Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery


All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 2001 The Regents of the University of Nebraska


I magine, as so many artists, musicians, writers, poets and dreamers have tried to do so many times in so many ways, a universal Ian - guage-one that could be understood by anyone in any place at any time. However implausible such a language may seem, however romantic, naIve, or flatly impossible, its creation in visual terms was a common pursuit of early modern painters, those working in the first decades of the 20th century. At the beginning of this new millennium, we may ask afresh if all these past imaginings and pursuits were but elegant and finely wrought pipe dreams, or if in some way modern art actually did and still does communicate to the human mind-any human mind anywhere-fundamental stimuli that may be commonly understood. Recent thinking in studies of the mind suggest that perhaps at least some of it does, and that those images that achieve universality do so by way of an elemental, physiologically based phenomenon of the human mind: natural metaphor.

A metaphor is commonly understood to be a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that literally denotes one thing is used to denote and describe another; for example, "time is a jet plane." Time, the comparison tells us, moves away from us quickly. A common way to think of metaphor is that it merely decorates speech-that it makes language, whether written or oral, more interesting or even entertaining. Consider Raymond Chandler's colorful use of metaphor in his novel, The Long Goodbye, wherein Chandler describes a character as having "a face like a collapsed lung." Now, that is vivid. But perhaps a reasonable person could do without metaphor altogether in thought and speech and give a more accurate description of that same character's face: As opposed to looking like a collapsed lung, the face in question could be described as misshapen, deeply wrinkled and pervasively splotched. This might be more accurate, especially as none of us actually ever sees a collapsed lung. Yet, all of us, including the most reasonable among us, use metaphor constantly.