Message Pictures: Adventures in Reading Images, Part One

The following is the first in a series of three texts that focus on the pleasures and frustrations, the rewards and dangers, of reading images and imagining readings.

Part Two | Part Three

By Michael Davidge

I’ve always loved reading. Okay, so maybe I didn’t come out of the womb holding a New Yorker magazine, but I did pick one up soon afterwards. When I was a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on, encyclopedias, novels, newspapers, and comics: I was a classic specimen of the genus bookworm. I still am. Having self-identified as a reader for so long, I get excited when the protagonist of a story is a reader, and the dramatic action relies on an act of reading. Let’s give the pale, weak, asthmatic bookworm a chance to be the hero, I say. Of course, as I grew up and became evermore sophisticated, I learned that you could flex your interpretive muscles and read not only books but most everything else as texts: TV shows, movies, advertisements, fashion, and, especially when a publication like BlackFlash gets involved, photographs.

In a very amusing book that came out a few years ago, Tintin and the Secret of Literature, the experimental writer Tom McCarthy reminds us that Tintin first appeared in the pages of Belgium’s Le XXe Siècle as if he were a correspondent for that newspaper.[1] An editorial note explained that the reader was to understand the individual panels making up the comic strip as actual photographs taken by Tintin who sent them back from foreign lands. This is just one aspect of the case that McCarthy makes for considering the Tintin oeuvre by Hergé as literature. What really got my attention is the part where McCarthy argues that Tintin is not the oeuvre’s hero because he is the most principled, compassionate or attractive character in the series. Rather, it is because he is the best reader: he is able to solve the various riddles and break the various codes that lead ultimately to the solution of the mystery adventures in which he is embroiled. Furthermore, there is always a point at which Tintin withholds information, keeping it in reserve in order to establish his position of mastery over the mystery. This is typified by the cover of what McCarthy considers to be Hergé’s masterpiece: The Castafiore Emerald (1963). Facing the reader, Tintin is depicted in the foreground, holding his forefinger up to his lips. Shhhhh. Hergé had described the characteristics of Tintin’s face, a round circle with two pin pricks for eyes, as “the degree zero of typography,” and McCarthy, following the lead of Roland Barthes, calls his countenance the “vanishing point” of the whole series.[2]

McCarthy’s book traverses the heights and depths of poststructuralist theory with a sure foot and a light step, and putting it down, I came away from it elated and enlightened. I was surprised to learn that I did not know that the name Tintin literally means “nothing,” and that it originates in the slang expression, “faire tintin,” which means “to be deprived of a satisfaction expected or due to one, to be frustrated in something. ”[3] Of course, the phrase obviously has implications for the Tintin adventures where the bad guys’ plots are always foiled by our hero. But having just finished the book, I was inspired to apply the phrase in another way after a visit to the Canadian Biennial at the National Gallery, It Is What It Is, where in the first gallery I was confronted by the works of two of the country’s foremost practitioners of a kind of performative conceptual art that is at once as abstruse as it is comic, Rodney Graham and Tim Lee. Though both pursue their own idiosyncratic trajectories, I want to venture that what Graham and Lee do best is “faire Tintin.”

Their two works in the biennial are representative: in both, each artist figures respectively as the protagonist in a mysterious scenario. In Graham’s The Gifted Amateur, Nov 10th, 1962 (2007), a massive light-box triptych shows the artist to be at the centre of the action, in his pajamas, smoking a cigarette, engaged in a Morris Louis-type pour painting with the previous day’s newspaper scattered about to catch any spills. Lee’s Untitled (Aleksander Rodchenko, 1928) (2008) is a little more difficult to descry: in a grid of four images showing the action from four different angles, top, bottom, left and right, we see Lee’s hands operating a vintage Leica camera, taking the very photo montage before our eyes. Through a sleight of hand mind you, Lee achieves an impossible image, like Tintin submitting his report. We can apply our own comprehension to the reading of these images by Graham and Lee, and tease out further the “web of cultural and historical references at work ”[4] by perusing the didactic panels provided by the curators. Ultimately, mastery of the mystery resides in the mute, deadpan, stone face composure of the comic heroes: Rodney Graham, Tim Lee, and above them all, Tintin, his finger to his lips.

Even though Graham and Lee “faire Tintin” I do not mean to imply that I have been deprived of any satisfaction related to their work. In fact, as a reader, I find it inspiring. We can see from the books and newspapers surrounding the gifted amateur that he is well versed in the history of art and that he is poised to make his own contribution to the field. Another image by Tim Lee comes to mind that is even more fitting: Upsidedown Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913 (2004). We see our hero, perhaps mere moments before he will release himself from his bondage, concentrating on reading a book of writings by another great polymath artist, Robert Smithson. Lee cuts a figure in a great emancipatory tradition leading back through the centuries from the magician Houdini to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose motto on the ideal of freedom of thought and the press in “What is Enlightenment?” can be paraphrased here as “Have the courage to use your own reading!”

Part Two | Part Three


[1] McCarthy, Tom. Tintin and the Secret of Literature. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008. Pg. 3.


[2] Ibid. Pg. 32.


[3] Ibid. Pg. 161.

[4] Vogl, Rhiannon. “Tim Lee.” It Is What It Is. Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada, 2010. Pg. 88.

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