“Someone, I tell you, in another time,
will remember us.”[i]
Ekphrasis or ecphrasis, from the Greek: a description of a work of art, either real or imaginary, produced as a rhetorical exercise; often used in the adjectival form, ekphrastic, a graphic, often dramatic, description of a visual work of art.
From ancient times to the 20th century there has been an interdisciplinary dance played out between poets and painters. The idea of writing a poem or a play that was descriptive of, or inspired by a work of visual art was in fact invented by the Greeks. Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in the 18th Book of The Illiad being one of the first examples.
“Then first he form’d the immense and solid shield;
Rich various artifice emblazed the field;
Its utmost verge a threefold circle bound;
A silver chain suspends the massy round;
Five ample plates the broad expanse compose,
And godlike labours on the surface rose.
There shone the image of the master-mind:
There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d;
The unwearied sun, the moon completely round;
The starry lights that heaven’s high convex crown’d;
The Pleiads, Hyads, with the northern team;
And great Orion’s more refulgent beam;
To which, around the axle of the sky,
The Bear, revolving, points his golden eye,
Still shines exalted on the ethereal plain,
Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.”[ii]
This was of course, a literary fiction based totally on a plastic fiction, made real through the art of storytelling. The Romantic poet John Keats harks back to classic examples with his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Published anonymously in the January 1820, Number 15 issue of the magazine “Annals of the Fine Arts” it is an elegaic description on this single object. Early speculation centered around the fact that Keats had based his poem on a specific vase, either “The Sosibios Vase” at the Louvre in Paris or later on “The Townley Urn” at the British Museum in London. Nowadays it is considered that his work is more of a synthesis of several objects.
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
“O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[iii]
Keats ends his poem with an observation that has become an everlasting philosophical debate: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” From artists’ arguments in cafes and bars to doctoral dissertation defenses, it has become an ongoing discussion. Whether writing directly from a work of art as the primary source, as Keats has done, or inventing an image and then writing about it, this form of inspiration flows directly from the visual artist to the writer. In some more recent cases the artist seizes upon an image written by a poet and then makes a drawing or painting.
Near the end of his life, the 20th century abstract painter Philip Guston chose an entire new direction for his work, seeming to reject everything he had created before. He got himself hated by many former friends, but not everyone. Younger poets and painters recognized this new figuration, not as a retreat back into a mimetic mode, but as a venture into a new plastic and literary arena. His late drawings and paintings are a rare example of real dialogue between one painter and several contemporary poets. These poets included: Clark Coolidge, Bill Bergson, Musa McKim, Anne Waldman, William Corbett, Frank O’Hara and Stanley Kunitz.
A generation later, young painters who had studied exclusively with abstract artists in school struggled to find their own voices and visions. It seemed like a dead end to continue without a subject, or subject matter. At first they were accused of producing ‘bad’ painting. With a few more artists testing these waters they became known as ‘New Image’ painters and even ‘neo-expressionists.’ Amongst these artists were: Susan Rothenberg, Robert Moskowitz, Elizabeth Murray and Neil Jenney. All were working, in no small part, thanks to the doors that Philip Guston had opened.
“Henceforth a painting was a legible record of all the decisions, whether tentative or assured, that went into its conception and realization. The issue was not one of speed . . . but rather one of the immediacy and responsiveness of process, the simultaneity of thinking and making.”
Philip Guston [iv]
[i] Sappho; “No Oblivion,” The Complete Poems of Sappho (translated by Willis Barnstone); Shambala Publications; Boston & London; 2011; .
[ii] Translated by Alexander Pope. This poem is in the public domain.
[iii] Keats, John; John Keats: The Major Works; Oxford University Press; Oxford & New York; 1990 & 2001; pp. 288-289.
[iv] Storr, Robert; Philip Guston; Abbeville Press; New York, New York; 1986; p. 25.