INTERDISCIPLINARY JOURNAL FOR GERMANIC LINGUISTICS & SEMIOTIC ANALYSIS
ENRIQUE MALLEN.2003, The Visual Grammar of Pablo Picasso, Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics 54. New York: Peter Lang. xvi +344 pp.
Reviewed by: Dr. W. C. Watt. University of California, Irvine
The title of the book here under review, since it includes the notion of "visual grammar", will already have reminded the alert reader of the different senses in which the word "grammar" has, over the years, been extended to apply to objects other than language. These varying senses seem mostly to cluster at opposite ends of a continuum. Depending in large part on when the "grammar" in question was devised, at one extreme the term has (as in the nineteenth century) been used to evoke, sometimes rather vaguely, the prescriptive rules of traditional grammars; at the other extreme, more recently, it has been used to label descriptive algorithms reminiscent of those of modern linguistics. In the older sense someone might present a "grammar" of the classical orders of architecture, for example, in which rules are laid down for how to design (or appreciate) a "correct" column, whether Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, or Composite. (And only these.) In the more contemporary sense, under the influence of modern "generative" linguistics and modern computer algorithms, something like a computer program might be presented that is capable of generating a set of modern semi abstract paintings. Ready examples are Jones (1868) in the first case, Kirsch and Kirsch (1986) in the second. The differences between the two sorts of "grammar" could perhaps appear to be mere differences in degree, for, though no "grammar" of the classical orders was meant to generate all actual column, serious attention to the "rules" governing such objects would greatly avail the intending architect (thus fulfilling their purpose). At the same time, however, the differences between traditional "rules" and a modern algorithm such as is the hoped for result of contemporary linguistic studies are very great. The linguistic algorithm aims to provide a characterization, not only of the sentences that have been observed in life, but of all possible sentences of the language under analysis; and in the Chomskian scheme of things the algorithm must provide both an explanation of why those are the sentences instead of some other sentences, and of why English (for example) so deeply resembles, and so superficially departs from, the other 6,000 languages of our planet. More than that, the ideal Chomskian grammar of (say) English must lend itself to an explanation of how we English speakers learn the language and of how we use it to formulate and understand our and others' thoughts. So the ideal Chomskian grammar must minimally provide, on paper as it were, a complete account of the "parse" we speakers ideally recover from the sentences we hear (or internally formulate). In plain terms, given a particular sentence, how did it get that way and how do we understand it? This deeper sense of "grammar" is so different in degree from the one that has been applied to the "rules" for the classical orders that it would seem preferable to consider the two sorts of grammar as being different in kind; even the most avid leader of the traditional "rules" would not be thereby enabled to understand how a given column was put together; nor, generally, is such an understanding considered necessary to the proper appreciation of the orders. (One can appreciate the orders, as laid down in their traditional "grammars", without having any idea or how the Greeks built their columns from drums erected one on the other: did they carve the columns' striges, for instance, before or after the drums had been set in place?) As a secondary difference, the "rules" for the classical orders do not even begin to specify what new orders might be devised, such as the "American Corinthians" found on the Playmakers Theatre building on the University of North Carolina campus, in Chapel Hill, in which the traditional acanthus leaves have been replaced, and very prettily, with cornhusks. The traditional "rules", in other words, are extremely limited: they define the five classical orders, but not the wider notion of what might constitute a "column", or a new order.
In the middle of the continuum thus adumbrated there is a middle position, one informed by modern linguistics but at the same little one in which the "parse" or understanding thus made available to the viewer - turning now to paintings in particular yields, not "how did this painting arise from the painter's wielding of the brush at this particular canvas", but rather "how did this painting arise from the painter's past paintings and from his changing perspective on the world he paints". This is the position adopted, and with excellent results, by Enrique Mallen in the book under review,
Before proceeding further, a clarification. It may have struck some readers as peculiar to have spoken, just above, of "parsing" an object in the physical world; but this use of the term, though admittedly an extension from its ordinary use with respect to grammar, is apposite. For we parse, in some sense, everything we see. No human being has ever actually seen, as such, an object of the physical world, whether the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa, since all that the eye can see is light reflected from such an object. If the object absorbs all the light but red, for instance, then the object will appear red to the eye. And, as is well known, all light received by the eye's retina is received backwards and upside down the eye in this respect is like a pin hole camera, with the pupil the pin hole and, what's more, since the retina is curved, no flat object has ever been seen as such, it is seen curvilinearized. To see objects in the world as (presumably) they are, the brain must do a huge amount of calculation: it must execute a complex "parse", in short. Such a parse cart be felt rather directly when contemplating a visual illusion like the famous "Necker Cube" (Figure 1, after Necker 1832), which the viewer sees in one instant as tipped downward, in the next instant as tipped upward, but never simultaneously as tipped in both directions. In other words, the viewer's brain parses it first one way, then the other, treating it as if it were a three dimensional object suspended in Space, Or, more simply, the brain's parsing of visual objects can be experienced when contemplating air object like the one in Figure 2a insigne used by far-right groups in Germany, where display of the swastika is forbidden (even to the extent of airbrushing out the swastikas front postcard representations of the dirigible "Hindenburg"): how easily does the viewer's brain supply the missing "X" figure, as in Figure 2b, completing the forbidden symbol!
In sum, the notion that we "parse" whatever we see is far from far¬fetched, and Mallen's use of the term (passim) is entirely appropriate. Nor is his meaning arcane: he means that we must parse Picasso's paintings from his Cubist period, as the artist progressed through the four stages of his allegiance to Cubist principles, with respect to the objects abstracted in his paintings and also, and perhaps even more tellingly, with respect to the (less abstract) paintings of his earlier stages. We must, as it were, supply as much of what is "missing" from his abstractions as it will take to understand them: in somewhat the same manner as that in which we must fill out the "hidden swastika" of Figure 2a to understand what it intends to convey. In applying such a parse, neither Mallen nor we other viewers in any way slight Picas¬so's accomplishment, nor do we in any way impede our appreciation of the extent to which his abstractions, by emphasizing chosen aspects of the phys¬ical world, make those aspects more salient to the eye, or rather to me brain, and accentuate their value to us in recognizing those objects as wholes. Such parsings perhaps remind us that, in identifying a violin as such, the curves of its side pieces serve for readier recognition than does, say, its bridge, its strings, its pegs, or the texture and polish of its wood, "Art is a lie told to act at the truth", to paraphrase an apophthegm attributed to Picas¬so; and in this sense, apart from his Cubist paintings' sheer esthetic pleasure, perhaps he has shown us, in a lie, a fundamental truth of the objects lie has abstracted. Or on the other hand is the curve of a violin, or of a woman, ever a lie? Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
It remains to say that Mallen has written a brilliant book, and one that clearly reflects a longtime admiration for, and understanding of, his great countryman. It is profusely illustrated with his own diagrams illustrative of the points being made, and these reflect his own artistic talents, This is a classic work that will have, I think, a lasting influence on how semioticists think about painting; and, quite possibly, on how they experience their next trip to the Museum of Modern Art.
Gonzales, Arturo, Jr, 1978. "The Eagle is Rising Again." Edmonton, Alberta: The Albertan (Oct.12), "Thursday Folio" supplement: 20-21, 24,
Jones, Owen. 1868, The Grammar of Ornament. London: B. Quaritch.
Kirsch, J. L. and R. A. Kirsch. 1986, "The Structure of Paintings: Formal Grammars and Design." Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 13:163 176.
Necker, 1. A, 1832. "Observations on Some Remarkable Phenomena Seen in Switzerland: And an Optical Phenomenon Which Occurs on Viewing a Figure of a Crystal or Geometrical Solid." The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 3:329 337.