EN3246   Literature and the Other Arts: Poetry and Painting

Rajeev S. Patke



Lecture 2  Reading Poems that refer/react to Paintings - Summary


1a                  Key question: How do paintings and poems resemble each other? How do they differ?  

1b            First steps in “reading” paintings  

2                     The four stages of iconographic analysis

3                     Ekphrasis

4                     Visual  images and Verbal images

5                     Examples 1 & 2        



1a  First take on a key question - How do paintings and poems resemble each other? and how do they differ?


How do paintings and poems resemble each other?   How do paintings and poems differ from one another?  

A classic discussion of the issue can be found in G. E. Lessing (1729-81, German dramatist and critic), the author of Lacoön, 1766 (a key text on the relation between the plastic arts and poetry, focused on a classical statue, shown below).


Lacoön (Polydoros, Hagesandros, Athénodoros, 1st c.BC) (The Vatican, Rome)
Image source: http://www.insecula.com/oeuvre/photo_ME0000073253.html

1.     The layperson’s view: each art presents appearance as reality; absent things as present; both deceive, and the deception is pleasing.

2.     The philosopher’s view: both arts derive their appeal from a common source: a concept of beauty derived from bodily objects and applied to various things, including actions, thoughts, and forms.

3.     The critic’s view: the two arts apply shared aesthetic values differently to their respective media

                Source: [Lessing, Preface]

 Thus while the first two emphasize the commonalty between the two arts–painting as mute poetry, or poetry as vocal painting– the last recognizes where the shared features make way for differences. 



1b     First step in “reading” paintings 


 We approach each painting with a set of questions (independent of the poem that sets up a unique relation between itself and the painting). 


Questions related to the Intrinsic elements of visual art



Questions related to the Extrinsic features of visual art


Is the painting representational? symbolic? abstract?


How do the representational/symbolic/abstract features of the picture relate to MOVEMENT, PERIOD, or GENRE?



How does it use Line, Shape, Mass, Space, Form, Colour, Tone, Light, & Texture?


What are the PERIOD-based conventions, themes, motifs revealed by the painting?



How do Time & the Narrative Dimension figure in the painting?


What are the GENRE-based conventions, themes, & motifs revealed by the painting?



Questions related to the elements of composition


Questions related to Style 

[Style: “a consistent and characteristic handling of media, elements of form, and principles of design that make a work of art identifiable as the product of a particular culture, period, region, group, or person” (Preble, 2004: 91).]



How does the painting handle issues of Unity & diversity? Emphasis & Contrast? Balance, Proportion, & Scale?


What are the stylistic features of the painting that can be related to its Period?



How are directional forces deployed in the painting?


What are the stylistic features of the painting that can be related to its Genre?



How does the painting handle issues of Pattern, Rhythm & Repetition?


What are the stylistic features of the painting that individuate the Artist?




2      The four stages of iconographic analysis  


 The procedures described in 1b above correspond (with minor and interesting differences) to the stages of iconographical analysis followed by many art historians. 





What it entails


What it requires


1. Pre-iconographical description



Enumerating what we see in a representation (without establishing any relationships or interpretations).


Knowledge of the world around us.


2. Iconographical description



Relating the elements of a representation with one another and formulating the theme or subject (without attempting to discover a deeper meaning).



Knowledge of themes and subject matter in art, as well as their modes of representation over the centuries; knowledge of artist’s sources.


3. Iconographical interpretation



Identifying the deeper (also the symbolic) meaning of a representation as explicitly intended by the artist.



Knowledge of possible secondary meanings and interpretation of the artist’s sources.


4. Iconological interpretation



Identifying the deeper content of a work of work not explicitly intended by the artist but nevertheless incorporated in his work.



Knowledge of the era’s cultural-historical character.

                Source: Roelof van Straten, An Introduction to Iconography (1996: 16-17)

[Note that Straten splits into stages 2 & 3 (iconographical analysis & interpretation) what Panofsky gives as 1 stage (iconographical analysis): for our purposes either format will do.]



3      Ekphrasis


 There is a long tradition to the practice of poets describing, invoking, inventing, or reacting in words to a real or imagined visual image. The relation set up by a poet through language with a pre-existing image is called ekphrasis.  When a painting “imitates” a poem, the visual image is called “reverse ekphrasis”. There are many, slightly divergent definitions of the basic idea. Some are given in Murray Krieger’s Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (1992): 

Jean Hagstrum (1958): “that special quality of giving voice and language to the otherwise mute art object” (Krieger 267).

 Leo Spitzer (1962): “the poetic description of a pictorial or sculptural work of art” (Krieger xiii).

 Murray Krieger (1967): “the ekphrastic dimension of literature reveals itself wherever the poem takes on the `still’ elements of plastic form (i.e. form as in the visual arts) which we normally attribute to the plastic arts (drawing, painting, sculpture, etc). In so doing, the poem proclaims as its own poetic its formal necessity, thus making more than just loosely metaphorical the use of spatial language to describe–and thus to arrest–its movements” (266).

 J. A. W. Heffernan (1993): the “verbal representation of a visual representation”.

 Murray Krieger (1998): “the attempted imitation in words of an object of the plastic arts, primarily painting or sculpture” (4). 



4     Visual images and Verbal images


 The complex relations between visual and verbal mages range, at the extremes, between: 

4.1          belief in their correspondence or equivalence across differing media (verbal images operating as symbolic signs within the language system, visual images operating as direct sensory stimuli, making ekphrasis possible, and endorsing the basic equation made famous in the Latin phrase ut pictura poesis: “as in painting, likewise in poetry’, and supporting the idea that a picture is “mute” until language gives it a caption and a voice), and 

4.2                belief that the two forms of image operate very differently, each according to the enabling/disabling conditions of its medium, making one fundamentally incommensurate with the other (some arguing that verbal imagery appeals to the imagination in a way that transcends the visual medium; others arguing that visual impressions signify in ways that words cannot equal or express accurately (rendering ekphrasis always a paradox). 


 The painter’s tree is an image; but if the poet writes “tree”, he does not create an image… the poetic “image” is one only in a metaphorical sense. 

[Sigurd Burkhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest”, ELH 23 (Dec. 1956): 280, in Krieger 1992: 266]







"THIS IS NOT A PIPE"  - i.e. Words are NOT pictures!




René Magritte, This is not a Pipe, Version 1 (1929)

Image Source:  http://www.vrc.iastate.edu/why.html




René Magritte, This is not a Pipe, Version 2

Image Source: http://blog.postmodernvillage.com/archives/2004/06/14/81




























 Further Reading: 

 Murray Krieger, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).  PN 1126 Kri

 Valerie Robillard & Els Jongneel (eds.), Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive Approaches to Ekphrasis Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998)  PN 56 Ekp.Pi  





Left to right: depreciating strength of ekphrastic relationships

Source: Valerie Robillard (1998: 61) 



5      Examples



           What, in apparently pictorial poetry, do words, can words represent? Conversely, how can words in a poem be “picturable”? Or do words somehow manage, instead, to present the unrepresentable, or at least the “unpicturable”-even as they are “picturesque”? 

Murray Krieger, 1992 


 5.1      Example 1  


  Charles Demuth, I Saw the Number 5 in Gold, 1928 (Benton, p. 36) 


The Great Figure
William Carlos Williams
Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city. 
(Benton, p.36)


     5.2       Example 2 

 David Inshaw, The Badminton Game (1972-73), The Tate (London)

Image source: http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?cgroupid=999999961&workid=7038&searchid=7353


The Badminton Game
Connie Bensley
That morning, I awoke and went down
just as I was, in my green slippers
to look at the hydrangea mariesii–
the only flower Clifton allows in the garden
for he must have his trees and shrubs.
Out I crept, my slippers darkening in the dew,
And hearing a movement behind me
 I turned and found Ruth. She was carrying
‘the racquets: and so–smiling, not speaking–
We ran between the great bushes to the net,
And there we played (quietly, of course,
So that Uncle Edward might not hear)
Until the breakfast gong recalled us.
We ran up the back stairs en déshabillé,
And down the front ones, decorous but tardy,
And kissed Uncle Edward: but I took care
To embrace him as he likes best, to forestall
Reproof. Colour rose up behind his moustache
And his face worked silently, but then he vanished,
As usual, behind The Times.
(Benton, p.39)






Last Updated 11 January 2012