Visual narratives

It may look like images can effectively replace human languages, as the adage enunciates: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Truly, visual representations are universal, crossing the boundaries set by languages and, what text tries to express through literary figures of speech and complex phrases, visual arts can easily communicate in a single image. Particularly interesting about this is the assumption that the narrativity of a visual artwork can occur in a more symbiotic relationship with the viewer than the one between the narrativity of a text and reader. As noted before, narratology does not necessarily take the reader into account when it analyses the narrativity of a text. Though this may be, visual artworks can tell stories that were not necessarily intended by their authors, but discovered by the viewers.


On the other hand, narrative art proves that humans need more than words to communicate, especially when it comes to intangible notions like emotions, profound thoughts or ambiguous concepts. Although the term narrative art means art which tells a story, it is usually used in association with the visual arts. The first cases of this kind in history are the cave paintings, found all over the planet and dated up to 35000 years ago ("Cave Painting", Wikipedia). It is believed that by that time humans were already communicating with the help of languages, but we cannot know to what degree, so cave paintings may actually be the first testimony of narrative in the world. During the course of history, narrative art has evolved, along with its practices, characteristics and physical support, but also with its purposes. In the past century, this kind of art has mostly taken the form of comic strips, comic books and graphic novels, which are known as graphic narratives. Robert Petersen remarks that, historically, graphic narratives have inclined towards a moralizing attitude, which “is not essential to graphic narrative action, but it tends to put the narrative into sharper focus” (2010, 16). He also agrees that there is an intimate relationship between author and receiver, which articulates into narrative, so the latter should be a platform for reciprocal understanding (ibid.). But to talk about meanings in narrative art also requires a short clarification about the domain of visual semiotics.


René Magritte gave us valuable clues about visual semiotics in works like “The Treachery of Images” or “The Key to Dreams”. By painting a pipe and writing underneath “This is not a pipe” he raises our awareness about the fact that images are often nothing else than representations of reality. To understand a sign, there has to be a common agreement about its meaning and Ferdinand de Saussure, as well as Charles Sanders Peirce elaborated this in their works about semiotics1. Daniel Chandler makes a comparison between these two works in Semiotics: the Basics (2002): while Saussure defined a sign with two elements – signifier (a word) and signified (a concept), Peirce proposed a triangular model – representamen (the form of the sign), interpretant (the sense made by the sign) and object (the concept to which the sign refers). Umberto Eco also notes that “usually a single sign-vehicle conveys many intertwined contents and therefore what is commonly called ‘a message’ is in fact a text whose content is a multilevelled discourse” (1979, 57). Although these theories mainly refer to linguistic signs, they are not only applicable to visual arts, but are indeed the starting point in visual semiotics, which consequently helps us understand visual narratives.


1 Semiotics is the American term, while in France Saussure called it sémiologie (“Semiotics”, Wikipedia).


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