OF WORDS & IMAGES: A Short History
20th century artist René Magritte and his surrealist pals liked to sit around in front of one of his paintings and conjure up title ideas. What they favored was definitely not explanation but rather some words that might hint at the mental process that led the artist to paint the picture in the first place. They were a playful bunch and they were always after the provocative and the inexplicable. For them both words and images were mysterious and therefore could point toward the mystery of existence.
As a visual artist I have always been fascinated with narrative, but while in art school in the 1960s my major professor favored the pure image, the object-in-itself. No fooling around with stories of any kind, much less those surrealist games. Of course this Puritanism was bound to lead to heretical penciled cartoonish-ness on the studio walls amidst all the abstraction. Though there were no words involved a message was being sent. The creative id chafes at censorship. Sadly these wordless little imaged fantasies had to be erased.
For a little perspective: nosing around backwards in art history we find that artists were not always so conflicted about the whole word/image contretemps. They often called on poetry or historical quotes to accompany their paintings. There was no fear then of literary values that became anathema in modernist art; they were not constrained in the way us graduate students were. Nineteenth century artists put a high value on the back story. In those days the art-looking-at public was pretty much up to snuff on their Shakespeare, Bible, classical mythology and of course Keats and Tennyson. They knew who Ophelia was and why she was drowning, flower-splattered amidst the watercress in that 1850 painting by J.E. Millais.
Well, a lot of water has gone over the bridge* since my academic days. Now in these post, postmodern days we are free to do most anything – large scale words can now appear all by themselves on gallery walls! Alas, today many of us visual artists are not so steeped in Shakespeare so we muddle along on our own, content-wise. Art has become perhaps more democratic this way. Which brings me to Norman Rockwell, whose populist art was so taboo in my school days – too sentimental and so forth. He was the great American storyteller in 1950s. A bit of a cornball, he was actually a brilliant painter (he studied the old masters) with a sense of humor. A great illustrator, he knew his way around a narrative. Visual wordiness did not worry him. And, speaking of humor, which was also forbidden in high-art school, I am quite devoted to New Yorker cartoons where words and images conjoin to relieve us of our daily burden of gloom and doom. I had a long-ago short career as a comic colorist where I worked with the symbiosis of color mood and the dialogue bubble in aid of the laugh.
Recently I began a series of handmade works on paper combining language and images called 'Sketchy Ideas'. Subjects have included Art History Made Easy, The Perils of Chronophagia [ed: fear of the passing of time] and Emily Dickinson's poem "Wild Nights, Wild Nights". These entertaining but pithy cultural bulletins feature drawings and appropriated images photo copied and sent to a select audience via USPS in a quiet, artisanal rebuke to the tyranny of digital fast information.
My homage to René Magritte, reproduced on the cover of this issue of Bramble, was inspired by his painting called Le Thérapeute (The Therapist). My painting is a gentle, gardening domestication of his more gravity prone figure with a caged head and torso. Mine heads a little more toward humor perhaps and a less mysterious title. Magritte died in 1967 probably unaware of the popularity of his posterized images in so many dorm rooms and hippie pads. They seemed to have hallucinogenic properties for a generation so different from his. What he meant by Le Thérapeute would have been lost on us. But in our bedazzled late 60s way we were just as interested in the mysteries of words and images as he was.
*Ed (RH): Berndt here uses malaphor, an ultimately nonsensical idiom blend, despite recent flooding in Wisconsin – as in water under the bridge married to water over the dam.
Randall Berndt is the former assistant curator at the James Watrous Gallery at the Overture Center for the Arts and was for years the director of the Wisconsin Academy Gallery in Madison, Wisconsin. He received an MFA in painting from UW-Madison in 1969 and has pursued the life of the artist mixed with the demands of the "real world" ever since. Some career highlights include a major award for a painting accepted into the Butler Institute of American Art's 62nd Annual Midyear Exhibition, a 1996 Wisconsin Arts Board Visual Arts Fellowship and participation in the Madison Art Center's 1987 Triennial Exhibition. Berndt's paintings were juried into New American Paintings, Number 29, an exhibition in print published by Open Studios Press, Wellesley, MA, in 2000. In 2006 his paintings and drawings were included in the West Bend Art Museum's group exhibition Up North: Imaging North Woods Culture & Mythology. Recent exhibitions include “The Romance of Unruly Dreams", 2017, Abel Contemporary Gallery, Paoli, Wisconsin.