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Art and Representation:
New Principles in the Analysis of Pictures
John Willats

Hardcover | 1997 | This edition is out of print | ISBN: 9780691087375


In Art and Representation, John Willats presents a radically new theory of pictures. To do this, he has developed a precise vocabulary for describing the representational systems in pictures: the ways in which artists, engineers, photographers, mapmakers, and children represent objects. His approach is derived from recent research in visual perception and artificial intelligence, and Willats begins by clarifying the key distinction between the marks in a picture and the features of the scene that these marks represent. The methods he uses are thus closer to those of a modern structural linguist or psycholinguist than to those of an art historian. Using over 150 illustrations, Willats analyzes the representational systems in pictures by artists from a wide variety of periods and cultures. He then relates these systems to the mental processes of picture production, and, displaying an impressive grasp of more than one scholarly discipline, shows how the Greek vase painters, Chinese painters, Giotto, icon painters, Picasso, Paul Klee, and David Hockney have put these systems to work.

But this book is not only about what systems artists use but also about why artists from different periods and cultures have used such different systems, and why drawings by young children look so different from those by adults. Willats argues that the representational systems can serve many different functions beyond that of merely providing a convincing illusion. These include the use of anomalous pictorial devices such as inverted perspective, which may be used for expressive reasons or to distance the viewer from the depicted scene by drawing attention to the picture as a painted surface. Willats concludes that art historical changes, and the developmental changes in children's drawings, are not merely arbitrary, nor are they driven by evolutionary forces. Rather, they are determined by the different functions that the representational systems in pictures can serve.

Like readers of Ernst Gombrich's famous Art and Illusion (still available from Princeton University Press), on which Art and Representation makes important theoretical advances, or Rudolf Arnheim's Art and Visual Perception, Willats's readers will find that they will never again return to their old ways of looking at pictures.


"In sum, Willats offers clear applications of his ideas to an immense diversity of pictures from various sources. His tour de force will be the jumping-off point for most picture-perception researchers in the near future. . . . It will shape debate about drawing development for many years."--John M. Kennedy, Nature

"Art and Representation contains many important distinctions between the various types of drawings made in the history of the world and their different functions. It is the most synthetic attempt I know of to describe precisely what elements actually constitute a drawn line. . . . Willats' insistence on looking very precisely at seemingly the most scattered and accidental marks in children's art, will make the charming drawings on your refrigerator seem at times like highly elaborate encoded signs, which indeed they are. One of the benefits of Willats' dogged cataloguing is that you will never be able to look at a child's drawing, or perhaps any drawing, the same way again."--Mark Andres, The Boston Book Review

"Willats's original and subtle approach to the complexities of visual representation should topple some sacred cows and generate lively discussion."--Choice


"John Willats presents a new approach to the methods artists use to depict the world. . . . All art historians and critics as well as psychologists interested in drawing or painting will need to become familiar with Willats's approach. Art and Representation will create a considerable stir and will change the way both critics and the public think about art."--Stuart Sutherland, Professor Emeritus, Sussex University

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File created: 3/10/2015

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