Ekphrasis, writes Marjorie Munsterberg, is a particular kind of visual description and the oldest type of writing about art in the West. The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present.
Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition. Two things are of generic importance:
i. The passage implicitly compares visual and verbal means of description, most dramatically by weaving elements that could not be part of a shield (like movement and sound) with things that could be (like physical material and visual details). This emphasizes the possibilities of the verbal and the limitations of the visual.
ii. The thing being described comes to seem real in the imagination of the reader, despite the fact that it could not exist.
The ability to reproduce works of art has reduced the importance of ekphrastic writing. Nevertheless – some writers still write the most beautiful things to pictures. Here is Mark Doty:
… I have fallen in love with a painting. Though that phrase doesn’t seem to suffice, not really – rather it’s that I have been drawn into the orbit of a painting, have allowed myself to be pulled into its sphere by casual attraction deepening to something more compelling. I have felt the energy and life of the painting’s will; I have been held there, instructed. And the overall effect, the result of looking and looking into its brimming surface as long as I could look, is love, by which I mean a sense of tenderness toward experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world
AM ART Achilles’ shield description Ekphrasis Homer Iliad Jan Davidsz de Heem Marjorie Munsterberg Mark Doty On Objects and Intimacy Still Life with a Glass and Oysters Still Life with Oysters and Lemon visual description
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