Looking and Seeing:  How Haiga Works


Of all the contributions to world art to have come from the Japanese, haiga is perhaps the most unique.  It is, by definition, a combination of visual and verbal elements which work in ensemble to create an aesthetic experience quite distinct from either element taken by itself.  This combination of pictorial and poetic materials is rare in any culture, and especially so in so-called "high" culture: besides haiga, other such combinations would include captioned drawing (most often humorous), comic books, posters, calligraphic art, print and television advertising (including book cover design), the work of a very few western artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, graffiti, and not very much else.

Perhaps this is surprising when we consider that the visual and the verbal are the two most powerful and frequently employed elements of communicatins.  But on further reflection, perhaps not, since each is so powerful in its own right, and so demanding of attention, that they can be overwhelming by themselves; similarly, perhaps the overlap between the two might be considered a distraction from either.  Whatever the explanation, there is very little history to such a combination in art.

All art has a set of conventions which the audience must know in order to appreciate the work.  It is in the acquisition of these conventions that we decide if a work is "accessible" or "difficult".  When the art form is combinational, then a combinational set of conventions must be employed, and this is part of what makes these works function, and part of why they can be hard to grasp.  Let's consider some of these forms just to see what the artist and/or author has done, and what his expectations might be.

In the first sample, a political cartoon by Sempe from 1965, note how the convention of reading left to right makes it possible to get the joke;


presumably if the head featured in this cartoon was Chinese, the "poster people" would be on the right side of the panel.

The second sample, from the comic strip "The Adventures of Phoebe ZeitGeist", written by Michael O'Donoghue (later a writer for
Saturday Night Live) and drawn by Frank Springer, and published in Evergreen Review in 1962, employs a figurative means of distinguishing speech, say, from narrative.
We know how to read this progression easily; that is, the order is apparent to us even without instruction.  How do we know this ?  Perhaps because of our familiarity with cinema, which utilizes multiple cameras, various filters, leaps of narrative discontinuity, and so on.  Whatever the reason, the movement of image and narrative, does not disconcert us here.

In the third, a poster from the Russian Revolution by an unknown artist in 1919, the power and orderliness of the text is underscored by the horses, symbols of domesticated power, brought up to the mark by their human riders.
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