English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

November 26, 2009

Book Arts: Julie Chen, plus an animated film

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 10:02 pm

Thanks to all for your enthusiastic attendance at the Getty Research Institute last Thursday!

My wife and I were watching television last weekend and came upon the PBS series Craft in America, specifically Episode 5, titled Process, which discusses how and why artists pursue careers in craft. The episode focuses on both individual artists and school programs that are helping students gain the knowledge and skills needed to become craft artists.

Book artist Julie Chen is profiled at length in this episode, and, after our trip to the GRI and our discussions of the visual and material dimensions of books, I thought you all might find it interesting to see her demonstrate and talk about her working process. Plus, you can see examples of her finished work in the episode as well:


BTW, both the Getty and our own Oviatt Library have collected works by Chen. I would also recommend visiting the website for Chen’s publishing house, Flying Fish Press:


Julie Chen is amazing!

Oh, and unrelated to Chen’s work but definitely book art-related, and fascinating, is Going West, a short animated film by Maurice Gee produced by the New Zealand Book Council. Check it out; I’ve never seen a book used quite this way before!

October 2, 2009

Sir Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich

Filed under: Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention),Contexts & resources,OUR JOURNAL — charleshatfield @ 11:30 am

I thought I’d get the ball rolling with this week’s journal by setting up the category “Ch. 7 (Nature vs. Convention)” and posting the first post in that category. Here goes:

E.H. Gombrich, a photo nicked from The Warburg Institute

This coming week we will be reading and discussing two important texts by the great 20th-century art historian and theorist Sir Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001). That’s him, above. Or rather it’s an image we understand as being “of” him. The question of why we understand it to be so is one we’ll be talking about.

Gombrich was one of the great minds to come to grips with art history and art theory over the past century. He authored the seminal textbook The Story of Art (1950), used by generations of art history students and touted as “the world’s best selling art book.” He also wrote the very influential theoretical work Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1960) and a great many other articles and books of enduring scholarly interest, among them Meditations on a Hobbyhorse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art (1963), The Image and the Eye: Further Studies in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (1982), and The Uses of Images: Studies in the Social Function of Art and Visual Communication (1999).

So prolific was he that an entire book has been devoted to listing his works up to 2000, J.B. Trapp’s E. H. Gombrich: A Bibliography (2000).

He worked for the Warburg Institute (part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London) for many years, beginning as a research assistant in 1936 and eventually serving as the Institute’s Director (1959-76). The Institute’s mission is to further the study of the classical tradition, meaning those aspects of European culture and art that derive from the ancients. So Gombrich can be relied upon to take a very long historical view of most topics!

The best one-stop source for information about Gombrich online is The Gombrich Archive, an excellent site maintained by art theorist and Gombrich expert Richard Woodfield.

The Wikipedia entry on Gombrich is good and can provide a brief introduction to the man.

Our interest in Gombrich, as I said in class last time, has to do with a question that fascinated him, namely, to what extent is artistic “realism” (or verisimilitude) based on nature and to what extent on convention? Another way to put this question would be, Is mimesis (imitation) founded on nature or is it just founded on conventions or rules that we have to learn? Or, are some images more “natural” than others?

The reason we are interested in this debate — call it the debate between the realists and the conventionalists — is because differences between words versus pictures have often been explained exactly this way. Pictures are natural signs, words are conventional signs, or so the argument goes. In our readings, from Art and Illusion (1960) and “Image and Code” (1981), you’ll see Gombrich take up two different positions on this issue. And W.J.T. Mitchell, in “Nature and Convention: Gombrich’s Illusions,” will try to figure out why Gombrich seems to have changed his mind — or did he? — between 1960 and 1981.

What is at stake here, once again, is a figure of difference between words and pictures. If space vs. time is one such figure of difference, nature vs. convention is another. This notion is important because it has implications for how we think about images. Are they a more “natural” way of communicating than words, hence more accessible to the unlearned, the childlike, and the savage? Or is that simply a myth? Read Gombrich and Mitchell and watch the argument unfold!

September 30, 2009

Blake Scholarship

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 10:11 pm

Frontispiece to Blake's "Songs of Experience," C copy (Library of Congress)

William Blake: engraver, poet, painter, maker of books, religious nonconformist, mythmaker, object of countless theories and speculations, subject of our readings this week. I’m delighted to see the latest round of posts, the readings, responses, reflections. Good show, boding well for tomorrow’s class!

Blake has understandably inspired reams of scholarship: biographical, historical, critical, and theoretical; literary, art-historical, religious/metaphysical, socio-political, and multidisciplinary. Indeed Blake studies is a well-established and, from the outside, perhaps intimidating field. Advanced studies of Blake can be dense and recondite, if often intellectually stimulating. Of particular interest to scholars have been:

  • Blake’s politics, vis-a-vis the American and French Revolutions and the general rise of Romanticism;
  • his religious and mystical outlook, in particular his criticisms of conventional religion (e.g., the Church of England) and his indebtedness to mystics such as Jacob Boehm and Emanuel Swedenborg;
  • his personal mythology, as expressed in such so-called prophetic books as America a Prophecy (1793), The First Book of Urizen (1794), and the unfinished The Four Zoas (begun c. 1797);
  • and, almost equally mysterious to scholars, the practical workings of his book-engraving techniques (i.e., how did he do it?).

In short, Blake’s work invites both historical spadework (think of him, living and working in the age of Revolution, at the looming dawn of industrialism, earning his living through commercial engraving but pouring heart and soul into his decidedly uncommercial illuminated books) and high-theoretical graspings of the most dizzying kind.

Here in no special order are some books on Blake that I’ve found particularly interesting and useful and that have strong reputations among scholars:

Visionary Physics by Don Ault

Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton by Donald Ault (1974, reprinted in rev. ed. in 2002; original ed. available in our library). Ault is a renowned scholar of both Blake and comics, in fact one of the mentor figures of comics studies. He has done much work on Blake over the decades. Visionary Physics is his first book on Blake, a remarkable study of how Blake did not simply dismiss but in fact studied and grappled with the science of Isaac Newton. It is generally understood that Blake rejected the rising Newtonian science of his era, but what is not so widely known is that Blake read Newton with care. Another mind-blowing Ault book about Blake is the later Narrative Unbound: Re-envisioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas (1987), a thorough study of Blake’s unfinished and famously complex prophetic work.

Fearful Symmetry by Northrop Frye

Fearful Symmetry by Northrop Frye (1947) is considered a hugely important, even foundational, book in Blake studies. Frye was the first prominent modern critic to offer a thorough introduction to Blake’s personal mythology and to explain what had previously been regarded as eccentric and impenetrable. In essence, Frye opened the door to readings of Blake’s mythological characters (Urizen, etc.) and prophetic texts, welcoming readers into Blake’s unique symbolic world. It’s fair to say that without this book, much of contemporary Blake studies would not exist.

Blake, The First Book of Urizen, plate 3

Blake and the Idea of the Book by Joseph Viscomi (1993, sadly out of print, and it was expensive to begin with). I couldn’t find a cover image to illustrate this one, hence the lifting above of the image from Blake. Viscomi is not only a scholar but also a professional printmaker and painter, and in this fascinating book he sets out to demonstrate exactly how Blake did it: how he prepared his engravings, what he meant by “Illuminated Printing,” and how he assembled his books. This is partly scholarly speculation (of the most responsible, carefully sourced kind) and partly show’n’tell, as Viscomi executes his own Blakean engravings and shows us how he did it. On that subject, you may find this site at Union College about Blake’s artisanal techniques helpful and interesting.

A Blake Dictionary by S. Foster Damon

A Blake Dictionary: The Ideas and Symbols of William Blake by S. Foster Damon (rev. ed. 1988). This classic encyclopedia of Blakeana is most useful.

Stranger from Paradise by G.E. Bentley

The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake by G. E. Bentley, Jr. (2001). A recent, exhaustive, well respected, and incredibly interesting life of Blake by one of the world’s leading experts.

In closing, I recommend this fascinating issue of ImageTexT (3.2, 2007) devoted to “William Blake and Visual Culture,” edited by Roger Whitson and Don Ault.

ImageTexT 3.2

September 23, 2009

What are emblems? (Prof. CH posts)

Filed under: Contexts & resources,Key terms,Sites to check out — charleshatfield @ 12:12 pm

Pages from Alciato's "Emblematum" (1534 Paris edition)

The emblem was a popular devotional and didactic genre during the Renaissance. It tended to be small and intimate in character: emblems might be worn on one’s person, for example, or displayed in a room, or read and studied on a personal level via emblem books. For our purposes, we may say that the emblem, which typically combined a printed image with a brief poetic text, anticipated other forms of imagetext that we’ll be studying.

The vogue for emblem books began in 1531 with Andrea Alciato’s Emblematum liber or Book of Emblems, a collection of 212 emblem poems in Latin. (Surprisingly, it is said that Alciato’s emblems were originally unillustrated — what are now called emblemata nuda — but that the publisher put the poems together with images.)

For a more precise understanding of emblems, we might start with this capsule description from the Glasgow University Emblem Website (at the U. of Glasgow in Scotland):

An Emblem is a symbolic picture with accompanying text, of a type which developed in the sixteenth century and enjoyed an enormous vogue for the next 200 years or more, when several thousand emblem books issued from printing presses throughout Europe. Along with personal imprese — devices that expressed the values or aspirations of a particular individual rather than a general moral — emblems communicate moral, political, or religious values in ways that have to be decoded by the viewer. Emblem books exercised an enormous influence on literature and the visual arts, and therefore they have long attracted the attention of scholars interested in painting, decorative arts, literature, illustrated books, iconography, symbolism, theories of representation, social and cultural history.

The German Emblem book project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (whose OpenEmblem P0rtal is an important scholarly resource) describes the emblem book as follows:

Emblem books can possibly be looked upon as the multi-medial publications of the 17th and 18th centuries… Each emblem is composed of three constitutive elements — a motto, an illustration or “pictura” in the form of a woodcut or engraving, and an explanatory poem or “subscriptio.” A single book may have any number of emblems, ranging from just ten to almost 1,500 [I have read that around 100 is a typical figure — CH]. An emblem is more than the sum of its parts, because the interplay between text and image produces a greater meaning than any of the individual components can provide. An individual emblem, therefore, comprises more than just the pictura, but rather all three parts: motto, pictura, and subscriptio [my emphases]. Emblems were often thought to be hieroglyphs, riddles or even mysterious messages containing secrets…Their interpretation and understanding relied on the wit, knowledge and ability of the reader to combine clues in the text and image to produce meaning.

Emblems had a wide cultural reach, high and low, and the study of emblems has potential significance for many other fields of study. Consider, for example, this abstract for an article about emblems in relation to drama, titled “Emblematic Pictures for the Less Privileged in Shakespeare’s England,”  written by Elizabeth Truax and published in the journal Comparative Drama, Vol. 29, No.1 (Spring 1995):

The imaginations of the public Renaissance England were influenced by the religious and symbolic imagery embodied in sets of emblem books published during the period. These books were characterized by a motto illustrated by a picture and explained in an allegorical piece of verse. The symbols were also reproduced in inns and the rooms of public houses as well as heraldic devices. William Shakespeare regularly referred to the symbols contained in these books for his own religious and allegorical allusions, allowing the public to recognize metaphors that he used in his own plays.

The popular lexicon of images created by emblems obviously resonated on other levels of artistic production. As we move toward the study of William Blake (mentioned in today’s Mitchell reading, as Keli and Chrissy note), we should consider the extent to which Blake extended, adapted, and/or rejected the emblem book tradition. On that score, you might consider Karl Josef Höltgen’s article, “William Blake and the Emblem Tradition,” which appeared in the 2/2002 issue of the online journal Erfurt Electronic Studies in English.

Other important sources regarding emblems include:

BTW, a subject search for “emblems” in our library catalog yields some interesting results!

September 17, 2009

Lessing turns up in the darnedest places

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 3:43 pm
Invisible Girl

Sue Storm becomes the Invisible Girl, from "The Fantastic Four" No. 1 (Marvel Comics, Nov. 1961), by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

The artist in this exceeds the limits of painting. His cloud [denoting invisibility] is a hieroglyphic, a purely symbolic sign, which does not make the rescued hero invisible, but simply says to the observers, — “You are to suppose this man to be invisible.” It is no better than the rolls of paper with sentences upon them, which issue from the mouth of personages in the old Gothic pictures. – Lessing, Laocoon 80-81

Word balloons used to be scrolls!

Ut pictura poesis and Laocoon (slideshow)

Filed under: Contexts & resources,Key terms,Slideshow — charleshatfield @ 10:53 am

The following slideshow/lecture relates to the doctrine of ut pictura poesis, the tradition of “Sister Arts” criticism, the development of the idea of paragone (contest, contrast, or struggle) between the arts, and the challenge to ut pictura poesis posed by Lessing’s seminal essay Laocoon:

Images of the Laocoon Group are also included.

September 12, 2009

Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 2 (The Fate of Laocoon)

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 1:23 pm
A modern rendition of The Trojan Horse, as displayed in the Turkish city of Çanakkale. This rendition was built for the film TROY (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004).

A modern rendition of The Trojan Horse, as displayed in the Turkish city of Çanakkale. This rendition was built for the film TROY (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004).

Remember the Trojan Horse? Remember how the gullible Trojans brought the Horse within the walls of Troy, thinking it a divine gift, not knowing that inside its hollow body were hiding a bunch of Achaean (Greek) warriors? Remember how said warriors sneaked out of the Horse and opened the gates of Troy and brought the Trojans to ruin? That is the story of the sack of Troy, the climax of the great, nine-year-long war recounted by Homer in his epic The Iliad. Hence the phrase, Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Virgil’s later epic The Aeneid, about the travels and travails of the wandering Trojan prince Aeneas, retells the sack of Troy as a flashback, specifically in Book 2. In Virgil’s account,  the Trojan priest Laocoon is the only one sensible enough to warn his people of the danger that the Horse represents. From John Dryden’s English translation of 1697:

“O wretched countrymen! what fury reigns?
What more than madness has possess’d your brains?
Think you the Grecians from your coasts are gone?
And are Ulysses’ arts no better known?
This hollow fabric either must inclose,
Within its blind recess, our secret foes;
Or ‘t is an engine rais’d above the town,
T’ o’erlook the walls, and then to batter down.
Somewhat is sure design’d, by fraud or force:
Trust not their presents, nor admit the horse.”

In fact, he throws a spear against the side of the Horse in a fit of pique:

Thus having said, against the steed he threw
His forceful spear, which, hissing as flew,
Pierc’d thro’ the yielding planks of jointed wood,
And trembling in the hollow belly stood.

For this offense he is punished by the gods, or specifically by Minerva (called Athena by the Greeks), who sends two monstrous sea “serpents” to kill him and his sons even as he is about to make a sacrifice to the god Neptune (Poseidon):

When, dreadful to behold, from sea we spied
Two serpents, rank’d abreast, the seas divide,
And smoothly sweep along the swelling tide.
Their flaming crests above the waves they show;
Their bellies seem to burn the seas below;
Their speckled tails advance to steer their course,
And on the sounding shore the flying billows force.

To get the whole story, you will need to read the first third or so of Book 2 of The Aeneid. I recommend the Dryden translation for its ease and elegance (read the first 300 lines). It can be found online at, for example, The Internet Classics Archive or at Project Gutenberg. Alternately, the H. R. Fairclough translation renders the Virgil into prose (not my preference, but okay), and can be read online at the Theoi Project (read up to [250]).

A famous sculpture, probably created between 42 and 20 BCE (the scholars’ best guess), depicts the death of Laocoon and sons:

The Laocoon Group

This sculpture, most often referred to as The Laocoon Group, was rediscovered in Rome in 1506. It has been subject of much speculation, would-be restoration (i.e., reassembly, disassembly, re-reassembly), and copying. The image of this sculpture is what inspired Lessing’s title Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie, 1766).

September 9, 2009

A moment from “City of Glass”

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 3:28 pm

I’m struck by a moment in the City of Glass graphic novel that, it seems to me, does justice to Auster’s prose while at the same time pointing out the graphic novel’s pedigree as a comic:


Here is the corresponding moment from Auster’s novel, as Quinn waits for Stillman to arrive on the train:

The train pulled into the station, and Quinn felt the noise of it shoot through his body: a random, hectic din that seemed to join with his pulse, pumping his blood in raucous spurts. His head then filled with Peter Stillman’s voice, as a barrage of nonsense words clattered against the walls of his skull. He told himself to stay calm. But that did little good. In spite of what he had been expecting of himself at this moment, he was excited. (54)

Karasik & Mazzucchelli cleverly insert their repeated image of a child’s drawing,


into the sight of the train arriving, which, to me, nicely matches Auster’s line about Peter Stillman’s voice and his “nonsense words”:

Quinn feels the noise of the train shoot through his body

At the same time, this moment is, I’m sure, an homage to a comics story that Karasik and Mazzucchelli are both no doubt aware of, “Master Race,” scripted by Al Feldstein and designed and drawn by Bernard Krigstein for the comic book Impact No. 1 (March-April 1955) and generally considered one of the finest American comic book stories ever:


“Master Race” takes place on the NYC subway, and Krigstein, who was interested in new ways of representing time and motion on the comics page, uses the passing of a train to experiment with how to show rapid movement in a frozen, almost stroboscopic manner. The technique, which from my POV is dazzling but slightly alienating, fits the unnerving subject matter of the story (one of the first in comic books to discuss the Holocaust, and this just ten years the end of the war, at a time when such discussions were unknown in popular culture). Dig these images of the train’s movement:


The above is from page 1, which describes the approaching train as an “onrushing steel monster.” Compare to our image of Quinn above, which seems to use a similar technique (only this time from inside the train looking out, rather than from outside looking in?). The below is from the incredible climax of “Master Race”:


Krigstein, along with his contemporary Harvey Kurtzman, was one of the masters of comic book design and pacing. Karasik and Mazzucchelli are both aware of this. Notice how they’ve dug into their comic book history (“Master Race” was done almost 40 years before City of Glass) to bring this moment from Auster to life!

For more on “Master Race,” see this post by the very smart blogger Derik Badman. To read all of “Master Race” — and you should, it’s one of the great ones — see here. You may find other echoes of “Master Race” in City, too; I don’t know, but it’s worth investigating.

September 4, 2009

Paul Auster (that is his real name)

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 11:24 am

Paul Auster

It was a man who opened the apartment door. He was a tall dark fellow in his mid-thirties, with rumpled clothes and a two-day beard. In his right hand, fixed between his thumb and first two fingers, he held an uncapped fountain pen, still poised in a writing positi0n. City of Glass 91-92

Becoming a writer is not a “career decision” like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you’re not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days. — Paul Auster

Regarding Paul Auster, author of our reading City of Glass (1985, republished as part of The New York Trilogy in 1987, adapted as a graphic novel in 1994), there could be a lot to say. But there seems to be a remarkable consistency to much of the writing about Auster: common reference points include postmodernism, the mystery story, and the themes, sometimes interrelated, of identity and of writing itself. Self-reflexivity, questing for self, and economy of style are hallmarks of his work.

Auster (b. 1947, New Jersey, and a long-time resident of Brooklyn, NY) graduated from Columbia (1970), lived in France for a time, translated the work of French writers (from which process he says he learned economy of style in English), and first became known in literary circles for his memoir The Invention of Solitude (1982), in part a response to his father’s death, as well as a series of self-referential, anti-classical, and experimental novels with a detective angle: what came to be known as the New York Trilogy. Among his many other books are the novels In the Country of Last Things (1987), Mr. Vertigo (1994), The Book of Illusions (2002), Travels in the Scriptorium (2007), and Man in the Dark (2008). He has also been a poet, essayist, scriptwriter, and film director. He edited the fascinating collection, I Thought My Father Was God (2001), made up of stories submitted by listeners to NPR’s National Story Project.

Again, people tend to call Auster a postmodernist, but he has said that he feels affinity above all for storytellers: tellers of folktales, Sheherazade of the 1001 Nights, or anyone with a story to share. He has also said that he loves the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, perhaps his favorite American writer.

I’ve found the following resources helpful in getting to know Auster’s work:

Next week we’ll be talking about both Auster’s City of Glass and its adaptation into comics by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. The process of adaptation is discussed in the Spring 2004 issue of Indy Magazine (look especially for interviews with Karasik and with Mazzucchelli conducted by Bill Kartalopoulos, as well as an analysis by scholar Martha Kuhlman).

Here are brief bios for Karasik and Mazzucchelli, courtesy of Lambiek’s Comiclopedia (a site definitely worth bookmarking, BTW).

September 3, 2009

Quince, Melon, Cabbage and Cucumber, by Juan Sanchez Cotán, c. 1602

Filed under: Contexts & resources — charleshatfield @ 3:52 pm

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, by Cotán

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