E. H. Gombrich
None of Molière's immortal witticisms is surer to get a laugh from a modern audience than the surprise of his Bourgeois Gentilhomme when he is told that he has been 'talking prose' all his life. But was poor M. Jourdain all that silly? What he had discovered in his frantic efforts to climb into the class of noblemen was, of course, not prose, but verse. The notion of prose as a special kind of speech could never have been thought of without the poet's truly surprising ways with language, so well described by the author of Alice in Wonderland:
For first you write a sentence,
And then you chop it small;
Then mix the bits, and sort them out
Just as they chance to fall:
The order of the phrases makes
No difference at all.
The corresponding ways with images practised by twentieth-century artists have turned us all into M. Jourdains. They have shocked us into a fresh awareness of the prose of pictorial representation.
If we had told an art lover of former days that a picture needed deciphering, he would have thought of symbols and emblems with some cryptic 'hieroglyphic' content. Take the still-life by the Dutch seventeenth-century painter Torrentius (Fig. A). It seems clear enough as a representation, and for good reasons: We know that the artist used an optical device, the camera obscura, to project the image of the motifs onto the canvas where he traced it as one might trace a projected photograph. What wonder that it seemed just as easy to recognize the objects in the picture as it would be to recognize them on the table. If deciphering came in at all, it applied to a second level of meaning, as it were — to the question of what these objects might signify. To the learned gentilhomme they would suggest more than a jug, a glass and a yoke, for he would recognize in this curious assemblage the emblems or 'attributes' of the personification of Temperance, a lady with the laudable habit of pouring water into her wine and a corresponding disposition meekly to accept the bridle and the yoke. 1
It was only when learned allusions of this kind went out of fashion, and when everybody could reproduce the image of objects by means of his own photographic camera, that artists began to question the simple assumptions underlying the still‐ life painter's craft. No sooner had they done so than the public questioned their competence. What impudence of the Impressionists to demand that we decipher their blots and splashes! But this is easy, retorted the painter's champion. Just step back and half-close your eyes, and the blots will fall into place. The magic worked,____________________