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Avant-Garde and Baroque: The Possible Third in Gunnar Wærness, Bli verden

by Jahn Holljen Thon

Modernism and postmodernism help themselves freely to the surplus stock of history.
fig. 1. Bli verden, page 8
As Figure 1 shows, it can be difficult in Bli verden1  to decide which century we find ourselves in. There is a profusion of references to bestiaries, to emblematic image culture, and to the world of visual symbolism which held sway in the common European culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Latin–Norwegian diglossia has been supplanted by its modern variant, English–Norwegian diglossia, but visual symbols appear to continue to speak their own antiquated language.

It is impossible to decide whether the primary mode of meaning-production in Gunnar Wærness’s Bli verden is verbal expression, or graphical. In order to decode this work of art we should look to the past, paradoxical though it may seem. Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata, published in Lyon in 1550, is as good place to start as any. His sixteenth-century invention, the emblem book, was defined in a survey of emblem research at the very end of the twentieth century as ‘an open work of art’. The emblem book, concludes Rüdiger Zymner, is an ‘inter-medial’ genre specifically characterized by a variable, semantic, reciprocal reference, making it an ‘open work of art’ which ‘requires the construction of its aesthetic unity by the reader’.2  This definition usefully reinforces a relationship between emblematics and the modern avant-garde. Emblematics was based on three conditions: first, technological innovations (the art of printing, woodcuts, etchings, copperplate engravings); second, a religious, allegorical, and symbolic understanding of reality, which permeated the entire society (the mundus symbolicus); third, a feeling of living in a transhistorical world defined by ‘the pleasures of explorationing and innovation’. The interaction between traditional knowledge and the joy of creation should not be underestimated. Illustrations and text together constituted ‘the possible third’. From this it follows that the theorist Friedrich Kittler cannot be right in assuming that text and the alphabet held a monopoly over the production of meaning right up to the early twentieth century.3  Rather from 1530 up to and including the Romantic Period, multimodality was a normal condition. When different modes such as text and picture work together, as in Bli verden, entirely new horizons of meaning appear.

Timeless Avant-Garde?

Leafing through Bli verden we soon detect old models. This is acknowledged by Wærness himself in an article where he mentions inspiration from ‘expressive pictures’ by artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, the Breughels, William Blake, Hans Baldung Grien, Dierk Bounts, Lukas Cranach, and from the emblematic tradition.4  In the same way Peter Bürger discusses emblematics as a matter of course in his epoch-making work Theorie der Avantgarde (1974).5 

How can it be, then, that this ultra-modern poet makes use of so many of the cultural forms of the past? I wish to advance the hypothesis that the explanation is rooted in the particular production of meaning imbedded in this combination. As opposed to the classical modernists of Scandinavia, the modern avant-garde artists of the early 1960s accommodated their work to their readers. The text was perceived as an address from the author, needing an answer from the recipient. Bits of the past and the present might be used in the aesthetic repertoire, because contemporary art rebelled against a static, confined role for the reader, against conventions of reading and genre expectations.6  We might call this a social democratic avant-garde movement, where the democratization process takes place more on the side of the recipient than of the sender, the latter model being seen as élitist. The experiment is by its nature chiastic; a psychological, sociological and knowledge-theoretical experiment is staged in a creative context. In my opinion it is obvious that the interest shown by the avant-garde in the art-forms of the past, not least in the combination of text and picture, is linked to an enhanced level of knowledge and a new understanding of art, the interest in which reinforces the feeling that, in Nietzsche’s words, ‘God is dead’. It is no accident that Wærness presents religious allusions on almost every page, particularly in his graphical signs.

Before 1800 and after 1900 European literature had elements suggesting natural co-operation between text and picture. The picture scholar W. J. T. Mitchell has a tentative explanation of this symbiosis. According to him the development of writing shows that in the heart of every text there lurks a picture, and in the centre of our understanding or perception of a picture there is a textual understanding.7  If we follow his thought consistently there will in principle be no difference between text and picture, only differences of a practical and conventional nature. Bli verdenis a very good exemplification of Mitchell’s main points. The semantic content and the graphical symbols are set free from letter and image. Bli verden is something entirely new and previously unknown in Norwegian literature. The book consists mainly of graphical sheets joined together in a what might be a random sequence, since there is no pagination, and in which one cannot tell whether it is the word or the picture that has the upper hand; what I propose to call ‘a possible third’ thus emerges as a concrete possibility. Mitchell does not use the expression ‘possible third’, but my interpretation of his work is consistent with this expression.

The twentieth-century avant-garde has thus contributed to reinstating what we should see as the normal state of affairs. If, however, the demarcation line between text and picture is changeable in history, it would explain why the process characteristic of the avant-garde must necessarily be oriented towards the historical moment. It opposes the modernist doctrine that art is autonomous, and it seeks confirmation among older artists.

Bli verden: The Prerequisites of the Indefinite

It is clear that Wærness fulfils Bürger’s three main criteria for an avant-garde work of art: rebellion against appropriateness, focus on an allegorical process, and the fact that the montage makes the unified work of art dissolve.8  The paradigmatic work of art, as opposed to the syntagmatic one, is in principle never ending. This is where the emblematic and historical references gain meaning: the work is simply the sum of its references. Their enigmatic modality seeps through Bli verden by means of a sinister humour, and reinforces the demand on the reader to look for cohesion and links between the bits and pieces, the fragments of civilization.

In classical emblematics the text explains and interprets the picture and relates it to a familiar sphere of experience, however enigmatically it may do so. In Wærness the text no longer has such a function; very little is explained and the sphere of experience to which one is supposed to relate is in itself highly improbable and weird. There is thus no authoritative relationship between text and picture; the two represent each other, but their functional connection remains in the dark and is not governed by the established conventions of any genre. The result is intense defamiliarization. In this way Bli verden undermines many of the conventions of meaning-creation on which our society is built, such as the difference between:

The grey colour of the front cover suggests an existence void of contrasts and lacking form (see Figure 2). The world is not yet defined and given names, and is not governed by the established conventions of any genre. This induces both discouragement and hope. On the one hand there are many dark signs: violence, decay, war, and ruin; on the other, people are given the opportunity to recreate the world.
fig. 3. Bli verden, page 7

Already in the first picture-pages we see fragments of a fundamental process of name-giving, in a game combining cultural, artistic, and individual identities; but also we see a fear of the nameless unknown, the amorphous, and, not least, the indefinite (see Figure 3). Normally names are a major constituent of identity. A name gives an item a place in a system and thus creates order, control, and meaning. God’s word from Genesis 1:3, ‘Let there be light,’ resonates throughout our culture. Every being is generally defined by its name, its abilities, its actions, its relationship to other beings, and by institutional affiliation. All these five aspects are challenged in Bli verden. Everything is questioned, redefined, and mixed up: ‘Water is air’, ‘to swim is to fly’, ‘my name sounds strange in this language’. We seem to be in the world of George Orwell’s 1984.
fig. 4. Bli verden, page 42

The process of name-giving also establishes wider cultural meanings. On p. 42 we meet remnants that visually take no prominent position, but which are still interesting as objects of interpretation with regards to linguistic production of meaning (see Figure 4). In vaguely recognisable combinations of letters we discern fragments of the central slogans from the great French Revolution: FRATERNITT, LIBERY, EGALITT. The slogans are deformed, and placed together with what may at first appear a more enigmatic sequence of letters, UGARIT, alluding to an ancient city in Canaan in northern Syria. With its primordial alphabet, its ancient Semitic language, its literature, and its theology, Ugarit has been essential to the understanding of the texts in the Old Testament and the origins of written culture. Yet neither religion nor the great ideological slogans which have given meaning and identity to so many actions have the power to equip us with an adequate narrative key to interpret or generate a message in relation to the semi-mythological cities of the ancient world and the Old Testament.

In order to render concrete the dynamics of text-and-picture I have adapted to the particularity of the text and pursued four different roads to the production of meaning: conceptions of creation and apocalypse, transboundary actions, allegorical processes, and the poetic method of the work.

The First Road: When Creation Becomes Apocalypse

In Wærness change is not presented as leaps and discontinuities, but rather as undefined transitions lacking clear boundaries and outlines. The best example is how concepts of creation transform into concepts of apocalypse. In emblematic works there was a clear distinction between the concept of paradise and that of the end of the world; hybrids and monsters characterized the apocalypse. In Wærness, however, things are confused. The animals are often monstrous and the hybrids dominate. But there are also a number of references to the three basic elements of Genesis: creation, name-giving, and fertility.

Unlike Genesis, this work of Wærness presents no unifying creative and name-giving authority or absolute principle. The most ambiguous picture is perhaps to be found on p. 39, where at the top we get a glimpse of a fertility sacrifice carried out in a quasi-Egyptian fashion (see Figure 5).
fig. 5. Bli verden, page 39
Below this we can see a two-headed hermaphrodite, naked on a funeral pyre (if that is what it is), while reptiles in the water point either to a beginning or to a grotesque scene of horror.9  The ambiguity is underlined by the text in the speech bubbles which may be read horizontally and coherently, even though Wærness has placed them apart, word by word: ‘it is so hot and light here we cannot see the flames until it is too late’. Visually the flames are to be found in a completely different and isolated part of the same collage. The flames are referred to in the picture where they are not found: they are and are not, they consume and they are of use at the same time. Signs of death and apocalypse are generally ‘inserted’ into the pictures as loose fragments, as skeletons (pp. 8, 10, 16, 18), but above all as monsters and hybrids. When general concepts such as creation and apocalypse cannot be separated, we may interpret this as the interweaving of hope and despair, or as the message that all meaning has to be recreated. The enigmatic and strongly suggestive aspect of the picture-pages removes readers from the position of objective, distanced onlookers, and leaves them unable to distinguish between the semantic functions of the picture and of the text.

The Second Road: When Boundaries are Undermined and the New Becomes Old

Not only are general concepts merged together; boundaries between phenomena have also become permeable. In the mundus symbolicus of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, animals often had a very complex and antagonistic symbolic meaning, but still they existed within the framework of a worldview with fixed limits. In Wærness it is exactly the reverse: metamorphoses abound and very little has a fixed interpretation: what is a fish at one moment is at the next moment a bird; a human being is all of a sudden an animal. The book brims over with games or play, metamorphoses, and surprising juxtapositions in the form of montage pictures. The reader is sometimes puzzled as to whether she is in a contemporary cartoon or in the seventeenth century.

Instead of leading to confusion, this provides a space into which the reader can inject meaning. It gives us hitherto unknown possibilities for interpretation, for production of unity and meaning, above all because it is impossible to offer the privileged position either to the word or to the graphic expression.

The Third Road: An Allegorical World

We have seen this sort of thing before. The text presents ancient relatives knocking on our door. In Bli verden the author creates his own original, allegorical universe, where characters (people and animals) keep appearing in new forms and combinations, new contexts and allegorical sequences. Particularly frequent are allusions to the old religious bestiaries (for example the Liber Bestiarium from c. 1275) where, in the transition to modern times, animals such as the cock, billy goat, swan, lion, monkey, bull, and bird each had their own fixed fields of meaning. Although these collections of text and picture presented a mixture of zoological descriptions and tales about imaginary animals like the unicorn, they were primarily intended to be used as religious textbooks, a means of striving for literal, allegorical, and moral meaning.
fig. 6. Bli verden, page 16

Wærness takes his bestiary beings mainly from the category of hybrid animals and monsters of fable. The basic setting thus becomes apocalyptic rather than paradisiacal. The human being is given the head of a lion, a cock, a bull, or he simply has two heads. We find a rabbit-man, a bird-man, a horse-man, and an entire page with people appearing in a variety of animal characters (cat, dog, goat, and rabbit) (see Figure 6). These examples connect with a grotesque tradition, where the function is to relativize value systems and render differences visible, but also, as I mentioned earlier, to question many of the dichotomies on which our culture is built. Today we but vaguely recognize the symbolic meanings of animals; is it the author who is thereby given an opportunity to be the modern creator of contemporary allegories; or is it the privilege of the reader to create coherence and understanding?

The work ends by a depiction of two animal-human hybrids, a bird-man (elderly, on the left) and a fledged satyr (younger, to the right). They are placed in a desert, and the sky above evokes peace and eternity (see Figure 7).
fig. 7. Bli verden, page 50
The creatures are linked to each other in binary opposition, but we are definitely closer to the apocalypse than to a liberating beginning. The animalization of the human being runs the bestiary form backwards. Just as in emblematics, the author incorporates a few text fragments as fellow actors to the picture. The first one reads: ‘earlier / there were / forty souls / for one man’. The figure forty is not only the usual translation of a Hebrew word in the Bible meaning ‘many’, but, as a multiple of four, it is loaded with meaning: it includes totality, but also initiation, judgement and death. The text continues like this: ‘and for a long time there was / one each’, and then the sequence ends on a humorous note: ‘but now we are two / to share this one’. It is significant what sort of being utters the last statement – a tiny bird at the bottom of the picture. This bird appears only twice in the book: here, and in the very first picture, where it sits quietly. It is thus easy to regard the young bird as a messenger of transgression and new possibilities, inserted into the apocalyptic vision with an explicit invitation to share hopes. The author has made an original, modern, allegorical work where the reader’s qualifications determine the interpretation of the pictures. Even though we are less experienced in allegorical interpretation than earlier readers almost certainly were, Wærness’s art of combination is in keeping with the freedom of our time in the relationship between sign and reality. The allegory alleviates the pressure of mimesis and enhances the potential of meaning. There is a struggle between word and picture; they do not consolidate each other. In this regard the many allusions to the vanitas motif may be a clue: the traditional skulls, skeletons, and fire are all there, together with a new symbol of the author’s own – the scissors.

The Fourth Road: Cutting as a Method for Producing Meaning

The prominent pair of scissors in Figure 8
fig. 8. Bli verden, page 9
has various functions: placed with a knife, as here, it may be an original vanitas symbol. The scissors cut the cord of life, their absolute and violent character is shown by their cutting up a bird, and the handles are the frightening heads of a lion and a rabbit. In addition, scissors cut the figures out of their natural-functional context. In this way they give dark hints of how this work has come about. The entire meaning-production of the work is the result of knife, scissors, and glue, and of manipulations, either carried out traditionally by cutting or on a screen: ‘I lied to them in a language they didn’t understand’, as ‘the voice of the author’ rather self-consciously comments at the top of the page – an author who artistically has absolute power over the life and death of the figures. Bli verden is unpaginated, and the page numbers used in this article are mine. The work seems chaotic and random; it is hard to find the principles governing the construction and the production of meaning.

As I mentioned in my introduction, the early-modern emblematic text may also be understood as an open, multimedial work of art, quite often enigmatic, but nevertheless bound by certain rules and its tripartite form. In Wærness we face the familiar rebellion of the avant-garde against the logic of reason, and an illustration of the fact that permutations, sequencing, and principles of coincidence have taken over. Everything has been cut up and torn apart, turned loose, restructured and put together according to new and particular principles. Yet the picture above gives us as readers certain distinguishable clues. Wærness makes use of a series of rhetorical figures expressing transition and metamorphosis: allegory, antithesis, oxymoron, and chiasmus. We find antithesis in the way the picture is composed. Here the chiastic principle is particularly important. The last line is a rewriting of the first line. The two words ‘myself’ and ‘I’ have replaced ‘them’ and ‘they’: that is to say that ‘the lie’ inherent in creating something includes the ‘I’ himself. The author places himself on a level with his readers. The picture also suggests various allusions to religion and morality uttered by animals: ‘my church’, ‘my prayer’, ‘lie to you’. Animal allegories entered our culture not least owing to ecclesiastical preaching and the art of religious interpretation, and this entire picture is filled with such allegorical presentations of animals. However, in a world where the interpretative power of the church has been broken, it is up to the reader herself to create new contexts of interpretation. Traditional ideas of vanitas have no power left when God is dead. Today, in contrast, meaning is created by scissors, montage, choice, the press of a button. The basic chiastic principle implies that the reader’s freedom to choose is in fact real.

The Result of Producing Meaning: The Illustration of the Illustration

Name-giving is perhaps the main theme of this book, yet the reader is faced with the nameless, for what name are we to give to the redoubling which arises when the text illustrates the picture and the picture the text? In line with Mitchell’s way of thinking we may say that an added value is created when words and graphical expressions live so closely together.10  Mitchell stresses relations of power and ‘the inscription of cultural values and interests’.11  Meanwhile, Julia Thomas applies the theories of Jacques Derrida and maintains that ‘each signifier contains the trace of its other’, that the graphic expression always includes traces of the letters of the written language. Here, however, there are more than mere traces. I have given ‘the Wærness phenomenon’ the name of ‘the possible third’, that for which we so far have no name.

What is this ‘new’ mode of meaning, sign-wise and culture-wise? Mitchell shies away from this rather demanding question, and concludes that the relation between text and picture has always been versatile. He says little about those instances where you cannot distinguish between them, when the illustration aspect is reciprocal.12  It is our call to find a way to define this new phenomenon in our time. Wærness has created something whose potentiality is implicit in Mitchell’s work, something which is neither text nor picture. It is close to a new, time-related pictorial mode where text and visual elements come together in a new kind of graphic expression in which every part contributes equally to the production of meaning in a chain of redoubling. This ‘deferred third’ exists as an indefinite possibility. Historically it is perhaps most strongly linked to Friedrich Schlegel’s ideas of Romantic poetry as an indefinite expression of inter-art. In philosophical terms we might say that this new utopian profusion of meaning-production decides the relationship between word and picture either as a negation of each other, or, in various types of conditional relations, as an alternative or an implication. It is probably this last option which is the closest to Mitchell and Derrida. However, I believe that all four relations should be taken into account. The definition of an illustration will then be a phenomenon in which two graphical signs in different modes illuminate each other.

As yet I have focused on the difficulties involved in defining this type of text, but the advantages achieved are implicitly much more important. I shall go so far as to suggest that it is only now that we can really understand the Baroque for the first time. The single combat of this expression of art with the terms and conventions of our own time gives authors as well as readers great freedom for creating meaning. Wærness’s book is a utopian work of art facing today, and it could not be further from nostalgia for the past or a dream of timelessness.


1 Gunnar Wærness, Bli verden (Oslo: Forlaget Oktober, 2007), unpaginated. Editor’s note: This issue of the Journal has adopted the artist's own sequential system of numbering for the individual pages, which defines as page 45 the page containing the quotation from Louis Massignon, "No one can look directly at the sun ...". This numbering system does not embrace the cover and its reverse, front and back. Certain parts of the work are arguably better described in terms of ‘openings’ of pairs of facing pages, but these are a minority. As the title Bli verden defies accurate and comprehensible translation into English, it is given in the original throughout this issue of the Journal. However, it is appropriate to attempt an explanation of its meaning. ‘Bli verden’ echoes the creation of the world in Genesis chapter one. In Norwegian the command ‘Let there be light’ or ‘Fiat lux’ is rendered ‘Det bli lys’. ‘Bli verden’, whatever else it may do, thus calls to mind the totality of God’s acts of creation during the first six days. The title certainly reminds many Norwegian speakers of Genesis chapter one, but far from all. In a conversation with the editor on 5 November 2013, Wærness said that, while this title was not a direct reference, bringing scriptural assumptions into his work, one was right to ‘hear the first chapter of the Book of Genesis in the background’. A literal but awkward English rendering might be ‘Let there be world’, but because ‘verden’ has in many contexts to be translated as ‘the world’ rather than simply ‘world’, the meaning would be very slippery. ‘Let the world be’ is another possible translation, but is equally infelicitous because it invites the meaning ‘Leave the world alone’, while ‘Let the world come into existence’ is far too ponderous. Wærness himself reports that when attempting an English translation of the whole work – a project which has not yet come to fruition – he could not decide on an adequate title, and so jokingly referred to the proposed translation as ‘Become the Thing’. His literary agents, Aschehoug Agency, Oslo, have in the past used the title ‘Let There be World’ in their English-language promotion of the work.

2 See Rüdiger Zymner, ‘Das Emblem als offenes Kunstwerk’, in Polyvalenz und Multifunktionalität der Emblematik: Akten des 5. Internationalen Kongresses der Society for Emblem Studies = Multivalence and Multifunctionality of the Emblem: Proceedings of the 5th International Conference of the Society for Emblem Studies, 1999, ed. by Wolfgang Harms and Dietmar Peil, Mikrokosmos, 65 (Frankfurt am Main and Oxford: Peter Lang, 2002), pp. 9–24, (p. 24): ‘Das Emblem, so spezifiziert er seine Formulierung, lässt sich genauer fassen als eine “(1) synmediale Gattung, die inhren specifischen Charakter durch (2) die gestaltete, synthetisierende Drieiteiligkeit von inscription, pictura, und subscriptio erhalte; so nähmlich, daß dieser drei Teile strukturell in einem Verhältnis der (3) variable semantischen Bezugnahme aufeinander stehen und daß Emblem (4) eben dadurch als ein besonderer Fall von Text–Bild–Text–Bezugnahme, als ein ästhetisches Ganzes die reflektierende Urteilskraft auf verallgemeinernde Deutungen hin lenkt – oder knapp zusammengefaßt könnte man auch sagen, daß das Emblem in diesem Sinne ein offenes Kunstwerk ist”.’

3 See Otto Fischer and Thomas Götselius, ‘Redaktörernas förord: Den siste litteraturvetaren’, in Friedrich Kittler, Maskinskrifter: Essäer om medier och litteratur, Mediehistoriskt bibliotek, 1 (Gråbo: Anthropus, 2003), pp. 7–31.

4 Gunnar Wærness, ‘I begynnelsen var elefanten og elfanten var hos Gud’, in Audiatur: Katalog for ny poesi, ed. by Paal Bjelke Andersen and Audun Lindholm (Bergen: Audiatur bokhandel, 2007), pp. 626–32.

5 Peter Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974); in English, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. by Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

6 See Beata Agrell, Romanen som forskningsresa, forskningsresa som roman (Göteborg: Daidalos, 1993), pp. 22-22.

7 W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 43.

8 Criteria discussed in Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, pp. 55–82.

9 See Lawrence. M. Principe’s explanation of the hermaphrodite as an image of one stage in the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, in his The Secrets of Alchemy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), pp. 78–9.

10 See W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 76–110.

11 The quotation is from a discussion of Mitchell’s work in Julia Thomas, Pictorial Victorians: The Inscription of Values in Word and Image (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004), pp. 15–16 (p. 15).

12 Thomas, Pictorial Victorians, p. 17; Thomas outlines her engagement with Derrida on pp. 7–8.



Citing this article:
Thon, Jahn Holljen. “Avant-Garde and Baroque: The Possible Third in Gunnar Wærness, Bli verden.” Journal of Illustration Studies (December 2013). 19 Dec 2018. <>