This article was first published in The Guardian on Saturday 14th November 2009. John Mullan chooses ‘ten of the best’ examples of ekphrasis…
“In the Musée des Beaux Arts” by WH Auden
Auden’s poem is one of the most famous examples of ekphrasis: the recreation in words of a work of art. It describes Pieter Brueghel’s painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, in which a man falls from the sky, but “the white legs disappearing into the green / Water” are made incidental to the scene. The ploughman goes on ploughing and the ship sails past.
“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams
Williams (less famously) turned the very same painting into poetry: “it was spring // a farmer was ploughing / his field / the whole pageantry // of the year was / awake tingling / near // the edge of the sea / concerned / with itself // sweating in the sun”. Not quite as memorable.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats
“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” You will always want to know, but those eloquent pagans keep their secrets. Keats’s urn is probably a composite of several museum items.
The Iliad by Homer
Homer describes the shield of Achilles, fashioned by the god Hephaestus to include the Earth, the Heavens and the Sea, as well as scenes of human endeavour and strife. The shield depicted two cities, one besieged by foes, scenes of planting and harvest and tableaux of dancing maidens and youths.
“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning
The nasty duke displays a portrait of his “last duchess” to a wondering visitor. As he notes her features . . . “Sir, ‘t was not / Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek”. “Her looks went everywhere”, and so . . . “There she stands/ As if alive . . .” – but she isn’t.
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
Lucy Snowe, Brontë’s narrator, visits an art gallery in Villette (aka Brussels) and encounters The Cleopatra: a large portrait of a voluptuous woman (“that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh”) whose clothes are becoming detached from her. She sits looking at the painting and watching the respectable bourgeois “art lovers” relishing its near-pornographic allure.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
It starts off delighting its own subject – “The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation” – but over the months begins to change: “there was the picture before him, with the touch of cruelty in the mouth.” Each ekphrasis keeps pace with Dorian’s corruption, as the beautiful young man himself remains unblemished.
The Idiot by Dostoyevsky
Prince Myshkin is stunned by a painting of the dead Christ in Rogozhin’s house. Hippolite describes the painting in detail, also haunted by the image of “a poor mangled body”. Based on a real painting that horrified Dostoyevsky – The Body of the Dead Christ by Hans Holbein – it is Christ without divinity, “depicted as though still suffering; as though the body, only just dead, was still almost quivering with agony”.
“In Santa Maria del Popolo”
by Thom Gunn The church of the title, in Rome, houses two wonderful paintings by Caravaggio depicting the crucifixion of St Peter and the blinding of Paul on the road to Damascus. Gunn gives you both and eloquently conveys the artist’s strange use of shadow and foreshortening.
“On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley’s appalled yet enraptured description of this painting (“it is less the horror than the grace / Which turns the gazer’s spirit into stone”) beautifully catches its unsettling appeal, though it turns out that the painting is not actually by Da Vinci.
The Guardian, Saturday 14 November 2009