The other day, during an interview, I was asked, “What makes a picture narrative?” I remember pausing . . . for quite a while . . . before answering. No one had ever asked me a question like that. So, marshaling what few thoughts I had in my brain under the category “picture + narrative,” I tried to respond as best I could. I blathered out something, and interviewer and I found ourselves exploring the relationship between picture and story, between image and words—you know: René Magritte’s famous picture that either destroys the bond between word and picture or reinforces the notion that pictures are not real by saying “this is not a pipe.”
My interviewer and I also explored the yin and yang of words and pictures: if a word is worth a thousand pictures then a picture is worth a thousand words. (It has just occurred to me that I could illustrate this with my own take on Magritte’s picture.)
But the central question—what gives a picture its narrative quality?—I don’t think I ever fully answered.
Pictures have been used to help tell stories from very ancient times. The cave paintings at Lascaux, the friezes at Luxor, the mosaics in Libya all attest to that. After the Renaissance, painting was all about story telling, or so it seemed. Huge paintings were done not only to remind the faithful of biblical stories but the literati of the myths from Greece and Rome. Somewhere along the way, perhaps from the schools that flourished in the low countries, another type of painting emerged. One that could generate a story never told but understood by all who viewed the painting. I am thinking in particular of Vermeer’s work.
By the nineteenth century, this type of narrative painting was in full flower. Tired field hands, laboring peasants, lonely women sipping wine all became worthy subjects like this one done by Ramón Casas i Carbó about 1891.
Along with this, printing techniques evolved to such a point that book illustration took off. For children, this was the time of Randolph Caldecott, N. C. Wyeth, and Kate Greenaway.
Then, suddenly, or so it seems to me, a split occurred. People began to differentiate between illustration and painting, between narrative painting and real art. Narrative painting was the stuff of book illustrators, advertisers, propagandists.
Let those guys tell the stories. Let the world go to blazes. Real art doesn’t need to tell a story. Real art exists to arouse the non-story neurons in the brain, the ones sensitive to color and design, darks and lights, dynamic and static compositions. After all, every one accepts that music is non-narrative. Why couldn’t people accept that art is as well? By 1950, the answer was: they’d damn well better. Here’s Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist”:
Sometime in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway is supposed to have won a bet to see who could write the shortest story. His winning story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.” I mentioned this to my interviewer and wondered whether anyone had attempted to tell a story with just one picture using the least visual information possible. You have probably seen a million of these, but these “minimal” illustrations have accompanying words. But what if there are no words, just one threadbare image that tells a story? If any one has any candidate, I’d like to see it.
On the other hand, if you were allowed more than one image, it would be easy to string a series of them together to tell a story. This is what graphic novels do. This is what some of the best children’s books ever to come out do. With a series of pictures the illustrator can establish all the elements of a story: the beginning, middle, and end as well as arouse emotions much in the same way that Hemingway’s six-word story did. Here’s a fine example by Monique Félix, called The Plane, done in 1980.
I have never actually written a wordless picture book, although I have made several attempts. The closest I have come is my book Mango Rain, which has recently been published in English. (It has up to now only been available in Brazilian Portuguese.) In this book, the words and pictures by and large tell the story of Thomas, who makes a toy pick-up truck. But the pictures tell an additional story: of the mango tree and how it blossoms and produces fruit.
There is nothing unusual here. Good illustrators often show something outside of the words, almost beyond the words. Look at Olga Dugina and Andrej Dagin’s work. Here are some examples from their interpretation of the brave little tailor:
Then there are pictures that words can never describe no matter how hard one might try. These pictures assail those parts of the brain that have nothing to do with words but have everything to do with how we interpret the world around up. Chris Van Allsburg’s illustrations for his The Mysteries of Harris Burdick are part of a whole genre of visual art that takes us to Escher and back to Magritte, where I started.
Of course, the ability to interpret illustrations, to know what is paradoxical or contra-factual and what is not depends a large part on one’s culture. There have been a lot of studies about how poor children interpret illustrations vs how middle-class children look at pictures. When I was a professor at the Université Nationale du Rwanda, some of my graduate students were very much interested in how textbooks for teaching English printed in Europe presented Rwandan children with real problems. One student chose a lesson from a French-printed English language book that showed Johnny taking a bath. “How,” my student asked, “was a Rwandan child going to interpret a scene so different from his own experience of taking a bath?” My glib answer was: if the picture is not too obscure, such a picture becomes an occasion to teach the students about a world different from the one they experience.
I often think about these “cultural problems” when I illustrate my own books. In the opening scene of my book Rain School, I purposely presented the viewer with a picture which would be very easy for a Chadian to interpret but very difficult for an American to fully appreciate. Whenever American students ask me about the picture, I am happy to tell them what I drew. Here is that scene with notes overlaid.
Culture, paradox, the imaginative interpretation of the text by the illustrator, the emotions aroused—these are all part of what gives a narrative quality to a picture. They are what makes a picture tell a story. And telling a story is what makes us human.
Illustration by Charlynn A., Kapolei Elementary School, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i.