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Depictured Worlds: The Perceptual Power of Pictures

NOMIS Project 2024

The Question

How do human beings’ experience of pictures, such as individual artworks or cultural styles of pictorial representation, shape the ways in which people see the natural and social world beyond pictures? Understanding this experience has the potential to impact fields ranging from education and clinical psychology to social behavior and ethics, marking a significant shift in how we understand the relationship between pictorial art and visual perception.

It has been argued that things in the world — objects and states of affair — come to resemble pictures of them that people have already seen in the past. Objects, then, become partly “depictured”: A real landscape might become Cézannesque when shaped by one’s viewing of pictures of Provence by Paul Cézanne; a real cityscape might look Mondrianesque if one has been affected by Piet Mondrian’s abstract figurations of New York City. This concept has radical implications for models of perception and cognition, as well as for theories of aesthetics and representation. But it has rarely been stated systematically by art historians, though it is implied throughout their work — some of the best accounts come from art critics, such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (who promoted Cubism), and writers such as Marcel Proust.

“If pictures change the way we naturally perceive the world around us, then many educational and other implications arise. As individuals, we benefit from being explicit about the visual assumptions we’re always making, often unaware of their origins in pictures we’ve seen. Collectively, when we try to recognize other people’s points of view — as a matter of social and moral responsibility — we’re possibly partly recognizing their pictorial experiences. Therefore, understanding their pictures is a crucial way of understanding their identities.”

— Whitney Davis

The Approach

The project Depictured Worlds: The Perceptual Power of Pictures will study “depicturation” from several points of view. The Depictured Worlds research team will identify likely art-historical cases of depicturation in the history of modern Western arts in their global dissemination, and build additional examples from indigenous, ancient, and/or non-Western arts. By conducting interviews with experts, the researchers will obtain perspectives from human evolution and prehistory, perceptual and cognitive psychology, and sociological and anthropological studies of visual culture. They also will investigate topics including the global dissemination of picture making in prehistory, the historical consequences of schematic and naturalistic styles of depiction, and the variety of social expectations for the perceptual power of pictures.

The project aims to provide a critical history of the concept of depicturation, to assess its usefulness in and implications for disciplines of visual studies in the widest sense, and to explore theoretical models and empirical investigations that might clarify it analytically and test it experimentally. Considering that the perceptual experiences of long-ago populations are not directly accessible, the researchers will explore algorithmic and/or computational approaches that might model complex processes of depicturation in a population.

Depictured Worlds is being led by Whitney Davis at the University of California, Berkeley (US).

Feature image: Brush-and-ink painting of the Derwentwater, England, by Chiang Yee, c. 1925. The art historian E. H. Gombrich used Chiang Yee’s pictures to argue that his perception of landmarks in Britain was shaped by his Chinese training. Is this reasonable?

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NOMIS Researcher(s)

Professor of art history
University of California, Berkeley
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