- The Psychology of Graphic Images: Seeing, Drawing, Communicating
Too often, psychological discussions of visual images are wooden, the mere application of principles of experimental psychology to visual material. The same cannot be said of Manfredo Massironi's The Psychology of Graphic Images, which marvels at the richness and complexity of graphic signs and the ways they create meaning. Massironi writes in the best tradition of the European intellectual. A professor at the University of Verona, he is an experimental psychologist and practicing architect and obviously a deeply cultured man. His discussion is both rigorous, often making fundamental contributions to aspects of picture perception, and humane, as he preserves the greatness of what he is examining. Historical examples are not [End Page 162] chosen willfully, and the psychological reasoning is clearly yet convincingly mobilized. In this sense, his work is a worthy companion to Rudolf Arnheim's classic Art and Visual Perception.
Like Arnheim, Massironi sketches an approach with application well beyond just pictures. Massironi structures his presentation with a convincing taxonomy of graphic productions. This discussion can be fruitfully compared to the parallel efforts of James Elkins (The Domain of Images, 1998) to rethink canonical distinctions in the history of visual culture. This taxonomy does not favor the representational over the non-representational, and finds a place for everything from graphs to Raphael's paintings. Massironi's most important discussions are devoted to graphs (non-representational), illustrative drawings and icons (representational), and operational drawing using descriptive drawing (somewhere in between). Also somewhere between representational and non-representational graphics is what Massironi coins "hypothetigraphy," the study of graphics for scientific hypotheses (pp. 141-177). Models, metaphors and mental images are often cited in discussions of scientific invention but they are rarely broken down to their constituents as graphic tools that (1) connect, (2) reconstruct and (3) identify phenomena. The discussion of hypothetigraphy should be read by all interested in the connection of science and graphics. There are other discussions that represent the latest thinking on individual perceptual problems. Among these are Massironi's pages on the "structural components of drawings" (pp. 104-112), which report on a vocabulary of illustrative drawing (lines as objects, edges, cracks and texture) as well as the pages on "holes" (pp. 215-242) and "figural ambiguity" (pp. 243-258). These last two sections relate back in important new ways to the old figure-ground phenomenon.
Massironi, the author of a general text on visual perception (Fenomenologia della percezione visiva [Phenomenology of Visual Perception], 1998), approvingly cites the "directed realism" of James Cutting, with whom he has collaborated, and his overall approach can be located here between constuctivism and direct realism. At one point Massironi dutifully reviews—and rejects—computational approaches to pattern recognition (pp. 218-221); elsewhere he recounts the tribulations of the main alternative to computationalism, Gibson's ecological theory, also pointing to shortcomings (pp. 25-35, 83-86). Against Gibson, Massironi argues for the usefulness of studying "ecologically invalid" drawings: "Because they stop the flow of information in the changing optic array, images are a useful tool for cognition. They provide information that does not change over time and can wait for the completion of cognitive processes" (p. 86). The closeness of Massironi's intermediate solution to gestalt theory is striking. Indeed, his commonality with Arnheim goes deeper, as Massironi was trained in a strong gestalt tradition in Padua. Reading Massironi's reviews of contemporary visual science, one can see that there is much alive in Arnheim's approach. Perhaps in addition to arguing its own points, The Psychology of Graphic Images will make us reconsider Arnheim's work in a new light. With that said, we can only lament that Massironi does not tackle a second concern of Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception, the expressiveness of visual forms. We can only hope that Massironi might consider this as the subject of a second study yet to come. [End Page...