Without Words

Kira Symington, Reporter

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things I had no words for.” —Georgia O’ Keeffe 

Sometimes words are not enough; they die in our throats and decay into strangled gasps and moans. They fail us; for all we can say, there is an infinity of what we cannot. There are times in which words cannot wholly hold our grief, cannot exactly express our hate, and cannot completely capture our love. Thus, we have sayings like, “I love you more than words can say” and “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  

Describing the taste of an orange will never compare to the experience of eating one yourself. I cannot tell you how blindingly blue the sky is or dark the depths of the ocean are; you must be there yourself. My stumbling sentences will fall flat in the face of the real thing.  

How then, do you say the unsayable?  

As Edward Hopper says, “if you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” The limits of our tongues and pens are the beginnings of our paintbrushes. Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” expresses the brilliance of happiness and hope. Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott” imparts a new depth of color and utter solitude to Tennyson’s poem. Picasso’sGuernica” speaks of an “ocean of pain and death” when the victims of the bombing of that town could only lay mute under the rubble.  

Many a gallery-goer asks of the paintings, “but what do you mean?” And the art asks in return, “what do you think I mean?” It is in the lack of words that the viewer and viewed join in deeply personal understanding. One mural painter I spoke to told me that he refuses to provide a description of his piece when he enters it into contests. Words would only impede the conversation between the viewer and the painting.  

Some paintings draw forth recollections from the individual of hidden griefs and secret loves. Others overwhelm us with a feeling unknown to us. For example, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son strikes the audience with an incomprehensible sense of terror, leaving some to see it as the expression of the madness of masculine lust and others as a contemplation of pure chaos and nothingness. It argues with the audience, pulling from them contradictory interpretations and conflicting feelings. 

But even before the painting rests neatly on display behind tempered glass, it speaks. The artist feels its siren call, and like the sculptor Michelangelo, they see “the angel in the marble” and must carve or paint to set him free. As the potter wrestles with clay and the baker with dough, the painter struggles with their painting as it takes on a life of its own. 

Painting, both the product and the act, is an alive and wordless conversation. It speaks to us when the jumble of language does not suffice. It is precisely the moment when we have nothing to say that our brushes speak.  

“Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.” —Paul Gauguin 


Kira Symington is a Dakota Student General Reporter. She can be reached at [email protected].