In his 1594 narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare uses ekphrasis to explore a shift in the early modern understanding of history. Of the many changes he made to the Lucrece story, he added a 200-line ekphrasis of a picture depicting the fall of Troy. While appearing at first glance to celebrate the idea of an illusionistic experience that makes the past seem fully alive, Shakespeare’s ekphrasis draws our attention to the fragmented things that supposedly evoke this fantasy – the ‘thousand lamentable objects’. In so doing, Shakespeare explores a new notion of history that is built from material fragments. These fragments are silent, but in a manner that is paradoxically expressive. In Shakespeare’s ekphrasis, Lucrece relates to the image of Hecuba not despite its brokenness and objectness, but rather because of them. The poem in this way constructs an early modern encounter where broken subject meets broken object.
Ekphrasis and historical materiality in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece
Raymond Pettibon’s drawing-writing
This chapter focuses on ekphrastic writing in the work of the American artist Raymond Pettibon – mostly pen-and-ink drawings with varying amounts of written texts – in order to explore and question the implicit opposition between the verbal and the visual that underlies many critical definitions of ekphrasis. It demonstrates how Pettibon introduces textual fragmentation and nonlinearity through his complex responses to and paraphrasing of ekphrastic authors, which opens up writing to the contingencies usually associated with drawing. Similarly, Pettibon’s texts are surveyed for typographic, orthographic, and chirographic characteristics, which emphasize writing’s status as simultaneously visual and verbal. The artist’s texts thus appear as though they have been written twice – graphically and verbally – marking them both inside and outside language. This transgressive power of the graphic in writing is traced via Jacques Derrida’s notion of the trait, that stroke or feature crucially linked to the gaze, which marks the space between the visible and invisible. The chapter proposes that this quality makes Pettibon’s work reducible to neither the discourse of language nor that of the image.
This chapter considers literary responses to one of the most famous Renaissance images of all: the supposed portrait of Beatrice Cenci (long misattributed to Guido Reni), a major nineteenth-century tourist attraction in Rome. Hawthorne was the writer most obsessively drawn to the portrait, in which he sought to read an original innocence and an innocence regained or redeemed after terrible experience. Beatrice’s portrait therefore presents Hawthorne firstly with what he took to be a type of feminine knowledge; this he aligned with the image as opaque, mysterious, functioning at a level that evades analysis. Hawthorne then proceeds to connect this to the theology of the fortunate fall; that is, to a Christian concept not easily given verbal formulation or summary, one in fact representing a fundamental mystery in time. For Hawthorne, the light of Beatrice Cenci’s face signified the paradox of her having undergone an essential change to her being, though one in which she remained fundamentally the same. The focus of this chapter is Hawthorne’s struggle in The Marble Faun to make sense of this idea – to define just what it is Beatrice Cenci knows; and how she has come to know it.
Ekphrastic encounters in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy
This chapter examines the figure of ekphrasis in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and focuses on the so-called ‘Painter scene’ that appears in the 1602 quarto. This is the most obviously ekphrastic moment in the play, in which its protagonist, Hieronimo, encounters a Painter and commissions a visual artwork based on his plight. Critics of the play have tended to rely upon the traditional conception of ekphrasis as paragone, and argue that the representational contest implicit in this scene ultimately demonstrates the superiority of drama. By contrast, this chapter seeks to question the paragonal model of ekphrasis, and argues that The Spanish Tragedy highlights drama’s interdependence with, rather than superiority to, other forms of representation. The chapter also suggests that the play’s interest in ekphrasis opens up larger questions about borrowing, imitation, and collaboration. The Spanish Tragedy highlights the illusionistic aspects of theatrical representation, and its reliance upon a cunning juxtaposition of various forms of ‘counterfeit’ art.
New interdisciplinary essays on literature and the visual arts
Edited by: David Kennedy and Richard Meek
This book offers a comprehensive reassessment of ekphrasis: the verbal representation of visual art. In the past twenty-five years numerous books and articles have appeared covering different aspects of ekphrasis, with scholars arguing that it is a fundamental means by which literary artists have explored the nature of aesthetic experience. However, many critics continue to rely upon the traditional conception of ekphrasis as a form of paragone (competition) between word and image. This interdisciplinary collection seeks to complicate this critical paradigm, and proposes a more reciprocal model of ekphrasis that involves an encounter or exchange between visual and textual cultures. This critical and theoretical shift demands a new form of ekphrastic poetics, which is less concerned with representational and institutional struggles, and more concerned with ideas of ethics, affect, and intersubjectivity. The book brings together leading scholars working in the fields of literary studies, art history, modern languages, and comparative literature, and offers a fresh exploration of ekphrastic texts from the Renaissance to the present day. The chapters in the book are critically and methodologically wide-ranging; yet they share an interest in challenging the paragonal model of ekphrasis that has been prevalent since the early 1990s, and establishing a new set of theoretical frameworks for exploring the ekphrastic encounter.
Jean-Luc Nancy on thinking and touching art
The chapter explores the double quality of the image via the work of the contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, notably through his notions of ‘exscription’ and touch. In Nancy’s thought, signification and presence, the readable and the visible are articulated in a relation of mutual touching and withdrawal that is lateral, metonymic, and works in both directions. And if this is what W. J. T. Mitchell might term an ambivalent account of ekphrasis, it is not a relation of indifference. Rather, the signifying surface and its non-signifying other are turned towards one another in a non-appropriating embrace. If ekphrasis is a writing-out, it is only in so far as all writing exscribes. And if the image is written out in ekphrasis, the image in its turn exscribes something within it – that which is not reducible to signification. Each mode is inaccessible from within the other, but, in Nancy’s thinking of ekphrasis, they press up against each other at the surface where they meet.
Hamo Thornycroft’s The Mower and Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’
This chapter applies the idea of a non-hierarchical, creative exchange of meaning to Hamo Thornycroft’s 1884 sculpture of The Mower, and its accompanying epigraph from Matthew Arnold’s 1866 elegy for the poet Arthur Hugh Clough: ‘Thyrsis’. The chapter argues that sculpture and epigraph, taken together, constitute a third intermedial artwork in which the compromised relationship between the aesthetic act and the desire to apprehend the ‘real’ is manifested through a complex series of textual and, more importantly, genre citations – including classicism, naturalism, realism, pastoral elegy and Romantic lyric. These coalesce and interrogate each other in this most ‘realistic’ and ‘democratic’ of Thornycroft’s sculptures to date, establishing a competitive and a co-relational dialogue that is enacted on and by the body of the artwork. Placed in the context of social, industrial and political developments in the later decades of the nineteenth century, sculpture and epigraph combine to reveal ethical, ideological, and moral dimensions that might otherwise remain hidden in what Stephen Cheeke has described as ‘the sensuous field of the visual’ and the logocentric pretensions of the verbal.
Ekphrasis and Laocoön digressions in the novel
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön essay of 1766 has long been understood as a pivotal moment in the demarcation of the spatializing properties of the plastic arts versus the temporal or narrative properties of literature. This chapter examines the long afterlife of this essay as it reappears as a discursive ‘foreign body’ (akin to and implicating ekphrasis) within a number of novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Going beyond strong critical readings of ekphrases as hostile stand-offs between text and image, however, my analysis of works such as Wilhelm Heinse’s Ardinghello (1787) and Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer (Indian Summer, 1857), will show how, in case of Heinse, the ventriloquizing of Lessing leads to a dynamic novel that is nevertheless saturated with ekphrastic description. Stifter’s novel allows ekphrasis to spread out from its centre, creating an experimentally sclerotic narrative. These hauntings by Lessing reveal not only the entanglement of the modern novel with theories and histories of representation but also its observational stance on its own and the reader’s mediation.
Stanley Spencer’s ‘ordinary’ ekphrases
This chapter identifies seven types of ekphrasis in the writings of the artist Stanley Spencer. Selections of these writings have been published, and the chapter explores this particular type of ekphrastic encounter when such ‘an artist of the bizarre’ develops his own search for form, while expressing his philosophy of life at the same time as he is busy writing a ‘defence and illustration’ (to borrow one of Du Bellay’s titles) of his own works. Writing for art takes on a very particular interest for the reader when it means having access to the origins of creation; that is, when an artist is engaged in developing his reflections upon and theories of art. The chapter then argues that Spencer’s writings are hybrid texts much in the same way as novels that mingle narration and description. But here the artist mingles self-reflection (in the diaries and notebooks) together with an epistolary style of address (there is always a receiver at the other end), more or less ‘theoretical’ developments (in the essays), and personal reflection on his own motivations.
Ekphrasis and mortality in Andrew Marvell
Andrew Marvell is becoming increasingly recognized as a poet who demonstrates a profound connection with the full range of visual arts. However, little attention has been paid to how the remarkable visual quality of Marvell’s work engages with traditional or contemporary debates about ekphrasis. This may seem surprising, as poems like ‘The Gallery’ tempt us into the sort of paragonal opposition between text and image that has become a central characteristic of ekphrastic critical orthodoxy. But Marvell’s work is well suited to revisionist debates that look beyond these binary divisions. Two barely known Latin poems that accompany an unusual portrait of Oliver Cromwell to the Queen of Sweden demonstrate ekphrasis as prosopopoeia, exposing boundaries of language and culture in both visual and verbal modes. When Marvell’s fascination with how lives are represented combines with glass and reflection, we embark upon his ekphrastic encounter: of specific visual and temporal moments that define human mortality.