EN3246   Literature and the Other Arts: Poetry and Painting

Rajeev S. Patke



Lecture 1  Reading Paintings: Summary


1         Images and Art objects: Images can be Graphic, Optical, Perceptual, Mental, Verbal. (We here focus on images as graphic art-objects & on verbal representations.)

2         The painting as an art-object: Artifacts in society: utility; symbolization; the contexts of magic/religion; the context of aesthetics.

3         C. S. Peirce on Icon, Index and Symbol:

         Icon=resemblance between object/image; Index=real connection between object/image; Symbol= conventional association between object/image.

         Example of Iconic sign: any representational image like a portrait, a landscape or a still-life.

         Example of Indexical sign: the hands of a clock, and the veering of a weathercock.
Example of Symbolic sign:
traffic lights; national symbols, etc.

4         Reading Paintings

4.1    The Extrinsic Approach: Period, Movement, Convention, Genre, Motif, Style.

4.2    Related methods of reading pictures: Iconography, Iconology: Representing objects/events; themes/concepts. 

4.3    The Intrinsic Approach: Mary Acton: Composition (Unity, Balance, Emphasis, Directionality, Contrast, Repetition, Proportion), Space, Form, Tone, Colour. 

4.4    The Intrinsic Approach: Other related descriptions: Line, Shape, Mass, Light, Texture.



1   Images and Art objects


1.1  Image-making as an activity precedes art as a concept. 

1.2    Image-making as an art-practice operates within a broad framework of relations that is similar for all art-media. This framework can be represented in the form of a diagram, such as the following:

The diagram enables one to map the "primary" and "secondary" discourses that can be generated about any art-object or aesthetic experience.
Primary relations
Axis 1: The relation between artist and artwork
Axis 2: The relation between artwork and audience
Axis 3: The relation between artwork and the world of shared reality               
Axis 4: The relation between the artwork and art as a set of practices, conventions, traditions
Secondary relations
Axis 5: The artist’s relation to the world of shared reality
Axis 6: The audience’s relation to the world of shared reality
Axis 7: The artist’s relation to art as a set of practices, conventions, traditions
Axis 8: The audience’s relation to art as a set of practices, conventions, traditions 

1.3  Image-making may be representational, symbolic, abstract, or some combination of the three. 

1.4  An image may be representational-symbolic in a context that precedes the idea of art as we now understand it. 

Ex. 2        Paleolithic cave painting 

 The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (France): Hillaire Chamber - Panel of the Engraved Horse
Link:  http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/
Image source:  http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/ic/pt/pt14.gif 

1.5          An image-object may be representational-symbolic in a context that subsumes the idea of art in another context, such as that of religious ritual or worship. 

Ex. 3        Religious icon 


 The Virgin Mary – Icon         Icon with metal cover
Image source:  http://www.artelino.com/articles/collecting_icons.asp

1.6          An image-object may be representational-symbolic in a context that is primarily functional or informative. In the early stages of human adaptation to various natural environments iconic representation may have been part of practical magic (as when an image is believed to give one some form of control over its referent, as in hunting). In subsequent ages, images function as signs with specific associations. 

Ex. 4        Contemporary sign 

 Ex. 5        Ironic variations on contemporary signs 


Smarties Here                No Smarties Today                    20% Drunk   
Source for captions: Dr. Susan Ang

Note that the joke depends on the interaction between caption & image, not on the image alone

Ex. 6        Contemporary photograph 

 Helix Staircase
Image source:  http://www.artlex.com/ArtLex/W.html 

1.7    An image-object may be representational-symbolic in a context that is primarily aesthetic: it is this kind of image that we are interested in for this module. This type of image motivates a poet to write in a manner that is in some sense based on, derived from, dependent on, inspired by, or a reaction to the image. The object of the module is to examine specific examples of such relations between the visual arts and poetry for what they reveal of the relation between the visual and the verbal in aesthetic creativity. For practical purposes the module will confine itself to examples from 20th century poetry in English, but students are welcome to explore the nexus between painting and poetry from other periods and cultures. 

Ex. 7        Painting (abstract, non-representational) 

 Mark Rothko, Light Red Over Black, 1957 (Acton, Plate 17)

 Ex. 8        Painting (representational) 

 Sir John Everett Millais, Ophelia (1851-2) (Benton, p. 68)

Ex. 9        Painting (representational?) 

 Charles Demuth, I Saw the Number 5 in Gold, 1928 (Benton, p. 36)


 In what sense is an image or a painting “representational”?

 What does a sign, picture or a painting “refer to” when it is not “representational”?



2  The painting as an art-object


There are two dimensions to this idea. The first implies that production and reception function within the framework of shared or negotiable assumptions about art as concept, practice and institution in society. The second underscores the facticity of the artifact as an object in space and time, distinguishing the object-hood of the artifact from its reproducibility as an image. This distinction generates ideas such as the uniqueness or authenticity of the art-object. Also, as technology interacts with art practices, the possibilities opened by photography (and subsequent developments such as digital imagery) blur the distinction between the primary art-object and its virtual copies or simulacra. 

Recommended reading:

·         Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility” (CL sources: PN514 Ben 1999; BJ46 Gol; TR15 Pho; PN1994 Mas, etc.).

·         Jean Baudrillard, “Aesthetic Illusion and Virtual Reality” (CL sources: TR640 Jea; B105 Ima.R). 

Question: Enumerate the ways in which a photograph resembles a painting, and the ways in which it differs from a painting.



3   C. S. Peirce on Icon, Index and Symbol


One way of looking at visual media is to treat them as signs, which refer to things (persons, objects) or to ideas connected with things. The American philosopher C. S. Peirce offers a useful distinction between the functions served by signs.

 “the most frequently useful division of signs is by trichotomy into firstly Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves; secondly, Indices, which represent their objects independently of any resemblance to them, only by virtue of real connections with them, and thirdly Symbols, which represent their objects, independently alike of any resemblance or any real connection, because dispositions or factitious habits of their interpreters insure their being so understood.”

 "Index. A sign, or representation, which refers to its object not so much because of any similarity or analogy with it, nor because it is associated with general characters which that object happens to possess, as because it is in dynamical (including spatial) connection both with the individual object, on the one hand, and with the senses or memory of the person for whom it serves as a sign, on the other hand.”

 “I call a sign which stands for something merely because it resembles it, an icon.”

 "A symbol is defined as a sign which becomes such by virtue of the fact that it is interpreted as such.” 

 Source: Peirce Dictionary - Index: http://www.helsinki.fi/science/commens/terms/index2.html

 Question: How might we apply Peirce’s distinctions to painting?



4.1    Reading Paintings - The Extrinsic Approach 


 4         Reading Paintings 

 Before we examine the approach taken to specific painters and paintings by poets, it is useful to outline a general method of interpreting visual art media. The method I recommend for our present purposes is synthesized from several current approaches to art criticism. The method comprises two parts: the intrinsic approach and the extrinsic approach. Ideally, the two should work together in building up an articulate response to the visual artifact. 

 4.1      The Extrinsic Approach 

The extrinsic approach interprets paintings by creating contexts for the painting in terms of the life, culture and artistic beliefs and institutions of the artist and his (or her) times. Specific features of such contexts that provide a frame of reference within which a painting can be “read” include: 

·         Period

·         Movement

·         Convention

·         Genre

·         Motif

·         Style              “a consistent and characteristic handling of media, elements of form, and principles of design that make a work of art identifiable as the product of a particular culture, period, region, group, or person” (Preble, 2004: 91). 

These, and related concepts, provide a vocabulary that links paintings, painters, and the historicity of beliefs and practices concerning the arts and the very idea of the aesthetic faculty and its place in the life of the individual and of society. 

One example of how an extrinsic factor might have a bearing on a specific painting (as “read” by a specific poet) can be illustrated from Derek Walcott's long poem Tiepolo's Hound (from which a short extract is given below):

Ex. 10     Paul Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi (1573), Venice


Image source: http://keptar.demasz.hu/arthp/html/v/veronese/religion/f_levi.htm

Note: 1573 Paolo Caliari, called Veronese (1528–1588), executes a Last Supper for the refectory of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. In it he includes animals, clowns, and a host of other lively characters in colorful contemporary dress. For this he is summoned before the Inquisition and charged with heresy, but is excused and made only to retitle the work after a less sacred biblical event, the Feast in the House of Levi.

Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/08/eustn/ht08eustn.htm

 Walcott’s text:

 I remember stairs in couplets. The Metropolitan’s
marble authority, I remember being
stunned as I studied the exact expanse
of a Renaissance feast, the art of seeing.
Then I caught a slash of pink on the inner thigh
of a white hound entering the cave of a table,
so exact is the lucency at The Feast of Levi,
I felt my heart halt. Nothing, not the babble
of the unheard roar that rose from the rich
pearl-lights embroidered on ballooning sleeves,
sharp beards, and gaping goblets,  matched the bitch
nosing a forest of hose. So a miracle leaves
its frame, and one epiphanic detail
illuminates an entire epoch…
(Tiepolo’s Hound, 7-8) 


 How does the “Renaissance” figure in Walcott’s poem?
 What has Walcott isolated as the key feature, for him, from the painting?
 How does the notion of the Renaissance get qualified by that choice?
 Why is the glimpse of the dog under the table an epiphanic moment for the poet?
 In what sense does it illuminate an entire epoch?
 What has Walcott isolated as the key feature, for him, from the painting?
 How does the notion of the Renaissance get qualified by that choice?
 How does the modern art museum figure as an institution in Walcott’s text?

Ex. 11   The Metropolitan Museum, New York (Home Page image) 

   Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/

 Compare the self-portrait by Gauguin below with that by Walcott (Tiepolo’s Hound, p. 21), and comment on the nature of the “intertextual allusion” by Walcott to Gauguin. 

Ex. 11 & 12   Self-portrait and Allusion


Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait with Halo, 1889 (Washington) / Walcott, p. 21
Image source: http://www.artchive.com/artchive/G/gauguin/gauguin_halo.jpg.html

 Mary Acton, in Learning to Look at Paintings (1997) discusses what we have referred to above as the extrinsic approach in terms of Subject-matter (specifically, in terms of whether a painting represents scenes of everyday life, literary subject-matter or subjects drawn from history, mythology or religion).



4.2    Related methods of reading pictures: Iconography, Iconology


 The idea of the extrinsic approach, as developed here, is adapted, in part, from a Western tradition in art history, which uses the notions of Iconography (“branch of the history of art which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art, as opposed to their form”, Panofsky, 1955: 26) and iconology (“an iconography turned interpretive”, Panofsky 1955: 32) to study art-objects as cultural artifacts embedded in the historicity of art practices. Erwin Panofsky, in an influential essay titled “Iconography and Iconology: An Introduction to the study of Renaissance Art”  (CL N7445.2 Pan), summarizes the stages of this method in a table, of which a simplified version is given below.

Ex. 14      Panofsky Table 


Object of interpretation


Act of interpretation


Equipment for interpretation


Principle of interpretation



1. Primary or natural subject matter


Pre-iconographical description


Familiarity with objects & events


Insight into how objects & events were expressed by forms under varying historical conditions



2. Secondary or conventional subject matter


Iconographical analysis


Familiarity with specific themes & concepts



Insight into how specific themes & concepts were expressed by objects & events in history


3. Intrinsic meaning or content


Iconological interpretation


Familiarity with the tendencies of the human mind


Insight into the manner in which tendencies of the human mind were expressed by specific themes and concepts in history


 (Panofsky 1955: 40-41)

 A more recent, and fairly ambitious approach, as developed in several books by W. J. T. Mitchell, places the activity of “:reading” pictures in the broader context of visual culture. Its focus is less on a painting as an art-object than on the image as a form of visual sign which has many manifestations, and complex relations to language as a form of abstract sign-system: “the whole relation between the visible and the readable” (Mitchell 1995: 211).

Ex. 15      Mitchell Diagram

 (Source: Mitchell  1986:10) 

Mitchell’s approach addresses a set of questions, of which some will figure (some more directly than others) in our module: What is an image? How do images function in consciousness, in memory, fantasy, and perception? What is the relation between visual images and visuality in general? What is a visual medium? How do images communicate and signify? What is the relation between art and visual culture in general? How do technologies of visual reproduction affect visual culture? (1995: 211). In our module, we shall address such questions not in the broad context of the anthropology of visual cultures, but in the specific context of the complex relation between the poem as text and the pictorial image as a visual “text”.

 Recommended Reading: 

Mitchell, W. J. T., Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.
Mitchell, W. J. T., Picture Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
Mitchell, W. J. T., “What is Visual Culture?”, Meaning in the Visual Arts, ed. Irving Lavin. Princeton: Institute for Advanced Study, 1995, 207-224.
Panofsky, Erwin, Meaning in the Visual Arts. New York: Doubleday, 1955.



4.3    Reading Paintings - The Intrinsic approach


 Mary Acton’s Learning to Look at Paintings (1997), among many other similar works, develops what we describe here as the intrinsic approach in terms of the following elements of a painting: Composition, Space, Form, Tone, and Colour.  

 Composition: `the artist's method of organising a subject, of deciding what to put in and what to leave out in order to make an effective picture”, “a way of relating different parts … together so that it forms a coherent whole” (1). Composition entails preparatory work on a painting, and is also affected by the size of the picture, the scale of the painting. 

 Types of composition: horizontals and verticals; harmony and balance; rhythm and the spaces between objects; curves and diagonals; colour; asymmetry; apparently random composition; collage (where found objects or photographs, are arranged on a flat surface to form what is called a composite image’, 22). 

Ex. 16    Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1964 (Acton, 23) 


 Space: “The effect of space in a painting is primarily the creation of the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. It is concerned with the width and depth, and with the interval and distance surrounding solid objects” (25).

Ex. 17    Alberti's Construction


Image Source: Brunelleschi’s Peepshow and the origins of Perspective
Also check: Richard Talbot on Linear Perspective
And: The History & Theory of Perspective

 Under Space, the topics that come up for recognition are: imaginative space and illusionism; aerial perspective; space to walk about in, as in landscape; spatial distortion; multiple-viewpoint perspective; space in front of the picture; and spatial disorientation. 

 Form: "the feeling of volume in a painting .... the artist trying to convey a sense of solidity on a flat surface" (51). Ideas about form include: sculptural form in the human figure; chiaroscuro and sfumato; form made tangible; the disintegration of form; the rebuilding of form; form created with colour; and closing the gap between painting and sculpture. 

 Tone: “Tone is the use of the contrast between light and dark in a painting” (81). The topic can be discussed in terms of: tone used to create drama; tone and the expression of emotion; tone and the realization of form and space; tone used to create atmosphere; and tone and the reconstruction of form. 

 Colour: can be used to express emotion; to enhance the power of suggestion; to disturb the emotions; to express emotions without a figurative subject; to express a sense of scale, texture, and as light.  

Ex. 18    The colour wheel

Image source:  http://www.sustland.umn.edu/design/colortechniques.html 

Ex. 18      Victor Vasarely, Vega-Nor, 1969 

Image source:  http://www.albrightknox.org/ArtStart/Vasarely.html



4.4    The Intrinsic approach: Other related methods

 Recommended Reading:            D. & S. Preble, Artforms (2004, 7th edn., 2004) Text & CDROM: CL N7430 Dis 2003.
Lois Fichner-Rathus, Understanding Art (7th edn, 2004) Text & CD-ROM: CL N7430.5 Fic 2004.

 Web Links: 

 Art, Design & Visual Thinking: http://char.txa.cornell.edu/language/element/element.htm
 Notebook: http://www.noteaccess.com/ELEMENTS/index.htm
 Digital Web Magazine-Elements of Design: http://www.digital-web.com/articles/elements_of_design/
 Digital Web Magazine-Principles of Design: http://www.digital-web.com/articles/principles_of_design/ 

 Most introductions to the elements of visual art adopt an approach similar to Acton’s. Some of their basic distinctions are given below. 


 Line:                    “our basic means for recording and symbolizing ideas, observations, and feelings” (Preble 41). 

                                Properties: length, width. Types: actual, implied. Functions: to outline & shape; to create depth & texture; to suggest direction & movement (Fichner-Rathus). 

Ex. 19      Different kinds of lines 

 Image source: Elements of Design http://valeciaia.tripod.com/elements.html

Ex. 20      Variations on a line 

 Image source: http://char.txa.cornell.edu/language/element/element.htm

 Shape:               “the expanse within the outline of a two-dimensional area” (Preble 44). 

 Shape:                 Types: geometric (rectilinear, curvilinear), organic, amorphous.

                                Figure-ground reversals: “Gestalt scientists have noted that shapes can be ambiguous, so as to encourage figure-ground reversals” (Fichner-Rathus 43). 

Ex. 21      Figure-ground reversal: A Rubin vase 

 Image source:  http://esa.ackleyshack.com/ndb/museum.html

  Mass:                  “the physical bulk of a solid body of material” (Preble 46). 

 Space:               “The visual arts are sometimes referred to as spatial arts, because in most of these arts, forms are organized in space” (Preble 49.                              

Perspective: “any means of representing the appearance of 3-dimensional objects in space on a 2-dimensional surface” (Preble 51). “The linear perspective system was developed during the Italian Renaissance” (51). “Recognition of eye level–the height of the viewer’s eyes above the ground plane–is basic to the ability to see and draw objects and spaces in terms of linear perspective” (Preble 3rd edn., 66).

Ex. 22      Linear Perspective

Image source: http://faculty.evansville.edu/rl29/h340/f05/renaissancepainting.html 

 Time & Motion: “Although time itself is invisible, it can be made perceptible in art” (Preble 56). 

                                     Implied motion: “the viewer infers that motion is occurring or has occurred” (Fichner-Rathus 64). 

Ex. 23      Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912 

 Image source: http://surrealists.classifieds4u.co.uk/viewPicture/73/ 

 Light:                   “Colour, direction, quantity, and intensity of light…” (Preble 61). 

                                Local colour is defined as the hue of an object as created by the colours its surface reflects under normal lighting conditions. Optical colour is defined as our perceptions of colour, which can vary markedly with lighting conditions (Fichner-Rathus 52). 

 Colour:               “varies in 3 basic ways: hue (wavelength of spectrum), value (relative lightness or darkness), and intensity” or saturation (Preble 3rd edn, 85). 

Ex. 24      Hue, Value, Saturation 

 Image source:  http://www.digital-web.com/articles/elements_of_design/ 

                                Primary hues: red, yellow, blue. Secondary hues: orange, green, violet. Intermediate hues: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet (Preble 65). 

Pointillism: “When dots of pure colour are placed together … they blend in the mind, creating the appearance of other hues” (Preble 3rd edn, 88).                               

Common colour schemes: monochromatic (single hue, varying values & intensities); analogous (colour-wheel neighbours); complementary (colour-wheel opposites); polychromatic (many hues). 

Ex. 25      Analogous colours 

 Image source:   http://photoinf.com/General/Robert_Berdan/Composition_and_the_Elements_of_Visual_Design.htm 

 Texture:             “refers to the tactile qualities of surfaces or to the visual representation of such qualities” (Preble 69). 

                                Texture refers to the surface characteristic of materials as experienced primarily through the sense of touch (or its visual equivalents). “Actual texture is tactile … Simulated texture in a work of art is referred to as visual textureSubversive texture compels the viewer to look again at an object (or an image) and to think about it more deeply” (Fichner-Rathus 55-57). 

Ex. 26      Meret Oppenheim, Object , 1936 

 Image source: http://www.moma.org/ecards/write_ecard.php?object_id=80997 


 Unity & Variety:            “Unity is the appearance or condition of oneness, variety provides diversity” (Preble 72). 

 Balance:                           “the achievement of equilibrium, the condition in which acting influences are held in check by opposing forces” (Preble 75). 

 Emphasis & Subordination: “Emphasis is used to draw our attention to an area or areas… Through subordination, an artist creates neutral areas of lesser interest” (Preble 80). 

 Directional Forces:    “paths for the eye to follow provided by actual or implied lines” (Preble 80). 

 Contrast:                           “is the juxtaposition of strongly dissimilar elements” (Preble 82). Contrast can be employed in relation to several elements such as hues, shapes, and brushstrokes. 

 Repetition & Rhythm: “The repetition of visual elements gives a composition unity, continuity, flow, and emphasis … Rhythm refers to any kind of movement or structure of dominant and subordinate elements in sequence” (Preble 82). 

 Scale & Proportion:   “Scale is the size relation of one thing to another. Proportion is the size relationship of parts to a whole” (Preble 84).





Last Updated 16 January 2012