Three different kinds of pictures

Woodcut. Albrecht Dürer. The Men’s Bath. c. 1496. 15 7/16 x 11 3/16" (39.2 x 28.4 cm). Collection of John Benson.

Many of the pictures we commonly see are “representational,” by which I mean that they attempt to show the form of some object, rather than acting as symbols in the manner of letters and numbers. The “symbolic” type has letters and numbers, whether drawn or printed, which are used to communicate; they are understood through a set of meanings embedded in the language that the writer and reader share. All a letter or number has to do pictorially is to be recognized as itself and not some other character. A representational picture is different: the details of its visual structure dominate the meaning, to the point where any small change in form results in a change of meaning. Any given representational picture might have a broadly recognizable subject, and even an obvious meaning, but the specifics of its form shape that meaning. In contrast, an “abstract” type of picture is one that incorporates a symbol for which we don’t have some shared meaning, but which has meaning in the mind of the artist.

A detail enlarged about 1.2 times from the original print. Woodcut. Albrecht Dürer. The Men’s Bath. c. 1496. 15¼ x 11¼ in. (38.7 x 28.6 cm)