James Heffernan’s Cultivating Picturacy is a treasure for scholars and students interested in the history, theory, and practice of text-image relations. The volume, beautifully produced and illustrated by Baylor University Press, contains a breadth of reference, richness of analysis, and limpid prose that are truly marvelous. It consists of fourteen essays (including the introduction), almost all published in the period 1988-2000, which, taken together, crown a distinguished career in what used to be rather quaintly called “sister arts” criticism, but which is now, in the age of metastasizing visual-verbal media, among the most urgent topics of cultural history and aesthetics. As his many books in the field have shown, Heffernan is a deeply learned, creative, and independent-minded guide to this history, and one whose position on the issue is clear and consistent: art images are “rhetorical” in the sense that they require interpretation and, therefore, discourse: “the rhetoric of painting depend[s] on the rhetoric of speech.” (82) This formulation—built around the visual literacy, or “picturacy” of the viewing subject—does not pre-emptively award the palm to language, relegating images to the degraded, subordinate status they have held in Western theory from Plato to Lessing and beyond. On the contrary, as Heffernan’s own elegant practice of “picturacy” shows, what is needed from the critic is an artful deconstruction of what the neo-classical theorists called “the hierarchy of arts” through analysis, on a case by case basis, of how visual and verbal media, whether formally integrated by the artist or juxtaposed by the critic, reveal and amplify meanings in the other. This process of generating meaning is discursive, yes, but neither word nor image has a controlling share. “There is no such thing as a coherent discourse about art,” Heffernan contends, but rather “a bewlidering variety of discursive practices that diverge and proliferate.” (115) That is, there is no discourse, of whatever art-historical or theoretical school, that can lay claim to mastery over the signifying properties of images. Heffernan’s essential point, then, is not for a specific critical mode, but to highlight the power of art images as inexorable generators of discourse, of whatever kind.
In the first three chapters, Heffernan assembles a round-table of art theorists and critics, from Philostratus, Vasari and Diderot, to Panofsky, Schapiro and Steinberg, with each of whom he engages closely and critically. The term “picturacy,” we discover, is a product of Heffernan’s dissatisfaction with both E.H. Gombrich’s perceptualist account of Western art history—in which an ever-greater approximation of the real world is the collective object—and Norman Bryson’s materialist semiotics: “perceptualism will never given way entirely to the semiotic conception of art—because it is scarcely possible to banish the sense of perception altogether from the act of viewing pictures.” (3) Likewise subject to rich and persuasive critique are the modernist Grand Narratives of Greenberg, Steinberg, and Krauss, which celebrate the triumph of modernist abstraction, the Hegelian purity of the image divorced from reference and language. No such divorce has ever occurred, argues Heffernan, who shows convincingly that art criticism has not changed in its essentials from the Ancients to the present day. From Alberti to Diderot to Clement Greenberg, “the art of speaking for pictures is above all a rhetorical performance.” (44) Furthermore, in the modern era, neither the advent of mechanical reproduction nor abstract painting has fundamentally altered the viewer/critic’s relation to the art image as an object distinct from ordinary objects in its demand for words, to be addressed in language. In Pollock’s drip paintings, for example, the “figurative components . . . begin to emerge as soon as we carefully scrutinize its materiality . . . its webs and labyrinths incorporate figures that can be recognized and named.” (296) Thus Heffernan is as skeptical is of the Early Modern theorist Alberti’s insistence that art speaks for itself without mediation, as he is of the modernists’ claim for an art that transcends language. In both cases, the richness of the critical discourse itself belies the claim.
These opening chapters are mostly concerned with theory, with Heffernan’s staking out a deeply informed but skeptical position toward the principles, if not the rhetorical brilliance, of various pillars of the art-critical tradition. The next five chapters (4-8) shift from theory to practice, and are of most direct pertinence to nineteenth-century studies. Heffernan describes “picturacy” as not semiotics but rather a “method of reading,” and in his chapters on British Romantic art, the agility and penetration of that method are abundantly apparent. The two chapters on Blake exemplify the virtues of a critical practice that abjures the harder claims of “theory:” it allows Heffernan to be attentive to the unique agon of each text-image relationship. His approach to Blake’s illustrated texts, for example, “is to read both text and design continuously in light of each other.” (96) The operative word here is “continuously.” Through Heffernan’s deft readings, alive to idiosyncracy, we see how Blake routinely defied Lessing’s neo-classical prescription that an image portray the most suggestive or “pregnant” moment of the text it illustrates. “Blake’s pictures do not simply serve his text or give us a beautifully clear idea of its meaning,” Heffernan argues, rather his images assert themselves as the discursive equals of the text, and alternately amplify, expand and originate readings of the poems. (104) In a similar vein, Turner’s lifelong investment in poetic captions of his paintings is not an act of deference to the primacy of the word, but “a challenge to the authority of poetry.” In a wonderful analysis of Turner’s epigraphic strategies, Heffernan shows how, first in his use of Thompson, then his own “Fallacies of Hope,” Turner chooses texts that are productively dissonant with the pictures. In Turner’s art, text is relegated to pretext, to suggestive “illustration” of what the image more powerfully and completely conveys. In a second chapter on Turner, Heffernan himself takes on the task of demonstrating the signifying powers of Romantic painting, showing how, even in the absence of actual self-portraits, Turner engages in a semiotics of self-representation as complex and various as his contemporary, Byron. The interest in biography takes a different turn in the long chapter on Constable’s “Hadleigh Castle” (1828-9), in which Heffernan contests the conventional reading of late Constable as an art marred by biography, by the artist’s personal griefs and professional disappointments. Like Turner, Constable employed painterly techniques, in his case chiaroscuro, for experiments in self-study and self-signification. The result in “Hadleight Castle” is a powerful “graphic psychomachia of a mind at war with its own despair.” (152) Heffernan’s challenge to the conventional (mis)reading of chiaroscuro in late Constable exemplifies a first principle of “picturacy,” i.e. that images will resist decoding as often as they invite it, and are forever awaiting new viewing subjects to speak their possibilities (7).
The final four chapters (9-13) advance to the twentieth century and beyond, though each reading—of Beardsley, Hockney, Peter Milton, Pollock, and Richter—builds upon or exemplifies work that has gone before. The very fact of this continuity in Heffernan’s readings shows that his range and eclecticism represents a profound art-historical argument in itself: namely, that the disciplinary and period boundaries dividing Romantic art and Romantic poetry, or Romantic art and Modernist art, have obscured an unbroken history of visual-verbal interplay and the essential discursiveness of art. Heffernan’s reading of Beardsley, for example, rehearses the terms of his analysis of Turner. In his illustrations for Salomé and Rape of the Lock, Beardsley defies the expectations of mere illustration to produce readings of Wilde’s and Pope’s texts according to his own fascination for a latter-day mannerist grotesque: “Beardsley helps us to see [that] both works incongruously mingle the social and domestic rituals of civilized life—applying make-up, formal dining, dancing, card-playing, tea-drinking, gossiping, flirting—with acts of brutal barbarity: rape and decapitation.” (212) In “failing” to illustrate the texts, Beardsley succeeds in opening them to ideas the texts themselves obscure. The same is spectacularly true of twentieth-century film versions of Frankenstein, which, in making a mostly mute, iconic freak out of Mary Shelley’s eloquent and only vaguely described monster, make visible the lure and threat of monstrosity and technology in a way the text does not dare speak.
In the concluding chapters, Heffernan shows how visual-verbal speculations need not be confined to literal text-image relations, but can be applied to the relationship of modern visual artists to their own disciplinary past. For the critic, this means “using one picture to explain another just as we commonly use one text to gloss another.” (96) As such, Hockney “rewrites” Hogarth’s word-rich Rake’s Progress with himself as both rake and artist, while Peter Milton engages in various art-historical readings—of Degas, Cassatt, and the modernist canon—through extraordinary prints that are themselves a kind of palimpsest of art history, evoking Rembrandt and Dürer in their virtuosic treament of texture and line, but also devoted to, indeed embedded by, the history of photography. Milton, Heffernan writes, “takes photography as both his model and rival, deliberately emulating its subtleties and evoking above all its mnemonic power, its capacity to fix forever a moment of the past.” (285) Heffernan concludes with another artist hugely influenced by photography, namely Gerhard Richter, who enjoys fame an order of magnitude greater than Milton’s. From his “photo-pictures” of the late 1960s to his illustrated book inspired by the Iraq invasion, War Cut (2004), Richter both deconstructs the opposition between abstract and figurative art and employs the photographic medium as an essential tool to that end. In Richter, Heffernan argues, lies the creative paradox of twenty-first century art. An “abstract” artist, he nevertheless regards photographic realism, a figurative medium, as the fons et origo of his working material and technique. His desire, Richter has said, is not to imitate photographs but to make them, and that art be the continuation of photography by other means. In Richter, then, the revenge of the “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction is complete, his “restless alteration between photographic realism and enigmatic abstractions suggests . . . that the wall between the two is beginning to fall.” (309) In a single move, Heffernan repudiates the twin shibboleths of the twentieth-century theory of art—Benjamin’s decline of the aura and the triumph of abstraction—and pivots elegantly toward the future, a fitting turn on which to end a book that has taken the full scope of Western art history, and the history of speaking that art, so expertly in its stride.
Gillen D'Arcy Wood is the author of three books: The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860 (Palgrave 2001), Virtue and Virtuosity: Romanticism and Music Culture in Britain, 1770-1840 (Cambridge UP, forthcoming), and an historical novel, Hosack's Folly (Other Press, 2005). He is associate professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he is currently engaged in various interdisciplinary projects in culture and sustainability.