Text and Image

Leslie Ross

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In reading this sentence you are unlikely to note that it appears in a particular font with its own unique visual shape. The fact that a letter is a "figure" against a "ground" goes unnoticed: its darkness and contour stand out against the ground of the page or screen, but neither the letter's shape nor the substrate consciously register. Letters of the alphabet are a finite set of stimuli that are sharply focused, familiar, and over-learned. Especially in printed texts like this one we pass effortlessly from the signifier to what is signified. "The wonderful thing about language is that it promotes its own oblivion," writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty. "My eyes follow the line on the paper, and from that moment I am caught up in their meanings, I lose sight of them. The paper, the letters on it, my eye and the body are there only as the minimum setting of some invisible operation. Expression fades before what is expressed, and this is why its mediating role may pass unnoticed."

In contrast, images are potentially infinite in form and structure; they are inherently polysemic. Therefore they are often unfamiliar and more difficult to "read." Visual space is about looking, while scriptive space is about learning. But when words are located within the space of art, or when they become more overtly visually assertive in form, a transposition occurs that can bring awareness of the materiality of written language. The linguistic sign's conventional bond with meaning is loosened, and gives way to something essentially "unnameable." The reader becomes a viewer, and is distanced from the word's discursive content and made more aware of the noncognitive and affective qualities of the visible.

On the occasion of the publication of Language in the Visual Arts: The Interplay of Text and Imagery (McFarland, 2014), art historian Leslie Ross, Professor and Chair of Art History at the Dominican University of California, answers some questions about word and image relations in the visual arts.

—Simon Morley
Artist and author of Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art
(Thames & Hudson/University of California Press, 2003)
and co-author of
The Winchester Guide to Keywords and Concepts for
International Students in Art, Media and Design (Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).

What drew you to this topic?

As a specialist in medieval manuscript illustration, but also a wide-ranging art historian with deep interests in modern and contemporary art, I have always been absolutely fascinated with the interplay of written texts and visual images, the use of written language in the visual arts, and the use of written language as a form of visual art. Along with oral speech, writing and pictures are, after all, the fundamental forms of human communication. And it seems quite clear that the early writing systems derived, basically, from abbreviated pictorial images or symbols long before these developed into various alphabetic or other systems of writing. The written word thus has always had a pictorial dimension as well—written words have singularly important visual aspects as mark-makers/signifiers of meaning—and thinking about how words and pictures function, how they differ, what happens when they are combined, etc., have been topics that have intrigued me for years.

My studies of medieval manuscript illustrations are doubtless the basis for my interest in the relationship of words and pictures. Medieval illustrated manuscripts, in all their variant forms, often exhibit extremely creative and close associations of words and pictures. Before the advent of the printing press and moveable type, after all, all the writing and painting in these early books were done by hand. Although it is clear that both text and pictures will necessarily play important roles in illustrated books generally, the relationship of text and images was explored in an enormous variety of creative formats in medieval manuscripts. Words may be constructed of pictures, pictures may include words, letters may function as letters as well as pictures, and pictures may be created of words. It is really pretty amazing.

So then you start looking at what post-medieval artists have done and continue to do with texts and pictures, and it becomes quite clear that the basic concepts and possibilities for text/image combinations really have a great deal of continuity from ancient/medieval times to the present, even though many people might not immediately make these types of connections.

Can you construct a general taxonomy of artistic uses of text?

Great question! Many people have attempted to do this—to develop basic "classification systems" for text/image relationships in the history of art—and so my own contributions to this ongoing discussion, I hope, are fresh and helpful additions.

Throughout history, written words have been combined with visual images in forms which range from the explanatory to the enigmatic, from the constructive to the contradictory, from the iconic to the irreverent, and so on. In my own work and studies I've adopted a "thematic" approach because it seems quite clear that the many forms of word/picture combinations really cannot be placed in a linear, chronological, or sequential development system. In fact, word/picture combinations that were developed ages ago bear remarkable similarities to modern examples. It is rather more of a consistent exploration of related forms across the ages.

Even so, I think it is possible to discern some broad (and often overlapping) categories in the artistic interplay of written texts and visual images.

On the most basic level, there are cases where words and pictures can be described as deliberately designed to "work together," to provide "mutually elucidating" and informative materials. Such is the case with captions, inscriptions, labels, and other related forms. When these devices appear in works of visual art, they are often included primarily to assist the viewer in identifying the pictorial subject matter and/or to add a level of discursive information about the images or symbols depicted. These types of written additions to works of art are not designed to be tricky but rather to point the viewers to a greater understanding of the artwork as a whole. These are relatively straightforward.

On the other hand, there are many examples of rather more puzzling word/image combinations throughout the history of art: cases where viewers must engage in a process of decipherment to try to work out the spatial or contextual relationships of the written words and the visual imagery. In many eras, indeed, artists have enjoyed using clever trompe l'oeil devices (especially for the inclusion of illusionistic written materials) and these challenge viewers' perceptions of the spatial relationships between the writing and the visual images. The same, of course, can be said for the collage form when actual snippets of newspapers and other sorts of written ephemera are included in the pieces. Were these chosen for their textual content, or not?

Further fascinating varieties of word/picture puzzles may be seen in the enigmatic and intellectually stimulating works by artists such as René Magritte who explored the relationship of words and images throughout his influential career. As is well known, he often labeled objects in his paintings by "incorrect" names—so the words and pictures do not match up. These types of highly puzzling image/word combinations can be loosely related back to several examples of "enigmatic" or "hidden texts" in medieval manuscripts where the artfully presented letters appear to represent either hidden codes or purely random choices. Who knows?

That brings us to the use of words as images: imaged words, and worded images. Artists such as Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and many, many others are well known for their bold presentations of texts alone as visual art. Medieval manuscript painters/scribes often did this too, making powerful images of words alone often without any pictorial accompaniment. They also created remarkable shaped texts of immense pictorial and written complexity—forerunners of Apollinaire's calligrams and the modern examples of Concrete Poetry too.

Of course, one needs to consider the aims, goals, and contexts too of any word-based art. For many artists of the past and present as well, artfully created words have a very special if not highly sacred significance as icons, emblems, and symbols of faith traditions. These awe-filled words contrast with—but are as powerful as—awful words, words that are derogatory, shameful, hateful, and abusive. The power of the word and the use and abuse of language have especially made their way into the modern artistic vocabulary, not without some past precedents too.

Finally, I think we should at least mention "three-dimensional" words—those artful words that appear in sculptural form, whether illusionistically or in actuality. These monumental words in art take many forms from the ancient to the modern world. Some are sculptures, some look like sculptures, some are static and others are melting or moving projections on buildings or in the environment.

I think it is clear that a precise taxonomy of words-in-art and words-as-art benefits greatly from a thematic approach, looking at various examples from a wide range of periods and media to demonstrate the lively, ongoing, and thought-provoking interplay between writing and pictures.

What does "translation" mean to you in this context?

This is also a great question! And I think it could be explored in any number of ways. For example, specialists in ancient art and as-yet undeciphered symbol systems have often raised the question: how do we know when we are looking at written language rather than pictures? (and vice versa too). In many cases, we really don't know if the graphic markings or images found in ancient art are "pictures" or "proto-writing" systems, so this raises the question of what we actually mean by "writing" and "art" as systems of communication and how these work together, or not.

This question also touches on the important topics of visual and written "literacy." That is a highly fraught question and applies not only to ancient/medieval times but also to the modern world as well. Of course, in the pre-modern era the ability to read any written communications was not within the grasp of the largely illiterate general public; and in today's fast-paced world even those who make valiant attempts to keep up to date simply cannot stay abreast of all the latest images and texts and communication modes.

There's the old saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words" and that applies equally well to today's pictorial vocabulary of internet memes and emoticons. Only those in the know or with access can avail themselves of these constant and ever-changing communication modes.

One presumes that was the case in older eras as well; people needing assistance with reading the Latin texts or indeed in some cases runic texts on medieval monuments must have availed themselves of a "translator" and if no such person was handy they still appreciated the immense seriousness of the graphic markings they saw inscribed on the stones or carefully painted in the texts. Thus the word becomes artful—powerful—and the images do, too.

Several artists have boldly addressed these issues of graphic communication and translation of writing/images—Xu Bing especially in his Book from the Sky and more recently his Book from the Ground in which he has continued to update and explore his themes of verbal/visual translation issues.

What, in your opinion, is the future of the written word in the digital age?

I have seen so many changes in information delivery and technology during my lifetime, it has been really amazing for me. As an academic writer and teacher, I am so delighted that carrying out "research" seems perhaps easier for my students these days, but I also feel that they may be missing out a bit; students may be too quick to assume that the internet will rapidly provide them with all the materials they need, immediately. In fact, it does not. There's a trade-off here and I still don't know what it will be. We are living in a world of changes that goes far beyond the traditional "written" and/or "digital" divide.

I am sure that the often-explored interface between the visual and the written modes will continue to generate lively works of visual as well as written art in new vocabularies too. I think being able to read texts and analyze images are skills which need to be continually updated. The written word is remarkably flexible and will adjust in the future equally well—and as creatively—as it always has done.