Expressive lines– When art meets words

Reading Art aimes to make visitors look at literature and famous artworks from a completely different angle. | Photo courtesy of Burnaby Art Gallery

Words. They are written, typed, posted, or printed, read, and given more and more attention. However, people look at their meaning, rather than the words themselves, read them without really seeing them.

Reading Art, an exhibition at the Burnaby Art Gallery organized by the city of Burnaby and curated by Ellen van Eijnsbergen and Jennifer Cane, succeeds in making the visitors look at literature and famous artworks from a completely different angle. It offers a unique perspective on the link between words and art, shining a light on the art within the letters themselves.

“We included a section of works showing how words are not always required to tell a story,” Cane explains. “This is the case with illustration. The artist Clare Leighton created the artworks illustrating the novel Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, almost 100 years ago. They are wood engravings, and their expressive lines capture the feeling behind the characters in the book. She also uses a very dark black ink to create contrast and mood in the images.” The letters can move us by their outline first before we let them resonate with our social and cultural references to give them a meaning.

Paper canvases

The art within the letters can be controversial in itself and draw attention or even censorship from more conservative governments.

“Salvador Dali’s technique for illustrating Dante’s classic work The Divine Comedy is surprising – and was ultimately rejected by the Italian government. It was too surreal for their tastes,” mentions Cane. Aside from Brontë, Dalí, and John Baldessari, other artists’ works on paper canvases spark the viewer’s interest, such as Zouzouline, a relatively unknown artist.

Barbara Rodé Zouzouline, known as Zouzouline, was a Russian illustrator who fled to Paris, where her artistic career flourished during the Roaring Twenties. She became part of the Parisian elite, relocating to Brussels during the Second World War. She kept painting despite her work being less known there. After the war, she left Europe for Canada and spent her later years in Vernon, British Columbia, to be near her daughter.

She produced a poetic series for [Marcel] Proust’s Swann in Love, taking lines from the story to illustrate each image, reveals Cane. Her illustrations for this specific volume of In Search of Lost Time embrace Proust’s delicate prose.

“This is a very rare series, and I think French speakers in particular will enjoy it,” adds Cane.

Tensions between image and word

But the exhibition does not stop at the political aspect and craftsmanship that lie in a specific type font, it also helps the viewer reflect on the power of words and the political impact they have on our society. Words used to make art, but also to define art, were highly politicized. Art in the 1970s cannot be separated from the political influences – social movements for more equality, representation, and less violence – that shaped the decade.

Reading Art creates a new parallel between the political struggles in the 70s and today’s world.

“We chose to show a number of conceptual works from the 1970s as this was an important time for text in art. Although tensions between image and word have been evident throughout twentieth century art, artists in the 70s were using text in new ways – specifically to communicate broader ideas and concepts,” Cane points out.

“A good example is John Baldessari’s I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, commissioned by the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) where the artist instructed the college’s students to write the phrase on the gallery wall. The work can be seen as an instruction, a command, a punishment, and a promise to the artist.” This thought-provoking artwork that NSCAD commissioned questions the viewer’s perception of art, but also emphasizes the power of words in contemporary art, street art, and political works.


“We also include works of promotion and political protest in this exhibition. Some of the works have deep resonance with current political issues, such as gender inequity, incarceration, white supremacy, and police brutality,” shares Cane. “We have included a vast array of works incorporating text, some are playful, and some are very serious. The parallel connecting those two periods, with a fifty-year difference, is striking.”

The exhibition runs until Jan. 17, 2021 at the Burnaby Art Gallery, by appointment only. Call 604-297-4422 to book a visit.

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