- Complicating Complexity: Reflections on Writing about Pictures
The Tempest (La tempestad), a 1997 best-selling Spanish novel by Juan Manuel de Prada, not only borrows its title from the 1508 painting by Giorgione, but also places the masterpiece canvas at the center of a complex detective plot that involves art forgery, love, betrayal, and murder. Alejandro Ballesteros, the novel’s main character, is an art history student who, after years of intensive studies, comes to Venice to examine the famous painting, the topic of his doctoral dissertation. Although the novel’s opening page includes a color reproduction of the painting, and the first chapter briefly describes what art historians refer to as its basic sensus litteralis, the author devotes much of chapter eight to explaining the complexities of the daunting task his fictitious art history student faces: the need to reconcile into a coherent whole many, often contradictory, interpretations of the painting and his frustrating inability to unequivocally “fix” the meaning of even its most visually prominent characters and elements. In a reflection on the nature of this interpretive process, the young art historian Ballesteros compares his task to the process of assembling a complex jigsaw puzzle:
It takes a numismatic patience to arrange the pieces of a puzzle. One has to decide continually between an almost infinite number of possible combinations, and to try and match the bite-shaped pieces together. And although sometimes the connections between them are so subtle as to be almost evanescent, and our intuition tells us that a simple error of judgment could just as easily destroy the tenuous link, we chase this thought away, and we continue tenaciously.... It’s not enough to fit the pieces together, however, we also have to make sure that the resulting image is plausible.(Prada 185)
As it turns out, in his concerns regarding the complexity of pictorial images, and the extent of critical writings about them, the fictitious art historian from Prada’s novel is not alone: the reflection on the interpretive process that addresses images, such as Giorgione’s Tempest, as well as the picture-as-puzzle metaphor itself (inspired by Salvatore Setti’s book on Giorgione), are both also at the center of James Elkins’s metatheoretical 1999 inquiry into the mechanisms that underlie present-day art historical discourse, tellingly titled Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity.
Elkins’s point of departure, and the basic premise of his argument, a premise which he quickly and convincingly proves in the opening chapters, is that while “once upon a time, pictures were simple,” over the last century they have invariably grown more “difficult to explain,” “demanding,” and “puzzling” (xi). This opening statement is not quite accurate, since what concerns Elkins is the fact that academic approaches to pictures and, consequently, academic writing about them, not pictures themselves, have changed dramatically over the last century.
Following Wittgenstein’s maxim that “the first step in seeing a problem is seeing that it is a problem” (xi), Elkins endeavors to outline its nature and extent in both qualitative and quantitative terms. To outline the main direction of the trend, he examines a somewhat extreme, and therefore conveniently self-evident example of a monograph by Birger Carlström, who claims that many popular Impressionist paintings, usually taken to be expressions of the new, modern age aesthetic, are teeming with extensive, and often cryptically encoded political messages, hidden in the outlines, signatures, fabric folds, or even minute paint spots so small as to be discernible only under a magnifying glass. In several examples of pictorial exegesis run amok, Carlström reads Renoir’s political concerns about the Panama Canal project from his paintings, or rather into them, as Elkins, supported by extensive art-historical consensus, points out. Carlström claims to have identified messages such as “stop stupid England at Suez Canal,” allegedly engraved with a needle in one painting, or cartographic outlines of the canal in several of Renoir’s paintings generally considered to be charming, but otherwise conservatively bourgeois portraits...