What is punctum and how does it arise in imagery?
Before discussing the importance of punctum as a concept in the visual arts, I wish to clarify my use of this term as the meaning of the word has been enriched beyond its dictionary definition by the influential theorist Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida (1980). From a personal standpoint, the term “punctum” describes the effect of an element in a composition that functions as a psychological catalyst in the viewer’s storehouse of memories and associations in communicating a pivotal meaning. There is a difference, however, between this effect and a Proustian experience where a catalyst provides a metaphorical jumping board to past memories. For instance, if an artist wished to convey the vulnerability of a lost child in a forest, the imagery may feature a jagged rock juxtaposed beside the child’s body so that a viewer would recognise and intuitively sense the child’s predicament based on the viewer’s past experiences. In this simple example the focus on a sharp rock abutting the child’s skin is the punctum—the catalyst element—that conveys the meaning of imminent danger underpinning the illustration. Of course, most artists would use the centre-of-interest as the critical point for the catalyst in expressing meaning, but there is more to punctum than ensuring that the eye has a point of fixation to gaze upon. The following discussion will address two approaches employed by artists to generate punctum: the first is to engage a viewer with reflexive responses; the second is to engage a viewer in a reflective visual dialogue between contrasting pictorial elements
As an example of the first approach, let me propose how Karel Dujardin (discussed in an earlier post regarding drawing sheep’s’ legs) engages the viewer of his etching Shepherd behind a Tree (shown below) in a reflexive response (i.e. his treatment of the imagery bypasses the viewer’s conscious rationalisation of the portrayed scene so that the viewer reacts instinctively to what is represented). On first glance this image of a cow and two sheep quietly resting on the ground while a shepherd politely relieves himself behind a tree—assuming that is what he is doing-—is a conceptually unchallenging moment in everyday bucolic life. But after this initial cursory overview, the eye—certainly my eye—becomes fixated on analysing the urinating figure’s facial expression to determine what he may be thinking (see detail of his face further below). Of course, not all viewers may be equally riveted to reading the shepherd’s facial expression. Moreover I am sure that some viewers may even be revolted. But for those that are fixated on examining where the figure is looking and senses the very real awkwardness of being a voyeur to such a scene, this automated response from our animal past is the element of punctum underpinning and giving meaning to the image.
Karel Dujardin (c.1622–1678)
Shepherd behind a Tree, 1656
13.7 x 18.4 cm (plate); 16.2 x 24.9 cm (sheet)
Third state (of three) with the top 3 cm of the copper plate removed including Dujardin’s signature and date in the sky at upper left.
Bartsch 1.23.1 (178); Hollstein 23
Condition: Rich impression without foxing or other blemishes. There a previous collector ink stamp on verso and conservator hinges.
I am selling this print for $120 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.
Whereas in the first approach the viewer has little conscious control over a reflexive response generating punctum (i.e. a catalyst like the shepherd’s facial expression capturing attention to reveal an underpinning truth about an image) the second approach is more problematic. Here a viewer experiences the mercurial state of punctum by reflecting on visual dialogue between elements in a composition to arrive at the moment of “ah-ha.” This means that the viewer must be in the right mindset to initially recognise two features in the imagery that are linked by variables such as shape, form, and treatment and to then reflect upon this relationship to arrive at the moment of understanding.
As an example of the second approach, I wish to discuss the curious etching, Heiliger Wilhelm (see below), by Dietricy (the more common name for Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich [1712–74]). The subject of this print is engaging to contemplate: St. William is shown lying on his back against a rock with his upraised arms tied by the wrists to a tree. My fascination, however, is not so much with the circumstance that led to poor St. William being bound. Instead, my eyes are drawn to the relationship between the parallel angle of his bent leg and raised arms to the same angle made by a small tree dangling from the cliff face above (see detail further below). Although my moment of punctum is a personal experience in which I see the dangling form of the tree as metaphorically embodying St William’s plight—a fate laced with a note of spiritual transcendence—this arrangement of subject matter is not accidental and I would be surprised if other viewers did not share my awakening based on the compositional arrangement.
Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (more commonly known as Dietricy) (1712–1774)
Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760
Etching on laid paper
18.4 x 14 cm (plate); 19.2 x 14.9 cm (sheet)
Linck 161 iii
From the collection of Ernst Fabricius (Lugt 847 and 919 ter) and two other unknown collections (not in Lugt)
Condition: strong impression with minimal margins and light wear. Collectors’ stamps and pencil inscriptions from past collectors on verso
I am selling this print for $175 AUD including postage and handling to anywhere in the world. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any queries or click the “Buy Now” button below.
| Verso of Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760|
| detail of Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760|
| detail of Heiliger Wilhelm, 1760|
For instance, beyond the relationship of shared parallel angles between the saint and the dangling tree, the notion of visual dialogue between the downward angled shrub and the saint is also sustained by the literally pointing limb of the tree to which St William is tied. Even the notion of spiritual transcendence may be experienced by the change in drawing style from a refined mimetic style rendering the saint and the tree to which he is bound upward to the much freer return-stroke (i.e. a zigzag motion of mark making) rendering the dangling tree and its immediate surroundings. This transition from bottom-left to upper-right is a perfect example of a shift through the pictorial zones from temporal to spiritual, as discussed in the earlier post about the Foote, Cone and Belding Grid.