'plot', 'story', 'storyline' in reference to paintings

Jekyll Grim Payne

Senior Member
Russian
Hello, everybody.

My question is whether it's acceptable to speak of a painting's plot, story, etc. It is rather typical in Russian, and I know that, for example, in Wikipedia articles on paintings there is often a section called Plot which describes the contents of the painting. Still, I wonder whether I can say something like "This painting has a very intricate plot" or "The artist tries to combine complex storyline with skilful artistic techniques in his works".

Thanks in advance.
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    No, I wouldn't say it's usual. Art experts might have some such term, but ordinary people interested in art, such as me, don't use these terms - I don't see them on labels in the National Gallery, or in books describing pictures. I think we'd usually talk about the 'subject', even about a painting telling a distinct story like the Fall of Icarus, the Judgement of Paris, or Judith killing Holofernes.
     

    Jekyll Grim Payne

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Well, subject is a good term. But even though I could say "This paintings deals with a very intricate subject", it would not be the same as "has a very intricate plot". I need some sort of phrase that would speak not of the painting's subject, theme or idea, but of the exact things that are happening in it. It's just that the words like plot and story are the only ones I can think of, even though I'm not sure now well they fit.
    I should note, however, that I'm not speaking about the case of common talk. I'm writing a translation of an article about a Russian artist, so the style of the text is rather complex, sort of a critic's speech.
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Well, subject is not really a helpful term in your case, because it covers everything from Bellini's Assassination of St Peter Martyr to Cuyp's studies of two cows having a quiet lie down. 'Story' would be useful - or 'action' - there's no reason why you couldn't speak of the action or the story of the painting*; it makes perfect sense and would be understood in the right way. It's just not what we normally say, I think.

    * Except that the story of the painting could also mean its history - when it was painted and for whom, why it became famous, how it was stolen.
     

    Archstudent

    Senior Member
    English - North London
    The word you might be looking for is narrative (noun) (story works as well, depending on what you are trying to say). People can discuss the narrative of a photograph, a painting, a piece of music etc. It is a broader, less literal meaning than story.

    EG.

    The elaborately constructed scenarios in these paintings present complex narratives that draw the viewer into the artist's imaginative world.



    There is also a movement within painting called narrative painting, so if you are not talking about narrative painting as such, but rather the narrative or story within any painting it is worth being precise on that point.
     
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    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Yes, 'narrative' is a good word for it: it has a bit of a critical theory tone to it, and it's unmistakable, not hampered by other associations the way 'story' and 'action' are.
     
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