Reading Pictures: What We Think about When We Look at Art


This profoundly illuminating, entertaining book could well change the way we "read" the visual world around us, and certainly help open our eyes and minds to its astonishing riches. The language in which we speak about art has become steadily more abstruse, a jargon that only art critics and con-artists can understand, though for thousands of years this was not the case. Today, we live in a kaleidoscopic new world of images: Is there a vocabulary we can learn in order to read these images? Is there something we ...

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This profoundly illuminating, entertaining book could well change the way we "read" the visual world around us, and certainly help open our eyes and minds to its astonishing riches. The language in which we speak about art has become steadily more abstruse, a jargon that only art critics and con-artists can understand, though for thousands of years this was not the case. Today, we live in a kaleidoscopic new world of images: Is there a vocabulary we can learn in order to read these images? Is there something we can do so as not to remain passive when we flip through an illustrated book, or download images on a screen? Are there ways in which we can "read" the stories within paintings, monuments, buildings and sculptures? We say "every picture tells a story" - but does it?

Taking a handful of extraordinary images - photographed, painted, built, sculpted - Alberto Manguel explores how each one attempts to tell a story that we, the viewer, must decipher or invent. A History of Love and Hate is not about art history or theory - it is about the astonishing pleasures and surprises of stories.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Alberto Manguel is an expert explorer of what the French call the imaginaire — a word that combines imagination, imagery and the formation of images in the mind. He is the author of a very practical Dictionary of Imaginary Places. His History of Reading is a brilliant account of the ways in which reader and writer meet and change each other. He understands the logic of Lewis Carroll's world of wonderland and mirrors better than almost anyone else. His own imagination is supple and generous, and his work is full of surprises…. he is in fact someone who works accurately and idiosyncratically in ordinary language, to our delight.… Each chapter ranges widely and sure-footedly around its chosen subject, using Manguel's wide learning to make new connections.…It is the scrupulous, high-powered conversation of a learned man, rather than professional "criticism," and the better for it….his own reflections, so unconstricted, so clear, so strange, are so very satisfying to his readers." — A.S. Byatt, Washington Post, Sunday, October 28, 2001

“All of it is fascinating.” — Calgary Herald

“A fascinating treat.” — Today

“Invaluable…. Marvellously informed…. Alberto Manguel is an entertaining guide to the world of art [who] offers remarkable insights.” — The Gazette (Montreal)

“Insightful and entertaining.” — The Toronto Star

“For an absolutely gorgeous gift this December…Manguel’s latest work is the answer…. A beautifully crafted achievement, filled with hundreds of works of art.” — FFWD (Calgary)

“A worthy companion to his bestselling book, A History of Reading. Reading Pictures succeeds admirably [as] a guide for us to follow as we learn to look at, think about, and appreciate art again.” — The Edmonton Journal

“Magnificent…. If you care about art, let the one book you give (or receive) this Christmas be Reading Pictures.” — The New Brunswick Reader

“Eclectic and intriguing.” — Ottawa Citizen

“A readable romp through a visual landscape.” — Maclean’s

“Fascinating…. Alberto Manguel looks at art and finds stories and parallels that might give us a whole new perspective…this may be the ultimate visual self-help book…With many stunning images from our pre-computer-enhanced past, it manages to coax us into looking at them in ways we may have forgotten….Each of the book’s 12 chapters could stand alone as an essay…. Be changed and enriched.” — The Vancouver Sun

“This is a book that demands all our attention, and, for all its richness, deserves to get it.” — The Times-Colonist (Victoria)

“Manguel knows the value of books, and the art of reading them.... The result is delightful.” — The Times U.K.

"Alberto Manguel (is) a keeper of the word and a guardian of the book.” — The Globe and Mail (Dec. 5/98)

"Alberto Manguel is a tireless champion of the written word. He cares about books...with a deep, unswerving passion because he believes they are — still, despite our electronic progress — essential links between the individual and the world." — The Vancouver Sun

"Like Pablo Neruda wrote regarding the Argentinian Julio Cortazar, one could say that not to read Alberto Manguel is an invisible and serious illness that, in time, might have terrible consequences.... Not to accompany Manguel on a jubilatory and salutary stroll through the world of words, museums and books, would be nothing short of madness." — Sud-Ouest Dimanche

“As a teacher, [Manguel] is profound and unpredictable, world-wise and erudite…. The artists Manguel chooses are surprising and fresh, and his sidetracks occasionally ignore standard biography. But the book provides plenty of appropriate visual images — only some of them familiar — alongside lovely, compassionate sentences.” — Quill & Quire, starred review, December 2000

“A book for readers who enjoy virtuoso performances…. Manguel leads the reader on a merry chase through the worlds of art history, literature…and philosophy….[A] splendid meander through his fascinating mind.” — Smithsonian

“There is so much in this book to admire, the sheer sweep and soar of ideas is invigorating. The writing, for all Manguel’s erudition, is quick and clear, stimulating in the extreme….This may be one of the best books you will read this year.” —The Independent

“Quite the most entrancing aspect of this rich, venturesome book is its authors humility in the face of all he knows and his generosity in sharing it with us.” —The Spectator

“This delightful book will fascinate anyone who enjoys looking at pictures….In his charmingly calm, unruffled way, Manguel forces you to reexamine your own assumptions and convictions about art. This is a book to cherish.” —The Sunday Telegraph

Library Journal
The author of an eclectic body of work (e.g., Dictionary of Imaginary Places, History of Reading), Manguel turns his eye to the art world in this engaging and learned exploration of 11 works of art. Manguel mixes art history and artists' biographies with a liberal dose of his own wide-ranging thoughts and knowledge. He explores works from a diverse collection of artists, ranging across Western art history, from the ancient Greek painter Philoxenus, to Lavinia Fontana and Caravaggio, to artists of our own century, including Picasso, Joan Mitchell, and Tina Modotti. Reminding us that much of what he says is his own opinion (and often contrary to commonly held views), Manguel challenges us to think about the work at hand and create our own reading of it. Though some, such as this reviewer, found the author's ideas fresh, informative, and entertaining, his style may not be for all tastes. Recommended for collections with patrons interested in art theory. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/01.] Martin R. Kalfatovic, Smithsonian Inst. Libs., Washington, DC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A middling work of art history and criticism by the noted literary essayist (Into the Looking-Glass Wood, 2000, etc.). Manguel views art as a process of creation and destruction whose signs are to be found, often hidden in symbols and allegory, in every work. What those signs mean, he maintains, is variable: "No story elicited by an image is final or exclusive," he writes, "and measures of correctness vary according to the same circumstances that give rise to the story itself." That said, Manguel walks his readers through a highly selective, fascinating gallery of images, placing works by famed painters (Picasso, Caravaggio) alongside ones by lesser-knowns (Joan Mitchell, Aleijadinho) to serve as examples of the ideas behind art. Manguel's reflections on artists and their oeuvre are refreshingly wide-ranging: in writing about the doomed Italian-born photographer Tina Modotti, for instance, he name-checks Pliny, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Mehmet the Conqueror, Primo Levi, and Plutarch, among others, while an affectionate examination of the work of the little-known Renaissance portraitist Lavinia Fontana offers a learned synopsis of the work of just about every theoretician on perspective from antiquity to the 17th century. The essays are sometimes a little haphazard; of Modotti's motives, for instance, we learn little more than "she opposed injustice," and he describes a painting by the contemporary artist Marianna Gartner as "static, a moment deliberately pulled out of time"-which is to say, like nearly every other work of art ever made. Still, Manguel's observations often hit the mark, in particular his account of Picasso's often-studied Guernica, a fine example ofart criticism that doesn't take itself too seriously and that works at every level. Intelligent and well-written, though also glancing and provisional.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375759222
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/15/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 9.06 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Alberto Manguel is the acclaimed author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading, which was an international bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, a Times Literary Supplement International Book of the Year, and Winner of France's Prix Medicis. He is a widely sought-after speaker, and will lecture at museums worldwide, including the Louvre, ont he publication of Reading Pictures. He was born in Buenos Aires and lives in France.

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Read an Excerpt

One of the first images I remember, consciously aware that it had been created out of canvas and paint by a human hand, was a picture by Vincent van Gogh of the fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries. I was nine or ten, and an aunt of mine, who was a painter, had invited me to her studio to see where she worked. It was summer in Buenos Aires, hot and humid. The small room was cool and smelled wonderfully of turpentine and oil; the stashed-away canvases, leaning one against the other, seemed to me like books distorted in the dream of someone who vaguely knew what books were and had imagined them huge and of single stiff pages; the sketches and clippings my aunt had pinned on the wall suggested a place of private thought, fragmented and free. In a low bookcase were large volumes of colour reproductions, most of them published by the Swiss company Skira, a name that, for my aunt, was a byword for excellence. She pulled out the one dedicated to Van Gogh, sat me on a stool and put the book on my knees. Then she left me.

Most of my own books had illustrations that repeated or explained the story. Some, I felt, were better than others: I preferred the reproductions of watercolours in my German edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the convoluted line drawings in my English edition. I suppose what I meant was that they better matched my imagination of a character or a place, or better lent details to fill my vision of what the page told me was happening, enhancing or correcting the words. Gustave Flaubert staunchly opposed the idea of words being paired with pictures. Throughout his life, he refused to allow any illustrations to accompany his work because he thought that pictorial images reduced the universal to the singular. “No one will ever illustrate me while I’m still alive,” he wrote, “because the most beautiful literary description is devoured by the most paltry drawing. As soon as a character is pinned down by the pencil, it loses its general character, that concordance with thousands of other known objects that causes the reader to say: ‘I’ve seen that’ or ‘this must be so-and-so.’ A woman drawn in pencil looks like a woman, that is all. The idea is thereafter closed, complete, and all words become now useless, while a written woman conjures up a thousand different women. Therefore, since this is a question of æsthetics, I formally refuse any kind of illustration.”1 I’ve never shared such adamant segregations.

But the images my aunt offered me that afternoon did not illustrate any story. There was a text: the painter’s life, extracts from the letters to his brother, which I didn’t read until much later, the title of the paintings, their date and location. But in a very categorical sense, these images stood alone, defiantly, tempting me with a reading. There was nothing for me to do except stare at those images: the copper beach, the red ship, the blue mast. I looked at them long and hard. I’ve never forgotten them.

Van Gogh’s many-coloured beach surfaced often in the imagination of my childhood. Sometime in the sixteenth century, the illustrious essayist Francis Bacon observed that for the ancients, all the images that the world lays before us are already ensconced in our memory at birth. “So that as Plato had an imagination,” he wrote, “that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Solomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.” If this is true, then we are all somehow reflected in the many and different images that surround us, since they are already part of who we are: images that we create and images that we frame; images that we assemble physically, by hand, and images that come together, unbidden, in the mind’s eye; images of faces, trees, buildings, clouds, landscapes, instruments, water, fire, and images of those images — painted, sculpted, acted out, photographed, printed, filmed. Whether we discover in those surrounding images faded memories of a beauty that was once ours (as Plato suggested) or whether they demand from us a fresh and new interpretation through whatever possibilities our language might offer us (as Solomon intuited), we are essentially creatures of images, of pictures.

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Table of Contents

1 The Common Viewer: The Image as Story 1
2 Joan Mitchell: The Image as Absence 19
3 Robert Campin: The Image as Riddle 39
4 Tina Modotti: The Image as Witness 65
5 Lavinia Fontana: The Image as Understanding 87
6 Marianna Gartner: The Image as Nightmare 117
7 Philoxenus: The Image as Reflection 151
8 Pablo Picasso: The Image as Violence 177
9 Aleijadinho: The Image as Subversion 197
10 C.-N. Ledoux: The Image as Philosophy 223
11 Peter Eisenman: The Image as Memory 245
12 Caravaggio: The Image as Theatre 263
Conclusion 287
Notes 293
Plate Credits 321
Index 327
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