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Narrative art

Narrative—or story—art represents events taking place over time. These events may, however, be compressed into a single image that implies something that has already happened or is about to take place.

Painting, of course, has told stories since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. Starting in the Renaissance, “history painting”—paintings of events from biblical or classical history—acquired the highest status. Nineteenth-century painting and sculpture depicted not only great moments in history but also domestic dramas of a decidedly sentimental nature. Such subjects were rejected by modern painters during the late nineteenth century in favor of scenes from contemporary life. Later modern artists sought to purge painting and sculpture of narrative. Storytelling was thought best pursued by writers rather than visual artists, and literary became an insult in the argot of modern art.

By the 1960s, the modernist insistence on abstraction and the taboo against narrative had made telling tales irresistible to many artists. Pop art, New Realist painting and sculpture, and Nouveau Réalisme all provided figurative imagery into which narratives could be read—whether or not they were intended by the artist.

The most popular form of visual narrative now is painting, with performance, installations, and video art the runners-up. Narrative artwork ranges from Bruce Charlesworth’s amusing “who done it” installations suggestive of B novels to Faith Ringgold’s affecting autobiographical stories written and painted on quilts. (Words are a frequent element in narrative art.) The narrative approach seems especially suited to psychological self-examination and the investigation of the role-playing that is so conspicuous an element of late-twentieth-century social interaction.

Extracts from 'Artspeak' by Robert Atkins (copyright (©) 1990, 1997 by Robert Atkins) reproduced by permission of Abbeville Press, Inc.