Narratological studies have frequently focused upon linguistic
structures, considered to be paradigmatic cases of narrativity, while pictorial
signs, such as icons and symbols or indices, have received comparably much less
attention. In this paper, however, some basic and regularly occurring narrative
aspects of pictures and non-pictorial objects will be presented and discussed.
art history, cognitive psychology, narratology, pictures,
prototypicality, schema theory
In this paper I intend to outline some basic and regularly occurring
narrative aspects of pictures and non-pictorial objects. As a point of departure, influenced by approaches
from cognitive psychology, such as the work of Roger Schank, I suggest that
cognition basically consists of the storage and retrieval of action scripts or
schemata, that is, narrative structures, that may occur on various levels of
abstraction. These schemas incorporate
generalized knowledge about event
sequences, such as the order in which specific events will take place;
causal, enabling, or conventionalized relations between these events, and what
kind of events occur in certain action sequences. There also are scene schemas that are characterized by spatial rather than
temporal relations. This means that we
have mentally stored inventory information, that is, what kinds of objects
normally appear in certain situations, as well as spatial-relation information,
which concerns the usual spatial layout of a scene.
Through previous experiences we acquire a large quantity of culturally
based event and scene stereotypes, along with idiosyncratic variations, either from our previously acquired, direct
familiarity with instances of events, or through our acquaintance with written,
oral, and, of course, pictorial descriptions of them, such as religious or
mythological tales. They include settings, sub-goals, and actions in
attempting to reach specific goals.
I claim that the production and comprehension of pictorial signs is
frequently based on the existence and activation of such mentally stored action
and scene schemas on the part of the beholders. Actually, even objects in general, whether
artificial or natural, are capable of expressing or triggering such narrative
structures, thus “telling us stories.” In
this paper, I present some examples of pictures and non-pictorial objects where
narrative structures become activated and, indeed, their recognizability and
comprehensibility as such presuppose these structures.
1. The Narrative Qualities
of Pictorial Works
Narration has frequently been associated with verbal discourse, whether
in written or oral form, where events or situations are represented in a time
sequence. Accordingly, theoretical
discussions concerning narrativity have usually focused on literature and
drama, as well as on film and television. However, the ability of static pictures to
represent actions and to narrate stories has received much less attention in
art theory contexts. On the other hand,
the narrative aspects of visual art have constituted a prevalent focus of
interest among art historians, though chiefly from a descriptive,
interpretative, and historical point of view. Still, attempts to elucidate any deeper
psychological and philosophical aspects involved in visual narrativity have
usually occurred on a superficial level, consisting of scattered remarks,
intuitively based hypotheses, or the like. Any continuous and systematic treatment of
narrative and temporal imagery, compared to the vast quantity of discussion
concerning the rendering of space and perspective, seems to be largely absent.
This relative lack of theoretical interest is somewhat surprising, since
visual narratives undoubtedly occur in most historical and cultural contexts. With regard to Western art, we find examples
of pictorial story-telling at least as early as in ancient Egypt, Greece, and
Rome, as well as in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and numerous examples
from the Middle East or Asia could certainly be cited.
Unfortunately, deeper theoretical reflections on this matter often occur
only as scattered remarks even among art historians. Erwin Panofsky, one of the most influential
art historians with outspoken theoretical concerns, may be credited with having
elaborated the iconographical or iconological methods. According to Panofsky, a fruitful investigation
of works of art should strive for an analysis of their meaning aspects, in contradistinction
to their formal aspects. These aspects
occur on several levels. First, we have a pre-iconographic level, such as the
depiction of human beings, animals, and natural or artificial objects. The identification of gestures, expressive
qualities, and simple actions also belongs to this level. A second interpretative level is
iconographical analysis, which consists in identifying the subject matter or
theme of the art work. An iconographical
interpretation demands an identification of the depicted agents as certain
persons (for example, the Virgin Mary or Heracles) or personifications with
certain attributes, and would, if necessary, contain some reference to relevant
myths or tales, that is, complex action sequences. However, there is little analysis of the exact nature
of such narratives, that is, the various means used by the artist in order to
convey them, and the presuppositions needed on part of the beholder in order to
understand them, in contrast to the rendering of space and perspective. It should be pointed out that Panofsky is no exception
in that respect. Indeed, among art
historians, as well as aestheticians, problems of narrativity in pictorial art
have hardly received any continuous and thorough attention compared to those other
To some extent this neglect is understandable. Usual conceptions of pictorial representation
seem irreconcilable with the common sense idea of narration as being temporal
and sequential, or, put in another way, as a “temporal program” explicitly
manifested by a work. Paintings seem to
present themselves as holistic and almost immediately graspable, while verbal
narratives are viewed as linear, requiring a temporally successive perceptual
process. Now, as the narratologist Gerald Prince has proposed, a minimal
requirement for something to be a narrative consists of “the representation of
at least two real or fictive events or situations in a time sequence, neither
of which presupposes or entails the other.”
Thus, not all modes of discourse may be properly
regarded as narratives. For example, arguments are usually considered to be deductive
or inductive forms of persuasion, relying on logic, although not necessarily
strict syllogisms, in order to prove the validity of an idea or point of view. Expositions
can be described as acts of expounding, setting forth, explaining, or conveying
information, such as about a narrative’s plot, characters, setting, and theme). Descriptions,
whether indefinite or definite, present the properties of things, verbally or
visually (re-)presenting persons, places, events, or actions, as well as
nonvisible or abstract states of affairs. And explanations, such as deductive-nomological or teleological ones, can
be briefly defined as descriptive statements attempting to clarify the causes,
contextual circumstances, and consequences of certain facts. None of these discursive modes has an internal
time sequence seemingly required by narrative structures; they seem to be
static or atemporal. Still, narratives
may very well make use of, incorporate, or overlap with arguments, expositions,
descriptions, or explanations.
Although Prince admits there are many different manifestations and
varying degrees of narrativity,
he adheres to a rather essentialist definition of the concept, where the
necessary and perhaps even sufficient characteristic consists of the
“event-sequence” criterion. Thus,
according to Prince, a sentence such as “The water boiled then World War II
started” would qualify as a minimal narrative.
However, to call such an extremely
reduced event sequence a narrative seems to be rather counterintuitive.
As Noël Carroll has argued, such an
example should instead be counted as a mere chronicle, where the crucial
“narrative connection” is missing. Such
a connection does not necessarily consist of strict causal entailments, rather,
“[in] most narratives, the earlier events in a sequence of events
underdetermine later events.”
Inspired by J. L. Mackie’s discussion of
so-called INUS conditions, Carroll argues that a narrative connection occurs
when there is “an insufficient but necessary part of a condition that
itself is unnecessary but sufficient for an effect event.”
An example of such INUS conditions would
be the following sentence: “The thief
enters the bank to rob it, but subsequently, as he exits, he is apprehended by
the police.” Although the robbing of the
bank is causally relevant, it does not causally determine the arrest. Apart from INUS conditions, according to
Carroll, a narrative connection (1) also requires a perspicuously ordered
temporal relation between the occurring events; (2) concerns the career of at
least one unified subject (rather than just adding up disparate or disconnected
subjects); and (3) is structured in a globally forward-looking manner, rather
than being orientated "backwards."
Other narratologists, such as Monika
Fludernik, have attempted to delineate narratives from other forms of discourse
by also stressing the representation of
human protagonists, or at least anthropomorphic ones, such as speaking
animals, performing goal-directed actions and being anchored in particular
(existential) time-space settings.
Even so, most discussions concerning narratives have focused on verbal
and literary ones, while other narrative types, such as pictorial ones, have
been treated quite casually. At first
glance, such representations are most favorably manifested by
"genuine" temporal arts, such as poetry, drama, literature in general,
and motion pictures, which inherently have a sequential structure. Pictures, on the other hand, are inherently static
and only capable of representing timeless situations or single, momentary
instants. (Thus the concept "static
picture" in itself would appear to be tautological.)
Accounts such as these have been put forward by, Lord Shaftesbury, James
Harris, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
on Music, Painting and Poetry (1744), Harris distinguished between media
such as music, which is concerned with motion and sound, and painting, which
renders shapes and colors. Pictures,
according to Harris, can “of necessity [only represent] a punctum temporis or instant.” Interestingly, though, he also admits that “in
a Story well known the Spectator’s Memory will supply the previous and the subsequent…
[This] cannot be done where such knowledge is wanting.” Indeed, he doubts whether the rendering of a
historical situation in a painting would even be intelligible, “supposing
history to have been silent and to have given no additional information.”
A more well-known and much-debated account was put forward by Lessing in
Laokoon: oder über die Grenzen der
Malerei (1766), where he attempted to characterize the distinctive features
of painting vs. poetry qua signs,
claiming that the representation, or "imitation," of actions does
primarily (and best) occur in poetry.
Objects which exist side by side...are called
bodies. Consequently bodies with their
visible properties are the peculiar subjects of painting. Objects which succeed
each other...are actions. Consequently actions are the peculiar subjects of
Lessing claimed that painting essentially is an art of space concerned
with the rendering of bodies, while poetry is an art of time, the latter being
privileged in narrating actions, that is, the succession of events in time. But poetry cannot render actions without being
“joined to certain agents. In so far as those agents are bodies or regarded as
such, poetry describes also bodies, but only indirectly through actions.”
And “bodies…exist not only in space, but
also in time… [P]ainting can imitate actions also, but only as they are
suggested through forms.” That is,
painting is capable of indicating actions, though only indirectly through
suggestion, namely by preferably choosing the most pregnant, arrested movement
in an imagined action sequence.
Painting, in its coexistent imitations, can use
but a single moment of an action, and must therefore choose the most pregnant
one, the one most suggestive of what has gone before and what is to follow.
The representation/perception of actions in painting is thus not
impossible per se, but it demands
more effort, and is less "convenient" compared to poetry. Actually, the difference between painting and
poetry is more a matter of degree than a matter of kind: poetry represents actions directly, painting
only indirectly. Moreover, Lessing may
very well be criticized for committing a naturalistic fallacy. From a factual description of the two genres
as primarily spatial or temporal in their essential nature, he comes to the normative
conclusion that these genres ought to be restricted to those natural,
functional characteristics. But is there any reason why we should adhere to such a
rigorous normative position, just by referring to various degrees of
convenience or ease?
Still, it seems quite possible that narratology's primary concern with
temporally extended arts, such as literature, movies, and so on, could have been
influenced by similar essentialist lines of thought. We may ask, however, whether and to what
extent conceptions of pictorial representation as basically static and
non-temporal actually are tenable. It
has frequently been admitted that the perception of pictures in itself is a
temporal, successive process. In his
essay "Time in the Plastic Arts" (1949), Etienne Souriau argued that
the view that a pictorial work is seen "in its entirety in a single
instant...is clearly false;" rather, viewing a picture, as with other
visual works of art, involves "a period of contemplation wherein
successive reactions take place."
This is not only the case when it comes to
three-dimensional objects, such as inspecting a sculpture or walking through a
Gothic cathedral; two-dimensional paintings also demand a similar effort. However, according to Souriau, the fictive
time inherent in a pictorial representation "radiates...around the
prerogative moment represented..., a structural center from which the mind
moves backward to the past and forward to the future," and thus, in this
respect, his view bears a close similarity to Lessing's. Ernst Gombrich provided another example, maintaining
that "...[t)he reading of a picture...happens in time, in fact it needs a
very long time....We do it, it seems, more or less as we read a page, by
scanning it with our eyes....We build it up in time and hold the bits and
pieces we scan in readiness till they fall into place as an imaginable object
or event, and it is this totality we perceive and check against the picture in
front of us."
A number of experiments on eye movements and picture perception suggest
that the perception of pictorial representations involves something like a
temporally extended scanning activity and feature analysis. The Russian psychologist Alfred Yarbus, one of
the pioneers in this field of research, studied the saccadic movements of
beholders' eyes when encountering different kinds of visual stimuli, such as
photographs or paintings. Eye movements do not occur arbitrarily but are a
systematic scanning process, where the beholder fixes his attention on one
feature at a time for a very brief period (about 300 msec.), and then moves on
to focus on another feature. Now, it
does not seem to be especially controversial to admit that temporal processes
are involved in the perception of pictures, thereby repudiating that any
instantaneous understanding of either medium or message is possible.
Still, one may argue that this kind of
temporality is dependent on the viewer's activities rather than on the object
itself, which by nature is static and temporally "frozen." Such a narrow and essentialist view of the concept of
pictorial representation may be questioned by pointing to a number of
counter-examples. What about stage
design or scene painting? In numerous
cases such pictures are not static but make use of moveable parts, such as
representations of clouds and waves, as well as various lighting effects, such
as strokes of lightning, thus creating a changeable pictorial scene without even
taking moveable subjects, such as actors, into consideration. We may also consider stained glass windows in
Gothic cathedrals that change with the varying intensity of light filtered
through them, or fountains or sculptural installations that make use of water
effects. In the twentieth century, there
are even further examples of non-static pictures or at least borderline cases,
such as mobiles or op art-paintings, such as
Bridget Riley’s "Crest" (1964).
2. Historical Examples
of Pictorial Narratives
Within contemporary aesthetics, it is widely claimed that any attempts
to define concepts such as art in essentialist terms by referring to necessary
and jointly sufficient conditions, whether perceptual, functional or
procedural, that they are supposed to possess are doomed to failure. Rather, we should think about this category as
being like a family whose members resemble each other in some but not all
commonly shared respects. This
complicated network of similarities constituting the class of art works is,
borrowing a Wittgensteinian term, called a family
resemblance. This line of reasoning
is quite familiar to those who are acquainted with contemporary aesthetics, especially
analytic aesthetics. Moreover, numerous
cognitive psychologists have followed Eleanor Rosch's pioneering work by
attempting to investigate, by means of quite strict experimental procedures,
the nature and acquisition of categories in general, particularly taxonomic
categories. According to Rosch, the results obtained from these
experiments support the assumption that categories, psychologically speaking,
do not usually have clear-cut boundaries but possess a graded structure. This means that there are certain category
members that are experienced as cognitive reference points, or the clearest
cases of category membership, while other members gradually deviate from them,
although they still belong to the category in question. Put in another way, categories are formed
around their most representative instances, which possess a prototypical
When it comes to narratives, we may also conceive of them as
constituting a category with fuzzy boundaries; in this case it seems
problematic to insist on a too rigid and essentialist view of their nature.
Narratives may be intertwined with
descriptions, expositions, arguments, and explanations. Meaning-bearers may be more or less narrative,
and narratives may be manifested in various genres, as those mentioned before. But if we admit the existence of temporal and
narrative aspects in pictorial representations, the question still remains in
which way(s) clear-cut (still) pictures, reliefs, or sculptures possess such
features, and whether, and in which respects, some pictures might be regarded
as more narrative than others. Let us
take a closer look at some of the ways in which pictures seem to have a
relatively straightforward narrative function (with temporal ingredients).
First, we have numerous historical examples where static, monoscenic,
and quite distinct pictures are linked in a narrative series having a fixed
reading order, frequently horizontal or vertical. Modern instances of this kind of pictorial
narration can be found in strip cartoons, but actually occur as early as in
antiquity and the Middle Ages. Examples
include scenes from the life of St. Ambrose on the back of the altar in S.
Ambrigio, Milano, c. 850; the scenes from the Old and New Testaments on the
bronze doors of the Hildesheim Cathedral (c. 1015, Illus. 1, below); Giotto's
Passion scenes in his frescoes in the Arena Chapel (c. 1306); Gaudenzio Ferrari's
Passion scenes in S M delle Grazie, Varallo (c. 1513); and William Hogarth's
series of moralizing engravings in the eighteenth century.
Illustration 1: Bronze doors from St. Mary’s Cathedral,
Hildesheim (c.1015), showing the Creation of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion
from the Garden of Eden (left), birth and Passion of Christ (right); vertical
reading orders: left top-down; right down-top.
Second, and relatively often discussed by art historians, there are
single pictures showing different events and persons in the same pictorial
space. In these cases, sometimes called
"continuous narratives" or cases of "simultaneous
succession," various phases in an event series are represented
simultaneously. Such forms of pictorial narration are also
found throughout history, for example, the epic-documentary representation on
the column of Trajan of the emperor's war against the Dacians (c. 101 - 106 C.E.);
Masaccio's fresco "Tribute Money," showing St. Peter three times in
the same pictorial space (c. 1427); Fra Filippo Lippi's depiction of the
Banquet of Herod in the Cathedral of Prato (c. 1460s); Bernardino Luini's
Crucifixion in S. M. degli Angeli, Lugano (c. 1530). “The Legend of the Relics of St. John the Baptist” by
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1484, Illus.
2, below) is an especially interesting example. In the background we see the separate burials
of the head and the body after the decapitation of the Baptist, believed to
have occurred in the first half of the first century C.E. (Illus.2a). In the foreground
is rendered the opening of the tomb and the burning of the limbs on the orders
of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate, c. 362 C.E. (Illus. 2b, c); in the center is shown the rediscovery of the rescued
remains in the thirteenth century (Illus.
2d and 2e). However, the last scene
also includes a group portrait of the Knights of the Order of St. John Convent
in Haarlem, thus relocating the scene in the late fifteenth century, when the
relics were given to the Order by the Turkish sultan, the specific reason for
commissioning this painting. The implied
time span in this pictorial narrative is thus remarkably extended, stretching
over a period of more than 1,000 years.
Illustration 2: “The Legend of the
Relics of St. John the Baptist,” Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1484 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Of course, numerous examples may be found where these two forms of
pictorial narration are intertwined, for example in Lorenzo Ghiberti's reliefs
on the Baptistery doors, the so-called "Porta del Paradiso," in Florence,
1424-1452, showing ten separate, though narratively linked, scenes from the Old
Testament. These scenes constitute a
narrative series consisting of distinct pictures, beginning with Adam and Eve,
then showing Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Joshua,
David, and Solomon. However, almost all of these reliefs are polyscenic or
continuous narratives. In the picture
showing Adam and Eve, for example, we can distinguish between various scenes in
the same pictorial space: (i) the creation of Adam; (ii) the creation of Eve;
(iii) the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve; and (iv) the expulsion from
A third kind of pictorial narration is static pictures, which seem to
have a less straightforward narrative function. Here a frozen
scene in a tacit action sequence is shown from which what has preceded and will
follow has to be inferred by the beholder. Lessing's idea of the "pregnant
moment" would very well fit into this category: only an arrested moment is
directly represented, though it implies a wider, temporally extended action
sequence. The Hellenistic sculpture
group "Laocoön and his Two Sons" (first century C.E., Illus. 3), which Lessing himself
discussed at length, is an example where the depicted scene refers to a series
of mythological events. The
"pregnant moment" rendered here consists of the death struggle between the priest Laocoön and his two sons
with two snakes sent by Athena as
Illustration 3: “Laocoön and his Two Sons,” first century C.E.?
(Vatican Museums, Rome)
© Michael Ranta; Courtesy of the Vatican Museums
punishment for Laocoön's attempt to warn the Trojans from taking a
wooden horse with Greek warriors hidden inside into the city. A beholder acquainted with the relevant
narrative background might well see this sculpture as a significant or crucial
moment within a narrative sequence stretching backwards in time as well as into
the future in which Laocoön and his sons are killed and the Trojans are defeated
by the Greeks.
Mythological, religious, political, and other broad narratives like this
have frequently been rendered pictorially by visualizing significant segments
of implied narrative structures. However, we may also think about static
pictorial scenes that either simply refer to more common or even everyday
action patterns that are more or less narratively indeterminate. In the next section, taking research in
cognitive psychology into account, I shall discuss how and in what ways
pictures may have narrative implications and give rise to the emergence of
narrative mental representations in beholders.
Interpretations of Objects and Events in Pictorial Works
Cognitive psychologists, such as Eleanor Rosch, mentioned earlier, have
given considerable attention to the capacity of humans and other living
creatures to categorize objects and events.
The idea that this capacity is essential for organisms in order to
survive and improve their living conditions seems unquestionable. The formation of categories enables us to
apply previous experiences to new ones, to make inferences, to make predictions
about the future, and to provide efficiency in communication, just to mention a
few examples. However, important questions are how categories arise at all,
that is, whether and to what extent they are the result of environmental
features or constructive processes on the part of the categorizer, and how they
are represented in consciousness. A
significant characteristic of cognitive psychology, which clearly distinguishes
it from traditional behaviorism, is the assumption that intelligent organisms
are capable of constructing and manipulating mental representations.
A number of cognitive psychologists have argued that perceptual and
cognitive activities are hierarchically structured. New information is compared with and
assimilated into broader schemata or categories that are necessary for object
recognition, explanations, predictions, and communicative activities. In other words, humans seem to store mental
representations that have something like a
representations are abstractions stored in long-term memory with which external
objects are compared. Common taxonomic
categories are acquired after encountering several particular instances of the
category in question, after which relevant characteristics are extracted and
integrated into category knowledge.
Numerous studies in cognitive psychology indicate that category
formation in general, whether furniture, fruit, birds, animals, and so on, may
be explained as described above. It
should also be emphasized that these studies are empirically based, making use
of sophisticated and rigorous experimental and statistical methods, thus giving
the hypotheses put forward additional strength compared to pure philosophical
Research in cognitive psychology suggests that events as well as objects
may belong to more general categories, that of action schemas. For example, events such as buying a ticket or wearing a dark dress may belong to categories such as going to the cinema or going to a funeral, which may be further
categorized as instances of an entertainment event, or an occasion for grief. Sequences of such stereotypical and
categorizable actions are commonly called frames,
scripts, or event schemas in cognitive psychology. These schemas incorporate generalized knowledge about
event sequences, such as the order in which specific events will take place;
causal, enabling, or conventionalized relations between these events; and what
kind of events occur at all in certain action sequences. Moreover, there are also scene schemas, which are
characterized by spatial rather than temporal relations. For example, we have certain expectations of
how the rooms, streets, and buildings appear where particular activities, such
as going to a restaurant or going to a funeral, take place.
Therefore, we have mentally stored inventory information, that is, what kinds
of objects normally appear in such situations, and spatial-relation information
concerning the usual spatial layout of a scene.
A number of experimental studies have investigated the formation and
structure of such action schemas or scripts. For example, Roger Schank and Robert Abelson
proposed that our knowledge is usually organized around a large quantity of stereotypic
situations consisting of more or less routine activities.
We acquire hundreds of such cultural
stereotypes, along with idiosyncratic variations, through previous direct or
indirect experiences. For example, a
series of experiments by Gordon Bower, John Black, and Terrence Turner showed
that people largely agreed on the nature of the characters, props, actions, and
the order of actions in routine activities like eating in a restaurant and
visiting a dentist. Moreover, when asked
to recall texts narrating actions from a script, the subjects tended to confuse
actions that were presented with unstated actions implied by the script.
Subjects also tended to recall script actions in their familiar or canonical
order; scrambled texts presenting script actions out of order were usually
recalled according to the implicit underlying order.
According to Schank, who extended his relatively early work on action
schemas, intelligence consists to a considerable extent in the storage and
retrieval of scripts, that is, generalized sets of expectations about what will
happen in well-understood situations.
Moreover, such memory structures may
occur on various levels of abstraction. In
the lower levels there will be scenes, general structures that describe how and
when a particular set of actions takes place, such as a doctor's waiting room
scene, reception scene, or surgery scene. Each scene defines a setting, a goal, and
actions in attempting to reach a specific goal. Scenes can point to scripts that provide the
details concerning stereotypical actions that take place within a scene. They are then organized into wider
"memory organization packages" (MOPs), which are directed towards the
achievement of a major goal.
Several MOPs may be active at one time and
may reflect the physical, social, and personal aspects of a certain activity. Thus, as Schank suggests, a visit to a dentist
will activate at least three MOPs: (1)
M-HEALTH PROTECTION (the personal aspects of keeping fit); (2) M-PROFESSIONAL
OFFICE VISIT (the physical activity of visiting the dentist; and (3) M-CONTRACT
(the social contractual obligations, such as paying the dentist). Furthermore, MOPs may themselves be organized
into higher-level structures, so-called meta-MOPs. For instance, the meta-MOP "mM-TRIP"
can manage the stages in such a visit by activating MOPs such as M-AIRPLANE,
M-HOTEL, and M-LEISURE. On a still
higher level, there are "thematic organization packages" (TOPs),
which allow us to be reminded of abstract principles or context-independent
information that creates relationships between various contexts or MOPs.
The knowledge of scripts, MOPs, meta-MOPs, and TOPs may be more or less
idiosyncratic or historically-socially context-bound. It is hardly controversial to suspect, as
Schank also claims, that the identity of cultures and sub-cultures is
substantially based on the sharing of such low- and high-level narrative
Furthermore, such culturally shared
stories occur frequently in highly abbreviated forms or "gists." People often do not remember specific
narrations of stories, but rather gists. When a certain index reminds us of a possible
gist, it might then be expandable into a full-fledged narrative.
Now with regard to pictorial art and other kinds of pictorial material,
the rendered content more or less corresponds to and may be assimilated by
narrative mental representations and expectations that are often shared by a
relatively large group of beholders. For
example, the art historian Michael Baxandall claimed convincingly that artists
have usually adapted their work to the general cognitive demands and
presuppositions of the intended beholders. Although Baxandall focused chiefly on strategies for
pictorial representation used in fifteenth-century Italian painting, it is
possible to interpret his claim as suggesting a more general point. The production of visual works of art is
influenced by the demands and needs of a certain public. The artist responds to these demands and
offers opportunities for the beholder to apply the background experience of his
or her "way of life," in this case including the knowledge of
biblical stories, as well as artistic conventions. The beholder interprets a work of art
according to acquired category systems and habits that the work has been
adapted to. In other words, pictorial representations trigger the retrieval of
mentally stored, more or less well-known stories, and the beholders fill in the
narrative gaps in the pictorial material with the necessary connecting details.
Storytelling in and by pictures is frequently based on the existence and
activation of such mentally stored action and scene schemas of the beholders. These mental schemas are usually constituted
out of earlier experiences of action series and events, either from the
beholders' previously acquired, direct familiarity with them, or from the
beholders' acquaintance with written, oral, and pictorial descriptions of
certain events, such as religious or mythological tales. Further, pictorial narration consists of
representing more or less significant components of action sequences familiar
to the beholders, sometimes only by rendering a specific, arrested moment,
which can then activate a wider, mentally imagined event schema. Moreover, narrative and temporal aspects in
pictorial representations may also occur, for example, in implicit renderings
of the cyclic processes of nature and the seasons; of humans’ or other
organisms’ ontogenetic and phylogenetic development; and of cultural and
historic situations as they relate to other contexts or even the present, that
is, the context in which the picture has been created.
Narratively indeterminate pictures usually
trigger efforts in their beholders to give them a more definite narrative
structure or lead to the creation of narrative hypotheses. One example is Edward Hopper’s painting
“Automat,” (Illus. 4, below), which
shows a well-dressed woman sitting at a restaurant table. She is wearing makeup, perhaps indicating that
she is on her way to or from work or another social occasion where personal
appearance is important. She has removed
only one glove, which may indicate that she is distracted or in a hurry or
simply that she has just come in from outside and has not yet warmed up. Moreover, the woman is warmly dressed; thus it
could be late-autumn or winter. Is it
late at night, early in the morning, or early in the evening at a time of the
year when days are short? Is she coming
from or going to work, or has she arranged a rendezvous? And how should we interpret the general
atmosphere of emptiness, loneliness, and her downcast eyes? Has anything severe happened in her life? Apart from these questions motivated by our
efforts to give the painting a narrative fixation, general
going-to-a-restaurant-MOPs are immediately activated, which on a more basic
level give this picture a narrative framing.
Illustration 4: Edward Hopper,
“Automat,” 1927 (Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines. Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections. Purchased with funds from
the Edmundson Art Foundation, Inc., 1958.2.)
Even nonfigurative pictures and objects may give rise to the emergence
of narrative structuring processes. Does Piet Mondrian’s painting “Composition
with Yellow” (Illus. 5d, below), an apparently completely static and
atemporal picture, suggest any kind(s) of narrative(s)? Of course it does.
First, someone acquainted with Mondrian’s work in general might easily
see this painting as a part, perhaps even as some kind of end result, of his
"ontogenetic" artistic development, stretching from his early,
relatively naturalistic landscape paintings to visual configurations extremely
reduced to vertical and horizontal lines and primary colors (Illus. 5a-d,
Illustration 5a: Piet Mondrian,
“Avond (Evening): The Red Tree,” 1908-10 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague)
Illustration 5b: Piet Mondrian, “The
Grey Tree,” 1911 (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. Mondrian images © 2011 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust c/o HCR International
Illustration 5c: Piet Mondrian,
“Composition no. II,” 1913 (Kroeller-Mueller Museum, Otterlo)
Illustration 5d: Piet Mondrian,
“Composition with Yellow,” 1930 (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf)
Second, and on a perhaps more basic level, while currently many
beholders would agree with their classification as "art," their
status as such was far from accepted at the time of their production in 1930. (His works were actually considered to be
degenerate art, Entartete Kunst, in the Third Reich.) Attempts to define art, either in essentialist
terms or as a family resemblance concept, have been a standing dispute within
philosophical aesthetics. Now, as Noël Carroll has suggested, art has indeed a necessary
and thus essential condition for its existence, namely its historical dimension
with regard to its production as well as its reception and evaluation. The reception of art on the part of the
audience is guided by traditions of interpreting and appreciating art. Such traditions, or the knowledge of
historical antecedents, provide the means for orientation towards contemporary
art. Historically, as Carroll further
claims, preceding art activities and present ones have a narrative connection. When it comes to historical narratives, the
incorporated events are usually situated within an explanatory pattern that
gives them significance by delineating their causal roles and teleological
contributions to certain goals or outcomes. According to Carroll, art historical
narratives show a similar pattern. Some
historical narratives function as identifying
narratives; that is, they are used to establish the art status of contested or
disputed works. The beginning of these narratives
includes a description of a set of historical circumstances, previous art
practices, whose status is generally undisputed. This background introduces a context that is
adequate or sufficient for making the further development plausible and narratively
intelligible. So the very fact that Mondrian’s painting is classified and
classifiable qua art could be
regarded as implying narrative presuppositions.
But what about non-pictorial objects? Can they tell or imply stories? As Schank also claims, physical objects can
certainly remind us of event structures. Tools and household objects, for example,
indicate their functional and goal-directed characteristics and trigger
script-based memory structures. They function as perceptual clues that remind
us of possible and actual uses of them in various event structures, and
sometimes also imply narratives. (The
notions of “events structures” and “narratives” should not necessarily be
conflated.) For example, a hat such as
the characteristic bicorne hat worn by Napoleon, which I recently saw at an
exhibition, may give rise to the formation or retrieval of narratives. Even natural objects, such as plants or rocks,
may be perceived as constituents of the narrative structures of seasonal or
geological changes. In general, our
knowledge and perception of the world is permeated by more or less full-fledged
narratives that are necessary for our ability to make the world comprehensible,
to manipulate it, to see causal relationships, and to prognosticate possible
changes. Indeed, conceptions of
theory-neutral observations, that is, somewhat story-neutral ones, presently
have very few adherents within the philosophies of science and epistemology. The question is not whether almost anything
tells, or can tell, a story; the question is how much it does so and how
explicit this story-telling is.
When it comes to pictorial material, then, I argue that narrativity and
at least implied temporality are more than just contingent or accidental
aspects in pictorial representations. In
many cases they constitute a basic characteristic and perhaps are even a
presupposition in order to comprehend and appreciate them, especially when it
comes to pictorial works of art. Pictorial
material is frequently and intentionally produced in order to trigger stories
or at least to give rise to narrative hypothesizing. However, these assumptions need a far more
detailed elaboration, which unfortunately goes beyond the scope of this paper.
Michael Ranta holds a Ph.D. in the History of Art from Stockholm
University, Sweden, and is a research fellow at CCS
(Centre for Cognitive Semiotics) at Lund University. He has done research in cognitive psychology,
art history, and aesthetics, and has written on aesthetic and art historical
issues, as well as art criticism.
Published on August 11, 2011.
This article is a revised version of a paper given at
the XVIIIth International Congress of Aesthetics, "Diversities in
Aesthetics,” Beijing, China, August 9-13, 2010.
I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for valuable comments
made on an earlier version of this article.
 Cf. Götz Pochat,
Bild-Zeit - Zeitgestalt und Erzählstruktur
in der bildenden Kunst von den Anfängen bis zur frühen Neuzeit (Wien/Köln/Weimar:
Böhlau Verlag, 1996), p. 7. “While there have been numerous studies in art history
concerned with the concept of space and the rendering of spatial depth, starting
with Panofsky ,... treatises on the character of ‘time’ and its outcome
in the visual arts do not reveal the same continuity and impact, although
certainly some contributions related to the subject have been published.” (my
examples chosen for this article have been taken from Western art history.
Undoubtedly, a global art historical overview (or at least a discussion of
non-Western examples) would have been advantageous but would have needed a more
extensive account beyond the limits of this paper. Moreover, the issues discussed here are not
primarily historical ones. Rather, I wanted
to point to some questions (and possible answers) of a more principal or theoretical nature
concerning the possibilities of pictorial narrativity. Fundamental principles of narrativity as well
as of cognitive processes, which are the central issues to be discussed in the
present context, are usually not considered to be culture-specific or
context-bound per se (although their
manifestations may vary, of course). However, as to non-Western examples of
pictorial narrativity, we could, for example, think of pictorial works from
Japan, such as the Tamamushi Shrine (c.
650, showing the Boddhisatva in a simultaneous succession narrative) or the E-ingakyo (or The Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect, c. 735, a hand scroll showing a narrative series of
distinct pictures about the life of the Buddha). In Persian art, one could mention the
illustrated version of Tutinama ("Tales of a
Parrot"), a 14th-century series of 52 stories, containing 250 miniature
paintings. In the art of India, we could consider the highly narrative Mughal
paintings (16th-19th centuries). Many further examples could, of course, be
 See e.g.
Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology (New
York: Harper Torchbooks, 1939/1962);
Erwin Panofsky, "Ikonographie und Ikonologie" (1939/1955); reprinted
in e.g. Bildende Kunst als Zeichensystem
1 - Ikonographie und Ikonologie, ed. Ekkehard Kaemmerling (Köln: DuMont
Buchverlag, 1979/1987), pp. 207-225.
 Gerald Prince,
Narratology--The Form and Functioning of
Narrative (Berlin/New York/Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers,1982).
 Ibid., p. 145f. For example, narratives “presenting relatively
many time sequences should have more narrativity than…[those] presenting
relatively few.…” (Ibid., p. 146).
 Cf. Lars-Åke
Skalin, ”Centres and Borders: On Defining Narrativity and Narratology,” in Borderliners – Searching the Boundaries of
Narrativity and Narratology, ed. Per Krogh Hansen (Copenhagen: Medusa, 2009), pp. 19-75; ref.
on p. 26ff.
 Noël Carroll, Beyond Aesthetics – Philosophical Essays,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2001), p. 122.
Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology
(London/New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 6.
Comparable ideas have also been proposed by Jean-Baptiste Dubos, Denis Diderot,
and especially Edmund Burke in his essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and
Beautiful (1757), which explicitly influenced Lessing’s lines of thought. Cf. William Guild Howard, “Burke among the
Forerunners of Lessing,” PMLA, 22 (1907), 608-32. However, as the present article is not
primarily intended to provide a historical (or global) survey concerning
theoretical positions about possible temporal aspects in the pictorial arts (see
also endnote 2), the following discussion will chiefly focus on Lessing’s view,
which in its relative clarity could be used as
an exemplary standpoint on the possibility of pictorial narrativity.
 Quoted in
Ernst H. Gombrich, "Moment and Movement in Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 27 (1964), 293-306,
ref. on p. 294.
Ephraim Lessing, Laocoon: An Essay on the
Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. Ellen Frothingham (New York: Noonday Press, 1957), p. 91.
 Cf. also the
discussion in W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology
- Image, Text, Ideology, (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press,
1986), pp. 94-115.
Souriau, "Time in the Plastic Arts,” Journal
of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 7 (1949), 294-307, ref. on p. 294.
Gombrich, p. 301 ff.
 Alfred L.
Yarbus, Eye Movements and Vision (New
York: Plenum Press,1967). Cf. also Robert L. Solso, Cognition and the Visual Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), pp.134–138.
Mitchell, p. 100.
 See Eleanor
Rosch, "Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,
104 (1975), 192-233; Eleanor Rosch, "Categorization," Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, 1, (Academic
Press,1994, pp. 513- 523; Eleanor Rosch & Carolyn B. Mervis, "Family
Resemblances: Studies in the Internal Structure of Categories," Cognitive Psychology, 7 (1975); Eleanor
Rosch & Barbara B. Lloyd (eds.), Cognition
and Categorization, (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
 It should be
pointed out, though, that there may be categories that actually reflect an
all-or-none rule; that is, some entities belong, formally speaking, to the category
in question in strict essentialist terms, while others do not. For example, the category odd number includes any number whatsoever that produces a remainder
of 1 when divided by 2. All category
members satisfy the rule equally. Still,
despite the existence of exact formal criteria for category membership, it may
be claimed that such a category has a graded structure, psychologically and
cognitively speaking, because of the efficiency with which people establish
membership of certain numbers, or from the fact that they regard some numbers
as more typical than others (say, 3 compared to 1057). Cf.
Lawrence W. Barsalou, "Deriving Categories to Achieve Goals," in The Psychology of Learning and Motivation --
Advances in Research and Theory, ed. Gordon H. Bower, 27 (San Diego:
Academic Press, 1991), pp. 1-64, ref. on p. 8.
 Cf. also the discussion in Skalin, op. cit.
 Cf. also Göran Sonesson, "Mute Narratives--New
Issues in the Study of Pictorial Texts," Interart Poetics--Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and the
Media, eds. Ulla-Britt
Lagerroth, Hans Lund, & Erik Hedling (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997), pp. 243- 251, ref. on p. 244 ff.
Although the following discussion focuses on the
narrative function(s) of pictures, this by no means excludes other possible
meaning functions. As an anonymous
reviewer of an earlier draft of this article has remarked correctly, “…the Laocoön
famously serves as the epitome of the visual representation of human agony as
well as representing the Homeric narrative described by the author. A scene of the crucifixion of Jesus evokes and
depends not only on the narrative of the Passion but can serve as the focus of
both private devotion and liturgical celebration extra-narratively.” I could certainly not agree more. Pictorial representations may, of course, be
used in a number of ways related to extra-narrative and extra-semiotic
functions, such as religious, political, aesthetic, status-maximizing, or
otherwise more or less pragmatic ones. And seen purely as representations, we might
say that a picture P can function as a meaning bearer in at least one or
several of the following ways:
1. P represents O, where O could stand for
a) one or
several singular, real objects or subjects (like the mountain of
Sainte-Victoire or Napoleon)
b) one or
several general, real objects or subjects (like an apple or a woman)
c) one or
several singular, fictional objects or subjects (like the Holy Grail or Zeus)
d) one or
several general, fictional objects or subjects (like a halo or an angel).
2. P expresses E, where E could be regarded as
properties inherent in P (such as gaiety, melancholy, aggressiveness, or
states attributed to the artist (e.g.
at the moment of creation, or his usual state of mind)
states arising (non-contingently) in the mind of the beholder.
3. P has a sense SE. Here, the term ‘sense’ is supposed to refer to
the occurrence of certain features or attributes being included in or
constituting the depiction of O (i.e. modes of depicting O), for example
a) Napoleon as a child or as an emperor
b) Zeus as aggressive or as contemplative
c) Napoleon as a configuration of lines, patches, or
rough brush strokes.
4. P suggests ST. ST is supposed to refer to
statements which P may imply, express or suggest, perhaps partly as the result
of a beholder's background knowledge (e.g.
relating to the context of creation, artistic traditions, the artist's probable
meaning-intentions). These statements
may be descriptive or normative, and they may refer to the world, society, the
artist's mental state, human actions, God, and so on.
5. P symbolizes SY. In this case external "clues of
connection" between the depicted objects and, for example, (i) religious,
mythological, philosophical, or metaphysical ideas, or (ii) persons, groups,
national, geographical, or cultural areas that are required in order to
recognize the symbolic content. These
clues may be symbolic dictionaries such as Cesare Ripa's "Iconologia"
(1593), but also religious, mythological, or literary texts in general. Moreover, acquaintance with actual political,
religious, or historical events seems also sometimes to be necessary. Thus P could symbolize SY (by representing O),
for example, as follows:
a) O = dove;
SY = Holy Ghost
b) O = Pharaoh
Narmer hitting another person; SY = Upper Egypt's victory over Lower Egypt
about 3000 B.C.E.
c) O = bees;
SY = Pope Urban VIII (Barberini).
See also Michael Ranta, Mimesis as the Representation of Types–The Historical and Psychological
Basis of an Aesthetic Idea (Stockholm: Stockholm University, 2000), p. 31 ff.
 For an early work on this matter, see
Sven Rosén, Succession i simultana bilder--Stilkritiska
studier i antikens och renässansens konst (Lund: Gleerupska universitetsbokhandeln, 1912).
 For a
detailed analysis of the relief on the Column of Trajan, see Richard Brilliant,
Visual Narratives--Storytelling in
Etruscan and Roman Art (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 90-123.
 See Jean Matter Mandler, Stories, Scripts, and Scenes: Aspects of Schema Theory (London/Hillsdale,
N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
Publishers, 1984). In cognitive
psychology, a number of terms have been employed to refer to mental
representations of essentially complex phenomena. Apart from schemata
and scripts, psychologists have also
made use of terms such as mental models,
causal mental models, which imply
explanations and justifications, frames,
situation models, episodic models, and so forth. Several of these concepts seem to have the
same core set of attributes, though perhaps a basic distinction can be made
between (i) representations of pre-existing generic knowledge, and (ii)
specific representations which are constructed at the time of use. For a discussion and comparison of the
meaning of these terms, see William F. Brewer, "Schemas versus Mental
Models in Human Memory," in Modelling
Cognition, ed. P. Morris (Chichester, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.,
1987), pp. 187-197.
 See Mandler,
 Roger C.
Schank and Robert P. Abelson, Scripts,
Plans, Goals and Understanding: An
Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structure (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum
 Gordon H.
Bower, John B. Black, & Terence J. Turner, “Scripts in Memory for Text,” Cognitive Psychology, 11 (1979),
 Roger C.
Schank, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and
Intelligence (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1995); Roger C.
Schank, Dynamic Memory Revisited (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999).
(1999), pp. 123-136.
Schank (1995), pp. 189-218.
Baxandall, Painting and Experience in
Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style
(Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1972/1988).
Carroll, pp. 79-81.
 George Wilson,
“Narrative,” in The Oxford Handbook of
Aesthetics, ed. Jerold Levinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2003), pp. 392-406, ref. on p. 394.
 It may be
questioned, though, whether the classification of an object as a work of art is
entirely dependent on its narrative-historical linkage or if, instead, we
should also appeal to other kinds of conditions that are perhaps even necessary
and jointly sufficient for something to qualify as an art work, if such
conditions can be specified at all. In
the present context, however, my concern is not to discuss any possible
definitions of art but rather to point to the fact that at least sometimes art
historical narratives contribute to the establishment, fixation, or enhancement
of an object’s art status. Nelson
Goodman’s suggested replacement of the traditional question “What is Art?” with
“When is Art?” is still far from unconvincing. See Ways
of Worldmaking (Indianapolis:
Hackett Publishing Company, 1978), pp. 57-70. See also my discussion in “Categorization
Research and the Concept of Art: An
Empirical and Psychological Approach," Nordisk estetisk tidskrift/ Journal of Nordic Aesthetics, 25-26 (2002).
Schank (1999), e.g., p. 22.