The Oklahoma City Museum of Art is currently exhibiting 19th century narrative art from England and France. I spent my Saturday afternoon wandering from one painting to another, entertaining myself by trying to figure out the story being presented in the artwork. Some of the pieces drew upon standard classical and Biblical themes, while others chose their subjects from everyday life as well as from the lives of the famous. At a time when Impressionism and Post-Impressionism were stealing the spotlight in the visual arts, these artists recognized to the importance of, and aesthetic value in, lives of individuals.
Often times the paintings had a clear message or a moral to their story that was a strong indication of the painter’s particular views. Nevertheless, the interesting feature of this art is that it did not divorce itself from an attempt to portray things as they appear in order to present an ideal or theory about the world. The theory was right there among the people, be it a French peasant gathering the hay or a group of Greek youths gathered around Homer’s poetry.
The combination of the message, the opinion, or philosophy of the artist with the story illustrated on his canvas, struck me as deeply profound. If the world of ideas is only accessible through abstraction and meditation then it is inaccessible to the majority of mankind. However, if the important things of life are best related in a story, through the narration of the artist, then perhaps we have a chance of understanding something after all.
We are masses of individuals, each of which has a unique story. Narrative art recognizes that there are a multitude of stories to be told, and that they are worth telling. By focusing attention on this or that person, action, or moment in time, the individual is duly honored; it isn’t just the theory or idea that has value, but the individual person is seen as important as well. The story must use particular instances of particular people in order to come alive. Interestingly, however, the narration of the story of the individual provides a check to the tendency to glorify the individual. Through an event as normal as a reaper taking a break from his labor to drink a glass of water, the artist is able to paint a vivid scene that immediately draws the viewer into the story and then provides a medium through which the viewer can reflect upon more universal themes that are instanced in the particular story presented. The individual story becomes part of a larger message or moral that finds its root in the warp and woof of life, and then grows to become a tree large enough for all the birds of the field to nest in.
Abstraction can be a useful tool that enables one to separate out the kernel from the husk and disect the smallest details; however, the narrative artist uses the whole grain to point to the value and importance of the kernel inside, thus keeping intact those things that were, perhaps, never meant to be separated.