by Göran Sonesson

Current Issues in Pictorial Semiotics


  • What is the systematic nature and the historical origin of pictorial semiotics ?
  • How do pictures differ from – and resemble – verbal signs ?
  • What reasons are there for considering the picture to be a sign in the first place ?
  • How can conventionalist theories of pictures and other iconic signs be demonstrated to be false ?
  • What is the specificity of the picture sign within iconic semiosis ?
  • How is pictorial meaning related to ordinary perception and to what extent can indexicality account for this relationship ?
  • Can the different models for pictorial analysis account for all kinds of pictures, or are different models suitable for separate sub-categories ?
  • Can visual rhetoric be amended in order to explain the relationship of pictorial meaning to the world of our experience, notably in terms of wholes and parts ?
  • What is the peculiar semiotic nature of pictures depicting other pictures ?
  • How are photographs — and digital pictures — different from hand-made pictures ?
  • In what way do pictures function within society at large and in relation to cultures and subcultures?
  • How can the history of art, notably the advent of modernism, be understood in semiotic terms?
  • How are other visual signs — from the body to the landscape — different and similar to pictures ?

These are some relevant issues of contemporary pictorial semiotics which will be addressed in the present course. The semiotics of pictures has some
original features : First, unlike other parts of semiotics, it covers a domain which has never been occupied before. Art history has only been involved with a very small set of pictures, those recognised as being works of art ; and it has almost exclusively studied these works as individual objects,
neglecting properties possessed by pictures in general, or some subgroup of pictures. Unlike the semiotics of verbal texts, which can rely on linguistic
foundations, and which has in part been anticipated by literary theory, pictorial semiotics must start from scratch.
In spite of all this, it seems to me that pictorial semiotics has got on to a very promising start in the last three or four decades. After the influential,
but seriously flawed, Panzani analysis in which Barthes postulated a set of simplistic linguistic analogies, a number of better constructed and much
more interesting, but still problematical, models have been elaborated, notably by the Greimas school, the Groupe μ, the Quebec school, the Perth school and the Lund school. Unlike the French structuralists, the scholars constructing these models have tried to address, to varying degrees, the specificity of pictorial meaning, and thus to elucidate the manner in which meaning is conveyed by pictures, as opposed to the more familiar way in
which it is transmitted by verbal language.
Although, as I suggested above, pictorial semiotics has not much help to attend from art history, it certainly has a lot to learn from other disciplines,
such as the psychology and phenomenology of perception, cognitive psychology, and even, properly understood, linguistics, both its classical structuralist brand, and the contemporary cognitivist variety. Actually, many of the remaining defects of the models mentioned above derive from their neglect to take the findings of the above-mentioned disciplines seriously into account.
The latter consideration is particularly relevant to the second respect in which pictorial semiotics is peculiar. Perhaps not only for accidental reasons, picture have been at the core of all efforts to export linguistic models to the analysis of other semiotic systems. Within semiotics proper, Lindekens, Eco, and others tried to show that pictures were structured just like verbal language ; among more traditional philosophers, Bierman and Goodman argued for essentially the same point, although invoking very different reasons. Just as several other scholars, I have tried to show that these arguments are untenable. In so doing, however, I have been relying largely on results and concepts taken over from cognitive and perceptual psychology, in conjunction with the logical refutation of the arguments advanced. Contrary to what is often believed, the redemption of iconicity does not in any way preclude the possibility of semiotic inquiry : instead, it opens up the new domain of pictorial semiosis for a much more detailed and profitable study. Actually, my arguments against the « critique of iconicity » propounded by Eco and others yielded a twofold result : it showed that the ordinary common sense world must be organised in a peculiar way, in order for pictorial signs to be possible ; and it demonstrated that the picture was just one of the many varieties of iconic signs.
The present course is intended to be a kind of state of the art description of pictorial semiotics (with some extensions to visual semiotics generally). It will present the results of some forty years of work which is largely unfamiliar to scholars in the Anglo-Saxon world, since most of the contributions were written in languages other than English. Although it is thus intended to give an overview of the work of many scholars, is has been conceived from a particular point of view, that of the Lund school, which I myself prefer to call the « ecological » schools, since it is based on the idea that all semiosis in grounded in the common sense structures of the ordinary Lifeworld.


  1. The Quadrature of the Hermeneutic Circle (PDF)The first lecture will present pictorial semiotics within the framework of general semiotic theory. It will construe semiotics as a particular point of view taken on everything which is human or, more generally, endowed with life, rather than simply the continuation of the mixed or separate doctrines due to Saussure and Peirce. The historical part will describe briefly the development of pictorial semiotics and the peculiarities of its different schools and traditions, following upon the somewhat premature founding gesture attributed to Barthes.
  2. The Psychology and Archaeology of Semiosis (PDF)In this lecture, we will discuss the emergence of the semiotic function, both ontogenetically and phylogenetically, and we will consider the part played by the picture sign in this development. In order to demonstrate that pictures are indeed signs, we will explore the basic elements of the sign presupposed but never put into focus neither by Saussure nor by Peirce. Indeed, explorations in the psychology and phenomenology of perception will turn out to be necessary, in order to characterise the sign in opposition to more elementary meanings, such as those given to us in the common sense world, variously characterized as the “lifeworld”, the “natural world”, or the world of “ecological physics”.
  3. From the Critique of the Iconicity Critique to Pictorality (PDF)In order to show why Eco, Goodman, and others were wrong in their classical critique of iconicity, we will pursue a close reading of Peirce, but we will interpret his text in accordance with more recent findings in cognitive and perceptual psychology. We will arrive at the conclusion that there are two very different kinds of iconicity, which we will call primary and secondary iconicity. Even so, pictorial iconicity has its peculiarities, which we will also try to elucidate..
  4. From the Linguistic Model to Semiotic Ecology (PDF)The argument of our third lecture showed that iconicity could only be saved from the critical arguments advanced by Bierman and Goodman by means of introducing a properly structured common sense world. In this lecture, we will first consider to what extend the linguistic model may still be helpful, and in which respects it is misleading. Then the necessary furnishing of the common sense world, which is also the basis of picture interpretation, will be discussed in its own right. In this connection, the importance of indexicality to perception, in itself and as it carries over to pictorial representation, will be demonstrated. This will also prompt a return to the theory of indexicality, inspired, once again, in a close reading of Peirce, but developed on the bases of more recent psychological findings. The function of structural opposition will be discussed in contrast to the erceptual logic of indexicality.
  5. The Last Dilution of The Panzani Soup (PDF)It cannot be denied: for all practical purposes, Barthes initiated pictorial semiotics when he wrote his analysis of an advertisement for Panzani pasta. All serious approaches to pictorial semiotics have since then started out as critical observation on the Panzani model. Here we will discuss the theoretical and practical defects of Barthes’ conception, as they were rendered explicit by the different schools evolving from this criticism. We will explore the illusory parallel, suggested by several scholars, between Barthes and Panofsky, and we will end by inquiring into the residue never redeemed by any of the extent approaches (not counting those simply repeating Barthes’ confusions), i.e. the study of ideology and, more broadly, the social role of picture circulation.

Göran Sonesson | Biography

  • *Higher school certificate (“Studentexamen”), Pildammsskolan, Malmö 12/6 1970.
  • *Bachelor of arts in literature (60p), general linguistics (60p) and aesthetics (60p), June 29, 1973, Lund University.
  • *Doctor of Philosophy in general linguistics obtained from Lund University October 10, 1978.
  • *Doctor of Philosophy in semiotics, obtained from Écoles des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales/Paris IV, Paris, France, under the direction of A.J. Greimas, November 10, 1978.
  • *Accepted as Associate Professor of semiotics by Lund University, June 1990.
  • *Declared Full Professor of semiotics, in November 2000