Is painting really better than poetry? “While poetry extends to the figuration of forms, actions, and place in words, the painter is moved by the real similitudes of forms to counterfeit these forms”, Leonardo da Vinci says. Which is a closer examination of man, his name or his likeness? Leonardo states that likenesses can make the most convincing representation of reality.
Now, we can see how Renaissance artists were concerned with the creation of a portrayal of reality. But I don’t think painting is necessarily better than any other attempt to represent the real world. Since we know things through the senses, not directly, painting may be false as much as any verbal statement can be. Images are linked with feelings, they are integral with perceptions, memories and our hopes or expectation. The painter forms opinions, not truth.
As David Summers notes, in his Critical Terms for Art History, representation is not so much of things as of relations. And, in this sense, it becomes symbolic: the sign does not merely convey what it resembles to the mind. Some actual images embody reality but have a deeper meaning.
Let’s take by way of example the works of Jan van Eyck, which belong to the Flemish tradition. Flemish paintings are remarkable for their acute observation of nature and their symbolism in realistic disguises. Van Eyck’s paintings include scenes from everyday life, portrait and still-lifes. He pays great attention to individual features and allusions to symbolic meaning, ordinary objects could be hidden symbols that held religious meanings that the contemporary people would have understood. Representation has often a vertical dimension. For instance, the fruit in a still-life painting seem to suggest the sensory qualities of some real fruit but, in van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding, the orange in the window invite us to other meaning, to consideration of the prosperity of patrons and, on another level, to prosperity itself, as fecundity. We can see how images and signs are truly allegories, “lies”.
In this sense, painting is not better than poetry, which uses as well allegories, tropes and figure of speech instead of symbols, colors and images.