Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise, often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic, is a graphic, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. In ancient times, it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and φράσις phrásis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, and the verb ἐκφράζειν ekphrázein, "to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name".
- 1 Definition
- 2 History
- 3 Ekphrasis genre
- 4 Ekphrasis in ancient literature
- 5 Other aspects
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
According to the Poetry Foundation, "an ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art." More generally, an ekphrastic poem is a poem inspired or stimulated by a work of art.
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.
Plato's forms, the beginning of ekphrasis
In the Republic, Book X, Plato discusses forms 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 or 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 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 picked out on it.
Ekphrastic poetry flourished in the Romantic era and again among the pre-Raphaelite poets, but is still commonly practised. A major poem of the English Romantics – Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats— provides an example of the artistic potential of ekphrasis. The entire poem is a description of a piece of pottery that the narrator finds immensely evocative. Later, distinctive uses of the device can be found in Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaïscher Torso Apollos".
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 literature
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.
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.
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 Dostoyevsky 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 Dostoyevsky 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. At one point in the novel, Nastasya, too, 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. As Dorian engages in a debauched life, the gradual deterioration of the portrait 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.
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, 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.
Ekphrasis in ancient literature
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The shield of Achilles is a famous portrayal of ekphrastic poetry and shows how the poet Homer portrays the multiple events that have occurred in the past and events that will occur in the future. It depicts events such as the Cosmos and the inevitable fate of the city of Troy. The shield of Achilles has nine events depicted on it.
- The Earth, Sea, Sky, Moon and the Cosmos (484–89).
- Two cities are depicted. One where a wedding and a trial are taking place and the other is considered to be Troy due to the battle that is occurring inside the city (509–40).
- A field that is being ploughed (541–49).
- The home of a King where the harvest is being reaped (550–60).
- A vineyard that is being harvested (561–72).
- A herd of cattle is being attacked by two lions and the Herdsman and his dogs are trying to scare the lions off of the prize bull (573–86).
- A sheep farm (587–89).
- A scene with young men and women dancing (590–606).
- The mighty Ocean as it encircles the shield (607–609).
Although it is not written exactly in the descriptive style of ekphrastic poetry from lines 609–614, the belt of Herakles is described as having "marvelous works" such as animals with piercing eyes and hogs in a grove of trees. It also contained multiple battles and occurrences of manslaughter. There is also a scene where Odysseus disguised as a beggar must prove to Penelope his wife that he has proof that Odysseus is still alive. She asks him about the clothes that Odysseus was wearing when the beggar claims he hosted Odysseus. Homer uses this opportunity to use more ekphrastic poetry by describing the brooch of Odysseus. It is a golden brooch that has a hound strangling a fawn that it captured. While not as elaborate as the earlier examples of ekphrasis it still clearly describes the scene that is on the brooch.
The Cloak of Jason is another example of ekphrastic poetry in the sense that it is modeled off of Homer's examples listed above. In The Argonautika, Jason's cloak is referenced to have seven events embroidered into it.
1. The forging of Zeus' thunderbolts by the Cyclops (730-734)
2. The building of Thebes by the sons of Antiope (735–741)
3. Aphrodite with the shield of Ares (742–745)
4. The battle between Teleboans and the Sons of Electryon (746–751)
5. Pelops winning Hippodameia (752–758)
6. Apollo punishing Tityos (759–762)
7. Phrixus and the Ram (763–765)
This description of the cloak provides many examples of ekphrasis and not only is modeled off of Homer in general but alludes to several occurrences in Homer's epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Jason's cloak can be used and examined in multiple ways. The way of describing the cloaks events are similar to the catalogue of Women that Odysseus encounters on his trip to the Underworld.
The cloak and its events continue to provide for the story than a simple description but in true ekphrasis fashion it not only compares Jason to future heroes such as Achilles and Odysseus, but it also allows for a type of foreshadowing to occur. Jason by donning the cloak can be seen as a figure who would rather resort to coercion than overall force can be seen as a parallel to Odysseus and his multiple schemes and lies he implements to continue his voyage back to Ithaca.
While this comparison is easily made to Odysseus there is also similarities to Achilles and by donning the cloak Jason is represented as an Achillean heroic figure by the comparisons his cloak makes to the shield of Achilles. He is also seen taking up a spear given to him by Atalanta not as an afterthought but due to his heroic nature and the comparison between himself and Achilles.
While Jason only wears the cloak while going to meet with Hypsipyle, it foreshadows the changes that Jason will potentially undergo during his adventure. Through the telling of the scenes on the cloak the reader is able to understand that Apollonios is relating the scenes on the cloak as virtues and morals that should be upheld by the Roman people as well as what Jason should learn. Such as the piety represented by the Cyclops during the forging of Zeus' thunderbolts. This scene itself is also reminiscent of the scene in the Iliad when Thetis goes to see Hephaestus and requisitions him to create a new set of armor for her son Achilles. Before he creates the shield and armor Hephaestus is creating 20 golden tripods for his own hall, and in the scene on Jason's cloak we see the Cyclops performing the last step of creating the thunderbolts for Zeus.
The Aeneid is an epic that was written by Virgil during the reign of Augustus the first Emperor of Rome. While the epic itself mimics Homers works it also has many differences as one of its purposes for being written can be seen as propaganda for Augustus and the new Roman empire. There is a scene in book eight from lines 629–719 that depicts the events on Aeneas shield. This shield was given to him by his mother Venus after she asked her husband Vulcan to create it, this scene is almost identical to Thetis the mother of Achilles asking asking Hephaestus to create her son new weapons and armor for the battle of Troy.
The difference in the two shields description are very easily discernible, the shield of Achilles ranges upon many subjects in its descriptions whereas the shield made for Aeneas depicts the future that Rome will have and heavily contains propaganda in favor of the Emperor Augustus. Much like other ekphrastic poetry it has a clear catalogue of events that are depicted.
1. The She Wolf and suckling Romulus and Remus (629–634).
2. The Rape of the Sabine Women (635–639).
3. Mettius pulled apart by horses (640–645).
4. Invasion of Lars Parsona (646–651).
5. Manlius guarding the capitol (652–654).
6. Gauls invading Rome (655–665).
7. Tartarus with Cato and Catiline (666–670).
8. The Sea around the width of the shield (671–674).
9. The Battle of Actium (675–677).
10. Augustus and Agrippa (678–684).
11. Antony and Cleopatra (685–695).
12. Triumph (696–719).
There is speculation as to why Virgil selected certain events to be portrayed while completely avoiding other events such as Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Virgil clearly outlined the shield chronologically but scholars argue that the events on the shield are meant to reflect certain Roman values that would have been of high importance to the Roman people and to the Emperor. Some of these values that Virgil is trying to portray in his poetry could be virtus, clementia, iustitia, and pietas, which were the values inscribed on a shield given to Augustus by the Senate. This instance of ekphrasitc poetry could be Virgil trying to relate more of his work to Augustus.
Earlier in the epic, when Aeneas travels to Carthage, he sees the temple of the city and on it are great works of art that are described by the poet using the ekphrastic style. Like the other occurrences of ekphrasis, these have multiple events that are described together to fully detail the magnificent work of art. There are eight events that are described during the over all event that is the Trojan War.
1. Agamemnon and Menelaus, Priam and Achilles are depicted (459).
2. Greeks run from Trojan soldiers (468).
3. The sacking of the tents of Rhesus and the Thracians and their deaths by Diomedes (468–472).
4. Troilus being thrown from his Chariot as he flees from Achilles (473–478).
5. The women of Troy in lamentation praying to the Gods to help them (479–482).
6. Achilles selling Hektor's body (483–487).
7. Priam begging for the return of his son with the Trojan commanders nearby (483–488).
8. Penthesilea the Amazon and her fighters (489–493).
There are several examples of ekphrasis in the Metamorphoses; one is when Phaeton journeys to the temple of the sun to meet his father Phoebus. When Phaeton gazes upon the temple of the sun, he sees carvings upon the temple.
- The seas that circle the Earth, the surrounding lands, and the sky (8–9).
- The gods of the sea are depicted with the Nymphs (10–19).
- On land are scenes of men, beasts, and local gods (20–21).
- Twelve figures of the Zodiac, six on each side of the door to the temple (22–23).
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 student's 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. [source?]
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- 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 978-3-7001-3480-0
- Valerie Robillard and Els Jongeneel (eds.): Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive 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 0-312-22951-8
- Grant F. Scott: The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994. ISBN 0-87451-679-X
- Grant F. Scott: "Ekphrasis and the Picture Gallery", in Advances in Visual Semiotics. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok. New York and Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1995. 403–421.
- Grant F. Scott: "Copied with a Difference: Ekphrasis in William Carlos Williams' Pictures from Brueghel". Word & Image 15 (January–March 1999): 63–75.
- 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.
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- Haiko Wandhoff: Ekphrasis: Kunstbeschreibungen und virtuelle Räume in der Literatur des Mittelalters. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2003. ISBN 978-3-11-017938-5
- Robert Wynne: Imaginary Ekphrasis. Columbus, OH: Pudding House Publications, 2005. ISBN 1-58998-335-1
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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