A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
Los Angeles’ Norton Simon Museum is Telling Tales in an intriguingly intimate display
Art can be a visual novel. Its words are illustrated through the elements of scenery, color, technique and media. When a masterful piece of art tells a story it can cre- ate a fascinating portrayal of the artist’s mind. Throughout history, stories have been depicted through visual representation—from the Bible and religious texts to classical mythology. At the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, you can find a “library” of fascinating stories in an intimate showing of classical art works of renowned artists.
Titled Telling Tales, the Norton Simon Educational Department has assembled an exhibit of twelve pieces of insightful narrative that utilize the techniques of gesture, symbolism, settings and composition to convey the subject matter. In the Edgar Degas dramatic historical painting The Rape of the Sabines, c.1834-1917, the figures’ gestures enable the viewer to imagine the range of conflicting responses to this chaotic, violent event. A story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Rape of the Sabines (after Poussin) is one of the mythical episodes surrounding the history of ancient Rome. Lacking women to ensure offspring, the first Romans invited the neighboring Sabines to a festival with the intention of forcibly retaining their young women as wives. The characters portrayed in this setting reveal intense emotions— from pleas of mercy to outright defiance. The result is an emotional response with which the viewer can empathize.
In the tale of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Vincenzo Catena, the story is told of the Holy Family’s escape from King Herod, who had ordered his soldiers to kill all children in Bethlehem under the age of two in an attempt to murder the Christ Child. The artist elaborates on this apocryphal legend, punctuating the work with lavish details that create a more recognizable view of the Venetian countryside. The weariness and spiritual calmness about the Holy family despite their heated situation produces an image of refuge and serenity.
In William Reuter’s A Roman Market, the artist presents a bustling panoramic view comprised of multiple vignettes rather than depicting a single, grand-scale narrative. In viewing the rigors of everyday life, the viewer is encouraged to conjure up an array of imaginable stories behind the social interactions stirring in the marketplace.
“The exhibitions curated by the education department look at broad themes across the Museum’s collections, which encompass a range of time periods and cultures,” says Jennifer Olson, Curator of the Norton Simon Education Department. “The objective of the exhibition is to explore different kinds of narrative— biblical, mythological, historical— and to help our visitors look closely at the details to understand how artists create compelling representations of these stories. We look at things like setting, gesture, costume and composition with an eye towards how these pictorial devices enliven the narrative.”
Great stories can stir the soul and whet the appetite for learning and exploration. Whether from an intriguing book or a mesmerizing piece of art, each can incite the mind and hunger the imagination. At the Norton Simon Museum, Telling Tales not only provides food for thought but a banquet for the eyes.
Image: The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Vincenzo Catena. c. 1470-1531. Oil on panel. Image courtesy Norton Simon Museum.