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Criteria for Describing Word-and-Image Relations

Author(s): A. Kibedi Varga

Source: Poetics Today, Vol. 10, No. 1, Art and Literature I (Spring, 1989), pp. 31-53
Published by: Duke University Press
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Criteriafor Describing
A. Kibedi Varga
Literature, Free University

There is a great and quickly increasing number of studies on word-

and-image relations, but few efforts have been made as yet to make
explicit the general problems underlying this kind of research. I see
at least two central problems, one methodological and one taxonomic.
The former concerns the legitimacy of composing verbal and visual
artifacts or transferring methods used in one field to the other field,
the identity or difference in the meaning of our critical idiom when it
is applied, simultaneously or separately, in both fields, and so on.' The
methodological approach requires a well-chosen point of departure;
thus Wendy Steiner (1982) picks up the historical "ut pictura poesis"
tradition and tries to examine it in the light of modern, especially
semiotic, criticism, whereas Manfred Muckenhaupt (1986) examines
the current methods of comparing words and images from the point
of view of modern linguistics, Gottfried Boehm (1978, 1986) and
Oskar Batschmann (1977) from that of modern philosophy (especially
aesthetics and hermeneutics).
The second general problem is more practical. Facing the tremen-
dous variety of phenomena which belong to word-and-image research,
one would like to find some very general categories or headings which
would allow a clear and comprehensive classification of all these phe-

1. I have made an attempt to compare rhetorical vocabulary as it is used in poetic

and pictorial theory at the end of the seventeenth century (see Kibedi Varga 1984,

Poetics Today 10:1 (Spring 1989). Copyright ? 1989 The Porter Institute for Poetics
and Semiotics. ccc 0333-5372/89/$2.50.
32 Poetics Today 10: 1

nomena. The question arises here again which point of view should be
adopted from the beginning. Should we follow the traditional chapters
of literary and art history and classify studies according to whether
they deal with the style or the theme of the works, with mixed forms
(like film) or with the artist (e.g., Doppelbegabung),as has been done
by Franz Schmitt-von Muhlenfels (1981)? Or should we adopt a more
rigorous method, for instance, a semiotic one, at the risk, however, of
excluding some (more historical-biographical) fields of research (see
Noth 1985: ch. 5; Thibault-Laulan 1973; Rio 1975-76)?
In the following pages I shall try to isolate and describe a few
elementary surface criteria for classifying word-and-image relations,
starting from my own experience of seeing and reading, that is, in an
inductive and very tentative way.
Before presenting this taxonomy, some preliminary remarks must
be made:
Every student of word-and-image relations should bear in mind that
all comparisons of and analogies between these two categories of ob-
jects are vitiated from the very beginning by the fact that the sensory
perception of these categories is not "equal" in all parts. First, there is
a hierarchy of senses; hearing and seeing are much more developed
than the others. In an interesting series of experiments, Yvette Hat-
well (1986) has thus shown that the tactile sense is subordinate to sight
whenever information is concerned. Secondly, seeing might be the
highest sense hierarchically, superior even to hearing. In modern re-
search word-and-image relations rarely concern the simple dichotomy
of hearing and seeing; since the invention of writing, the word has
belonged, at the same time or alternately, to two very different do-
mains: it is heard and it is seen. Most modern critics, when they study
word-and-image relations, do not parallel the word that is heard and
the image that is seen; in fact, they study, without being aware of it,
two visual phenomena. The illusion of sensory difference is merely
conventional, caused by the fact that we read words, especially in the
European tradition, in a very inconspicuous typography. It is like look-
ing at a plain white or gray wall and not noticing that even such an
uninteresting wall does have a color.
In spite of this, and in order not to complicate this very complex
matter, I shall have to proceed by the exclusion of certain phenomena.
I shall limit myself to the written word and omit the auditory sense; I
shall not take into account the part played by color;2 and I shall not
enter into details about the content of parallels and comparisons (of

2. Some suggestive though brief remarks about the semiotic value of colors can be
found in Bense 1971.
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 33

the kind "iconic versus arbitrary signs," one or two dimensions, fixity,
discursivity, etc.).
If we survey the whole field of modern word-and-image research, we
can state that a first and very fundamental distinction should be made
between possible relations and parallels between objects, on the one
hand, and possible relations and parallels between comments about
these objects, on the other. By "objects" I mean visual and verbal arti-
facts; by "comments" I mean texts (or, rarely, images) dealing in a
critical way with those artifacts. This distinction is well known from
the philosophy of language, which separates the objectlevel from the
meta-level of discourse (see Figure 1). At the object level, research
matches words and images more or less closely related to each other;
their degree of relationship can be described in terms of a grammar.
At the meta-level we enter the pragmatics of discourse; this research is
not concerned anymore with completed works of art or cultural prod-
ucts, but with the comparison of judgments and critical comments
about them: Do we use the same words and do we proceed in the same
way when we interpret a painting as when we interpret a poem? It will
turn out to be much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find
clear-cut criteria that establish strict categories at this level.

Relationsat the Object Level

1. The word and the image can appear simultaneouslyor consecutively;
this constitutes a first general distinction. In the first case, the beholder
is struck by words and images at the same time; he cannot perceive
them separately. That is the case of the emblem and of comics. In
other cases, the artist is inspired by a preexisting image and writes
ekphrasis, or by a preexisting text and paints some scene in Homer
or the Bible. In this case, the beholder only sees a picture, the reader
reads a poem, without necessarily perceiving the other part too.
This distinction implies that we must argue from the point of view
of reception rather than production. Simultaneous appearance does
not, of course, mean that the words and image in emblems or comic
strips have been made at the same time; we know that in some cases
printers ordered etches for existing poems and sometimes poems to
fit existing, given images. From the point of view of production, image
and text always appear consecutively insofar as they stem from differ-
ent artists,3 but from the point of view of reception, there is a great
difference between cultural products which offer words and images
at the same time and cultural products which clearly belong to one

3. In the case of one artist, this cannot be verified; strict simultaneity can, however,
be postulated for calligraphy and visual poetry.
Word-and-image relatio

A. Object-level relations

1. Primary 4. Secondary
(simultaneous) (successive)

Word before Image before

image word

2a. Single 2b. Series

Fixed Moving

3a. Disposition 3b. Composition

Identical Separated

Coexistence Interreference Coreference

Figure 1. Taxonomy of word-and-image relations.

KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 35

domain only, although they owe their existence to a cultural product

previously made in another domain.
2. Our next taxonomic distinction rests upon quantity:Are we deal-
ing with a single object or with several objects which together form a
series? An emblem and a poster inviting us to meditate on a moral
topic and to buy Coca-Cola, respectively, are good examples of the
former; cartoons, comic strips, or church windows having both images
of a saint's life and inscriptions, of the latter. The problem, however, is
what the reader-beholder is willing to understand by a series. Comics,
mural paintings, and goblins on the walls of a castle should obviously
be apprehended together, but for some beholders the similarity of
context might have the same effect. Most emblems since Alciati have
appeared in emblem books and are part of a long series of emblems,
and posters often appear on a pillar, in the company of many others.
In all these very different cases, it is the socially determined place
of appearance which influences the decision of the reader-beholder,
whether he wants to consider an object single or part of a series. Alien-
ating such an object from its conventional place is an artistic deed-we
have known that since Duchamp's ready-mades-but the same holds
for singling out something that was originally meant to be part of a
series, as in the case of Roy Lichtenstein's individualized "cartoons."
The place is related to meaning; the location has a semantic value. It
has long been recognized that the more the place is ideologically fixed,
the less the meaning of the object has to be explicitly stated, and vice
versa. The abbe Du Bos (1719), for example, made the remark that
the "tableau de chevalet" must have a more independent meaning, its
subject matter must be more easily recognizable than, for instance,
that of a painting on a church wall, simply because it can be moved
from one place to another.
A further subdivision should be made in the case of verbal-visual
objects which appear as a series. Some of them are perceived by the
reader-beholder as fixed, others as moving. Comics are juxtaposed, like
church windows, and it is the reader-beholder who moves. Cartoons
and other projected objects (films) represent moving series; the eye of
the spectator remains more or less "fixed."
The criterion of quantity has a very interesting consequence for
the interpretation of images in general and more especially for that
of verbal-visual objects. Ever since the Greeks, European civilization
has tended to separate argumentationfrom narration, the first being
a vehicle of rationally accepted knowledge, the second a source of
undefinable and general wisdom. The point for word-and-image rela-
tions is that a single object mostly has the first function and a series
mostly the second.
A single object, be it a poster or an emblem, is directly persuasive;
36 Poetics Today 10:1

it argues with us. Painters, it is well known in the history of art, have
often tried to suggest narration in a single painting; the whole classical
debate from Poussin to Lessing hinges in part on whether the art of
space should compete with the art of time. Prior "word" knowledge
-bookish knowledge of the beholder-interpreter-can destroy the
temporal unity of a painting and introduce a narrative sequence into
it, as in the case of Poussin's famous Mane dans le desert (see Imdahl
1979: 196-200). But words, as soon as they are added to images, tend
to restrict the possibilities of interpretation; they "desambiguisent" the
image, make its meaning unambiguous. The floating interpretations
of narratives disappear; 4 the arguments become clear.
Series of images, on the other hand, whether they are accompanied
by words or not, we are inclined to interpret as exclusively narra-
tive, because they require us to spend time on them and to follow
them.5 Even if nothing seems in reality to link the elements to which
the successive images refer, we are tempted to accept the "post hoc
ergo propter hoc" fallacy and establish between them a chronological,
hence a narrative, order.
The foregoing remarks refer merely to tendencies; they do not
imply that a single image always has a strictly argumentative character,
nor that a series shows an inherent lack of implied opinion and, as
such, of argument.
The distinguishable functions of single object vis-a-vis series hold
true for two-dimensional artistic objects. In the case of three-dimen-
sional objects, like sculptures, it seems that the decision is up to the
beholder-interpreter whether to consider it argumentative or narra-
tive. As Joy Kenseth (1981) points out for Bernini's "Borghese sculp-
tures," if the beholder decides to walk towards and then around the
statue, he can distinguish the subsequent phases of an action. But if
the beholder-interpreter stands still, the effect will be more directly
persuasive; the statue will stir up emotions which in turn tend to push
him to make decisions.6
3. After the criteria of time (simultaneity vs. successivity) and quan-
tity (single vs. plural), we can turn to those of form.7Our description
here proceeds in analogy with grammatical categories.
4. Thorough examination of the frame comment in older collections like the Gesta
Romanorum shows that the same story can be used to support very different mes-
5. We can, of course, find exceptions, but they seem always to refer to well-known
elements of our cultural tradition, for example, representations, on four separate
paintings, of the four virtues. See also Brilliant 1984.
6. By persuasion we mean, as in traditional rhetoric, rational as well as emotional
7. There have been several attempts to formulate a "visual grammar." See Dondis
1973 or N6th 1985: bibliography.
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 37

a. In what I would like to call word-and-image morphology,which

concerns the spatial disposition of verbal-visual objects, we can first
make a general distinction between identityand separateness.In the first
case, word and image merge completely; in the second, the two parts
are distinguishable. Within the category of unity we can establish a fur-
ther subdivision into calligraphy and "calligramme," or visual poetry.
Calligraphy is the purest and most radical example of fusion of word
and image because in it we cannot decide whether a letter becomes an
image or an image a letter. The social and aesthetic significance of this
phenomenon is probably much greater outside the cultures which use
the Latin alphabet, especially for Islam and the Far East (see Khatibi
1974). In the European tradition, calligraphy has a kind of "disalien-
ating" effect; words are deprived of their purely utilitarian character,
and the word becomes an aesthetic object. In visual poetry,which has a
very long tradition,8 the fusion is not less complete but the "direction"
of the metamorphosis can be determined; it is always the letters and
the words which imitate the image, never the other way round. Letters
separated from the other letters of the words to which they belong can
yield new, hidden meanings, as in acrostics, but acrostics can at the
same time have a visual appeal, as in the verbal-visual experiments of
Hrabanus Maurus in the Middle Ages (see Figure 2). Here the back-
ground is constituted by letters, and the letters privileged by the acros-
tic suggest an image in superposition. Modern visual poetry mostly
creates another relation: not between letters and letters, but between
the white page and words. Apollinaire's words imitate the movement
of falling raindrops or the contours of an object on the landscape of
the page; in a more abstract way, Marinetti combines words and lines
to suggest a military map (see Figure 3). The visual acrostic of former
times has a more intellectual function, whereas modern visual poetry
seems on the whole to refer more directly to our personal experience
and to our senses.
The more intensely word and image are united, the more compli-
cated it becomes to perceive or read them. In the case of an emblem
or illustration, it is completely legitimate to pass from the image to
the text and vice versa, to modify alternately and regularly our way of
perceiving a verbal-visual object. But in the case of a complete union
of verbal and visual elements, we cannot switch from one way of per-
ceiving to another; we in fact perceive in two different ways at the
same time. In other words, to read a visual poem is to betray it; to
restore it to verbality is to eliminate half of its meaning. In spite of
this, reading the words of an acrostic, having first read the whole text,

8. See Pozzi 1981. For the twentieth century, and in a more historical and inter-
pretative vein, see also Faust 1977.
38 Poetics Today 10: 1

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be read; the words do not refer to an image, they only suggest it (see
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9. For a structuralist approach to visual poeventry
see various studies
bray thevisual partoupe
the beholder can clearly
In those cases whereGarnier's separate the words
and just read. to1979).
Pierre visual poems, for instance, refuse
from the image, we can distinguish three degrees of decreasing union:

9. For a structuralist approach to visual poetry see various studies by the Groupe
de Liege ( 1977, 1979).
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 39

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Figure 3. Marinetti, Apres la Marne, ]offre visita le front en auto, 1919.

the image. Word and (2) are image but
separated presented on the

(1) Word and image coexistwithin the same space, as in commercial

g e . Mr
sam . ine, As a relationof interrefrnce: they
to refer each
posters. Here the image yields the frame; the words are inscribed in

other. Emblems, illustrations,'0 and posters (of another kind) would

be good examples, but interreference characterizes also the relation
between a painting and its title, between a text and its illustration."

10. Illustrations like Grandville'sor Dore's of La Fontaine (or Braque's of poems

by Rene Char) appear on the same page and are perceived simultaneously by the
11. The examples given here refer to the category of single objects. But in the
category of series, comic strips as well as visual hagiographies of the Middle Ages
(see Figure 5) are characterized by the same relations of coexistence and interref-
40 Poetics Today 10:1

: i :.0::::::0: :7 :; 0

I . . . . 9 I

m () nd


Figure 4. Pierre Garnier, Poemes.

Kib6diVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 41

0-l'it- titn;44Mi" qm c iMi u0 I

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Rem C){Ml -ti f o rnay :fi R Kpf4ti ':,;

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Figure 5. Life of Saint Paul Hermit,fourteenth-century illustrated lives of saints,

Hungary. The legends read as follows: I. quomodo videt duos unum in miseris
et alium in solatio magna; II. quomodo unus lupus conduxit S. Antonium ad
cellam S. Pauli; III. quomodo unus corvus portabat ipsis duplices cibos; IV.
quodmodo leones sepelierunt eum cum S. Antonis.
42 Poetics Today 10:1

(3) Word and image are not presented on the same page but refer,
independently from each other, to the same event or thing in the natu-
ral world. The term coreferencecan be used to designate the relation
between separate verbal and visual advertising for the same product
or between paintings and poems made to commemorate the same il-
lustrious event (the birth of a king's son, a battle, etc.). These three
kinds of relations can be represented by the following diagram:
coexistence interreference coreference

wi II
The third category is a borderline case in two respects. First, it tran-
scends the domain of morphology and enters that of pragmatics; the
artists have worked separately, and the verbal-visual relation between
their works exists only in the mind of the reader-beholder. Malherbe
wrote an ode on Maria de Medici's arrival in the harbor of Marseilles
and Rubens made a painting about the same event, but it is we who
draw a parallel, because of the referential identity. Secondly, it is not
always easy to determine whether the two works belong to the category
of simultaneous or subsequent appearance; after all, we could con-
sider Rubens's painting an illustration of the ode written by Malherbe
and so leave the domain of primary word-and-image relations.
b. Morphology deals with spatial disposition, syntax with composi-
tion, that is, with the nature of verbal-visual relations. There is a syntax
of sentences and there are compositional rules within an image (see
Marin 1970) which can be extended to transverbal and transvisual
situations. The most important and general issue here, however, is
the problem of hierarchy.Are all specimens of word-and-image rela-
tions hierarchically ordered? Is it impossible to imagine an example of
word-and-image relation based on strict coordination? But if there is
only hierarchy, which part is subordinate to the other? To answer the
last question, we must again take up the criterion of quantity. In sin-
gle verbal-visual objects, image dominates only in the exceptional case
when the given image is so well known to the beholder that he does
not need any words to identify it or to grasp its meaning and message;
in all other cases, image is subordinate to the word. In emblems as well
as in the image-title relation, the word explains the image; it restricts
its possibilities and fixes its meaning.
This applies, of course, only to traditional objects. In modern art,
painters have made several attempts to free painting from verbal
dominance by altering the relation between the title and its visual ref-
erence. Two main lines can be distinguished. The "poetic" titles that
surrealists such as Magritte or Max Ernst gave to their paintings and
collages can be seen from our perspective as attempts to establish co-
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 43

ordination. The words, far from restricting the meaning of the image,
in fact add something to it. On the other hand, some painters prefer
very general and uninteresting titles, like "landscape" or "composi-
tion," in order to disappoint the reader-beholder, who now, having
found no support in the title, can turn his full attention to the picture
and examine it more thoroughly without words.'2
In a series, the dominance of the word is less obvious. Successive
images can "explain" each other; words can be either functional and
indispensable or simply ornamental. Narrative sequences in comics
can be divided into two categories: those which cannot be understood
without reading the words in the balloons and those where our eye
can move quickly from one image to the other because the balloons
contain only stereotyped words (a yell, a sigh, a curse) characteristic
of a given personage (see Masson 1985; Gauthier 1984: 12).
4. Up to now we have listed only word-and-image relations where
both appear simultaneously; their hierarchical interdependence is a
function not of time but of other factors, mostly cultural ones. If we
turn to secondary relations, relations where word and image appear
subsequently, we do not find the same type of relations. The morpho-
logical categories disappear completely and the syntactic problem of
hierarchy obtains here a very clear solution. That part which appears
later dominates the original part; it is in every case a statement about
and thus a reduction of the older object. What remains is no longer a
problem of form or of structure; it is a problem of semantics.
The taxonomy of secondary word-and-image relations has two cri-
teria, which depend on which part appears first and whether the ob-
jects involved are single or plural. If the word precedes the image,
we speak of illustration. This term not only designates the illustration
strictosensu, like Dore's to Cervantes, La Fontaine, or Milton, but also
indicates the kind of relation which connects innumerable paintings of
the classical period in Europe to the Bible, to Homer and Virgil, or to
Ovid's Metamorphoses.The modern reader-beholder will be tempted to
list Dore in the category of primary relations, because Dore's etchings
appear on the page as he reads the Bible or Don Quixote,and, on the
other hand, he would probably refuse to put Titian or Poussin in any
word-and-image category at all. This means that secondary relations
constitute a semantic category with a historical component and not a
pragmatic category anymore.
If the image precedes the word, the term used is ekphrasisor Bildge-
dicht. Specimens are less numerous, but this genre has also been well
known since antiquity; Homer is said to have described paintings (since

12. These problems have been treated in several studies by Gombrich and espe-
cially by authors dealing with surrealist painting. See also Hammacher 1973.
44 Poetics Today 10:1

lost) in his epic poetry, and until the late eighteenth century, descrip-
tive poetry often had the structure of a collection of related paintings
(see Mittelstadt 1967; Davies 1935). Bildgedichtrefers more specifically
to poems inspired by one painting or one painter (see especially Kranz
1981); it can be seen as a free verbal variation, whereas ekphrasisorigi-
nally applied to an exact description meant, to a certain degree, to
evoke and substitute for the painting itself.
What comes first is necessarily unique; what comes after can be
multiplied. One image can be the source of many texts, and one text
can inspire many painters. These secondary series can become the
objects of comparative study, which makes us aware of the fact that
illustrations and ekphrasis-in fact, all manifestations of subsequent,
secondary relations-are just different modes of interpretation.The
interpreter is never an exact translator; he selects and judges. And
this, precisely, happens whenever a poet speaks of a painting or a
painter illustrates a poem.
We can study the history of interpretation of one famous work, like
Giorgione's Tempestain art history or Baudelaire's sonnet Les chats or
Camus' Etranger in literary criticism; 13 in both cases we have to deal
with verbal interpretations of visual and verbal works. But we can
extend our research and attempt to study (in words again!) visual in-
terpretation,especially of narrative texts. The numerous illustrations
of Don Quixote are so many iconic interpretations of Cervantes' novel
and have a special narratological interest. In order to compare these
interpretations, as we would do with literary criticism, we must ask
two preliminary questions. First, which moment of the action has been
chosen for representation? This question takes us back to the classi-
cal debate of the "pregnant moment"14 and shows the disadvantage
of space against time, of fixity against continuity. Secondly, which
elements have been deleted or added? This question shows, on the
contrary, the advantage of simultaneous versus continuous represen-
tation, because the painter must invent many details (the color of a
dress, the size of a rock, the species of a plant) that the writer did not
care about.
Without entering into details, I would like to show by a summary
examination of one example the rich potential of such a comparative
study of visual interpretations. La Fontaine's fables have been illus-
trated many times; from the numerous illustrations of Death and the

13. For Les chats see the debate begun by Jakobson and Levi-Strauss's structuralist
analyses, as it is reviewed by Drijkoningen (1973) and by Fokkema and Kunne-
Ibsch (1977). For L'etranger see the review article by Hoek (1982). For Giorgione
see Wind 1969 and Kibedi Varga 1983: 55.
14. One of the clearest statements of the "pregnant moment" theory can be found
in Shaftesbury 1714.
c :*
f : :

Figure 6. La Fontaine's La mortet le bucheron,illustrate

46 Poetics Today 10:1

*-:I r
* 92:: ?'-:."?- a
:,* 9? .*`::"-"P *(*p:: '-*T

Figure 7. La Fontaine'sLa mortet le bucheron,
illustratedby Grandville,1838.

WoodcutterI choose four, those made respectively by Chauveau (1668),

Jean-Jacques Grandville (1838), Gustave Dore (1868), and Gustave
Moreau (1886) (see Figures 6, 7, 8, and 9). Except Dore, who, in
accordance with the aesthetics of symbolism, prefers suggestion and
evocation to dramatic confrontation, the illustrators choose the same
central moment. But the mutual attitude of the two protagonists is
different every time. Whereas the contemporaneous illustrator follows
Aristotelian poetics and, insisting on action and crisis, puts the two
personages at the same level, the romanticist Grandville is preoccu-
pied with morose and pathetic thoughts about Death triumphant and
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 47

Figure 8. La Fontaine'sLa mortet le bucheron,

illustratedby Dore, 1868.

presents a standing tableau. Moreau, finally, completely reinterprets

the tradition and radically changes the message of La Fontaine's text
by giving Death the shape of a woman. This is, it seems, in disagree-
ment with the poet's simple lesson ("Le trepas vient tout guerir / Mais
ne bougeons d'ou nous sommes / Plut6t souffrir que mourir / C'est
la devise des hommes"): Death appearing as a seducing woman can-
not inspire fear in the same straightforward manner as Grandville's
skeleton is meant to do.
The choice of attributes of course supports the interpretation. Chau-
48 Poetics Today 10:1

Figure 9. La Fontaine'sLa mortet le bucheron,

illustratedby Moreau, 1886.

veau has only a very sketchy background, in order not to divert atten-
tion from the plot; Grandville introduces an owl and a tower in ruins
which are not in La Fontaine's text but which reinforce the sensation
of mortality; Dore's mysterious forest is much more important than
its verbal equivalent, which is minimal; and Moreau's nature seems to
have the same ambiguity as his feminine Death.
The comparative study of the visual interpretations of a verbal work
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 49

of art is the exact counterpart of the comparative study of the verbal

interpretations of a visual work of art.15
Metarelations are "indirect" relations: they do not allow us to paral-
lel words and images; they function between people who create cul-
tural artifacts of a verbal or visual kind and/or comment on them. A
comprehensive taxonomy should include psychological and biographi-
cal material: How are word-and-image relations to be described if
they exist inside an artist, as in the case of Doppelbegabung?What is
the relevance for word-and-image studies of the numerous examples
of friendship or hostility between writers and painters (Diderot and
Greuze, Baudelaire and Delacroix, Zola and Cezanne, Reverdy and
Picasso, etc.)? 16
On the whole, however, the term metarelationsdesignates in the
first place relations between comments made separately on images
and texts and the historical, philological, and other methods underly-
ing these comments. One could, for instance, extend the comparative
study of La Fontaine interpretations to both visual and verbal com-
ments and try to find parallels between the visual and verbal methods
of commenting. This relation no longer concerns the artistic object,
only the comments made on it. The border between secondary rela-
tions on the object level and metarelations is not always easy to trace.
We can relate Bildgedichtestrictly to their object, but we can more or
less neglect this object, a given painting, if we are mainly interested in
the style and vocabulary of the comments (mostly made according to
different methods).
It would be tedious to sum up all the well-known and current ap-
proaches in art history and literary history which could and should be
compared here. Lanson (1965 [1910]) insisted that literary history is
much nearer to the history of art than to general history. For older
paintings and poetry, the study of rhetorical methods is extremely
useful, because both painters and poets borrowed their theoretical
vocabulary from classical rhetoric; there have even been attempts to
make a strict and detailed application of rhetoric to pictorial art.17We

15. Louis Marin (1970) does this when he compares three descriptions (by Fenelon,
Felibien, and Baudet) of one painting.
16. I have the impression that this point has not been sufficiently studied, because
of the separation of art and literature departments in our universities.
17. See Coypel 1711. Rhetorical inventio and dispositio have their more or less strict
analogies in pictorial theory (see Kibedi Varga 1983, 1984). The main problem,
however, is mostly not even hinted at in classical treatises: Whether the figures of
elocutio, that is, of style, can be rigorously applied to images. Can they be "trans-
lated"? What is a visual metaphor? On this last topic see Aldrich 1968 and Johns
50 Poetics Today 10:1

Figure 10. St. Francis and Episodes of His Life, thirteenth century. Florence,
Basilica de S. Croce.
KibediVarga * Word-and-Image Relations 51

saw earlier that persuasion is not simply an affair of words and that
the mixture of argumentative and narrative modes characterizes not
only pieces of eloquence or poetry but also images. The portrait of St.
Francis of Assisi (Figure 10) looks at us and tries to convince us, and
the narrative episodes flanking his portrait are as many evidences, loci
with a persuasive value: He who lived thus, he who cured, helped,
wrought miracles, should be believed and adored. Narration is sub-
mitted to persuasion.
The comparative study of comments and methods should not, of
course, stop with ancient times. Interesting stylistic parallels can be
discovered in symbolist writings on poetry and painting. And after the
great wave of structuralist activities, such synthesizing works as those
of Wendy Steiner (1982) and Winfried N6th (1985) show the impact
of modern literary theory and especially of semiotics on this kind of
Among the problems we have to deal with in this section on meta-
relations, the most general ones transcend taxonomy and go back to
methodology. Can a word be translated completely into an image and
vice versa? Or is every parallel an interpretation, that is, an admission
of the impossibility of translation? When we interpret, we betray; we
delete and add. There are some fundamental epistemological limits
to our endeavor (see Boehm 1978).
The problem of hierarchy is narrowly related to the problem of
limits. Can metarelations be formulated only with words? Are verbal
tools superior, then, to the visual ones, and more complex? It has
been said that image does not know the negation; that was one of
the many things Magritte wanted to "say" with his painting Ceci n'est
pas une pipe. Again, it has been said that image misses autoreflexivity.
But intertextuality and irony are not limited to words: Duchamp, as
well as many modern posters, is the proof. And Hans Hollander was
probably right when he remarked that Magritte's major achievement
was to create visual philosophy.
If we maintain as essential the difference between translation as a
perfect and interpretationas a partial analogy, we can postulate that in-
terpretation on the whole characterizes word-and-image relations on
the object level, whereas it might be possible to achieve translation in
some fields on the meta-level, for instance, to have a precise and uni-
fied terminology. It should be possible to define terms like composition
or metaphoron a sufficiently high level of abstraction to fit both verbal
and visual products. But this means, of course, that we cut the knot
and decide that on the meta-level we use only words (or either words
or images, but not both together).
Thus, the immense domain of metarelations comprehends bio-
graphical points as well as stylistic research, but it extends at the same
52 Poetics Today 10: 1

time to the question of the ontological status of interpretation and the

potential autonomy of visual experience.

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