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Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate

by Alberto Manguel

Four months of eyeballing slides at 8:30 a.m. in “Introduction to Visual Perception” changed everything. The instructor was a draft dodger with impossible sideburns, and he showed us how to read the stories inside pictures. Every shot – archaic Virgin and Child, Jackson Pollock drips, Navajo saddle blankets – narrated history, sociology, anthropology, and literature.

Alberto Manguel’s Reading Pictures: A History of Love and Hate recalls the best of those months. As teacher, he is profound and unpredictable, world-wise and erudite. And like all memorable eggheads, Manguel is fond of the looping tangent. He suggests “every painting is, in some sense, a riddle,” that art poses “a question concerning subject, lesson, plot or meaning.” And in reading a 500-year-old image such as “The Virgin and Child Before the Firescreen,” Manguel follows riddling threads through the history of mother’s milk and the Christian iconography of Mary’s breasts, the halo, the Trinity, and its relationship to the three-headed beast, and how, in some paintings, “Christ’s penis is shown quite evidently tumescent.”

In a discussion of photography that proposes that “Every photograph (blown up, cropped, taken from a certain angle, lit in a certain way) misquotes reality,” Manguel reads a picture of feet made by Italian Tina Modotti by saying, “The representation of feet changes meaning throughout the long history of art” and then quotes a feet-ish passage from Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth. We see feet anew.

The artists Manguel chooses are surprising and fresh, and his sidetracks occasionally ignore standard biography. But the book provides plenty of appropriate visual images – only some of them familiar – alongside lovely, compassionate sentences. In the end, he says, it is astonishing that “in the midst of our cruelty and greed and uninspired madness, we are still capable of creating and re-creating so much beauty.” Lesson learned, class dismissed.