Monday, November 25, 2013

Tino Villanueva on Ekphrasis

Tino Villanueva in Washington, D.C.

Can you talk a little about how ekphrasis has evolved over time, especially how contemporary poetry has expressed it? 

What are new possibilities in writing ekphrastic poetry in light of things like video art, installation art, etc? 

Last Friday at the Latino Art Now! Conference in Washington D. C., I began my talk by mentioning that ekphrasis is a Greek term which derives from the Greek verb ekphrasein, meaning “to speak out,” “to tell in full, “to describe in detail.”  At the height of classical Greek and Romans times it meant, within the field of rhetoric,  a “speech that brings the subject matter vividly before the eyes.”  And that is the way it was understood for some time until about the third century of the Common Era when Philostratus the Younger, a Greek itinerant teacher and intellectual, wrote a book titled Eikones, meaning “images,” where he suggests that ekphrasis should be limited to describing in vivid detail paintings, sculptures, and buildings such that the reader would be able to “see” them.  This is important to note because in so doing, he took ekphrasis out of the province of rhetoric and claimed it for art commentary.

In modern times, ekphrasis has been described, for example, as “an expository speech which vividly […] brings the subject before our eyes” (Princeton Dictionary of Literary Terms (1993).  Such definition borrows from Greek handbooks on rhetoric.  On the other hand, critic Leo Spitzer in 1955 defined it three ways in an article on John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:  “the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptured work of art”;  “the verbal representation of a visual representation”;  and “words about an image.”  Forty years later Professor James A. W. Heffernan used Spitzer’s second definition verbatim and wrote a book called A Museum of Words:  The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (1993).  I have likewise taken this definition, but have tweaked it a bit.  To my thinking, ekphrasis is “the verbal and literary representation of a visual representation.”  That is, if you write a poem about a painting, you are practicing ekphrasis.   I include into my working definition the literary reference to distinguish the kind of ekphrasis that journalistic prose and expository art commentary engage in.  Art criticism practices ekphrasis, but this type of writing does not fall within what most critics would consider “literature.”

So if we accept the latter definition of the term—the verbal and literary representation of a visual representation—the first time ekphrasis appears in western literature is when Homer describes the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of The Iliad.  There he describes, in a straight forward kind of way, page after page, the art work that Hephaestus, the Greek god of the forge, fashioned on Achilles’ bronze shield.  Hephaestus embossed it with different images:  the constellations (the sun, moon, the stars);  there is a wedding scene;  a man is plowing a field;  you see cattle;  you see two lions being attacked by a bull;  grape pickers are in a vineyard;  men and women are dancing on a dance floor;  and on and on.  It is an astonishing number of images that he beats and shapes into the bronze shield.  You might say that ekphrasis has ancient roots.  It is almost 3,000 years old, and thus, almost as old as writing itself.

In more modern times Miguel de Cervantes—the father of the modern novel—in  Don Quijote, Part One, Chapter IX, tells us of a battle scene in a fake history book which recounts the exploits of Don Quijote and Sancho.  This well-known episode contains a “lifelike picture” of the battle between Don Quijote and the Biscayan.  Cervantes says there is an illustration that accompanies the verbal description, and proceeds to describe the latter—an ekphrastic moment in the novel.  In both instances, however, as much Homer as Cervantes, there is a straight verbal depiction of the images on the shield and in the history book drawing.  At no point do these authors make any subjective appraisal of what they are describing.  They do not add personal comments on the images;  they do not dialogue with them nor critique them.  At no point do they tell us their experience with those images.  This comes later in the XIXth century, and what comes to mind are:   John Keats’ “Ode on Grecian Urn,” Percy Bysshe Shelly’s “Ozymandius,” and Robert Browning’s “To My Last Duchess.”

It is not until the XXth century that we get an abundant body of ekphrastic poems worth mentioning.  I  limited myself to three:  W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” where he comments on Breughel’s Landscape with The Fall of Icarus.  X. J. Kennedy’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” referring to Marcel Duchamp’s cubist painting by the same name.  And John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”  based on Giorgio Parmigianino’s painting by the same name.  In all three poems we have the authors painting with words and describing these paintings in their own subjective way.  They, the three authors, give voice to an otherwise mute object, something the trope of ekphrasis allows them to do.  They engage the art work, and transform each of the paintings, and go on to make subjective assessments of these three works;  they reply to the works of art.  Ekphrasis grants each writer a poetic license, the artistic freedom to go beyond giving a mere mirror image of the image.

As for ekphrasis addressing video art and installations, most certainly.  Ekphrasis, you will recall, is the verbal and literary representation of a visual representation.  I wrote a whole book of 21 poems titled Scene from the Movie GIANT (1993), and the same is considered an ekphrastic-type of work that centers on the next-to-the-last scene from the 1956 movie, Giant, with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Dennis Hopper.  The visual representation can be in the form of paintings, drawings, illustrations, photographs, films, postcards, statues, calendars, etchings, tourist brochures, tapestries…any work of art that represents something recognizable that exists in our surrounding three-dimensional world, including a video or an installation.  The verbal and literary representation can be any of the literary genres:  a poem, a [segment of a] short story, a drama, a [segment of a] novel.

A clarification on ekphrastically approaching an installation:  In my view, if an installation includes mannequins (representing people), let us say, or faux trees (representing real trees), stars of any material (representing real stars), etc., these would be subjects for an ekphrastic description.  But if an installation contains a lamp, a rope, shoes, a telephone, a bottle, a desk, a sink, etc., then these items are not representing anything.  They represent themselves.  Similarly, as Professor Heffernan points out in his book, the well-known long poem by Hart Crane, “The Bridge” is not an ekphrastic poem, because the bridge does not represent anything.  It is a bridge;  it does not represent anything.  It represents itself.

That said, know that there are critics that widen the definition of ekphrasis, and would include describing an installation an ekphrastic exercise.  Their definition of ekphrasis would be that it is “art about art,” a very sweeping, over-all, general umbrella term.  Under this definition one could write, for instance, a musical piece based on a painting, or paint a painting based on a musical piece.   One could make a movie out of a novel, out of an epic poem.  In my talk I tried to narrow the definition—my working definition:  Ekphrasis is the verbal and literary representation of a visual representation.

[These remarks are derived from a more extensive article, "Imagen y palabra:  categorías ekphrásticas de un poemario", Reescrituras y transgenericidades, Milagros Ezquerro, Eduardo Ramos-Izquierdo, Eds. (México / París:  RILMA 2 / ADEHL, 2010)]

                                                                                                                                                                                     November 12, 2013, Boston

Copyright © 2013 Tino Villanueva

No comments: