Telling A Story

28 Sep

It may be difficult to think of art as telling a story.  The advent of the “moving picture” made it much harder for the brain to imagine a complete narrative from one single image , but for millenia this was the case.  Heroes, lovers, battles and fables were all told through art.  Many scholars believe the first cave paintings were done to commemorate a hunt, to tell its story, as it were.

Full view of Trajan's Column in Rome

The Greeks were experts at telling their stories through art.  Greek vases are covered with the deeds of the great heroes of Greek mythology.  The greatest at it, though, were quite possibly the Romans.  They didn’t relegate their heroes to mere household pottery.  Oh no, they told their stories in grand fashion.  All the better to glorify Rome and more importantly their immortal emperors, after all.  Probably the best and most obvious example of this is Trajan’s Column.  Erected in 112 A.D. and standing at 182 feet tall, it’s an impressive mausoleum in its own right (the emperor’s ashes are located in its base) but the emperor’s eternal glory wasn’t guaranteed by a nice plaque or even a statue, but rather by a 625 foot winding band that depicts Trajan’s victory of the Dacians.

Detail of a ritual sacrifice being prepared

This is an extreme example, however.  Even one picture can tell you all you need to know about a story.  Probably my favorite is Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Begère from 1882.  The one scene depicted tells you all you need to know.  For me it’s not the composition, the colors, the busyness of the bar reflected in the mirror but the look on the barmaid’s face that tells you everything you need to know.   You start trying to figure out who this girl is, why she’s working there, and what exactly happened to make her seem so melancholy in the middle of such a great party.  There’s a feel for narrative and sympathy for the character normally found in great novels, plays, or films that’s been created by oil paints on one single canvas.  What makes it even more interesting is that every viewer is free to create his or her own story based on the scene Manet has laid out for us.

Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Begere

The performing arts, literature, and now cinema are all meant to tell stories, but the visual arts do this in their own unique way.  The only downside is that often a bit of background knowledge is needed to truly appreciate the stories depicted.  In Western art a basic knowledge of Greek & Roman mythology and the Bible will take care of a good percentage, but there’s much more from other sources.  Even without this knowledge, however, simply trying to figure out what the story is based on the clues given will give you a good enough idea and often time make you connect with a work of art even more.


One Response to “Telling A Story”

  1. click June 6, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    This blog is very cool. How was it made .

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