Chapter 7. Pictorial narrativity

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Narrativity is commonly understood as a predominantly temporal concept. In the case of verbal narration, the <i>telling</i> (&#8216;discours&#8217;) is a temporally structured process and the <i>told</i> (&#8216;histoire&#8217;) can be described as a sequence of events ordered in time. Whether or not there is such a thing as &#8216;pictorial narrativity&#8217; is, in consequence, the subject of controversial debate. The static character of the classical panel painting is at odds with the temporality of narrativity. Due to their static character, pictures can only represent one single moment (<i>punctum temporis</i>); therefore, they cannot present complete actions or a series of events. Both the critics and the defenders of pictorial narrativity usually refer to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing&#8217;s characterization of the pictorial medium (distinguished from the linguistic medium), which he gives in his <i>Laocoon</i> (Lessing 1853 [1766]: 101f.). Against this background, the defenders either dilute the definition of &#8216;narrativity&#8217; (with the result that temporality is no longer a necessary condition for narrativity), or they fall back on picture series or other genres of pictures which can depict several phases of a story. This chapter, however, shows that Lessing&#8217;s reinterpretation of the presented moment as &#8216;fruitful&#8217; or &#8216;pregnant&#8217; reveals a different strategy to defend the possibility of pictorial narrativity. The presented moment enables us to infer the whole action of which the picture shows just a snippet. In this way, the observer transcends the intrinsically incomplete representation and (re-)constructs the whole action. By broadening Lessing&#8217;s approach, we can see that the same holds true for verbal narratives (as the paradigmatic case for narrativity). Verbal narratives do not present the whole story, either, but have to be completed by the reader.


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