Ut pictura poesis

Tuesday I wrote a short note on Locus amoenus (latin for “pleasant place”). Today I have focused on a related term, namely EkphrasisEkphrasis is related to Locus amoenus because they both deal with visualizing through words.

According to Helge Ridderstrøm

Many scholars make use of James Heffernan’s [Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery, 1993] general conception of ekphrasis as “the verbal representation of visual representation.” This definition still relates to even the earliest Greek origins of the word and encapsulates the more modern use of the term. However, even as this definition opens the term up to a broader utility there comes the difficulty of somehow still restraining what constitutes ekphrasis. […] If ekphrasis is “the verbal representation of visual representation,” a definition most experts now seem to accept, the first part of that definition can only mean: all verbal commentary/ writing (poems, critical assessments, art historical accounts) on images is essentially ekphrastic: the difference between the critical and the literary versions is one of degree, not one of mode or kind.

I’m not totally convinced by the conclusion drawn here. I think that there are difference of modes, not only degrees. If one chooses to call all writing on art for ekphrastic, we end up with an almost meaningless concept. I think we need a separate term for the poetic writing on art. (When I write art critiques I do not operate as an artist, when I write conceptual literature I do – I do think that a few critics are extremely good writers, but they are the exceptions – not the rule).

Initially, ekphrasis was a rhetorical term like many others taught to Greek students. Teachers of rhetoric taught ekphrasis as a way of bringing the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing. Ekphrasis was one of the last rhetorical exercises students were taught and the challenge was to bring the experience of a person, a place, or a thing to an audience. The true use of ekphrasis was not to simply provide astute details of an object, but to share the emotional experience and content with someone who had never encountered the work in question. The student of ekphrasis was encouraged to lend their attention not only to the qualities immediately available in an object, but to make efforts to embody qualities beyond the physical aspects of the work they were observing.

The Latin phrase Ut pictura poesis, which I have used in my heading, is an analogy that Horace introduced in his Ars Poetica to tentatively compare the art of painting with that of poetry. Translated literally it says: as is painting, so is poetry.

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