Ekphrasis  

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This page Ekphrasis is part of the medium specificity series.  Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
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This page Ekphrasis is part of the medium specificity series.
Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560s); formerly attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  An example of depiction, reverse ekphrasis, if you will
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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1560s); formerly attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
An example of depiction, reverse ekphrasis, if you will
"The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary ; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea." The Mona Lisa described by Walter Pater
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"The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary ; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea." The Mona Lisa described by Walter Pater

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis is the verbal, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.

Contents

What is ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness. A descriptive work of prose or poetry, a film, or even a photograph may thus highlight through its rhetorical vividness what is happening, or what is shown in, say, any of the visual arts, and in doing so, may enhance the original art and so take on a life of its own through its brilliant description. One example is a painting of a sculpture: the painting is "telling the story of" the sculpture, and so becoming a storyteller, as well as a story (work of art) itself. Virtually any type of artistic media may be the actor of, or subject of ekphrasis. One may not always be able, for example, to make an accurate sculpture of a book to retell the story in an authentic way; yet if it's the spirit of the book that we are more concerned about, it certainly can be conveyed by virtually any medium – which in itself is challenging and interesting – and thereby enhance the artistic impact of the original book through synergy.

What are the arts represented by ekphrasis?

In this way, a painting may re-present a sculpture, and vice versa; a poem portray a picture; a sculpture depict a heroine of a novel; in fact, given the right circumstances, any art may describe any other art, especially if a rhetorical element, standing for the sentiments of the artist when he created his work, is present. For instance, the distorted faces in a crowd in a painting depicting an original work of art, a sullen countenance on the face of a sculpture representing a historical figure, or a film showing particularly dark aspects of neo-Gothic architecture, are all examples of ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis may be encountered as early as the days of Aelius Festus Aphthonius' Progymnasmata, his textbook of style, in Vergil's Aeneid when he describes what Aeneas sees engraved on the doors of Carthage's temple of Juno, or Homer's going to great lengths in the Iliad, Book 18, describing the Shield of Achilles, exactly how Hephaestus made it as well as its completed shape.

Ekphrasis flourished in the Romantic era and again among the pre-Raphaelite poets, but is still commonly practiced.

Notional ekphrasis

Notional ekphrasis may describe mental processes such as dreams, thoughts and whimsies of the imagination. It may also be one art describing or depicting another work of art which as yet is still in an inchoate state of creation, in that the work described may still be resting in the imagination of the artist before he has begun his creative work. The expression may also be applied to an art describing the origin of another art, how it came to be made and the circumstances of its being created. Finally it may describe an entirely imaginary and non-existing work of art, as though it were factual and existed in reality.

History of ekphrasis

Plato's Forms (the "bedness" analogy), the beginning of ekphrasis

Plato discusses forms in the Republic, Book X, by using real things, such as a bed, for example, and calls each way a bed has been made, a "bedness". He commences with the original form of a bed, one of a variety of ways a bed may have been constructed by a craftsman and compares that form with an ideal form of a bed, of a perfect archetype or image in the form of which beds ought to be made, in short the epitome of bedness.

In his analogy one bedness form shares its own bedness - with all its shortcomings - with that of the ideal form, or template. A third bedness, too, may share the ideal form. He continues with the fourth form also containing elements of the ideal template/archetype which in this way remains an ever-present and invisible ideal version with which the craftsman compares his work. As bedness after bedness shares the ideal form and template of all creation of beds, and each bedness is associated with another ad infinitum, it is called an "infinite regress of forms".

From form to ekphrasis

It was this epitome, this template of the ideal form, that a craftsman or later an artist would try to reconstruct in his attempt to achieve perfection in his work, that was to manifest itself in ekphrasis at a later stage.
Artists began to use their own literary and artistic genre of art to work and reflect on another art to illuminate what the eye might not see in the original, to elevate it and possibly even surpass it.

Socrates and Aristotle

In Socrates (and Aristotle), it is not so much the form of each bed but the mimetic stages or removes at which beds may be viewed, that defines bedness [1]:

  1. a bed as a physical entity is a mere form of bed
  2. any view from whichever perspective, be it a side elevation, a full plan from above, or looking at a bed end-on is at a second remove
  3. a full picture, characterising the whole bed is at a third remove
  4. ekphrasis of a bed in another art form is at a fourth remove

Plato and Phaedrus

In another instance Plato talks about ekphrasis to Phaedrus thus:
"You know Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.
The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive,
but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.
It is the same with written words; they seem to talk
to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything
about what they say, from a desire to be instructed,
they go on telling you just the same thing forever".

Ekphrasis in literature

Ekphrasis may be encountered as early as the days of Aphthonius' Progymnasmata, his textbook of style, in Virgil's Aeneid when he describes what Aeneas sees engraved on the doors of Carthage's temple of Juno, or Homer's going to great lengths in the Iliad, Book 18, describing the Shield of Achilles, exactly how Hephaestus made it as well as its completed shape. The fullest example of ekphrasis in antiquity can be found in Philostratus of Lemnos' Eikones which describes 64 pictures in a Neapolitan villa.

The Renaissance and Baroque periods made much use of ekphrasis. In Renaissance Italy, Canto 33 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso describes a picture gallery created by Merlin. In Spain, Lope de Vega often used allusions and descriptions of Italian art in his plays, and included the painter Titian as one of his characters. Calderón de la Barca also incorporated works of art in dramas such as The Painter of his Dishonor. Cervantes, who spent his youth in Italy, utilized many Renaissance frescoes and paintings in Don Quixote and many of his other works. In England, Shakespeare briefly describes a group of erotic paintings in Cymbeline, but his most extended exercise is a 200-line description of the Greek army before Troy in The Rape of Lucrece. Ekphrasis seems to have been less common in France during these periods.

Ekphrasis flourished in the Romantic era and again among the pre-Raphaelite poets, but is still commonly practiced. A major poem of the English romantics -- Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats -- also furnishes us with a beautiful example of the artistic potential of ekphrasis. Another lovely example concerns the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, thought until recently to be by Pieter Brueghel the Elder which is described in the poems "Musée des Beaux Arts" by WH Auden and William Carlos Williams's poem "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus".

Instances of ekphrasis in 19th century literature can be found in the works of such influential figures as Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, French poet, painter and novelist Théophile Gautier, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But perhaps the most distinctive use of the device can be found in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Herman Mellville's Moby Dick, or The Whale features an intense use of ekphrasis as a stylistic manifesto of the book in which it appears. In the chapter "The Spouter Inn", a painting hanging on the wall of a whaler's inn is described as irreconcilably unclear, overscrawled with smoke and defacements. The narrator, so-called Ishmael, describes how this painting can be both lacking any definition and still provoking in the viewer dozens of distinct possible understandings, until the great mass of interpretations resolves into a Whale, which grounds all the interpretations while containing them, an indication of how Melville sees his own book unfolding around this chapter.

In Pérez Galdós's Our Friend Manso (1882), the narrator describes two paintings by Theodore Gericault to point to the shipwreck of ideals; while in La incógnita (1889), there are many allusions and descriptions of Italian art, including references to Botticelli, Mantegna, Masaccio, Raphael, Titian, etc.

In Ibsen's 1888 work The Lady from the Sea, the first act begins with the description of a painting of a mermaid dying on the shore and is followed by a description of a sculpture that depicts a woman having a nightmare of an ex-lover returning to her. Both works of art can be interpreted as having much importance in the overall meaning of the play as protagonist Ellida Wangel both yearns for her lost youth spent on an island out at sea and is later in the play visited by a lover she thought dead. Furthermore as an interesting example of the back-and-forth dynamic that exists between literary ekphrasis and art, in 1896 (eight years after the play was written) Norwegian painter Edvard Munch painted an image similar to the one described by Ibsen in a painting he entitled (unsurprisingly enough) Lady from the Sea. Ibsen's last work When We Dead Awaken also contains examples of ekphrasis as the play's protagonist, Arnold Rubek, is a sculptor who several times throughout the play describes his masterpiece "Resurrection Day" at length and in the many different forms the sculpture took throughout the stages of its creation. Once again the evolution of the sculpture as described in the play can be read as a reflection on the transformation undergone by Rubek himself and even as a statement on the progression Ibsen's own plays took as many scholars have read this final play (stated by Ibsen himself to be an 'epilogue') as the playwright's reflection on his own work as an artist.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky employed ekphrasis most notably in his novel The Idiot. In this novel the protagonist Prince Myshkin sees a painting of a dead Christ in the house of Rogozhin that has a profound effect on him. Later in the novel another character, Hippolite, describes the painting at much length depicting the image of Christ as one of brutal realism that lacks any beauty or sense of the divine. Rogozhin, who is himself the owner of the painting, at one moment says that the painting has the power to take away a man's faith, a comment that Dosotevsky himself made to his wife Anna upon seeing the actual painting that the painting in the novel is based on, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein. The painting was seen shortly before Dostoevsky began the novel. Though this is the major instance of ekphrasis in the novel, and the one which has the most thematic importance to the story as a whole, other instances can be spotted when Prince Myshkin sees a painting of Swiss landscape that reminds him of a view he saw while at a sanatorium in Switzerland, and also when he first sees the face of his love interest, Nastasya, in the form of a painted portrait. Nastasya too at one point in the novel describes a painting of Christ, her own imaginary work that portrays Christ with a child, an image which naturally evokes comparison between the image of the dead Christ.

English aesthete and novelist Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (189/1891) tells how Basil Hallward paints a picture of the young man named Dorian Gray. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, who espouses a new hedonism, dedicated to the pursuit of beauty and all pleasures of the senses. Under his sway, Dorian bemoans the fact that his youth will soon fade. He would sell his soul so as to have the portrait age rather than himself. The gradual deterioration of the portrait as Dorian engages in a debauched life, becomes a mirror of his soul. The repeated notional ekphrasis of the deteriorating figure in the painting is a unique way to utilize this device.

Literature

  • Frederick Alfred de Armas: Ekphrasis in the age of Cervantes. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005. ISBN 0838756247
  • Andrew Sprague Becker: The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. ISBN 0847679985
  • Emilie Bergman: Art Inscribed: Essays on Ekphrasis in Spanish Golden Age Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979. ISBN 0674048059
  • Gottfried Boehm and Helmut Pfotenhauer: Beschreibungskunst, Kunstbeschreibung: Ekphrasis von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. München: W. Fink, 1995. ISBN 3770529669
  • Siglind Bruhn: Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2000. ISBN 1-57642-036-9
  • Siglind Bruhn: Musical Ekphrasis in Rilke’s Marienleben. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. ISBN 90-420-0800-8
  • Siglind Bruhn: "A Concert of Paintings: ‘Musical Ekphrasis’ in the Twentieth Century," in Poetics Today 22:3 (Herbst 2001): 551-605. ISSN 0333-5372
  • Siglind Bruhn: Das tönende Museum: Musik interpretiert Werke bildender Kunst. Waldkirch: Gorz, 2004. ISBN 3-938095-00-8
  • Siglind Bruhn: "Vers une méthodologie de l’ekphrasis musical," in Sens et signification en musique, ed. by Márta Grabócz and Danièle Piston. Paris: Hermann, 2007, 155-176. ISBN 978-2705666828
  • Hermann Diels: Über die von Prokop beschriebene Kunstuhr von Gaza, mit einem Anhang enthaltend Text und Übersetzung der Ekphrasis horologiou de Prokopius von Gaza. Berlin, G. Reimer, 1917.
  • Barbara K Fischer: Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 978-0-415975346
  • Claude Gandelman: Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-253-32532-3
  • Jean H. Hagstrum: The Sister Arts: The Tradtition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  • James Heffernan: Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. ISBN 0-226-32313-7
  • John Hollander: The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN 0-226-34949-7
  • Gayana Jurkevich: In pursuit of the natural sign: Azorín and the poetics of Ekphrasis. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0838754139
  • Mario Klarer: Ekphrasis: Bildbeschreibung als Repräsentationstheorie bei Spenser, Sidney, Lyly und Shakespeare. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001. ISBN 3-484-42135-5
  • Gisbert Kranz: Das Bildgedicht: Theorie, Lexikon, Bibliographie, 3 Bände. Köln: Böhlau, 1981-87. ISBN 3-412-04581-0
  • Gisbert Kranz: Meisterwerke in Bildgedichten: Rezeption von Kunst in der Poesie. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1986. ISBN 3-8204-9091-4
  • Gisbert Kranz: Das Architekturgedicht. Köln: Böhlau, 1988. ISBN 3-412-06387-8
  • Gisbert Kranz: Das Bildgedicht in Europa: Zur Theorie und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1973. ISBN 3-506-74813-0
  • Norman Land: "The Viewer as Poet: The Renaissance Response to Art. College Part Pennsylvania State UP, 1994 ISBN 0-0271010045-10
  • Murray Krieger: Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8018-4266-2
  • Hans Lund: Text as Picture: Studies in the Literary Transformation of Pictures. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1992 (originally published in Swedish as Texten som tavla, Lund 1982). ISBN 0-7734-9449-9
  • Michaela J. Marek: Ekphrasis und Herrscherallegorie: Antike Bildbeschreibungen im Werk Tizians und Leonardos. Worms: Werner’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1985. ISBN 3-88462-025-5
  • Hugo Méndez-Ramírez: Neruda’s Ekphrastic Experience: Mural Art and Canto general. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0838753981
  • W.J. Thomas Mitchell: Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. ISBN 0-226-53231-3
  • Margaret Helen Persin: Getting the Picture: The Ekphrastic Principle in Twentieth-century Spanish Poetry. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1997. ISBN 0838753353
  • Michael C J Putnam: Virgil's Epic Designs: Ekphrasis in the Aeneid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-300-07353-4
  • Christine Ratkowitsch: Die poetische Ekphrasis von Kunstwerken: eine literarische Tradition der Grossdichtung in Antike, Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2006. ISBN 9783700134800
  • Valerie Robillard and Els Jongeneel (eds.): Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Desciptive Approaches to Ekphrasis. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998. ISBN 90-5383-595-4
  • Maria Rubins: Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures: Ekphrasis in Russian and French Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000. ISBN 0312229518
  • Grant Scott: The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994. ISBN 0-87451-679-X
  • Mack Smith: Literary Realism and the Ekphrastic Tradition. University Park: Pennsylvania State U Press, 1995. ISBN 0-271-01329-X
  • Leo Spitzer: “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, or Content vs. Metagrammar,” in Comparative Literature 7. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Press, 1955, 203-225.
  • Peter Wagner: Icons, Texts, Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality. Berlin, New York: W. de Gruyter, 1996. ISBN 3110142910
  • Haiko Wandhoff: Ekphrasis: Kunstbeschreibungen und virtuelle Räume in der Literatur des Mittelalters. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2003. ISBN 9783110179385
  • Robert Wynne: Imaginary Ekphrasis. Columbus, OH: Pudding House Publications, 2005. ISBN 1589983351
  • Tamar Yacobi, "The Ekphrastic Figure of Speech," in Martin Heusser et al. (eds.), Text and Visuality. Word and Image Interactions 3, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999, ISBN 9042007265.
  • Tamar Yacobi, "Verbal Frames and Ekphrastic Figuration," in Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, Hans Lund and Erik Hedling (eds.), Interart Poetics. Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997, ISBN 9042002026.

Bibliography

Pliny, Historia Naturalis XXXV.36,35; Philostratus (mostly 3rd. c.), Imagines (also known as Eikones) e.g., 1.15 (among many others) describes Dionysian imagery; Pausanias (2nd c.), Description of Greece also describes many ekphrasis contexts. Additionally, Callistratus (3-4th c) wrote Ekphraseis (descriptions) of 14 statues (also known as Statuarum Descriptiones).[2]

Examples

See also




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