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September 24, 2002

Every Picture Tells A Story


When I went to lunch today I lost my head and took not only one but two books with me: E.H. Gombrich’s “The Image & The Eye” and a book of reproductions of Gil Elvgren’s paintings. This sort of thing is always a mistake. I can never decide which book to read, and often try to look at both of them and get horribly dizzy. Anyway, I decided to start with theory and began with Gombrich’s essay on “Action and Expression in Western Art.” There my eye lit on the following passage:

[T]here must be a great difference between a painting which illustrates a known story and another that wishes to tell a story. No history exists of this second category, the so-called anecdotal painting…It is likely, however, that the student of non-verbal communication would find a good deal of interest in these systematic attempts to condense a typical dramatic scene into a picture without any…contextual aids...

Wow, I thought, I have an example of that right here. I opened the book of Elvgren’s paintings and my attention was immediately drawn by this narrative masterwork:

Obviously Elvgren had decided to depict the intense drama of the witness facing the opposing attorney. Of course, space considerations apparently dictated the elimination of the opposing attorney, but Elvgren’s artistic mastery overcomes this by showing the young woman’s twisting posture as she writhes under his savage cross-examination. Of course, her expression is a bit ambiguous; why do you suppose she is smiling and batting her eyelashes? Perhaps she sees her brother in the courtroom crowd, and wants to let him know how well she is bearing up under the strain. Well, even if the context is a little unclear, I think Elvgren’s penetrating analysis of the human condition is quite powerfully rendered. I went back to Gombrich:

One could think of other topics and social functions which have driven the artist towards the exploration of non-verbal communication. Advertising, for instance, frequently demands the signalling of rapturous satisfaction on the part of the child who eats his breakfast cereals, the housewife who uses a washing powder or the young man smoking a cigarette.

To find an example, knowing that Elvgren had done advertising work, I again leafed through the book of his paintings, until I saw this example of what appeared to be art for a home workshop ad.

I thought, this must explain why the woman in the advertisement is making such a kissy little mouth while feeling the edge of the axe blade—she’s surprised at how sharp her new grindstone has made her dull old axe! It was a little unusual, granted, to use a woman in the ad at all, of course. I mean, you’d think grindstones would be more of a guy’s thing—and sharpening axes, too. And her choice of legwear is a bit unorthodox for a workshop, even if it is at home—I don’t think my old shop teacher would have thought that sitting so close to a grindstone with bare thighs was good safety procedure!

Somewhat perplexed, I grant you, I returned to Gombrich’s essay:

It is the absence of any ‘theatrical’, that is of any unambiguous, gesture which prevents us from reading off the story as if it were written…and involves us all the more deeply in the event. The very element of ambiguity and of mystery makes us read the drama in terms of inner emotions and once we are attuned to this reading we increasingly project more intensity onto these calm gestures and expressions that we are likely to read into the extrovert gesticulations of the Latin style.

I decided to look at yet another Elvgren work to see if I could detect this same type of ambiguity and mystery. I found this painting:

Here we see a drama from the medical sphere. Obviously some poor unfortunate has gone to a doctor’s office and is waiting to be treated. In his pain and suffering he watches the nurse remove some mysterious items from a metal box. That’s a pretty ambiguous gesture, although the nurse is a bit theatrical draping herself all over the counter like that. So, what do we think of her expression? Uh-oh! I remember a nurse with an expression like that—she gave me a shot with an ENORMOUS needle. She smiled that same way and told me it wouldn't hurt! I couldn’t sit down for a week! My god, what horrible science-experiment-gone-wrong is she going to commit on that poor, hapless patient? Gombrich is right—I can’t help but project ever more intensity into the nurse’s calm—sinister, but calm—gestures! It’s too much, I have to close the book.

I’m going to try to finish Gombrich’s essay, but I may never be able to look at another Elvgren painting for the rest of my days. He is simply too great, too affecting an artist for a sensitive soul like myself. I can only ponder the significance of Gombrich’s words:

Clearly, the commercial artist and the commercial photographer are likely to know a great deal about the degree of realism and stylization that produces the optimum results for this purpose and also about the changing reactions of the public to certain means and methods.

True. Sadly, too true.

posted by Friedrich at September 24, 2002


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