Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Picturing History

Clio, in The Allegory of Painting,
by Johannes Vermeer
          I recently bought a copy of Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s book The Past Within Us: Media, Memory and History (2005), which explores how history is currently represented in school textbooks, novels and cartoons. What initially struck me about this book was its cover. Against a neutral beige background, there are a dozen photographs mounted on wooden sticks, as if they were placards at a protest march. Each photo shows an upraised arm with clenched fist – black arms, arms in uniform, arms in what look like Edwardian ladies’ sleeves. I find it interesting, in books which deal with ‘History’ in general, how publishers choose to depict history itself as an abstract. In this case, the publishing house Verso seems to have decided that history is about struggle and protest, about human limbs raised in anger, perhaps as a wider symbol of human agency.

            When I dutifully read E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961) as an A-Level student, I remember being slightly depressed by the cover, which showed a pile of books in a very dark and dusty library, possibly accompanied by a clock. The message seemed to be that history was very serious, sombre (and dry) stuff. The latest edition of Carr’s classic is snazzier, but more puzzling – a Magritte-style giant eye, with a cloud-scattered blue sky instead of an iris. What’s the message here? The historian as all-seeing? History as the story of human witness? Another standard book which students feel they should read before coming for an Oxford history admissions interview is Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History (1997). An early edition of this showed a cheerful, colourful collage of Mao, Stalin etc., as if suggesting that ‘History’ is ultimately about the crazy men who make things happen on a colossal scale in big countries. More recent editions of Evans’ book simply have a photograph of what looks like a firework display over Berlin’s Brandenburg gate, presumably a snapshot of the German reunification celebrations in 1990. Here, ‘History’ is represented by a spine-tingling, tangible, self-consciously important moment of the recent past.

            Perhaps because of my Renaissance interests, I’m quite attracted to the classical and early modern tradition of representing History through the figure of Clio, the muse of History, who dwelt along with all the other muses with Apollo on Mount Parnassus. One of the main images on the Oxford History Faculty website (soon to be revamped) shows Clio as painted by the Dutch painter Vermeer (d.1675) in his Allegory of Painting: a young woman in a blue-grey dress, with a wreath on her head, and a book in her hands. A young woman with a book in her hands is as good, and provocative, a symbol as any for representing our study of the human past.

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