Definition and Examples of Juxtaposition in Art

Compare, Contrast, Illustrate

In The Rhetoric of Cool (2007), Jeff Rice observes that the "nature of new media composition represented on the Web, TV, film, iPods, digital sampling, and elsewhere is the result of the complex juxtaposition of ideas, images, texts, and sounds.". Westend61/Getty Images

In the composition of any artwork, juxtaposition is the placing of elements side by side, leaving it up to the reader to establish connections and discover or impose a meaning. These elements (words, clauses, or sentences, in written composition) may be drawn from different sources and juxtaposed to form a literary collage. Careful planning and craft by the writer in choosing what elements to juxtapose can provide layers of meaning, present irony, or paint a scene with a lot of detail and depth, putting the reader right in the middle of it all.

Example From H.L. Mencken

"Watchmen at lonely railroad crossings in Iowa, hoping that they'll be able to get off to hear the United Brethren evangelist preach...Ticket-sellers in the subway, breathing sweat in its gaseous form...Farmers plowing sterile fields behind sad meditative horses, both suffering from the bites of insects...Grocery-clerks trying to make assignations with soapy servant girls...Women confined for the ninth or tenth time, wondering helplessly what it is all about."
(H.L. Mencken, "Diligence." "A Mencken Chrestomathy," 1949)

Example From Samuel Beckett

"We live and learn, that was a true saying. Also, his teeth and jaws had been in heaven, splinters of vanquished toast spraying forth at each gnash. It was like eating glass. His mouth burned and ached with the exploit. Then the food had been further spiced up by the intelligence, transmitted in a low tragic voice across the counter by Oliver the improver, that the Malahide murderer’s petition for mercy, signed by half the land, having been rejected, the man must swing at dawn in Mountjoy and nothing could save him. Ellis the hangman was even now on his way. Belacqua, tearing at the sandwich and swilling the precious stout, pondered on McCabe in his cell."
(Samuel Beckett, "Dante and the Lobster." "Samuel Beckett: Poems, Short Fiction, and Criticism," ed. by Paul Auster. Grove Press, 2006)

Ironic Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is not just for comparison of the similar but also to contrast the dissimilar, which can be effective for emphasizing a writer's message or illustrating a concept.

"Ironic juxtaposition is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are placed side by side, each commenting on the other...Olivia Judson, a science writer, uses this technique to tweak our interest in what could be a stultifying subject, the female green spoon worm:

"The green spoon worm has one of the most extreme size differences known to exist between male and female, the male being 200,000 times smaller than his mate. Her lifespan is a couple of years. His is only a couple of months—and he spends his short life inside her reproductive tract, regurgitating sperm through his mouth to fertilize her eggs. More ignominious still, when he was first discovered, he was thought to be a nasty parasitic infestation.
(from Seed magazine)

"The author's point of view is a sly wink, the humiliation of the minuscule male sea creature serving as an emblem for his crude and increasingly miniaturized human counterpart. The juxtaposition is between worm sex and human sex." (Roy Peter Clark, "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer." Little, Brown and Company, 2006)


Of course, the technique is not limited to prose. Poetry can make fine use of it, even in the smallest of works, to present images next to each other to illustrate, portray meaning, or even surprise or puzzle the reader, such as in 17th- and 18th-century Japanese haiku:

Haiku 1
Harvest moon:
On the bamboo mat
Pine tree shadows.
Haiku 2
Wooden gate.
Lock firmly bolted:
Winter moon.

"...In each case, there is only an implicit connection between the elements on either side of the colon. Although it is possible to see a causal relation between a harvest moon and pine tree shadows, the lack of explicit connections forces the reader to make an imaginative leap. The connection between a locked wooden gate and a winter moon demands an even greater imaginative effort. In each poem, there is a basic juxtaposition between a natural image and a human one—a harvest moon and a bamboo mat, a bolted gate and a winter moon—which creates a tension between the first and second part."
(Martin Montgomery et al., "Ways of Reading: Advanced Reading Skills for Students of English Literature," 2nd ed. Routledge, 2000)

Juxtaposition in Art, Video, and Music

But juxtaposition isn't confined to literature. It can be in paintings, such as in surrealists' or other abstract artists' works: "The Surrealist united by the idea of destroying conventional meanings, and creating new meanings or counter-meanings through radical juxtaposition (the 'collage principle'). Beauty, in the words of Lautréamont, is 'the fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.'...The Surrealist sensibility aims to shock, through its techniques of radical juxtaposition." (Susan Sontag, "Happenings: An Art of Radical Juxtaposition." "Against Interpretation, and Other Essays." Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966)

It can appear in pop culture, such as in films and video: "Pressed to its limits, artistic juxtaposition becomes what is sometimes termed pastiche. The goal of this tactic, which has been employed in both high-culture and pop-culture contexts (e.g., MTV videos), is to barrage the viewer with incongruous, even clashing images that call into question any sense of objective meaning." (Stanley James Grenz, "A Primer on Postmodernism." Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996)

And juxtaposition can be a part of music as well: "Another model for such work, and related to hypertext because of its ability to interconnect a wide variety of ideas and texts, are the DJ samples that comprise a great deal of hip-hop." (Jeff R. Rice, "The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media." Southern Illinois University Press, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Juxtaposition in Art." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Juxtaposition in Art. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Juxtaposition in Art." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).