Visions make Beauty: the vitality

Translated by Ilaria Pol Bodetto. Revised and edited by Deborah Dainese


Vitality. A step back, before moving forward.
As I have already illustrated before, this analysis aims to profile the autonomous statute of the iconic tribal act.

The three traits that, in my opinion, characterize such process (that is to say: the event, already object of a detailed study, the vitality and the permanence of the images in the tribal tradition) emerged in the course of that presentation.

Now, before we can finally go back to our incipit , I would like to suggest the patient reader to delve into the two previous works I just mentioned.
What do I mean by the expression “vitality of the images of the tribal tradition”?




In one of the most renowned Italian language dictionaries, the Treccani, by vitality s. f. [dal lat. vitalĭtas -atis], si intende – 1. a. La condizione, la caratteristica di essere vitale, capace cioè di vivere e sopravvivere b. Forza vitale, dinamicità, elevata efficienza e operosità c. fig. La capacità, la caratteristica di mantenersi efficiente e operante: la v. di una istituzione , di un sodalizio , di un’idea. 2. Nell’ultima fase della speculazione filosofica di B. Croce, il termine è usato come sinonimo di vita o corporeità, nella sua dinamica di piacere e dolore, radice e materia della dialettica spirituale.
(Transl: [from the latin vitalitas -atis], we mean – 1. a. The condition, the characteristic of being vital, that is to say able of living and surviving b. Vital force, dynamism, high efficiency and industriousness. c. fig. The ability, the characteristics of staying efficient and operative: the v. of an institution, of a partnership, of an idea. 2. In the last phase of the philosophical speculation of B. Croce, the word was used as a synonym of life or substance, in its dynamic of pleasure and pain, root and matter of the spiritual dialectic.





And, in fact, the energy which comes from the tribal images, an expressive energy connected to their formal aspects, a dynamic energy connected to the motion, a meta-energy proper of the innovation of the representations, so powerful that they could transform the perception of the Western art once they had met, all these energies constitute one of the most peculiar traits of the tribal world.

It would be enough for us to think about the influence that the tribal images had over the most sensitive minds of the Western culture for recognizing their vitality and, consequently, its fundamental importance in the definition of their autonomous iconic statute.

But this is history, however still someone struggles to give that art the credit it deserves, labelling it as “primitive” instead of “primeval”, as it should be called instead.

The said, others are the traits that define the theme of the vitality of the image.

From the way I see it, the vitality of the image configures itself in the gap between representation and symbolization: that is to say, the image we see is never what it describes but what it recalls to on the symbolic level.

The image of the mask which dances, in fact, doesn’t represent itself but the mystery in which it is submerged, inside the never ending dialogue with the forces of the invisible.

In this spatial-temporal hiatus I grasp that element of transcendent vitality that, however far from Benedetto Croce’s lesson, constitutes nevertheless the root and the matter of the spiritual dialectic, as the philosopher defines It.




Another element of vital immanence is the ability of asking us questions, of interrogating us, of making us unquiet and doubtful.

The suspension of certainty is not, in my opinion, only a perturbing factor: nevertheless it is also this, especially for those who are satisfied with a quiet cultural reassurance.

Way more powerful and creative is the force that surrounds us and asks us fundamental questions about the aims and the meanings of what we can see through the images: mere representations of folkloristic or exotic events, or proof of a ieratic, symbolic and creative event?

This power of involving the viewer is the fundament of that psychic, perceptive and cultural change that Horst Brederkamp referred to when delineating the elements that gave the image the possibility to jump from a situation of passive inactivity to a situation of potential transformation of the thought.

And this is in fact what happened in the history of the studies of primitive cultures if, from elements of marginal insignificance, they slowly became matter of critical analysis, and catalysts of new meanings and approaches.

Isn’t it also thanks to the definition of an autonomous statute of the tribal images that modern Anthropology (the one of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, of Clifford, of Geertz, of Augé and many others) tries to elaborate and resolve the conceptual debt it feels towards the same people who used to be the object of its study, to create an actual “decolonization” of the thought?


A Kikuyu Sangoma (medicine man) British East Africa, circa 1910.
I do think so, and I am aware that an approach oriented towards the definition of an autonomous iconic statute would make a useful tool in this path that inevitably needs to leave the classical structural anthropology behind, especially after Deleuze’s lesson, to give the “primitive” knowledge the credit it deserves.
Another peculiar trait of the vitalistic character of the tribal image might seem, at first, forced or uncanny, but in truth it is not. At all.
I am talking about the power of the images, and about their possibility of replacing writing.
In effect, images are and represent, if not a written language, an iconic language way more powerful and meaningful than the alphabet.
As we are going to see in the following work dedicated to the Permanence, each ethnic group has autonomously developed a series of morphologic and aesthetic characteristics that visually connote that specific group.
The tribal images of the masks, of the fetishes, of the ritual objects and of those which are intended for a domestic use, recall an imaginary symbolic alphabet, proper of a specific people, and suggest a presence in time and space.


West African Shaman c. 1904, photo by Robert Hamill Nassau

West African Shaman c. 1904, photo by Robert Hamill Nassau



They are strong per-se, and I am not talking about some kind of aesthetic beauty I’ve never mentioned before: their power lays in the ability of giving back life to a primeval world in which every single moment of everyday life was connoted by the importance of socially belonging to the village of the ancestors, of its development, its wealth, and, at the same time, by the immanent certainty of depending on the forces of the invisible.
From the necessity of a prolific relationship with the world of the invisible, on which individual and social survival relied, have arisen that energies that, in my opinion, have filled the primitive imaginary with a rare and vivid expressive power.


Elio Revera







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