Alberto Manguel: Looking at pictures is a way of reading the world

Taken from a talk by the author of 'Reading Pictures', delivered at Tate Britain in London

Wednesday 18 July 2001 00:00 BST

A number of years ago, I wrote a book called The History of Reading. It concerned itself mainly with the reading of texts, but I believe that the act of reading really extends to most human activities. It is one of our essential reflexes; we can almost be defined as reading animals. We read not only the languages that we create – written, drawn, sculpted etc. We read the world around us as if it were a language. We read the sky, we read the geography, we read the gestures of others. The ancient metaphor of the world as a book is true – not only because we see the world as a book but, as this ancient metaphor has it, we are also letters in that book, and in reading it we read ourselves.

Until well into the 20th century, when artists began to despair about the possibilities of communicating through language of any kind, a painting, whether a portrait or the depiction of a scene, whether religious, allegorical, historical or private, was meant to be read. This was an essential feature of the aesthetic act: the possibility of communication, through a shared vocabulary, between the viewpoint of the artist and the viewpoint of the audience.

A picture could be venerated for its craft or its matter, but beyond veneration was the promise of something to be learned, or at least recognised. As early as the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great had declared: "It is one thing to worship a picture, it is another to learn in depth by means of pictures, a venerable story. For that which writing makes present to the reader, pictures make present to those who cannot read, to those who only perceive visually. Especially for the common folk, pictures are the equivalent of reading."

Taking away the hierarchical tone of the pope's statement, it is obviously quite true that pictures tell stories. But paradoxically, in our time, when images are once again given priority over the written word, when advertising and the electronic media have privileged the image because it can, we are told, deliver information instantaneously and does not even require time for reflection, we lack the shared iconographic vocabulary to read it.

In Velasquez's portrait Las Meninas, the painter is central to the composition and offers us no ready made model subject. The subject is concealed in the secondary frame of a mirror that is supposed to reflect us, the viewer. Painted in 1556, it pictures a fleeting moment in the artist's studio, when he was painting the king and queen, who can be glimpsed in the distant reflection. So, they take our place in the mirror. We are in the position then of asking ourselves, who is the subject of this portrait? Is it the royal couple? Is it Velasquez himself, painting the picture? Or is it the meninas, the young girls, since they are important enough to give the picture a title? The question has no answer.

Bearing in mind Pope Gregory's call, I would say that looking at a picture is equivalent to reading, a vastly creative form of reading, a reading in which we must not only put words into sounds but images into stories.

Image and meaning reflect each other in a gallery of mirrors, in which, as in a corridor of paintings in a museum, we choose to wander, always knowing that there is no end to our search even if we had a goal in mind. A line from Ecclesiastes sums up our dealings with a work of art that meets us. It acknowledges the craftsmanship. It intimates the inspiration. It also tells of our helplessness of putting the experience of art into words: "All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."

The experience of a work of art can no doubt be understood, because it is after all a human experience, but a complete understanding in all its illuminating and ambiguous revelations must be condemned, perhaps because of its very nature, to remain for us just beyond the possibilities of our labours.

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