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With bracing clarity, James Elkins explores why images are taken to be more intricate and hard to describe in the twentieth century than they had been in any previous century. Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? uses three models to understand the kinds of complex meaning that pictures are thought to possess: the affinity between the meanings of paintings and jigsaw-puzzles; the contemporary interest in ambiguity and 'levels of meaning'; and the penchant many have to interpret pictures by finding images hidden within them. Elkins explores a wide variety of examples, from the figures hidden in Renaissance paintings to Salvador Dali's paranoiac meditations on Millet's Angelus, from Persian miniature paintings to jigsaw-puzzles. He also examines some of the most vexed works in history, including Watteau's "meaningless" paintings, Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling, and Leonardo's Last Supper.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780415919425
ISBN-10: 0415919428
Format: Paperback
(229mm x 152mm x 20mm)
Pages: 320
Imprint: Routledge
Publisher: Taylor & Francis Ltd
Publish Date: 4-Mar-1999
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Other Editions


UK Kirkus Review » Once upon a time, pictures were simple - or at least were generally thought so. It used to be that relatively few words would suffice to describe an image. For ancient authors, a sentence or a paragraph was enough; Giorgio Vasari wrote a page or two at most. Given that history, what does it mean that pictures have come to require so much more explanation than in any previous century? Why do writers involved with images find it necessary to write at such length? This book - a meditation on the nature of art historical interpretation - questions the notion prevalent in art history today that paintings are complex puzzles in need of solving, that there are hidden meanings in images, and that volumes of interpretation of a single image are somehow warranted. Elkins explores the modern origins of pictorial complexity, explains why we have only recently become aware that pictures are complex and examines a variety of explanations for the intricate meanings we now take for granted. (Kirkus UK)

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Author Biography - James Elkins

James Elkins is Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including What Painting Is (Routledge, 1998) and The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (1996).

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