I’ve been in London visiting all 3 of my children all in the same city for the first time for many months.

One of my sons is a writer, the other an artist, and my daughter is a student of Spanish and European culture: a captive focus group. Over a banquet in Chinatown (bribery) I quizzed them about their thoughts on what the term ‘literacy’ means for them.

We all agreed that it centres on understanding of, and communication through, text. Herein lay the debate: what do we define as ‘text’? We had a wide-ranging debate about visual (and musical) ‘literacy’ but no conclusions were drawn. 

We were fresh from seeing the Mark Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern and I was bewildered, being visually unsophisticated (I do know what I like: Renaissance Faces). Artist Son gave me a potted history of the death throes of painting after the invention of photography; through Impressionism, Picasso and Cubism and on to Pollock and Rothko; the light at the end of the tunnel for art being the emergence of Warhol.

Rothko’s iconic paintings, composed of luminous, soft-edged rectangles saturated with colour, are among the most enduring and mysterious created by an artist in modern times. In the exhibition his paintings glow meditatively from the walls in deep dark reds, oranges, maroons, browns, blacks, and greys.

His explanation helped me to make some sense of the dark blocks of colour before me, as did the above description and the audio guide which included Mozart pieces that inspired Rothko. (Although when the audio tape told me not to think of the lines separating blocks of black from blocks of grey as horizons, of course that’s what they became to me.) Then I read the information about how Rothko built up his paintings with many layers and with enormous thoughtfulness, all the while refusing to discuss technique. ‘Ultraviolet light displayed the subtle dynamic of his painted surfaces’, the layers showing the changes in the medium and the pigment. ‘The complexity of the media and the vigour of the brushstrokes are only evident under u/v light’. The ‘monumental canvases were the result of a long and arduous process of making’.

The language surrounding the experience helped me to make sense of the work: and I felt a strong need to frame my experience with words. This may detract ultimately from the emotional experience of viewing a visual stimulus but it is a necessary part of the process of appreciation for me.

So I’m still struggling with the concept of visual literacy standing apart from language, as I find it an alien – and somewhat uncomfortable – way of thinking. But that’s how so many young people in schools feel, I guess.

 

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