By Ekiko Inyang
NO TWO fields of thoughts within the realm of comparative artistic discourse have so much dissected and reinvented itself, illuminated and captured the representational framework of each other, than the territories of the fine art and literature. It is such that what is as much a topical subject of engagement for the creative art suffices also in the fine art. The correlation between both art forms indicates that the writer and the artist are not far from each other—even though in theory they operate from diametrical positions to interrogate and negotiate their respective milieus; but we always, without doubt, despite their disseminative strategies and systems of reordering the process of reality, find the user of words and the creator of visual forms, united at the crossroads of creativity.
In July 2011, visitors at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, VMFA, were left awestruck with the exhibition of “Tristin Lowe: Mocha Dick.. What stunned visitors was Mocha Dick (2009), a 52-foot enormous looking sculpture on the floor of the gallery space by American artist Tristin Lowe. The work was made with industrial wool felt, vinyl-coated fabric, inflatable armature and internal fan, circulating air and maintaining pressure inside the inflated whale, so as to define its proportion and give it volume. This staggering work which took Lowe six months to complete, in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, was constructed to remind the viewer of the notoriety of the white sperm whale that attacked whaling vessels around Mocha Island in the South Pacific.
But more to that was Lowe’s fascination with the strange, beastly and ferocious character of the white whale depicted in the nineteenth century novel Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville, also inspired by the account of whale hunters in the South Pacific. Lowe’s sculpture seemed to have evoked into concrete form Ishmael’s description of the sperm whale in the novel as bearing “uncommon magnitude and malignity,” and that of the author, through the first-person, analytically ambulates and philosophizes on the whiteness of this aquatic mammal which he variously recalls with imageries along the lines of the celestial—notably by alluding to the whale as “snow-white,” “white like wool,” “White Steed of the Prairies,” because of its almost mystical presence. And we find in the work of Lowe, every fearsome trait, brutal and animalistic imminence portrayed in the image of the colossal sperm whale in Moby-Dick. From the brilliant use of metaphor coated with critical digressions, stream-of-consciousness, symbolism and with a disturbing dose of anthropomorphism, Melville creates an adventurous narrative with breath-taking wit and genius, which spots man at the height of his ego and reveals how gradually he becomes obsessed, enslaved and tragically consumed by this ego, as allegorically embodied in the hunt of the whale led by Captain Ahab.
You would notice that there is a figurative exchange between Melville’s novel and that of Lowe’s sculpture. It is linguistic on one part and pictorial on the other. While Melville portrayed the character of the whale in semantic grandeur—deifying the mammal in mythic embrace, Lowe famously reduces into sculpture his perception of this horrifying species that has fought and won many bloody battles against sailors in the South Pacific.
By appropriating handcrafted barnacles on the body of the whale, adding stitches to recall scars sustained from repeatedly deadly attacks, a replication of its real life size to represent its vicious nature and size and as reminder of the sworn vengeance against it by Ahab’s men, Lowe reinforces the tension that existed between the whale and whale hunters aboard The Pequod. As we walk round the sculpture, inspecting its detail, we become co-inhabitant with the animal as the feud between it and the sailors is re-enacted, an eruption felt in our consciousness even though the gallery space where the sculpture occupies does not allude the area of the sea or have installation of a broken boat raft apart, hinting hostility between the men and the animal, who tore themselves apart at sea. But for Melville, we were led on a tumultuous narrative voyage that evoked, between scientific and fictional parlance, one of the fiercest battle ever waged by man against a big ‘fish’.
After “The Horse In Motion’’ was shot by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, using a series of photographic images displayed with the Zoopraxiscope device to create the first motion picture, the invention of the roll film before 1888 and with Eastman Kodak making celluloid film commercially available in the screen market in1889, the stage was already set for the 1896 film adaptation of Gerald du Maurier’s gothic novel Trilby. This was followed by the adaptation of Emile Zola’s acclaimed masterpiece L’Assommoir, directed by Charles Maudru and Maurice de Marsan in 1902.
In exploring the poetic relics of nineteenth century literary classics, the twenty-first century film industry especially in North America and Western Europe has redefined our reception of these great narratives by the way they are processed and projected on technologically aided visual devices, and even as they gradually migrate from Motion Picture Film production to Digital and Film Cinematography. Thus what we know about fictional characters in book form is changed by the presence of video images, redirecting plots, settings, costumes, dialogues and characterization by screen-playing the author’s works after series of omissions and inclusions to suite the set, and even more as these stories also find their way into 3D animations through Computer Generated Imaging, by the digital revolution of blue screen and video graphics. So the need to create new visual experience, not only in the cinemas but also in multimedia theatre directed productions brings literature at the door step of film-makers, who serve as brokers between the two art forms. Not that literature functionally and completely relies on processed video, aided projection and stage directed realism in order to gain and register the sort of commanding visibility common in television programming and cinematic images, but the formal space of the cinema and theatre have proven and assumed a more forceful critical arena for direct dialogue, dissimilation and interaction with imagery portrayed in works of literature.
The research effort of film directors and scriptwriters attest to this claim. As adaptation of great works of literature hits Broadway, our sense of interaction between both forms of art is brought into critical scrutiny, focusing on the genre of cinematography, lending digital imagery to semantics. Between 2011 and 2013, of many adaptations that were premiered, two nineteenth century master prose works, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, caught our attention. It was not just the high definition cinematic imagery, heightened drama, performance and audio theatricality that held us spellbound, but the rich casts of the movies, who brought into screen two of one of the greatest fictions in the history of literature into 35mn video range.
The voice of the narrator chimes out those sober arresting words in “Anna Karenina,” “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” which for a century and a half has remained one of the most popular sentences in the passage of a literary work. It evokes from there the society and private lives of Imperial Russia, chronicling the infidelity of Arcadievitch Oblonsky in the novel stared by Matthew Macfadyen—from which became the fate of Anna Karenina played by Keira Knightley, who on her way to Moscow to convince her sister-in-law Daria “Dolly” Alexandrovna played by Kelly Macdonald not to divorce her brother Oblonky, fell in love with Count Alexei Vronsky starred by Aaron Johnson, which saw her asking for a divorce from her own husband Alexei Karenin played by Jude Law. The film like the novel explores the tragic fate of these characters. From the conversion of Karenin who found a kind of escapist succour in Christianity to the suicide of his mutually estranged wife Anna Karenina, who became emotionally possessed despite the refusal of her husband to grant her a divorce, following her amorous affair with Vronsky—bringing shame and ridicule to both the Oblonky’s and Karenin’s family, it was really a fantastic illumination from a cinematographic point of view, having the cinema to bring into public reception a published work of literature of about 853 pages into a 35mn film, running 130 minutes.
For the same cinematographical reason, we thought very highly of the adaptation of Anna Karenina, as a new visual alternative for dialoguing with nineteenth century Russian existential realism with all its moral notions and tensions over the potential institutional shift and power control between the peasants and the Oligarch. The problematic contradictions that place the individual within the norms and prejudices of modern society is highlighted in the republicanism of Hugo as against the lighting rod of the bourgeois, brought into the fore in his magnum opus Les Miserables, adapted as an epic musical drama.
With the exceptional picture quality of Relativity Media and Working Title Films, the director of the movie Tom Hooper had some of Hollywood best to work with, starring Russell Crowe as the police inspector Javert, Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean. The novel tells the shocking and disturbing story of a man Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. His escape from prison and rise to wealth before becoming the mayor of a town. The ruthless police officer, Javert, knew his past and was determined to bring him to justice despite his leading a good life. Valjean, the ex-convict, supported the prostitute, Fantine, and took care of her daughter, Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried. The novel is a huge narrative panorama, combining historical, philosophical and moral dicta spanning fictional 17 years, but with modern cinematography the audience was made not to miss the uncommon charity of Bishop Myriel starred by Colm Wilkinson and the rascal Eponine played by Samantha Barks.
The testimony of the Thénardiers played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen against Valjean in court, revealed how one man, a police officer, urged by a sense of duty, ensured the law takes its course over the act of murder committed by Valjean, coupled with an act of theft against12-year-old Petit Gervais. Having been touched by such disturbing build ups and moments that forced Fantine to sell her beautiful hair and teeth, in order to take care of her daughter Cosette and scenes of torture of Valjean and impoverished Parisians, and as the movie draws to an end, we are moved to tears over the struggle of a man (with wide range of sound track accompaniments), Valjean, who after renouncing the life of a criminal, and genuinely so by his humanitarianism, was never given a chance by government, that made it impossible for the repented to live, not only by sanctioning poverty but strengthening it by law. And so when Valjean passed on in the convent, though a light was extinguished but before it did, it had lit several and one of them was Cosette, who stood by his side. The adaptation retained with astonishing 54 musicals and sound tracks mostly for defining scenes; some of which were sung by the characters, so that the spirit of the troubling age in France evoked by Hugo in the novel becomes intimate to us, as it is heightened with cinematic picture and a marathon performance which the scope of the novel demanded.
Never mind, as you would notice, my reference had been so far on nineteenth century literature. It is not because a number of nineteenth century writers provided diverse reservoir of mnemonic imagery suitable for screen picture for the past 120 years, it is perhaps, because, works of those periods had captured the attention of film-makers based on their extraordinary popularity as classics; not only in the academics but within the enlightened circle of cinema aficionados, distribution agencies, who have had to determine to some extent the jack pot in the box office, viewing right by advertising companies. And again, if it were for the merit of being ‘’classics’’ for them to be adapted into film, then there will be nothing compared to fourteenth century playwright William Shakespeare, who have had his works and the life of some of his stage characters adapted into TV series and in films, since 1912 to the present day. For example, numerous writers cut across such as the English romantic writer Jane Austen, the Russian poet and prose writer Boris Pasternak, African-American author Frank Yerby, twenty first century British photographer Ben Evans, exploring the theme of spiritual poverty in The Wasteland and Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot; American artist Matthew Weinstein, only in February of 2013 at The Sonnabend Gallery in New York, with his 3D animation videos including dialogue and musical, installations—biographically parodied the naturalism and Marxism in the theatre of Bertolt Brecht; and Takashi Murakami in such recent paintings, notably, Mononoke (2013) and in his Superflat Monogram, typical for their psychedelic and consumerist driven representation, explores the subject of legendary creatures in Japanese oral literature and folklore—the interaction between literature and art, away from the focus of fourteenth and nineteenth century works in relation to its illumination in the fine art, is theoretically expanded in diverse contemporary artistic practices within the past 12 years.
Let us consider the following strategies of representation: French dramatist Samuel Beckett and poet and performance artist Vito Acconci, replaces the device of language as a tool for human transaction by appropriate the rhetoric of gesture and sometimes incoherent use of language to reveal the meaninglessness of human action. This system of artistic interrogation was common towards the end of the Second World War and the post-war protest, reactionary and unconventional dramaturgical practice of Beckett, known as the theatre of the absurd, from which the performance of Acconci draws inspiration from as a strategy for interrogating the everyday activities of man and the impact of modern technology on the existing individual. Like Beckett, Acconci appropriates the device of repetition in his representation, placing his body as a medium.
The first three black and white picture slides by the left above, shows recorded photographic images of Acconci’s performance Step Piece (1970), in the artist’s studio. The performance is motivated by Beckett’s early novel Watt (1953), a novel centred on the largely ‘immobile’ tramp Watt, who struggled to make meaning out from his existence; first, from the house of Mr. Knott where he lived and later grew disillusioned about and then from the arrival of the Galls. Acconci’s Step Piece seems to focus on the dry humour of Watt and his delirious use of language punctuated with repetitions without meaning. This is dramatized by Acconci in Step Piece as he makes his way up the wooden object of a stool and in the same manner makes his way down, covering thirty steps in a minute.
The dialogue in Beckett’s work becomes enlarged in the deliberately boring, unwitty, tiresome and exhaustive enactment of the medium of the body to convey meaning in Acconci’s Step Piece. If the body is utilized and transformed into an object and subject of demonstrative visual analysis, then literature provides the script, as shown between the rigidity of Acconci’s gestural performance and the absurdity of Beckett’s Watt; an existential theme further explored in his plays Happy Days (1961), where the character Winnie is placed in a physical entrapment that gradually sinks her, and her husband, Willie, is separated from her with a closet, alienating both as communication becomes abortive. Also, in Waiting for Godot (1953), the audience is made to expect the arrival of Godot from the first to last act of the play, but Godot didn’t show up. These plays most likely provides the background for Acconci’s work as the audience’s expectation is dashed having repeatedly seen the artist doing the same thing over and over again.
Apart from cases where a pictorial narrative is established and derived from a work of literature to a work of art as we have seen so far, instances also abound where a work of art implies or is ensconced within the narrative interpretation of literature. This sort of approach to art criticism might be uncritical as meaning becomes a subject of emotional reaction rather than one based on a reasoned judgment, but it is never the less irrelevant since most artworks, especially realist paintings or those of aestheticism, are composed to give a factual account about reality or to elicit a certain emotional mood, whereby the artist’s figures becomes his characters as the work vividly tells a story. Yinka Shonibare in his The Death of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Arms of Francis I—Francois-Guillaume Menageot (2011) initiates a pictorial discourse on photography as literature; although this is an adaptation of the original 1781 oil on canvas painting, The Death of Leonardo da Vinci in the Arms of Francis Iby French artist François-Guillaume Menageot.
For this directed shot, Shonibare dressed his characters to capture the fashion trend of 18th century France; as the female figures are costumed in the robe à la Française style, while the male figures’ dress suggests a three piece frockcoat, waistcoat and probably a pantaloon. Near the bed of Leonardo Da Vinci, are four figures: three at the left hand side, backing the black maid and the man behind her who appeared to have entered the room in curiosity, probably led by the maid after his attention was called. With the position of the man standing at the head of the bed, probably a physician, attending to the dying Da Vinci, our focus drops on him, staring helpless at the physician in hope of revival at the brink of death. Behind the physician are three people also. They are arranged by Shonibare in such a way that the viewer can interpret the expression on their faces. The kneeling black man on black suit solemnly clips his hands in front of him, staring at the man on the bed, while the old lady beside him and the bald headed aged man beside her, stars at Da vinci as do the kneeling man who’s either a servant or an assistant to the physician.
The artist, in this photograph, included some interesting details that hints at a narrative build up before the actual death scene as it is common in the plot of either a prose work or scene in a play. Notice the chair in front of the bed. On it is a rolled canvas and behind it is the object of a drawing board. It means that Da Vinci was probably painting before his health failed him. The pair of shoes at the foot of the bed means that there was time to remove his shoes before placing him onto the bedin order to make the dying Italian Renaissance master comfortable. Shonibare attempts to define each character on the photograph: from the bald headed man we observe a resolute figure, unmoved and staring with apparent indifference, while the lady beside him is also equally composed without signs of anxiety; but the kneeling man beside her is worried over the man on the bed. The physician is very calm. The man at the far left of the bed, as though hidden behind the man in the middle, is pensive. The man in the middle is most likely Francis I. He holds Da Vinci by the wrist and carefully restrains the agitated woman from offering the dying painter water in a silver cup with his left hand. While the black maid at the door expresses shock, the man behind her raises his hand forward as though making an inquiry or pressing an objection. This way, Shonibare infuses drama and narrative dynamism into the scene as he does not only recall people’s unique responses before the face of tragedy but also, what the mood is usually like at the scene of the death of a great man. And the blanket on the bed, the combination of bright yellow and green patterns on Da Vinci’s cloth together with his white hair (whichcontrasts the predominately dark background in the print and the dresses of the figures around him) makes the character of the Italian painter the centre of concentration in the story-telling rendition of Shonibare.
The deconstruction of an art work as a literary narrative assumes even a more forceful presence, in Jacques-Louis David painting The Death of Socrates (1787), as shown right above. Here the last moment of the ancient Greek philosopher as originally told by Plato in the philosophical dialogue Crito becomes the focus of attention in the painting by David. But this he does by effectively portraying Socrates in company with his disciples inside his prison cell, in a striking and tensed manner common with story-tellers who masterfully recounts crucial moment in the life of their characters.
The condemned Socrates is depicted bare chested by David, with his robe hanged across his shoulder, seated on the bed of his cell and surrounded by his distressed and loyal disciples, who are left overwhelmed over the impending death of their master. The unrelenting thinker, while his disciples mourn behind him, immersed himself in the debate on the subject of the immortality of the soul, as recorded in the dialogue by Plato, before a figure sitting closed to him, believed by critics to be Crito. Socrates is calm as he makes a postulating gesture with his finger upward, emphasizing his point as he mindlessly reaches for the cistern of poison brought forward to him by the prison official, who also could not stand the sight and hid his face away in dread. Opposite the prison guard is a figure whose hands are placed on the wall for balance as he is distraught over the tragic condition about to befall Socrates. In the dialogue, Crito, Plato narrated that one of the disciples, Apollodorus, was asked to go away by Socrates because he was emotionally overwhelmed by the condemnation of his master; and the grief stricken figure, demoralized and bemused is Appolodorus. Ahead of Appolodorus at the distance, are three figures making their way up the staircase: the older figure in a hue of earthly robe, is either a prisoner or a prison guard led or escorted by two subordinates, who most likely had just left the cell of Socrates. Seated in a dignified and meditative manner is Socrates disciple, Plato, whose reaction to the death sentence of his master is taken in a thoughtful calm. Unlike the rest, Plato is depicted by David as an embodiment of wisdom as a scroll lies beside his foot together with an ink pot with which Crito was probably recorded. In this painting, like what we have observed in Shonibare’s chromogenic print, David also had placed objects in the foreground of his canvas. They comprise the scroll and ink pot previously highlighted and now, the shackles on the floor, which hints that the philosopher, Socrates, was in chains but unshackled when the moment of his execution arrived. Again Shonibare portrayed Da Vinci in a unique bright cloth for narrative distinction, David rendered Socrates with his torso and upper frame of his body clearly defined with details and a white robe around him which contrast the tunic of Crito. The prison guard is highlighted as this is re-enforced with the Davy’s gray brick wall of the cell. The wall also forms a background behind Socrates, emphasizing his sage figure and intellectual strength conveyed in his entire frame, particularly with the vertically symbolic pointed figure. With the vocabulary of colours, David like Shonibare succeeds in giving a prose-like narrative account about the death of two characters: one, an Italian Renaissance painter on his death bed, in a room surrounded by loved ones and the other an ancient Greek philosopher condemned to death by the state for his teachings. The scene, setting and method of representation of both works appropriates narrative techniques common in literature as each character in the artworks is composed with a life and history of their own.
For 500 years, beginning from the 15th century to the middle of the 19th century, the compositional surfaces of Western European painters, print makers —and the molding block of sculptors among other mainstream themes—were interspersed with characters from Greek mythology, figures of Roman chthonic realm, Judeo-Christian accounts on the origin of the universe, tales of morality derived from the bible and illustrations from English and Gothic verses, as part of a conscious visual artistic engagement and response to the oral and written literature of their time. As commanding these artworks might be, in terms of their rhetorical power, detailed exploration of the nude human body and visual depth, nothing really sets them apart or unites them completely with the genre of the spoken or the written word except that in analytical reconstructionism, they are first regarded as an artwork before being viewed as a literary signifier, and this alone compromises, if you would agree with me, their affinity with literature even though they embody a literary reading as much as they primarily make reference to literature or alludes characters within the geography of literature. I maintain that—as an artwork is and as it is explicitly called—so do literary works—eliciting different reactions from us since the power of the composed picture is not the same thing with the written or the spoken word; and my reference is based on The Triumph of Galatea by Rapheal as do the Florentine artist Bronzino’s An Allegory of Cupid with Venus. Both works are mnemonic illustrations based on the figures of Greek Mythology. One is centred on Galatea with reference to cupid and Cyclopwhile the other is on Cupid and Venus with other symbolic figures. What is common with these paintings is that they are a direct reference to the amourous. For An Allegory of Cupid with Venus, its focus on the incestuous philandering between the goddess Venus and her son Cupid is renowned for its erotic imagery. Rapheal and Bronzino set these figures on a visual plane that gives life to both works as do John William Waterhouse in The Lady of Shalott, illustrating the Arthurian inspired poem by English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, visually depicting the following lines: ‘’And down the river’s dim expanse / Like some bold seer in a trance… / with a glassy countenance / Did she look to Camelot.’’ In Waterhouse’s painting we witness almost the same lyrical and detail description of its subject like the clear interplayof figurative imagery evoked in the works of Brozino and Rapheal, which brings the Greek cosmos into a highlight of narrative drama. We find the same visual narrative lyricism in the monumental fresco work Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo, as he retold in his series of illustrative and figurative compositions, the Christian account of the origin of the universe and an illumination on some sections in the bible. As wooing and objective as these works might be, not only in terms of their figuration and pictorialization to the approach of the subjects they represents but the almost direct interpretative simulation they retain and leave us with, they are still far from having the kind of affinity an artwork that largely incorporates the written text or aesthetic forms as symbols might have with literature.
As I have said before, in my reference and analysis of Waterhouse’s, Brozino’s, Rapheal’s and Michelangelo’s works, the stylistic variant of a text-based representation in the fine art when compared with figuration, brings art closer to literature than the pictorial even though both are related to literature. And it is from this we are also able to clearly draw the line between literature and art, when we bring the pictorial into perspective; and the relational quality of the closeness between literature and art becomes direct, renowned and ‘replicative’ when we consider text-based representation or one that articulately infuses symbols and alphabetic signs.
The relational quality in this case convers both content and form. We find the same thing in the pictorial as well, when we conduct a survey on the subject and theme of a work of art or perhaps to highlight issues raised by such work of art. Nigerian artist Damola Adepoju in his painting Topographical Portrait (2010) explores this compositional style by employing elements of the written word and innovated textual forms to reveal an aesthetic possibility which makes direct reference to content and form. In this work you would notice that Adapoju deftly deploys the written word or text, to create a monumental image of the portrait of a lady. This system of representation recalls the mural embellishment of the practice of graffiti as well as the semiotic medium of hieroglyphics, where signs and symbols becomes visual language. The figure in the painting is coyed with an imposed smile around her face even as the sense of hauteur projected by her hennaed lips, suggests an amazing personality, caught in the fury of textual decoration, without concealing her elated mood. The arrangement of the text conveys arresting, witty, poetic and homosocial feminine phraseologies, as it embodies the tone of protest language and thematic captions bordering on philosophical meditation. However, the work, technically, explores the medium of drawing and painting, to be viewed perhaps as a genre, where texts assume the function of line. What this means is that, Adepoju replaces the element of line with text, to create a basically lineal composition. Topographical Portrait is communicative in nature as the images and messages are open to clear interpretation. The dimensions of the texts are constructed in various graphical fonts resembling calligraphy, to suite the compositional purpose of the artist. Smaller texts are used to outline the shape of the figure. It made it easier for Adepoju to give the check area of the lady’s face, volume and proportion. The bold texts, such as the conspicuous register inbetween her stylized lips, on her forehead and at the both ends of her face, compliment and heightens the work as textual expression, positioned to reflect facial form. The relational quality between art and literature, unlike the figurative works we have initially highlighted, converges on a genuine plane as we place these text-based renditions on a scale of proximity derived from the scope of literature. With Dvora Barzilai, the line becomes blurred and we feel a kind of theoretic intimacy as we follow her exploration of the Hebrew language.
For her, the structure of language is engaged in its transformative possibility as a work of art, a tool for formal communication where rules of grammar are observed and broken at the same time. In Barkat Habit-Schrieb (2006), Barzilai explores in blue monochrome the subject of the ancient Hebrew tablet. Her choice of colour for the composition perhaps is to corroborate the Rabbinic teaching in the Talmud, which claims that the Ten Commandments as handed over by Moses to God in the Book of Exodus, was of the quality of blue sapphire. The work’s relief surface looks as though the artist had punctured the block letters in type, from behind the canvas rather than building them unto the body of the canvas, to give it the kind of base it has. Its cursive construction helps to appreciate the effort of Barzilai in carefully combining, for example, the letter of Dalet, Aleph, Chet, Tsade, and Resh with Masoretic pointings to render a mechanical composition similar to the limestone temple tablet of middle Semitic script. Barkat Habit-Schrieb opens up a new understanding, an interesting one, to the development of the Hebrew language, not completely away from the influence and epoch of its evolving stylistic variants, traceable to Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Phoenician script. One thing about her work is that it changes the way we view and talk about art. It reduces our analysis to that which is synonymous to the structure of linguistics and our referentials within the scope of how language is being appropriated and processed to convey meaning and to create imagery, which is not too far from one of the main purposes of literature. In Adom Olam executed by Barzilai in 2011, she had constructed her work to resemble a stunning replica of a fine gold tablet. It is rendered in thin flowing strokes, with close association to the Aramaic system, deftly etched as each sentence oddly begins from the right. You had thought it had been carefully preserved after being unearthed by an archeologist, polished every now and then to keep its glossy, limestone shine anew. It reminds us that though the era of tablet inscription had long passed—relics still exist as a proof to its stenographic conduct; a manual medium in an age where the written word was sacrosanct and equal to no other. And the slab surface of stone, cut in blocks, had been a cherished medium of retrieval prior to the discovery of papyrus. Something of the afterlife is suggested in Barzilai’s Adom Olam or even a prayer for the dead. In Judaism, death is not a tragedy but a natural process of life. And a prayer, according to the Jewish faith, is more of introspection even if it is supposedly offered for the dead. The object of the stone tablet has remained, for Barzilai, a direct reference and medium of expression—from which she comfortably conveys on canvas the continual revival of Jewish religion, philosophy, history and customs. Occasionally she retains the ancient form of the Hebrew language, by adding diacritical signs or something close to the abjad as an applied system to the representation of the Hebrew language, a practice which doubles her role as an artist and a visual linguist and a user of language. This is particularly crucial as she brings to the fore an innovation detached at the same time from the Imperial Aramaic and Mandaic writing systems. I think you will appreciate her work more as both art and literature and one that bears the sort of proximity and reflect the very essence of the written word as an art form, if you are familiar with the literary culture and tradition from which the Hebrew language has evolved from so far. Word, for Barzilai, is like gold. That is why for every rendered letter, there is a keen and careful attention devoted to detail, which makes her work more expressive and unique. In Jerusalem Sheli Zhaave painted in 2011, we would notice that Barzilai did not only composed this miniature the way she did just to impose its presence on us, but to draw our attention to the way she had rendered each letter by her method of detailing to retain its status as an alphabet. In this work, she introduces an element of calligraphy. The written word for her, assumes a new status of logogram under this direction. For example, despites its Yiddish stylistic with clear vowel inflictions and literation, the alphabets are composed to reflect an attempt to the mastery of drawn items. In this sense, the alphabets are treated beyond signs or even perhaps, symbols. They are now an object that requires a special attention, divorced from mere grammar to an expression of beautiful writing. Each letter in Jerusalem Sheli Zhaave are represented to be as linearly correct without fault to prototype—as they are at the same time eligible and retains interesting aesthetic qualities. The outcome of her written wordsare so much close to the works of Chinese masters such as Huang Ruheng, Li Bai, Mi Fu, OuyangXun, Liu Gongquan, Yan Zhenqing, Su Shi and Chu Suiliang—in terms of its approach to writing so as to develop and sustain the quality of motion, density and dynamism pursued by these ancient calligraphers.
Even in these Chinese calligraphers, we find in their works also, an instructive reference on the proximity between art and literature, with the rendered texts occupying a critical link to this reframing of the written word—as both art and as literature; and as bearing a more direct reference to literature than the figurative in the fine art. Not only does the early Chinese calligraphical writings points to this fact, but we also find this in a 7th century copy of the Qur’an in vellum folio. Let us consider a work by OuyangXun, Ni Zan and Wang Xianzhi in establishing this claim, before turning to the Qur’an for further reference.
On the left is the ink piece Water and Bamboo Dwelling by Ni Zan. We see the typical compositional technique of Chinese landscape painting tradition like those of the Tang Dynasty,as Zan renders in the middle ground of his paper—pines on a mass of hillock showing the application of fine brush line in defining forms and showing the effect of earthly hues in the hillocks. Zan had carefully composed the mountain in the painting with attention to two things: a subtle gradational order which reveals a rather simulation of natural formation of the mountain and an illusion to spatial depth, especially when you see how he had positioned the mountain at the background of the work to reflect perspective. The painting is greatly contrasted with red seals affixed in square and round shape around the edges of the work, complimented with inscriptions in character types common with the tradition of calligraphy in China. What this inscription holds for us apart from its design ornamentation on the piece, is its reference to the stylized written word. Despite the fact that Zan’s work is a figurative painting, the culture of writing is incorporated to expand its meaning and it is this which arrest out attention on the significance of the incorporation of text in Chinese art—leaving it to function as art and open to an interpretation as literature. In works where we have just text as its subject, our reading becomes more specific, more literary oriented, as of the genre of calligraphy where words and meaning are convey to express design patterns. An excerpt of Ouyang Xun’s stone rubbing in the middle and Wang Xianzhi’s copy of a text on the right, are a display of two different scripts. The cursive block types of Xun’s work are illuminated by the black background of the rubbing, allowing the viewer to focus on the text and appreciate its density—so that as meaning is encoded in the text, a deliberate attempt to display writing skill is obvious. It is not only what the calligraphers wants to convey with their text that matters, but how the text is represented; that is way Xianzhi’s writing is decoratively different from that of Xun’s own. In Xianzhi’s work there is movement or motion which suggests that the artist had rendered his text with spontaneity. But again in this writing practice—poetry, idioms, riddles and wise sayings are usually one of the prominent themes that adorns either the scrolls, paper, rubbing or canvas on to which these calligraphers writes. So as these writing surfaces serves as a platform for the expression of their art, it is also a medium of documentation for their writings, which qualifies it as a work of literature and a work of art.
In the works of contemporary African artists such as Rachid Koraiichi, Victor Ekpuk, Nyornuwofia Agorsor and Lalla Essaydi, we are presented with a critical system of representation as these artists appropriates diverse texts and signs from conventional and their own cultural sources as medium to create forms, shapes and symbols encoded in meanings but traceable and reducible to the genre of literature. And on the other way round, exploring the dynamism of the written word in other scholarly possibilities, that is from literature to science, we find in the recent body of works by Nigerian artist Moyo Okediji, what appears rather curious but a genuine visual interpretation of the Yoruba Ifa literary corpus in the light of mathematics, as he partly strips them off their literary and mystical meaning to include in them a numerical status which places them also on the realm of calculus.
While Nigerian artist Ekpuk in his painting Composition #8 (2010), primarily explores the traditional aesthetic element of Nsibidi, infusing idealized drawings and innovated symbols and signs borrowed from other cultures, to create a work embellished and interspersed with images, images encoded in meanings as they represents a vast array of forms to convey folkloric massages, poetic imagery, mystery and oral musing; Algerian artist Koraiichi, like Ekpuk, in his lithograph Poème de Beirut #9 engages the elongated shape of words in a stylized manner but unlike Ekpuk, Koraiichi focuses on the Arabic text. He is interested in the possibility of the design quality of this text as well as its sacred and orthodoxical meaning. Islamic calligraphy assumes a fresh dimension in Koraiichi’s series of related works Poème de Beirut #9, as he depicts with bold brush stroke letters in the middle of the work and creates from vertical to diagonal position Arabic writings in small letters to form massive borders around the work. So for Koraiichi, text is transformed into a design element like the Chinese calligraphers, and at the same time is retained to convey meaning. But In Agorgor’s large scale painting The Story Problem (2012), we encounter something a little bite different as she adopts a more radical approach to representation. While the work of this Ghanaian artist interrogates through text, in registers of evenly mounted black boards depicted on her canvas, modern epistemological trend and scientific truth from geometrics to linguistics to religion and philosophy, she divorces herself completely from the somewhat preservative art of Koraiichi and the cosmopolitanism of Ekpuk to place her art on the introspective as she disputes known facts and deliberately distorts their meaning. For example, the mathematical problems she engages are elementary in nature. Perhaps she does this to investigate our foundation of education and knowledge system which is influenced by British colonialism. She uses the same approach for her investigation on simple English sentences, structured as a tool for reflection where a particular expression comes under critical survey as the background of her works alludes the space of a class room, she assumes the role of a teacher while the viewer becomes the pupil. If Agorsor grows skeptical about Western education and challenges orthodox science through her bizarre appropriation of texts and mathematical figures, which in its close arrangement takes the form of text and becomes associated with it by simulation, Moyo Okediji in his organically related works offers a fresh approach to the study of mathematics and renews our fate in science. Okediji does not challenge these mathematical claims like Agorsor, instead he expands its branch through his binary based derivation from the Ifa Corpus, as he has demonstrated in Ỏdỉ Méjỉ (2013), Ỏkánrá Méjỉ(2013) and Eji Ogbe (2013), where the literary meaning embedded in this ancient Yoruba divination system is replaced with versified odd and even numbers to set up subtractive and inferential calculative week sheets. What this means is that Okediji retains the physical structure of the corpus and changes its content. The artist arrived at these mathematic inferences by reinterpreting the unparalleled semiotic marks which also recalls forms in hieroglyphics inside the form of the divination board which bears the head of Esu, Yoruba track star god. The form of the vertical lines which proceeds from the divination board, maintains the oral and literary nature of the Ifa Corpus. With figurative forms in numbers intone with textual characteristics by way of arrangement in OKediji’s and Agorsor’s works, their closeness to literature unlike that of Koraiichi, Ekpuk and Essaydi, are subtle.
But in Essaydi’s Les Femmes du Maroc (2008), we find a unique approach to the culture of bodily decoration which also offers us an interesting interpretation to the body as a monument on which the written word is critically projected. The female body of Essaydi’sphotographed model, unlike Adepoju’s Topographical Portraitin which the subject is pontilized in text, was first processed into a visual plane by being costumed in white fabric to make way and create visibility for the hand written texts, and you would see this from her hair tie to the fabric around her chest to the backdrop behind her and the surface on which she recline her figure on. Her skin and the fabric are unified and harmonized by the carefully designed writings in small Arabic type while the spread sheet under her is boldly interspersed with linear types not different from the backdrop but varies with the curtain hung at the fear right of the picture. She is camouflaged in the picture by the recurring motif of texts which also, subtly, abtractionized her form. But what is fundamental in this reframing of the body or reinvention of it in the context of literature is that, Essaydi has converted the body into an alternative writing surface, from which we encounter words and relate with them in their coherent format as a creative sentential expression and as calligraphic-like display in textual orientation, layered on to the skin, which like Adepoju’s Topographical Portrait combine drawing and painting while Essaydi’s subject is drawn upon before being photographed.
Not only in recent times has the borders of literature and art negotiates a common space, our earliest acquaintance of this relationship dates back even before and after Sultans in the Ottoman period in Turkey and Persia right from the Achaemenid Empire, the Sassanid and down to the Jalayirid Dynasty commissioned miniaturists to illuminates stories and verses and embellish book covers; kings in Hellenistic Greece have commissioned illustrations of epic poems and emperors such as Xuange and Hongli of the Quing Dynasty in China commissioned artist who depicted scenes from traditional Chinese folklores, the Carolingians of the Frankish Empire commissioned illuminated manuscripts of the gospel from metal works to sculptures to frescos and mosaics so as the famous illustration of the Hindu epic Razmnama, Mahabharata by the son of king Akbar of the Mughal empire, Jahangir, who made Mughal a centre of art patronage where artists such as Govardhan, Manohar and Abu’l-Hasan rose to become masters reputed for their lavishly embellished works of staggering beauty and Gudea under the southern Mesopotamia Empire of Lagash encouraged the production of artworks that transformed the artistic landscape and reception of the Neo-Sumerian culture which made way for important illustrations of Sumerian hymns. So that by the time Auguste Rodin had depicted 180 figures in his monumental mounted sculpture The Gate of Hell (1880) from Dante Alighieri’s ‘’The Inferno,’’ with memorable scenes in the epic verse such as the poet Dante’s first encounter with his fellow countryman and poet Virgil in hell, who later became his guardian in the voyage after his progress from the first gate was impeded by three beasts who would not let him continue his journey in Canto I of the Divine Comedy. awe had read in history books as early as the 11th and 12th century how literary works in different genres have found their ways and have been casted in diverse visual artistic mediums, making not only Rodin illustrations but many other important artists before and after them—active participants in a negotiation that predates them and cuts across the rich cultures of the world, from which historical evidence exist on how art and literature have been leapfrogging each other, lending visibility to one another in a cross-cultural lens and through multilingual strategies within and outside the space of cinematography and painting.
And the rise of the generation of writers who also paint, such as the 21th century Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, novelist and dramatist Gao Xingjian, suggests to us that neither of the two art forms, art and literature, provides a complete platform for artistic expression; as both continues to illuminate each, presenting to us different views of the same subject and beyond such that I am inclined to disregard the popular thinking that, picture says a thousand words, that is if it presupposes in the context of the referentials of imagery where the rhetoric of the spoken or the written word is considered less effective in dissemination and negotiation compared to the self-explanatory medium of pictures or visuals. For as I would say, both creates different levels of experience and reality, not that one illuminates effectively than the other.
So I doubt very much if one medium is bigger than the other. For me, both are like a pair of wings attached to the body of a bird.