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Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek description of a work of art, possibly imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise, and is a graphic, 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.
- 1 Definition
- 2 History of ekphrasis
- 3 Ekphrasis genre
- 4 Other aspects
- 5 References
- 6 External links
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 medium 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 and thereby enhance the artistic impact of the original book through synergy.
In this way, a painting may represent 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 she/he created her/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.
History of ekphrasis
Plato's Forms, 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.
Plato and Aristotle
- a bed as a physical entity is a mere form of bed
- any view from whichever perspective, be it a side elevation, a full panoramic view from above, or looking at a bed end-on is at a second remove
- a full picture, characterising the whole bed is at a third remove
- ekphrasis of a bed in another art form is at a fourth remove
Socrates and Phaedrus
In another instance, Socrates 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 Homer whose Iliad (Book 18) describes the Shield of Achilles, with how Hephaestus made it as well as its completed shape. Famous later examples include Virgil's Aeneid when he describes what Aeneas sees engraved on the doors of Carthage's temple of Juno, and Catullus 64, which contains an extended ekphrasis of an imaginary coverlet with the story of Ariadne. The fullest example of ekphrasis in antiquity can be found in Philostratus of Lemnos' Eikones which describes 64 pictures in a Neapolitan villa. Ekphrasis is described in Aphthonius' Progymnasmata, his textbook of style, and later classical literary and rhetorical textbooks, and with other classical literary techniques was keenly revived in the Renaissance.
In the Middle Ages, exphrasis was less often practiced, especially as regards real objects, and historians of medieval art have complained that the accounts of monastic chronicles recording now vanished art concentrate on objects made from valuable materials or with the status of relics, and rarely give more than the cost and weight of objects, and perhaps a mention of the subject matter of the iconography.
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. The entire poem details a piece of pottery that the narrator finds immensely interesting.
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. Distinctive uses of the device can be found in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaïscher Torso Apollos".
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 Théodore Géricault 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.
The 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.
The Irish aesthete and novelist Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/1891) 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. Anthony Powell's novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time begins with an evocation of the painting by Poussin which gives the sequence its name, and contains other passages of ekphrasis, perhaps influenced by the many passages in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.
The Shield of Achilles (1952), a poem by W.H. Auden, brings the tradition back to its start with an ironic retelling of the episode in Homer (see above), where Thetis finds very different scenes from those she expects. In contrast, his earlier poem Musée des Beaux Arts describes a particular real and very famous painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, thought until recently to be by rather than after Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which is also described in the poem by William Carlos Williams Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
Ekphrasis in, or as, art history
Since the types of objects described in classical ekphrases often lack survivors to modern times, art historians have often been tempted to use descriptions in literature as sources for the appearance of actual Greek or Roman art, which is an approach full of risk. This is because ekphrasis typically contains an element of competition with the art it describes, aiming to demonstrate the superior ability of words to "paint a picture". Many subjects of ekphrasis are clearly imaginary, for example those of the epics, but with others it remains uncertain the extent to which they were, or were expected to be by early audiences, at all accurate.
This tendency is by no means restricted to classical art history; the evocative but vague mentions of objects in metalwork in Beowulf are eventually always mentioned by writers on Anglo-Saxon art, and compared to the treasures of Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The ekphrasic writings of the lawyer turned bishop Asterius of Amasea (fl. around 400) are often cited by art historians of the period to fill gaps in the surviving artistic record. The inadequacy of most medieval accounts of art is mentioned above; they generally lack any specific details other than cost and the owner or donor, and hyperbolic but wholly vague praise.
Journalistic art criticism was effectively invented by Denis Diderot in his long pieces on the works in the Paris Salon, and extended and highly pointed accounts of the major exhibitions of new art became a popular seasonal feature in the journalism of most Western countries. Since few if any of the works could be illustrated description and evocation was necessary, and the cruelty of descriptions of works disliked became a part of the style.
As art history began to become an academic subject in the 19th century, exphrasis as formal analysis of objects was regarded as a vital component of the subject, and by no means all examples lack attractiveness as literature. Writers on art for a wider audience produced many descriptions with great literary as well as art historical merit; in English John Ruskin, both the most important journalistic critic and popularizer of historic art of his day, and Walter Pater, above all for his famous evocation of the Mona Lisa, are among the most notable. As photography in books or on television allowed audiences a direct visual comparison to the verbal description, the role of ekphrasic commentary on the images was even perhaps increased.
Ekphrasis has also been an influence on art; for example the ekphrasis of the Shield of Achilles in Homer and other classical examples were certainly an inspiration for the elaborately decorated large serving dishes in silver or silver-gilt, crowded with complicated scenes in relief, that were produced in 16th century Mannerist metalwork.
Ekphrasis in music
There are a number of examples of ekphrasis in music, of which the best known is probably Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite in ten movements (plus a recurring, varied Promenade) composed for piano by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874, and then very popular in various arrangements for orchestra. The suite is based on real pictures, although as the exhibition was dispersed, most are now unidentified.
The first movement of Three Places in New England by Charles Ives is an ekphrasis of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston, sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Ives also wrote a poem inspired by the sculpture as a companion piece to the music. Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem Isle of the Dead is a musical evocation of Böcklin's painting of the same name. King Crimson's song "The Night Watch," with lyrics written by Richard Palmer-James, is an ekphrasis on Rembrandt's painting The Night Watch.
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.
Educational value of using ekphrasis in teaching literature
The rationale behind using examples of ekphrasis to teach literature is that once the connection between a poem and a painting are recognized for example, the students’ emotional and intellectual engagement with the literary text is extended to new dimensions. The literary text takes on new meaning and there is more to respond to because another art form is being evaluated. In addition, as the material taught has both a visual and linguistic basis new connections of understanding are formed in the student's brain thus creating a stronger foundation for understanding, remembrance and internalization. Using ekphrasis to teach literature can be done through the use of higher order thinking skills such as distinguishing different perspectives, interpreting, inferring, sequencing, compare and contrast and evaluating.
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- Discussion of Form
- Essay on musical ekphrasis
- Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College Ekphrastic Poetry Web Page
- Hephaestus Starts Achilles' Shield
- Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaïscher Torso Apollos" with English translation
- Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ashbery
- Ekphrastic poem by Jared Carter on the Lorado Taft sculpture, "The Solitude of the Soul."
- Man Lying on a Wall
- Examples of Ekphrasis verse