October 13, 2013

Narrative and Meaning

Fra Angelico, The Apostle Saint James the Greater Freeing the Magician Hermogenes, ca. later 1420s; tempera and gold on panel, 10 x 8 7/8 in.

I have a question for which I have no answer: how much of the meaning of a work is lost if we don't understand its narrative or cultural context? The painting above by Fra Angelico is one of my favorite paintings of a favorite artist: I love the tenderness with which the saint is freeing Hermogenes, love the mass of roiling devils behind; I also love the way all the forms are painted: figures, architecture, foliage; and the color is brilliant. To me it is an altogether satisfying painting. But, in the catalog for the great Fra Angelico exhibition at the Met of 2005-06, I read
The magician Hermogenes summoned devils to ensnare Saint James, but the apostle turned them on Hermogenes instead. The devils bound Hermogenes, but James ordered him freed as an act of Christian charity, and offered him his own staff as an amulet against the demons. 
Knowing this story adds another layer of emotion to the painting.

Petrus Christus, The Lamentation, ca. 1450; oil on wood, 10 x 13 3/4 in.
see a high resolution image on the Met's website.

This small panel is one that I visit often when I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sense of grief in it is overwhelming, with each portrait a sensitively depicted individual. The curve of the swooning Virgin's body repeats that of Christ, and the rhythms of arms in the surrounding figures emphasizes those curves. There is ordinariness too, in the few tools lying on the ground and the distant figures walking toward the walled town. Being Jewish, my understanding of the New Testament is very rudimentary, but even without knowing each character's role, I sense the power in this painting. There is information on the museum website that for me is extraneous to my experience of this work:
Intended for private devotion, this emotionally charged painting depicts the Lamentation according to the Gospel of John. It includes both Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who lift Christ's dead body by his head and feet, while Mary Magdalen and John reach forward to support the swooning Virgin. Mary's pose, which echoes that of her crucified son, alludes to the themes of compassion and redemption, wherein the Virgin empathically feels Christ's torment and shares his role as Redeemer.

Sultan Muhammad Nur, Page of Calligraphy, early 16th century; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper. 

What about cultures farther from, and less familiar than, the European? and what of calligraphy in a language we don't understand? Is it wrong for me to find simple beauty in the flowing letters and their placement on a page? Is it diminishing the work to see it in such an abstract way? On the Met's page for this work it translates the text; the sura Al-Fatiha is the first chapter of the Koran:
Whosoever sees the Sura-i Fatiha of your face Recites: "Say, God is one!" and blows with sincerity Khidr said: "God made a fine plant spout", and passed by The moment he saw the greenery around your lip. "May God increase your beauty!" How can one say that? For there is no possibility of increase in your beauty. 

Tawaraya Sōtatsu, Waterbird in Flight, ca. 1630s; hanging scroll, ink on paper, 35 1/4 x 14 3/16 in.
Calligraphy by Karasumaru Mitsuhiro

This scroll has a perfect balance of image, space, and calligraphy; as the bird soars upward, the words reflect a watery movement. Not knowing a thing about the poem, I respond to the lyrical forms and the elegant use of empty space. On the page for this work at the Met's website, I learned that the bird is a grebe, "sometimes seen and honored, sometimes invisible and neglected" and is a metaphor for the life of a courtier. Here is the poem:
Bobbing up and down
amid the waves,
the grebe makes its way,
indifferent as to whether
it is seen or hidden.
(trans. John T. Carpenter)
Knowing of this metaphor certainly changes the meaning of the work, yet for me, it is still the formal elements––of line, form, space––that mean most to me and somehow touch me.

Early Master at the Court of Mandi, The gopis pleading with Krishna to return their clothes; Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, ca. 1635-50; opaque watercolor on paper; 11 3/4 x 7 3/4 inches.

Is it more difficult to respond to paintings with stories that are totally unfamiliar? In the case of Indian religion and mythology I know next to nothing, but how I love the paintings! The color, the clarity, the careful attention to detail, simply thrills me. After doing a little research for this post, I found out that when Krishna was young, he could be rather naughty, so stole the clothing of young milkmaids (gopis) when they went bathing. The outlines of this charming story are very clear in the painting, but the effect of the delicacy of color and form goes beyond a simple tale to leave me exhilarated.

Soul Container, unidentified Bijagó artist, late 19th or early 20th century, Guinea-Bissau; 
wood, earth, crushed plant materials, copper alloy chain, organic materials.

So much of African art is ceremonial and religious, beyond my everyday knowledge. I am grateful that museums now acknowledge the importance of the context of these works, sometimes showing them as they've been used, and not cleaned up for our Western eyes. But it is still my western eyes that pick out sculpture that I find particularly aesthetically compelling, without first knowing their use. This piece at the Brooklyn Museum had such a mysterious and searching quality that I was fascinated to read about it, which explained its magical presence:
according to Bijagó beliefs, a person's soul lives on after the body, but only as long as it is remembered by the person's family. Thus it is necessary to create a repository for the soul and to provide it with sacrifices. (from the wall label at the museum)

Paintings from the Chauvet cave, ca. 30,000 B.C.; horse heads, and lions hunting bison.

So, for me the answers to the question are yes, no, sometimes; I realize I am very much a formalist in thinking that much of a work's meaning resides in its formal qualities. The remarkably sensitive paintings from the Chauvet cave, only discovered in 1994, are the ultimate art historical mystery. They are so very beautiful, and we have no accurate idea as to why they were made. Were they religious or magical or simply descriptive? we don't know. So we have to seek their meaning in the fact of them, responding to their form and the life of their imagery, and the amazing realization that Homo sapiens has been painting for over 30,000 years and we're not about to stop. The meaning of that need is unfathomable.


  1. Altoon, This is a topic I think about so much. Like you, do not hold to one dogmatic position on what is "acceptable" or "appropriate".

    I often think of what happened in the 80s around the Primitivism exhibit at MOMA that Thomas McEvilly tore apart in Artforum, criticizing the assumption that art from the non-Western cultures are presented primarily as source material for Western artists and not a valid cultural offering all their own. McEvilly is right, and in the long run his point of view won out. But like you, I am constantly inspired by work that I do not understand, that I do not have a context for, that I may or may not even want to study in more depth. It doesn't exist for my benefit, but its visual presence speaks to me nonetheless. I have gotten better at embracing the paradox, of approaching all work with respect but letting what speaks, speaks.

    1. Thanks for this great comment, Deborah. You clearly state in a few words what I rambled on about.

  2. I cannot answer that question. Except to say to everything I give my own meaning. Though often similar, I am not the 'other'. Even 'meanings' of our own time and culture is a shaky premise. I have little ambition to understand, only to see, and act.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts, r henry. I agree in that we each bring our own point of view, our own character and history, to how we see. For me, there's something of trying to honor another culture by attempting to understand its art, but it's not essential in my experience of it.

  3. You hit on the two "c"'s of anthropology. culture and context, but not the third: comparison. The three together help bringing the world into focus and create a window for understanding what we cannot at first. Culture is universal, the formation of language and symbol is what we have in common. The narrative, as in the creation of a particular discourse, we cannot know unless it is given-- though the commonalities of culture, I believe, give us a deep and thick knowledge... when you say letting what speaks, speak... that is key. You know this work from the shared experience of being human. As with the Chauvet cave paintings... do you really believe they are unfathomable? I would surmise that with the mystic-centered world of our common past, you hit the nail on the head: descriptive-religious-magic. If you compare the paintings and their narratives to everyday life, I think, when we witness events: an accident, the movie letting out, strangers embracing, the context is apparent without knowing the exact narrative, Since we share the temporal and spatial we surmise and it brings us closer to what we witness--in our understanding, and we begin to create context. With art from different eras/cultures, we need to adjust the lens somewhat to focus, maybe clean it off a bit-- but we are already there; standing beside Krishna or St. James, or reaching back into those cave, where in a sense, we all come from.
    ... that's my 2 cents, anyway!

    1. Thanks for your interesting 2 cents, Anon. Since I'm interested in art, not anthropology, my context is different. And what I wrote was unfathomable was the human need to paint, not the Chauvet cave paintings.

  4. Difficult question. The intended meaning may be lost without narrative or cultural context, but there is more to art. There is the meaning to each of us individually as we view a work. Art allows us to create our own narratives, though that may change once we discover the true narrative or cultural context.

  5. Altoon, I agree with you. Every bit of meaning or emotional content is contained in and transmitted by the form. Fra Angelica is a marvelous painter, and when one encounters his painting, most often, it's a transformative experience. The tree doesn't have to know the story or science or theory of wind to be bent by it. Layers of understanding: provenance, techniques, history, are a plus for expanding consciousness, but the essence is contained and transmitted by the form whether or not we are aware.

  6. Thanks, Lori and Darryl, for your comments. I agree that intended meaning is not all there is to art and that we bring meaning to our viewing as individuals. There is a mystery as to how form creates meaning, but so it does.

  7. I was once in a conservatory studying to an actor. One class mate started to mingle with a piano, and kept at it. What initially was noise, after a few months became music, I was enthralled and sad, as no such thing was happening to me; finally I understood: it was a mistake, I was in the wrong place, attempting what I had no instinct for. I did not know what to do with my life. Few years later, in an another country, by happenstance, I found my self, in a life drawing class, waiting for a friend, and was given paper and pencil, told to look and "do" To my everlasting surprise I could, I could I could "do". Forty years later; I have never stopped! I agree with you Altoon, it is "unfathomable". If you can "do" it you must, if you can see it you must. By the way, I later found out, I was tone deaf!

    1. How wonderful, Levent, that you found your place by happenstance.

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  8. Something to consider is the ability of the artwork to express the meaning (or message) that it intends to convey. This is often different from the general quality of the work. For example, consider the responses to the postings of my own drawings: Some people love (or hate) a drawing for an entirely different reason from my own understanding of it. In the case of many medieval church storytelling frescoes, the narrative may be entirely clear, but the painting may be awful. Of course, a well illustrated narrative may be told in a wonderful painting, but definitely not always, in my opinion.

    1. I guess this is what you mean by "meaning" of the work.
      Is meaning more than the narrative?

    2. Yes, narrative is very different from meaning; the narrative is the story, the meaning is something much deeper; it's what we feel. For me, if an artwork successfully conveys narrative but the painting is awful, it is just illustration, not art.

    3. That's great. I've often puzzled over illustration vs. art.

      Do you think it is possible for a good painting to tell a narrative badly?

    4. A painting doesn't have to have a narrative, good or bad.

  9. Thanks for exploring your questions through examples of art down the ages. I caught your passion and love for these masterpieces. I am especially moved by the soul container.