Language in Art


Last Friday, 15th of April, was the World Art Day. This celebration has been much discussed by media, as it is difficult to think that there is somebody who is not, either as an observer or a creator, interested in any kind of art. Some prefer to wander around the corridors of a museum while others are keen on reading books. Some listen to music, watch a film or follow a cooking recipe.

The World Art Day was established by the International Association of Art (IAA) 4 years ago with the intention of creating a multicultural environment where all the communities could share their cultural identities. According to Umberto Eco, culture should be in a holistic way, as a complete range of signs to communicate, as every cultural identity becomes a semiotic sign. Therefore, arts are systems of communication, languages.

Linguistic Art

Let’s start by the patron saint of translators: Jerome. Saint Jerome was born at Stridon, a town of the Roman province of Dalmatia, at the begging of the 4th century A.D. He is best known for his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, a task that led him to reflect on translation activity: “For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery) I render sense for sense and not word for word”. Many artists turned his figure into the central point of their creations: Albrecht Dürer, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francisco Salzillo, Caravaggio and Hieronymus Bosch, among others. In general, all those artists agree on representing him as someone doing a very hard work: translating, a complex act of communication.

Spanish painter Rodríguez de Losada reflected to perfection the problems that translators have to face, by drawing St. Jerome with a frown.

Another linguistic topic that has caught the attention or artists is the Tower of Babel. This construction is associated with the remains of Etemenanki temple, near south of Baghdad (Irak), whose name appears also in the Old Testament. The history of the tower is used to explain the divine origin of the different languages we speak, which arose in order to punish men because of their arrogance and pride. However, we managed to understand each other despite linguistic and cultural diversity.

The details Pieter Bruegel the Elder used to reflect in his paintings help to increase the feeling of such a quantity of languages.

We can also find modern works which resort to linguistics as the main topic. For example, sculptures by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa, who has used letters and pictograms from seven linguistic systems to create human figures.

During the 2009-2011 Vancouver Biennale, people had the chance to interact with this sculpture representing the multiculturalism and the linguistic diversity that characterizes the city.

Linguistic signs have also been an inspiration to Oscar Niemeyer, who designed Edifício Copan in São Paulo, Brazil. Located in the city centre, this 37-floors building is an authentic metropolis for the 5,000 residents who live in this structure made from reinforced concrete in 1951 imitating the sinuous shape of Portuguese tilde ( ~ ), which appears in the name of the city. Nonetheless, one the most famous ‘linguistic’ buildings is the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, which was built during the 13th and 14th centuries. Meaning ‘the red one’, most of its walls are decorated with texts in Arabic, a language owning one of the most beautiful writings in the world.

The World Art Day takes place every 15th of April because this is the birthday of one of the most famous artists: Leonardo da Vinci, who was aware of the power of communication. Because of that he came to use the mirror writing, as we can see in the Vitruvian Man document; that is, writing in the direction that is in reverse of the natural way for a given language, especially to avoid others to understand the text. Language offers us infinite ways of conveying a message.

Language itself is an art. And language belongs to those who use it: speakers; so we as speakers are artists of language. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire said that “People are not built in silence, but in word”; therefore, we all have the capacity and the duty to create a language which is rich and alive, thanks to all those mechanisms and elements that it offers to us.


Written by Ana Bennasar

Terminology trainee at TermCoord