Image and the Historical Process
Alison Byrnes

I am a painter of history. History is a discipline dominated by text; thus issues relating to “word and image” arise when considering visual representations of history. I am interested in the reconciliation between the events offered by a historical account and how one visualizes the picture of those events in the imagination. W.J.T. Mitchell, in his influential work, Iconology, contends, “Consciousness itself is understood as an activity of pictorial production, reproduction, and representation…” (16). A physical object, or person, in the real world corresponds with its image in the mind of the observer: in turn, the images in the mind of the observer influence the way the observer perceives the real world. Through painting, I have to retranslate the image in my mind created through observation and memory, or imagination, into physical form again.
The inherent difference between word and image is that words nearly always necessarily follow a linear structure, while images present information in the “complex web” model. That is, our brains are networks of synapse connections and thus retrieve information via the network model. The network connects information not only chronologically, but also by subject, personal association, or mnemonic.
Images present information in a simplified network that also evokes time, subject, and association. I see the shift from linear, diachronic text to synchronic image as an action similar to the modifications that writers of history must perform when arranging disparate events into a unified narrative. 

There must be a shared tradition between a source and its recipients; or, when faced with an unknown, “we are likely to make conscious or unconscious analogies to codes with which we are familiar, whether from popular-culture images or from cultural and social presuppositions” (McGillivray 405). The less one knows about a topic, the more one relates it to topics that one does know. As more knowledge is gained, one can make comparisons internally within the topic. For an American, viewing other cultures in terms of American culture is the most accessible strategy for beginning to understand difference. I am interested in portraying the problems of historiography itself – that history is an artificial construction, reflecting actual events but never fully conveying its multiple realities. The historian is always present, and attempts at objective relating of information through a disembodied author are merely an insidious mask on this fact. Similarly, images of history represent only the subjective point of view of the image-maker.

Texts almost never offer “set” details when recounting history, such as what the figures were wearing or what the cityscape surrounding them looked like; but these details are essential to pictorial production. I have discovered that I am left to fill in many of the details, thus leaving space for my personal interpretation and anachronism informed by pop culture. The very act of painting becomes an exercise in historiography: writers of history must perform the act of “filling in” as well. The issue of subjectivity in history is one that confronts any historical account, written or painted. I challenge the art-historical convention of history painting by using a style inspired by medieval illuminations and Indian miniatures. My interest in history and myth are the topics that inspire me to paint, but for any painting the subject matter is a means to an end with regard to formal qualities. The controlled awkward style I use is the base of a composition that is balanced on an abstract level removed from the subject itself. In a way, the style is the subject, as the painting itself proclaims the subjectivity of the historical event within.

McGillivray, Murray. “Creative Anachronism: Marx’s Problem with Homer, Gadamer’s Discussion of ‘the Classical,’ and Our Understanding of Older Literatures.” New Literary History 25 (1994): 399-413.
Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.