On "Reading" Visual Art

Titian, Rape of Europa, 1559 - 1562

The American Scholar website has a feature called Teaching Lessons. Here, reproduced in full, is a brief piece from Lincoln Perry on "how to read visual art." Reading is a vigorous, volitional act in all its forms. I'll add that you can read abstract art in a similar way.
At Queens College in the mid-’70s, Gabriel Laderman taught me how to read paintings, how a viewer’s eye might enter into a rectangle, be guided or pushed into fictive depth by overlaps and pictorial pressures, then returned to the surface. You could control the speed and complexity of the journey, be it a gentle meander, rocky climb, or precipitous dive.

In a nuts-and-bolts way, Gabriel would critique your work by telling you where his eye got stuck, or how, right here, you could channel vision the way neighboring shores funnel water into an accelerating current. He responded to content: yes, you’ve painted a lovely woman in a dress. But isn’t there also a subtle subtext in the way we enter the bottom of the painting on the flattened shape of that dress, climbing what becomes an increasingly volumetric cone that culminates in a fully worked-out head? What of the pressure between her arm and the left side of the canvas; hasn’t it fruitfully distorted the way you’ve seen that form? With that particular shape of air around her head, you seem to suggest her somewhat conflicted psychology.

Such subtexts become the metaphoric heart of the matter, so that while the work may appear more or less from life, its structure can reveal, reinforce, or even reverse what we might call story. I subsequently learned to read fiction in a new way from my dear wife, another believer in subtext and structural metaphor. We all need to be taught to read in these ways; I was fortunate in my teachers.


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