Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language

Words, Script, and Pictures: Semiotics of Visual Language

by Meyer Schapiro

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Schapiro, who died this year, was one of the most erudite, renowned art historians. This volume presents two lectures by the Columbia University professor dating from 1969 and 1976, the latter published for the first time. In "Words and Pictures," Schapiro examines how changing norms of representation influence artists' rendering of a text. He follows the biblical story of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites, from a fifth-century Christian mosaic in which Moses' outstretched hands were intended as a sign of the Cross, to more secular medieval renditions that precluded a Christian interpretation. Using examples ranging from Roman catacomb paintings to Giotto frescoes, Schapiro argues that the representation of human figures in frontal or profile positions embodies such dualities as sacred/profane, active/passive, good/evil. The second essay, "Script in Pictures," considers medieval book art as a field for the invention of styles and the expression of individual sensibilities. It also explores the shifting relation between words and images in Goya, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Winslow Homer. With subtlety and scholarship, this masterful book deepens our understanding of the iconography of Western art. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Two dogged essays (one not previously published) on the illustration of text and the appearance of script within images, by the late, seminal art historian.

Focusing on images from late antiquity to the 18th century, "Words and Pictures" challenges the notion that illustrations were fixed mirrors for the stories they sought to elucidate. While an artist might not even read the story but rather copy an existing illustration of the passage, Schapiro points out that images were often altered due to the "changes in meaning of a text" and "the changes in style of representation." Moreover, the terrain between the metaphorical and literal has always been fluid. To support his discussion, he dissects various biblical passages and their corresponding images to outline the shifting set of historical factors that lead to the production of any image. In "Script in Pictures," Schapiro turns his attention to actual text, from signs of speech to the artist's signature, within the frame—the way script disrupts the picture's grid of perspective and how various artists have dealt with the issue. The device of inverting text for a viewer within the painting had been around for centuries but was used self-consciously by both Goya and Manet. Ultimately, text in the form of newspaper clippings appeared in Cubist paintings without any heed at all to perspective, and in our own era script became an "object of art in itself" in the work of conceptual artists.

Schapiro's writing is focused and thorough but also broad- minded, and the concepts in these essays could easily be applied to the study of contemporary media, ranging from the news to feature films.

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Braziller, George Inc.
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6.16(w) x 9.33(h) x 0.79(d)

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