On the Signification of Walls in Verbal and Visual Art

Michael Moore
Leonardo, Vol. 12, No. 4. (Autumn, 1979), pp. 311-313.
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Leonardo, Vol. 12, pp. 311-313
Pergamon Press 1979. Printed in Great Britain
Michael Moore*
Walls-think of the great walls of history: The Chinese
Wall, the Wailing Wall, the Berlin Wall, the Walls of
Jericho and the wall on which the handwriting appeared
to Belshazzar. Think of Zechariah’s wall of fire and of the
waters of the Red Sea which ‘were a wall to them on their
right hand and on their left’. Remember the walls of
literature: Sartre’s wall of execution, Shakespeare’s ‘sweet
and lovely wall’, and the wall raised in front of your (and
the unfortunate Fortunato’s) eyes in Poe’s poem ‘Cask of
Amontillado’. And think of the expressions: up against
the wall, to go over the wall, wall-to-wall; think of
wallflowers, of walls of silence and of separation, of
stonewalling and of Stonewall Jackson, of invisible walls
and of the hole-in-the-wall. An exhaustive list of famous
walls, religious and other, would, of course, be impossible
to compile. Walls have inspired cinema makers, science
fiction writers, poets, playwrights, painters and muralists.
In one of the literary sources in Ref. 2 (F. Dostoyevsky)
the protagonist’s adversaries try to convince him about
the immutability of the laws of nature: ‘A wall, you see, is
a wall . . . and so on, and so on.’ But is it? It is my thesis
that, in addition to their versatile physical functions, walls
possess an immense measure of signification and that
these two realms-the concrete and the symbolicinteract
with each other.
Take first the multiple significance of walls for the
visual arts, in whose history walls have a place of
distinction not merely because pictures are hung on them.
Since prehistorical times, unadorned walls have attracted
adornment, giving rise to such different modes and media
of artistic expression as cave drawings, frescoes, murals
and street art, as well as reliefs, tapestry, wall hangings
and posters [3]. The motivation behind these expressions
has a wide range, from the homeopathic magic presumably
practised by the Cro-Magnon artists of the
Altamira caves in Spain, through the religious murals of
the Neolithic culture in Catal Huyiik in Anatolia, to the
secular, decorative tapestries of the Gothic era and to the
political murals and posters of the present age.
Next consider architecture, where walls may be said to
define the art itself, for architecture is the art of bounding,
the provision of multiple volumes that are separated from
one another and from their surroundings by walls [4].
And yet the function of walls in architecture has drastically
changed throughout the ages: the Romanesque
tradition of heavy, structurally indispensable walls has
gradually given way to the decorative facades of the
Gothic period with their buttress-supported vaults.
*Psychologist. Dept. of Education in Technology and Science,
Technion. Haifa 32000. Israel. (Received 22 April 1978)
Nor are walls a structural necessity in skyscrapers, where
the weight of such a building is carried by a steel
framework [5].
In the light of the basic function they serve, the need for
walls is hardly surprising. This basic function is one of
separation and the notions of physical and of psychological
separation are fundamental aspects of human existence.
Separation lies behind the two most significant
events of life: birth, which is the separation of the
newborn from its mother’s body, and death, which has
been interpreted as the separation of soul from body.
Between these two there are other important separation
events, such as the infant’s distinction between itself and
the world [6] and the subsequent tribal and national
dichotomization of the world’s inhabitants into ‘us’ vs
‘them’ [7].
Second in importance only to the separation function is
another theme associated with walls, referred to by
dictionaries as the ‘prevention of free entry or egress’.
While birth separation has profound individual or ontogenetic
significance [8], the impenetrability of walls, hence
their defensive function, is endowed with group or
phylogenetic meaning. Whether naturally formed or an
artifact, whether in a cave, a castle or a city, walls offer
security and protection to those dwelling behind them.
This need for protection was demonstrated on the most
grandiose scale by the emperor Shih Huang Ti who,
following his predecessors’ custom, built a 2400 km long
wall on the western frontier to defend China. Long before
him, in 7000 B.C., the neolithic people inhabiting Jericho
surrounded it with a massive wall against invaders [9].
How different and multivalued can be the interpretations
attached to walls is illustrated by the biblical
metaphor. Swedenborg, having warned his readers
against a ‘material’ interpretation of the Scriptures,
shows that whenever a wall is mentioned, it refers to ‘The
Word’, i.e. to the Scriptures (‘By “a wall” is signified that
which protects’) [lo]. Thus ‘living within the walls’ is
equivalent to living by the Scriptures. The same notion
was used by New England Puritans of the 17th and 18th
centuries, who in their sermons identified a wall with faith
and with the ministry, surrounding and protecting God’s
garden from the beasts of the wilderness [ll]. It is ironic
that the term ‘wall’ was used in the U.S.A. by Thomas
Jefferson and by Supreme Court Justice Black [12] to
separate two estates of society; they talked of ‘. . . a wall
between Church and State which must be kept high and
impregnable’. But these notions are not surprising: the
wall prevents both free entry and egress.
The omnipresence of walls and of their metaphorical
use is facilitated by an additional characteristic to be
found in both the separation and the defense functions
312 Michael Moore
mentioned above. This characteristic is ambivalence or the
simultaneous presence of positive and negative evaluations.
Becoming an individual, different both from the
mother’s nurturing organism and from the surrounding
environment is an achievement, but it may be also a loss:
Individuation may be accompanied by anxiety and frustration.
In a similar vein, the security offered by a wall is
readily changed into imprisonment and vice versa. This
has its topological equivalent in the indeterminacy of
inside vs outside [I?]. Due to this multiplicity of meanings
and affects associated with them, walls, when presented as
signs, are an important source of human interpretation. A
wall depicted visually and described verbally brings with
itself a multitude of meanings, some of them intended by
the artist, others found only in the mind of the beholder or
of the reader.
Toward some walls there is true ambivalance, as in
Frost’s poem ‘Mending Wall’ (Something there is that
doesn’t love a wall.. .’ [14]), or, on a different level, as in
the case of Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Fig. l), the
implication of both destruction and monumental
strength. Many of Sartre’s walls illustrate the same
principle-while imprisoning, they offer security [15].
Sartre himself has been identified with this dualism, with
simultaneous claustrophobia and claustrophilia [16], and
the same thesis could be connected with Kafka’s stories,
many of whose characters are ‘imprisoned’ in cells with
open doors.
Other walls have opposite meanings for different
people, for those who are defended by it vs those who
attack it, or for those who built it as opposed to those
against whom it was built. City walls and prison walls, in
general, fall into this category-the Berlin Wall and the
Wall of the Warsaw ghetto, in particular Literary
and visual art have presented these various walls, most of
them foreboding and cruel. Consider, for example, the
city wall, serving as the background of Daumier’s ‘Le
Fig. 2. H. Daumier. ‘Le Fardeau’, oil, 147 x 96m, about 1860.
Fardeau’ (Fig. 2): The laundress’ plight is greatly accentuated
by the blind, silent, insensitive wall along which she
must hurry. Or take Sophocles’ drama, where Antigone is
condemned to die in a walled-up tomb by Creon of
Thebes, or Sartre’s title story, in which the condemned
man imagines himself pushing against the impenetrable
wall that ‘will stay like in a nightmare’, as it indeed does in
execution scenes painted by Goya, Courbet, Manet (Fig.
3) and Garcia.
To conclude my description of the more noteworthy
walls presented in visual and in verbal art, it appears that
since humans descended from the trees, they have left
signs and symbols on the walls of caves and cliffs and,
thus, walls have become a permanent fixture of human
Fig. 3. E. Manet. ‘The Execution of Maximillian’, oil, 250 x Fig. 1. View of the Western Wall of the Temple, Jerusalem, Israel. 305 cm, 1867.
On the Signfieation of Walls in Verbal and Visual Art
existence. The meaning of the sign of a wall, as that of any
sign or of any symbol, is fluid and, to a large extent,
personal. Tillich claimed: ‘There are within us dimensions
of which we cannot become aware except through
symbols’ [18].
1. Among them such literary pearls as H. G. Wells’ ‘Door in
the Wall’, Ayme’s ‘The Walker-through- Walls’, Sartre’s
‘The Wall’. Kafka’s ‘Great Wall of China’.
2. F. Dostoyevsky. Notes from Underground (New York: New
American Library. 1961) p. 98. A similar passage occurs in
Max Frisch, The Chinese Wall (New York: Hill & Wang,
1961) p. 103: ‘. . . a wall is a wall, and therefore I say.. .:
Let’s build one! . . . A wall that will protect us from the
3. See the following sources: H. de la Croix and R. G. Tansey,
Gardner’s Art through the Ages. 6th ed. (New York:
Harcourt, 1975): The Great Age of Fresco (New York:
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1968); J. Jobe, ed. The Art of
Tapestry (London: Thames & Hudson, 1965); I. Robinson,
A Wall to Paint On (New York: Dutton, 1946), in which she
reports on her work, together with Diego Rivera, on the
murals of the National Palace in Mexico City: R. Sommer,
Street Art (New York: Links, 1975); M. Constantine and J.
L. Larsen. Wall Hangings. (New York: Museum of Modern
Art, 1969); J. & S. Muller-Brockmann. Geschichte des
Plakates (Zurich: ABC Verlag, 1971): A. Massiczek, Zeit
an der Wand (Wien: Europa Verlag, 1967) presenting a
120-year history of Austria through posters and wall
notices. See in this respect also another type of ‘wall
decoration’, namely grafiti: R. Reisner. Grafiti: Two
Thousand Years of Wall Writing (Chicago: Henry Regnery
Co., 1971) and H. Kohl, Golden Boy as Anthony Cool: A
Photo Essay on Naming and Grafiti (New York: Dial Press.
4. P. Weiss, Nine Basic Arts (Carbondale: Southern Illinois
Univ. Press, 1961).
5. T. Hamlin. Architecture through the Ages, rev. ed. (New
York: Putnam’s Sons, 1953). for the historical development
of walls in architecture see B. Fletcher. A History of
Architecture (London: Athlone Press, 1961).
6. M. D. S. Ainsworth. Object Relations. Dependency and
Attachment: A Theoretical Review of the Infant-Mother
Relationship. Child Development 40,969 (1969). A lack of
ability by adults to achieve this separation is considered
symptomatic of various psychiatric disorders. For some
examples of the inner-outer confusion see F. T. Melges and
M. D. Freeman, Temporal Disorganization and InnerOuter
Confusion in Acute Mental Illness. Amer. J. PSI.-
chiatry 134, 874 (1977). See also V. Nabokov, Pnin (New
York: Avon, 1959) pp. 19-20; ‘Man exists only insofar as he
is separated from his surroundings.’
S. Chase, Power of Words (New York: Harcourt, 1954): C.
B. De Soto, N. M. Henley and M. London, Balance and the

Grouping Schema. J. Personality and Social Psychology 8,1


S. Freud, Inhibitions. Symptoms and Anxiety. In Vol. XX

of The Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1959): 0.

Rank, The Trauma of Birth (New York: Harper and Row.


According to legend, the first walled city was built by Cain,

who then forced his people to settle there; see R. Graves and

R. Patai, Hebrew Myths (London: Cassell. 1964) p. 94. The

desirability of living without walls, i.e. without the need for

protection, also appears in Ezekiel 38:ll.

E. Swedenborg, The Apocalypse Revealed (London: The

Swedenborg Society. 1970) n. 898.

A. W. Plumstead. ed., The Wall and the Garden-Selected

Massachusetts Election Sermons 1670-1 775 (Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press. 1968). A parody of the

enclosed-garden concept forms the basis for the barely

disguised erotic imagery of the medieval allegory by

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the

Rose (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. 1971). In this

allegory, written about 1275, the lover’s object is a rose

enclosed and protected by walls and hedges that he must


D. H. Oaks, ed. The Wall between Church and State

(Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1963).

Escher must be credited with a striking graphic repre-

sentation of such relativities: see The Graphic Works of M.

C. Escher (New York: Duell, 1961) and H. S. M. Coxeter.

The Non-Euclidean Symmetry of Escher’s Picture ‘Circle

Limit III’, Leonardo 12, 19 (1979) and J. C. Rush, On the

Appeal of M. C. Escher’s Pictures, Leonardo 12,48 (1979).

For a purely psychological and phenomenological expo-

sition of the same idea see one of Laing’s Knots’: ‘. . . to

have the outside inside and to be inside the outside. . . .’, in

R. D. Laing, Knots (New York: Vintage Books. 1970) p. 83.

See also Rabelais’ comment in Gargantua and Pantagruel

(New York: Modern Library. 1936. p. 144): ‘. .. where there

are mures, walls, before, and mures, walls, behind, we have

murmures, murmurs of envy and plotting.’

For example, Eve in ‘The Room’: ‘. . . she took a step

toward Pierre’s room but stopped almost immediately and

leaned against the wall in anguish; each time she left the

room, she was panic-stricken at the thought of going back.

Yet she knew she could live nowhere else: she loved the

room.’ In J. P. Sartre “‘The Wall” and other Stories’ (New

York: New Directions, 1948).

M. D. Boros, L1n Seyuestr&L’Homme Sartrien (Paris: A.
G. Nizet, 1968); G. Idt, Le Mur de Jean Paul Sartre (Paris:
Larousse, 1972).
E. L. Dulles. The Wall: A Traged~. in Three Acts (Columbia,
S. C.: Univ. of South Carolina, Inst. of International
Studies, 1972) and J. Hersey, The Wall (London: Hamish
Hamilton, 1950).
P. Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper, 1957)
p. 43.

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