using images or texts as historical evidence, historians need to look carefully at small and significant details. This is the foundation of historical research.

Based on Burke’s idea, Professor Li also introduced Quentin Skinner’s “revised historical contextualism” for comparison and discussion. Skinner’s research method is mainly to interpret a text as a kind of social behavior in order to find out the author’s purpose of writing. In this process, we should also understand the meaning of “context”. When seeing “an image” as “a text”, we should think about questions such as why this image exists, why it has a particular look, why it responds to a particular question, and why we use a particular word. Then we can further study its context. In summary, studying images in the context of thought and history is one of the most important methods in the study of historical images.

Professor Li also mentioned the two tendencies Burke believed should be noted in studying historical images: “pay attention to satire and suggestions as well as the potential idealization of images.” He regarded it as a question of “reality and idealism” of the research on social history and images. Professor Li studied the three Le Nain brothers’ “Peasant Meals” and other paintings, and analyzed some Chinese farmer paintings and the Chinese history of the 20th century. He reminded us to focus on the underlying ideology and discourse system when we look at historical images. As Burke put it, “the image we see is a painted concept, a ‘social landscape’ with ideological and visual meanings, or rather ‘a landscape of the times’.” Then how should we use images as historical evidence? Professor Li concluded the lecture by quoting Burke: “one [way] is to encourage the use of such evidence, and the other is to inform its potential users of possible pitfalls.”

Finally, Professor Li Gongming had an in-depth question and answer session with the audience. For students who are interested in “history and iconography”, he suggested that they should think about its “methodology” with specific examples. They should examine the source of historical images, especially for certain periods when historical images were scarce. Moreover, how much space is there for the interpretation of images? What is the limit of historians’ subjectivity in the explanation of images? All these questions are worthy of further discussion and consideration.