Today, we delve through words into pictures – looking at the art of illustrating or illuminating, of pairing written works with visual accompaniment.
We’ve all undoubtedly read and loved picture books as children. With fond memories do many of us think back to our favorite Dr. Seuss book ( Horton Hatches the Egg was mine – yours?), none of which would have been nearly the same experience without Seuss’s trademark whimsical, surreal, and strangely beautiful illustrations. For quite some time, picture books have been a staple in our education system’s route of teaching children to read.
But why? What is it that illustration or illumination does – what can it do? Why do we so infrequently see any for written works intended for adults?
The power of visual accompaniment can extend itself in one of two directions – to narrow and focus conceptual understanding, or to broaden and open that understanding. As with any artificially imagined dichotomy, most all visual accompaniment will partake of both movements simultaneously, to varying degrees. Nonetheless, considering them as separate is useful in gaining an appreciation of the power of visual accompaniment.
The first direction of influence, narrowing and focusing understanding, is the direction we’re most familiar with, the direction most often employed with greater prominence. Pictures can be used to increase the clarity of what a written piece is seeking to describe or explain – as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Why, essentially, do children’s books almost invariably have pictures? Because children encounter difficulty with linguistic understanding – they’re still in the process of conceptualizing ideas from language-based stimuli, and simply often do not always know the meaning of every word in a piece. Ideas presented visually are much easier for children to digest and understand.
Young-children picture books are prime examples of this – in reading Green Eggs and Ham , one of the greatest first-reader books (clocking in at only 233 different words), children are given visual clues for almost every word. Children might not know what “train” means, but when they see it first introduced with a new picture of a train, they’re able to learn the word, and continue reading with unbroken understanding, based on the visual clue.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provides another prime example of this direction, for slightly different reasons. The challenge in understanding Lewis Carroll’s book comes not primarily from the meanings of the words within, but rather from the other-worldliness of the situations those words create. Alice enters a world of surreal qualities, in which nonsense, metaphor, and imagination abound. Because he creates a world so divergent from the reality his reader (young or old) is used to, Carroll risks his own work blooming itself into incomprehensible nonsense. John Tenniel’s illustrations serve to ground the reader – to narrow and focus and keep constant certain elements of the book, so that Carroll can spin out his imagination in other areas. With Wonderland teetering on the verge of imaginative chaos and narrative incoherence, a steady picture of what Alice simply looks like goes a long way towards keeping the story unified and understandable. A realistic-looking and simple illustration of an otherworldly situation – Alice speaking with Dodo, for instance – narrows and focuses the wild imagination of the story, giving the reader the occasional reference-point for engaging the work.
So then, all good and well for illustrations-clarify side of the coin. What of the other? How could illustrations broaden and open understanding?
The conceptual idea is simple, and ties in with our discussion last week of translating poetry. Poetry offers a broader and deeper conceptual experience by broadening the avenues through which meaning is constructed – visual accompaniment provides a rich opportunity to add a new layer of meaning, a new medium of communication that can be used to layer and expand the full, unified experience of a written work.
Though in itself a simple idea – pictures can be a new layer of meaning – an example (with pictures) greatly illustrates the concept.
Delicious irony, eh? – we’ll use pictures to narrow and focus our understanding of how picture can broaden and expand conceptual understanding.
One of the greatest proponents of this sort of visual accompaniment is William Blake. One of the most prolific poets in the English language, Blake created some of the most lasting works of the 18th and 19th centuries.
What is less known about Blake is that his written pieces were almost exclusively, in fact, drawn and painted. Blake invented his own ingenious technique of acid-etching, through which he could draw on copper plates the lines and figures that would be printed, a novel form of mass-printing images. Blake would take this further, by hand-painting in the outlined images his prints created, usually painting with watercolor. This means that nearly every production of poetry that Blake produced in his own life were one-of-a-kind, hand-etched and hand-painted combinations of visual and linguistic poetry.
Some examinations of Blake’s work makes clear what he was able to do with his visual accompaniment.
Songs of Innocence and Experience is one of Blake’s greatest works – containing perhaps his best-known poem, “The Tyger.” The collection is separated into two sections – ‘Songs of Innocence,’ and ‘Songs of Experience.’ Though nuanced and resistant to bland oversimplification, the ‘Innocence’ and ‘Experience’ Blake invokes can be seen as a sort of pre-Fall optimism and unilateral happiness, compared with a post-Fall view of the world invoking knowledge of good and evil, one that is grittier and more ‘real’ (to us) in its view of life.
Let us examine first the title page to the ‘Songs of Innocence’ section.
The scene is idyllic, at first glance: two children outside, with a woman who appears to be there mother, who holds an open book in her lap that the children gaze into. Digging into the picture opens up layers of meaning that will open up new avenues for the reader to engage the poems to follow, and the theme of ‘Innocence’ that ties them together. The woman is dressed in the same blue as the sky, visually linking the two. With the heavy religious symbolism Blake invokes throughout this work, the visual tie to the sky suggests a divine manifestation – the woman as a manifestation of divine interaction with humanity before the Fall. In this view, it is interesting to note that the woman and her book pull the children’s attention away from the natural world around them. The boy and girl seem unaware of the world outside of the book in the woman’s lap. Also of interest in this view is the fact that the woman looks at the boy and girl, while the two children look down, away from her gaze, into the words she is presenting to them.
The tree is also of interest – it’s branches seem to bend and reach towards the children, and the fruit on the branches (which are heavily outlined) seem to strain towards the children. One reading would invoke the idea that ‘Innocence’ always has within it the movement towards ‘Experience’ – that ‘Experience’ is always stretching towards a state of ‘Innocence.’ Such a notion, presented visually, can offer the reader a new avenue to experience the poems within ‘Songs of Innocence,’ both individually and relative to those in the second section.
So then, let’s turn to the title page from ‘Songs of Experience,’ from this same copy of Blake’s work.
Here, we see two young adults mourning two dead elders – presumably, children mourning their parents (or some other possibility?). Some possible meanings jump out at us. Firstly, the children seem to be possibly older versions of the children from the other title page – does experience come with age? Does experience mean wisdom, then? The female figure of rich color has been replaced by a man and woman of dead pale. The bed they rest on seems to hearken back to the rich blue of the woman’s dress, but only shabbily so. Interestingly, the girl seems clad in the same pink, while the boy is now adorned with that rich blue previously seen in the woman’s dress from ‘Songs of Innocence.’ What characteristics that she held might the boy have taken on?
The children still look down, away from the world around them. Indeed, their positions are quite similar, but now they look at corpses instead of a book in a lap. What relation could this suggest between ‘Experience’ and ‘Innocence’? How might such relations be reflected in a reader’s experience of the poems within each section?
Of course, these readings of Blake’s visual pieces are only my own experiences – again, part of the beauty of poetry. A different reader will experience different meanings from the same stimuli. What struck you as prominent in these two illustrations? How would you ‘read’ the pictures, and how would that layer into your experiential readings of poems under their heading?
Perhaps most beautiful and unique of Blake’s work is that, as noted above, each copy was hand-painted. So every copy provides a novel experiential atmosphere for the reader to discover new meaning. Look at the below title pages from another copy Blake painted of the same work. What do you see? What meaning do you experience? With these visuals, what feelings, emotions, ideas, and concepts would you take with you in reading poems?
What is so wonderful about this sort of visual accompaniment is that it provides a space, even more so than words, for a reader to have his or her own experience of a work. With pictures, we more freely bring our own experiential content to the table. My own ‘reading’ of Blake’s title pages are heavily influenced by theological mythology – someone not used to doing so would likely read the images entirely differently. Not better or worse, more wrong or more right, but differently.
Illustration of this sort reminds us how malleable language is, how influenced by the ideas and assumptions the reader brings. Illustrations allow us a more abstract space to experience our own conceptual baggage – allowing us to commune with deeper parts of ourselves inside the piece we read.