Lisa Saltzman: If one thinks about the relationship between art and history and memory, when we depict things, when we depict human figures, events, in some sense we are creating the visual as a site of memory.
John Hanhardt: From that bison on the cave to the great history of Renaissance painting, photography, cinema, art is about shaping memories of the history in the past.
Lisa Saltzman: From its very origins, art has always been about an act of remembrance.
Segment Title: Retrieving the Past
Shimon Attie: I was in the streets of one of Berlin’s former Jewish neighborhoods and I kept feeling the presence of these individuals that I could not see. I wanted to give visual form to my experience. And I went to many Berlin archives and just gathered photographs of Jewish street life from that neighborhood from before the war. And I did research to find out where those were taken, exactly which lot numbers.
John Hanhardt: The Jewish population that was such a vibrant part of its history, and was then so awfully destroyed through the Holocaust, is brought back through these images.
Shimon Attie: You would walk by these buildings and see these projections of former residents, schools, shops.
John Hanhardt: Shimon is exploring the recovery of the past and of memory, making it tangible through the image.
Shimon Attie: A lot of my projects deal with how can I make visible histories and memories of marginalized communities that have disappeared, but to make them visible in the landscape of the present.
John Hanhardt: Portraits of Exile is the work that Shimon was commissioned to create in Copenhagen.
Shimon Attie: We submerged nine light boxes underwater, and the project weaves together the rescue in 1943 of almost all of Denmark’s Jewish community on fishing boats to Sweden. And the other half, were portraits of present-day refugees who had sought to come to Denmark to escape persecution. And for me what tied these two stories together was water.
John Hanhardt: It’s hauntingly beautiful. And you see the buried history literally brought to the surface, these faces looking at us, up to us through the water.
Lisa Saltzman: Fundamentally, memory is an imagistic form and much of what we remember, we remember visually. Images are a way that gives us something concrete that help us to remember.
Segment Title: Imagining History
Mary Nooter Roberts: Cultures around the world, whether they had writing systems or not, they almost always developed complex mnemonic systems, or memory devices, to assist with the transmission of knowledge.
There’s one culture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Luba, that developed one of the most remarkable memory, mnemonic devices. And it’s called a lukasa memory board. It’s a wooden board, usually hourglass-shaped or rectangular, that’s covered with beads, sometimes also with bits of shell and metal. There is another variety that actually is incised with motifs of animals and figures and geometric abstract patterns.
Lukasas were developed by a historical association whose role was to assist kings with the remembrance of the past. A court historian would run his fingers over the surface of the beads. And this kind of tactile contact would stimulate remembrance of events and people and places in the past.
So anybody who would say that, “Oh, well, this culture did not have writing, so they must not have recorded their history,” is wrong, because with an object like the lukasa, it’s a merging of the visual with the verbal. Because by looking and touching the object, it stimulates oral traditions that are then recited. It’s just an incredibly complex sort of library of knowledge and information about the Luba past.
Barbara Thompson: There are so many other cultures in the world whose literacy is visual, oral, spoken, danced, performed. That is how they pass history on to future generations.
Segment Title: Reflections on History
Lowery Stokes Sims: Up to recent generations, a lot of information that African American young people got from their history comes from listening to elders tell tales. They didn’t get it in school books, you know, necessarily.
The art historian and artist Jacob Lawrence wanted to illustrate that history and in the late thirties he did three important historical series. In 1940-41, by the time we get to the Migration series, he has seen the possibilities of the narrative series. And the series allowed him to sort of mine the emotional and social and political impact of the stories as they unfolded at different moments. If we think of the purpose of making the art, was a way of really educating not only, say, younger African Americans who might not know the story as well, but also a wider audience.
The series starts with African Americans at the train station. And it talks about the fact that, you know, the war had created a shortage of jobs. And so there was this interest in moving north for opportunities where industry was really coming. Then the story goes into the consequences as the larger society realizes what’s happening with these people leaving.
The series explains through all these different episodes all the obstacles and hopes and aspirations for people. And it jumps back and forth between what’s happening in the South, what’s happening in the North, so you really get a very full sense of the history of this event.
Oleg Grabar: We remember Washington and the cherry tree much better than the Constitution, because we remember stories. It is the stories that recall the past, and it is through stories that the past was maintained.
Segment Title: Collective Memories
Oleg Grabar: The Shahnama is a great Persian epic poem by a poet named Ferdowsi, written around the year 1000. The illustrations of the Shahnama begin around 1300. And from that moment on, the books were constantly illustrated.
The Shahnama deals with the mythical history and with the real history of a country. For instance, it has several sections on Alexander the Great, or the history of the last independent Persian dynasty before the appearance of Islam. But most of the poem deals with the mythical history that begins with the creation of the universe, and the first king appears.
In the Shahnama, the history of Iran reflects the normal history of mankind. So you have stories of fights, stories of hunts, of love affairs, fights between brothers, between father and son, masses of tragedies that are universal. They are not particularly Iranian, but that have an Iranian connotation because the heroes are Iranian. Iran was very divided into different sections at that time. But there was one Iranian mythology, an Iranian memory of the past. And that is the one that Ferdowsi has reflected.
Jonathan Brown: We identify ourselves in many ways, but one of the ways we identify ourselves is through our historical memory.
Segment Title: Personal Histories
Barbara Thompson: Before ever having contact with Americans or with Western culture, Native Americans in the United States were using imagery as a way of capturing important moments of life, to document it, but also to pass it on to future generations. They were drawing on rocks. They were drawing in sand. They were painting on hides. And when the Plains peoples came in contact with Westerners, then, of course, the Westerners had paper and had pencils and ink, and pens. And this is where you have artists that were now using lined paper that had a ledger format to create ledger drawings.
Initially, the early drawings were very much like the kinds of hide paintings, in which you had a horse rider. Often horse riders were a major theme in the early works. But the repertoire of themes were expanding as their exposure to Western society was expanding as well.
In 1875 when the Great Plains wars came to an end, seventy-two warriors and chiefs were taken into custody, and they were sent to Fort Marion in Saint Augustine, Florida, to be imprisoned.
A lot of the themes from the pre-imprisonment time showed conflict between natives and settlers, or natives and military. And from the Fort Marion era, these kinds of themes were no longer depicted as often as they had been in the past.
The head of the prison, Captain Richard Pratt, saw the opportunity to sell these drawings to tourists and visitors. So it became an important source of income for the artists themselves. But also they were recording their histories as a form of nostalgia and remembrance, and trying to hold onto the identity that was being stripped from them. And it’s a story of defeat, on one hand, but incredible survival and continuance on the other hand.
Segment Title: Picturing History
Barbara Mundy: In Mexico one of the great tragic events after the conquest was that the friars sent over to evangelize the native peoples felt that too much knowledge lay in the great libraries, and therefore they put them to the torch. Thousands of native manuscripts were burned.
Mónica Domínguez Torres: The loss of all their repositories of memories, the history of these people was a huge loss. But these communities made many other books in the colonial period, and some of them are the ones that we use today to understand these cultures.
In Mexico, communities used paintings and visual images to record their memories. The format of the indigenous books was very similar to the European books, but what we have is a sort of a screen that can be folded and unfolded. And they relied only on images.
And there is the lienzo format, where we have a piece of cloth that’s all painted. The lienzos normally were devoted to the story of a community, important dates in the calendar, important historical events.
The Lienzo of Tlaxcala was created in the mid-sixteenth century, and it was actually a huge work. And today we only know it by copies. Unfortunately, the original was lost in the nineteenth century.
This lienzo basically tells a story of how Tlaxcalans helped the Spaniards in order to achieve the conquest of Mexico. It starts with the re-foundation, so to speak, of Tlaxcala as a Christian community. Then we move to the past, to see the first contact between the Spaniards and the people of Tlaxcala. And then they continued on with the collaboration between the Spaniards and the Tlaxcalans, and with wars that actually happened after the fall of Mexico.
There is this particular image that contains all the supplies that the people of Tlaxcala gave to the Spanish troops. And it contains the image of Doña Marina or La Malinche, who was the interpreter and lover of Hernán Cortéz, and was instrumental in the conquest of Mexico.
In Mexico, history is pretty much alive. And even though the Spaniards and Europeans tried to burn their books, they couldn’t burn their memories.
Barbara Thompson: Any kind of art or pictorial history has to be looked at very, very carefully, taking into consideration whose story is being told and from which perspective.
David Bernstein: The Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most famous works of art from the European Middle Ages, was made to commemorate the Norman invasion of England in 1066.
It’s actually an embroidery, which means that the images are made with a needle and thread. It’s epic in scale: two hundred and thirty feet long, though only twenty inches high, which makes it like a frieze or a continuous strip narrative.
The story that the tapestry tells is the political background of why there was an invasion. The aged king Edward died without heir, leaving a contested succession. There were two claimants: an Englishman named Harold, and William, Duke of Normandy.
William, with about six thousand soldiers, came to England to exercise what he said was his legitimate right to be the king of England.
The tapestry shows us the preparation for the Armada. We see the way in which the ships were built—the trees being cut down, the wood being planed. The French, of course, do not venture abroad without their wine, transported on a cart with helmets and spears.
And then the tapestry shows us the actual invasion, and the famous battle of Hastings that took place in the south of England.
The tapestry was actually made in England. So here we have a paradox of the conqueror commissioning the conquered people to commemorate a victory over the English—a victory, which meant having new overlords from France. This raises the question of whether or not we have a counter narrative to the Norman interpretation of events.
One example of an alternate narrative is that when Harold, the English claimant, is shown in the tapestry, he is identified as Harold the King, Harold Rex. Whereas the Normans described him in their written accounts as Harold the Usurper, Harold the Tyrant.
It’s as if we have here footnotes which say, “What you see is not necessarily the only way to look at it.”
Larry Silver: Rubens’ Marie De’ Medici series is one of the most thoroughgoing tributes ever made by an artist. Rubens, in a sequence of twenty-four different canvases, makes her life story and personal qualities epitomes of what any ruler could hope for.
There are moments where she fudges history. Rubens did an oil sketch where she actually was driven out of Paris by her son, and she rejected that subject as being a little too close to the facts of history, and a little too unflattering. So, in the place of that subject, Rubens inserted a generic image of the Felicity of Her Reign to show how everything that one could want in good government happened under her leadership as regent. So, on some level it’s meant to be a positive spin of what the political situation was that she lived through, but certainly a work for the ages.
Lisa Saltzman: Art is a particular kind of historical document. Whether we are looking back at victory monuments or columns—the Column of Trajan, the Arch of Titus—even as they are figuring something about battles and triumphs, they also are a form of visual imagination. So they are and aren’t documents.
It’s very hard to think that even the most didactic representational images are actually objective.
Barbara Thompson: Many people said history is always written in the voice of the victor.
Jonathan Brown: The Surrender of Breda records a victory of the Spanish armies in the war against the Dutch in the Dutch town of Breda.
Like all great storytellers, and perhaps even like all great historians, Velázquez shows you what happens, but he shows it under a highly focused lens that’s meant to focus on this act of magnanimity, in which Justin of Nassau—he’s the head of the Dutch troops—prepares to kneel down and deliver the keys to the city. And Ambrogio Spinola, the victorious general, says: “Stop. There’s no need for you to do this Justin. I recognize your valor and by having beaten you I am even better.”
What we see in the picture takes great liberties because we know that the two commanders did not meet face-to-face. So it was a dramatic scene. It’s invented, it never really happened this way.
By altering the way in which the surrender took place, Velázquez was emphasizing the great generosity, the magnanimity of the Spaniards and the king of Spain.
History turned out differently, as it has a way of doing. Ten years later, half of the conquered territories have been reconquered. This was certainly true of Breda, which was back in Dutch hands.
This is contemporary history for you: today’s victories would be tomorrow’s defeat.
Lisa Saltzman: One of the things that also happens with history paintings, with historical monuments, is that their meaning is never quite fixed. They can always be appropriated, reused, reinterpreted. Classical antiquity, or classicism, becomes a vocabulary. Certain styles, certain historical styles, certain architectural styles are reused, reimagined, recycled.
Segment Title: Appropriating History
Thomas Crow: In every period there was classicism. Serious culture always saw itself as being descended from the example of the Greeks and the Romans. And in the middle of the eighteenth century you have something called Neoclassicism that was a new standard of truth to the origins or source of the tradition.
Neoclassicism in terms of painting is most associated with the name Jacques Louis David, who wanted to reinvent art on his own. To take what he observed and not filter it through the tradition, but bring it back in its pure and immediate state.
The painting Oath of the Horatii: triplet sons are vowing to their father that they will fight or die for Rome. So he’s gone back to the origins of the Roman state, and tried to produce a painting, which in a way is a new beginning—a kind of rebooting of art to create a new point of origin.
In David’s eyes there was much that needed to be taken away—superfluous ornament, for example, a lot of incident, of detail, of accessory figures. David’s paintings stripped all that away. Where there didn’t need to be anything to advance the narrative, David took it out. He is trying to say, “This is what history painting is supposed to be like.”
But the story doesn’t have the depth of true tragedy. And I think that’s what he was trying to achieve in the painting of the first Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic, who has just executed his own sons for treason, so uncompromising is his patriotism.
David shows the aftermath, the grief of the household, the costs of patriotism. It makes every kind of sense that this painting would be about the origin of a republic. And it was first shown in 1789, which was the summer of the fall of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.
Lisa Saltzman: In the aftermath of the nineteenth century we didn’t have the grand tableaux of history painting. One could say that photography took over that role of giving us the visual depiction of something about, if not history, at least our present.
John Hanhardt: We are becoming a digital media culture. And this is a fundamental change in terms of how artists work and it provides a whole new window unto the world—unto history and memory.
Segment Title: Exploring Memory
Shimon Attie: Aberfan was a small coal-mining village in South Wales that suffered a terrible tragedy in 1966. A coal mining-related avalanche buried the village’s only elementary school. The village lost almost all of its children plus several dozen adults.
The village instantly became famous. And became a site for disaster tourism, and has been ever since. The village has been haunted by all the photographs and film that are endlessly rebroadcast about the day of the disaster. They have felt like they are not able to move on.
So the BBC invited me to come to the village on the occasion of the forty-year anniversary since the disaster, to see if a contemporary artist could actually do something different. And I made two promises to the village: I would not use any archival images of the disaster, and I would show them and represent them in a way they’ve never been seen before.
So I took as my working method: what does it take to make a Welsh village? There are iconic types in every Welsh village: the traffic warden, the police officer, the ex-coal miner, the male choir, the boxer, etc. And I had them perform being themselves. I asked them to hold static poses on an unseen revolving stage.
This work was the first of my multiple-channel video installations, and therefore, it was the first time that I began to translate some of my interests with memory and history into the moving image.
John Hanhardt: He sort of lifted this past through the present and given it a haunting kind of memory.
Shimon Attie: The challenge was to create a piece whereby the history would be present, but would not over-determine the present. And to help the village at least in the realm of the imaginary, take its rightful place as a Welsh village among other Welsh villages.
John Hanhardt: Art is really a means to reflect what is human, tragic, and hopeful. Art gives us a guidepost to that, to look back to history, and to what we’ve experienced and perhaps shouldn’t have forgotten; to what we have to confront today and into the future.