Save for the occasional children’s book authors who can write as well as they draw—Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle—the disciplines are generally kept separate by a matter of competence. Yet artists have blended pictures and words, if not usually their own, since the very beginning of art.
The current MIA exhibition Matisse: Masterworks from the Baltimore Museum of Art, running through May 18, features pages from Matisse’s Jazz book, from 1947, which melded his iconic paper cutouts with his own handwriting. The words are not those originally planned. Tériade, a respected publisher of art books, had asked Matisse to illustrate the poems of a French author. But Matisse brushed in his notes as worked on the illustrations, and grew fond of them. He suggested using his own words and the publisher agreed. Out went the French poet.
Blending art and poetry on the page has been an Eastern tradition for centuries, of course—the MIA has numerous Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings inscribed with homages to the scenery. In Islamic tradition, which bans representational imagery, the calligraphy of the Koran became art in and of itself.
In the West, illuminated manuscripts of the Bible melded words and pictures in decorative fashion while later etchings, notably by William Blake, more fully illustrated the text. Then, for a long time, it seems, the image was asked to tell the story—pictures tell a thousand words and all that. Book arts were considered something other than fine art, a craft, mere illustration, not original thinking.
There may be a simple explanation for this, which accounts for the rising popularity of video and the decline of reading: making sense of visuals takes much less processing in the brain than making sense of text. Watching a mini-series of a book feels like less effort than reading the book for good reason: it is.
In today’s genre-less world, artists use words in all kinds of ways—abstracted, turned into slogans—that make original, even challenging statements. Words will always make you think.