Contexual research: Narratives in painting

My last assignment 4 was about serial painting and cluster assembly as a format for narrative. I experimented in part 3 also with other narrative in perhaps rather illutrative way of narrative, telling a story – see Project 3  ‘Telling a Story – Keti Koti‘.

I was wondering how I could work on other formats of narrative for my personal project and decided to discuss this topic on the OCA discuss forum. I posted a new thread open for discussion. Available from: This is a  long thread with an intense exchange with fellow students and tutors that I truly appreciate. It is still an active thread by today.

Collection of some key points from the discussion thread (credit to all contributors at above mentioned thread):

  • “Materials and the way they are applied can be very expressive and can imply a narrative without using words. Thickly plastered encaustic or finely dusted chalk – each imparts information about itself and, through association the subject or your response to it” (from Drawing 2 course material)
  • “The media is the message”
  • “The contextual narrative rather than content narrative”
  • “Use of collage and appropriation. The use of low culture, found materials and objects”
  • POP ART: “Breaking down of the barriers between high and popular culture a reassessment of the potential of the arts and even the possibility of no future.”
    “To utilise unused methods like silk screen printing, halftone representation and such, Humour and irony that is characteristic more to British Pop Art.”
  • “It’s impossible to create any image which won’t act as a trigger for a narrative of some description. The very word image suggests that it stands for something else, it’s the image of something, not the something and the representation of that something always embodies an idea, even if it’s just an idealisation of what it describes.”
  • “For me Rothko’s narratives are incredibly strong….and it was like entering a church surrounded by stained glass windows and the paintings positively vibrated with their essence.”

Insight on Fine Art versus Illustration:

  • “I could be wrong, but I think the difference between illustration and fine art is that, with the former, communication needs to be blatant, in your face because the meaning needs to be read clearly and quickly- if a product is being advertised. I think with fine art there needs to be ambiguity- the desire is that the viewer doesn’t read the meaning in seconds and move on, the desire is that the work holds their attention- they ask questions and stay with the work for a while. I believe that’s where the layering of meaning comes in. Hopefully a viewer will slowly unravel what the artist is trying to say, so that a relationship is built between the viewer and the artwork and messages are passed on.”

Others provided me with some examples of narrative by artists:

  • Cornelia Parker  ‘Poison and Antidote‘ drawing. In this she uses rattlesnake venom and black ink, anti-venom and white ink.
  • Giotto  Adoration of the Magi,
  • Breughel probably all of them?
  • Bosch Garden of Earthly Delights (which even closes up like a big story book)
    =>  “.. the subject matter is fundamental in choosing the medium but at the same time the medium can in itself give the subject matter dimensions. If the triptych didn’t have the outer panels “inviting us” in, the impact of the narrative would be different.”
  • Hogarth for his work in series
  • Max Ernst Vox Angelica (1943) as an example to set us thinking (it’s a personal retrospective)
  • Ellen Altfest : She removed the human narrative – but has placed them into a new context – so is that a new narrative?

In that discussion I was informed  about a reference to Guggenheim museums ‘Storylines‘ – an exhibition between June 5 and September 9, 2015 looking at the idea of storytelling or the idea of narrative in painting, sculpture, installation, video, and performance. I find one paragraph on the webpage very insightful for my personal journey: “…storytelling does not necessarily require plots, characters, or settings. Rather, narrative potential lies in everyday objects and materials, and their embedded cultural associations. … the artists in Storylines uncover layers of meaning, turning to individual experience as a means of conveying shared stories, whether real or fictional.” (Guggenheim, bold markings by me)

Some appealing works from that exhibition:

  • Matt Keegan  ‘AMERICAMERICA excerpt #1 and #2,  2009. Inkjet prints on plasterboard, diptych, 96 x 48 inches (243.8 x 121.9 cm) each. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
    => Juxtaposition of reproduced historical images along with newspaper clippings, copies of artworks, and popular media images. A personal and historical unwrapping of experiences and events.
  • Gabriel Orozco  ‘Astroturf Constellation’,  2012. Inkjet print, 44 x 54 inches (111.8 x 137.2 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
    =>  A grid collection of many photographs of small particles and miniscule forms of debris left behind by athletes and spectators in the Astroturf of a playing field on Pier 40 in New York. This is an encounters with mundane materials, and the ever-present tension between nature and culture.
  • Alexandre Singh  ‘Assembly Instructions (An Immodern Romanticism),  2009 Twenty-seven framed photocopy collages and graphite, dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
    => A drawn, similar to a family tree, assembly of frames photographs. I reinvention of traditional story telling.
  • Nate Lowman Safe Travels,  2013. Oil and alkyd on canvas, nine panels, overall dimensions variable. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
    => A re-creation of nine images from airplane safety guides as a series. Stripped of the original context, the paintings reveal a new narrative in humorous way emphasising the absurdity inherent in sanitized mass visual culture and the ambiguity of confronting real danger with more palatable images and stories.

Besides I asked in the closed Facebook group ‘OCA Sketchbook’ for support. Helen Tennant (#484022) provided me an insightful summary and shared with me her ‘History of Art 2’ course work on ‘Narrative in painting‘:

“Hi Stefan, I did some theoretical research on this in Art History 2. Different types I found are: 

  1. Monoscenic – one scene to show an entire narrative (e.g. Rembrandt Samson & Delilah)
  2. Sequential series (eg Hogarth rake’s progress)
  3. Continuous, repetition of figures to portray multiple scenes in one image (massacio’s tribute money)
  4. Synoptic – multiple scenes in a narrative but without repetition of figures.
  5. Simultaneous symbols and patterns to convey story, often including oral storytelling (e.g. Aboriginal art) “

She mentioned in her post the painting ‘Samson & Delilah’ by Rubens and Van Duck. Both artists decided on depicting a different moment from the story. Rubens depiction of the scene before cutting Samson’s hair is the more interesting one because of left tension within the image. Compared to Van Dyck who depicted the scene with Samson’s hair already cut. I find this a fascinating insight.

One aspect of narrative noted by J. Elkins seems to be to depict not the climax but the turning point of a story, the ‘pivotal moment’. Another aspect argued by Gombrich is the notion that every moment of seeing is build upon previous images and experiences in context (cultural, personal etc.). In a contemporary context the narrative in art seems to be replaced by modern allegories and coded references. (Tennant).



  • Narrative can be monoscenic, multiscenic (with or without repetition of figures), sequential series, or repetition of symbols or patterns.
  • Narrative by creation of  tension and using pivotal moments
  • Context, content, and appropriation.
  • Media can be the narrative in itself or trigger a narrative by its origin (e.g poison ink) – see H. M. McLuhan expression of ‘The Medium is the Message‘, 1964
  • Installation of material e.g. Triptych panels
  • By using uncommon material and method, triggering associations.
  • Narratives are based on previous images and experiences.
  • Juxtaposition and assembly e.g. collage
  • Bottomline question: Can a painting be not a narrative? Be purely visual? Seems it cannot not.

20 Feb 2017 – I added here some examples of what I believe are abstract narrative paintings with  the ‘medium is the message’ (H. M. McLuhan, 1964):

  • Reference to previous exercice of painting with ‘Mixing Materials into Paint‘ :
  • Examples of textured ground paintings in the context:

=> in both works there is not a pre-mediated story that I want to tell. The abstract images will create narratives within the viewer’s mind.


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