Writers of art history have long kept different cultures on separate shelves, but the modern world has shown how they relate to one another. Julian Bell on why he has gone global with his own story of art
These two heads belong to traditions as far separated as any in world history. The stone carving is from ancient Mexico and the pen drawing from Renaissance Germany. Mexico was first peopled a good 15,000 years ago by migrations that entered the Americas from Siberia. There is scant evidence for any later contact between the civilisations that grew up there and those that grew up in Europe, Asia and Africa.
The stone head, carved by a Totonac living on Mexico's Gulf Coast, draws on shamanic thinking. Shamans can transmute from human to animal because they can reach back and tap the primal stuff of which everything is composed. For other mortals, such categories are fixed: but to gain wisdom is to understand that all opposites derive from unity. As cities and priesthoods developed in Mexico, an emblem for these doctrines was developed. From around 650 BCE, we start to encounter the image of a fleshly face that morphs into a grinning bare skull: the right side and the left side of Ometeotl, the "lord of duality".
The drawing is by the German artist Albrecht Dürer. It was done when he was a 20-year-old trying to make his way in print-making, Europe's new growth industry of the late 15th century. It's on the back of an unresolved trial design for a print of Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus - and it seems likely that Dürer turned to look in his mirror initially because he wanted to work out a better pose for his Joseph figure. So his drawing started out in the context of a Christian art that was moving into a new technological era, in which identical, mass-produced, devotional images could pour from the presses into pious burghers' homes. Dürer was riding a further trend: during the 15th century, European artists had taken to sketching themselves, typically inserting the resulting self-portrait as a head in a crowd of worshippers.
These two artworks, then, were made in very different circumstances, and it has been the habit of art historians to respect this. They have tended to keep distinct traditions on separate shelves. In fact, art history has chiefly meant the study of just one of these traditions. The European art scene to which Dürer belonged is traced back to its earliest known ancestor, ancient Egypt - after which Africa, not to mention Asia, Oceania and the Americas, veers more or less out of sight. For very natural reasons: what we now call art history is a type of storytelling invented in Italy and Germany to tackle regional subject matter. The term Renaissance stems from Giorgio Vasari claiming in the mid-16th century that classical standards had lately been "reborn" in Italy thanks to the genius of his Tuscan fellow countrymen, from Giotto to Michelangelo. Centuries later, the Renaissance itself was set within a whole history-spanning scheme of styles and periods by German-language writers such as Heinrich Wölfflin, but the art these academics were rationalising remained principally European.
Ernst Gombrich did his best to shake off this period-plotting when he published The Story of Art in 1950. What kind of intellectual interest was his story left with? The title he chose for his chapter on early 15th-century Europe suggests the answer: "The Conquest of Reality." Gombrich's main yardstick for art was how it related to how things look. From that perspective, what happened first in ancient Greece and then in Renaissance Italy and Flanders became all the more crucial. Though Gombrich devoted a courtesy chapter or two to Asia, European art had to be pre-eminent because it was more concerned than any other tradition with naturalistic, factual observation. The warmhearted lucidity of The Story of Art secured it a firm niche in 20th-century art education. Yet its outlook ran counter to the grain of 20th-century art. The route from cubism to abstract expressionism and minimalism could only look like a detour, if "conquering reality" had really been art's grand project.
A larger problem for Gombrich's classic of exposition is that, since 1950, the world has drastically altered in shape. Television, migration and the internet have brought separate continents into far greater proximity. Cultural references ranging from Jamaica to Japan are instantly available anywhere, while the search for the historical roots behind each seems to head down a hundred different wormholes. How do you tell a story of art that addresses these new conditions? You don't. That has been the emerging consensus. You produce compendious historical surveys. The World History of Art that Hugh Honour and John Fleming published in 1982 is, for me, the finest of these. But a forward-moving tale, in the Gombrich sense, it is not. Each eloquent chapter is a world sufficient to itself: "what happened next" doesn't count. Some would now say that even such surveys are too presumptuous, imposing an intrusive western viewpoint on incompatible systems of belief and aesthetics. "The single story of art is too flawed to function as the repository for the current sense of art history," the Chicago art historian James Elkins claimed five years ago. Perhaps we should content ourselves with specialisms: perhaps there just is no big narrative when it comes to what humans have created to look at.
Perhaps. It's certainly true that every would-be historian is tied to a limited viewpoint. Mine is that of a painter who started lecturing on art history after 20 years of studio work, partly because I wanted to investigate the broad historical situation in which I found myself. (My own painting is often described as "panoramic".) The approach I took when I developed these lectures into a book was that of a painter hanging a show. I pasted photocopies of as much visual material as I could gather on my studio wall and asked: "Which of these images will speak for itself, when reproduced in a book? Which of them will speak to one another?" The resulting sequences became the initial basis for what I wrote. That is how the Totonac carver's head came to accompany the head of Dürer. Visual instinct led the way: that, plus a slight presumption to fellow feeling. I dared guess at what drove these artists because on some level I, too, have known the daily work that preoccupied them, of coordinating hand and eye to make something that for some hard-to-define reason looks right.
Instinct led, research followed, stories started to emerge. Each of these images stands revealed, the more one investigates, as a work of powerful originality. When the brilliant young print-maker turned to record that pose in the mirror, self-portraiture developed, for the first time in the historical record, into self-exploration. There he stares, a proud contender for fame, exulting in his own calligraphic prowess as the quill pen dances his features on to the paper. And yet that pride flips over unmistakably into disquiet. Are his ambitions not spiritual also? Has he yet achieved the true seriousness of soul demanded by 15th-century self-help books such as Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ? "If you desire peace of mind and true unity of purpose, put all things behind you, and look only upon yourself." That might be one plausible caption; but in effect, the little circle of ink that describes Dürer's left pupil opens up a tunnel of introspection with no end in sight. How strange, to be this consciousness, in this flesh! How strange to translate one's own being to a flat surface! Those thoughts, still alive in today's art culture, are activated for the first time here by the artist who would go on to become Europe's first mass-media celebrity, reaching with his prints into thousands of private homes where no frescoist or sculptor could go.
If Dürer's drawing seems a harbinger of modernity, the Totonac stone - carved with chisels of bronze, or of fire-toughened oak - might seem to embody art's more ancient conditions of fixed and sacred significance. That is exactly why many 20th-century artists (for instance, Henry Moore) liked to turn for inspiration to Mexican sculpture. But the carving here marked a departure from the region's old tradition of heads switching into skulls: its meditation on mortality had a novel accent. Here is the voice of Nezahualcoyotl, a near-contemporary Mexican poet:
Will I have to go like the flowers that perish?
Will nothing remain of my name?
Nothing of my fame on earth?
At least my flowers, at least my songs!
Earth is the region of the fleeting moment . . .
Or is it only here on earth
We come to know our faces?
What we see here could almost be a response to that elegy's final line. Death has become facelessness. And note what enacts the transition from that nothing to a something of life: the jagged hack of the sculptor's chisel. I would suggest that, like Nezahualcoyotl seeking consolation in the fame of his songs, the sculptor here was self-consciously creative. Tracing the edge between formlessness and form, this is a work of art that considers what art consists of.
These Mexican meditations on transience would prove fatefully apt. Needless to say, I paired this "ancient" sculpture with the Renaissance drawing not just for visual, but for good chronological reasons. They were probably made at the same time. Dürer was drawing within a year or so of Columbus's American landfall in 1492, and the Totonac sculpture has been assigned a similar date. Twenty-seven years later, when the Spanish launched their assault on Mexico, the Totonacs became their first allies, since for two generations this coastal people had been unwilling vassals of the bloodthirsty Aztec empire. That empire and the 2,500-year-old cultural system that underpinned it collapsed. By 1520, art from Spain's new conquest had been brought back to Europe, to the court of Charles V - to be admired by Dürer. "I have seen the things brought to the king from the new golden land," he wrote. "In all my life I have seen nothing which gladdened my heart so much. For I have seen among them wonders of art and have marvelled at the subtle inventiveness of people in foreign lands."
What Dürer inspected so openheartedly is unknown: it was probably goldsmithery, soon melted down to fill Charles V's coffers. By such reductions, art from the Americas helped swell the fortunes of a monarchy that would line the pockets of some of Europe's greatest painters. Working for the kings of Spain, Titian, Rubens and Velázquez became beneficiaries of a conquest that impoverished and decimated the descendants of the Totonac sculptor.
This is not a tale about artistic styles, or periods, or influences. It cuts across the meaning of terms like Renaissance. It is, however, exactly the type of tale that my forays into world art history have kept uncovering - brutal cultural collisions that were once relatively local in scale, more recently more global. Time habitually does brutal things, forcing what had been separate into proximity. In a sense, a book that coerces the world's major art traditions into a single interwoven story can only be another agent in that process. Yet, that way, I've found a story I can trust; and one that still allows me, like Dürer, to marvel at the subtle inventiveness of people in foreign lands.
ˇ Julian Bell's Mirror of the World: A New History of Art is published by Thames and Hudson (£24.95)