Misunderstandings can be quite productive sometimes – or at least historically interesting. Such is the case of the German geographer and pioneering Africanist Karl Heinrich Barth (1821-65). Among many other things, Barth was the first to describe the splendid rock paintings that can be found in the Lybian desert. His description of them can be found at pp. 207-17 in volume 1 of his 1859-60, 5-volume publication Reisen und Entdeckungen in Nord- und Central-Afrika in den Jahren 1849 bis 1855, which is conveniently now freely available courtesy of the Internet Archive. The images are today probably known best from their appearance in Michael Ondaatje’s novel “The English Patient” (and it’s screen-adaptation), in which the so-called ‘cave of swimmers’ plays a crucial part in the narrative.
Barth’s analysed the iconography of these paintings quite extensively. One of his most spectacular iconographic interpretations was devoted to a figure often termed the so-called “Garamantian Apollo”. The image below shows a similar rock-image of a charioteer from Libya. The image and a range of others exhibiting the same type and exploring their historical context can be found at the British Museum’s online exhibition Chariots in the Sahara. In this Libyan image, Barth saw reminiscences of Egyptian and Carthagian prototypes that enabled him to decipher the scene depicted, and led him to connect the two artistic traditions.
Of course, he got it totally wrong: the cave paintings are thousands of years older than Egyptian civilization. His misinterpretation should be no wonder though, as the authenticity of prehistoric artwork was in the 1850s a hotly debated question. It would be settled beyond question by archaeological discovery of art works in irrefutable context only about 50 years later. For Barth, it would have been unthinkable that Prehistoric humans, even if he accepted the existence of such a historically remote epoch, which was by no means a given in his intellectual milieu, might have made such skilful artworks.
However, unusually for his time and excitingly for the development of art history, Barth exhibited no doubt that Africans should have been able to produce such artwork. Furthermore, without apparent hesitation, he embedded the paintings he found in the Lybain desert in a wider narrative of history of art, just as he would have done provincial Roman objects found in Europe, linking them stylistically to what were perceived as larger, global traditions. Such an interpretation was not self-evident in Barth’s intellectual world, embedded deeply in mid-nineteenth-century European hierarchical and essentialist views of race. In the same period one can find many authors denying the possibility of African history, let alone art-history. In the eighteenth century, Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) had even denied that Egypt had undergone an artistic development that would qualify for application of the term art history to its cultural production. Hegel (1770-1831) had constructed a view of human existence and development in which Africa was credited with producing only savage, child-like societies, which in their failure to progress, therefore existed outside ‘History’. Barth’s own teacher Carl Ritter (1779-1859) had described the entire population of the African continent as an undifferentiated “isolated primeval tribe”. Barth did not. His dating of the prehistoric Saharan paintings reflected other biases about developments in prehistory, but it was an error which also enabled one of the first attempts to write an African art history.