Benjamin Lee Whorf

Writes: “[…] for science, poetry, and love are alike in being “flights” above and away from the slave-world of literal reference and humdrum prosaic details, attempts to widen the petty narrowness of the personal self’s outlook, liftings toward Arūpa, toward that world of infinite harmony, sympathy and order, of unchanging truths and eternal things.

Care Bears

And while all words are pitiful enough in their mere “letter that killeth,” it is certain that scientific terms like ‘force, average, sex, allergic, biological’ are not less pitiful, and in their own way no more certain in reference than ‘sweet, gorgeous, rapture, enchantment, heart and soul, star dust.”

Thank You, World!

What does the principle, which Whorf points out, mean when it comes to images? Are scientific, fictional and erotic images similarly pitiful and uncertain in their reference as the words “force,” “sex” and “gorgeous”? Do they need a context to fill them with meaning, since without a context they practically refer to nothing, and equally, to anything? It depends on how we define “context,” but to do so we need a context.


Whorf, Benjamin Lee. “Language, Mind and Reality.” Language, Thought and Reality. Ed. John B. Carroll. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1956. 260.
Image source Care Bears:
Image source Thank You, World!:
Posted in Contemplations

You see,

Noa Yaari, History’s on my Side,  2015
Posted in My Art

Wordimage in (is) Mythology

In her Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition, Mieke Bal refers to Roland Barthes’s remark that “the very end of myth is to immobilize the world,” and to Philip Rahv’s observation that the persistence of romanticism and conservatism, manifested in myth – and its criticism – result from the fear of history, change, choice and freedom. To Bal, visual representation of stories is informed by those sentiments as well. In the case of painting, the appeal to longevity and universality found in myth is strengthened by the visual confinement in a spatial frame, making the story’s element of time irrelevant (p. 97).

A visual representation of a specific moment of a verbal narrative embodies a significant meaning (or, as Bal terms it an “occasion of meaning”). The moment represented encodes the rest of the story, which is decoded by the observer, who unfolds it into an event or chain of events that take place in time. Movements, sounds, smells and everything that can be perceived by the senses and stored in memory are ready to get into action, filling the observer’s imagination with a life-like experience. What makes a specific moment of the verbal story apt to visually represent it all? Is it the “climax” of the story, the turning point in which, for example, a cause and effect relation is illuminated in the most effective, aesthetic way? A point that tells us that everything we can imagine about human life has already been proven to be true and, at the same time, totally false? Could it be the most evocative element among the other elements in the story that – like the other elements – without context, lacks absolute merit?


                             Wonder Woman I                                                                      Wonder Woman II

Verbal syntax triggers spatial schemes or geometrical forms and patterned relations in our mind; abstract, static and dynamic representations, based on sensorial experience and the use of both verbal and visual representations. This is what happens along the whole story: intertwined verbal and visual syntaxes develop into a single changing composition, in which the point that is apt to visually represent the whole narrative is where the geometry is mostly arousing, compelling us to go back and forth in spacetime. What makes this point a powerful mechanism that can set us on a cognitive journey? It might be a survival reaction; a bodily recognition that our life needs something to continue. Perhaps we live in a mythological world where once in a while we become aware of these points in which a single glance is enough to signal the whole story, allowing us to ponder and embrace a lesson.

                                                                                   Wonder Woman III
Bal, Mieke. Reading “Rembrandt”: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Wonder Woman I – image source:
Wonder Woman II – image source:
Wonder Woman III – image source:
Posted in Contemplations

Visual Quoting II

In his essay “Shifters and Verbal Categories,” Roman Jakobson describes the complexity of “indexical symbols” – linguistic signs that, as symbols, represent their objects by convention and, as indices do, have existential relations with their objects, at the same time (following Peirce’s classification).

Jakobson writes: “If we observe that even linguistic scientists had difficulties in defining the general meaning of the term I (or you), which signifies the same intermittent function of different subjects, it is quite obvious that the child who has learned to identify himself with the proper name will not easily become accustomed to such alienable terms as the personal pronouns: he may be afraid of speaking of himself in the first person while being called you by his interlocutors.”

“Sometimes” he continues “he attempts to redistribute these appellations. For instance, he tries to monopolize the first pronoun: “Don’t dare call yourself I. Only I am I, and you are only you.” Or he uses indiscriminately either I or you both for the addresser and the addressee so that this pronoun means any participant of the given dialogue. Or finally, I is so rigorously substituted by the child for his proper name that he readily names any person of his surrounding but stubbornly refuses to utter his own name: the name has for his little bearer only a vocative meaning, opposed to the nominative function of I. This attitude may persevere as an infantile survival” (p. 389).

Carla Careti, Jacques Lacan and Roman Jakobson, Milan, 1974
Source of Lacan’s quote:
Source of Jakobson’s quote:
Source of photograph:
Jakobson, Roman. On Language. Eds. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990. 386-392.
Posted in Contemplations

Word and Image

Rarely do we see images without accompanying words, written or spoken. Images in books, newspapers, magazines, ads, television and the internet are often mediated by verbal language, that influences the way we see the images and think about them. In museums and galleries as well, the convention is to say something about the visual material and its maker through a label or a pair of earphones. There is a trend in museums to display artists’ quotes on the wall, that presumably reflect something important; this is in addition to elaborate verbal descriptions and explanations about the artists and their work.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Susan Sarandon and Eva Amurri, 1988

Pictures and posters that we put at home (including magnets on the fridge) are perhaps the most nonverbal images available. In many cases, they are not surrounded by words that cause us to reiterate a text that was already expressed, while we observe and absorb the images. On the other hand, sometimes the domestic visuals are there exactly for the stories they evoke. We remember how we got them; where we found, bought or printed them, and what they and their verbalization mean to us. This is what we tell others who visit our homes for real, or just in our imagination.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Female External Genitalia and Five Views of the Fetus in the Womb (detail), c. 1510-12. Windsor Castle

Mapplethorpe was my hero when I was a teenager; I had postcards with his photographs above my bed, where I used to lay down my head. Every time I went to sleep I saw those muscles, those boys, a woman, a smile. And this is, of course, Leonardo who is my number one. I printed it from the internet, on campus, and the frame is from a Salvation Army store. On that sheet, he claims that the fetus doesn’t have a voice, because this would entail respiration and consequently drowning. But today we know that the fetus does breathe or gets oxygen through the umbilical cord. And this is van Gogh, isn’t it lovely? Look how the woman hugs the man. I’m wondering what she’s telling him or he’s telling her. It’s the first page of a two-page letter van Gogh sent to his friend Émile Bernard who was a painter and writer. He sent it from Arles, in 1888.

Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Emile Bernard, 1888. Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York


Robert Mapplethorpe – image source:–eva-amurri-susan-sarandon.jpg
Leonardo da Vinci – image source:
Vincent van Gogh – image source:
Posted in Contemplations

Courtesans or Gentlewomen?

Associations between words and images in historiography are powerful. In the chapter “The Position of Women” in the 1958 Harper & Row edition of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), we see the term “courtesans” in the caption of figure 193 (p. 392), and the definition of “public women” as an “unhappy class of women” on p. 395. We know that Burckhardt distinguishes “public women” from courtesans or “kept women” according to his text. However, figure 193 is the only image in this chapter that depicts “women,” while the rest depict either “a woman” or “a woman and two men.” Thus, if there is any image in this chapter that depicts a “class of women,” figure 193, a painting by Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1490-95), is it. Moreover, the women in this painting don’t look very happy: their body language as well as that of the dogs, and the resemblance of both women’s faces and haircuts make them the best candidates for being a visual representation of an “unhappy class.”

Jacob Burckahrdt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, 1958, pp. 392-93

But, interestingly, the Venetian Museo Correr which holds the painting, titles the artwork “Two Venetian Gentlewomen.” On its website, the museum clearly states that “Romantic art criticism had given this painting the title The Two Courtesans, but the sitters are clearly two gentlewomen, whose elegant garments and hairstyles clearly denote their wealth, their status – and their honesty.” It further elaborates on the symbols in the painting that connect it to modesty, marital harmony, fidelity, vigilance, the Virgin Mary, and the Venetian Preli family. “Hence” it says “the subject-matter of the entire picture becomes clearer, with two noblewomen becoming perhaps slightly bored as they wait for their husbands to return from a hunting trip.”

Well then, we agree that these two women, whatever their status, do not look very happy or interested, but we recognize a conflict between the caption and the women depicted in this painting. Consequently, the semantic connection between the verbal description of courtesans in the chapter and this illustration is questionable. More generally, this conflict illuminates the problem of titling artworks, and illustrating and captioning illustrations in historiography. Any association between verbal and visual components in what could become historical evidence and illustrated historiography, reflects a chain of semantic decisions, that establishes the basis for the epistemological experience. These combinations of words and images that occur in space and time to describe and explain the past, can, therefore, be analyzed as external to the “content” of the text, as what Hayden White defines as “prefigurative” or “poetic acts” (Metahistory x).


Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

Photos from the Exhibition Infantile History

Infantile History is a group exhibition at the Department of History at York University, featuring children’s and childlike art to examine core questions faced by the discipline of history. It also explores art as an effective tool to delve into methodological challenges in creating and communicating historical knowledge.

Noa Yaari (photo: Lee Waddington)

The exhibition is part of my major project, ‘Visual Literacy in History,’ which focuses on vision as a first step in researching the past. The three main challenges the exhibition examines are: the use of artistic style as a means to periodize history; the creation and communication of historical knowledge through verbal-visual means; and history as a discipline and its classification into fields.

Noa Yaari, History of Africa and L. America, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Periodization of time into eras enables historians, students of history, and the public to communicate their ideas about the past. However, we must engage the following problems: how this periodization is made; which principles we use in dividing time into shorter periods; and what perspective we need in order to identify eras’ uniqueness.

Seeing artistic work as a record of bodily gestures allows its analysis as a medium that indexes its creator. Therefore, if we look at children’s and childlike art, we can ask: what do we see there that indicates the age or maturity of its creator? What exactly is there that suggests that the creator of the work has potential to be, to become, something else? The attempt to answer these questions is insightful and suggestive when examining history and its periodization, as well as our own expectations to find temporal changes in specific cultural domains.

Noa Yaari, Public History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Creation and communication of historical knowledge is based on varied sources and methods. In their research, historians turn to diverse sources, such as institutional and personal documents, photographs, maps, films, websites, and more, to draw a picture of the past. The exhibition explores the connection between verbal and visual languages in studying and teaching history: how we understand words and images when they are displayed next to each other; whether there is a better way to use both languages in the same text and argument; and the importance of visual literacy in history as a skill in historical study, holding that any domain of knowledge makes use of an outlook to the past.

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

The historical discourse is classified into fields that are defined by periods of time and geographies, as well as themes. Infantile History draws visitors’ attention to the power of this classification: it raises questions about the different directions the historical discipline has taken through its own history; and the traditional and yet dynamic boundaries between the fields that serve the discipline as a mirror to ask “Who am I? And what would I like to be?”

The project also promotes visually stimulating environment in pedagogical settings. It beautifies the Department of History, and at the same time, raises deep questions about our approach to history and its making.

Noa Yaari, History of Europe, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Transnational History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

The participants in the exhibition are: Renato Barrera, Kevin Burris, María Ignacia Catalina (Ini), Axel C., Liam Dancy, Sean Dancy, Claire R. Dueck, Gideon, Joaquín Hidalgo, Norah Jurdjevic, Erica McCloskey, Antonia Morales, Leela Navaratnam, Ruben Navaratnam, Oriolle, Corinna S. H., Juliet S. H., Noa Yaari, Belén Zapata, and Michael Zinman.

Noa Yaari, Infantile History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Infantile History was made possible with the collaboration of the Department of History and the Graduate History Students’ Association, as well as the generous support of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Centre for Student Community & Leadership Development and the Departments of History at Keel and Glendon campuses.

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

The reception of Infantile History took place on Thursday, March 23 between 12:30 and 2:00 pm, in the History Common Room (Vari Hall 2183). We had a great lunch and talks by PhD student and art teacher Ginny Grimaldi, History Professor Tom Cohen and myself. Everyone was welcome!

Noa Yaari, Migration History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Migration History (detail), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Migration History (detail), the Department of History at York University, 2017

 Noa Yaari, Migration History (detail), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Labour History, the Department of History at York University, 2017

Noa Yaari, Infantile History (part of the exhibition), the Department of History at York University, 2017


Infantile History on YFile: York University’s News:
Infantile History on the Faculty of Graduate Studies website: 


Posted in Contemplations, My Art

Names of Artists in Captions

Names of artists in captions enable the readers to look at artists as individuals who collectively create a professional community. The overall thesis of the historical book brings specific artists into the study, in most cases, based on commonalities in their work. Such shared features can be subject matter, symbolism and technique; all point to shared artistic tradition and conventions, body of knowledge, exposure to circulated ideas, and the ability – physical, intellectual and emotional – to express those through artistic work. Looking at the illustrations collectively in the book sheds light on the era in which these artworks were created; on contemporary artistic methods and the results of implementing them. Using the same kind of observation of all the names in the captions of the illustrations, the readers gain a perspective on the contemporary human factor, which used those artistic methods. Further, if there is a list of illustrations in the book, that indicates artists’ names, this professional community is displayed collectively. This enables the readers to see the number of works each artist has in the book, and if the readers are familiar with the artists, they can also identify connections between them. These two possibilities can enrich the reading, the understanding of the illustrated study, as well as the consumption of the art.

Helmut Newton, MANNEQUINS, QUAI D’ORSAY, 1984. Silver print, 24.1 x 36.2 cm
 (Image source:
Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

Indexation of Artists and Artworks

Indexation, like the list of illustrations, is a method that directs readers to artists, artworks and other related terms in the book; it makes them searchable, accessible and consequently more available for further study and discussion. When entries in the index indicate where terms are used in relation to other terms, the index provides the readers with historical contexts, since associations between terms reflect a certain connection between different past phenomena. Thus, when the index associates names and terms that are used in the image-captions with other terms used in the book, it links visual culture with other cultural and social domains. Further, this association indicates how the author sees visual culture in relation to these domains, and how they envision the readers doing so. Any indexation of artists, artworks and related terms is a representation of their representation in the book, and as such it has a political power over their place in the historical discourse.


M. C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948. Lithograph, 28.2 x 33.2 cm
(Image source:
Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation

Artistic Technique in Image Captions

Identification of the artistic technique in captions reveals the main materials from which the artist has created their work, and, to a certain extent, the operations involved in it. Different materials and measurements of artworks require varied modes of working, therefore, pointing them out can raise questions about the use of specific tools, collaboration with other people and institutions, and interactions with local and international markets. Moreover, artistic technique suggests artistic traditions, discourses and schools that the work can be associated with, that the artist consciously or unconsciously addresses. Artistic technique, therefore, is a component within the caption that can develop new directions of understanding the artwork, analyzing its material, operational, social and psychological aspects. Historiography that points out this kind of information allows the visual evidence to testify not only to what is seen on its printed surface, but also to the varied processes that were involved in its creation, enriching it with context.


Venessa Bell, Abstract Painting, 1914. Oil and gouache on canvas, 44.1×38.7 cm, Tate Gallery, London
(Image source: qw2Sc8YG3UI/VNWUC4RBx6I/AAAAAAAANjk/00TdhcRhtrs/s1600/vanessa%2Bbell%2Babstract.jpg)
Posted in Contemplations, Dissertation