W. J. T. Mitchell Seminar One : Word and Image

Time: April 29, 2018

Venue: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing, 20th floor, Culture Plaza, No.59 Zhongguancun Street, Haidian District, Beijing

Organizer: OCAT Institute

Co-organizer: The University of Chicago Center in Beijing

Sponsor: Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Co.,Ltd.

Contact: info@ocatinstitute.org.cn

The relation of words and images has been a consistently debated topic in both Eastern and Western aesthetics since antiquity. As early as in the ancient Greece, Aristotle has discussed the corresponding relationship between poetry and painting in depth. Roman writer Horace’s remark, “as is painting, so is poetry” (ut pictura poesis) became even more well-known and influential in the later generations for centuries. From the ancient times to Renaissance, Western scholars have made various arguments on the superiority between poetry and painting; while the German aesthetician Lessing categorized them as art of time and art of space, respectively, in Laocoon (1766) to maintain the division between the two, comparatively exploring their characteristics. Entering the second half of the 20th century, ‘word and image’ gradually became a heated topic in contemporary art theory. With scholars such as Michael Fried, Norman Bryson, and W. T. J Mitchell crossing the disciplines from literature to art history, ‘word and image’ nowadays is no longer limited to the simple division between ‘the sayable and the seeable’ or ‘telling and showing.’ As an intrinsic boundary between the textual description and the visual representation, it also implicates the linkage among art history and semiotics, linguistics, and other disciplines that are convergent, compatible and convertible in corresponding/ comparative contexts.

There is no doubt that the triad of poetry, calligraphy, and painting occupies a prominent position in the paintings of Imperial China. “Poetry and painting follow the same rules.” Since Song dynasty, arguments emphasizing the compatibility of poetry and painting and aiming to eliminate the division between the two have been broached regularly. It was noted, “when appreciating Mojie’s poems, we see paintings within poems; when appreciating Mojie’s paintings, we see poems within paintings.” The ideal poet-painters—Wang Wei, for example—were therefore highly praised by the literati. Not only were the imperial Chinese artists inspired by the subject matters found in poetry, but they also utilized the method of writing poems as a way of painting to enhance their artistic conceptions. Additionally, Zhang Yanyuan put forward that “calligraphy and painting grow from the same root” in Notes on Famous Paintings of Past Dynasties, establishing an important framework for the theory of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. This statement not only indicates the shared origin of Chinese calligraphy and painting, but also illuminates the commonality of brushstrokes employed in these two mediums. If the ideographic Chinese characters are viewed as a system of symbols with various levels, then the creation of ideographic practice of calligraphy enhances the movement of the symbols and gives life to them, thus creating a new, independent aesthetic. The inscribed words have also broken away from the position of appendage, using the calligraphy art as a carrier to resonate with images, hence becoming an organic component in the composition and artistic conception of the work.

For W. J. T. Mitchell Seminar 1, we selected a few case studies with the themes of ‘word and image’ in Eastern and Western art history. Each of them either has an ornamentalized/ decorative form of writing, is composed in the form of ideographic characters, emphasizes the visual format of characters intentionally, or attempts to describe or illustrate images through texts. Both lectures scheduled in the morning focus on book as a traditional medium, and the two speakers discuss the interactive relationship between the words and images in ancient books of the East and the West, respectively. Bao Huiyi begins with the manuscripts of Bestiaries in late Medieval England, whereas Chen Yan speaks about the album of woodcut prints of the Romance of West Chamber in the late Ming Dynasty—Hui Zhen(会真图), now housed in the Museum of East Asian Art,Cologen. In the afternoon, Gao Ming categorizes and gives an analysis of the terminology in the Italian art historian Longhi’s Piero della Francesca, and then he discusses the formal language of art historical writing. Later, Professor Huang Xiaofeng gives a detailed analysis on the inscribed texts on two well-known works, The Skeletons' Illusory Performanceand Beggars and Street Characters, to explore the issue of reading imperial paintings. Lastly, Zhuge Yi summarizes Mitchell’s and French aesthetician Rancière’s different perceptions on the relations between contemporary words and images from an art theoretical perspective. With these five speeches and a following roundtable discussion, this seminar attempts to present and explore the relationship between words and images embedded in artworks from different cultural contexts and various historical periods, and the ways in which the visual and textual mechanisms unify and balance with the influence of internal tension.

Seminar 1 Schedule and Synopsis

April 292018



Speaker: Bao Huiyi (Assistant Professor, Department of English Literature , Fudan University)

Topic: Images of Monkey, Dog and Hog in Bestiaries and Marginalia of Late Medieval England


Umberto Eco commented on the reading habit of the medieval secular public: "pictura est laicorum literature”—pictures are the literature of the laity. The bestiary was a unique genre of medieval English laicorum literature that still lacks adequate academic examination. Its content consisted of natural history, genesis of species, moral exegesis, and metaphorical interpretations. With vivid images, it becomes an essential tool for present-day historians to investigate the public’s knowledge of nature and even their conceptions of the world in the Middle Ages. It has also profoundly influenced the marginalia images of animals printed on more popular medieval books, such as the psalter and the book of hours. Using the No. 764 manuscript of bestiary preserved at the Bodleian's Library, Oxford University as the subject of study and combining the corresponding images on the marginalia of the manuscripts such as Luttrell Psalter, this seminar attempts to investigate the interactions between the images and texts of monkey, dog and hog in the 13th- and 14th-century British manuscripts, as well as the spiritual world constructed by these representations.


Speaker: Chen Yan (Lecturer, Academy of Fine Arts Department at Shanghai Normal University)

Topic: The Image and the Inscription of the Date


Inscription is a common way to record the time of production in paintings and calligraphies, while rare in prints. The publication date of an important series of books on Romance of the Western Chamber, Hui Zhen Liu Huan(会真六幻), was confirmed by a unique edition of an album of color woodcut prints of West Chamber --Hui Zhen Tu (会真图), now housed in Museum of East Asian Art Cologne. On the fifteenth print in this set, engraver Min Qiji inscribed “Geng Chen Qiu Ri” (庚辰秋日) in the fan form. This inscription not only refers to the publication date of the entire set of Hui Zhen Liu Huan, but also indicates the time period in which the story of the Romance of West Chamber took place, as well as commemorating the sixtieth birth year of Min Qiji. However, this was not the first case of referring to a specific date in the inscription as a commemoration in imperial Chinese art. From the perspective of the artist and inscriber, the time of the inscription was an essential source of inspiration for the artists, and at the same time serves as a metaphysical bridge for them to connect their emotions with great works by the old masters.



Speaker: Gao Ming (Ph.D. candidate in History, Peking University)

Topic: Roberto Longhi’s Piero della Francesca and the Languages of Writing Art History


This speech is the third part of the author's research on the terminology of Renaissance art, focused on analyzing Roberto Longhi’s Piero della Francesca published in 1927. In this speech, Gao uses Vasari’s research method to systematically examine the art terminology in the book, and by making the comparison between images and words, he attempts to reveal the tradition of language in the study of art history that has been overshadowed by the Kunstwissenschaft (Art Science) and the context studies. On this basis, Gao further discusses the ways in which contemporaneous terms can be used to describe the art of the same period and to theoretically explore the art historical problems (that is, the so-called ‘anachronic terms’), thereby writing the history of art using the language itself.


Speaker: Huang Xiaofeng (Associate Professor, School of Humanities, Central Academy of Fine Arts)

Topic: Finding Words in Images: The Problem in the Perceiving of Painting


Many existing imperial paintings have now been divorced from their original contexts. They may be referred to as ‘三无人员’ (‘san wu ren yuan,’ or paintings without identities), and only leaving people with the impression of their images nowadays. Hence, adhering to the ‘white-paper-black-character’ (白纸黑字) principle, the inscription, preface, postscript and other textual content is crucial to the reading of imperial Chinese paintings. The more important functions they have, the more problematic they may become. The problematics surrounding the textual content on the paintings not only confused the scholars in the present, but also had puzzled the imperial audience in the past. It is not merely a simple question that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’, rather, it calls attention to the dynamic interactions between words and images on these paintings. Huang selects two examples from his research—Li Song's  The Skeletons' Illusory Performance and Zhou Chen’s Beggars and Street Characters—to support his argument.


Speaker: Zhuge Yi (Associate Professor, College of Fine Arts, Hangzhou Normal University)

Topic: From W. J. T. Mitchell to Jacques Rancière: Theoretical Research of "image-word" Cognition in the Contemporary Era


“Too much to say." This seems to be the judgment of many on the crisis of contemporary art: the submission of artistic practice to aesthetic discourse, too many comments and discourses devouring artistic practice, and the decorative or transformative power of language to images. On this basis, American scholar W. J. T. Mitchell attempts to establish a new theoretical framework of image that transcends the traditional comparative method to validate the meaning of the image. He treats images and texts as a unified ‘heterogeneous picture,’ and breaks the field of visual representation from discursive control. In recent years, he has moved away from the restraint of analytical language, hoping to construct a new ‘picture theory’ with ‘the language of representational practice itself.’ French scholar Rancière also agrees that words and images have a shared origin, emphasizing that there is “painting in the text,” with texts themselves being capable to construct images. Images and texts are inter-connected and inter-changeable through the ‘surface of interface.’ Additionally, the presence of art is not merely the matter of its image, but also its autonomy that modernity attempts to bestow onto each and every artistic genre, which in turn nourishes the discontent towards ‘too much to say.’ The theoretical foundations of the two scholars have a few commonalities, whereas they argue from different perspectives. Comparing and analyzing their arguments will indeed lead to more profound understanding.



Round table discussion

Moderators: Guo Weiqi (Academic Director, OCAT Institute, Associate Professor, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts)

Kang Chong (Department of Public Program, OCAT Institute, Ph.D., Pantheon-Sorbonne University)

Guest Speakers: Bao Huiyi, Chen Yan, Gao Ming, Huang Xiaofeng, Zhuge Yi