This post was updated.
I found a fascinating review of a new book by Hans Belting (for the full review, click here), who argues that the origins of perspective in Western art do not date to 13th century Florence with Giotto and Brunelleschi, but to 11th century Baghdad
in the work of Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040), a mathematician born in Basra who became known in the West as Alhazen, ‘the Arab Archimedes’. Educated in Baghdad, Alhazen spent most of his life in Cairo, where he invented the camera obscura and wrote his Kitab al-Manzir, or Book of Optics, begun in 1028. The book circulated under the title Perspectivae before it was printed in Latin in 1572, and exerted an enormous influence on Western science, from the work on optics by Roger Bacon (1214-94) to the rediscovery of the camera obscura by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)…
Alhazen’s work on mathematics and geometry and optics laid the groundwork for, but did not lead him to develop a pictorial theory of perspective; that had to wait for Giotti. “For Alhazen, images originated in the imagination, not the eye, and could not be made visible because they did not occur in the external world.”
…[P]erspective develops a ‘gaze’ which not only offers a powerfully illusionistic ‘window’ into a version of reality but also allows the viewer to discover himself in the process. Not only is perspective the dominant and enduring method for organising perceptions of spatial reality in the West, it is also central to the creation of modern subjectivity. In contrast, Islamic visual theory is predominantly aniconic, and has traditionally relegated pictures to the realm of the mind, insisting that the eye could be easily deceived and that images should not be copied or reproduced in corporeal form. Belting is careful to resist accepting this belief tout court, pointing to various exceptions in Safavid and Mughal art, but he is correct in pointing to the pervasive belief in early Arabic science that regarded ‘vision as a process whose end result was always uncertain’, and therefore ‘found suspect any pictures that stabilized perception and reified it as an artifact’. Such aniconic tendencies were only intensified under Islam. In one of his moments of Blickwechsel, Belting draws on Orhan Pamuk’s 1998 novel My Name is Red and its fictional Ottoman miniaturists, who scoff at how Venetian painters replace the Islamic representation of the world from an elevated God-like position with ‘the simple perspective of a mutt’ in the street. Belting uses Pamuk’s witty example to explain that Islam’s indifference to linear perspective is the result not of a refusal to embrace innovation – and here there is a veiled attack on Bernard Lewis’s infamous 2002 ‘What Went Wrong?’ thesis – but of a profoundly different cultural attitude towards vision and the gaze….
“Vision as a process whose end result was always uncertain” unless pictures “stabilized perception and reified it as an artifact”. This reminds me of the physics problem of Schrödinger’s cat. According to principles of quantum mechanics, a cat in a box is both alive and dead until you open the box and look inside, at which point the cat will be either alive or dead. Measurement (and, more crudely, observation) cause a system to take on one or another of its otherwise superposed states. Another interpretation would be that there are many worlds existing simultaneously, in some of which the observer sees a dead cat, in others a live cat.
I can see why scientists like Alhazen found suspect any attempt to take visual uncertainty, what is superposed in your head, and reify it as a picture or an artifact, thereby making of it a fixed reality. Alhazen understood the deceptive nature of what is in your head, and the temptation to “make it real” by projecting it outward in material form, to fix it in one state. In so doing, you are closing off worlds and taking the role of God for yourself. There will always be both a dead cat and a live one, infinitely.
Update: One of my colleagues, a Turkish art historian, just sent me a different review of the same book (click here). This review, by David J. Roxburgh, takes the approach that Beltig, a historian of medieval and Renaissance art, has too little knowledge of the Baghdad part of his argument and ends up essentializing “Islamic” art and, despite his best efforts, applying Orientalist assumptions. For one thing, Beltig doesn’t acknowledge the great variety of art produced in Muslim societies over large swathes of time. Roxburgh objects to, among other things, Beltig’s assumption that in Islamic culture “pictures” did not exist in the world but only in the mind, as constructs or abstractions. On what basis, Roxburgh asks, can one demonstrate a direct connection between Alhazen’s theory and actually making pictures in Islam? And so on. Roxburgh, a professor of Islamic Art, seems to have let Schrödinger’s cat out of the bag.