Backwards Drawings: pages 18 and 19 and plate 13 from Russian Icons (by David Talbot Rice) ink and watercolour on paper
Text can be understood as image when it cannot be ‘read’ in the way that we understand letters to make words, and words to make sentences. Text becomes a series of lines and shapes when it cannot be processed by the reader in the way that the writer had intended. When looking at Arabic, Chinese or Greek text, I understand that there is meaning present in the form of the ‘words’, but I don’t have the key be able to process this meaning as language. Instead, I discover meaning elsewhere; I create in my mind an image-poem.
Backwards text from pages 18 and 19 of Russian Icons (by David Talbot Rice) shown above is an ink drawing of a piece of writing that considers how we read Eastern Iconography. If you were to look carefully enough and could read backwards, you would find the following sentence within the text:
‘….in (Russian) iconography, a distant and purely Eastern system of arrangement is followed, where scenes are built up from right to left, not from left to right. In the Annunciation, for instance, the angel approaches from the right side and not from the left, as it does in Western and in true Byzantine art. In the West, in fact, scenes move from left to right, like the writing; in East they move from right to left, as does the Arabic script…’
‘…In order to appreciate an Eastern painting to the full, we should therefore try to look at it from right to left, rather than from left to right, as we naturally tend to do even if we do not realise it’.
We tend to translate images instinctively, understanding them visually rather than verbally, generating meaning in a way that makes sense to us. It is interesting to consider text in the same way: ingesting it visually, not literarily. Through the ‘translation’ of a section of printed text into a reverse-drawing, it is presented as image and therefore ‘read’ in a very different way. However, the viewer will recognise that the drawing is written text, and, with the time or inclination (and a mirror?), it could be read as the author had intended.
Plate 13 from Russian Icons (by David Talbot Rice) (the image accompanying the reverse-drawing) has also been copied from the book and painted in reverse. Unlike with the written text, the audience is unlikely to realise this. As with an abstract painting that is hung upside down, it might feel wrong, but is it possible to know that is not the right way up? And what might this mean for understanding and knowledge that is gained through the visual?
By Alice Ladenburg
NB: This work was recently selected for HOAX – an independent, artist-led project providing a space in print and online to show all forms of creative work incorporating text alongside each other without prejudice or predefined “rules” about the look, format, content or execution of the work’. See their website for more information.