The images that shaped Europe

The context: 'Visual Contagions' project

What are the images that made Europe? Was there a visual and cultural convergence in the 20th century expressed through images? Starting in the 19th century, the use of visual elements in media became more and more standardised. The unity of the material formats in which images circulated - newspapers, magazines, posters, page layouts, font organisation, etc. – was a driver of such standardisation. But was it the only one?

This Europeana exhibition is the product of a project called Visual Contagions (see credits) which studied the reasons and the effects of global visual convergences (or divergences) by analysing gigantic collections of digital images from the 20th century on a worldwide scale. The digital availability of these collections, unprecedented in the history of the humanities, allows us to consider large-scale studies of illustrated periodicals, art images, exhibition catalogues and posters.

Finding patterns in digital images

What is a digital image? Nothing more than a series of numbers in a grid - or ‘pixels’ (points defined by coordinates and colour codes). Comparing digital images, therefore, is just comparing tables of numbers. Computers are the perfect tool for it.

Computer vision algorithms can group millions of images by their similarities, providing us with information about copies, themes and shared patterns. They also help us to organise these millions of images by their place and date of production (or reproduction).

So, what did we find out? The information about publication time and place helps us understand and quantify how present an image was in the European media of that time. Some of these images were visual blockbusters in the early 20th century!

Let’s look at subject matter first. Some are enduring, others saw a heyday and then went out of fashion. Like human busts (see chapter 'Man at the centre of the world?'), an enormous repertoire that largely disappeared in the press from around 1940; A more enduring theme is represented by an abundance of Christian images - churches, objects of worship, virgin with child (see chapter 'The Sacred') - which conveyed a sense of belonging pervading society at the beginning of the XX century. But it was photographic reproductions of works of art (ancient and modern) that crossed national borders more than any other images of the time, speaking, mostly to the elite, of a European cultural unity (see chapter 'Art blockbusters from the past').

Other images are still very present in our contemporary visual imaginations - but how did they change over time? Images of alcoholic beverages and automobiles were distributed in abundance with the advent of advertising in the press. These images connote desire, individualism, conviviality, freedom and market possibilities.