The notions of «visible» and «legible» are closely linked, yet very different. The «visible» refers to the general and spectacular mode of «appearing». It is, first and foremost, revelation. What marvels us in an image is that it changes our vision of the world in a surprising and irresistible way. It can even change our perception of reality, i.e. reality itself: «there was no fog in London before Whistler painted it» observed Oscar Wilde. «Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible» - with this formula Paul Klee opened the modern era of Western art and broke with the duty to «represent» to which art was subjected for centuries . The «legible» also stems from revelation but in a unique way, combining the visible with information that is external to it as it engages a specific form of communication: writing. Whether in its proper sense or metaphorically speaking, the legible always implies «the written». Moreover, the revelation it suggests is not of the order of dazzle or surprise, but of reminiscence. Whereas the visible owes its efficacy and attraction to the enigmatic effect triggered by pure novelty, the legible extracts its power from the mnemonic association between a visual apparatus that could seem, at first, ornamental or gratuitous, and a graphic structure that makes us discover meaning thereon.
However, it would be wrong to conclude that the articulation between the visible and meaning - which defines legibility - is due to an intervening of the verbal language, in the sense of writing being its historical vehicle. Proof lies in the fact that the chronological succession of «visible» and «legible» can take two opposed directions, depending on whether we approach writing from its first, ideographic systems – where the visible determines the legible – or from its ultimate variant, the alphabet – where the visible seems instead to detach itself from the legible as if it were its late and more or less accidental consequence. It is not language that is at stake in this opposition but a relation with the visible which expresses itself differently through these two types of systems and the cultures they stem from.
Resistance to the visible – and to visual thought -, characteristic of the civilization of the alphabet, is largely based on the very nature of the alphabet as restructured, i.e. in fact reinvented, by the Greeks: in order to understand the meaning of the words written according to this system, it is not enough to visually associate the letters to each other; it is essential to pronounce them and to listen to them. Western culture inferred a separation of principle between visual and verbal universe – which reflects a contrario the «Ut pictura poesis» theory which tries to bring them into harmony – and an understanding of writing, not as «representation of speech» (definition we owe to the Latins and which aimed at valuing the alphabet’s phonetics), but as its pure and simple emanation. However, it is forceful to consider that throughout the centuries the visible gradually detached itself from the legible, certainly in a biased and marginal way but also revealing itself, little by little, as its main agent. The evolution of vocabulary used to refer to reading proves so. Until the fourteenth century, we resorted to the verb legere, i.e. to bind – for the ear – the voces paginarum. From the fourteenth century, it was replaced by vedere: reading aloud was followed by silent reading, done with the eyes. Two major stages announce this transformation. The first dates from the seventh century. It is owed to the Irish monks who thought of separating the words on the page in order to more easily identify the Latin terms they did not know and pronounce them correctly. The second happens in the thirteenth century with the emergence of the glossed page, i.e. a form of written thought based on the simultaneously spatial and scriptural organization of the text and its comments. Both stages are accompanied by the parallel development of a true, iconic and calligraphic strategy whose purpose was far from being merely decorative: illuminated initials and illustrations in the margins or outside the text made these manuscripts experimental laboratories for legibility through the image. All the subsequent history of the book took benefit and a great part of its inspiration from this development .
The last stage of this history is reached in the fifteenth century, with the emergence of printing, and mainly of typography, which deeply transformed the written, Western imaginary. This change concerned first the letter itself. Isolated in its small lead socket, this letter became again the coded figure the Greeks had imagined and that centuries of manuscript practice did not stop undoing and recomposing, to the satisfaction of the ductus. However, it also became – and this was completely new – a crude and manageable object, like a marquetry piece. This novelty was completed by another which was its corollary. The white – of the margins and intervals which separate the words, letters or lines – was also materialized in “sign-objects” in the typographer’s box. Needed for the physical attaining of the page, for its position under the press, these paradoxical objects – simultaneously empty and present – had an even more remarkable particularity: having henceforth become essential to the paging of the text, they could intervene as such in the elaboration of verbal meaning.
However, only with Mallarmé and the Coup des dés (in its 1898 version, only published in 1914) did the typographical white intervene fully in literary creation: for a long time, its expressive capacity was only perceived and explored in relation to the formal structure of the book, as in the “front page” which appeared in the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, the mosaic architecture of the text that we owe to typography, triggered, from its creation, an original form of illustration which knew such success that its formula invaded Europe during three centuries: the emblem. Derived from the Greek word “emblèma” (“inlay”), this term confirms the emblem belongs and was created by the world of printing. In fact, it is a montage associating three elements of different nature on a same page: a title, an engraving inlaid in its centre, and an epigram. The first verses of this epigram describe the engraving above them, and the last explain its symbolic meaning. The articulation of these three terms aims at visual efficacy – in the way of our modern advertisements – but it can also be unfortunate and borrow an engraving already used elsewhere and which is not adapted precisely to the text it follows, as with certain emblems by Alciat, founder of the genre. Book historians do not know either in which category to class the emblem. Most consider it a literary genre, formula that does not truly adapt to it, just as the term “illustration” is not suited to define the image it contains. The emblem is a mixed genre, the first in Western history, and its interest lies precisely here. Its originality stems from the fact that, in breaking with the logo-centric culture and the alphabet’s focus on sound, the image seizes the text and sets it in its mouvance, instead of depending on it. «All in all, prints, would conclude Mallarmé, referring to the Coup des dés. Literature thus shows its proof: no other reason to write on paper» . The visible had finally recovered its place next to language in the literary creation of the civilization of the alphabet, after more than two thousand years of mistakes and reluctances.
However, these reluctances are also precious indicators, maybe more than the findings which allowed the visible to reintegrate its function within the alphabetic culture: they help us determine the specific fields of the visible where the «legible» is formed, in the precise measure in which they wanted to ignore them.
Therefore, it seems clear that the consequences of the invention of the alphabet on the understanding of the visible in the West were of two, complementary orders which only increased their prestige. The first consisted in refusing the visual medium whatever function it had assumed in iconic semantics; the second in limiting the definition of the figure to mimetic projection. The Allegory of the Cave which opens book VII of Plato’s Republic illustrates both in a way we could qualify as inaugural: in fact, it was conceived at the time when alphabetic writing started to spread in Greece, competing directly, for the first time, with a culture that had remained until then deeply oral. This is the key to Plato’s disdain towards the image. His strange staging of men chained since childhood in a cave and condemned to look in front, without being able to observe each other - while on the cave wall in front of them streams the shadow, projected by a fire outside, of «men carrying objects of all kinds (…) and men and animal statuettes in stone, wood, and all kind of matter» - aims, first and foremost, at demonstrating that speech can only provide access to the knowledge of truth. «I call images, says Plato in book VI, shadows in the first place, and then reflections we see on waters or on the surface of opaque, polished, shiny bodies, and all similar representations» : no message can be conveyed through their intermediary. The cave’s wall is simply a place of deposit (not of creation) of the visible. As for the figures, they are only shadows, projections of a sensitive reality - itself devoid of value - to which they only propose an even more derisive reflection. Under a philosophical form, the allegory relays a theme we know through an anecdote told by Pliny the Elder, and which inspired Western aesthetics from Antiquity to the twentieth century: the story of Dibutade, young maid from Corinth whose fiancé had to depart on a trip and who, in order to retain his memory, drew a line along the shadow of his profile, projected on a wall by a lantern. Here, as in Plato, the figure is neither part of the visual context where it is inscribed, nor of the medium which supports it: its function is not plastic but distinctive, as in the alphabet’s model of letters .
De pictura by Léon Battista Alberti resumes the same scheme in 1435 but in a completely different spirit as the question for the painter-theorist now was to celebrate writing (unlike Plato) and to benefit painting with its lessons. The iconic medium here is no longer considered as a surface to fill in. Its role is simply to disappear, as it had disappeared from the alphabetic system. This vanishing is, for Alberti, the basic principle of painting where its own method of creation lies: «First, I draw on the surface a quadrilateral of straight angles, of the size I wish, and that is to me an open window through which history can be seen», he explains. As for the letter, it is not only taken as model of the figure, from now on in an explicit way; it is its form of combination through successive pilings which is felt should inspire the painting’s composition: «I would like those who start the art of painting to do what I observe in those who teach to write, declares Alberti. They first teach separately all the elements’ characters, they then learn to compose syllables, and finally expressions. Our beginners should also follow this method when painting. They should learn separately: first, the outline of surfaces – which can be called the elements of painting -; then, the links between surfaces; and finally, the forms of all members» . Only Mantegna took the risk of practicing this method and yet very sporadically.
The alphabetical model could only give birth to abnormal, monstrous images, such as Arcimboldo’s hybrid creatures, like book or vegetable alphabets in the shape of human heads. At the origin of all of them is the trompe-l’oeil, that figure that seems to be pulled violently to the surface of the image for it to exist in itself, brutally transformed into an object that we could nearly touch. Trompe-l’oeil is the exclusive product of Western art. However, we would be wrong to consider it the work of theorists: it is the fruit of the imaginary of painters who have sought to transpose into the specific terms of their art an iconic motive – the letter – which was to them, in principle, antinomious. Trompe-l’oeil is first and foremost, whatever it may seem, a question of surface. It is the illusion of distance which the represented figure forms with its medium that produces its metamorphosis, and it is the skill with which this medium was used that allows its obtaining. In another anecdote told by Pliny the Elder, on the competition between two famous painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, the winner is not Zeuxis whose painting portrayed grapes which fooled birds in such a way that these came to peck on them, as we know. However, Parrhasios had painted a curtain with such perfection that Zeuxis asked him to open it to see the painting behind it. He was the first to realize his defeat, saying Parrhasios had fooled him – him, «as painter» - whereas he had only been able to fool birds .
By dissociating the two constituent elements of the image – its medium and figures – the civilization of the alphabet was certainly able to enrich this image with a new and somehow magic effect, but it also lost the meaning of the immanent legibility of the visible, based on their complicity. It is this complicity, which civilizations of the ideogram engaged in exploring, that allowed us to recover the visual sources of writing in engravings from Prehistory, where the image was drafted.
The Chinese «landscape with letters» is, in the antipodes of the trompe-l’oeil (or symmetrically), both the synthesis and the ideal of this other world of the image. This genre also appeared in the direct continuity of writing but of a writing whose system was profoundly different from the alphabet’s and whose evolution led it to an end that could not have an exact equivalent in the West, where the gesture is essentially associated to speech: the invention of calligraphy, art of the word and of its thought, as well as of self expression. In the twelfth century, the painter Chen Koua gave advice to the young artist who wished to initiate in this type of landscape:
«You should first look for a wall in ruins and carefully spread a cloth of white silk upon it. Then lean on this wall in ruins and contemplate it day and night. After you have observed it long enough, through the silk, you will see lumps alternating with flat surfaces whose sinuous trace will form the perfect drawing of a landscape. Retain carefully in your spirit the image perceived by your eyes, and the lumps will form mountains, the depth will form waters, the hollows will form valleys, and the fissures watercourses. The light parts will be the first plans and the dark parts the distant plans. Owing to the spirit’s ability to seize things and name them, you will believe you see people and animals, herbs and trees, flying and moving creatures, coming to and fro. When this display will impose itself on your eyesight, you will command your brush as you please. Then, in the silence of contemplation, in a state of spiritual communion, the landscape will appear to you in its spontaneous truth, as shaped by Nature, with nothing that recalls a human work. This is what we call a living painting.»
This text shows it clearly: the only innovation claimed by painters of the civilizations of the ideogram is to have replaced a crude medium, which their prehistoric ancestors disposed of, by an artificial medium – in this case, white silk. However, this medium should be impregnated with the archaic, founding medium and mimic it, in order to adapt to the dreams of new societies the immemorial principles of the graphic imaginary, that visible seized by remote mankind which made it henceforth «legible».
«If we can say accurately that the utensil is known by some animals and that language supplants the vocal signs of the animal world, there is nothing comparable to the trace and reading of symbols before the advent of the Homo sapiens», wrote André Leroi-Gourhan . However, the most revolutionary intuition of Palaeolithic artists consisted, first of all, in conceiving a material surface as continuous, i.e. in isolating this surface from the chaotic reality of the world and, on the other hand, in only considering its appearance: these are the two prior conditions for the existence of any graphic form and trace. Detached from its natural environment (by a polishing of stone as at Pech’Merle, or by a coating of white paint as at Lascaux), or because it is naturally distinct from the landscape which surrounds it (as the rocks of Foz Côa), this surface is presented to sight, not as an object defined by its matter, but as the announced territory of a creation. Certain stone irregularities were used by artists to emphasize the volume of an animal figure or sometimes to suggest it, but always to underline and wittingly explore fictitious coincidences and thus somehow pay homage to the creative power of stone. These surfaces are not the evidence of a dead thought on the «medium», as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests, but of a screen thought, in the sense that such a screen must emerge from revelations, as the images that come to us in dreams.
It is verisimilar that the observation of the starry sky inspired in a more or less direct way the creation of the image: which continuous surface is more evident and imposes itself more on the daily life of men than the celestial vault? Through it the gods express themselves and indicate to men their intentions regarding them. The sky is a screen of communication between the invisible and the visible, just as verbal language allows men from a same community to communicate among themselves: all civilizations of the ideogram have reserved an essential place for astrology which is in fact no more than the primitive version of our modern astronomy. The invention of the image was the first form of human societies seizing this space, simultaneously magnetic and creating, kind of imaginary medium for a transgressive communication between the world of gods and that of men but where men could be masters or thought they could be in control, as they later did through agriculture. The starry sky also presented the particularity of suggesting to sight a model of visual rationality, in the sense that the figures, assembled within its space, were not only signs but formed, together, a system: it was not simply visible but legible. The lesson would be essential to fortune-tellers and lead to writing .
The Palaeolithic image creators were especially sensitive to the proposals of their new medium and to the games they could engage in with it. The one which concerns the figures is undoubtedly the most immediately accessible to modern sight. However, what is the origin of these figures if we must renounce to approach them as «representations»? Chen Koua’s text also indicates it clearly: it is the collective imaginary, as an individual can perceive it and that he can restore through his own creation. Undoubtedly, figurative writing – Egyptian hieroglyphs, Maya or Aztec writing – clarify us best on this matter. We can try to decompose their genesis in three stages.
The figure model these writings bring into play participates first, necessarily and fundamentally, of a hybrid continuum where all fields of the experience of human sight intervene pell-mell – its sensitivity, its knowledge, its expectations –, as well as the whole of the universe to which this sight has access, either physically or through the imaginary. What will make a particular figure detach itself from such a continuum to acquire a value of «sign» cannot then be its sole quality of identifiable object: to it is added a more or less diffuse power of attraction and revelation, the memory with which this figure fills the eyes. If this power is exercised on an individual, it will become for him a source of inspiration and creation. This is evidently unverifiable in archaic societies of which we do not have archives but it was in this way that contemporary, Western painting described its own revolution and recent passion for signs: «It is strange that it is in painting that signs appear, observes Henri Michaux in 1954. (…) The painter is no longer sure on what he is grounded, on what he should base himself. The object, the object no longer exists. (…) After a century of fragmentation, of triangulation of the surfaces, the sign – without the inconvenients of the forms in trompe l’oeil – will be an eminently manageable, guaranteed, solid block» .
However, this figure/sign can also attract to it, not this or that individual, but a whole group. It can be integrated in its customs and rites for reasons that escape speech, precisely because they complete and surpass it, preserving certain values, essential to the community. Such are the figures which compose figurative writing: they do not stem from mere representation or concept but from the collective coup de foudre.
A new fate thus awaits them, as intense as that which extracted them from reality but having nothing in common with it: the act through which society seizes them by transposing them to a medium, by inscribing them in the images. The figures are enriched with fully new qualities which their metamorphosis establishes within a particular, graphic style connected to a given site, technique, or school. This metamorphosis also concerns the space where we gather them, a continuum no longer imposed on sight from the exterior but deliberately created for its use. Moreover, on the surface where we inscribe, this figure gains two additional faculties. First, being able to associate itself to other figures, whatever their nature – realist, symbolic or abstract –, to acquire a new meaning by this effect of contamination whose principles Chevreul defined in 1828, after having discovered «the influence two colours can have on each other when we see them at the same time» . However, it also integrates into its semantic network the very space of its medium, under the different aspects which define it: matter, orientations, routes. Thus, in its turn, the iconic figure invents meaning, improvises the visible, enriching it with a substance of which it is the origin.
We understand the visual alchemy of images is precious to oral cultures and that these have used it to complete their speech by gathering around it proofs that prolong and support its purpose. It is this founding complicity, uniting the two media, that triggered the emergence of graphic miscegenations of a particular type – first, true precursors of writing -, where this time the figures seem to directly replace the words, in order to suggest a name, or even a sentence, merely through their presence and combination on certain, privileged media.
The heterogeneous character of this iconography confirms the determinant role of the medium [STONE] in the invention of the image. If these figures «hold together», it cannot be in virtue of what each refers to in an isolated way – animal, symbol, stylistic code – as this reference is, in each case, of a different nature. Their cohesion is assured by the sole surface which assembles them. They have meaning (or aim at a certain «effect of meaning»), not in themselves but through and within their mutual neighbourhood. This spatial contamination which establishes the determinative in ideographic writing, is already explored here – or rather, it is in fact discovered for the first time. The space which separates the figures from each other or that also allows them to overlap, was not perceived by prehistoric artists as neutral or inactive. On the contrary, it allowed them to make, out of what could seem a simple, decorative creation, the crucial place of an encounter. It is, in fact, by their intervals’ shifts that the spectator’s sight, moving from one figure to another, questions itself on the reciprocal relations of these figures and can understand the scope of their association and read it. This does not mean he discovers a precise «meaning» thereon: all visual revelation is an enigma that should remain indecipherable. It is not the figures that bear the painter’s most fundamental intentions, his will to «make visible», but the intervals which separate these figures as they attract and question the spectator and his memory. Every spectator of an image is a reader – or rather, he is not a reader yet, not at all: he begins to become one.
What should prevail in this empirical progression towards writing is its medium - from now on, valued in itself. It was first valued by its frame: the first approach of fortune-tellers was always to delimit the space inside which the divine message would be formed. No possible legibility (and, at first, writing of gods) without partitioned, marked space that not only holds the figures to each other but imposes on them a common standard, born out of it. The imaginary of divination is no longer that of the screen – even if it borrows from it its value of intermediary surface –; it is that of compartmentalization and of the manageable medium that announces the page. It is this compartmentalization, with an initially symbolic value, which has, paradoxically, contributed to release the figures from their ties with the underworld, to fix them to their medium and specific measure. Calibration, essential to the determination of the written sign, as opposed to the figure in the hieroglyphic and Chinese systems, is its ultimate avatar. When men, pursuing their work of recovering treasures which they thought belonged to the gods (as they did with fire), will translate their language into visual, human signs (i.e. into writing in the very meaning of the term), they will not do so by listening to themselves speak, but by introducing into the spatial code conceived by fortune-tellers the elements of their sentences which will seem relevant for that end. And they will do so by exploiting all the resources of this code which were inspired by the image – effects of contamination, visual exploration of a context, symbolic enhancement of the iconic matter, etc. Is it not significant that Chinese writing, which appeared at the same time as the oracular fissures on turtles’ shells, has shaped the style of its graphics according to these fissures?