Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 14, 2003
David Summers Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism New York: Phaidon, 2003. 687 pp.; 350 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0714842443)

Aware that art history still remains all too traditional in its orientation, much too focused upon European art, many art historians would like to have a true world history of art. As a student at Yale University, David Summers was inspired by George Kubler’s classes on pre-Columbian art. Now, after publishing justly renowned books devoted to Michelangelo and Renaissance naturalism, he has written a postformalist history of world art. This enormously long, clearly written book is not easy to summarize. Ordinarily surveys are organized historically, taking the reader from the Egyptians to the ancient Greeks and Romans, through to the Christian Middle Ages, on to the Renaissance and Baroque, and finally into modernism and the present. In these narratives, Islamic and Indian art are often treated as a footnote to classical antiquity. But there really is no place for Chinese and Japanese painting and sculpture, which have an independent tradition, nor for pre-Columbian or Oceanic art, which have little connection to Europe. Writing a true history of world art requires abandoning the historical survey and developing a conceptual analysis.

Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism has chapters devoted to art materials, architectural spaces, the nature of images, and, finally, what Summers calls the conditions of modernism. Examples of artworks from all cultures are presented through his account. The starting point is phenomenological. “We do not simply face,” he argues, “but face other people, and things come to ‘face’ us as we move, but also as they are objects of attention, intention or concern” (38). Contrasting real space and virtual space (“space represented on a surface, space we ‘seem to see,’” 43)—Summers discusses Aztec sculpture, a Rembrandt drawing, and the Pyramids. He then presents “a general history of social space, the institutional, architectural space in which we find ourselves belonging to one or another group, second nature or culture” (122). Collecting a great variety of lore, including, for example, a twelve-page history of the center of Jerusalem, he discusses the political power of the center, showing how the ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, and Louis XIV were all concerned with centralized power.

On page 251, Real Spaces turns to analysis of images. Offering a suggestive account of representation based upon the physical manifestations of metaphors, using examples of icons, African masks, death masks, and miraculous images, with reference to Plato and Aristotle, Summers presents an intricately worked account of aesthetic images. This is a very general account: “surfaces provide occasions to present what we desire to face in what we do face, or are able to make in order to face” (338, italics in original). The final chapter characterizes “the formation of Western modernity as a tradition of place and image-making among other traditions” (549). Here we return to a chronological framework focused on European art. Compared with earlier cultures, we live in a time that is “continuously saturated with images, printed and electronic” (551). He summarizes the writings of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Arthur Schopenhauer and discusses the sublime, caricature, photography, and art-historical accounts of style. Presenting art by Caspar David Friedrich, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Vladimir Tatlin, Andy Warhol, and a host of other figures, Summers argues that the nature of representation has changed dramatically in recent decades. In the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, he claims, the paintings “could not be so moving if they did not engage the expectation that a ‘canvas’ present a virtual space, a prospect” (651). The epilogue contains some journalistic observations about contemporary art.

Amazed by the handsome format provided by Phaidon and impressed by Summers’s ambition, I began reading prepared to love this book. But I soon became disillusioned. Summers explains his youthful dissatisfaction with Heinrich Wölfflin’s Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1932): “I noted his admitted inability to account for the history of European art after the Baroque…” (11–12). Wölfflin’s analysis is clear, and so it is possible to offer counterexamples. By contrast, Summers’s account of the history of everything visual is too porous to argue with. Because his account of social space is so abstract and ahistorical, he often presents oddly commonplace ideas as if they were startling: “We approach the work as an achieved unity, and project that unity into the immediate past as something like the work’s ‘intention’ or final cause” (73). Is this a striking insight? “Every culture assigns divisions of places to different activities, sexes, ages and classes, and even when there is in principle free access to places, there are deep traditions of learnt and imitated behaviour perpetuating such differences in their culturally specific form” (123). Again, is this really an original idea? “We use the word ‘orientation’ to refer to inclinations and proper spatial relations to things and other people in the world” (181). It is hard to see what follows from this banal observation. Summers says too little about politics to reveal much about real cultural differences.

The dust jacket explains that writing this book has been Summers’s main concern since 1987. When reviewing a normal book, one measures its claims against the existing literature. Because Summers aspires to be extremely original, it is hard to find an appropriate standard for evaluation of his book. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1960), to pick the most obvious comparison, also offers a far-reaching synthesis. However you ultimately judge it, Ernst Gombrich’s book presents a clear thesis using many striking examples. The trouble with Real Spaces, by contrast, is that Summers’s applications of his elaborate theory are unilluminating. The Mona Lisa, he explains, “is the individual mask of her own inwardness, of the mind and heart suggested to us by her famous smile” (331). Here we hardly advance beyond Walter Pater. In Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Summers notes that “if the dead rise with some hope to divine judgement on Christ’s right, they fall to emphatic damnation on his left” (379). Surely this is a simple intuitive observation. In Masaccio’s Trinity, he writes that “neither God the Father nor Christ are foreshortened as they would be if they were seen as sharply from below as the view into the coffered ceiling of the vault suggests” (457). Introductory surveys give this information. Like Martin Heidegger, Summers makes straightforward claims in a pretentious way. “Museums make possible the broader public experience of formerly avant-garde art” (626). Certainly everyone knows that.

Summers’s desire to avoid focusing exclusively on European art is admirable, but his ingenious cross-cultural examples are often not persuasive. When, for example, he compares foreshortening in a first-century Roman landscape and a Chinese hand scroll (453–54), he neglects to give more attention to the obvious differences between these two mediums. And when the uses of symmetry in pre-Columbian and fifteenth-century painting are treated as examples of how “opposition of right and left” joins an image “to a larger cosmic order” (390), I am unsure how to understand that generalization. Describing a landscape attributed to Li Ch’eng, he observes that “we cannot hear the waterfalls we see, nor can we hear the activities of the tiny figures below….” (464). But after all, most pictures only represent what is seen. Summers’s account of images has elaborate discussions of optics, with full diagrams. But when he notes that Giotto’s Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis “used planar order within the optical cube to emphasize parts of the event he has made us seem to see” (502), it is not obvious that the artist’s technical apparatus is needed to reach this conclusion. I enjoyed the case studies from visual cultures that I know nothing about, but I found not a single example demonstrating that Summers’s elaborate abstract analysis was intellectually profitable. The author claims to have “learned very much from the criticism of Michael Fried” (12). Fried offers very original interpretations, using them to develop a suggestive methodology. When, by comparison, Summers notes that Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio uses “allegory to state a truth that undercuts allegory itself…” (534), his account seems elementary.

Ultimately one has the impression that Summers, for all of his obvious intellectual distinction, is a very isolated author. Very widely read, he seems unable or unwilling to enter into dialogue with his contemporaries. There is something curiously old fashioned about his synthesis, as if he were redoing Rudolf Arnheim’s gestalt psychology in a more abstract way. Although he claims to be presenting a general analysis, his basic theoretical apparatus comes from European philosophy, and from Islamic commentaries on Greek philosophy. One learns very little about how non-Europeans understood their own art. Were it condensed into a hundred pages, Real Spaces would be a significant contribution to philosophical aesthetics. As it is, and because the examples illustrate the conceptual analysis but are not themselves illuminating, one is left exhausted and frustrated. A real world art history remains to be written.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar