Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Visualizing the Mythic Image

A friend of mine, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that I pose the following question to you:
"Would people in a traditional, non-Western culture visualize a mythic creature from their legends in a more "realistic," or a more stylized way?"

The question is not how an artist from that culture would portray the creature using their traditional art idiom, but rather how the majority of people in that culture would actually visualize it in their mind's eye.

My friend included a series of images of eagles to frame the question. Everyone presumably sees an actual eagle with a similar set of biological eyes, but eyes are not like cameras, and the mind begins shaping the image even in the act of seeing. 

What becomes of that person's mental image of the eagle when it is shaped by memory, imagination, stories, and the exposure to art? When he or she hears the Eagle character mentioned in a folktale, what form does that image take in their mind's eye?

If we start by looking at art, there's a lot of variation in the degree of abstraction, even among traditional cultures. The animals in the Lascaux caves have anatomy that is carefully observed and described, despite its simplification. Other art styles like Aboriginal Australian and Native American petroglyphs are very abstract.
Growing up in our times, our imaginations are influenced by a kaleidoscope of comics, animation, movies, illustration, and the Western obsession with realism. 

A set of related questions emerges. Would a person who has never seen a photograph recognize the eagle in the photographic image more readily than they would in their culture's traditional representation? How does a person's imagination of their mythic beings change once they have been exposed to photography and other art styles? 

Is abstraction or stylization more psychologically realistic? Even to our modern eyes, accustomed to photographic realism, the abstract image sometimes telegraphs its meaning more directly:

Finally, let's apply this thinking to a practical problem. Supposing there were a certain culture with a rich oral tradition but very little visual art and no exposure to worldwide art traditions. If a contemporary artist was given the assignment of painting a mural to represent their myths, how should he or she try to depict it? 

(Example above: When John Singer Sargent was asked to paint the murals in Boston to visualize ancient stories, he could have painted them naturalistically, but instead, he drew upon the styles of Assyrian, Medieval, Egyptian, and Greek art.)

Should it be painted "realistically" according to the artist's own sensibilities, or should it be stylized to better represent how that culture might have imagined the creatures of that story? 


James Gurney said...

I thought I'd offer my own thoughts about my friend's questions here in the comments. My hunch is that people's imagining of mythology is hugely influenced by their culture. Even our idea of what is photographically real in Olympic coverage is shaped by trends and expectations such as slowing and speeding time, the result of Matrix and other recent filmic ideas.

I remember a story about Anders Zorn's early watercolor paintings of water reflections, which now strike us as so correct and realistic. The old Swedish artists, when they saw these paintings, rejected them out of hand as being wrong, totally inaccurate because the way they imagined water was conditioned by the conventions of the art they grew up with.

In the same way, Holman Hunt's paintings of Christ, which were more semitic looking and darker skinned were seen as wrong, even blasphemous, to his British contemporaries, who were accustomed to the fair haired savior.

So I would suppose that the Eagle Spirit or whatever would be imagined in terms of the culture's iconographic style. But I would have to ask: how many people commissioning illustrations or murals these days are truly naive or traditional? And I would ask: doesn't a mural require a certain group of stylistic choices anyway for the art to work in that context?

Anonymous said...

I think an artist should stick to their own sensibilities. Even the Sargent mural looks more Asian than Greek to me.

A L Goodman said...

It seems like a Mural, even more than a painting, would be contextually and geographically located. If you were asked to paint a mural of an eagle here in Auburn, Alabama, viewers would inevitable expect it to be an image of a Golden Eagle that represents the University cry of "War Eagle!" This eagle is frequently portrayed in a very symbolic way, associated with other logos and sports team initials.
Images of the bird are also seen throughout the town in the more realistic style of John James Audobon through a permenant exhibit at the local art museum, or in photographs when the eagle traditionally flies to kick off home football games.

Reaven said...

Hypothetically, if you had to choose only 1 visual representation of a dinosaur, which would you choose? The real image of it as it was alive? An artist interpretation of it (as we have today)? Or a Saturday morning cartoon version of either of those? My guess would be the real thing, the truth - but dinosaurs are real so it's not quite the same thing. But we can't see the real thing, so we settle with interpretations. For our interpretation of dinosaurs, a lot of of conceptions are based off scientific extrapolation. Would the "traditional" societies have that science and decide to incorporate it( i.e.: If you have a vast knowledge of anatomy but believe dragons are "magic", do they you just throw away the idea that dragons may be based off life's rules of anatomy and biology)? And if they do use science, it would depend on how advanced that science is and how it was applied.

For the very least, if it wasn't a blasphemous interpretation and it's good art then I imagine they would get a kick out of it - especially if they aren't familiar with photo-realistic artwork. And really, I think it may just come down to that concept of exposure. What do they see the most? What did they see for their first impression? And if photo-realistic imagery (except for the real world of course) isn't something they're used to, it may just not be apart of their mental vocabulary. Thus I'm guessing it would look faithfully like whatever they're used to seeing (the stylized version) until another idea challenged it.

Poet Whale Studio said...

For the culture...That's our eagle.

For the artist...that's my eagle.

Deborah said...

"Is abstraction or stylization more psychologically realistic?" I think we have to look at words in this context, as much as the style of art. Words are ultimately a distillation of a picture, formed into letters, which are abstractions that we agree mean something, and put together they come to stand for a thing, thought, idea or image. Each culture has its words, its language, and I think that starts the visual ball rolling. So I think the underlying language predicates the visual image today (though it may have been initiated in the opposite way.) So when I say eagle in English, you carry an idea, an image in your mind that pops up when you see the word. If there is a mythic story associated most clearly with the word eagle, in your cultural context and language, that's what you'll envision, I bet.

For instance, if I say "dough boy", what image pops to mind? Why? Is it an abstraction or a realistic thing? Can it not be either? But if I say "unicorn" the purely mythic comes into play.

One of the challenges I offered my art students was to identify (and ultimately to reject, as much as possible) the preconceived visual image associated with a word. "Tree" isn't the lollipop shape many bear as the word-symbol, it requires you to look and paint it as it is, presuming you're going for realism of some sort. "Sun" isn't the ball with lines, nor is "house" a square with a triangle atop it, nor is "flower" a circle ringed with ovals...yet they all are and can be those things! In different cultures they may be different pictures, but they're compelling images that we have to consider when painting. (I wonder how many times I pointed out to a students artist that she had probably fallen back on her icon for tree, rather than spend time seeing and painting the tree...)

elgin said...

Mythic images of modern stories are seen every day in most cultures in comic books. The question there is are these images realistic or symbolic and it seems to me that the answer is in the eye of the beholder.

Rich said...

The eagle seems to be a good example. It flies innumerable flags and banners, adorns all kind of emblems in a way more or less stylized and symbolic. Probably most people won't visualize all that anatomy, should the image of an eagle cross their head.

Reminds me of those angels sculptured or painted with anatomical correctness to the last feather of their wings. I wouldn't think it represents the image imagined by the majority of folks should an angel cross their minds.

Sketching Artist said...

Have you ever played Pictionary? People tend to think artists do well with this game, but what can actually happen is the artist gets hung up on the correctness of what the object or subject should look like. A non artist can break down the subject into quickly recognizable shapes and symbols without getting hung up on the three dimensionality.

Sarah Faragher said...

This discussion reminds me of Scott McCloud's great book "Understanding Comics" - particularly his explanations of how and why icons and simplified (for lack of a better word) figures appeal to more people than highly detailed specific images might. I read this book twenty years ago as an art student and still love it today.

scruffy said...

For my own part, no matter what i might visualize, i just cannot bring my hand to draw abstract on purpose. Even my comics tend toward too much realism. i've always admired tribal art and pictographs but have never been able to replicate them... am i a product of my culture or my own psychology? Dunno.

scruffy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pine unleaded said...

Perhapse in a world just beggining to realize itself as a whole with abundant resource to more interpretations of one idea than any one person could view in a lifetime, the more the merrier. The more diverse an image is in form the more an image gives a viewer the opportunity to imagine their own. While an outline of an eagle may best notify a viewer that there are eagles in the area there are many species of eagle on earth, each similar and each unique, all of them important to each persons conception of eagle

Roberto said...

I’m not sure how to approach the “What if, then this?” questions. It’s hard enough trying to guess a client’s mind and expectations in real time. To really get to this, one would have to have direct access to anothers dream world, and we barely have access to our own!

As to the Q.: ‘How does a person's imagination of their mythic beings change once they have been exposed to photography and other art styles?’
RQ: A clue to this is to look at the dramatic (and subtle) changes in western art that have emerged since the invention of Photography; Or since the availability of lenses and mirrors; Or the development of perspective. Each new technology has a dramatic impact on style, composition and the imagination (image-ization). I think all the angst and suspicion of ‘Modern Art’ vs ‘Classical Art’ is about this change of visualization.
Cezanne, Gouguin, Matisse and Picasso were attempting to reclaim their ‘Mythic Vission’ from the tyranny of the measured mind.

Q: Is abstraction or stylization more psychologically realistic?
RQ: Which is more of a stylized abstraction: Picasso’s portrait of a seated woman (pick one) or Vermeer’s pearled girl? I say they are both quite imaginative psychological realities.

Q: If a contemporary artist was given the assignment of painting a mural to represent their myths, how should he or she try to depict it?
RQ: I don’t think there is a right answer to this, unless of coarse you are the one paying for the mural. For this reason it is vital that the artist makes sure the client is familiar with your work, and to interview the client as to what their expectations are as wall as what the expectations of the other stakeholders in the project are. A good mural is more than just a painting on a wall (as A L Goodman said), it becomes a part of an environment and interacts with the space and the people in the space.
If the client says ‘Just do what you want.’… that is the best scenario, but make sure you get all your money up-front, don’t let anyone see it till its finished, and make sure you know where the exits are during the unveiling.
Barring that, it is very important to establish a visual dialogue with all the stakeholders via thumbnails and preliminary drawings. This is where your Eagle, the clients’ Eagle and the stakeholders’ Eagles all come together and get introduced to each other. If you can’t find a common ground or a working compromise, this is the time to graciously exit the project (you can give them my number if you wish) or get down to business.

@Jimmy G.- Thanx again for your wonderful blog! I am learning so much from you and your blog-posse. -RQ

James Gurney said...

Roberto, always great to hear from you, and I know you're speaking with experience about murals.

Sarah, glad you mentioned Scott's book. I was thinking of how he said the two dots for eyes and the line for the mouth represent the way our own face feels from the inside, as opposed to the way a face looks from the outside.

Sketching Artist, great example. It was always the non-artists who won in our games. Oh, and the storyboard artists. They were good at boiling down a complex visual idea to its basic terms.

Etc, I agree.

mdmattin said...

When I was a kid I asked my father to show me how to draw an eagle. He proceeded to draw it complete with a stars and stripes shield over its chest and arrows and and olive branches in its talons!
I think even the most photographic or perceptually accurate image requires some sort of schema, because our brains interpret reality in terms of preformed concepts. Some of these are innate and fundamental, such as neurological structures for edge and shape detection, some are culturally inculcated, like ideals of beauty, understanding of symbolic systems, etc, and some are individually and situationally determined, like being on alert for a specific threat, or very attuned to some aspect of reality to do with one's current activity.
We have all experienced photos that are technically accurate depictions of the play of light on a scene, but frustratingly fail to communicate the information we need because they obscure the particular cues we need to recognize objects. When drawing from the model, I often encounter difficulies when a pose obscures some reference point that I'm used to depending on, and I have to really look at a pattern of colors and values and construct a 3d form in my head.
As artists, we act as mediators between the preconceptions of our viewers and our own (hopefully) more finely tuned perceptions of reality. But they, and we, are always dependent on the schematic representations our brains bring to the task of perceiving.
To return the question of culture and myth, I would assume that members of all cultures, including ours, maintain mental schema sets for both levels: a symbolic library to recognise and read the signifance of iconic images, and a practical, working "vocabulary" to interpret and intereact with everyday perception of real things.
My favorite authors on these topics are E.H. Gombrich, (Art and Illusion) and Semir Zeki (A Vision of the Brain).
And Scott McCloud!

James Gurney said...

MDMattin. @"As artists, we act as mediators between the preconceptions of our viewers and our own (hopefully) more finely tuned perceptions of reality."

Profound insights. Thank you. I've interviewed Semir Zeki on the blog before:
...and he's brilliant. I'm glad you mentioned him because I just happen to be in a college library right now, and now that you mention him, his books are on the shelf, including Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain.

mdmattin said...

Great interview! Apropos the thread on abstraction in the comments, Inner Vision has a very interesting take on abstract art, as I recall. Our visual experience is the final product of a chain of events beginning at the retina and involving multiple stages of increasing specificity to achieve a mental representation of reality; a work of art can intersect the chain at any point and substitute an external stimulus for the internal model. In order to perceive, say a red truck, the brain passes the stimulus though a series of filters or detectors; one stage might to be the identification the shape as a red rectangle. When we see an abstraction of a simple red rectangle, it stimulates our red rectangle detector directly, which apparently gives us pleasure. I've enjoyed a new found appreciation of abstract art since reading that, as well as a keener enjoyment of simple shapes and colors in the world - every red truck now tickles my red rectangle module.

James Gurney said...

MDMattin. Great point. This is such a rich topic that I'll do a post about it tomorrow.

Roberto said...

I hope Eric and Andrew are around for this! -RQ

Michelle S said...

I think the human brain naturally focuses on distinctive qualities, rather than literal imagery. Without photography or illustrations, the mind's eye would probably enhance a creature's characteristics based on what that individual's culture deemed significant at that time.

I've never thought about how mythical creatures would be imagined, but as a horse artist I've always been fascinated by how horses have been depicted through history. Ancient Egyptian horses were depicted as streamlined, almost mechanical creatures. Horses possessing great speed, endurance, and reliability must have been highly regarded by the Egyptians. Early Asian horses were frequently depicted as nimble, buoyant creatures. Those who spend a lot of time on a horse's back can sure appreciate those ideal qualities. Medieval and Renaissance horses were depicted as very robust, but often had anthropomorphic facial expressions. Makes me wonder if the people of that time believed good horses were sentient beings that shared their purpose, and not merely capable beasts. The cool thing is they're all still recognizable as horses even though they look very different from each other!

Would it be the same for a mythical creature that no one has ever seen? Or would each individual visualize something very different or even abstract... sort of like the blind men and the elephant?