a picture is worth a thousand words

Language as Image (by Lisa Smith)

The common adage that a picture can tell the story of a thousand words is certainly true in the case of artist Juan Osborne, as his work so ably demonstrates, but it also draws us towards the interesting relationship between written language and image. After all, words become an image that we can read or ‘view’ with our eyes. Originally, we evolved the use of language as an aural form of communication; with the way a phrase is said contributing a huge amount to how we understand it. Does language change then, when we read it? Is anything lost, and perhaps more interestingly, what is gained or altered when language becomes image?

The Written Word

One avenue of approach that is of interest is the contrast between the Western form of written language and the Eastern form of it. Western language centers on the use of letters that combine into words, which combine to form sentences, and so on. All these small parts then come together to convey a meaning to the receiver or reader. On its own, an individual letter doesn’t really hold much meaning to us – we simply understand it as a piece, a malleable cog that can be made to fit a variety of more complex machines. We can perhaps find exception to this in the letter ‘I’, as this almost instantly conveys an image of the self. Conversely, Chinese and Japanese traditional text is almost entirely different. Chinese characters for example, are in fact descended from the image of what they refer to, in order to present an instant meaning to the reader. Simply looking at this reference chart that shows the development of Chinese characters over the ages, we can instantly recognise the inspiration for the character of ‘human’ and ‘mountain’, for example, are based on a visual representation. It is perhaps no surprise then that calligraphy was, and still is, held in such high regard as a form of art that effectively blurs the boundaries between image and text.

Words as Art and Expression

The close relationship between image and word is not entirely alien to the Western world of course. Many poets for example, have explored how the text is presented on the page, and how this can impact the reader emotionally by breaking standard reading patterns. One of the most common forms of this is ‘concrete’ poetry, where the subject of the poem becomes not only the focus of the words, but reflected as an image by them. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of this is John Hollanders ‘Swan and Shadow’, that constructs the image of a swan and its reflection on the water through poetry. How important is it then that we play and experiment with new ways of interpreting and presenting the text as image? There are of course, a number of reasons that range from philosophical to conceptual, but perhaps one of the most intriguing is that of how expression can affect our state of mind. There is a growing area of research that suggests writing in general, whether poetry, prose, or simply thoughts, as well as drawing can have a very positive effect on how we feel. This is of particular interest to practitioners of art therapy, ad especially when it comes to helping to treat patients with illnesses such as bipolar and depression. Learning how to cope with bipolar, for example, can be a long and difficult road, but therapists have often found that encouraging sufferers to express themselves as creatively as possible through the use of words and pictures can go a long way toward controlling the condition in addition to the standard medical approach. However we look at it, there is something inherently valuable in the relationship between image and language, even more so when we explore it ourselves at a personal level.

Conceptual Problems

We can, perhaps, glean an insight into this relationship between words and image by briefly examining how we understand the world around us. One philosophical point of view, often championed by Frederick Nietzsche, for example, was that ultimately we can never gain any true insight into the world around us through and form of conception, because we cannot avoid generalising in language. If for example, we say ‘tree’, what really comes to mind? Do we really have anything more than a general, vague image of a tree in our mind? When we go out and examine a tree however, we will find an enormous level of intricacy that is utterly unique to that one tree alone – can this really ever be fully communicated? If we accept this account, then we might say that in fact images as art are fundamental, because they are a more honest account of the world around us, in the sense that they are the personal representation of the artist, and when it comes down to it, that is all we have – a personal representation of the world. Of course, there are many country arguments to this point of view, but ultimately we cannot deny the importance and inter-relation that image and written language holds, and by exploring the combination of the two, perhaps we are in fact pursuing a form of representational truth.

Lisa Smith.

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