The X-Ray of the Imagination: Internal Dialog, Demons, Humors, and Picturing the Stuff of Thought--On the outer shapes of the inner container
In an earlier post I wrote about what I thought was the first graphic representation of the process of forming and imaging a complex thought (found in Francis Galton’s Visualizing Numeracy). It is interesting how people tried—over a long period of time—to get at exactly that, the inner process, via some sort of external means, which is almost entirely left in the not-so-exclusive world of the science-like.
Perhaps the greatest early effort (and certainly the most beautiful yet) to ascribe physical locations and attributes to the mind was the work and drawings of Robert Fludd. That would be Dr. Robert Fludd (1574-1637), occultist/philosopher, randy logician and hermticist astrologer pseudo-scientist; and maybe the best of his work is found in his fabulously titled work Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia (The metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser…), published in Germany between 1617 and 1621. Things get very deep and complex and confusing, even in the illustrations; so as far as being a key to human knowledge, Fludd probably relaxed the confusion boundaries more than he strengthened insight—but maybe that was supposed to be his job, what with supposedly being a Grandmaster of the Priory of Sion
Another great effort in the attempt to physically determine what might be going on inside someone’s brain and mind were the physiognomists. Physiognomy (does it really matter how it is spelled? I should think that if I was to try and determine how I should spell the word using the very methods its practioners employed that the spelling might change daily…) from the Greek, basically meaning “nature” and “interpret”, claimed an ability to judge the scope of a brain by the shape of its container—the skull. If a skull was sunken or distended or high or pretty or what have you then this shape in some way related to the development of that area of the brain. So a high forehead could mean great insight or knowledge or intellectual ability; a low, sloping forehead meant, well, not, and to steer clear of such people with your hand firmly on your purse. An early practioner was the very formidable Thomas Browne (1605-1682) (in the Religio Medici), but the powerhouse thinker (as it were) was Lavater (1741-1801), who caused and challenged all manner of mischief. The democratic nicety of this pseudo-science is that you didn’t really need to be associated with any extended scientific thought to engage in its application—a nice silhouette-maker would do, along with a series of interpretive and a decent personality was about all you needed. A nice clear forehead would help.
Nipping at the heels of Johann Caspar Lavater and company was Franz Gall (1758-1828) and the Phrenologists (from the Greek again, “mind knowledge”), who made a slight step beyond simple head shape by “reading” the bumps and indentations of the skull. Their educated fingers were in this way were supposed to have the capacity to feel the special elements of that part of the brain manifesting itself via cranial nodules or something.
Pathognomy was yet another step in the stairs to the flooded basement, where passions and emotions resident in the voice, or gesture, or facial expression, would somehow reveal the structure of the mind. I found this one pretty curious because it concentrated on the motions of the physical ramifications of the brain, which somehow seemed very elegant in a ghost-like, narcotized way.
But this is just the attempts to ascertain thought—actually picturing it, literally, was not all that common. Dreams, fears, thoughts, pain, interpretative inner dialog—seems to have occupied artists far less than love or creed or ambition or devotion. Being able to “see” someone’s pain, or nightmares, was really quite special.
Thomas Cruikshank made this a sub-specialty for himself, depicting people suffering extreme anguish as a result of gout, or delirium tremens, or fear, and anthropomorphizing them, giving these concerns/fears/pains a human-like quality. So instead of seeing a badly inflamed gouty ankle and imaging its pain, we see anti-cherubs, demons, spikey creatures at work on the ankle, pricking it, setting it on fire.
Bosch of course performed miracles in setting out the fear of the Lake of Fire in very explicit, basic, understandable ways. In my opinion though the Chinese Hell Screens (as a genre) have Mr. Bosch beat by a long mile, as they were terminally specific in elucidating even what might seem to be trivial transgression for the casual viewer. (For example, a person who wasted paper would, according to one scroll, spend eternity in a lake of flaming feces, bobbing to the surface occasionally to be stuck in the face by a flaming spear. Now THAT’S Hell!)
We have certainly seen people in the throes of nightmare in art, but the relative subtlety of the visions of Henry Fueli (The Nightmare, 1782) and William Blake (“Jeruslaem”, 1820, for example) and of course Fransico de Goya’s "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (from Los Caprichos) really do wane in comparison to some of the highly explicit horrors of Cruikshank and James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson. Perhaps this is so because the later group seems to address the masses and making the nightmare more universal, visiting the ample-butted poor as it would the couch-bound Faintress of the Upper Classes. (I guess I should really remove Goya from the former class, as he really did intend to reach the working poor as much as anyone else.)
I’ve wondered about the artist Arcimbaldo—the genius portrait painter whose artistic palette was fruits and vegetables—and whether his use of various types and shapes of foods were supposed to correspond to any internal dialogs in the person sitting for him but, well, I think not. Nice thought, though.
Most effective though in graphically revealing the inner workings of someone’s mind is, yes, the word balloon, which takes a second seat to its younger sibling, the glorious thought balloon.
What a fantastic creation!
The word balloon, or the idea for it, exists for quite some time in Mesoamerica, incised in sculptures from 1000 years ago. (See Hull, Kerry Michael (2003). "Verbal Art and Performance in Ch’orti’ and Maya Hieroglyphic Writing"). Something that we begin to recognize in a more modern form comes up in the 12 th century with word scrolls—elegant, flowing, appealing bits of fabric upon which the words of the person in the painting are written.
Word balloons really come into their own in political art in the 18th century (and do have a very curious, artistic affect in their longish, elongated appearance with tiny 3-point type inside). Sometimes the word balloons look like smoke with words in it—these might be my favorite, as they give the clear impression of the immediate and dissipating nature of most speech.
The Yellow Kid, generally acknowledged as the first “cartoon character”, at first had his speech written directly on his flanged shirt. It was around 1896 (I think!) that the words moved from his apparel and into a balloon over his head.
The most beautiful innovation though came a little later (exactly when I’m not sure, I’m sorry to say) with the invention of the thought balloon. What a magnificent idea! Why hadn’t this concept been employed earlier, anyway? How come it took until that unparalled period of time—1895-1915, when virtually everthing became “modern”, when just about everything (save politics, unless you include the creation of the concentration camp) experienced a paradigm shift—and not earlier? Certainly it is common and debased, and runs amok with the very idea of art and its attempt to show the viewer the inner machinations/beauty of its subject; but wouldn’t it be interesting to have the thought balloon for Lisa Gheradini (the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, “Mona”)?
Well, probably not.
But the thought balloon--bubbly, cloud-like apparitions above its thinker’s head—certainly has it place, and is absolutely a more elegant invention discerning thought than Lavater or even the lovely Mr. Fludd could ever dream.