Matthew Rampley

Hans Belting (1935-2023): An Overview of his Work

Matthew Rampley

Hans Belting (1935-2023): An Overview of his Work

Tuesday 10 January 2023 saw the passing of the German scholar Hans Belting (1935-2023), one of the most important art historians of his generation. This had a particular significance in Brno, since the Department of Art History was one of three institutions to benefit from the donation of his personal library (the other two were the Freie Universität in Berlin and the Danube University in Krems).

Hans Belting sent his collection on the art of the medieval and Byzantine world to Brno.Foto: Martin Kopáček

Belting was a well-recognised figure, internationally, when, in 1983, he published a short study, The End of the History of Art?, that established his name outside of the world of medieval scholarship.[1] It was soon translated into a number of languages, first English (1987) and then, amongst others, Italian (1990), Japanese (1991), Czech (2000), Bulgarian (2001), Mandarin Chinese (2004), French (2008) and Portuguese (2012). It made him internationally famous. His basic thesis was that modernism marked such a caesura in art that it was not possible to construct a single, continuous, narrative of progressive western art history. Until then, the history of art was commonly written about as if it followed a unified linear path of development. Single-volume surveys of art spoke of ‘the’ history of art in the singular. Belting, however, suggested that this was a questionable undertaking. Variations of this stance had already been rehearsed by others, such as George Kubler, whom Belting cited. But Belting’s book achieved the greater impact since it was fortunate enough to have been published at a critical moment when many of the basic presuppositions of the discipline were starting to be interrogated more widely.

The discipline of art history was often spoken of as being in crisis in the 1980s, and Belting’s short study contributed to the larger process of critical introspection among art historians that was underway and has continued to the present. His book coincided with another important historical moment, too, when theories of post-modernism came to be popularized in art theory and history. The idea was that not merely modernism, but art itself, had come to an end. One of the best-known exponents was the American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto. In arguing this, Danto was not suggesting that art was no longer being produced, but merely that its momentum was no longer internally generated. Initially he proposed that this was because the course of art was dictated by the overheated art market of the 1980s, that art had become a creature of commerce.[2]

Belting did not go so far in his analysis. Nevertheless, he suggested that the history of art and the writing of the history of art had to be thought of in terms of ruptures, and not merely presented as a continuous unfolding process. A similar sentiment informed his next major work, Image and Cult: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (1990).[3] Also translated into numerous languages, this major study foregrounded another rupture: the one that separated the Middle Ages from the Renaissance. The work consisted of a meticulous study of early medieval and Byzantine writings on icons and paintings. Examining the Christian theology of the image, Belting explored an intellectual framework very different from that of the present. For in Byzantine and medieval European culture, the image was not primarily a product of human skill and creative invention. Rather, it was seen as an instantiation of the holy spirit; when facing an icon, one was also in the presence of the figure represented. This accounted for the violent and emotional reactions that could be prompted by icons and which drove iconoclastic movements: the icon was never a ‘mere’ representation. This logic only finally came to an end in the early sixteenth century, Belting argued, with the emergence of the modern idea of the artist (Belting gives particular prominence to Raphael) and of the image as a work of creative art.

Belting’s idea was not wholly original. In 1910 the Viennese art historian Julius von Schlosser had explored a similar idea in relation to wax portraits and votive imagery.[4] However, he was the first to draw out its wider implications for the understanding of art and art history. His book also coincided with inquiry elsewhere into regimes of visual representation; David Freedberg, for example, as well as the anthropologist Alfred Gell examined how artistic images could ‘captivate’ the viewer.[5] However, it is in a tradition of intellectual inquiry in Germany that Belting’s work is best placed. He spent most of his career at the University of Munich and at the State School of Design in Karlsruhe, but he spent a brief period early in his career at the University of Hamburg. The Department of Art History there is associated with a string of prominent scholars who have explored questions of visual representation and viewer response, including Wolfgang Kemp and Horst Bredekamp. Undoubtedly, the most important such figure was Aby M. Warburg (1866-1929), famous for his quasi-anthropological inquiries into cognition and the affective response to images. It would be misleading to talk of a Hamburg ‘school’ of art history, since they did not compromise a coherent single group of researchers. Warburg, moreover, predated the others by several decades and remained a private scholar, albeit with strong links to the university in Hamburg. Nevertheless, it is not implausible to connect Belting to this context, and his study of icons and living presence coincided with a resurgence of scholarly work, led by Bredekamp, on the legacy of Warburg. The same year that Image and Cult was published, Bredekamp convened a conference in Hamburg on the older thinker that gave particular attention to the latter’s exploration of anthropological themes.[6]

It was perhaps a logical next step when Belting then published, in 2001, his own effort at explicitly anthropological study.[7] In keeping with the ideas of his study on icons, he referred to it as an anthropology of the image, rather than of art, and he made a point of analysing mass media images as well as works of art. It was to be one of his most widely read publications and helped launch image theory (‘Bildwissenschaft’) as a field of research in Germany. Yet it was not without its drawbacks. It was a somewhat unfocused and disorganised book, and his attempt to describe the universal, transcultural functions of the image seemed out of step with wider scepticism towards such a universalising approach. Belting was not a theorist, and his theory of the image lacked a coherent theoretical apparatus. Despite its flaws, it has remained a focus of repeated interest, and also points towards a theme that came increasingly to the fore in his work in the final decades of his career: art and visual culture beyond the traditional boundaries of Europe.

A string of works followed in which he pursued this interest. A major project, ‘Global Art and the Museum,’ undertaken in collaboration with Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel, resulted in three significant anthologies, published between 2009 and 2011, on the contemporary global art world.[8] His study Florence and Baghdad (2008) was an examination of the intellectual debt of Renaissance Florentine art, in particular Brunelleschi’s invention of perspective, to medieval Islamic optics and science.[9] Criticised for its reliance on a simplistic opposition of East and West, and for its conflation of ‘Islamic’ and ‘Arabic,’ it was nevertheless a significant attempt to examine patterns of cross-cultural exchange and to provincialise European art and culture. His final major work was a study of the Seneghalese poet and politician Léopold Senghor, first president of Senegal and leading theoretician of négritude.[10] It was testament to Belting’s endless energy in pursuing new subjects and ideas.

Belting left an important legacy for art historical inquiry. Rarely addressing theoretical and methodological questions head-on, he demonstrated how the study of historical material nevertheless raised them. Aside from the numerous empirical insights his work generated, his main contribution lay in his tacit questioning of many assumptions framing the history of art as a discipline. Textbooks that speak of the history of art as a unified phenomenon abound and remain popular; art history syllabuses at many universities still rely on surveys of ‘the’ history of art, even today. The value of his work was to point out how problematic this practice is. Despite his passing, therefore, Belting as an intellectual presence will be with us for a considerable time to come.

[1] Hans Belting, Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte? Überlegungen zur heutigen Kunsterfahrung und historischen Kunstforschung (Munichm, 1983).

[2] Arthur Danto, The State of the Art (New York, 1987). Danto also developed a somewhat different elaboration of this claim in which he stated that, from the 1960s onwards, anything could be a work of art and that art had become indistinguishable from philosophical reflection on art. Danto, After the End of Art. Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton, 1997).

[3] Hans Belting, Bild und Kult. Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (Munich, 1990).

[4] Julius von Schlosser, ‘Geschichte der Porträtbildnerei in Wachs,’ Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen des Allerhöchsten Kaiserhauses 29 (1910-11) pp. 171-258.

[5] David Freedberg, The Power of Images (Chicago, 1989); Alfred Gell, ‘The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,’ in Jeremy Coote and A. Shelton, eds, Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics (Oxford, 1992) pp 40-63.

[6] Horst Bredekamp, Michael Diers, Charlotte Schoell-Glass and Andreas Beyer, eds, Aby Warburg: Akten des internationalen Symposions, Hamburg 1990 (Weinheim, 1991).

[7] Hans Belting, Bild-Anthropologie. Entwürfe für eine Bildwissenschaft (Munich, 2001).

[8] Belting and Andrea Buddensieg, eds., The Global Art World. Audiences, Markets, and Museums (Ostfildern, 2009); Belting and Buddensieg, eds, Global Studies. Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture (Ostfildern 2011); Belting and Peter Weibel, eds, The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Artworlds (Cambridge, MA, 2013).

[9] Hans Belting, Florenz und Bagdad. Eine westöstliche Geschichte des Blicks (Munich, 2008).

[10] Hans Belting, Ein Afrikaner in Paris. Léopold Sédar Senghor und die Zukunft der Moderne (Munich, 2018).