"The Making of Images" at the Quai Branly Museum is a fascinating -- if challenging -- attempt by a leading anthropologist to explain how we perceive and represent reality.
"We have the illusion that everyone sees the same things," said curator Philippe Descola, who occupies the anthropology chair at the College de France once held by the late Claude Levi-Strauss.
"The culture we were raised in shapes the way we see things," Descola said at an exhibition preview. "I was interested in seeing what visual shape those diverse ways of perceiving reality could have."
His theory is that there are four ways in which various cultures portray reality in paintings, sculpture and other objects: animism, totemism, analogism and naturalism.
At the heart of "animism" is the belief that animals and plants possess an interior self, like humans.
As a result, animal masks from Canada and Alaska can open up to reveal human features on the inside. "This doesn't mean a human is hiding inside, but that the creature has a human-type soul," said Descola.
"Naturalism", which appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages, believes only humans have an inner life, although they obey the rules of nature.
Thus a Flemish portrait of a sinner-saint reading suggests that she has an inner life and is repentant, but the artist has thrown in a backdrop of the countryside as a reminder that nature rules.
"Totemism", illustrated by objects made by indigenous Australian aborigenes, considers that animals, plants and humans can be traced to common ancestors.
Depictions of kangaroos and turtles, painted in ochre on tree bark, are not representations of the animals themselves, but of their original "ancestral beings."
Each drawing is a sort of "mystical map of the landscape," said Jessica De Largy Healy, a researcher who worked with Descola on the exhibition.
"Showing the inside of an ancestral animal is like showing the inside of the landscape," said De Largy Healy, who worked for two years with the Yolngu people of northern Australia.
Under "analogism", all beings are different, disparate and separate. "This is an unbearable situation, forcing people in response to create links and networks" as a way to organise the chaos, Descola said.
It can be seen in depictions of "compound beings" like gryphons, or in objects linking men with the universe, such as cosmic tapestries from northern Mexico.
Or, as the Leonardo da Vinci quote welcoming visitors to the exhibition puts it: "Painting is a mental thing".
The exhibition runs until July 2011 at the museum dedicated to cultures from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.