29 January 2008

Why Western High Art Disdains Speech Balloons

Andy Konky Kru had an article on his comics history website titled “The Evolution of the Speechballoon”, and it’s left traces on other people’s blogs, particularly Karl Jones’s. However, neither Google nor I can find the original.

Other resources (i.e., Wikipedia) explain that the convention appeared first in Mayan art in the Last Classic period (600-900 CE); those graphics have come to be known as “speech scrolls.”

Something similar appeared in Western art in the 1200s. Ribbons of writing unspooled from people’s mouths to show what they were saying. Those ribbons got the name of phylactery, borrowed from the Greek word for the containers for small scrolls of Hebrew scripture. The example shown above comes (via Wikipedia) from Bernhard Strigel’s Saint Anne and Angel, circa 1507.

But this posting isn’t about the long history of speech balloons, but about why they became unfashionable in our civilization’s high art, eventually relegated to the mass popular art of cartoons?

I’m pinning part of the blame on Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1555. That gossipy, opinionated, and highly influential history of Italian art included this anecdote about two fourteenth-century painters named Bruno di Giovanni and Buonamico di Cristofano, called Buffalmacco. (There are various translations, and I’m quoting from Mrs. Jonathan Foster’s, published in London in 1851.)

While employed on this work, Bruno complained that his faces had not the life and expression distinguishing those of Buonamico; when the latter, in his playful manner, undertook to shew him how his figures might be rendered, not life-like only, but even eloquently expressive.

He then bade Bruno paint words proceeding from the mouth of the woman who is recommending herself to the saint, with those which the saint utters in reply proceeding in like manner from the mouth of the latter; which Buffalmacco had seen done in the works of Cimabue.

And this method, as it pleased Bruno and other dull people of that day, so does it equally satisfy certain simpletons of our own, who are well served by artists as commonplace as themselves. It must, in truth, be allowed to be an extraordinary thing, that a practice thus originating in a jest, and in no other way, should have passed into general use; insomuch, that even a great part of the Campo Santo, decorated by much esteemed masters, is full of this absurdity.
Vasari was mistaken about the genesis of this technique, as other scholars noted, and how widely it was accepted. Nevertheless, his critical message was clear: only an untalented (and gullible) artist would resort to such an “absurdity,” and only “simpletons” would enjoy it.

I suspect Vasari’s harsh criticism helped to shape fine artists’ and connoisseurs’ tastes in the following centuries. Meanwhile, painters became more interested in capturing realistic images than in imparting a message, then in replicating the effects of light, and finally in expressing the unphotographable. Phylacteries and speech balloons floated out of paintings. They survived in political cartoons, popular engravings, and finally comic strips--but that only cemented the technique’s association with “low” art rather than “high” art.


Anonymous said...

"Simpletons," hmmm. I wonder what the state of general literacy was at the time? Could the populace at large read those speech balloons? Or were they more of a "teacher's note" to the clerics? (I do understand that they are a sort of tell-don't-show approach to religious art, but I wonder if they emphasized the received didactic message of the particular painting, as opposed to some individual idea from the particular priest or person observing same.)

J. L. Bell said...

Well, didacticism has been woefully undertheorized, but the question of the art’s audience is important.

Vasari’s examples seem to involve upper-class patrons and chapel-users rather than the public at large. I don’t recall seeing many speech balloons or similar techniques in cathedral art, but I’m not sure anyone’s done a good survey.

The technique seems to have fallen out of favor during the Renaissance as painters became more concerned with and talented at realistic depictions. A lot of the early Renaissance works that Vasari described, including whatever painting was involved in this anecdote, were lost or replaced. So we may not have a lot to go on.