Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Horse's Mouth: How to Look at a Picture

© 1958 Knightsbridge Films Ltd. © 2002 Criterion Collection

One of the best ways to look at art and design was actually written by English author, Joyce Cary in his novel The Horse’s Mouth (1944). Dordt’s library has two copies and the last time any of the books had been checked out was the early 1970s! Which is a pity because Cary’s work should be considered and read more. Actually, Sir Alec Guinness wrote a screenplay based on the novel and starred in the movie, made in 1958, with the same title — I’ve ordered a DVD for the library. The lead-in picture for this post is, in part, a copy of the original British movie poster that forms the re-release DVD package design for distributor Criterion. The Horse’s Mouth is the third story in a trilogy and is full of British irony, wit, and humor that is summed-up by the idiom of the title. The main character and narrator is the artist-painter, Mr. Gulley Jimson. In one scene, Jimson with his friend Coker are looking at a painting and all she can see is ‘A totty.’ ‘You don’t know what a picture is, Cokey’ says Jimson.

Jimson then explains what happens when you tell the truth and that the artist is a form of genius. Jimson (over) states, … ‘Now I know. And I’m not only a genius, I’m an artist. A son of Los’ ‘Los?’ says Cokey. ‘Los was the Prophet of the Lord,’ states Jimson, and he then goes on to quote a passage from the poem, ‘Milton,’ written in 1804, by Romantic artist, William Blake:

And the sons of Los build moments and minutes and hours
And days and months and years and ages and periods,
wondrous buildings;
And every moment has a couch of gold for soft repose,
And between every two moments stands a daughter of Beulah
To feed the sleepers on their couches with maternal care.
And every minute has an azure tent with silken veils;
Every time less than the pulsation of an artery
Is quality in its period and value to six thousand years,
For in this period the poet’s work is done.
Jimson follows this with how to look at a picture:
‘You haven’t got six thousand years this afternoon.’ Half a minute of revelation is worth a million years of know nothing.’ Who lives a million years?’ ‘A million people every twelve months. I’ll show you how to look at a picture, Cokey. Don’t look at it. Feel it with your eye. … And first you feel the shapes in the flat – the patterns, like a carpet. … And you feel it in the round. Not as if it were a picture of anyone. But a coloured and raised map. You feel all the rounds, the smooths, the cools and warms. The colors and textures. There’s hundreds of little differences all fitting in together.’
The author, by combining a portion of Blake’s poem and Jimson’s philosophy, I believe, is referring to the dimension of moments and time leading to simultaneous views of the same subject and multi-faceted vantage points. Doesn’t this sum up much of 20th century art? The complexity of Cubism per se?

I’d like to acknowledge professor Roy Behrens, University of Northern Iowa, for alerting me to this passage. Behrens, in his book, False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage cites Cary’s text, but, I needed to read the novel to find where the passage occurs and the context in which was stated.

First Trilogy, The Horse’s Mouth, copyright © 1958 Harper and Brothers. Page 90.


  1. It's good that he referenced William Blake - painter, poet and printer - who believed poetry and painting were the same thing in different forms. Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience were originally published in a series of copper plates, using a method he invented, with the poets etched in along with the illustration. Reading his, and any, poetry resonates with the approach that Jimson prescribes - feeling and emotion and repetition to evoke a response rather than a systematic puzzle to solve.
    Or, that's what I think he's saying.

  2. Thank you Alvin, you give an interesting point. It seems that for Jimson, an important aspect of 'visual language' is repetition of similar and dissimilar patterns in a constructed composition. I hesitated to label Blake as a 'Romantic artist.' In addition, to poetry, Blake was a very fine printmaker and copperplate engraver…he would hand color his prints.


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