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Commentary: Narrative Art Has Taken Many Forms, From Early Times To Today


Finally, I'm going through my drawers during this long-lasting pandemic and I found one filled with clippings of art exhibitions and articles on art. I noticed a predominance of the word “narrative” in many of the clippings.

I started thinking about the meaning of the words “narrative art” and realized that those words would take me way back in history. Narrative art according to Wikipedia is art that tells a story, either as a moment in an ongoing story or as a sequence of events unfolding over time. Some of the earliest evidence of human art suggests that people told stories with pictures. Although there are some common features to all narrative art, different cultures have developed idiosyncratic ways to discern narrative action from pictures.

Prior to the advent of literacy, most narrative art was done in a simultaneous narrative style with very little overarching organization. Once literacy developed in different parts of the world, pictures began to be organized along register lines on a page, that helped define the direction of the narrative. This method of linking stories together led to other ways of telling stories in the 20th century, namely the newspaper, comic strips and comic books and all the way to today’s rap music.

In painting in traditional Western art since the Renaissance, the concept of history painting covers most narrative scenes. The subject matter is usually drawn from classical history, poetry and religion. Leon Battista Alberti, the 15th century humanist, in his treatise on painting wrote, "The great work of the painter is the narrative." From the Renaissance to the 19th century, history painting was regarded by academics as the highest, most worthwhile kind of painting.

The Kemper Museum at Washington University had an exhibition a few years ago titled "Picturing Narrative: Greek Mythology in the Visual Arts." The myths of ancient Greece have inspired artists from antiquity to the 21st century, however the transference of a myth from words to images is never straightforward. Greek vases and coins and works by Picasso and other artists show how significant moments of myths can be shown in their work.

I mentioned rap music and of course, a narrative is a story that you wish to tell in great detail and can be imparted in many different forms, from poetry or prose, or even in song, theater and dance.

Songs and music are often narrative. Songs that tell stories (narratives) are called ballads and can be in the guise of country western, folk, rap, sea shanties and more. Songs have a long history and go back through the ages through opera, epics and poetry. I read somewhere a list of 15 songs that tell better stories than your favorite novel.

The heart of musical theater in any time period is storytelling through the combination of words and music where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. When the right creative team and performers come together, it can be quite satisfying.

Craft Alliance had an exhibition titled, "Metal Speaks: Art of the Narrative.” I contacted Stephanie Kirkland, Deputy Director of the institution and asked her about the narrative in art and this exhibition and she said, "Craft has been a vehicle for story telling for centuries. From the Bayeux Tapestry, made in England (estimated to be created in 1070) illustrating the Norman Conquest, there are so many large tapestries that hung in castles for the stories of kings and their conquests. Then before that, there were Egyptian and Etruscan ceramic vessels with all those illustrations of gods and myths on them. From ancient China to India to Europe, every culture has used hand crafts to celebrate their cultural stories.”

"Metal Speaks" was curated by Paulette Myers and featured artists who created jewelry to small vessels as platforms to tell their personal stories and memories.

And now filmmaker George Lucas and his wife have founded the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art which will open soon in Los Angeles.

The Lucas Museum will celebrate the power of visual storytelling in a setting focused on narrative painting, illustration, photography, film, animation and digital art. Narrative art is about stories, and the moments in those stories captured by the artists.

The museum will be a barrier free museum where artificial divisions between "high" art and "popular" art are absent, allowing you to explore a wide array of compelling visual storytelling. Visitors who might be less inclined to visit a traditional fine art museum will be invited to engage with and relate to art forms they recognize and love.

Storytelling is another form of narrative art. The St. Louis Storytelling Festival, usually held in the spring here in St. Louis, is the largest free storytelling festival in the world. Throughout time, people have preserved their culture, values and beliefs through storytelling, giving voice to the human experience. Storytelling allows families and communities to pass their history to succeeding generations, and it remains an evolving, dynamic art form.

The artists in every medium will have had a lot of time to create narratives in many ways during these dark days and will help to light the way to a rich and better future for all.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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