I have been reflecting on the past, initially imagining how it might have been for a Cro-Magnon cave painter in France. The aim is to create an animated series of animals. You have no paint, brushes, pencils or pens. The surface is unprepared and uneven and there is no south facing window of natural light. These were the conditions for stone – age artists 20,000 years ago.
Despite this, cave paintings found in Lascaux not only depict beautiful representations of creatures, but they show animals that appear to run when lit with flickering candles. In this way, the artists created a sense of movement, and therefore time, as well as the freedom of space.
In South America, more than 2,000 years ago, one of the earliest Mayan murals was painted on a plaster wall. The 30 feet long piece has a central image of the crowning of the king, making the whole mural into one event.
At the other end of the world, in Japan, one of the earliest comics, from the 1100’s known as “Frolicking Animals and People ” is a treasured artwork comprising four scrolls. The first scroll is 36 feet long and the amusing line drawings depict animals imitating people in different activities such as archery. The parts of the scroll I was able to see online, show vegetation, streams, hills and trees in the background, indicating that the animals are outdoors and not in a zoo or enclosed space.
The slightly earlier Bayeux tapestry presents a stream of events which include outdoor roasting on spits and food preparation, messengers riding on horseback with hair flying in the wind, as well as battles . Again the vegetation indicates the landscape and this changes as the viewer moves forward literally, and forward in the narrative. Indoor space is signified by a roof and pillars and when travelling across water, the sea is shown as wavy lines. More about that below.
My research for this exercise took me to so many fascinating examples of early visual communication including Indian erotica carved into cave walls and of course the Egyptian hieroglyphics which I was fortunate to see when visiting Egypt some years ago.
The conditions of the era fascinate me and the perseverance needed to create these paintings and carvings. The sense of craftsmanship and tactile connection to the materials, be they pigment made from berries or stone chipping at stone, it seems so different compared to the technology of today when creating visual imagery on screens. Yet whatever the medium, whatever the conditions, the impulse to communicate with visual illustration seems to be an inherent part of the human psyche of artists.
Back to the task at hand, and exploring early Egyptian art, I am reminded of the means of communicating through signs and signifiers and semiotics shows that each culture holds its own visual language. An example of this is perhaps the most familiar of Egyptian symbols – the eye of Horus and the ankh. In modern day Europe we might consider the eye to represent watching but to the Egyptians it was used to represent protection and healing.
Some symbols do seem to have a more archetypal feel such as the similarity between the ankh and the Christian cross. The ankh is the symbol of eternal life, the breath of life needed in the afterlife. The Christian cross, whilst it can be seen as a literal symbol of crucifixion, is also used to represent eternal life and probably draws on the traditional iconography of the ankh.
The Egyptian hieroglyphics are ordered into horizontal or vertical rows, almost a precursor to the horizontal frame – by – frame images telling a story sequentially such as on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. This religious narrative painted in the 1500’s tells the story in a frame – by – frame sequence as a narrative set in sequential blocks of time. However the Egyptian hieroglyphics were also sometimes designed to be read from left to right and the next piece from right to left. The clue is in which way the people or animals face.
In more recent times comics such as Rupert the Bear told the story through sequential images as did Dennis the Menace, but with the addition of speech bubbles. However, there were satirical cartoons and comics for adults long before then including Punch in the 1800s.
When film took a series of still images and created animation, this became a variation rather than the next step, although the results are a leap forward.
Observing the evolution of visual communication of this kind and how it progressed to reach a wider audience by utilising signs and symbols with a more universal understanding, I have seen more use of expression on faces, posture, gesture and clothing in illustrations. A man with a happy face wearing waders and carrying a fishing rod is clearly indicating someone going fishing for sport. The connotations could be fine weather, peace and quiet, solitude and relaxation. We do talk about “dress codes” for different events, we know a policeman by his uniform, and we know that a queen wears a crown. However, unless the reader has knowledge of fishing and recognises the fishing rod, or has seen a local policeman, the symbols are not understood.
In more modern visuals there is also more use of distance, detail, close up and panoramic views to give a sense of place and space.
Visual communication is only successful if the viewer can connect to the image through something previously experienced. The viewer creates meaning from the image by relating it to similar groups of images in her mind and things she may have learned in the past. The images that can be seen from the viewer’s perspective are therefore the most successful at relaying the information. Some exceptions to this might be the universal symbols of the sun and moon and other natural objects.
In creating an image with the sun in the background we can tell that the event takes place in the daylight as people everywhere will relate to the image of the sun and light. Interestingly, back to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the symbol for water might also be considered universal or archetypal. Although it might literally appear to denote waves, it is understood to signify water which could be a pond or lake as well. We see it also used in the astrological sign of Aquarius as well as notices advising people of areas safe to swim. The Egyptians used a method of enclosing the symbol to denote water in an enclosed space.
In more modern times I find it curious the way graphic novels have evolved. Initially I imagined the term to mean stories that might contain explicit material, perhaps about crime or worse. I am better informed now, but still curious that novels such as Bye Bye Birdie by Shirley Hughes that have no words at all. Although the illustrations are complex and finely drawn, in visual communication terms it is not that different to the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, is it?
I notice my own prejudice around textless books and my concern that children and young people don’t read widely and well. And yet we are drawn to imagery and perhaps we are most drawn to images that we quickly recognise the archetype or symbolism.
In searching for images expressing a sense of place, I was particularly drawn to an image in the Bridgeman Library that was a painting of the Swimming pool on The Titanic. An indoor pool room depicted in shades of blue and silvery grey, with portholes in one side readily gave an impression of a room with metallic walls on a ship. The swimmers are relaxed and it was an innocuous illustration denoting a leisure activity, but the connotations were powerful. (Safely swimming inside the ship were several people who would soon be drowning in the sea.) More powerful perhaps was the title as it tells us of the impending doom.
This exercise has been a process of moving from the general to the specific. I used online libraries and art sites as well as paper books and YouTube. Specific search terms are naturally the most helpful and the internet is an extraordinary resource. When using a search term such as “early comics” I found that it could lead into other areas of interest and perhaps more detail, all contributing to a sense of overwhelm at the amount of information that is so readily available.
My final thoughts are to recognise that the connotations surrounding an image appear to activate the imagination in the same way that poetry might.