Words at the Black Swan – Short Essay and Some Research

Extract from research essay ‘Words at the Black Swan: Ekphrastic engagement with visual art in a gallery’ Kim Wood 2015


In a world where the image is omnipresent, transient and disposable; where we collect blockbuster art shows like holiday trinkets and disregard them just as quickly, I discovered that by spending just a few minutes writing words about a work of art in the gallery, we strengthen our engagement with the work. We can gain personal insights and develop a special bond; the artwork becoming more meaningful to us.

On Monday 14th March 2013, the inaugural ‘Words at the Black Swan’ writing workshop took place in the main gallery of the Black Swan Arts centre in Frome. Six keen-eyed participants arrived, pens and paper at the ready. They had come to the gallery to respond in words to a sculpture installation in glass by artist Charlie Murphy. The show ‘Retort’ comprised a series of glass sculptures, and distorted test tubes with blood-vessel-red elements, positioned on walls and plinths and looking like discarded medical experiments. With a mixture of trepidation and excitement I gazed around the gallery at our source material and waited for the workshop leader Crysse, to tell me what to do with it.

I had initiated and organised this first workshop collaboratively with local writer Crysse Morrisson as a result of the fascination I have in the relationship between language and visual culture. At the hub of this research project is a desire to draw together the world of words and the world of visual arts and interrogate the interplay between them. The approach I have chosen is, in the first instance, a practical, experiential one. To set up a situation where writers are presented with works of art in a gallery and asked to respond to them in words. Rather than attempting to prove a particular theory I set out to create a situation and allow it to play out while making qualitative assessments of the experience, both first hand and through discussion and then by obtaining feedback in the form of a questionnaire.

Another motivation was to develop an archive of written works that could be examined in context with the artworks that engendered them. Lastly as a member of the programming committee for the gallery, I was tasked with developing a programme of exhibitions and activities. One of the aims of our group was to engage a wider audience for the gallery. The workshops were a perfect opportunity to open up the gallery to the flourishing literary communities of the town.

In 2001, I submitted a photograph to a national photography prize. The photograph ‘At Home with Venus’ (Appendices figure 10) re-presented Titian’s classical painting ‘Venus of Urbino’ (1538) in a modern domestic living room. So, what do these two practices have in common: writing words about a work of art in a gallery and a photograph that takes inspiration from a painting? Both may be considered an expression of ekphrasis or the “act” of re-presenting, describing or translating a pre-existing work (artwork, object etc.) through a different medium or form of expression. In the following sections, I’ll attempt to share my understanding of ekphrasis, by presenting significant historical and contemporary examples and quoting some relevant discourses. The ongoing ‘Words’ gallery workshop sessions will provide primary research material and I will describe the form, content and outcomes of these sessions with reference also to a short survey conducted to determine the participants’ experience of said workshops. I am going to focus on literary or poetic ekphrasis in response to visual culture.

So that i can easily differentiate between the subject or ‘artworks’ and the written works created as response to them, I use the term ‘wordworks’ to define these reflective works in words.The website www.wordsinthegallery.com is an intrinsic part of my practical curatorial work and where one can view the online presentation of the ‘Words at the Black Swan’ sessions.

Defining Ekphrasis

What is ekphrasis? The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek ‘ek’ and ‘phrasis’ meaning respectively ‘out’ and ‘speak’ and it frequently refers to the practice of using one art form to describe another. There have been, and will be many debates about the definition of ekphrasis, yet not one singular universal definition exists, aside from the implicit act of translation. So it would appear that ekphrasis seems most at home in the juncture between the two artefacts: primary subject or cause and the secondary form or response.

Ekphrasis is also related to the ancient Greek concept of “mimesis”. Democritus and Plato used the word “mimesis” to describe imitations of nature. Democritus wrote that “in art we imitate nature: in weaving we imitate the spider, in building the swallow, in singing the swan or nightingale” (Władysław 1980). As an example we can see a photograph as a mimetic reproduction of a scene yet not the actual scene. It is generally acknowledged that the practice of ekphrasis differs from that of mimesis because ekphrasis re-presents or re-contextualises another pre-existing form and not a naturally occurring one.

Historical Ekphrasis

Before looking at some historical examples of ekphrasis, I want to refer to Jas’ Elsner’s article ‘Art History as Ekphrasis’ in the journal Art History. Elsner argues that art history is a form of ekphrasis as is any translation of the sensual world into language. His fundamental position is that the methods of art history cannot be separated from the description of any other object/subject. He states “from the mere mention of an object to its dismissal, from encomiastic praise to vituperative attack – all these and everything in between constitute ekphrasis, and hence may make up the descriptive basis for the practice of art history” and, “The reason such accounts are ekphrasis, and hence the bedrock of art history, is that all these descriptions conspire to translate the visual and sensual nature of a work of art into a linguistic formulation capable of being voiced in a discursive argument. The act of translation is central.” He impresses the point with the statement: “The enormity of the descriptive act cannot be exaggerated or overstated. It constitutes a movement from art to text, from visual to verbal, that is inevitably a betrayal.”

Homer, Titian & Keats

One of the earliest examples of ekphrastic poetry is thought to be the work of the Greek poet Homer written around 760–710bc (Altschuler, Calude, Meade and Pagel 2013). In the Illiad (Book 18, lines 478–608) Homer describes at length, the glorious shield of the hero Achilles used famously in battle with Hector. He describes the shield as if a microcosm of the whole world, illustrated in a series of concentric circles and depicting everything from grape pickers in a vineyard to dancers and herds of cattle. This is a seminal ekphrastic work and mentioned in many books and articles on ekphrasis.

A few hundred years later in the fourteenth century the renaissance master painter, Titian, produced a series of enormous paintings based on mythological tales from the Roman poet Ovid’s epic work ‘Metamorphoses’ Titian thought of these works as painterly equivalents to poetry and even coined a term for them; ‘poesies’.

In the nineteenth century, the poet John Keats wrote ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, an ekphrastic poem that draws out imaginary identities and lives from figures on a Greek urn.

“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

No More Poems about Paintings

From nineteenth century romantics and pastoralists through to contemporary poets, the practice of writing about the arts had become so prevalent that Kingsley Amis exclaimed in 1955, “Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or mythology or foreign cities or other poems. At least I hope nobody want them.” (Lee-Browne and Merz 2003)

Yet why do so many writers choose to take inspiration from visual art and why the resurgence? Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux in her book Twentieth Century Poetry and the Visual Arts suggests two possible reasons for this:

  1. Following W.J.T. Mitchell’s discourses on “The Pictorial Turn”(Mitchell 1994) she furthers that images are simply, everywhere and since the advent of photography, mass media, advertising and now the internet, it would be almost impossible for writers not to assimilate visual culture and represent it (Bergmann Loizeaux 2010:3). Not only are images ever present but increasingly, we are trained to respond to imagery at the expense of our other senses.
  2. The ‘relatedness’ of poetic ekphrasis where the writer becomes an intermediary between a work and the audience and, quotes Randall Jarrell, “The reference to a second art gives a new and important role to the reader-spectator, who shares the writer’s contemplation of an external artifact”. (Jarrell 1969).

In chapter three Bergmann Loizeaux introduces her reader to ekphrasis from the feminist perspectives of poets Marianne Moore and Adrienne Rich. To Bergmann Loizeaux, both Moore and Rich’s work appear to subvert ideas about the gendering of “male gaze” and female subject. The “gaze” is an important and broadly used term, originally a psychoanalytical term used by Jacques Laçan, to denote the power play between a subject and viewer, whereby the subject attracts the attention or “gaze” of the viewer. Laura Mulvey explored the gendered “male gaze” In her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. She used the term to describe the (film viewing) audience as having the perspective of a heterosexual man and where the female characters are sexualized. John Berger, in his book Ways of Seeing, discusses images of renaissance nudes and how they are usually depicted with their bodies facing the viewer, but their gaze directed away, perhaps towards a mirror. He suggest that she is aware she is the object of the male audience and deliberately invites their attention. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”(Berger 1972) It follows that perhaps the “gaze” or the “demanding” nature of visual art may be a factor in the desire for writers to respond to it and therefore helpful in understanding why writers want to come to the ‘Words’ workshops.

Orpheus and Euridice

In Writing for Art Stephen Cheeke examines (in depth) Robert Browning’s ekphrastic poem based on Frederick Leighton’s 1856 painting ‘Orpheus and Euridice’. The ancient myth of Orpheus and Euridice is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as the tragic tale of Orpheus, who journeyed to the underworld to rescue his lover Euridice, but lost her forever on the final steps into the world by looking back at her. Looking back had been forbidden by the god of the underworld, Hades. In Frederick’s painting Euridice is shown entreating Orpheus to turn and look at her, perhaps unaware of his task, not to look back. Browning’s poem called ‘Euridice to Orpheus’ was published as part of a collection Dramatis Personae in 1864. Cheeke suggests that Euridice’s plea to Orpheus that he should turn and look at her is a metaphor for the demands of visual art to be viewed. “If Eurydice stands for the picture or image, we might ask the question: what do pictures want? A picture desires to be brought into a relation with a viewer and to be made alive” in reciprocal turn Cheeke suggest that the viewer too seeks acknowledgment of his gaze, and that inherent in this communication is the experience of “envy” or “rivalry” he considers this to be the “special case” of the poet before a painting, where he experiences rivalry because “he wants the poem to be read with the same intense act of attention that we might give a painting that caprtivates us” (Cheeke 2008:15)

Interestingly Robert Browning’s wife died in 1861, three years before he wrote ‘Euridice to Orpheus’ so the story could have particular significance to him. The personal relevance for Browning should not be overlooked as my experience of ekphrastic poetry as participant in the ‘Words’ workshop has been one of finding personal significance within a work and of the work in some way drawing out emotional responses from me. Another theme that recurs in Cheeke’s book is that ‘writing for art’ is a kind of failure, a ‘doomed experiment’, the poet desperately wanting the kudos of the painter, envying the “gaze” of the art viewer. There seems to be a general trend in contemporary discourse suggesting a rivalry between forms of expression, and Cheeke compares the relationship between poetry and visual art as being akin to quarrelling sisters. Bergmann Loizeaux talks about writing after art as a kind of belatedness (Bergmann Loizeaux 2010:5) and refers to what Mary Ann Caws calls the “afterness” of ekphrasis (Caws, M.A, 1983: p 179 cited in Bergmann Loizeaux, B. 20010:5).

Authenticity and Ownership

I see writing and the visual arts as more congruent. The idea of, which is better or more worthy is akin to a search for authenticity. In the same way a book collector seeks a first edition or a historian an original source, the original material of a creative work is regarded as having special significance. If we follow this train of thought then the base natural world might be considered as the most sublime material. We do perhaps enjoy a sense power or achievement in knowing the source of something, as if we were in some way more connected to the artwork or even the creator by understanding it.

This search for, and status of, the authentic original is reflected in the modern insistence of intellectual property rights. It seems to me that so many artists seek to establish a singularity to their work as if it was achieved through spontaneous combustion and not from a culture that rests on the summit of a mountain of derivations or from an ocean of collective consciousness.

The Poet as Art Thief: A National Gallery Heist

There are many references to the practice of ekphrasis as being a kind of plagiarism or of laziness where the artist cannot think up his own subject for a work so he steals somebody elses. Cheeke quotes Grant F. Scott:

“Everywhere in ekphrastic studies we encounter he language of subterfuge, of conspiracy, there is something taboo about moving across media, even as there is something profoundly liberating. When we become ekphrastics we begin to act out what is forbidden and incestuous, ; we traverse borders with a strange hush, as if being pursued by a brigade of aesthetic police.” (Cheeke 2008:18 citing Scott 1986)

In 2010 Anita Lahey, editor of ‘Arc Poetry Annual’ together with Pauline Conley and Aislinn Hunter conceived of a project where they would invite submissions for new poems based on artworks in the National Gallery of Canada. They called the project ‘The Poet as Art Thief’. As well as inviting poets to respond to artworks they also invited artists to respond to poems. They gave poems to artists who produced paintings, then they gave these paintings to poets and so on creating a kind of ekphrastic “chinese whispers”; the chain taking eight months to complete.

In the same Journal (Arc Poetry Annual 2011), in the essay ‘Notes from outside the object-language exchange’ Aislinn Hunter argues that: “Ekphrasis isn’t really a subject or a “genre” at all but an “act”, and that as an act is has many variations manifestations as it has practitioners” and that it “makes and remakes meaning and story” We can see this in the consistent appropriation of mythological characters taken into painting and then back to literature and so on. Remaking by ekphrastic interpretation might also be seen as making it your own, putting your mark on it. If the story or personality behind the original artwork is well-known or admired then perhaps by responding to it, the ekphrastic writer may bridge a connection between themselves and the originator. They might engender a feeling of familiarity and resonance with a mutual appreciation, a kinship. There could be an element too of the kind of obsession we experience in society today as the cult of the celebrity, of fan obsession or fetishistic desire to possess a part of a celebrity, even if it is only their autograph. Hunter suggests that there is a paradox in our contemporary appreciation of art, where we become obsessed with it, but when we see it we do not give it our full attention. She calls this the “surface paradox of obsession and disregard” Perhaps some gallery visitors experience blockbuster art shows in this way. They can say “We’ve seen that show” and maybe take a trinket as keepsake, like a tourist, but pass over any prolonged engagement with the artwork. Hunter proposes this is due in part to the availability of works of art and imagery in this ‘information age’. Hunter also states that the best ekphrastic work engages with both the artwork’s surfaces and depths.

Tate Modern and The National Gallery

In recent years there have been many projects focussing on ekphrasis. The Tate Modern started their own ekphrastic poetry group led by renowned Welsh/French poet Pascal Petit. Writers come once a week after public opening hours to respond to work in the galleries.

One of the most ‘sensational’ examples of contemporary ekphrasis in recent years was the 2012 project at The National Gallery curated by Carol Plazzotta and sponsored by Credit Suisse. ‘Metamorphosis: Titian 2012′ ran from 11 July – 23 September in the Sainsbury wing. The project was hugely ambitious and successfully brought together a diverse range of artists from across the creative spectrum. It brought the idea of ekphrasis into the foreground with blockbuster impact. The project was described in their promotional materials as “A multi-faceted experience celebrating British creativity across the arts”

The theme of the show is derived from the Roman poet Ovid’s 15 book poem ‘Metamorphoses’ that has inspired generations of painters including Titian. The poem recounts mythological stories of the Gods, including the story of Diana and Acteon that inspired no less than three of Titian’s masterpieces. The National Gallery commissioned poets, dancers, composers, film-makers, artists to respond to Ovid’s stories and Titians paintings. Poets such as Seamus Heaney, Patience Agbabi and Wendy cope were commissioned to write new works for the show and contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger to create a unique collaborative work with The Royal Ballet. The project sponsors, Credit Suisse, commissioned their London-based advertising agency Havas Wordwide to produce a film bringing to life Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’.The short film ‘Metamorphosis’ starring Anna Friel and Ed Speleers won a Cannes Gold Lion award.


Kim Wood

This is an extract. The full essay is currently unavailable.

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