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  • Jane E Porter

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Art and Allegory: The Power of Visual Storytelling

Pink lanterns with dots by Yayoi Kusama
The Dots Obsession ⏤ Love Transformed into Dots

Who doesn't love a good story? Storytelling in art is as old as the human race itself. It's the caveman's version of Netflix. From the primitive etchings on cave walls to the intricate hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, humans have always had a penchant for a good yarn. And why wouldn't we? Stories are the spice of life, the universal language that connects us to each other.

Fast forward a few millennia and the art of visual storytelling continues. We traded in our cave walls for canvases, our chisels for brushes, creating remarkable religious paintings, like Michelangelo's awe-inspiring frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Historical masterpieces, such as Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch' and Delacroix's 'Liberty Leading the People,' vividly narrate stories of bygone eras. Graphic novels and comics illustrate modern storytelling through art, with their unique art styles contributing to the overall mood and theme.

Storytelling and New Heights

Installation artists like Yayoi Kusama, Christo, and Jeanne-Claude have taken storytelling to new heights, crafting immersive experiences that delve into personal and societal issues. Street art and murals also embrace storytelling, as seen by Banksy's humorous, yet challenging spin on social and political matters. And murals serve as community biographies, sharing tales of history and culture, one wall at a time.

But why are we so drawn to stories in art? Well, it's all in our heads – literally. Our brains are hardwired to respond to narratives. Stories engage our emotions, spark our imagination, and can even shape our beliefs and behaviors. When we see a story in a piece of art, we're not just looking at it, we're interpreting it, connecting it with our own experiences and finding meaning in it.

And the best part? Stories stick. They linger in our minds long after we've left the gallery or closed the book. They're like a catchy tune – we may not remember the lyrics, but the melody stays with us.

So, whether it's a painting that takes you back in time, a comic strip that unfolds a gripping narrative, or an installation that immerses you in a new reality, storytelling in art has the power to move us, challenge us, and make us think. It's not just a tool for artists to express their vision, it's an invitation to step into their world and see a, potentially new perspective.

Let's take a look at three contemporary artists who use story to get their message out there…

Kara Walker, a true maestro of monochrome is known for her controversial exploration of race, gender and sexuality. Walker's black, silhouetted figures might seem simple at first glance, but they're anything but. Each silhouette is a chapter in the grim narrative of American slavery and racism. Her storytelling technique is both confrontational and deeply engaging, forcing us to grapple with uncomfortable truths.

Kara Walker figures in silhouette
Kara Walker | Slaughter of the Innocents 2016

Ai Weiwei, the Chinese contemporary artist and activist uses a variety of media - sculpture, installation, photography and film - to comment on cultural identity, individualism and government oppression, particularly related to his home country of China. His installation 'Sunflower Seeds,' comprising 100 million seeds individually handcrafted in porcelain, is more than just a sea of hand-painted seeds, it's a commentary on mass production and loss of individuality.

Ai Weiwei holding sunflower seeds in the Tate
Ai Weiwei | Sunflower Seeds |The Tate Modern CREDIT: Photo: GETTY

Art Bite - The Tate bought, approximately 8 million (10 tonnes) of the individual sculptures, less than a 10th of the installation in China, but still the largest number of works of art ever acquired.

Marina Abramović, the 'grandmother of performance art' doesn't just tell stories; she lives them. She uses her own body as a canvas, pushing its limits to tell stories of human emotion and relationships. For her piece, 'The Artist is Present,' she sat in silent stillness as museum visitors took turns sitting across from her. No words, no movement, just a shared experience, an example of storytelling at its most intimate.

Marina Abramović sitting opposite a man
Marina Abramović | The Artist Is Present 2012

Despite their different mediums and themes, all three artists share a common thread, they use their art to tell stories that provoke thought and stimulate discussion. In doing so, they have made a profound impact on the art world and the many who have experienced their work. For example …

Kara Walker's work has been exhibited in prominent institutions worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Her 2014 installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, 'A Subtlety,' drew over 130,000 visitors and sparked widespread discussion about race and history in the media.

Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower Seeds' installation at the Tate Modern in 2010 was a critical success, with The Guardian calling it a 'work of genius.' His activism and criticism of the Chinese government have also made international headlines, bringing attention to issues of human rights and freedom of expression in China.

Marina Abramović's 2010 performance at the Museum of Modern Art, 'The Artist is Present,' attracted over 850,000 visitors, with many reporting deeply emotional experiences. The performance was also the subject of a documentary, bringing performance art to a wider audience.

These examples demonstrate how each artist has made significant impacts in the art world and beyond, influencing public discourse and challenging societal norms.

To Wrap Up

Without context or an understanding of the narrative, it can be easy to look at works, such as those described in this article, and perceive them as 'just sunflower seeds' or 'simple paper cut-outs'. For sure, I've been guilty of such comments myself. But art isn't just about what meets the eye. Instead of a quick 'meh', let's ask, 'What's the artist really trying to say here? Is there something I'm not seeing because I'm caught up in aesthetic?'

These pieces are stories, commentaries, and dialogues that invite us to see the world from a different perspective, perhaps one we may not want to consider. In my experience as an artist and a human, I've found that what I try to avoid usually evolves into the most transformative. Engaging with art goes beyond appreciating the artist's vision; it's about the effect the work has on us, stirring something deep within. Every story has the potential to change even a sliver of our identity.

If you can relate to the influence stories have played in your life, whether positive or negative, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this article, please share the love.

Have a great weekend.

Janee with a kiss



Jane E Porter is a fine artist and illustrator from Scotland, dedicated to exploring and understanding the fascinating interplay between art, psychology and philosophy. As she navigates her own search for meaning, she shares insights and observations made over the past two decades with a delightful mix of wit and wisdom. Join her as she continues her journey, delving into these themes, offering you fresh perspectives and insights on art, identity and storytelling.


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