Every Picture Tells a Story

In the Alfred Hitchcock movie “Suspicion” Joan Fontaine suspects her new husband Cary Grant is trying to kill her. As her mistrust grows the images and the actions build the tension. When Grant is simply carrying a glass of milk upstairs to her bedroom the suspense mounts. One reason–the clever director put a light INSIDE the glass of milk in order to focus the viewer’s attention on the glass. With every step the audience wonders–is there poison in it?

Wassily Kandinsky, 20th century painter and art theorist, believed that the emotional power expressed in a painting not based on the literal or the descriptive allows the viewer to employ their own imagination and create their own story resulting in a greater emotional impact.

Bonnie Greer, American born, British playwright who is on the Board of Trustees for the British Museum says this about an artwork: “The subject is the excuse to transmit something inside the artist that is deeply, deeply profound.”

A not uncommon thought: the more questions that a work of art asks, the better it is.

Nietzsche says- “That for which we can find words is something already dead in our hearts.”

If we combine these thoughts relative to the painting process it becomes one of: transmitting something profound from one’s deepest interior that the artist creates to stimulate the imagination and elicit an emotional or intellectual response that leaves the viewer with many questions that should probably not be uttered.

Now let’s discuss….

The point is, in the visual language we are learning there are clues in every painting that open the door the artist’s vision.  These clues, intentional or not, can even inform their creator about the illusive quality that is in any painting worth its salt. We can unearth and begin to understand them by talking about them.

Asking “how” a painting works is a good start. There are mechanical ways in which a “picture plane” functions. Shapes arranged in certain patterns cause interest, lines and objects lead the viewer around the page, colors recede or come forward, contrasts command attention, resting spots create a sense of space, etc.  We practice seeing and describing these mechanics to become more fluent in the language.

Then there is the narrative that cannot or should not be ignored.  Manet would be quite insulted if you thought his “Luncheon on the Grass” was about lunch, or his “Olympia” was an idealized nude (to see both: http://www.impressionniste.net/manet_edouard.htm ). In these paintings there are stories. And the viewer contributes to them by interpreting the image. When they were painted there was much outrage and dismissal of these artworks that began a dialogue that continues today. Manet’s response: “I paint what I see, and not what others like to see” .

It is easy to be unnerved when the story trying to be told is miss-understood or  an amorphous shape in a painting is described as a ‘this’ or a ‘that’—completely contrary to the artist’s vision.  Once voiced the creator often has trouble ignoring it.  But in order to glean and grow it may be necessary to accept that the viewers’ imaginations can run wild and, insensitivity aside, telling what they see may not be a negative to them. As we strive to learn this complex language, it is important to stay open to response and at the same time strengthen those wobbly legs by standing by your work.  As viewers, practicing the words that best describe what you are responding to will increase your fluency allowing our stories to grow more and more meaningful.

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5 Responses to Every Picture Tells a Story

  1. Anonymous says:

    Now that wasn’t lengthy at all. Very informative and a reminder to keep our parachute open to rescue us from what doesn’t matter………………………..

    • joanngilles says:

      Thanks Ann. Art criticism at any level is tricky business especially in a setting like ours where the experience and interest varies and where everyone cares about everyone else.

      I’ve heard many people request that those commenting on the work not describe what they see. They can put something in your mind that you never intended and that you don’t like. I’ve often had it happen to me as I’m painting my atmospheric-scapes. The last thing I want people to see is a figure or an animal, but they do. And what they see is valid. I can’t say it isn’t just because it is not what I intended. Like with our children–they may not be as you intended, but they are who they are.

      Then the opposite happens. I have one painting I love, that to me actually is a horse. But no one else sees that lone creature standing in the cold but me. I am moved by my imagery that no one else gets. So what’s an artist to do? I think wrestling with conflicting comments is a worthy struggle as long as the comments are not cruel. Sometimes I stand by my vision. Sometimes I paint it out. It’s all learning. If the viewer isn’t getting what I’m trying to say, maybe I need to say it better. Or maybe I just accept that my truth is for me alone and stand tall.

  2. Anonymous says:

    JoAnn, I really enjoyed this post. It made me think about how many times this past year I have put brush to paper and revealed something inside myself that I didn’t know was there … and I am beginning to see there are themes to my paintings that strengthen the message from within. I welcome my talented colleagues responses to my work and hope that you all will continue to offer it openly as this is a year of growth for me.

  3. Anonymous says:

    growing pains! I am always fascinated by what others see in my work. I try to remember that communication of any kind takes the “speaker,” the “listener,” and the “words” or in our case, the painter, the “canvas”, and the viewer. I was looking through old photos, old work today and was really amazed at how far we have come together. You have anointed us all as artists. thank you.

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