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Reading Pictures

What We Think About When We Look at Art

by Alberto Manguel

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list price: $24.95
edition:Paperback
published: 2002
ISBN:9780676974355
publisher: Knopf Canada
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Description

This profoundly illuminating, entertaining book could well change the way we "read" the visual world around us, and certainly help open our eyes and minds to its astonishing riches. The language in which we speak about art has become steadily more abstruse, a jargon that only art critics and con-artists can understand, though for thousands of years this was not the case. Today, we live in a kaleidoscopic new world of images: Is there a vocabulary we can learn in order to read these images? Is there something we can do so as not to remain passive when we flip through an illustrated book, or download images on a screen? Are there ways in which we can "read" the stories within paintings, monuments, buildings and sculptures? We say "every picture tells a story" -- but does it?

Taking a handful of extraordinary images -- photographed, painted, built, sculpted -- Alberto Manguel explores how each one attempts to tell a story that we, the viewer, must decipher or invent. Reading Pictures is not about art history or theory -- it is about the astonishing pleasures and surprises of stories.

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Excerpt

One of the first images I remember, consciously aware that it had been created out of canvas and paint by a human hand, was a picture by Vincent van Gogh of the fishing boats on the beach at Saintes-Maries. I was nine or ten, and an aunt of mine, who was a painter, had invited me to her studio to see where she worked. It was summer in Buenos Aires, hot and humid. The small room was cool and smelled wonderfully of turpentine and oil; the stashed-away canvases, leaning one against the other, seemed to me like books distorted in the dream of someone who vaguely knew what books were and had imagined them huge and of single stiff pages; the sketches and clippings my aunt had pinned on the wall suggested a place of private thought, fragmented and free. In a low bookcase were large volumes of colour reproductions, most of them published by the Swiss company Skira, a name that, for my aunt, was a byword for excellence. She pulled out the one dedicated to Van Gogh, sat me on a stool and put the book on my knees. Then she left me.

Most of my own books had illustrations that repeated or explained the story. Some, I felt, were better than others: I preferred the reproductions of watercolours in my German edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales to the convoluted line drawings in my English edition. I suppose what I meant was that they better matched my imagination of a character or a place, or better lent details to fill my vision of what the page told me was happening, enhancing or correcting the words. Gustave Flaubert staunchly opposed the idea of words being paired with pictures. Throughout his life, he refused to allow any illustrations to accompany his work because he thought that pictorial images reduced the universal to the singular. ”No one will ever illustrate me while I’m still alive,“ he wrote, ”because the most beautiful literary description is devoured by the most paltry drawing. As soon as a character is pinned down by the pencil, it loses its general character, that concordance with thousands of other known objects that causes the reader to say: ‘I’ve seen that’ or ‘this must be so-and-so.’ A woman drawn in pencil looks like a woman, that is all. The idea is thereafter closed, complete, and all words become now useless, while a written woman conjures up a thousand different women. Therefore, since this is a question of æsthetics, I formally refuse any kind of illustration.“1 I’ve never shared such adamant segregations.

But the images my aunt offered me that afternoon did not illustrate any story. There was a text: the painter’s life, extracts from the letters to his brother, which I didn’t read until much later, the title of the paintings, their date and location. But in a very categorical sense, these images stood alone, defiantly, tempting me with a reading. There was nothing for me to do except stare at those images: the copper beach, the red ship, the blue mast. I looked at them long and hard. I’ve never forgotten them.

Van Gogh’s many-coloured beach surfaced often in the imagination of my childhood. Sometime in the sixteenth century, the illustrious essayist Francis Bacon observed that for the ancients, all the images that the world lays before us are already ensconced in our memory at birth. ”So that as Plato had an imagination,“ he wrote, ”that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Solomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.“ If this is true, then we are all somehow reflected in the many and different images that surround us, since they are already part of who we are: images that we create and images that we frame; images that we assemble physically, by hand, and images that come together, unbidden, in the mind’s eye; images of faces, trees, buildings, clouds, landscapes, instruments, water, fire, and images of those images — painted, sculpted, acted out, photographed, printed, filmed. Whether we discover in those surrounding images faded memories of a beauty that was once ours (as Plato suggested) or whether they demand from us a fresh and new interpretation through whatever possibilities our language might offer us (as Solomon intuited), we are essentially creatures of images, of pictures.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Contributor notes

Alberto Manguel is the acclaimed author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places and A History of Reading, which was an international bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, a Times Literary Supplement International Book of the Year, and Winner of France's Prix Medicis. He is a widely sought-after speaker, and will lecture at museums worldwide, including the Louvre, on the publication of Reading Pictures. He was born in Buenos Aires and lives in France.

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Editorial Review

"Alberto Manguel is an expert explorer of what the French call the imaginaire -- a word that combines imagination, imagery and the formation of images in the mind. He is the author of a very practical Dictionary of Imaginary Places. His History of Reading is a brilliant account of the ways in which reader and writer meet and change each other. He understands the logic of Lewis Carroll's world of wonderland and mirrors better than almost anyone else. His own imagination is supple and generous, and his work is full of surprises…. he is in fact someone who works accurately and idiosyncratically in ordinary language, to our delight.… Each chapter ranges widely and sure-footedly around its chosen subject, using Manguel's wide learning to make new connections.…It is the scrupulous, high-powered conversation of a learned man, rather than professional "criticism," and the better for it….his own reflections, so unconstricted, so clear, so strange, are so very satisfying to his readers." -- A.S. Byatt, Washington Post, Sunday, October 28, 2001
”All of it is fascinating.“ -- Calgary Herald
”A fascinating treat.“ -- Today

”Invaluable…. Marvellously informed…. Alberto Manguel is an entertaining guide to the world of art [who] offers remarkable insights.“ -- The Gazette (Montreal)

”Insightful and entertaining.“ -- The Toronto Star

”For an absolutely gorgeous gift this December…Manguel’s latest work is the answer…. A beautifully crafted achievement, filled with hundreds of works of art.“ -- FFWD (Calgary)

”A worthy companion to his bestselling book, A History of Reading. Reading Pictures succeeds admirably [as] a guide for us to follow as we learn to look at, think about, and appreciate art again.“ -- The Edmonton Journal
”Magnificent…. If you care about art, let the one book you give (or receive) this Christmas be Reading Pictures.“ -- The New Brunswick Reader
”Eclectic and intriguing.“ -- Ottawa Citizen
”A readable romp through a visual landscape.“ -- Maclean’s

”Fascinating…. Alberto Manguel looks at art and finds stories and parallels that might give us a whole new perspective…this may be the ultimate visual self-help book…With many stunning images from our pre-computer-enhanced past, it manages to coax us into looking at them in ways we may have forgotten….Each of the book’s 12 chapters could stand alone as an essay…. Be changed and enriched.“ -- The Vancouver Sun
”This is a book that demands all our attention, and, for all its richness, deserves to get it.“ -- The Times-Colonist (Victoria)
”Manguel knows the value of books, and the art of reading them.... The result is delightful.“ -- The Times U.K.

"Alberto Manguel (is) a keeper of the word and a guardian of the book.“ -- The Globe and Mail (Dec. 5/98)
"Alberto Manguel is a tireless champion of the written word. He cares about books...with a deep, unswerving passion because he believes they are -- still, despite our electronic progress -- essential links between the individual and the world." -- The Vancouver Sun

"Like Pablo Neruda wrote regarding the Argentinian Julio Cortazar, one could say that not to read Alberto Manguel is an invisible and serious illness that, in time, might have terrible consequences.... Not to accompany Manguel on a jubilatory and salutary stroll through the world of words, museums and books, would be nothing short of madness." -- Sud-Ouest Dimanche

”As a teacher, [Manguel] is profound and unpredictable, world-wise and erudite…. The artists Manguel chooses are surprising and fresh, and his sidetracks occasionally ignore standard biography. But the book provides plenty of appropriate visual images -- only some of them familiar -- alongside lovely, compassionate sentences.“ -- Quill & Quire, starred review, December 2000
”A book for readers who enjoy virtuoso performances…. Manguel leads the reader on a merry chase through the worlds of art history, literature…and philosophy….[A] splendid meander through his fascinating mind.“ -- Smithsonian

”There is so much in this book to admire, the sheer sweep and soar of ideas is invigorating. The writing, for all Manguel’s erudition, is quick and clear, stimulating in the extreme….This may be one of the best books you will read this year.“ --The Independent
”Quite the most entrancing aspect of this rich, venturesome book is its authors humility in the face of all he knows and his generosity in sharing it with us.“ --The Spectator
”This delightful book will fascinate anyone who enjoys looking at pictures….In his charmingly calm, unruffled way, Manguel forces you to reexamine your own assumptions and convictions about art. This is a book to cherish.“ --The Sunday Telegraph

From the Hardcover edition.

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About the Author

Alberto Manguel

Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor, Alberto Manguel is the bestselling author of several award-winning books, including A Dictionary of Imaginary Places, with Gianni Guadalupi, and A History of Reading. Manguel grew up in Israel, where his father was the Argentinian ambassador. In the mid-1980s, Manguel moved to Toronto where he lived for twenty years. Manguel's novel, News from a Foreign Country Came, won the McKitterick Prize in 1992. In 2000, Manguel moved to the Poitou-Charentes region of France, where he and his partner purchased and renovated a medieval farmhouse.

Célébrité internationale à plus d’un titre — il est anthologiste, traducteur, essayiste, romancier et éditeur — Alberto Manguel est l’auteur du Dictionnaire des lieux imaginaires, en collaboration avec Gianni Guadalupi, et d’une Histoire de la lecture, entre autres succès de librairie. Manguel a grandi en Israël où son père était ambassadeur de l’Argentine. Au milieu des années 1980, Manguel s’installe à Toronto où il vivra pendant vingt ans. Il reçoit le McKitterick Prize en 1992 pour son roman News from a Foreign Country Came. Depuis 2000, Manguel habite la région française de Poitou-Charentes, dans une maison de ferme du Moyen-Âge qu’il a achetée et remise à neuf avec son compagnon.

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