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  • Pictorial Narrative with Tension and ReliefA Story with Complication and Resolution in a Single Picture
  • Klaus Speidel (bio)

Introduction: The Problem with Pictorial Narrative

In Basic Elements of Narrative, David Herman (2009: xvi) introduces a list of four criteria for prototypical narratives: situatedness, event sequencing, worldmaking/world disruption, and communicating what it’s like. Herman details said criteria as follows:

(i) A representation that is situated in— must be interpreted in light of— a specific discourse context or occasion for telling. (ii) The representation, furthermore, cues interpreters to draw inferences about a structured time-course of particularized events. (iii) In turn, these events are such that they introduce some sort of disruption or disequilibrium into a storyworld involving human or human-like agents. . . . (iv) The representation also conveys the experience of living through this storyworld-in-flux, [End Page 1] highlighting the pressure of events on real or imagined consciousnesses affected by the occurrences at issue.

(2009: xvi)

These criteria can be seen as a refinement of those provided in earlier definitions of narrative. They will serve as a hallmark for my own reflections on pictorial narrative, but I will also complete the list with criteria suggested by other researchers as we go along.

In narratology, it is usually maintained that verbal utterances, films, and picture sequences can fulfill the aforementioned and similar criteria, but a single picture cannot. In this article, I would like to question this point of view. More specifically, my analysis focuses on the difficulty associated with conveying a story through single monochronic pictures that only depict one moment in time, as opposed to polychronic pictures that explicitly represent several moments. If I were able to prove that it is possible to convey a story with a single monochronic picture, then it should follow by implication that polychronic pictures can also convey stories. The most common reason for thinking that this is not the case is because of the perceived temporal limitations of pictures in terms of presentation and conveying story content (Speidel 2013).

According to Aron Kibédi Varga (1990: 363–4), the only option monochronic pictures have is to “illustrate” or “evoke a story.” Marie-Laure Ryan (2004) seems to share this belief: “Since pictures, left by themselves, lack the ability to articulate specific propositions and to explicate causal relations, their principal narrative option is what I call . . . the illustrative mode” (139, emphasis mine). Jean-Marie Schaeffer (2001) maintains that even polychronic pictures can at best “lead us to imagine a story” but not depict one (19). Werner Wolf, who published quite extensively on visual narrative, asserts that monochronic pictures can “induce narration” (2002: 96) or “metonymically point to a story” (2005: 433) but not convey a “story proper” (2003: 180). Françoise Revaz (2009) believes that pictures can “trigger a narrative reading” (92) but that there is no autonomous pictorial narrative. All of these arguments can be considered versions of Gotthold Lessing’s (1766/1853) statement that pictures cannot literally depict actions, but can only suggest them “by intimation” (“eine Handlung vermuten lassen”) (151).

I would like to challenge this notion, by suggesting that there are [End Page 2] single pictures that correspond to the major criteria used to determine whether something is a narrative, including the criteria Herman introduced. Recent experiments (Speidel 2018) show that this is in accordance with the nonexpert conviction that some single pictures that explicitly show only one moment do convey stories. I have argued that a narratology that wants to operate descriptively rather than normatively should revise definitions of narrative that exclude such pictures from the realm of narratives. Here, however, I would like to take a different approach by accepting, for the sake of the argument, definitions that are considered to make pictorial narrative problematic, and arguing that specific examples can comply with them. My argument will mainly be based on one well-known painting; it appears that no one has interpreted it as an autonomous narrative thus far, either in narratology or in art history. I conclude with a few words on why scholars have not offered said interpretation in the past.

Defining Single Pictures

I would like to briefly clarify the concept of...


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