by John Holbo on June 18, 2010

I’m reading Lessing’s Laocoön, An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (how’s by you?) Consider:

It is an intrusion of the painter into the domain of the poet, which good taste can never sanction, when the painter combines in one and the same picture two points necessarily separate in time, as does Fra Mazzuoli when he introduces the rape of the Sabine women, and the reconciliation effected by them between their husbands and relations, or as Titian does when he presents the entire history of the prodigal son, his dissolute life, his misery, and his repentance. (91)

Lessing is the anti-Scott McCloud, you might say – in terms of his global desire to keep narrative and visual art at arms length; and specifically, in terms of this local ban on more than one time slice per panel. (Do you happen to remember that section of Understanding Comics, where McCloud rather ingeniously analyzes how single panels can do very neat double-duty as representations through time?) Next, read Clement Greenberg’s “Towards a Newer Laocoon”, and maybe find yourself thinking interesting thoughts about modernism and comics. In the meantime, what works is Lessing referencing, specifically? So far as I can tell, Fra Mazzuoli – a.k.a. Parmigianino – never painted the Sabine women. (Here’s a list of his works.) And Titian never painted the prodigal son (another list). Wikipedia is not always reliable, so that could be it. Lessing did not have the best reference resources at his fingertips, so that could be it. Thing is: I’m not personally familiar with any depiction of either the Sabine women story or the prodigal son story that tells the whole story in a single panel. Any relevant theories or – better still – facts? I would be curious which specific devices for narrative painting bugged Lessing. Because, even though he is often pegged (for better or worse) as some sort of proto-Clement Greenbergian, Ur-modernist purist about artistic media, Lessing is actually pretty laid-back and pragmatic about the whole business. Right after saying you must not do this thing – that’s the bit that tends to get quoted – he lightens up: different media are like friendly neighbors. You stay within the bounds of your property but don’t freak out if your neighbor wanders into your yard, for some perfectly understandable reason, now and again. He picks a very McCloudian sort of example to illustrate: Raphael’s use of speed lines (no, Lessing doesn’t call them that). To convey motion Raphael paints the folds in draped clothing as they would appear a moment earlier. (So you could say Raphael’s figures are Raphaelite, his drapery pre-Raphaelite, by a second or two.) Here at least I know what Lessing has in mind. This sort of thing. It might be funny to do an entire issue of “The Flash”, Raphael-style. He could get a new outfit with really baggy MC Hammer pants. Or at least a cape. Like Galatea’s.

I find it noteworthy that Lessing could single out, as aesthetically admirable, this sort of minor, comic-book-y technique for tricking the eye into seeing motion – action lines! – yet sternly disapprove of painters trying to render two points in time at once. What’s the big diff whether the temporal shift is a few seconds or a whole story arc? So that’s why I’m wondering what specific works he had in mind. (One of those cases in which you make some sort of architectural pun within the frame, so that in effect you have several frames?)

Fun further fact! if you actually read Clement Greenberg, he, too, turns out to be more pragmatic and flexible about the whole stay-true-to-your-medium schtick than you would expect. Given that he’s got a rep for dogmatism and high-handedness about all that.



Simon Halliday 06.18.10 at 7:51 am

I’m surprised that he didn’t bring up Duccio’s Maestà. Duccio portrayed two sequential events in the same predella panel: Jesus curing the blind man & the blind man seeing (image here). That’s the one I recall most vividly, but I think that he and other Sienese and Florentines did similar things. Also, the image is readily available online, whereas the other two seem not to be, as you said.


kid bitzer 06.18.10 at 12:56 pm

i clicked on the first raphael link. who the hell did those wings? raphael should fire his inker.

so it seems like the rigorist interpretation of lessing’s view has to count on a very rigorous notion of “one work of art”, too, innit?

i mean, suppose i show him a four-panel strip that depicts a simple narrative. he fumes and censures: “you have combined in one and the same picture two points necessarily separate in time!”

no i haven’t. i’ve just given you four pictures. each obeys temporal unity.

“hmmm…alright: but don’t erase the frame-lines!”

why not? here; i just erased them. and it’s still four pictures. how do i know it’s still four? because it represents four points, necessarily separate in time.

gets a bit circular, unless he has a strong independent criterion for ‘one picture’.


Aaron Swartz 06.18.10 at 1:17 pm

I’m no expert on clothing dynamics, but I thought the theory with Raphael is that the clothes move slower than the man, so you’re actually seeing the same thing that would be captured in a photo of the scene — it’s just that cloth lag gives you a little information about what went on before.


Aaron Swartz 06.18.10 at 1:29 pm


Doug T 06.18.10 at 1:34 pm

From a quick google image search, one nominee for the Saabine women picture he meant was Poussin’s. It at least fits the bill of showing both the original abduction on the left, and the reconciliation front and center. Seems a bit odd to confuse Poussin with Fra Mazzuoli, though.


daelm 06.18.10 at 1:49 pm

i’d guess he means the two forms embody different types of story-telling structures. sequence and narrative is usually the domain of written communication, and revelation and epiphany is the domain of visual. it’s not as clear cut as that, though, and written words can reveal, and cause epiphany too, but that’s the idea. i think the general distinction is by the route to the revelation – words follow sequence, and visual art reveals all at once. the kind of distinction i’m groping for is between a constructed thing and a revleaed thing.

i can understand what he means, without agreeing or disagreeing. basically, he’s likely saying that when visual art descends to sequence it’s failing in its primary task, and becoming merely illustrative, the handmaiden of a narrative sequence.

the kind of technique you’re referring to – action lines – isn’t a sequence of events. it’s an example of the precise strength of the visual arts, in that all the parts occur in the present and create a vivid effect.

or maybe i just understand what i think you mean he means.



daelm 06.18.10 at 2:08 pm

“the kind of distinction i’m groping for is between a constructed thing and a revleaed thing.”

what i mean here (above) is poorly said, and is hopfeully better said like this (below):

the kind of distinction i’m groping for is between a constructed experience of epiphany – one where words and therefore concepts accumulate and interact formally according to the laws of grammer and meaning, in the mind of the reader, giving rise to an experience of insight/revelation – and a revealed epiphany, one where visual data floods the sensory experience of the viewer and the epiphany arises directly and seemingly spontaneously.

of course, this depends on whether you think the purpose of art is to create epiphany or insight into something in the viewer, though this scheme works equally if you substitute ‘communication’ for ‘epiphany’. (people are usually more inlcined to agree that the point of an art work is communication of something, which is deemed a pretty innocuous goal.)

and of course, on whether i’m guessing his meaning right – i haven’t read the piece you reference, but it seems reasonable, because this kind of distinction is common in art history and criticism.



potchkeh 06.18.10 at 2:12 pm

According to this commentary, “[n]o work of [Mazzuoli’s] is known to which Lessing may have here referred,” and the prodigal son painting, which Lessing only knew from a description, is no longer attributed to Titian.


potchkeh 06.18.10 at 2:14 pm

Let’s try that again: this commentary.


y81 06.18.10 at 3:07 pm

As I recall, Edgar Allen Poe argued quite differently, that only lyric poetry was “true” poetry, and that narrative or epic poems were essentially improper, the good ones being merely sequences of good individual lyric poems. I believe he admitted the propriety of prose narrative, although I’m not sure if he wrote any prose longer than a short story himself.


Vance Maverick 06.18.10 at 3:11 pm

Thanks, potchkeh, for tracking down what I was going to speculate. Parmigianino’s surname is not usually given as “Mazzuoli” in any case, but Mazzola — perhaps he meant one of the other, more obscure painters by that name?


luica 06.18.10 at 3:29 pm

Potchkeh got it. If you look up Richardson’s book, you’ll find mentions of both parmiggianino and titian’s paintings as examples of “doubling of the action”.


bigcitylib 06.18.10 at 4:08 pm

“I’m reading Lessing’s Laocoön, An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry…”

You poor man: the pain will go away when you stop.


strangelet 06.18.10 at 4:19 pm

talking about what art should or shouldn’t be feels lame. whatever works seems to be the best philosophy

but i guess that would kill the discussion. sorry


chris 06.18.10 at 5:02 pm

Why should I, or anyone else who isn’t Lessing, give a rat’s ass what Lessing thinks are the “domains” of the painter and poet? Or what “good” taste (i.e. Lessing’s taste) can and cannot sanction?

That being said, I find the Duccio painting rather weird. But that’s because I come from a background of expecting panel divisions, rather than a seamless blending of different times in the same frame. (If there *were* a panel division, it would be obvious to me what was going on, which presumably proves something about the importance of what the interpreter brings to the act of looking at art.) I don’t confuse my cultural expectations with some kind of objective truth about art, but it sure looks like Lessing does.


daelm 06.18.10 at 5:26 pm

“Why should I, or anyone else who isn’t Lessing, give a rat’s ass what Lessing thinks are the “domains” of the painter and poet? Or what “good” taste (i.e. Lessing’s taste) can and cannot sanction?”

ummm…lessing’s been dead for 230 years, so i don’t think you have to worry that he’s trying to prescribe to you.

generally, caring about what other people think about things is what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.

i have to say, i’m ok with it. ymmv.



Ed Seedybum 06.18.10 at 5:30 pm

banned commenter trying it on again.


chris 06.18.10 at 8:58 pm

generally, caring about what other people think about things is what we’ve been doing for thousands of years.

Yeah, I know. Specifically, following what other people think even when they have no good reason to think that thing in the first place has been one of our species’ most annoying and dangerous flaws for thousands of years. (Probably longer, actually.)

Admittedly, it’s hard to see how it could kill anyone in the specific field of art criticism, but still. If he has good reasons to think what he thinks, let him advance them (well, I guess if he hasn’t already, it’s too late to expect him to do so now) and if not, what good does it do to give mind share to his pontifications rather than ignore them?

Particularly when painters and poets, to say nothing of tastes, are likely to have moved on in the last couple of centuries.


Luther Blissett 06.18.10 at 10:01 pm

Then there’s Pater, who wrote in *The Renaissance* about how all arts, at their best, attempt to achieve the greatest effects of other arts, with all art ultimately striving to be music.

I have no problem with a pragmatic warning about arts stepping on each other’s toes. Whenever I read something like the poetry of p. inman and I’m told to appreciate it like free jazz, my response is always the same: free jazz is better, and for clear reasons. The timbres and textures of William Parker’s quartet, for example, add elements that a silently read random assortment of words and phonemes can never achieve.

And I’d argue the same about narrative. Novels and films do it so much better than paintings and comic books.

It’s like tools. Sure, you can use the handle of a screwdriver to get a nail into wood, but why would you if you have a hammer?


Josh 06.18.10 at 11:46 pm

Chris, I’m confused–you’re just saying your unconvinced by the “reasons” advanced by Lessing, or you find Laocoön to be devoid of argument? Or you believe that you shouldn’t care what someone who’s wrong says because that would constitute “following what other people think”? Trust me, thoughts aren’t that powerful: I’ve read many Christian authors, and while knowing what such people believe has helped me understand the world around me and its history, I’m not converted.


Gene O'Grady 06.18.10 at 11:46 pm

I’m pretty sure Lessing (a writer I would like to see read more rather than less) would not have had much of a reaction to Duccio, if he knew his work at all, other than to dismiss it as hopelessly primitive. Goethe, a less classicizing guy than Lessing, had minimal taste for the Trecento. His accounts of what he looked at vis a vis what we know he might have looked it is pretty amazing.


Robert Hanks 06.19.10 at 9:14 am

Again, clearly not the specific painting Lessing had in mind, but another example of this time sequence in one frame is Rubens’s Rape of the Sabine Women, in the National Gallery in London: this has the rape in the foreground and the subsequent attack by the Sabines on the Romans in the background: It seems to me that it’s not simply a question of narrative, in the sense of a succession of events, but of treating an action and its consequences as one event.

I haven’t read Lessing either, but daelm’s interpretation seems plausible.


John Holbo 06.19.10 at 1:25 pm

Thanks, potchkeh, for tracking that down. It seems pretty likely that Lessing was working second-hand, from that source. Makes sense.

Luther, the thing that surprised me when I read Lessing was that he is making exactly the point you are making. Namely: play to your strengths. He gives examples like: it’s hard to paint a picture of a bunch of old Greek men admiring Helen because, in order to show they are admiring her, you have to make them look like leering lechers. (At best, the scene is comic.) Better just to paint a pretty lady and call it a day. Whereas, in a poem, enumerating her body parts and stipulating them to be very beautiful gets a bit dull. So instead you turn the sight of her into an event that can be narrated. Like honorable old men feelings the stirrings of youth again at the sight of her. (But you don’t have to actually look at them feeling those stirrings, so it’s not a problem.)

I had been led to expect that I was going to get something much more metaphysical from Lessing: something about how the duty of every work is to reveal the essence of its medium. More modernist that way. Turns out he’s always just saying that painters shouldn’t try to tell stories because poets are better at story-telling.

Re: the action lines. This isn’t a simple issue by any means. I think it’s reasonable to object that – unless all these people live in wind tunnels, or are constantly moving at implausibly high rates of speed, or wearing odd material – the drapery isn’t ‘realistic’. The effect of the exaggeration is to trick the eye into seeing motion and this raises interesting questions about phenomenology that exceed the scope of the comment box. Scott McCloud and Lessing might actually agree about this one. A sequence of one is very different from a sequence of two, time-wise. But I’m not so sure.

I should do a follow-up because I’ve actually just been reading the Morgan Bible, making note of the different narrative/paneling techniques. It’s interesting. Plus lots of people hack each other to bits. (Hey, it’s the Bible. You were expecting love and harmony?)


John Holbo 06.19.10 at 1:36 pm

Of course someone is sure to snark that reading about old men being attracted to young women doesn’t sound so thrilling. But the general point is: when you want to describe something, find a way to describe it in terms of a series of events, or cause-and-effect. If you want to describe a shield, don’t just list its properties. Describe it being made, say, so that the reader ends up knowing what properties it has without being bored by a list of them. Lessing isn’t actually writing a how-to-write handbook, but he is doing things like addressing scholars puzzled about apparent divergences between representations of myths in ancient Greek visual art and poetry. And Lessing basically says: it’s not surprising that visual versions of certain persons or events don’t quite match any known poetic versions. It needn’t be a case of anything more than visual artists and poets being attuned to their respective artistic strengths, and adapting source material accordingly.


Shelby 06.19.10 at 8:35 pm

Lessing’s stance reminds me of Leon Kass’s position on the public eating of ice cream — obviously repugnant, and therefore just plain wrong. If you don’t share his aesthetic response you can’t understand his ethical position — and ultimately you’re reduced to getting Kass’s permission before doing anything. (Assuming you don’t chuckle and ignore him.)

Incidentally, I first read the post as “Lessig’s Laocoon” and thought, what’s Larry gone and done now?


John Holbo 06.20.10 at 2:27 am

“Lessing’s stance reminds me of Leon Kass’s position on the public eating of ice cream—obviously repugnant, and therefore just plain wrong.”

This was what I expected to feel about it myself. But then he just turned out to be a lot more moderate. He’s still a bit crazy, what German intellectual isn’t?, but the whole thing was surprisingly pragmatic, as the ‘good neighbors’ metaphor shows. You get the feeling that if you came up with some devastating counter-example – like the existence of comics – he would say, ‘how ingenious!’ rather than spluttering about this violation of the rules.


Gene O'Grady 06.20.10 at 4:01 am

Has anyone mentioned that Lessing was actually a pretty good playwright, writing both tragedy and comedy (I enjoyed Minna von Barnhelm, but then my tastes tend not to overlap with those of CT posters and commenters) — which might have distressed Socrates no end — and a theatre critic (in newspapers, I believe?)

In regard to the teichoscopia (that’s the Helen and the old men bit) that’s fully in accord with Homeric technique, where direct speech is the major portion of the poem, including most of the best known scenes, and the reader’s interest is usually not directed by the poet’s own voice but focalized through the points of view of the characters.


novakant 06.20.10 at 12:39 pm

He was one of the major Enlightenment figures and a prominent critic of religion and the aristocracy, he developed the bourgeois drama, his plays belong to the standard repertoire in Germany and his theoretical writings on drama (“Hamburgische Dramaturgie”) are still widely read.


caroline hartman 06.20.10 at 6:42 pm

With regard to comment 1, Lessing would not have mentioned Duccio because the Maesta was taken apart around 1711. It wasn’t thought to be important or good art. It was old-fashioned and medieval, and the people of the cathedral had it divided up and sold.

Additionally, it is possible that the works of Parmigianino and Titian mentioned are no longer believed to be painted by these artists. For, in the nineteenth century, with the advent of the connoisseurship of Morelli and later Berenson, many of these paintings were re-attributed to different artists.


John Holbo 06.21.10 at 12:44 am

“Additionally, it is possible that the works of Parmigianino and Titian mentioned are no longer believed to be painted by these artists.”

Comments upstream suggest the same, caroline. I would still be curious to see the misattributed pictures, if we could figure out who they got subsequently redistributed to.


caroline hartman 06.21.10 at 2:51 pm

I can’t be certain, but it seems likely that Parmigianino’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” referred to is actually painted by Il Sodoma. Like Parmigianino, Il Sodoma works in the Mannerist style and has a painting which seems to fit Lessing’s description. The web gallery of art has a good image of this work.

The Titian referred to has likely been attributed to Andrea Schiavone, another painter of the Venetian school. As far as I can tell there continues to be some questioning as to whether the painting has actually been painted by Titian. I cannot seem to find a good image of this work online, though there is a black and white photograph of the painting on ARTstor.


Belle Waring 06.21.10 at 11:14 pm

Thanks Caroline.


Aaron Baker 06.23.10 at 2:23 pm

For three separate moments in a narrative all in one painting, please see Masaccio’s The Tribute Money . (

One can say a lot of things about this painting; but until now, I would never have imagined anyone thinking that it somehow violates good taste.


John Holbo 06.24.10 at 3:02 am

Thanks Aaron, someone (rather angrily) emailed me a link to the Masaccio, as an attempted proof that I’m a complete idiot for not realizing that (per the left segment of the canvas) it was standard to present narrative episodes without any framing. Whereas I would prefer to regard it as a proof of my point, in the post, that a standard method is to make a kind of architectural pun, pressing the columns into double-duty as panel dividers. It is, I think, reasonable to object to the non-framed method on the grounds that it’s objectively harder to ‘read’. Remember Kipling on the origin of the Alphabet. Young Taffy confuses everyone by drawing different images of the same spear, and accuses everyone else of being ‘the stupidest people’ for not recognizing that it’s supposed to be only one spear:

“‘He came with a horrible picture,’ said the Head Chief,–‘a picture that showed you were full of spears.’

‘Er-um-Pr’aps I’d better ‘splain that I gave him that picture,’ said Taffy, but she did not feel quite comfy.

‘You!’ said the Tribe of Tegumai all together. ‘Small-person-with-no-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked! You?’

‘Taffy dear, I’m afraid we’re in for a little trouble,’ said her Daddy, and put his arm round her, so she didn’t care.

‘Explain! Explain! Explain!’ said the Head Chief of the Tribe of Tegumai, and he hopped on one foot.

‘I wanted the Stranger-man to fetch Daddy’s spear, so I drawded it,’ said Taffy. ‘There wasn’t lots of spears. There was only one spear. I drawded it three times to make sure. I couldn’t help it looking as if it stuck into Daddy’s head–there wasn’t room on the birch-bark; and those things that Mummy called bad people are my beavers. I drawded them to show him the way through the swamp; and I drawded Mummy at the mouth of the Cave looking pleased because he is a nice Stranger-man, and I think you are just the stupidest people in the world,’ said Taffy. ‘He is a very nice man. Why have you filled his hair with mud? Wash him!'”

I don’t think Lessing is right to say it violates good taste, but there is a problem with a genre of pictures that causes everyone to jump up and down saying ‘explain, explain, explain’. That’s what words are for, after all. And that’s Kipling’s point, too.

“‘Never mind. It is a great invention, and some day men will call it writing. At present it is only pictures, and, as we have seen to-day, pictures are not always properly understood. But a time will come, O Babe of Tegumai, when we shall make letters–all twenty-six of ’em,–and when we shall be able to read as well as to write, and then we shall always say exactly what we mean without any mistakes. Let the Neolithic ladies wash the mud out of the stranger’s hair.'”

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