When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story

By Denise Schmandt-Besserat | Go to book overview

Introduction: Writing and Art

Writing is a mechanism that permits us to change the format of our creative endeavors, the
shape of our knowledge, our understanding of the world, and our activities within it.

— JACK GOODY1

IN THIS VOLUME I examine the interface between writing and art during the early urban period in the ancient Near East. I propose that an exchange between the two media took place in two installments: in the late fourth millennium B.C., writing had an impact of great consequence on art, and, reciprocally, in the third millennium B.C., art had an impact of no less significance on writing. I will show that through this mutual exchange both writing and art multiplied their capacity to communicate information. Art became narrative and writing went beyond accounting to become a comprehensive medium of communication.

Part One is devoted to the impact of writing on art. I hold writing responsible for the fundamental changes that took place ca. 3500 B.C. in Near Eastern art composition—the way designs were organized. To make this case I will compare and contrast compositions of preliterate vs. literate pottery paintings, wall paintings, seals, and stone reliefs. I will argue that before the invention of writing, compositions typically consisted of geometric or animal motifs that were juxtaposed, dovetailed together, or placed in rotating arrangements that symbolized an idea or evoked a story. But after writing, as the process of copying the dispositions of signs on a tablet was introduced, Near Eastern art became linear and thus could tell a story. Parallel lines, used as an organizing principle in a scene, caused the figures within that scene to be arranged in the same upright position upon a ground line. The ground line meant that the individuals pictured shared the same space at the same time. Accordingly, their relative size, location, position, order, and direction could be used to signify hierarchy, rank,

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When Writing Met Art: From Symbol to Story
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction- Writing and Art 1
  • I - How Writing Shaped Art 13
  • One - Pottery Painting 15
  • Two - Glyptic 27
  • Three - The Uruk Vase- Sequential Narrative 41
  • Four - Wall and Floor Painting 47
  • II - How Art Shaped Writing 61
  • Five - Funerary Inscriptions 63
  • Six - Votive and Dedicatory Inscriptions 71
  • Seven - The Stele of Hammurabi 87
  • Conclusion- The Interface between Writing and Art 101
  • Notes 107
  • Bibliography 117
  • Index 129
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