Tropes Exemplified in Works of Art 3: Simile

by Mark Staff Brandl

This week, I am continuing my short series of fine artworks exemplifying major tropes. This is the third entry.

The list of major tropes I am referring to I published on this website a while ago, “A List of the Most Important Tropes and Their Definitions;” here is the link:

As I said in parts 1 and 2, over the next several weeks, I will take each trope from the list and link it to a major work of art. This will include artworks from a large variety of time periods and in many different media, if I am successful. Generally, I will be looking for artworks that embody the trope under consideration within their formal elements, clearly showing a trope in visual use. I have discussed metaphor and metonymy. This week, Number 3:


What is the definition of simile? A stated comparison (usually formed with “like” or “as” in language) between two fundamentally dissimilar things that have certain qualities in common. Like a metaphor that points out its own activity. “My love is like a red, red rose.”

My choice for an artwork displaying sophisticated use of simile is a famous series of works by Julian Schnabel. I have already discussed these works, and criticized Schnabel, in publications concentrating on his use of metaphor. Here I would like to look at them in the light of simile.

The paintings of a Julian Schnabel often call out for the viewer to use metaphoric interpretation to explain its plethora of plates, antlers, appropriated Renaissance figures and the like. The works, however, never actually yield to a metaphoric reading, for they only mimic the density and texture of earlier art, I would assert. However, they also point out the fact that the use of tropes in the visual arts — in contrast to the use in language — can be more elusive, mixed and even fall between definitions. In Schnabel, what is intended as metaphor, is better seen as simile.

Schnabel’s more recent (and ever less painted and yet larger) images imitate metaphoric aboutness. The tendency for such ostentatious analogy has become his rule, making it almost dead metaphor. When his approach worked best was in the collage paintings that made him famous — the “Broken Plate” works as they are often termed. And these revolved around simile.

The plate chips are similar to, are like, large gestural brushstrokes, and simultaneously like mosaic. Both readings cry for appraisal as “epic” if seen as metaphors, yet are uniquely, pleasingly inventive if seen as a poor-man’s (which he is no longer!) substitute for piles of paint or professional mosaic tiles. The broken crockery in The Sea (Link: ) from 1981 substitutes similaically for thick impasto, which in itself is a traditional similaic substitution in ocean painting for the froth on the crests of waves. The figures in his works are so similar to those in great art as to be borrowed from the same. The young boy centered in Stella and the Wooden Bird of 1986 seems to be derived from an Italian or Italianate painting of the past, although (post-) modernized through purposefully clumsy paint handling. The figure’s meaning lies in its evocation of similarity. The plates break Schnabel’s paint-handling up through a natural process due to the jagged and damaged edges. This gives a visually and tactilely justified motivation for his neo-expressionism. It seemed both grandiose and yet self-ironic at once. The grandiosity, however, has won out over the years as the artist switched to painting on tarps, velvet and finally huge, expensively, digitally printed photographs. Nevertheless, for a few short years, he created some of the most fascinating paintings of our time in which simile is the overriding trope.

Next time: Synecdoche.