First, let’s look at “clarity” as it pertains to visual narrative. Mind you, I’m speaking only of a single still image (a painting, for example, or book illustration,) and not sequential storytelling that you might find in comics or storyboards. In my mind I describe this as being as obvious as one can be with the presentation. The artist has a very specific statement to make and what we see makes certain that there is no misunderstanding. As a representation of this I’m choosing the Jacques-Louis David painting, “Oath of the Horatii.” It’s an illustration of a scene from Roman history (as told by Pliny) where the three Horatius brothers are chosen to fight three brothers of another family, Curatius, and the winning side gets control of Rome. One of the women in the scene is supposedly a sister betrothed to a brother of the other family. The architecture and costumes properly date the scene to Roman times. When I first saw this painting, I had no idea what the story was about. What I could decipher was three men about to go off to battle, a father figure of some sort encouraging them on in glorious fashion, and weeping women in the background distraught over the fate of the soldiers. It turned out to be rather accurate. Historians have since described this work as an echo of what was happening in France at the time, as it prepared for revolution, which I’m certain is true, but there’s no give away to that effect by David. Instead, he presents the scene in a very straightforward manner.
Finding a representation of narrative ambiguity was harder than I imagined. At first I thought I might go for the obviously surreal, like a Dali painting, but instead I’ve settled on this by Fernand Holder, “Day 1.” The viewer is left on their own trying to decipher this work. Why five nude women? Who are they? Why are they posed this way? The title is not helpful, and really just gives us more questions. Perhaps some resourceful critic has uncovered a note by Holder himself before he went nuts that completely explains it all. It wouldn’t matter. All we see is what is in front of us. The art shouldn’t have to come with a pamphlet that tells you what the artist really meant. What we come away with is our own interpretation. We make up our own story and apply it to our satisfaction. Does this make the work weaker than one that is more explained and clear? I can see potential fault on either extreme. Tell too much and it becomes like a story to which you know the ending. Don’t tell enough and you confuse or frustrate the viewer, and risk being seen as pretentious or deliberately vague for the sake of cleverness. If the artist has done their homework, they can manage to make the ambiguous narrative less frustrating, so that it becomes like a crime scene upon which we have to collect all the hidden clues.
Let’s revisit the Holder painting and stage it differently. Just for the sake of argument, we’ll tone down the symbolic and surreal quality a bit, and see if we can still retain some level of ambiguous interest. What if the women were clothed and sitting in a park, but instead of being just a group gathered to enjoy a picnic, there seemed to be a special purpose to them being here. Perhaps they appear to be engaged in a serious discussion, and one or two of them were holding curious objects that seemed out of place in this setting. It would still be up to us to make sense of it all, if we even bother to do so. There is no need to be melodramatic or outlandish to attain clarity or ambiguity. One can also be subtle.