Text Art: How Do Text and Art Mix Together?

Can art and text work in harmony, or are they inevitably overpowering one another?

May 22, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

how text art mix


Written, typed, or printed text is an integral part of contemporary human life. We can even stop noticing it while walking down the street. However, this was not always the case. Over the past centuries, our relationship with text has changed radically, and the history of art echoed this change. Read on to learn more about how artists integrated text into their works.


Text Art in Pre-Modernity

angelico annunciation painting
The Annunciation, by Fra Angelico, c.1378 – 1455. Source: Dominican Friars Foundation


The relationship between text and art is much longer than we can imagine. Upon exploring ancient ruins, archeologists often find combinations of text and images, sometimes reminiscent of present-day comic strips. However, in all these cases, the written word and image are meant to support one another, with either the artwork illustrating the text or the text clarifying the artwork’s meaning.


In Medieval Europe, images were a primary means of communication for the masses, given the low literacy levels and difficulty of text reproduction. The main function of art was to convey Biblical narratives to those who were not able to read. For the privileged groups with access to books and education, written texts were precious and extremely important. The manuscripts were often literal works of art, with gilded letters, exquisite illustrations, and abundantly decorated bindings.


The Muslim world went even further, turning text itself into an artwork. The limitations imposed by Islamic laws on producing images of humans and animals led to the development of calligraphy as a specific and complex genre. The value of a written text was not only in the information it conveyed but in the skill and innovation of the person who was behind it.

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Impressionism, Urban Advertisement, and the New Cityscape

beraud street painting
Scene of a Parisian Street, by Jean Beraud, c. 1897. Source: Richard Green


During the modern era, the relationship between an average citizen and text became more intense than ever. Urban development and more accessible education fostered economic growth and fueled competition between the providers of goods and services. To successfully sell their products within the loud and intense urban environment, business owners had to compete for their customers’ attention in every possible way.


The later decades of the 19th century saw a sharp rise in the amount and quality of advertisements. Companies often hired famous artists like Alphonse Mucha, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pierre Bonnard to design their ads. As a result, advertisement turned into a popular and accessible form of art, with Parisians often stealing posters from the walls to hang on their walls. With the development of advertisement visuals, the typography followed, with complex and detailed fonts filling the streets.


This omnipresence of text made its way into the paintings of the most progressive group of urban artists of their time—the Impressionists. The paintings of Gustave Caillebotte, Camille Pissaro, Claude Monet, and others were filled with typographical presence. Its purpose is not only documental, it also highlights the confusion of an urban citizen, overwhelmed with an excessive flow of information.


Cubism & Dada

text art picasso guitar collage
Guitar, by Pablo Picasso, 1913. Source: MoMA, New York


Triggered by the expanding world around them, art could not remain static and unresponsive. Old forms of artistic expression became insufficient and required a revolution of materials and techniques. This revolution came in the art movement of Cubism, led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Their compositions mutated from paintings to collages and then to mixed media works that incorporated found objects. Musical scores, newspaper clippings, or posters were rarely part of the work’s narrative. In most cases, they acted as independent visual gestures, appreciated only for their formal qualities. Press articles and song sheets that were added to these works created new textures, widening the ways of perception.


text art hoch dada collage
Dada Review, by Hannah Höch, 1919. Source: Berlinische Galerie, Berlin


Dada art movement had a similar approach of stripping the semantics from linguistic constructions. However, their main motivation was not to find a new expressive language but to prove the futility of the old one. The horrors of the first truly global military conflict proved the impotence of human culture, reason, and means of communication. Dada artists wrote absurd poetry from non-existent words or random sentences taken from newspapers. The artists of the movement subverted the narratives of government propaganda turning it into nonsensical expressions of collective neurosis and shared trauma.



magritte treachery painting
The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte, 1928-29. Source: Los Angeles County Museum of Art


The next step in exploring and devaluating the written and spoken word was made by the Surrealists, who explored the depths of the unconscious, the hidden, and the desired. For them, the meanings relied solely on one’s perception. The kaleidoscopic chaos of street signs and posters could turn into a narrative connected by deep subconscious ideas. Taken out of context, bits and pieces would lose their intended meanings and become open for interpretations and speculations.


Soon, the ambiguity and instability of human means of expression reached the realm of visual art. The leader of Belgian Surrealism, Rene Magritte, famous for his subtle irony, expressed the Surrealist concern about the meanings of things. His famous work The Treachery of Images is a painting of a pipe with a written note saying this is not a pipe beneath it. Although seemingly absurd at first, Magritte’s claim makes sense. Indeed, we cannot equal an image of a pipe to an actual pipe. As a species, we agreed to recognize the object as such, but recognition does not necessarily mean identity.


Abstract Art: Hilma af Klint’s Cryptic Writings

af klint adulthood painting
The Ten Largest, No. 6, Adulthood, Group IV, by Hilma af Klint, 1907. Source: Wikipedia


You might be wondering, can text truly be abstract? While some non-figurative artists rejected the idea of using anything related to the objective realm of human existence, others eagerly incorporated them into their works. In the oeuvre of the Swedish abstract pioneer Hilma af Klint, text or imitation of it played a crucial role. She created most of her early abstract works in a state of spiritual trance, believing that some metaphysical beings guided her hand.


These compositions often included Latin letters or symbols similar to them. However, they should not be understood literally. These symbols were indeed a language with its own logic, rules, and coded messages, but they had no relation to any existing linguistic systems. In her diaries, Hilma af Klint comprised a classification of those symbols, suggesting their possible meanings and combinations.


As Hilma af Klint’s career progressed, she decided to claim her artistic independence. She deliberately stopped contacting the higher powers and focused on her own voice. In that period, random symbols turned into words and sentences written in Swedish, guiding viewers’ perception and engaging them in unexplained rituals centered around the paintings.


Pop Art

warhol brillo sculpture
Brillo Boxes by Andy Warhol, 1964. Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art


After decades of abstraction dominating the art scene, the new movement, radical in its materiality and kitschy in its ironic stance, emerged from the streets of New York. Pop art was filled with neon signs, brand advertisements, and consumer goods. Pop artists recreated comic strips, brand packages, and consumption-based environments like shops or cafes. Their art was cheap in production and universally understandable. It was a protest against the art world’s elitism and over-intellectualism. Pop artists saw low culture in the form of mass-produced goods, TV show characters, and catchy ads as another form of artistic expression, equally potent and meaningful as the highly conceptual works of art praised by privileged critics. By reproducing a soup can or a hamburger, pop artists gave these objects artistic significance and acknowledged their universal recognition, which was a phenomenon on its own.


The Ultimate Blend: Text Art

text art krueger shop poster
Untitled (I Shop Therefore I am), by Barbara Krueger, 1987. Source: Mary Boone Gallery


The latter part of the twentieth century saw the rise of Conceptual art—an art form that put the idea behind an artwork before its form, often completely ignoring the concept of aesthetic appeal. A specific sector of it was completely text-based, with little to no elements of visual imagery. Some art historians pinpoint that the development of text-based art coincided with the emergence of various philosophical theories that assigned the crucial role of forming consciousness to language. For instance, anthropologist Claude Levis-Strauss argued that language was an ideological construct capable of empowering one and colonizing another.


Among others, feminist artists often explored the possibilities and limits of text-based art. They worked with gender-coded language, automatic assumptions hidden beneath certain verbal constructions, and space for interpretation. Since the late 1960s, American artist Barbara Krueger has appropriated and subverted advertisement campaign slogans, magazine covers, and political posters. Her messages pressure the anxiety of a contemporary woman, the unstable social constructs, and artificially created systems of inequality.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.