Elements of Art: If Tropes Were Brushstrokes…

I really love art; my blog tends to mention quite a few trips to enjoy visual feasts.  Some of my earliest memories are of art, both producing it and being surrounded by all sorts of wonderful images.  I have also always been a reader; linking words and images is an extraordinary thing in my world – you should see my house.  It is also my profession and now an enormous pleasure in English Studies.

I am quite passionate about English Studies. Although I am reading advanced units now I value Approaches to Text and the perspective it brings to reading more than ever. ‘Approaches to Text’ asks some provocative questions like is it useful to apply literary analysis to non-literary material. This year I decided to invert the question and frame it in a way more familiar to me; is it beneficial to use art terms when analyzing text.

Analyzing texts and literary elements like tropes and narratology as ‘elements of art’ opens an interesting way of thinking about writing, texts and authors.  For me, Shakespeare’s metaphors are Chagall’s colors, Dante’s allegory is like Picasso’s use of line, and epic poetry is like Rivera’s murals. The way artists manipulate elements of art has a profound effect upon the viewer just as the way authors manipulate elements of language has profound effects upon the reader.

Effects upon the reader or viewer and the link between language and visual images are provocative to consider. For me, language and image is almost inseparable.  Their juxtaposition helps to define the un-rendered space so central to expression; it is the space where effect happens and my imagination can construct meaning.  Taking ordinary things like soup cans, gardens or domestic interiors, and making them extraordinary through manipulating the elements of visual art is fantastic to observe; making language extraordinary through manipulating its elements creates equally exceptional effects. When visual images and language are linked the effect is visceral and quite gripping.

Linking visual imagery and text is nothing new; illuminated manuscripts, DADA and Picasso come to mind; they are positively understated compared to Thomas Hirschorn and Mario Merz’s contemporary use of text and image. Both Hirschorn and Merz use sheets of published texts as visual elements in their compositions; pages and columns of text are used as shape, color, or line. This seems to suppress literary elements of the text. It represents a full circle from manuscripts where individual letters and margins are decorative elements, and a kind of commemorative art illustrating the importance of the words themselves, to an art form where words have no meaning.  It requires me to use visual analysis when engaging with text.

Shakespeare’s ‘imagery’ begs visual analysis, too; what I visualize is part of his work’s extraordinary effect. For me, text and image are co-dependents; when I see an art work I create or seek a narrative to enhance my viewing experience just like my imagination paints a picture of Chaucer’s pilgrims or Bronte’s school girls.  Since I tend to read like N. C. Wyeth illustrated classic novels it makes sense to approach literature using the tools of visual analysis too. When tropes are like brush strokes the world on the page becomes richer and more accessible.

4 thoughts on “Elements of Art: If Tropes Were Brushstrokes…

  1. Wonderful stuff!
    I find comparing literature to other art forms most fruitful. I don’t think I could have done without it last year, when I studied Renaissance Comedy and really struggled with my appreciation of Jonson. These were probably the two most enlightening comments which pointed me in the right direction:
    Harry Levin: “We must criticize Shakespeare in terms of movement and warmth, Jonson in terms of pattern and color.”
    Robert E. Knoll: “The structure of a Jonson play may be profitably compared to Bach, Shakespeare to Beethoven.”

    All the best, Monika


  2. This is a fascinating post Catherine. I agree with you. ‘Approaches to Text’ is an exciting unit, isn’t it. I would like to study it more in the advanced units, and hope that will be possible in the future.

    Also, I am now very curious to see some of Hirschorn and Merz’s work, after your recommendation. I studied art at college, many years ago, and one of my tutors used to talk about the juxtaposition of language and images, and how much scope for exciting work it offers. Great work!


  3. Thanks Monika! I actucally compared Jonson’s structure to Mozart in a first year exam essay. Can you imagine that? It was way too ambitious for a first year student with a real case of butterflies! For it me was ‘Die Zauberflote,’ that amazing aria “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” and the whole singspiel concept. Listening to this opera while reading ‘Bartholomew Fair’ is a good afternoon…
    I have not read Knoll’s article. I can see the Bach association! Where did you find the article?


  4. Dear Graham,
    You and I agree 100% about Approaches; it is probably my favorite unit. We both studied art, too! I got hooked on DaDa and Cubism; for me there is no turning back. I understand the ‘Moderns’ unit gives us a great opportunity to explore art and literature, so that’s something to look forward to. Rushdie’s imagery is so stunning to me that I started to visualise his work as if it had been painted by Bouguereau. Sir Salman should get a thank you note from me for this inspiration.


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