Ekphrasis

October 28th, 2013 Posted in Uncategorized

I wrote this in April 2011 and sent it to all those subscribing to my newsletter.  A workshop I attended on Sunday expressed an interest in ekphrasis so I decided to Plog about it here. If you have never heard the term before, do not worry.  It was new to me and I enjoyed looking it up for you.

“Ek” is Greek for ‘out of’ and “phrasis” means expression; so ekphrasis, or ecphrasis, can describe any writing that forms an image of an art form in your mind.  It would be possible to bypass words altogether and create a painting of a dance form.  What is important is that one artform is attempting to express the essence of a subject in another.

When Plato wrote of archetypes, he was attempting to reach the spirit of an object; so an archetypical litter might contain elements of a litter that the eye cannot see, elevated to an epitome of litterness.  Socrates wrote: “The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive, but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.”  Ekphrasis is an attempt to communicate between the art forms.

Traditionally, art historians write about the visual arts. John Ruskin’s descriptions of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s paintings are so vivid – “Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of the night” – that he seems to be extending the imagery beyond what could be seen and giving it a life of its own. Such prose, inspired by oceanic watercolours, is truly poetic.

It seems inevitable that one of the most famous examples of ekphrasis, from John Keats’ poetry, takes us back to Hellenic culture.  Rhetoric in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ expresses a similar frustration to Socrates’ wonder:

  Thou, silent   form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold   Pastoral!

Both writers have the courage to address a soundless spirit in the visual arts and by doing so enhance understanding: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.  That was the vessel speaking!

Alice Theilgaard and Murray Cox wrote Shakespeare as Prompter: the amending imagination and the therapeutic process, in which they define synaesthesia, when ‘one specific stimulus arouses not only the corresponding sensation, but also evokes images belonging to other sensory modalities’.  It is a profoundly engaging type of metaphor, which they are able to use in the treatment of deeply disturbed patients, but it is a concept we can all relate to, if we are in touch with our senses, and they quote from Philip Brockbank: “Shakespeare uses a polarising lens which brings the colours out.”

Multi-media can network between music, dance, poetry, prose, art or sculpture.  It could be any type of co-creativity.  Through ekphrasis, one medium relates to another and the vivid description may have a life of its own.

In my last newsletter, I briefly mentioned that poetry can play Chinese whispers with calligraphy, with ice-cream sculpture or with break-dancing.  By describing the visual arts, poetry can appeal to your senses on more than one level.

As ever, if I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to drop me a line.
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