Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 13, 2001
Kumiko Maekawa Narrative and Experience: Innovations in Thirteenth-Century Picture Books Bern: Peter Lang, 1999. 349 pp. Cloth $52.95 (0820435813)

A book with the title Narrative and Experience: Innovations in Thirteenth-Century Picture Books seems to promise insights into how stories function and work upon readers; or perhaps, how narratives come to be significant within cultures. Alternately, such a study might immerse its readers in the intricacies of the working of a few particularly intriguing stories. Unfortunately, in terms of these sorts of expectations, Kumiko Maekawa’s book delivers only disappointment. Nonetheless, even if a title seems to promise more than it delivers, it is unfair to criticize an author for failing to write the book that one would like to read. If, instead, one asks if the author has answered the questions she herself has posed, Maekawa clearly succeeds, for she has much to say about formal visual structures of storytelling in the Middle Ages. The omission of discussion of larger questions about narrative from Maekawa’s study derives from her initial strategy of identifying an unprecedented category of Picture Books among thirteenth-century illustrated manuscripts and emphatically asserting the singularity of this group. Although she notes some similarity to modern animated movies, she, in effect, dismisses any significant suprachronological shared elements intrinsic to the books through a lack of discussion. Instead, in order to argue the uniqueness of the manuscripts, she focuses on what she posits as particularly medieval (“pre-realist”) pictorial structures that lead viewers through narratives. These include gestures, movement within compositions, and disposition of frames. In other words, she privileges specifically visual structures over more general narrative meaning and context, particularly meaning produced by words. In this, she follows and extends the work of authorities that she cites with admiration (Meyer Schapiro’s groundbreaking Words and Pictures, and more recent work by Francois Garnier and Wolfgang Kemp). This emphasis on the visual is an intriguing approach that seems to promise the revelation of the particular possibilities of pictorial narrative. As opposed to the more general observations of the authors cited above, however, and in order to explore the possibilities of pictorial narrative, Maekawa focuses on the minutiae of visual narrative structures in a series of manuscripts. Ultimately, she develops a “dictionary” (274) of narrative devices.

Indeed, the analysis of the concrete physical disposition of images on a page or in a stained glass window is presented as more desirable (because they are somehow more objective) than the exploration of reader reaction. It may be true that viewers, medieval or modern, readily see and recognize visual structures of narrative convention, but in order to connect and construe them, they must make assumptions about means of reading and the interpretation of the results. Some assumptions present little difficulty—scenes juxtaposed without frames with repeating characters take part in a “continuous” narrative (Wickhoff’s term). “Trip iconography” (86), Maekawa’s own notion, assists in narrative progression and implies the passage of time. Other assumptions, however, are problematic. Maekawa discusses structures in terms of their helpfulness in assisting readers but is also all too ready to assume the opposite—insuperable difficulties. Here a typical passage:

…scenes are mostly disposed from left to right, from top to bottom on each page. Readers must move their eyes a little further along each time when they arrive at the right-hand side of a page and at the right bottom of a right-hand page they completely lose contact with the parchment for an instant before reaching the left top of the next left-hand page. Such complex movements of the eyes would make it almost impossible to discern meaningful connections between scenes or narrative units over pages.

Although it might be more difficult to find “meaningful connections” if one has to turn a page, the eyes assisted by memory and reading conventions can surely do so. Another element of Maekawa’s discussion that may trouble narrative theorists is her continuing adherence to Weitzmann’s theory of a pre-existent “model” upon which Old Testament narratives are based. Although she is less likely to follow Weitzmann’s theory of detailed iconographic models (see in particular her incisive critique of conflation 46, n.71), she does seem to retain the notions of an enduring general iconography and, most important, of persistent conventions. This hypothetical model lurks unmolested through periods in which it is never seen. It looms large in the Vienna Genesis of the sixth century, is quiescent in following centuries, but bursts forth once again in the Aelfric Hexateuch of the eleventh century. Thereafter, artists build upon it to achieve the perfection of the thirteenth century in such books as the St. Louis Psalter, Maekawa’s primary example. In this presentation, reading conventions are eternal rather than a function of the readers who use them. Various pictorial devices are always available and retain their function without suffering anything of the flux and flow of meaning here is a “semiotics” without “semiosis.”

Such clinging to “objective” structures brings to mind a dispute that erupted twenty years ago at the seminal symposium on narrative that was jointly sponsored by Johns Hopkins and the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts and published in Studies of the History of Art (Studies of the History of Art 16, 1985). One of the participants began a comment by saying, “So we are agreed that narrative is in the mind of the viewer…” and the room erupted in disagreement. Then, as now, scholars still cannot find unanimity concerning the role or even the importance of the viewer in visual narrative. While some scholars eagerly seek to imaginatively reconstruct complex acts of reception in response to visual cues, others, including Maekawa, present only what they can see (and if possible, diagram; see 208-223, and passim).

So what does the word “experience” mean in the title of this book? Maekawa allows that the word “is not used with books or pictures in Japanese,” and goes on to define it for her purposes as: “the act of handling, reading and looking at books and illustrations and it also alludes to various aspects of spiritual and material life of historical readers” (21-22). Indeed, Maekawa’s discussion of reader experience follows this definition precisely. Thus, the first aspect, physical experience of the book, entails a rigidly proscribed response elicited by schematic cues in visual structures. If a figure points left then the reader is to look to the left. If a foot overlaps the frame then the story continues in the next episode. Or, less obviously, readers are prompted to take certain actions as they read:

(regarding a depiction of Noah in which two scenes are elided) the reader would see first the dove scene covering the raven with his or her hand and then the raven scene covering the dove. Indeed, in order to understand this picture, readers must see the common elements twice.Although the structures may seem obvious, again, this assumption concerning viewer action and conception remains inaccurate because it is radically underestimates readers.

The second aspect of Maekawa’s definition of experience is covered in the final chapter of the book. There, she gives a history of readers and viewers culled from the best current research on this “hot” topic (155-188). This is the strongest and most interesting portion of the book and brings to the fore many of the issues of reception and response that she fails to discuss elsewhere in the book. Although no more than a very good synthesis of previous literature (but one that would serve graduate students well), the chapter is based on perhaps the fullest and most complete bibliography on medieval narrative ever assembled. One consequence of this amplitude of research is that, throughout, the footnotes are as interesting as the text itself. They present a virtual historiography of myriad detailed issues in narrative studies, a highly useful aid for students of narrative. Unfortunately, and perhaps to satisfy space restrictions, the footnote citations are limited to author’s name and date of publication and are usually without even a page number. Thus, in reading the text, which is already broken into many sections, a further choppiness is created by the necessity of constantly referring to the bibliography at the end of the book. Furthermore, as perhaps might be excused in such a long bibliography, many mistakes creep in—Block for Bloch and Geffrey for Jeffrey (Hamburger).

Although Maekawa makes a brave attempt to fully document and discuss visual narratives in terms of their purely visual qualities (and an even braver attempt to present her abstract and detailed findings in non-native English!), her contribution remains confined to three areas: the discussion of certain narrative conventions operating in a limited number of manuscripts; the compilation of a remarkable bibliography and notes; and the useful summation of a history of reading in the Middle Ages. Clearly, this study is part of ongoing research, both on the part of the author and of many other scholars. Precisely because narrative is so rich a topic can this book only be a first foray into one or two of many possible areas of inquiry. Maekawa offers it up with a spirit of exemplary scholarly generosity and it will find its place as an important thesis to assess as well as a challenge in further research.

Cynthia Hahn
Florida State University