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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.

in Ekphrastic encounters
New interdisciplinary essays on literature and the visual arts

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.

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.

in Ekphrastic encounters

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.

in Ekphrastic encounters
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.

in Ekphrastic encounters
Ekphrasis and historical materiality in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece

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.

in Ekphrastic encounters
A critical exchange between Émile Zola and Édouard Manet

This chapter explores how Émile Zola’s ekphrastic writings about Édouard Manet’s paintings functioned as a template on which the writer imposed his evolving theories of the naturalist novel. It argues that, while Zola championed Manet in his critical reviews of the artist’s works, he did so in the name of naturalism and the scientific objectivity and analysis naturalism promoted. Moreover, it seems likely that Manet would have read Zola’s 1868 preface to Thérèse Raquin, where the author first mandated his naturalist theories. The chapter asks what Manet would have thought about Zola’s subjugation of painting to writing and his refusal of meaningful content in his art. It proposes that Manet painted Zola’s portrait in 1868 as a response to the critic’s misinterpretation of the painter’s artistic method. Manet’s portrait of Zola also reveals how the artist, in turn, appropriated the writer and his writing to his own artistic agenda, the subsequent manifestations of which culminate in Manet’s final masterpiece, A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882).

in Ekphrastic encounters
Ekphrasis, readers, ‘iconotexts’

This chapter defines ekphrasis concisely as ‘the verbal representation of real or fictive configurations composed in a non-kinetic visual medium’. It rejects narrower definitions that exclude texts on non-representational visual configurations, including architecture, or restrict the discourse to literary texts representing works of art. But with its emphasis on the text, the concise definition unduly reinforces the consideration of ekphrasis as a form of ‘intermedial transposition’ in contemporary discourse on intermedial relations. An ekphrastic text should be primarily approached as the record of a viewer’s interpretive encounter with a non-kinetic visual configuration, which may not actually contain anything that has been ‘transposed’ from the image. This viewer may be the persona of a poem, a figure in a prose narrative, or an art critic. It is the reader’s task to construct these viewers in the interpretation of any ekphrastic text. But the role of the reader has not received much attention. This includes the question of the immediate mental reception of ekphrastic texts. The critical construct of ‘iconotexts’, suggesting that such verbal texts spontaneously trigger a mental visual image for the informed reader, is problematic, and even in a more general sense the term may be of limited critical use.

in Ekphrastic encounters
Jonathan Richardson’s ekphrastic ‘Dissertation’ on Poussin’s Tancred and Erminia

This chapter considers Jonathan Richardson’s critical ‘Dissertation’ on Poussin’s painting Tancred and Erminia (c. 1633) as both analysis and ekphrastic representation. It focuses on Richardson’s keen interest in the artist’s visual interpretations of, and additions to, Tasso’s great Italian epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata (1581). It becomes clear that both the French painter and the English critic know the Italian poem well; it is far less certain, however, whether the intended English readership would have shared similar first-hand knowledge of either the picture or its literary source. Richardson’s paragone of the two forms is intended to emphasize Poussin’s ability ‘to make use of the Advantages This Art has over that of his Competitor’; problematically, however, the pre-eminence of the visual medium in this specific example can only be attested to by means of a sustained verbal comparison of the painting and its poetic source, which ultimately seems to imply a more complex, symbiotic relationship in the encounter between the visual and literary arts than Richardson initially admits.

in Ekphrastic encounters
Abstract only
A spiritual wit

The Restoration court painter and poet Anne Killigrew features several written works in her Poems (posthumously published in 1686) explaining her visual artistry in relation to her Christian beliefs, and these poems helped Killigrew to re-define her poetic wit in relation to her spirituality rather than to secularism. Her poems, ‘St. John the Baptist Painted by herself in the Wilderness, with Angels appearing to him, and with a Lamb by him’ and ‘Herodias’s Daughter presenting to her Mother St. John’s Head in a Charger, also Painted by herself,’ accompany the John the Baptist paintings and show Killigrew’s interest in engaging religious ideas in her artistic process. Critics have rightly read Killigrew’s poems in relation to the proto-feminist texts that began to emerge in the period and acknowledge that Killigrew has a distinct and often angry voice in her works about women’s oppression. Anxious to separate her writings from courtly libertine texts, Killigrew looked to religious narratives for inspiration in articulating a self that was both witty and sacred, a unique artistic position in an age where wit was often collapsed with irreligious expressions and outrageous libertinism. This chapter examines that ‘self’ – a spiritual wit – in Killigrew’s verse and the larger implications for the gendered boundaries that women writing in the period negotiated.

in Writing and constructing the self in Great Britain in the long eighteenth century