“No image tells it’s own story” : How to ‘read’ art

Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909 – 2001) was a renowned art historian who was born in Austria and spent most of his working life in the UK. It was he who coined the poignant phrase (and title of this post), “no image tells its own story”. To me, this reads as the evil twin of another famous saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Sure, you can look at an image and see it’s subject, or perhaps a story, and you can form an opinion – and many people leave it at that (which is also fine!). But to truly read an artwork, you must look beyond what is simply shown.

Sir Gombrich backs up this handily simple phrase with the view that we cannot respond appropriately to an artwork if we have not read it correctly, and to read it correctly you must take into account the circumstances under which it was created: where, when, why, and how. Arguments against this view of course include mentions of narrative paintings, landscape, Impressionism: art that seemingly does not need an in-depth reading to recognise its purpose. But all opposing arguments are undone by a simple glaring fact: art is not created in a vacuum. The story behind the image is fundamental to the image being created in the first place! While a painting or a photograph may appear to tell a story itself without the viewer knowing any background, it may not include all the artist means to convey, and the artists’ ‘message’ is the whole reason the work was begun. This comes part and parcel with ‘active viewing’ – engaging with the artwork on a personal level and trying to understand what the artist is intending. Context is crucial to understanding the story of the image rather than focussing on the images story.

Some images appear to be straightforward, when in fact without knowledge of circumstance a viewer is missing vital pieces of the story. For example, portraiture can be less about what a person looks like, and more about how they want others to see them. During the Renaissance period, patrons would be painted with various symbols and allegories pertaining to virtues or qualities that they wished to be associated with.

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm, National Gallery

Flemish artist Jan van Eyck’s (1390-1441) famous Arnolfini Portrait includes many examples of such representations (in fact, I can only begin to scratch the surface on this one. There have been whole books written about this one painting! I’ll try to cover some good ones). First off, the couple are holding hands,while the man also raises his left hand. This is a significant gesture reminiscent of making an oath of marital faith. This, along with a small dog, which usually symbolises fidelity, and the customary burning candle in the house of newlyweds, suggest it is a wedding portrait. (That’s a key word in the world of art history – “SUGGESTS”. Unless the artist explicitly writes, “this means that”, then it’s all ideas.) Other things indicate wealth, such as the fine cloth of the clothes, the ornate chandelier, even the oranges – an expensive delicacy at the time. In said chandelier, one candle is burning, signifying the ever present figure of God. The man stands next to the window, linking him to the public realm of men, while the woman remains in the private realm of the domestic sphere. The AMAZINGLY painted (seriously, that’s a whole other post of the genius of Northern European Renaissance painters) mirror on the far wall shows figures reflected – a stand in for us, the audience. There is a brush for work, a rosary for prayer, clogs cos they’re Dutch – AND MORE! In any case, this is more than just two people chilling in their room – it’s a portrait of their entire life and being.

Similarly, in Elizabethan England, portraits of the royal family contained more than just depictions of the family.

Portrait of Elizabeth Tudor attributed to William Scrots
William Scrots (attributed), Portrait of Princess Elizabeth Tudor, c.1546, oil on panel, 108.5 x 81.8 cm, Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle, United Kingdom

In this Portrait of Princess Elizabeth Tudor, attributed to William Scrots (active 1537–1553), she is marked out by her fashion and jewels, which at the time were considered a reflection of ones’ true status. She wears a crimson red, borne of the most expensive dye, showing off her wealth and prestige. To accentuate this, the dress is woven with literal (LITERAL) gold. She wears pearls, as another sign of wealth, but also to point towards her purity and virginity. You see – everything means something! Portraits like this were often sent to foreign courts during marriage negotiations, essentially to advertise family power, and the princesses’ beauty. Once a viewer knows these background details, the picture changes from a simple portrait to an image of – to put it cheekily- English propaganda. And, as an aside, us millenials are not the first to make the most of filters and facetune to look better to followers – I’ve seen ‘Before and Afters’ of court portraiture that could hit the front page of r/instagramreality.

Obviously this culture is not confined to history – the contemporary era of the ‘selfie’ follows all the same guidelines, with each picture uploaded carefully posed and subsequently scrutinised to ensure the correct message is portrayed, all while appearing offhand and innocent. I’ve done it, and so have you!

Similar to painted portraits, photographs are often looked at as simple representations of people or places. But to correctly read the image is to understand the choices made by the photographer. Diane Arbus, considered one of the most important artists in the twentieth century, regarded the act of photography as something that “comes from some mysterious deep place … it’s a million choices you make”.

Diane Arbus Jewish Giant
Diane Arbus, A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970, Gelatin silver print, 38.6 x 38.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

In order to read A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y., for example, there are several things to consider. Firstly, why did she take this photo? Of all the many things to photograph, why this scene? Arbus admits that photographing “freaks” was a “terrific kind of excitement for her”. Yet, this excitement was neither scientific nor derogatory; in fact, she remained friends with several of her subjects for many years. Secondly, why this shot? Photographers will take dozens or even hundreds of shots at a time – why did she decide that this was the right one to exhibit? Arbus experienced times where she did not like any of the rough prints made – “there was something wrong in all of them.” Tiny factors that can differ from shot to shot such as facial expressions of the subjects, their composition, visibility of background features, are all important factors contributing towards what Arbus is aiming to show. In this instance, she was interested in his “family predicament”: a trapped, brooding father, the problematic disabled son, and the peacemaker mother. These dynamics can be seen in this shot and maybe many of the others, but obviously she felt this shot expressed the story best. So when we’re looking at photographs, whether it be historic or contemporary, museum or Instagram, part of their stories are the choices made before they are even put on display.

From the time the analogue camera was first invented, photographs were viewed as absolute truth: it showed exactly what was there and could tell no lies. But in entering the digital age, viewers have had to learn to be wary of doctored or manipulated pictures. Gombrich asks, if an alien species were to come upon an artwork for the first time with no other knowledge of the image, how would they understand it? In a sense, the context of Photoshop and digital technology must be taken into account. If all memories of Photoshop were taken away, how would we explain images like Pedro Dionísios’ Sloth on the Moon?

Pedro Dionísio, Sloth on the Moon
Pedro Dionísio, Sloth on the Moon, 2012, Digital Image

Without knowledge of manipulation, it would be seen as a wonderful homage to the first sloth to enter space – but of course that never happened. Once the audience know something is changed or reworked digitally, it leads them to ask, why? What was the artist intending to convey when they decided to alter the photo?

These questions are a fundamental part of active viewing, and crucial to reading the image correctly. Paulin, taken by Loretta Lux (b.1969), is a portrait of a young girl on a stony beach. At first it is serene, picturesque.

Loretta Lux, Paulin
Loretta Lux, Paulin, 2001, Dye destruction print, 29.85 x 40.01cm, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA.

But the longer you look at it, the more a sense of peculiarity envelops you – something is wrong here. The scale is off, the focus is too perfect, the child pale and doll like. In reality, Lux poses the children against a bare wall and digitally interposed pictures she has taken while travelling as the background. She also uses Photoshop to distort features – widening eyes, distending limbs, as well as lightening skin to an almost translucent, pearl like tone. She controls everything in her work, using it as a “metaphor for innocence and a lost paradise.” In manipulating the photo, Lux manipulates the audience, aiming to invoke a sense of disassociation and misplacement.

In other circumstances, context is needed to make sense of otherwise unexplainable art. Beginning in the early modern period and enduring even today, the concept of ‘art’ is being continuously revolutionised as artists find new ways to express themselves visually. Their methodology is important in itself – these various new styles were not accidental. They were mused, hypothesised, practiced, and perfected – the journeys there are just as relevant as the final accomplishments.

Piet Mondrian Composition II in Red Blue and Yellow
Piet Mondrian, Composition II with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, Oil on canvas, 46 x 46cm, Private Collection, Zurich, Switzerland.

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is considered a pioneer of abstract art – but he began his career painting realistic landscapes. In viewing his entire oeuvre, one can see a decisive path towards pure abstraction, with trials and explorations as he developed his ideas. If one were to see Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow without knowledge of the inspirations and theories the work is a result of, they might find it aesthetically pleasing but they would be missing the point entirely. Mondrian wanted to leave behind the tragedy of nature: the disorder and chaos of unbalanced normal everyday life. In breaking his art down to the geometric basics of the universe – straight lines, right angles, primary and non-chromatic colours – he was transcending negativity and confusion, and moving into cosmic harmony. Therefore, what looks to be a plain formation of squares and colours actually emulates many years’ worth of exploration, discovery, and enlightenment.

In a similar fashion, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was a child prodigy who went on to pioneer Cubism. His path there can also be seen throughout his oeuvre- his earlier drawings show talented draughtsmanship, and once he decides to break away from traditional art it is a fast paced adventure through analytic and synthetic Cubism. If Abstraction is a philosophy, then Cubism is a language. At first glance, his Cubist works look like random, fragmented lines and forms. However, once you understand what he was trying to convey, it becomes easier to decipher what you are seeing. Cubist pictorial language is one of space and perspective. Picasso believed that the linear perspective was naturally flawed; an inaccurate portrayal of vision in real life; and in his works offered various angles and viewpoints all within the same capacity. He also dealt with representations of mass and space, trying to reconcile weight and depth with the flatness of the canvas. This lead to an emphasis on the tactility of art, which he then took even further with the experimentation of new materials.

Picasso Still Life with Chair Caning
Pablo Picasso, Still Life With Chair Caning, 1912, Oil on oil cloth over canvas edged with rope, 29 x 37cm, Musée Picasso, Paris, France.

All of this can be seen in Still Life with Chair Caning –two thirds a jumble of lines and shades and the bottom a collage effect of non-traditional materials. With knowledge of Picassos process, one can break down the painting into parts, and form a coherent idea: a knife cutting a lemon, a wine glass, a newspaper – perhaps placed on a glass table through which we can see the chair underneath. APPARENTLY! I find this work to be the one of the easiest of Picasso’s Cubist works to decipher – I honestly can’t see jack in a lot of his more hardcore pieces. Cubism defeated me!

Ultimately, it comes down to whether the viewer is happy to perceive the art as is, or whether they want to delve deeper to understand the true meaning. Many pieces of art are aesthetically pleasing without having any background knowledge or context – like I said, it’s not an art crime to enjoy or dislike a piece at face value. But in order participate in a proper reading of an artwork the audience must actively engage with the image, learning and appreciating the circumstances, efforts made, and even the character of the artist, all of which is incorporated in any visual medium. Just don’t be that pretentious dweeb that starts talking about the rubbish littering the gallery floor!

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