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The Use of Words in British Painting 1


The present paper

intends to attack a
problem that has
hardly been
discussed before,
since it is a
phenomenon that
could be alternatively
described in terms of
linguistics and visual
art aesthetics,
therefore requiring a
approach. We will
deal with the
insertion of written
text in painting.

Paintings that we see nowadays in museums

always appear to us in a very complex net of
words. The title is sometimes so important that
the author will inscribe it himself in the painting.
The title does change only the attitude that we
have for a painting, the historical, religious,
poetical interpretation that we give to the forms
The Use of Words in British Painting 2

we identified in it, and therefore it also will

change the perception of the forms themselves.

When a text is inserted into a graphic image, this

compels the viewer to ‘read’ the picture
according to the rules governing the reading of a
text. In the western writing system the text is
read from the left to the right, but in other
systems of writing it is either from right to left or
vertically. The composition of the whole will be
perceived differently by the literate and by the
illiterate, or by the one who does not understand
the system of writing or the language used. We
should emphasise that for a Westerner, the sense
of a line becomes obvious only once he/she has
read the individual words composing it, rather
that isolated letters. The letter – if isolated –
remains inert, but it considerably attracts
attention on one point.

With the emergence of the

professional painter, a type
of word inserted in the
paintings – the signature –
has become very important.
The signature changes the
painting not only because it
assures us that the work
belongs to a painter, but
especially because it forces
us to focus on a certain spot
The Use of Words in British Painting 3

of the picture. In all European writing systems

the signature appears at the end of the place,
normally in the lower right corner. If the
signature is placed somewhere else, it becomes
more important, indicating the viewer the place
he has to fix his eyes upon.

If a painter wants to represe4nt what he sees,

sometimes he is forced to copy words with his
brush, as nowadays urban environments abound
in written messages – walls covered with
inscriptions, graffiti, posters, billboards, neon
adverts, screens, traffic signs, etc. that is why
most of times the signature will not be placed
onto the represented objects, as if it were
painted or engraved on one of them.

Ut pictura poesis, goes the old adage that

suggested that poets paint with words; and
similarly, painters can make use of words as they
were a specific sort of colour.

But what we are

going to discuss
about are the
words not as a
title or a
signature, but
as a stand-
component that
The Use of Words in British Painting 4

should be read both as a linguistic sign and as a

visual element. Literary quotes, poem fragments,
epitaphs, textual labels, mathematical formulae,
digits, graffiti are grafted into paintings and
intermingle with the purely painterly elements.
Our focus will be on such insertions as
encountered in the British and Canadian painting.

In order to treat this problem it is necessary to

present and try to define the main concepts of
the artistic and literary terms involved.

The next step will be a short history of this

technique in universal painting, presenting the
most famous names and works of art that
epitomize this trend. Subsequently we will try to
exemplify the theoretical part with some
paintings belonging to the British painters from
different periods. Such names as William
Hogarth, David Hockney, or Charles Ginner will
constitute the central point of our concern. Some
of their works will be presented and commented
upon in terms of symbols and meanings, dealing
with such issues as the content of the written
words inserted in the body of the painting and
the importance of these words for the general
meaning of the work.

In this respect, we will consistently appeal to an

interdisciplinary approach, that is, integrating
textual stylistic analysis with an assessment of
The Use of Words in British Painting 5

the visual impact of the merger between text and


The basics of painting

Painting is a
branch of the
visual arts in
which colour,
derived from any
of numerous
organic or
substances, is
applied to
various surfaces
to create a
or abstract
picture or design. Painting as well as poetry,
sculpture and music are “vlăstarele naturale ale
The Use of Words in British Painting 6

sufletului omenesc”1 (Cunningham: 46). One can

encounter them at the most barbarian nations,
whereas at nations with a high degree of
civilization they are at the acme of their
development; and, rising not out of necessity or
accident, they cannot perish even during the
most disastrous changes. In this respect they
differ from mere inventions; and in comparison
with technical innovations they are what a living
tree is compared to a wooden chump. It can be
said that the language of poetry can remain
mute at intervals, as well as the hand of the
painter can retain its gestures from time to time,
but “” aceasta nu afectează principiul etern care
este characteristic acestor arte”2 (Cunnigham:
47), it is true that the poetry of the barbarous
nations is hars, and their attempts to paint,
unskilled and clumsy; and yet, “chiar in aceste
manifestări recunoaştem prefigurarrea viitoarei
măiestrii şi ceva din caracterul specific pe care,
în zori mai fericite, geniul aceleiaşi seminţii îl va
imprima asupra unor creaţii mai valoroase”3
(Cunningham: 47).

Painting is one of the oldest and most important

among the visual arts. The paintings that artists
create have great value for humanity. They
provide people both with enjoyment and
The Use of Words in British Painting 7

However, painting is
not only a source of
pleasure, it also
teaches. Some
paintings reveal what
the artist felt about
important subjects
such as: death, love,
religion and social
justice. Other provide
information about the
customs, goals and
interest of the people
of past societies.
Paintings also tell about such things as the
buildings, clothing, and tools of the past. Much of
our knowledge about prehistoric and ancient
times comes from painting and other arts,
because many early societies left few or no
written records.

In the course of
its history,
painting has
taken several
major forms,
distinctive media
and techniques.
A few
techniques are
The Use of Words in British Painting 8

common to all paintings, except perhaps the

most recent avant-garde forms. Fresco painting,
which reached its heights in the late Middle Ages
and throughout the Renaissance, involves the
application of paint upon wet – or fresh – plaster
or to dry plaster. Tempera painting, another old
form, involves the use of powdered pigments
mixed with egg yolk applied to a prepared
surface, usually wood panel covered with linen.
Oil painting, which largely supplanted the use of
fresco and tempera during the Renaissance, was
traditionally thought to have been developed in
the late Middle Ages by the Flemish brothers Jan
van Eyck and Hubert van Eyck; it is now believed
to have been invented much earlier. Other
techniques are enamel, encaustic painting,
gouache, grisaille and watercolour painting. The
use of acrylic paints has become very popular in
recent times; this water-based medium is easily
applied, dries quickly, and does not darken with
the passage of time.

Over the centuries, different artistic methods,

styles, and theories about the purposes of art
have succeeded
one another and
were sometimes
rediscovered, in a
changed context,
several centuries
later. Thus, a
The Use of Words in British Painting 9

method of painting thought to have been used by

cave painters involved blowing pigments through
tubes onto the cave walls; a somewhat
analogous method is that of those 20th-century
painters who dribble pigments from their brushed
onto canvas. In the Renaissance, fresco painting
on walls and ceilings largely gave way to easel
painting in oils, but wall painting returned to
popularity in the 20th century, for example, in the
works of Mexican muralists. The impulse to
express intense emotion in art links painters as
different as El Greco in the 16th century Spain
and the German expressionists of the 20th
century. At the opposite pole from expressionist
attempts to reveal inner reality, there have
always been painters committed to the exact
representation of outward appearances. Realism
and symbolism, classical restraint and romantic
passion have alternated throughout the history of
painting, revealing significant affinities and

In his book The Visual Dialogue Nathan Knobler

states that the visual arts are divided, practically
speaking, into bidimensional and three-
dimensional objects. Painting and designneed
materials such as
paper, canvas,
plastic, surfaces,
pigments, and
The Use of Words in British Painting 10

the visual and aesthetic signification of these art

forms depend on the relations and images
created through the organization of the work in
the dimensions of width and length (Knobler, I:

Paintings consist of many artistic elements, the

most important of them being colour, mass, line,
space, and texture. “By placing the stress on
certain elements, a painter can make a picture
easier to understand or bring out some particular
mood or theme” (World Book: 15:28).

Colour in bidimensional arts, represents the

means of developing the other elements. The
painter, the drawer and the engraver start from
colour as the basic plastic element. In
bidimensional arts,
colour represents the
means of developing
all the other
elements. According
to Nathan Knobler,
the bidimensional
form cannot exist
without the clear
differentiation of the
colour; even a black
shape on a white
screen depends on
the contrast between
The Use of Words in British Painting 11

white and black in order to exist (I:89). No form

can be produced unless it has a specific colour.

There are three qualities of the colour, which

affect the appearance of any individual colour.
Knobler identifies these elements as thehue that
is the visual distinction, the value or the relative
darkness or luminosity of a colour, and
saturation, intensity or brightness that is the
vivacity of a pure colour gradually blurred
towards neutrality (I: 90).

Hue – the tone

(or shade) of a
colour is “o
funcţie a
lungimii de undă
reflectate de pe
o suprafaţă pe
retina ochiului”4
(Knobler, I:90).
The painters use
the theoretical combinations of hues only
orientatively, but the mixtures are modified
according to the features of the available colours.

Value – is “măsura luminozităţii unei culori”5

(Knobler, I:92). On a scale from black opening to
white, a hue as the yellow one is seen as a
degree of luminosity close to the white pole.
The Use of Words in British Painting 12

the difference
in brightness
between two
colours is said
to be
“diferenţa în
gradul de
saturaţie sai
intensitate a unei culori”6 (Knobler I:92). When
two chromatic hues are combined, and their
combination produces a neutral grey, it is said
that they are complementary hues. For example
red and green, yellow and purple, or orange and
blue are such complementary hues. “Variind
proporţiile unui amestec complementar de tonuri
se pot realiza numeroase grade diferite de
saturaţie”7 (Knobler I:93).

Line is a means by which most artists build up

the forms of their pictures. Line is a special
aspect of the form, which is the basis for many
types of drawings and paintings. It is possible to
consider the line as the edge, the outline of a
shape. Summarizing what Nathan Knobler said,
no matter what, line plays an important part in
bidimensional arts, whether it is considered a
distinct plastic element or a specific part of the
morphological element (Knobler I:88).
The Use of Words in British Painting 13

Mass – through it the artist is allowed to

“express the feeling of a weight in painting”
(World Book, 15:28).

Space is
achieved by
arranging lines,
colours, and
light and dark
areas in certain
ways. The artist
who works in
two dimensions
begins by
making signs os
a flat surface.
This surface is
his space, “lumea în care îşi construieşte ordinea
plastic a artei sale”8 (Knobler I:98). Limited by
dimensions and proportions of the bidimensional
plan, the painter arranges the forms in this space
in order to make the
meet the aesthetic,
representational and
expressive demands.

Texture refers to
the appearance of
the painting’s
surface; the viewer
receives the way
The Use of Words in British Painting 14

colour, which represents the real tactile surface

of a painting, is applied onto the canvas.

The plastic elements of the visual arts are the

fundamental elements used by the artist to build
each of his works, but the way (s)he organizes
these elements distinguishes a painting from

upon modern art

The technique of the use of words in painting is a

means that appears to be used self-consciously
in modern painting. Cultural historians have
related the fragmentation of forms in the late
19th and early 20th century art, to the
fragmentation of society at the time. The
increasing technological aspirations of the
industrial revolution widened the rift between the
The Use of Words in British Painting 15

middle and the working classes. Women

demanded the vote and equal rights. And the
view of the mind presented by the funder of
psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, suggested that
the human psyche, far from being unified, was
fraught with emotional conflicts and
contradictions. The discovery of X-rays, physicist
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, and other
scientific and technological innovations
suggested that our visual experience no longer
corresponded with the science’s view of the

Not surprisingly, various forms of artistic

creativity reflected these tensions and
developments. In literature, James Joyce, T. S.
Eliot, and Virginia Woolf experimented with
displaced narrative structure, grammar, syntax,
and spelling. In dance, Serghei Diaghilev, Isadora
Duncan, and Loie Fuller experimented with the
unconventional choreography and costume. And
in music, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky
composed pieces that did not depend on
traditional tonal structure.

Music not only took its place among the most

experimental of the arts, but it also became a
great inspiration for visual artists. Many art critics
in the late 19th and early 20th century were
influenced by German philosophers Arthur
Schopenhauer and Friederich Nietzsche, who had
The Use of Words in British Painting 16

proclaimed that music was the most powerful of

all the arts because it managed to suggest
emotions directly , not by merely copying the
world. Many painters of the late 19th century
symbolist movement , including Odillon Redon
and Gustave Moreau, tried to emulate music’s
power of direct suggestion. By including abstract
forms and depicting an imaginary, rather than an
observable reality in their paintings, Redon and
the symbolists paved the way for abstract art.

The term ‘modern art’ refers to the art of the 20 th

century in Europe, the Americas, as well as in the
other regions under Western influence. The
modern period has been a particularly innovative
one. Among the 20th century most important
contributions to the history of art are the
inventions of abstraction (art that does not
imitate the appearance of things), the
introduction of a wide range of new artistic
techniques and materials, and even the
redefinition of the boundaries of art itself.

Modern art comprises a remarkable diversity of

styles, movements, and techniques. Considering
this diversity, it is difficult to define modern art in
a way that should include all of 20th century
Western art. For some critics, the most important
characteristic of modern art is its attempt to
make painting an end in itself, thus
distinguishing modernism from earlier forms of
The Use of Words in British Painting 17

art that had conveyed the ideas of powerful

religious or political institutions. Because modern
artists were no longer funded primarily by these
institutions, they were freer to suggest more
personal meanings. The attitude is often
expressed as art for art’s sake, a point of view
that is often interpreted as meaning art without
religious or political motives. But even if
religious and government institutions no longer
commissioned most art, many modern artists still
sought to convey spiritual or political messages.

Another theory claims that modern art is by

nature rebellious and that rebellion is most
evident in a quest for originality and a continual
desire to break away with every convention and
to shock the viewer. The term avant-garde which
is often applied to modern art suggests that what
is modern is what is new, original, or cutting-
edge. In this respect, many artists in the 20th
century tried to redefine what art means, or
attempted to expand the definitions of art to
include concepts, materials, or techniques that
were never been associated with art.
Consequently, many people associated modern
art to what is radical and disturbing.

Another key characteristic of modern art is its

fascination with modern technology and its
embrace of mechanical methods or reproduction,
such as photography and the printing press.
The Use of Words in British Painting 18

Some sought to glorify the precision and speed of

the industrial age in their works, others
incorporated newspaper clippings and other
printed materials in a new technique known as
collage. Along the same line, however, other
modern artists have sought inspiration from
spontaneous impulse of children’s art or from
exploring the aesthetic traditions of non-
industrialised, exotic cultures – hence the
modernist fascination with the ‘primitive’.

Yet, another view holds that the basic motivation

of modern art is to engage in a dialogue with
popular culture.

Each of these theories, of course, is compelling

and could explain a great many strategies
employed by modern artists. These theories
reveal that 20th century art is far too diverse to
be fully contained within a unique definition.
Each theory can contribute to the puzzle, but not
a single theory can claim to be the solution to the
puzzle itself.

Nevertheless, the technique of using written

words in painting is not necessarily characteristic
to the 20th century art. It is true that it is widely
met during this period, but we should not forget
other earlier stages. All of them are steps
towards modernity, that occur to the fulfillment
of late modern painting. Each painting from
The Use of Words in British Painting 19

earlier periods is a break with the traditions of

those times, and a certain step towards

Considerations regarding the word and its

use in painting

What is a word? Many linguists – but not only

them – tried to answer the question during the
decades. A word is not only a name of a thing in
nature, but a whole independent identity. Any
word names something and in the same time it
names itself. Tudor Vianu’s theory of language
can be applied to the word itself, as language is
mainly made up of words.

In this respect, Tudor

Vianu admits that the
language and implicitly a
word has a ”dublă
intenţie”9 (Vianu: 87), a
double function. On the
one hand it expresses
something and on the
other hand it expresses
itself. The theory is
sustained by other
linguists and phoneticians
in the fact that the word has a body made up of
letters, but it also has a meaning. This second
The Use of Words in British Painting 20

part is the most important, the significant, the


Many times the double nature of the word has

been compared to the human nature made up of
body and soul. Of course, as well as in the case
of the word, the unseen part, the soul is the one
that should be paid attention to.

The soul is the other half

in which philosophy,
religion, art, literature,
as well as many other
sciences are interested.

The same thing happens

with the word. Its body,
letters or sounds, are far
less important that its
meaning. The word is a
basic unit of the
vocabulary of a
language and implicitly of the dictionaries and it
is defined as a unit
between a form (the
material part) and a
meaning. The
meaning of a word is
defined as the
materialization of the
rapport between the
The Use of Words in British Painting 21

phonic corpus of a word and the object that it

denominates, under the aspect of a general

Beside the literal meaning (the one found in the

dictionaries), a word can have some other
figurative meaning that is attributed to an object
taking into consideration its resemblance with
other, and also a symbolic meaning as the ones
that Jean Chevallier and Alain Gheerbrandt have
mapped across cultures and civilsations in their
Dictionary of symbols.

For example the Dogons make a clear-cut

distinction between two kinds of words, which
they name ‘dry word’ and ‘wet word’. The dry
word or the so-called ;First Word’, an attribute of
the First Amma Spirit, before it achieved the
creation, is the undifferentiated word, the word
lacking in self-consciousness. The word exists in
humans as well as in other things, but the man
does not know it, he is not aware of it. This is the
divine word, in its potential value, and it is
synonymous to the unconscious in our
microcosmic plan.

The ’wet word’ is the very essence of life, and it

germinated in the cosmic egg. It is the word that
was given to men. This is the sound that can be
heard, considered as one of the expressions of
the masculine semen, as well as the sperm. The
The Use of Words in British Painting 22

word enters the ear, which is another feminine

sex, and it descends coiling around the womb., in
order to fecundate the germ and to create the
embryo. Under the same spiraled form, the wet
word is the light that comes down onto the earth,
carried by the sunbeams and which materializes
itself in the terrestrial womb as copper. The wet
word as well as the water, the light, the spiral
and the copper, expresses but different
manifestations or senses of a fundamental
symbol, that of the manifested word or of its
master Nommo, the God of water.

For the Bambara population in Mali, whose

totality of mystical knowledge is contained within
the symbolism of the twenty-two numbers, One –
the primordial unity is the number of the master
of the Word, the number of the Word itself. The
same symbol is used for notions such as head,
leader, consciousness, and the right of the first
born child. To another level and in a different
context, the same idea appears to Jakob
Boehme, for whom the verb, God’s word, means
movement or life of the divinity and all the
languages, powers, colours, and virtues are dwelt
within the Verb or the Word.

The notion of Verb which impregnates, of the

Word that carries the germ of creation, having its
starting point in the dawn of it, as the first divine
manifestation, before the creation of the world, is
The Use of Words in British Painting 23

to be found in the cosmogonic conception of

many people. As we have seen before it is to be
met in North Africa to the Dogons, as well as to
the Guarany Indians in Paraguay, for who God set
the language before creating the water, the fire,
the sun, the life-giving fogs, and of course, the
first land.

The association between Word and the Immortal

Vital Principle is to be met at the South American
Indians, in the beliefs of the Taulipang tribes.
They believe that a man has five souls, among
which only one gets in the other world after
death; and this one contains the Word. This soul
leaves the body from time to time during the

According to Maurice Leenhardt, for the Canacs

from New Caledonia, the word is act; it is the
initial act. From this fact derives the frightening
power of the curse, being traditionally considered
the absolute weapon; not by the power of the
person who curses, for a man does not possess
the intrinsic power by himself, but by this act
which is the Word God or the invoked Totem,
which terminates life and kills the man that is
cursed (cf. Chevalier & Gheerbrant I: 424-425).
The Use of Words in British Painting 24

In the Biblical
tradition, the Old
testament knew the
conception of the
Word of God and of
Wisdom, that had
existed before the
creation of the world,
in God; through which
everything was
created. Wisdom was
sent onto the earth to
reveal the secrets of
the divine will and it went back to God as soon as
it had accomplished its mission. In the same way,
for Saint John, the Word was in God, preceeding
the creation. It came onto the earth sent by God
– the father, to fulfill a task that was to give
mankind a message of salvation, after which it
was to go back to God – the father. The New
testament and especially john the Apostle had
the mission to clarify the personal character of
this word (of the wisdom), which is endless:

“In the beginning the Word was, and the Word was
with God and the Word was God. This one was in the
beginning with God. All things came into existence
through Him, and apart from Him not even one thing
came into existence.

What was to come into existence by means of Him,

and the life was the light of men. And the light is
The Use of Words in British Painting 25

shinning in the darkness, but the darkness has not

overpowered it” (John 1: 1-5).

The Greek philosophy the Word, the Logos meant

not only the word, the sentence, the discourse,
but also reason and intelligence, the idea and the
profound, the inner sense of the being, the divine
thing itself. For the Stoics, the word was the
reason in the
order of the
world. The
speculations of
the saint
Parents of the
developed and
analysed the
theology of the

Whatever the
beliefs and the
dogmas might
have been, the word symbolized the
manifestation of intelligence in a language in
nature of the beings and in the continuous
creation of the universe. It is the light and the
truth of being. This general and symbolic
interpretation does not exclude a strong belief in
the reality of the divine Word and of the
The Use of Words in British Painting 26

embodied Word. The word is the purest symbol

of the being’s manifestation, of the being that
thinks and expresses itself or of the being, which
is known and presented as another.

The use of words in painting is a very

controversial subject for painters as well as for
the linguists and it
gave a lot of
headaches to both

Since the verbal and

the visual are two
different languages, or
codes, making use of
totally different means
of representation, is it
correct to mix them
up? Correct or not, this
method is used by both parties.

Thus art seldom makes use of words or textual

icons in order to express itself or to create
mystery or hesitation. But much in the same way
literature makes use of a innovative yet ancient
technique, a literary device that was used for the
first time in Homer’s Iliad, when describing
Achilles’s shield. This technique is known under
the name of ekphrasis, that is translating
The Use of Words in British Painting 27

images into words. The term ekphrasis is related

to the description of the work of art and it is
sometimes called ‘literary pictorialism’ (W. J.
Mitchell interviewed by Orrin N. C. Wang)

And yet this technique of translating graphic

images (such as a painting, an etching, a
sculpture) into literary language seems to be
more natural than the one discussed in the
present paper.

The word is a means widely used in literature,

but not only. In one of his books, the English
painter and engraver William Blake said that:
“Without contraries there is no progression;
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy,
Love and Hate, are necessary to Human
existence” (quoted in Raine). But in the same
time art critics consider that literature and
painting are two different arts, two different
entities that cannot interfere. Still most artists,
be them literati or painters, use means of
expression that belong to both arts. Words and
colours or shapes, letters and hues may be
regarded as contraries. If so, we may paraphrase
Blake and say: “Without contraries is no
progression, for they are necessary to Art’s

In many of its forms, literature makes use of

some pictohraphic images. Books have been
The Use of Words in British Painting 28

adorned with images since early times. When

copying or preparing manuscripts. Medieval
monks, used to embellish their copies with
different designs or marginalia,
called enluminures. Later on
poets adorned their poems
with figures or images to
match the understanding of a
poem. In this respect, William
Blake is known for his volumes
of poems, which he beautified
by his designs. In the Victorian
period, this device became fashionable in
children’s illustrated books (Lewis Carroll’s
Through the Looking Glass or the classic
Alice in Wonderland illustrated with his own
artwork); and ever
since the First World
War, comic strips –
that have become
popular among
people of any age –
made textual blobs
or onomatopoeic
transcriptions into a
part of the visual
message. This
technique is taken
to the extreme in
the early 20 century, by te Franch poet and

writer, Guillaume Appolinaire in his

Calligrammes – those so called concrete
The Use of Words in British Painting 29

verses in which the typographical

arrangement of words is as important in
conveying the intended effect as the
conventional elements of the poem, such as
meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on.
The trend was taken further more an
expanded by the experimental and futurist
poets such as e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, F.
T. Marinetti, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dom
Sylvester Houédard and Edwin Morgan.

In the same manner painting has borrowed

different means from language in order to
introduce them in pictures. Letters, words, or
even expressions and sentences are used
inside the body of the painting, inserted to
become part of the composition. Some artists
use whole sentences or distinct
representative words to further the meaning
of the painting or to suggest a certain state
of mind, a certain feeling, to give hints
related to the image. The problem is whether
and how does the textual code integrate into
the dissimilar graphic code. Does it further
its meaning? Subvert it or contract it? Does it
establish a dialogue? Or an argument? Does
it compromise the viewer’s plunging into the
visual world? Or does it bring some new unity
where the graphic code and the textual one
merge in order to produce something
completely new?
The Use of Words in British Painting 30

Language and images

Language and painting are two different arts, two

different means of expression. In his book
Functions of Painting, Fernard Léger noted that
arts tend to segregate from one another [“fiecare
artă se izolează şi se limitează la propriul său
domeniu” 10 (Fernard Léger: 22)].

And yet there are paintings where graphic

representations of language – an alphabetical
letter, a word, a phrase or a sentence – appear
within an image and their value as graphic
elements prevails over their textual meaning.

The text-within-image raises a fascinating

problem in semiotics. Some would object to the
possibility of efficiently inserting language into
an image; they would point at the irreconcilable
differences between these two semiotic systems.
Language is made up of abstract, ideal types,
each of which is separated from the others by
non-signifying ‘space’: dense, continuous matter
cannot enter into the type. On the other hand the
image is made up of dense continuous matter;
linguistic types may not be translated into the
graphic code.

Contemporary thinking considers that the image

is a “language” just as language is. The
The Use of Words in British Painting 31

opponents of this idea maintain that language

and the image are irreconcilable because they
come from and eventuate in kinds of thought or
mental life, which are themselves irreconcilable.
Language is the severely ruled, repressive
mental life of abstract, ideal types which exclude
absolutely everything not strictly belonging to
them; the image, a mental life still free of such
types and organised – or disorganised – as dense,
continuous matter itself is organised in its
infinitude of aspects and characteristics. These
kinds of mental life have an order of priority. The
image and its thought are prior to the word and
its thought; are prior to the Derridean word. This
secondary type=obsessed word, isolated in the
midst of the dense image which must disappear
if the word is to prevail, does not prevail; nut it is
destined to undergo dissolution back into the
dense, originary image – a kind of death by

The definig characteristic of an alphabetical

language is that it is made up of abstract ideas
called types. A type is discrete or ‘digital’. The
discrete type is separated from other types by a
non-signifying conceptual ‘space’, just as there is
a non-signifying space – usually a white space –
on the page to keep the particular instances of
those types, such as alphabetical letters and
words, separate from one another. According to
Saussure, the founder of modern language
theory, there can be no language without the
isolated and discrete types: the “linguistic entity
is not accurately defined until it is delimited, i.e.
The Use of Words in British Painting 32

separated from everything that surrounds it”


The discrete type is itself made up of a finite

number of – let’s call them subtypes or aspects,
each with a non-signifying space around it (for
instance, the limited number of aspects making
up the definition of “tree” in the dictionary)
(Goodman: 152). Material particulars (of this or
that particular tree) are excluded; the type is an
abstraction made up of other abstractions.
Everything not the finite type is rigidly excluded
from it. Because the type is finite rather than
limitless, abstract – typical – rather than
particular, and exclusive of everything not strictly
belonging to itself, the type is transpersonal. It
can be fully meant and fully known; it can be
communicated without loss or gain from person
to person (Hirsch: 273).

Matter is nevertheless put to use to manifest the

abstract type. The letter ‘t’ and the word ‘tree’
for instance, as printed in ink on this particular
page, are manifestations of their types. A
manifestation is merely a ‘replica’ (Pierce 2: 165)
or ‘token’ (Wollheim:258) of the ideal type.
Matter does not enter into the type itself; it does
not signify there. Language, says Saussure, “is a
form and not a substance”; matter “is only a
secondary thing, substance to be put to use”
(Saussure: 122,118). Any sign put to use as a
manifestation of the type does as well as any
other. Language is thus what Goodman calls
allographic: any number of particular tokens of
one unvarying type (Goodman: 113-116).
The Use of Words in British Painting 33

Furthermore, any material token of the sign has

merely an arbitrary and conventional relation to
the type. Saussure makes convention the very
basis of any linguistic system. A word does not in
any way resemble what it signifies
(onomatopoeia is an exception).

On the other hand the defining characteristic of

an image is not to be made up of types. Matter
cannot be made up of types; for matter is not
disjoint or digital but what Goodman calls
‘analogue’ (Goodman: 116). Matter is dense and
continuous, without a type’s space of non-
signification (natura non facit saltum, nature
makes no leaps). There seem to be leaps: matter
separated from other matter by a non-signifying
space so as to make an object; or matter
separated from other matter so as to make an
image or token of an object; hence objects to be
tokens of types just as in language. But such
objects are merely quasi-‘objects’ (so called by
Rudolf Carnap) mentally picked out of matter’s
dense and continuous just as ‘red’ is picked out
of the continuous colour spectrum as such a
quasi-object (Carnap: 87). Matter, and matter as
an image, is not a token of a type.

A dense and continuous image is, as it were, a

token of the sense and continuous matter. An
image is what Goodman calls autographic: a
semiotic one-of-a-kind rather than a type
(Goodman: 210). The image is a token, which is
said to generalize, to typify. Any change in the
matter changes the token, and thus what the
token signifies. The token signifies not by
The Use of Words in British Painting 34

commonly agreed convention as a language, but

somehow resembling what it signifies.

It is characteristic of contemporary thinking

about language and image to say that they are
essentially the same sign system. Thus W. J. T.
Mitchell: there is “no essential difference
between poetry and painting, no difference, that
is, that is given for all time by the inherent
natures of the media” (Mitchell: 49) adopts this
idea from Aristotle. Language and image are
miscible – reconcilable. Mallarmé in his Un coup
de dés is said for instance to have produced out
of image and alphabetical language a ‘hybrid
composition’ (Sparrow: 141).

There is no essential difference between

language and image because image too is a
‘language’. Mitchell again: the “commonplace of
modern studies of images” (Mitchell: 8) is that
images “must be understood as a kind of
language” (Gombrich: 389). Does that mean the
image is made of … something separated by non
signifying space; something corresponding to
language’s type (the type for instance the letter
’t’)? Attempts have been made to isolate that
something. Leone Battista Alberti, author of the
first Renaissance treatise on painting, divides the
image into what he calls geometrical ‘points’ (a
‘line’ being a series of such points divisible in
length but not in width), non-signifying space
presumably delimiting the ‘points’ (cf. Alberti:
37). Meyer Schapiro divides the image into what
he calls ‘flecks’ (‘Here the painting seems to
approach a feature of verbal signs’) (239). E. H.
The Use of Words in British Painting 35

Gombrich refers to such basic units as

‘schemata’, and likens them to the sign of
language (87).

The image’s supposed signs can be seen as like

the signs of a language written or printed out on
the page. The border or edges of the image
usually being horizontal and vertical, the image’s
‘signs’ can be seen as orienting themselves along
those two axes like the lines and columns of a
page. The horizontal axis of the image being
considered dominant like the horizontal axis of a
page (cf. Schapiro: 226).

The signs of such horizontally lineated image can

even be considered grammatically like a line of
writing. Alberti has a fantastical scheme whereby
certain features singled out of the image are
likened to certain features of grammar (such as
phrase and clause). Hogarth refers to the
‘grammar’ of the image (by which he means the
relation among these objects depicted) (Hogarth:
185). Today this way of talking about images is
commonplace: references to the ‘analogy
between the role of grammar in poetry and
painter’s composition’ (Jakobson: 8); to the
‘syntagm’ of an image (Barthes: 49); to the
‘syntax’ of iconology (Paulson quoted in
Baxandall: 131). Such syntax in the horizontally
lineated image would even determine a direction
in which the image ‘moves’; just as the syntax of
language determines a direction in which the
written line moves. Hogarth’s images for instance
are said to move left to write in descending lines,
each beginning at the left again. An image, thus
The Use of Words in British Painting 36

horizontally lineated, given syntax and a

direction, is to be read – like any other language
(Butor: 31).

Language and image are both discourses. These

must each be to the other what in physics is
called phase transition: absolutely distinct and
separable phases – as ice and water – of a same
fundamental thing. Historical evidence suggests
such a relation between language and image.
Each is distinctly different from, yet capable of
being, the other.

But the phase transitions that are image and

language have an order of priority. The prevailing
– call it discourse – in the West before modern
Derridean times has been that language follows
upon, and is enabled by, prior image (Derrida:
103). Alphabetical languages were preceded by
more primitive image-languages and at the
beginning by images themselves (cf. Warburton:
117-125). Such a regress from words towards
images is played out nightly in dream life (cf.
Freud 5: 339). The image is originally freedom of
discourse under the minimal conditions of any
discourse at all: the sign.

That would make language the exclusion, the

repression, of such originally freedom of
discourse. Language with its finite, immaterial
types in rational, exclusionary, univocal, linear
discourse would be the repression of that open
sign the image with its infinite material
contiguousness permitting drifting, irrational,
The Use of Words in British Painting 37

polyvocal affirming
everything, denying
nothing. Indeed the
geometrical line itself, that
immaterial, ideal, one-
dimensional archetype of
univocal discourse, is
conceived by Derrida as
repression of the polyvocal
discourse of two – and
three – dimensional
material extension and the
image (Derrida: 86). Such
a repressed – unrepressed
formulation of the relation of language to image –
if not merely a verbal trick – implies an order of
priority, the unrepressed image as prior to its
repression in and as, language. The image and
its discourse are primal, originally. Language and
its discourse come on the scene as secondary. In
her book Introduction in the Analysis of the
Image, Martine Joly maintains this idea saying
that at the beginning there were only images
(17). Those images were meant to transmit
messages called ‘the forerunners of writing’,
using methods of description – representation
which didn’t keep only one schematic
development of the representation of real things
(The Interpreter’s Bible 6: 432-433).

Language in an image is a struggle for

dominance between the repressive and the
primal it represses. A struggle won by the primal:
by the image. The secondary and repressive
word, isolated in the midst of circumambient,
The Use of Words in British Painting 38

limitless image which must disappear if the word

is to prevail, does not prevail but is destined to
undergo dissolution back into the original image.

Language and image are essentially –

ontologically – different sign systems. They
cannot signify together. One must prevail. But
the two do have in common that they are
“discourses”. There is an order of priority in the
discourses. The discourse of an image is actually
prior to that of language. An image with
language in its midst asserts this priority and
dissolves language back to the image. The image

The will to power, says Nietzsche, can manifest

itself only against resistance, and thus seeks out
that which resists it (Nietzsche: 346). An image
cannot assert – cannot signify – its power of
priority, its primacy, without irreconcilable
language within itself to overcome. In that
respect and that respect only, language and
image do indeed conspire “together” to signify.

In language, image is the common name, which

has been given to metaphor. The metaphor is the
most frequently used figure of speech, known
and studied by rhetoric, for which the dictionary
gives as synonym image. Saussure’s semiotic
theory divides the functional categories of the
image into two main classes: from the point of
view of its signification and from the point of
view of emotional or artistic pleasure. In his
Course de linguistique générale (1915) Saussure
The Use of Words in British Painting 39

admits that a sign does not link together a thing

and a name, but a concept and an acoustic
image, that is a signified and a signifier
(Saussure: 85). But the same Martine Joly
presents another theory proposed by S. Pierce.
He claims that a sign upkeeps a relation of
solidarity between at least three terms (and not
only two as for Saussure). These three poles or
terms are said to be:

- REPRESENTAMEN or the perceptible

facet of a sign, the signifier St,
- REFERENT or what represents an
- INTERPRETANT or what it signifies, the
signified Se.

Se signified

St signifier Referent / object

In his Dictionary of literary terms A. J. Cuddon

states that: “The letter or marks h-o-u-s-e form a
signifier which evokes the signified ’house’.
There is no inherent reason why the letters or
marks should mean house. The association of
signifier and signified is the product of linguistic
convention and not of any natural link” (879).
The Use of Words in British Painting 40

Returning for a while to Saussure, the so-called

‘father of linguistic’, it is worth remembering that
he finds two primary characteristics of the
linguistic sign. He speaks about the arbitrary of a
sign, which means that the signifier does not
depend on free choice of the speaking subject,
thus it is unmotivated, so arbitrarily reported to
its signifier. The second main feature of the sign
is its linearity. Saussure says that it ‘ reprezintă o
întindere şi această întindere este măsurabilă
într-o singură dimensiune: este o linie’ (Saussure:

Talking about the line René Berger sustains the

idea that the line, whether straight or curve,
informs, identifies, explains, describes, reminds
and makes known. But it really belongs to art
only when one considers its nature and graphic
quality. It is said that art is first of all pleasure,
and this pleasure has to be fed with forever new
means. This need is neither arbitrary, nor
tyrannical, but it is based on the very condition of
our sensibility: “… lucrurile nu există pentru noi
decât în măsura în care le purtăm interes. De aici
regula că în artă nu există nimic care să
trebuiască să ne lase indiferenţi” 12 (Berger: 162).
Art is not made up of isolated elements as lines
and curves that are specific to design, but always
of the relation between them. Painting can
borrow, in its realization, elements that are
specific to other arts, such as letters, signs, and
ortographic signs from language, which in their
turn become lements of the plastic language. The
line has different expressive powers. In the
beginning it was used to realize writing. The
The Use of Words in British Painting 41

signs that it fixes establish communication

through time and space. The formal quality of the
signs traced by lines “încetează de a mai
aparţiner scrierii entru a devein o expresie
plasctică autonomă exact în momentul în care,
detaşându-se de conţnutul verbal pe care îl
deserveşte, ea este capabilă de a crea popriul
său conţinut prin mijloace proprii”13 (Berger:

In the above mentioned book, Martine Joly talks

about the existence of different tyopes of
messages into pictures or paintings. On the one
hand, one may distinguish a visual message
provided both by plastical signs (such as colour,
shape, composition, texture) and linguistic signs.
On the other hand, thereis a second mesdsage,
the linguistic message. Referring to an image,
the text has either a function of anchoration –
that is words are fixed and implanted in the chain
of narrative discourse of the image, or a
function of relay – referring to the way
different types of speech are concatenated in the
totality of the text.

The function of anchoration, or the anchoration

of the linguistic content is a form of interaction
between iamge and text. This function may be
achieved in two
ways: by suspension
and by allusion. The
latter is to be met in
one of the most
famous paintings by
Magritte representing
The Use of Words in British Painting 42

a pipe – ‘the irony of the famous’, where the

painter wrote below the picture itself the
following perplexing words: ‘Ceci n’est pas une

While talking about the linguistic content, it is

worth bringing into discussion the device of
counterpoint. Even though the term is known as
a musical device, it is also met in painting,
referring to the fact that a text gives a certain
number of information about the symbol image
(see Hogarth - Chronos).

That line is susceptible of having a double

existence, writing – subordinated to the verbal
content, and ornament – creating a world of itself
in which it is one of the figures, we will see in the
next chapter.

The use of words in painting is not a new

technique. It has been used since the early ages
of painting, but it was only recently that it has
been given a name. Nowadays, art critics call it
‘narrative painting’ or ‘art poetry’. It is obvious
that the two terms are totally different, as they
apply to different concepts. Perhaps the most
usable under these circumstances would be
‘narrative painting’. The term refers to images
that relate a story and this story is supported by
or created as having the central idea some words
or a sentence inscribed inside the image.

One can never fully ignore the graphic content of

any writing system. In various cultures there is a
The Use of Words in British Painting 43

relation between text and graphism. In the

beginning there was a picture-writing, which
attempted to express ideas directly, in an
imitative or mimetic manner. This was followed
by letter-based writing systems. In between
these two stages of writing there is an entire
history. This history begins with a logographic
form of writing consisting in the message being
simply inscribed in a clay shape with a red stylus
or pointed stick. Archaic Sumerians used mostly
graphs representing numerals, names for objects
and names for persons. Graphs for numerals
were geometric shapes, while those for objects
were often stylized pictures of the things they
represented. Yet the system was a genuine
logographic writing system adequate to
economic and administrative purposes. But not
only the Sumerian or Egyptian type of writing,
which were perhaps pure pictographic systems,
had these characteristics. It is a common feature
of all archaic systems, met at the Aztecs, the
Chinese, the Japanese and the Arabic
populations. The shape of the letters was not
influenced only by its content, but also by its
support. With the substitution of a blunt writing
stylus for a pointed one, the symbols became
less picture-like and more conventionalized. The
writing system takes the name cuneiform from
the shape of the strokes that form the symbols
from Latin cuneus meaning ‘wedge’. With few
exceptions, the ancient systems of writing were
cuneiform. Curving lines disappeared from
writing and the normal order of signs was fixed
as running from left to right, without any word
The Use of Words in British Painting 44

Influenced by this cuneiform writing with its

inventory ideograms and phonetic signs is a
word-syllabic system: the Egyptian hieroglyphic

The hieroglyphic writing is a system that

employs characters in the form of pictures. These
individual signs, called hieroglyphs, may be read
either as pictures, as symbols for pictures, or as
symbols for sounds. The name hieroglyphic
comes from the Greek word for ‘sacred carving’.
The system of hieroglyphic writing has two basic
features (which correspond to their evolution in
time): first, representable objects are portrayed
as pictures (ideograms) and, second, the picture
signs are given the phonetic value of the words
for these represented objects (phonograms).

As we said before there are few exceptions.

These exceptions are those including the
Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing. These
writing systems are all related to each other by
the fact that the support they use was either
paper, silk, rice or bones, and the letters were
written in ink with a brush.

The Chinese early graphs were schematic

pictures of what they represented. Because basic
characters and graphs were ‘motivated’, that is
the graph was made to resemble the object it
represented, it has sometimes been concluded
that Chinese writing is ideographic, representing
ideas rather than the structure of the language. It
is now recognized that the system represents the
The Use of Words in British Painting 45

Chinese language by means of a logographic

scripts. Each graph or character corresponds to
one meaningful unit of the language, not directly
to a unit of thought.

The Chinese were the first to turn writing into an

art, known as the art of calligraphy, of beautiful
handwriting. After that almost all other nations
who possessed a writing system embraced this
art. Thus distinctive scripts were developed in
distinctive areas.

But all these systems of writing developed

towards abstractisation, according to the
phonetism of each language. Yet some of them
preserve the pictorial element, for example the
Chinese writing system. Even though the Arabic
writing is higly abstractised, for an European who
does not know the language and is not
accustomed to such a writing, the pictographic
element is a reality. For this reason we might
admit that the pictographicity of a writing system
depends ultimately on the reader’s culture and
on his/her knowledge of its conventions.

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