The Fine Arts: Commentary:
Painting is Not Literature
By Ted Seth Jacobs
There is at present a widespread confusion among museum curators, art dealers, critics, artists and the public, concerning the differences between painting and literature. As an art form, the distinguishing characteristic of painting is that it creates a visual image. The words of a text are of course, perceived by the eyes, but they represent an image conjured in the mind. The image represented is not directly seen, as it is in a painting. The pictorial image on the surface of a canvas is only secondarily linked to verbal associations. It is first registered visually.
More importantly, unlike a painting, a text does not present to the viewer orchestrations of color and light, spatial illusions, linear movements and rhythms, size relationships, and so on. These uniquely pictorial qualities, called the "formal elements," create an abstract design, or arrangement, on the canvas. All figurative art deals with the shapes of things. On a body, for example, these shapes are three dimensional, volumetric. Although they suggest volume, on a canvas, these painted shapes are created on a flat surface and the placement of these shapes on the surface and their interrelationships form a hidden, abstract design. Even what could be called the most representational suggestion of the seen world, the most 'realistic' or illusionist, also functions as an abstract surface design. The important point is that the special nature of painting is as a visual art. Painting is not literature. Period.
The abstract design in a painting, formed by the formal elements, independent of the recognizable subject matter, conveys a hidden influence. The linear movements and rhythms lead the viewer's eyes in a sort of dance. The color harmonies strike a kind of visual chord. The painted world is suggested by a painted kind of light. All the formal elements together create a visual image, that is absorbed instantly through the eyes and into the consciousness. I believe that all our experiences carry an emotional charge - - we react to them, more, or less consciously. In brief, as soon as we see a painting, we are influenced. When we are influenced, however minutely, we are changed. Such is the hidden message in every painting.
I have written elsewhere of the ancient Hindu treatise on their classic dance, the Abhinaya Shastra, 'The Mirror of Gesture.' It opens saying that the dancer must be attractive to look at, radiant and alluring, able to hold the spectator's attention. She should be colorfully dressed and bejeweled, and move in clean graceful lines. It goes on to say that the images and movements of the dancer hold the attention, so that the spectator's eyes follow the moving patterns she creates. It then goes on to say that these patterns are transmitted from the eyes to the mind and heart, or deepest centers of the spectator. It is precisely the same for the patterns created on the surface of a canvas. This is the hidden message of essentially non-verbal arts, such as music and painting.
Historically, until relatively recent times, all paintings presented representations of recognizable objects. Since the most ancient times, there have also existed non-figurative designs, classified as Decorative Arts. With the suggestion of real objects, there will necessarily arise a linkage with our verbal naming of those objects. However, the verbal association is, arguably, a secondary process, following the visual perception. I may be wrong, but I think we first see an arrangement of colors and shapes, and subsequently decode them into nameable objects. This temporal sequence may not be vitally important, but what is important is that in a painting we are receiving visual images, rather than verbal ones.
This is not to diminish the significance, or emotional impact, of the story-telling aspect of figurative art. The painted image of a starving child may move us deeply. However, the written description of the child can move us just as deeply. What the written version cannot give us, are our emotional reactions to the visual beauty (or ugliness) of the image.
I would like to point out and emphasize here, that this visual image is a suggestion of something seen. It is not, or ever can be, identical to the visual perception of an object. Painting is always an arrangement of paint on a surface. Visual perception is always a living process, taking place in the living eye of a living person. What may appear as the most convincingly real painted image (or photographic one) is very different from what passes through the eyes and is interpreted somewhere in the consciousness.
Visual perception is a living vibratory experience. Although we have no compelling reason to notice such things, we are in a constant state of physical, mental and emotional flux. From instant to instant, our visual perception is minutely changing. The image on the canvas is not undergoing such rapid and turbulent changes. The most fundamental difference between painted and visual images, is that the first is made of dried paint on a flat canvas, and the second is an organic process in the consciousness.
Let us define as 'Figurative' any style of painting in which we can distinguish recognizable objects, as opposed to Abstract styles, which are not concerned with identifiable images.
Matisse famously remarked that the first duty of a picture was to be 'accrochable.' Hangable. On a wall. I assume he meant that the picture should be agreeable to the eyes, or at least as beautiful as a blank wall, or that the picture would not render the wall more unpleasant to look at by its presence. I would go further, and say that the first function of a picture is to be seen. Not read, but seen.
In either a more or less direct fashion, all figurative art contains what might be called a 'story.' Associations can be inferred from the 'cast of characters,' and from their interactions. There is an illustrative aspect implicit in all figurative painting.
However, this illustrative aspect is conveyed through a visual medium. It is the 'Literary' or anecdotal function, but it is built upon a purely visual scaffolding. The literary aspect is indissolubly linked and embedded in the formal elements, but it is not the primary value or purpose of a painting. Were the primary purpose the literary one, which could be expressed in words, there would be no valid reason to make the painting.
It is a grave mistake to invalidate any figurative picture on the grounds of subject matter. What makes a painting valuable is the artist's vision, and how that vision is presented in a painted form. It is foolish to dismiss a painting on anecdotal grounds. The literary content of a picture can be equated with the medium in which the paints are mixed, in that it is a vehicle, which carries the expression of a vision. As Mr. Ross has so cogently pointed out, art is about life. Art is the product and expression of the artist's reactions to experience. Figurative and Abstract are designations of style, not of value. As explained above, all art has an underlying abstract foundation. Personally, I think Abstraction has kept the foundation, but left out everything else. Those who dismiss painting because it is figurative are leaving out a great deal indeed. They are mistaking one element of a picture for its total value. They are thereby invalidating 99% of the world's art and culture. By the same criteria, all of the world's literature that has a story aspect will have to go into the trash.
To characterize a painting as 'Old Fashioned' if it shows recognizable subject matter, would be equivalent to saying that Shakespeare was writing in an ancient Roman style because his subject was Coriolanus. The subject matter is a vehicle through which a vision is expressed. It is not the vision.
As a flagrant example of the confusion of literature with vision, I would like to cite an Italian Nineteenth Century painter. He preferred to use highly anecdotal subject matter, such as children playing with kittens, making faces at one another, wearing masks. He was Gaetano Chierici (1838-1920). He was admired in his day, but tastes changed, and because of his anecdotal subjects, he fell into obscurity. His painting is extraordinary. His painting of light, textures, and animated people, with a deep sense of their humanity, coloristic brilliance, and sure structured drawing, I think are as good as any painter's of the period, and better than most. His work is more a suggestion of reality, than Academic. Most people today, including those who should know better, are blinded by his anecdotalism. A pity.
When one reads most of the criticism at the time, of Nineteenth Century Salon painting, it is usually concerned with the subject matter, the literature. A critic might write that the expression of a grieving widow's face is not sufficiently emotive, or that a farm girl looked too tidy to be working in the fields. There was little mention of the formal values, the quality of the painting. This may have been due to the fact that the Salon pictures were juried, and a certain level of competence in the painterly elements was a given.
Among other things, the Impressionists rebelled against what they considered an excessive preoccupation with the anecdotal concerns of Salon painting. They reemphasized the formal elements, and, indeed, the abstract foundations. They were thus the springboard from which Modern Art was launched.
It is excessively droll and ironic to find that at this writing, the most modern styles
are...completely literary! All that counts is the essentially verbal conception. I have
even seen hanging in a museum as the work of art, a written description of the idea for
a painting. Things like an exhibition of blinking lights can only be recognized as
intended art if shown with a written description of what they are alleged to represent.
All this sort of thing is undoubtedly conceptual, but we are a long way from Matisse's
dictum, or mine.
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