Toward a Theory of Pictorial Narrative. Lucas van Leyden's "Ecce Homo"

Hausarbeit, 2014

14 Seiten, Note: 1,5


Table of Contents

1. Pictorial Narrative
1.1 Preliminary Remarks
1.2 The Narrator
1.3 Sequence of Events
1.4 Provoking the Viewer to Tell Herself a Story
1.5 Results of Analysis

2. Lucas van Leyden's Ecce Homo
2.1 Paradox and Dislocation
2.2 Structure of Pictorial Storytelling
2.3 Pictorial Narrator

3. Conclusion



What is that common expression?—a picture is worth a thousand words. We say this because every image tells a story. But if an image tells a story, then how, when it is only a single image? Pictorial narrative is the name for an image's propensity to tell a story. By this we mean a single static image, not a series of static images. Not until recently has the topic of pictorial narrative received so much attention from the research. This is largely due to three dilemmas that arise when attempting to conceptualize a two dimensional work of art as depicting four dimensions: in regards to the artwork, Who is the narrator of the story? How is the sequence of events represented? What provokes the viewer to begin telling herself a story?

The purpose of this paper is to address these questions, develop concepts for their articulation and relation, and apply the resulting concepts to an analysis of Lucas van Leyden's Ecce Homo. The approach offered is a post-structuralist account of narration, an inferential account of meaning, and a phenomenological account of experience. This paper is indebted to Lorenzo Pericolo's monograph entitled Caravaggio and Pictorial Narrative for articulating the dilemmas concerning pictorial narrative.

1. Pictorial Narrative

1.1 Preliminary Remarks

Storytelling is essentially a literary concept. Literature is essentially a linguistic medium. Pictorial narrative is an effusion of literature, linguistics and the plastic arts. In order to conceptualize pictorial narrative, an investigation into how these art forms intersect is needed. In many ways the three dilemmas of pictorial narrative, as detailed above, are dependent on each other. To some degree, one could claim that each dilemma is really just a rephrasing of the others. The Wissenschaft of pictorial narrative is to address how these dilemmas are dependent on each other.

1.2 The Narrator

The first dilemma that we shall address is the role of a narrator. Obviously, if we assume that an image presents a story, then something must be telling this story, and the narrator is that which fulfills this purpose. Therefore, it is imperative that we determine the role of a pictorial narrator.

Beginning the analysis of the role of a narrator in literary theory is generally straight forward, although some texts present a challenge in determining the identity of the narrator. The narrator begins the story by announcing itself ex nihilo on page one and tells of the events that transpire in the text.

From there, there are a number of avenues that a narrator can take. For example, either the narrator is outside the story, telling of the events as though it were capable of knowing everything there is to know, or the narrator can be just one of the other characters in the story, telling of the events from his/her perspective. Genette calls these narrative functions extra- and intradiegetic, respectively, and these distinctions, among many others, are useful in the analysis of almost all literary texts. With Genette's account of narration, we distinguish between diegesis and mimesis, telling and showing, in order to determine the role of the narrator from a character, among other things. But can this assist in determining the role of a narrator in pictorial narration? To answer this question, we first have to address, in regards to an image, what is the text.

In structuralist accounts of text, the term need not apply to written language.1 Something as quotidian as city planning can be analyzed as a text: the location of certain buildings allows for a critical reading of the culture based on the building's function in that culture; consider the location of graveyards and prisons. Text is the presentation of the manipulation of meaning through a signifier and a signified—this is a structuralist account of a text.

In post-structuralism, the arbitrariness of the sign has lead to the critical investigation of meaning: how does meaning happen, when e.g. the word for red (or the sign for the experience of an object) is not fixed.2 Thus, meaning becomes a product of an endless differential between the signifier and the signified. So according to post-structuralism, a picture can be understood as a text whenever the spark of inquiry shocks the viewer into asking, What does the picture represent?, What does it refer to?, What does the picture mean?

In order to setup a framework for determining a narrator, Genette rejects the dichotomy of showing and telling, mimesis and diegesis, while redefining this distinction as narrative of words and narrative of events,3 This distinction has its source in Plato and is discussed at length in Aristotle's poetics, but it is regarded with skepticism today. No one denies, however, how useful these concepts are in negotiating between the narrative and the plot levels within a text, but when examined closely, no essential distinction can be found. Regarding pictorial narrative, and literary narrative as well, the dichotomy is false, and if taken for true, will inhibit US from developing a theory of pictorial narrative. Each act of telling is essentially an act of showing, and each act of showing is essentially an act of telling; only accidentally are they different from one another.

Since the advise of 'show, and don't tell' is often given from an established writer of fiction to a would-be writer, we will make use of an interview with the author Chuck Palahniuk4 where he discuss in detail the differences between showing and telling. “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your writing will always be strong if you show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and the knowing.” He gives US several examples on how to transform a telling to a showing,


Waiting for the bas, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take...


The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark's watch said it was already 11:57. You could see ail the way down the road, as far as the Mali, and not see a bus. [...] Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he 'd puli up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident...

Effectively, Palahniuk establishes a phenomenological difference on the part of the reader: the difference between the two examples is the different experience of the text. Moreover, when the narrator tells US that, 'Mark was worried', and when the narrators shows US that Mark was worried, we have a difference in style—the latter being more effective, though sometimes ambiguous, in communicating the character's feelings. But in the latter case, the reader determines from the text that Mark was worried, and the reader, in turn, tells herself that this is the case—that the reader tells herself, is the first point. Secondly, a narrator is still present. Even in the second example, a narrator is telling the reader what Mark thinks, what he sees, what he imagines. In the transition from 'that he thinks' to 'what he thinks', the act of telling does not disappear. This means, showing is kind of narration5.

We would like to point out that there is an analogous case in linguistics. A parallel can be drawn between showing and pragmatics, on the one hand, and telling and semantics, on the other: showing supplies the reader with the context of, in the above case, worriment, combined with the particular instance/use of worriment, whereas telling simply returns the referent of worriment by claiming 'Mark started to worry'. When determining the meaning of a statement, we can go about this inferentially. In so doing, we infer the statement's meaning from the context. So construed, telling is a form of semantics and showing, pragmatics. The analogy to linguistics will be helpful in understanding how pictorial narrative can be conceptualized and will be discussed throughout this paper.

The distinction between showing and telling shows itself to be merely two approaches that complement one another when determining the meaning of an expression. We understand the narrator to be responsible for the telling, and as such the narrator is that which returns the referent and sets the context. In pictorial narrative, who is responsible for the fixing the referent? Is it the artist, a figure in the image, or is the viewer responsible?

In post-structuralism, the dividing lines between character, narrator, and reader are blurred. Consider the case when the narrator crafts her story with a biased vocabulary (e.g. Nabokov's Lolita) that when recognized as such, leads the reader to inquiry after a more objective account of the events. In such cases, the reader takes on the narrating role by reorganizing and reevaluating the meaning of the events in the story.

Concerning the difference between a narrator and a character, consider the case when a narrator appears later in the story to have been one of the characters (e.g. Gray's Glaswegians). Consider a less banal case, consider the role of a character in general: one of many figures to whom an event takes place, one of many that motivates and causes an event to take place—assuming we have an omniscient, albeit incredulous narrator, what is this narrator's motivation for telling the events in a particular order, omitting one event, while telling another? Without the dichotomy between showing and telling, it can be argued that events in the story affect the narrator as well, that, although the narrator does not cause the events, it does however play a causal role in the meaning of the events.

The framework offered by post-structuralism will be helpful in addressing the dilemma of the role of the narrator in pictorial narrative, because like postmodern texts, a picture does not clearly demarcate the narrator, character and reader.

Who is the narrator in pictorial narrative? It is a combination of the artist, the image and the viewer. This means, pictorial narrative must be in each instance an investigation and a subsequent mediation of the tenuous relationship between three archetypes of meaning-generation: the signifier/signified, the sender and receiver. Conceptualizing pictorial narration amounts to defining the interdependence of these archetypes in the telling the story.

In pictorial narrative, Genette's narratology will not help US so much. Instead, we need a different set of concepts to aid US in the investigation. This is because, as far as pictorial narrative is concerned, we understand the question of the role of the narrator to be misguided. Instead, we should ask about the composition of the narrator: how much artist, how much work, how much recipient; and how do they combine together to create the narrator—this is the essential question behind the role of the narrator in pictorial narrative.

1.3 Sequence of Events

Stories have events. Without an account of events, there can be no story. Each event is somehow related to every other, while also somehow different from every other event. The interrelatedness of events constitutes the whole that is the story itself, while the exclusivity of the events is essential in representing change, and therefore essential to the story's telling. Without the latter there can be no telling, and without the former, there can be no story.

Pictorial narrative exists if and only if a sequence of events is articulated by the picture. How can this be possible if there is only one static image? In order to address this dilemma, we need to find other ways of mediating a fourth dimension, other than the purely the fourth dimension itself—like in a film.

We might ask, is a fourth dimension necessary to storytelling? Let US imagine a story that takes place at one exact time: e.g. midnight on a historically unimportant date. The narrator tells of events taking place at this exact time in different cities across the eastern coast of the United States— effectively limited to a single time-zone. Assuming the narrator to have an atomic accuracy of time between the different physical events, we still understand there to be four chief arguments that this story depends on the passage of time. It continues to express time syntactically, semantically, pragmatically, and etymologically.

First, grammar necessitates that a verb is conjugated in a tense.6 This means, unless the story is told in the supine infinitive, e.g. 'He to speak', then time is unavoidable. We will come back to the supine infinitive later on. Secondly, the meaning of a statement is arrived at compositionally.7 This means, the reader will combine the meaning of the first word, with the meaning of the second word, et cetera, in order to arrive at the meaning of the expression. This is done sequentially through time. Thirdly, there is an argument is based on inferential semantics. The meaning of an expressions is not only composed of the parts of the expression but also by inferring the meaning of the parts and the meaning of their whole from within a given context. By definition, the context is separate from the expression itself and as such, the meaning of the events in the story are dependent on the context that happened prior to, or are likely to happen after the events told. And finally, the meaning of a word is dependent on its use, and that use changes throughout time. This means, knowing the meaning of the word is also knowing the time-frame of its use, which is also to infer from the past uses of the word, however small the gap between then and now may be.

Concerning the exception to the first argument, the supine infinitive form8, we argue that an infinite time is still dependent on a passage of time. Understanding the notion of infinity is only possible when it is juxtaposed to the notion of finite time.9 This difference, between infinite and finite, between always happening and happening only once,


1 cf. “..the Text is that social space which leaves no language safe...” Barthes, Roland, From Work to Text, in: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Norton & Company, New York, 2010 pg. 1331.

2 cf. “...there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references...” Derrida, Jacques, On Grammatology, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Norton & Company, New York, 2010 pg. 1692.

3 Genette, Gérard, Narrative Discourse, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1983, pg. 164.

4 Palahniuk, Chuck. "Nuts and Bolts:." "Thought" Verbs., 12 Aug. 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

5 This is Genette's narration of words.

6 We have heard of Native American languages that do not conjugate tense at all. (Isn't this precisely Nietzsche's problem with das Glauben an die Grammatik?) With our claim involving language above, we want merely to establish an epistemological limit and not a metaphysical one.

7 Known as Frege's principle.

8 And this counter-argument could be applied to the argument of the existence of languages that lack tense-conjugation.

9 An Hegelian disposition.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 14 Seiten


Toward a Theory of Pictorial Narrative. Lucas van Leyden's "Ecce Homo"
Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen
Bilddruck in Europa 1480-1980
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626 KB
van Leyden, Bilddruck, Pictorial Narrative
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John Dorsch (Autor:in), 2014, Toward a Theory of Pictorial Narrative. Lucas van Leyden's "Ecce Homo", München, GRIN Verlag,


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