Cover image for Why are our pictures puzzles? : on the modern origins of pictorial complexity
Title:
Why are our pictures puzzles? : on the modern origins of pictorial complexity
Author:
Elkins, James, 1955-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Routledge, 1999.
Physical Description:
xvii, 302 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780415919418

9780415919425
Format :
Book

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Library
Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Status
Central Library ND1140 .E49 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

With bracing clarity, James Elkins explores why images are taken to be more intricate and hard to describe in the twentieth century than they had been in any previous century. Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? uses three models to understand the kinds of complex meaning that pictures are thought to possess: the affinity between the meanings of paintings and jigsaw-puzzles; the contemporary interest in ambiguity and 'levels of meaning'; and the penchant many have to interpret pictures by finding images hidden within them. Elkins explores a wide variety of examples, from the figures hidden in Renaissance paintings to Salvador Dali's paranoiac meditations on Millet's Angelus, from Persian miniature paintings to jigsaw-puzzles. He also examines some of the most vexed works in history, including Watteau's "meaningless" paintings, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, and Leonardo's Last Supper.


Summary

With bracing clarity, James Elkins explores why images are taken to be more intricate and hard to describe in the twentieth century than they had been in any previous century. Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? uses three models to understand the kinds of complex meaning that pictures are thought to possess: the affinity between the meanings of paintings and jigsaw-puzzles; the contemporary interest in ambiguity and 'levels of meaning'; and the penchant many have to interpret pictures by finding images hidden within them. Elkins explores a wide variety of examples, from the figures hidden in Renaissance paintings to Salvador Dali's paranoiac meditations on Millet's Angelus, from Persian miniature paintings to jigsaw-puzzles. He also examines some of the most vexed works in history, including Watteau's "meaningless" paintings, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, and Leonardo's Last Supper.


Author Notes

James Elkins is Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including What Painting Is (Routledge, 1998) and The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (1996).


James Elkins is Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including What Painting Is (Routledge, 1998) and The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (1996).


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The way writers write about art has changed remarkably over the centuries, observes James Elkins. Why is it, he asks, that classical and Renaissance writers rarely took more than a single page to describe a painting, whereas modern art historians seem to need to write entire books? To answer this conundrum, Elkins, a most astute art historian and a prolific writer, has produced his own 292-page tome. He discusses three kinds of responses that art historians display when faced with "pictorial complexity." The simplest is to see pictures as puzzles for the art historians to "solve." The second assumes pictures to be inherently ambiguous, possessing multiple levels of meaning that cannot easily be reconciled. The third is a wild, uncontrolled response that gives insight into the meaning of pictures through hallucinations. Elkins examines a broad array of paintings, from Renaissance paintings that hide figures to Salvador Dali's paranoiac meditations on Millet's The Angelus, and includes detailed accounts of some of the most vexed works in art history, including Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and da Vinci's Last Supper. --Veronica Scrol


Publisher's Weekly Review

Plato shrewdly noticed that a painting loses its liveliness the moment the viewer confronts its "most majestic silence." In this book, Elkins shows how "dire anxiety in the face of pictures" has induced a crisis in recent art criticism. Specialists, compelled to interpret and reinterpret paintings in search of puzzles, ambiguities and hidden meanings, have generated reams of excessive and esoteric scholarship: "Their theories are the inflammation that results from irritating the wound instead of letting it alone so it can heal." Some of his claimsÄthat art historians, who "are attracted by oddities, mistakes [and] idiosyncrasies" seek out, and themselves enact, "thematized self-awareness"Ähave intuitive appeal, holding a mirror up to a culture unaware of its own fascinations. Less convincing is the insistence that critical energy itselfÄexpended on "hypericons" such as the Mona Lisa, School of Athens and the Sistine CeilingÄis a symptom of illness, hopelessly engulfed in a bottomless well of bibliographies and indexes. When Elkins turns to praise fellow workers in his field from Leo Steinberg and Michael Fried to Jacques Derrida and Salvador Dal¡, however, he lends optimism ("An engaged imagination is finally what compels conviction") to an account otherwise bordering on the cynical. Cogent, conversational and lucid, this book provides a useful, nuanced understanding of what ordinary viewers today share with "the discipline [that] thrives on the pleasure of problems well solved." 76 plates. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Booklist Review

The way writers write about art has changed remarkably over the centuries, observes James Elkins. Why is it, he asks, that classical and Renaissance writers rarely took more than a single page to describe a painting, whereas modern art historians seem to need to write entire books? To answer this conundrum, Elkins, a most astute art historian and a prolific writer, has produced his own 292-page tome. He discusses three kinds of responses that art historians display when faced with "pictorial complexity." The simplest is to see pictures as puzzles for the art historians to "solve." The second assumes pictures to be inherently ambiguous, possessing multiple levels of meaning that cannot easily be reconciled. The third is a wild, uncontrolled response that gives insight into the meaning of pictures through hallucinations. Elkins examines a broad array of paintings, from Renaissance paintings that hide figures to Salvador Dali's paranoiac meditations on Millet's The Angelus, and includes detailed accounts of some of the most vexed works in art history, including Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and da Vinci's Last Supper. --Veronica Scrol


Publisher's Weekly Review

Plato shrewdly noticed that a painting loses its liveliness the moment the viewer confronts its "most majestic silence." In this book, Elkins shows how "dire anxiety in the face of pictures" has induced a crisis in recent art criticism. Specialists, compelled to interpret and reinterpret paintings in search of puzzles, ambiguities and hidden meanings, have generated reams of excessive and esoteric scholarship: "Their theories are the inflammation that results from irritating the wound instead of letting it alone so it can heal." Some of his claimsÄthat art historians, who "are attracted by oddities, mistakes [and] idiosyncrasies" seek out, and themselves enact, "thematized self-awareness"Ähave intuitive appeal, holding a mirror up to a culture unaware of its own fascinations. Less convincing is the insistence that critical energy itselfÄexpended on "hypericons" such as the Mona Lisa, School of Athens and the Sistine CeilingÄis a symptom of illness, hopelessly engulfed in a bottomless well of bibliographies and indexes. When Elkins turns to praise fellow workers in his field from Leo Steinberg and Michael Fried to Jacques Derrida and Salvador Dal¡, however, he lends optimism ("An engaged imagination is finally what compels conviction") to an account otherwise bordering on the cynical. Cogent, conversational and lucid, this book provides a useful, nuanced understanding of what ordinary viewers today share with "the discipline [that] thrives on the pleasure of problems well solved." 76 plates. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


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