We are so used to words not meaning what they literally say, that most of the time we do not even notice figures of speech. But when it comes to images, it gets more difficult.
Literality – language in which each word and phrase is only understood in terms of a single meaning – is often seen as dull and dry. Even academic writing employs figures of speech (or tropes of rhetoric, if you prefer to be more formal) quite widely. Our children learn about metaphor and simile during the early years of literacy, and those who struggle raise questions as to whether they might have autistic spectrum disorder, for instance. Figures of speech enrich language and change much more rapidly than the lexicon proper, or syntax (which alters even more slowly). Only today I encountered a new metaphor, dog-whistle politics, which is neatly defined and explained here on Wikipedia.
Certain types of image, particularly those used in advertising, are generally accepted as being multiple in meaning. Here is a fascinating collection on Pinterest, and here a selection from Tim Collins and D&AD.
But few of us, unless we read critical discourse about them, recognise that many (realist) paintings might contain meaning or readings beyond what single most obvious appearance. There are of course trivial illusions and ambiguous images, such as the famous duck-rabbit, but they are hardly art. A few paintings are actually known to be allegories, and fairly obviously must contain some form of metaphorical or allegorical interpretation, or they do not make much sense: Lotto’s allegories are an immediate example. There are also some paintings which appear loaded with indirect meaning, and which have a number of readings, of which perhaps the most famous is Botticelli’s Spring.
But look at Rembrandt’s Lucretia (1666) and you are more likely to see what is there, and read it as a depiction of the suicide of Lucretia in the well-known story of her rape and suicide. Or even more to the point, look at his Woman bathing in a Stream (1654) and you will see no narrative of any substance.
In my Favourite Paintings 4, I have discussed some readings of Rembrandt’s Bathsheba which require that painting to contain – or allude to – more than meets the eye at first. Mieke Bal’s discussion of readings of Rembrandt’s two Lucretia paintings amounts to some 34 pages, which are rich in rhetorical terms such as ‘metaphor’, ‘metonymy’, and even ‘synecdoche’, and engaged in that controversial discipline of semiotics.
For those schooled in traditional verbal rhetoric, the use of these terms in the context of visual art may appear puzzling. For example, a reasonable working definition of ‘metonymy’ might be:
a figurative expression (trope) in which a phrase is substituted by one which is associated in meaning as an indirect reference to the original phrase.
Examples might include ‘Wall Street’ (or in the UK ‘the City’) to mean the financial markets and industry. Unlike synecdoche, in which the part is represented by the whole, or the whole is represented by the part, it is very hard to see how metonymy can exist in a painting, without redefining the term quite radically.
What I am going to attempt to do in this series of articles is to look first at the tropes which are central to language, and how they might relate to those which are central to painting and similar visual art. With that understanding of tropes used in painting, we should then have the tools to see beyond the pictures, just as we are so practised and skilled at reading beyond the literality of the words. This should not only improve our ‘visual literacy’, but enhance our verbal rhetoric too.
Bal M (1991/2006) Reading Rembrandt. Beyond the Word-Image Opposition, Cambridge UP and Amsterdam Academic Archive. ISBN 90 5356 858 1. Particularly pp 60-93.
The Metaphor and Art blog.
Susan Ryland’s site.