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Gesture, Semiotics And Physiognomy In Visual Narrative

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Introduction

Storytelling and narrative have always been at the core of the human conscience that is full of curiosity about the world around us (The science of storytelling. Will Storr) Storr 2019). Narrative explains the world in a way that we can digest it, and visuals in the form of paintings, illustrations and various other images is yet another way to elaborate and shine light to the narrative. These images are often subject to the contemporary culture and moral standing of the people it is created for, and semiotics play a large role in reflecting these standards/values.

In this dissertation, I will examine the importance of gesture, physiognomy, and semiotics; and how they are conveyed through visual narratives with reflections of morality and culture within the contemporary audience.

In choosing this area of creative form I aim to deepen my understanding of the core and essential aspects of illustration as well as its humble beginnings, one of which the greatest examples are the broadsheet works by William Hogarth and their many adaptations, specifically of the series of images of ‘The rake’s progress’.

Narrative

Early narrative was used to record events and to create caution against possible threats to the survival of the individual and to the group. Most of the earliest narrative took the form of oral stories, but soon statues and paintings were also created to illustrate said stories so that they can be seen even after many generations, after all, to be able to record things is also one of the main things that helped us as a species to develop, since recording with wall paintings or stone tablets helped us free some space in our minds and enabled us to thing even further than we have before.

Storytelling helps humans develop and evolve, importance of storytelling. We have evolved to like stories because it is one of the main things that has allowed us to communicate with one another and collaborate within larger groups, which in turn has helped humanity survive and eventually evolve. Evolution of human intelligence and knowledge “fiction is fundamental to the human experience. For the duration of human history people have been creating it and writing it down.” (pg. 11 Storytelling: narratology for critics and creative writers by Paul McDonald) Narrative has always been the leading contributor to human development and their evolution. Thanks to cautionary tales, we were able to avoid danger, survive, and evolve into the homo sapiens we are today. According to Jonathan Gottschall Of course, with the danger gone, the stories today focus more on narrative that lets our imagination wild, whether it is about a distant past kingdom conquering the land or our distant future where anything is possible, our minds know no bounds. Although we have no tales that caution us against saber-tooth tigers that we take seriously, we do have tales that caution against human nature and how to overcome our biological limits to further improve ourselves.

Storytelling gave birth to morality “Story, in other words, continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. Story homogenizes us; it makes us one. This is part of what Marshall McLuhan had in mind with his idea of the global village. Technology has saturated widely dispersed people with the same media and made them into citizens of a village that spans the world.” The storytelling animal: how stories make us human by Jonathan Gottschall (2012) With this we can see that stories play a very important part in the way we perceive the world around us, many artists, including William Hogarth, take this to their advantage and use what they know of the world to portray stores that resonate with their audience through the act of storytelling and enhances their moral awareness through the subjects they choose to portray.

The rake’s progress is also a cautionary tale that can be considered as more contemporary compared to the stories our ancestors told thousands of years ago. Instead of cautioning against raging bulls, we are told about the human nature and its tendency to be susceptible to greed, but also blind hope, from the young maidens’ perspective who constantly follows the rake and helps him out only to be rejected and thrown to the side every time. Comment from someone on Hogarth’s modern moral subjects

Gesture, physiognomy, and semiotics

Human psychology, physiognomy and gesture. It is our evolutionary trait to recognise others within our species and understand them by the way their body moves and the gestures they make. “that picture books have distinct characteristics, that they organise visual information in a way different from what we usually expect of visual art, and that we might best understand them by considering them in the light of some form of semiotic theory.” (pg. 9 Words about pictures by Perry Nodelman) Subconscious readings. Evolution and its genetic code to make us understand one another “since the major task of images in picture books is to communicate information, they make most sense in terms of an approach that focuses on the conditions of which meanings are communicated. Semiotics, which has roots in linguistics, is such an approach; its prime interests is in the codes and contexts on which the communication of meaning depends. It suggests the possibility of a system underlying visual communication that is something like a grammar – something like the system of relationships and contexts that makes verbal communication possible.” (pg. 9-10 Words about pictures by perry nodelman

Semiotics have an important role in visual narrative “since the major task of images in picture books is to communicate information, they make most sense in terms of an approach that focuses on the conditions of which meanings are communicated. Semiotics, which has roots in linguistics, is such an approach; its prime interests is in the codes and contexts on which the communication of meaning depends. It suggests the possibility of a system underlying visual communication that is something like a grammar – something like the system of relationships and contexts that makes verbal communication possible.” (pg. 9-10 Words about pictures by perry nodelman)

Hogarth puts a great amount of detail into the facial expressions of his subjects to push the narrative forward. This can be seen in the first plate of a series from prints of ‘A rake’s progress’ (1735) The angered expression of the maid who glares onto the young rake that looks towards his crying and distressed fiancé with a disinterested and carefree expression. With the detailed physiognomy also comes the language of the body and its gesture that helps to unify the image even further. The young rake with his carefree expression holding out money towards the crying fiancé that that he wants to break off the engagement with. Gesture and physiognomy play a huge role in the visual storytelling of the picture, it is almost universal in language as many of the gestures that humans have used throughout history are almost always the same and almost always hold the same meanings. Together with the semiotics within the image that further develop the story, the image comes to life to the contemporary audience.

Semiotics, the pug used as comic and satirical relief/reference? formality of Hogarth. In a lot of his works, Hogarth, like many other artists before him, uses the dog to drive the narrative, often to imply the social standing of the subjects within the painting and to illustrate to which faction they belong to. More than that, he loves using his favourite breed of dog, the pug, to dissipate the seriousness and formality of some of his more important commissions, such as the family portrait of the (….) family. “But the pug is more important than that – he is a satirical little animal. He is comical looking, he’s almost like a little monkey, and in that respect, dare I say, that the pug resembles his owner.” “he can’t resist in including the playful little dog in his more formal commissions – or conversational pieces.” “and it does feel like Hogarth is being subtly subversive, using the pug to prickle the pomposity of the grand and formal scenes.” Hogarth: One Man and His Pug (documentary) Spaniel in plate 4 of ‘a rake’s progress’ suggests that the subjects within the piece might be supporters of the Stuart cause (the king Charles spaniel). The pug (the Dutch dog) in plate 5

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Touch on the theme of morality and culture

Morality within Hogarth’s works was also one of his main points, just like the pug, he couldn’t help but to include moral tales within his works. Whether it was in the background of his images where the servants silently judged their masters or with the main characters who were more often than not up to no good. One of the main examples of this is, of course, the Rake’s progress that portrays the moral tale of human greed and ignorance of ones own actions. The morality of hogarths tales reflected the culture of the time, where people who suddenly came to a great fortune did not know how to handle the situation well and let their rash decisions guide them without a second thought. Even if the people would be more rational in tehse situations, there are others around them that leech off of the suddenly fortunate person in order to satisfy their greed. This can be seen in the ….rd piece of the series of The rake’s progress where the young rake is surrounded by wealthy merchants and teachers, selling their services to him merrily and emptying his pockets so fast that almost by the next day, he is as poor as he was before he even amassed the fortune from his late father.

Hogarth also portrays the minority (the negro servants) that help him reach a wider audience and therefore gain even more popularity among the people of his time.

Culture and morality

Morality, much like the ability to tell stories, has also been a part of the human development into a better species. With the help of narrative, we are able to understand the world around us and make rules about it. With the use of morality as our guide, we have been able to make rules and label things to be good and bad which has helped us survive in larger groups with relatively low levels of inner conflict. “After Darwin, human morality became a scientific mystery. Natural selection could explain how intelligent, upright, linguistic, not so hairy, bipedal primates could evolve, but where did our morals come from? Darwin himself was absorbed by this question. Natural selection, it was thought, promotes ruthless self-interest. Individuals who grab up all the resources and destroy the competition will survive better, reproduce more often, and thus populate the world with their ruthlessly selfish offspring. How, then, could morality evolve in a world that Tennyson famously described as “red in tooth and claw”? We now have an answer. Morality evolved as a solution to the problem of cooperation, as a way of averting the Tragedy of the Commons: Morality is a set of psychological adaptations that allow otherwise selfish individuals to reap the benefits of cooperation. (Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene) Without ability to now tell what things may harm us and what things are good for us and our peers, we have been able to grow as a species. However, we easily oblivious to the most obvious moral dilemmas of our time. After all, once the obvious such as ‘to kill another man is bad’ is settled, nobody thinks of all the more detailed moral problems that are still all around us. “In an ideal world, we’d all transform ourselves into experts and make judgments based on extensive knowledge. Given that this will never happen, our next best option is to emulate the wisdom of Socrates: We become wiser when we acknowledge our ignorance.” (Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene) This is where Hogarth’s modern moral subjects such as the rakes progress come in and illuminate the dilemma in a satirical and shocking manner. For the upper class who were indulging themselves to be suddenly called out for their actions and to be shown that they are no better than the commoners who frolic and gamble in the lower streets of the city, it must have been a great shock. The rake’s progress illustrates the wrongdoing of people with money very well.

More detailed analysis of adaptations, why they are still morally relevant even after 250 years. The adaptations of Hogarth’s ‘a rake’s progress’ help illuminate some of the moral problems that have not changed much in the past 200 or so years. We still spend our money thoughtlessly, and don’t think much about the consequences. Greyson Perry, adapted the rake’s progress. Sketches and tapestries Greyson perry. Comparison to the original rakes progress by William Hogarth. Similarities and differences. Compare to the carefree French paintings of the time, like an alternate world. Hogarths sardonic reaction to French painting ‘before and after’ Life of William Hogarth and his modern moral subjects. Very controversial and new to the scene. (the genius of british art)

David Hockney is one of the most known people to have done an adaptation of ‘A ralke’s progress’. He designed the sets and costumes for an opera production of the rakes progress for the Glyndebourne festival. The set and costumes were used in the three-act opera by Igor Stravinsky which was inspired by the rakes progress. David Hockney series of etchings The set designs are created by using typical engraving techniques with the use of cross hatching and parallel lines to imitate the original works by Hogarth. Hockney used colour and a much more simplified approach to design the set compared to the original etching by Hogarth, after all the main focus must be set on the actors within the opera play. Hogarth was also very fond of theatre; he was an avid theatre goer and its influence can be seen in his works as many of them look a lot like sets. Sets that seem to be almost frozen in time. The way he composites his plates of the rakes progress seems like they are stages which the audience is looking upon.

Society, culture and class. How things changed and how some things remained the same. Class division,

the use of cultural references within Hogarth’s works helps the audience to understand the scene in more detail as it helps to frame the situation. The room, and objects within it suggest the time period the story is taking place in and the clothing of the characters helps us understand their social standing and tells us whether they are noble or commoners. ‘A rake’s progress’ plate 4 The young rake and his new bride are dressed in elegant satin/silk clothing while the maidservant next to the bride is wearing a simple cotton dress with an apron. It is important to have these kind of signifiers within a visual narrative as it helps to signify the scenario the character is within and from that the audience can deduct what kind of person they are, and what they might be thinking and going through, this helps us as the audience connect with the characters within the work.

The cultural and moral subjects within the works are often depicted with the use of semiotics and gesture. The way two characters act towards one another while facing one another implies a lot. The first plate in a rakes progress illustrates this as the rake, with a lot of money suddenly at his disposal, dismisses his fiancé without much care shown on his expression while the young woman cries in disdain. The semiotics also come in play as she is holding the ring that signifies their engagement in such a way almost as if she is about to drop it at any moment.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the way visual narrative uses gesture, semiotics and physiognomy to reflect morality and culture within itself is essential in order to make the whole picture tie together and make it more comprehensive

With this is mind, Hogarth was one of the leading artists of his time that were able to capture the attention of his audience through his skilful knowledge of the contemporary culture, the class divisions and the moral dilemmas of the time and he was able to use this to his advantage to connect the audience with his stories. Furthermore, he used his artistic knowledge of the human anatomy and psychology to narrate the story within his paintings and etchings without the use of words. Instead he used semiotics that reflected the contemporary values to suggest and convey different meanings as well as the use of universal (almost) human gestures and facial expressions (physiognomy) that have been used throughout time to communicate between one another, frozen still within his images for the rest of time.

In this dissertation, I will examine the importance of gesture, physiognomy, and semiotics; and how they are conveyed through visual narratives with reflections of morality and culture within the contemporary audience.

Bibliography

  1. PULLMAN, Phillip, MASON, Simon. 2017. Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling. 1st Edn. Oxford: David Fickling Books.
  2. BANG, Molly. 2016. Picture This: How Pictures Work. Chronicle Books.
  3. SCHAMA, Simon. 2012. A History of Britain: Volume 1. Audible Studios.
  4. SCHAMA, Simon. 2012. A History of Britain: Volume 2. Audible Studios.
  5. SCHAMA, Simon. 2012. A History of Britain: Volume 3. Audible Studios.
  6. JEAN, Georges. 1998. Signs, Symbols and Ciphers: Decoding the message. London: Thames and Hudson LTD.
  7. MCDONALD, Paul. 2014.

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Gesture, Semiotics And Physiognomy In Visual Narrative. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/gesture-semiotics-and-physiognomy-in-visual-narrative/
“Gesture, Semiotics And Physiognomy In Visual Narrative.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/gesture-semiotics-and-physiognomy-in-visual-narrative/
Gesture, Semiotics And Physiognomy In Visual Narrative. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/gesture-semiotics-and-physiognomy-in-visual-narrative/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
Gesture, Semiotics And Physiognomy In Visual Narrative [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/gesture-semiotics-and-physiognomy-in-visual-narrative/
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