The Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality Atlas of the Iconic Turn

The Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality Atlas of the Iconic Turn
by Luca Del Baldo

De Gruyter, Berlin, 2020
460 pp. illus. 140 col. Trade, $37.00; PDF, $37.00
ISBN: 978-3-11-069519-9; ISBN: 978-3-11-070610-9.

Reviewed by: 
Robert Maddox-Harle
December 2021

I think I can safely say this book is unique. Del Baldo’s concept is brilliant and possibly opened more “cans of worms” than even he thought at the start of his project. Taking over 10 years to complete, this book is the result of what seems to be a “labour of love”.

In short, Del Baldo asked 96 individuals, some well-known, others not so prominent, in the fields of philosophy, science, history, ethnology, consciousness studies, and art history to send him a photograph of themselves (head and shoulders). He would then paint a portrait of each individual from the photograph and his knowledge of their work and personalities. In return for Del Baldo gifting the finished portrait to each individual, they were required to gift him a written response concerning what the portrait meant to them.

The book is nicely produced: It runs to 460 pages with 96 colour plates, one for each portrait. There are two Introductions, the first by W.J.T. Mitchell, The Visionary Academy of Ocular Mentality. The second by Horst Bredekamp, The Warburgian Tradition and Bildwissenschaft. These are followed by the portraits A to Z together with each “sitter’s” written response. These are then followed by a “Conversation Piece” by Luca Del Baldo & Andreas Beyer. This is written in Italian only which I found irritating. The publishers should have included an English translation in keeping with the rest of the English text!

“So, just what is the iconic turn?” As Bedenkamp explains, “Del Baldo has devoted his philosophical painting to the concept of the iconic turn, which has given a name to and inspired the profound methodological changes in the humanities and natural sciences that have been developing for about half a century.” Gottfried Boehm introduced the term in 1994 in an essay introduction to his book, Was ist ein Bild (What Is a Picture); this described, ”the picture’s entrance to the central area of hermeneutics and philosophizing as an autonomous instance of its own” (p.14).

Del Baldo’s skill as a portrait painter is simply astonishing. The portraits are 11”x15” and painted in oil on canvas. Almost without exception they look as though they are about to speak or come to life from the flat semi-gloss pages. I am in awe of his painting skill. After seeing photographs of, and studying the works of Daniel C. Dennett, Donna Haraway, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, Arthur C. Danto to mention a few, I now feel I know these scholars through Del Baldo’s portraits. I am not sure exactly what this means in the theoretical controversies and discussions of photography and portraiture as a means to know or represent accurately a person. One thing is for sure, this project will, or should, reassess some of these theories, especially those espoused by scholars such as Derrida, Barthes and Foucault.

As Mitchell states in his introduction: [This project]

“[I]s centered around a band of contemporary scholars who have devoted their lives to the iconic or pictorial turn, expanding the domain of art history into the larger domain of visual culture. Then further; Members of the Visionary Academy investigate vision in both its literal and figurative sense, as a study of optical technologies and perception on the one hand, and the boundless field of human understanding and imagination on the other.” (p. 10)

Not considered in the brief theoretical introductions is the psychological underpinning to portraiture and the narcissistic, egocentric ramifications of some of the sitters. This covertly surfaces in some of their responses, and so it is quite fascinating and possibly constitutes a whole study of its own.

These are some of the “can of worms” I referred to earlier. The scholar’s responses to their portraits vary from quite lengthy, theoretical discussion of Del Baldo’s mission, and from my reading, some miss the point altogether, to others that are much shorter genuine statements of appreciation. As an example, Zygmunt Bauman says it all. “Huge thanks, dearest Luca Del Baldo, for sharing with me the wonderful tributes your portraits, deservedly, mustered from your sitters. If I could only express my gratitude to you and my admiration of your art by writing something at the same level of erudition and expertise...I am not, alas, up to the task! Yours forever in debt – Z” (pp. 50-51).

I need only add, thank you Luca Del Baldo for your effort and genius in producing this body of work and sharing it with the rest of the world. This book will take pride of place in my bookshelf.