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When we think of language we usually think of words as perhaps our richest source of stimulation and used by many artists throughout the generations. Like music, words are a strong force for stirring our emotions and stimulating the brain. We receive knowledge through stories, books, poems, letters, magazines and rhyme.
Use words to inform your work, stimulate your ideas, and express how you feel about your work and the work of others and to further your own ideas.
Words from the Bible have been, and continue to be an important thought provoker and generator of artistic works. During the dark ages, literate monks illustrated beautiful manuscriptsin the isolation of their qualities. At the time of the Renaissance (about the thirteenth century), patrons paid for great works of art to be produced for their buildings and churches. The revival of art at this time was based around the life of Christ. In fact, the standards and rules concerning art and its teachings were formed at this point and stayed with us until the twentieth century revolution in art.
Giolto is often taken as the starting point of the Renaissance. If we look at his fresco - St Frances Preaching to the Birds, we can see how literally Giotto has put across the words from the Bible.
He conveys the message of kindness, gentility, humbleness and humility to all God's creatures. There is a sense of realistic proportion. Figures and trees have form - they look like solid objects set in a landscape. In other words, it is delivering a message.
Some six hundred years later, in 1935, Sir Stanley Spencer paints St Frances and the Birds.
We do not see St Frances as Giolto saw him. Spencer has shown him as a caricature, almost as a source of ridicule. St Frances is definitely a larger than life character, he stands almost as tall as the house and I am not sure any human skeleton could fit inside that body! He is waving his arms around wildly so that he knocks some poor woman sideways. Or are they all looking at something unbelievable in the distance and shocked by what they see?
This painting does not conform to what we know to be true, such as the rules of proportion. The message is ambiguous; it is not as clear as Giolto's message. Spencer has been allowed to put more of his own thinking into this painting.
What other things could be read into it?
We could say that life is not as clear-cut as it was; we have to work harder to make sense of our world. Rules are not adhered to as before. We are perhaps more accepting of other people's views and interpretations than we were.
What do you see?
William Holman Hunt's Light of the World, 1853 was inspired by the following passage from Revelations verse 20:
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him and he with me."
Here is Christ wearing a threefold crown, of light, gold and thorns, holding a lantern in his hands. He is knocking at a door that has long been closed, as the tall weeds would suggest.
This is a more direct illustration of the above passage, but it carries its message symbolically. The crown of thorns tells us of his humble death, the light suggests that his birth brought light into a dark world. He is carrying a lantern to show us the way, perhaps bringing knowledge to dispel our ignorance, or goodness to overcome evil. The door at which Christ stands is, of course,the door to the soul. Reproductions of this work were once found in Christian schools all over the world, because many people at that time thought that art should be socially and morally useful - it should carry a message.
In a recent piece of work called Regeneration, a sixth form student has interpreted how she sees the world today and how she sees the future in a panel of two paintings.
She was able to work from a long list of words, which were the views of her generation, together with her own feelings about the world today and the future. She represents today's world as a dying shattered plant struggling to survive in a polluted dismal world. In her second panel, she represents the future. The root system of the same plant pushes its way up through into a gentler world, where it is nourished by the light and warmth of the sun. There are no shattered images and the plant rises boldly, its foliage renewed, simple images that deliver more complex messages.
You might try the same experiment. Write down the first ten words which come immediately into your mind when you think of today's world and then ten words for the future - do this quickly, if you spend time thinking about it you will be controlling the outcome..
Using these words, try and construct a composition, which conveys your thoughts very simply. You will notice that her style of painting for the first panel was greatly influenced by the cubists. This shows that she researched the work of other artists in order to further her own ideas. She did this by applying, not copying techniques.
Lastly, this section began touching upon the work of monks and then illuminated manuscripts using pictures to decorate words. If you look at the collages of Picasso and Braque at the turn of the century you can see where they have used word almost as decoration for their compositions.
They used bits of newspaper cuttings, train and theatre tickets, and discarded articles as part of their work. Sometimes, these objects related to the work, but sometimes not. These collages were later made into paintings, which were made to look like collages. In The Clarinet by George Braque, 1912 the original technique of collage has been used to fuel other work.
The printed word is made to look like a collaged piece of paper with another shape lying across it, but in fact, it is a painting.
Marian Murphy based a beautiful piece of textile on the letter G. She used many techniques to achieve the complicated composition such as, drawn thread, slashing and stitching onto suitable fabric.
You could achieve similar effects with fine transparent paper, tissue and fabric with simple stitching and printing. You could use a single word repeated or a sequence of words from a letter or an important piece of writing. Make this your starting point for a composition by constructing and overlaying around it so that it evolves into a much larger piece. Not knowing the outcome, the beginning of this process could be likened to writing a song that develops and takes on a life of its own. It is very good to experiment, lose control and see where it takes you.
Concentrating on getting ideas from the written word, you might like to look at calligraphic painting that developed in the 1940s. In this style of painting (which is normally abstract) the paintbrush is used to stress the written quality of the brush stroke in the same way as Oriental.
Calligraphy. Centre Agite Domine by Mark Tobey, 1960 is a calligraphic painting with the influence of oriental calligraphy.
William Blake was an artist as well as a poet and the exchange of ideas from the written word to visual images probably fed both artistic outlets.
Look at his choice of words from the first four lines of Auguries of innocence: