The Ekphrasis of Abstract and Monochromatic Paintings

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The notion of ekphrasis as a distinctive genre of writing in relation to images arrives in the mid nineteenth century (Webb 1999). John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and W.H. Auden’s ‘In the Musée des Beaux Arts’ are famous examples. A loose definition is also given by James Heffernan when he declares that ekphrasis is ‘a verbal representation of visual representation’ (Heffernan 2004). But precisely how word and image correspond is a subject of extensive inquiry (Krieger 1992; Mitchell 1995), and certainly the relationship between the two can be rather oblique. While description of the artwork is often involved and this can serve as an anchor, ekphrasis, as I see it, enables the poet to go elsewhere – in the imagination, for instance, or refer to a wider historical milieu. Charles Simic and Pascale Petit have poetry collections along these lines, where the image is a springboard for the poet’s explorations (Simic 2011; Petit 2013).

Though despite a variety of recent and impressive examples, this essay will address one limitation that contemporary ekphrasis is largely characterised with. This concerns the choice of image: in most cases of ekphrasis practice and criticism, the prompt is figurative (derived from real object sources) or mimetic (imitative depictions of the real world). As David Kennedy observes, what often counts as ekphrasis has been unable to keep up with the formal developments of modern art, especially in the twentieth century where art is often abstract or amorphous (Kennedy 2012).

Likewise, the notion that words can with a high level of skill and expertise reproduce the artwork has been the standard model of ekphrasis. Even though it is seldom the case that the poet aims for nothing more than description, there is still usually an inference (at least) that the poet knows what they are looking at. Any ekphrasis which takes mimesis as its model, regardless of its merits, will most likely be no more than illustrative. Not only can such writing be rather dull, it can also suggest an attempt to enter into rivalry with the image: pushing towards a precise or approximate description, pinning down meaning, and demonstrating the potency of the writer with a bravura display of technique. This is how Heffernan sees it at least – in examples such as Keats’ Ode and Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ (Heffernan 2004). It is arguable that this approach is often a trap one can fall into with mimetic art, where, even if poets are not asking the reader to regard the image as though it could be read like a script, there is nearly always a suggestion of where to direct our eyes. What seems distinctive about abstract or monochromatic art is its flatness and its absence of prominence; so the viewer and poet alike may begin with perplexity and the chance to project their preoccupations onto the surface of the artwork – and then even go beyond its limits and frame.        

For the poet to maintain only a partial or tenuous relationship with an image can be liberating: in allowing the writer as viewer to move beyond description. One recent example of this is Ocean Vuong’s ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952’, which refers to a Rothko painting in the title, then explores more personal reflections around the subject of 9/11 (Vuong 2017). Likewise, recent criticism on ekphrasis looks at ways of moving beyond mimesis and description. Rather than find some equivalence between the image and the poem, the poet is encouraged to explore new meanings generated by the image. And instead of a contest between one medium and another, the ekphrastic poem becomes more a document of time and process, alternating perspectives, and of history (Kennedy 2012). A poem might begin with an image only to then explore other dimensions of meaning, which go off on tangents.

Though such discussion can encourage poets to move beyond description, many are too eager to take flight from the image without absorbing the minutiae inside the frame; likewise the image is still largely figurative, such as Jane Yeh’s ekphrasis of Manet’s Olympia (Yeh 2012). Contemporary poets, even those seen as linguistically or formally innovative, often remain shy in writing about abstract or colour field artworks. However, I would contend that even with a seemingly formless or monochromatic painting, much is there to write about: one has often simply failed to examine the surface closely enough.

Many ekphrastic collections have been released in recent years, such as Pascale Petit’s What the Water Gave Me and Owen Lowery’s Rego Retold (Petit 2013; Lowery 2015). In a similar vein, many individual poems have been experimental in their approach to the genre – such as Molly Vogel’s ‘Lessons on how to Understand a Famous Painting’. However, even though Vogel is innovative in examining alternating viewpoints from different temporal positions, she is still referring to the kind of figures an art historian might. Furthermore, like many of her contemporaries she opts for a mimetic painting, in her case one by Albrecht Dürer (Vogel 2017).

How about a visual prompt that is abstract and monochromatic: Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square for instance (Fig. 1)? Here, Renaissance conventions of perspective are not in operation; there is no attempt to offer the viewer illusionistic depth. Like many examples of modern art, the image presents itself in terms of what it is: a representation. It is paint on linen. It is also flat, aside from physical properties, such as the frame, brushstrokes, the paint’s texture, detritus, and so on. And yet we bring preconceptions to bear, and the tendency to find meaningful content prompts us to imagine figures not necessarily visible to others – such as what appears to be running a buffalo. Indeed why, when practicing ekphrasis, does the poet narrativise through interpretation, bringing some details to the fore while relegating others to the background? And why would they do so if such a narrative was not significant? Emphasis given to figures, especially, will most likely reveal truths of how the ekphrastic poet sees him or herself and what their preoccupations are – which evokes the principles of the Rorschach test. This is understandably more patent when the poet is writing in a lyrical mode, and – as with Black Square – a distinction between figure and ground is less motivated. Indeed, with this painting, who is to say where one is supposed to look? And is it not the case that, if any forms are to be found, they will most likely be personal or idiosyncratic?

In the case of the Malevich painting, one is faced with the possibility of a kind of ekphrasis that responds to images that on first glance are empty – yet such images are replete with form: rather than vapid or nondescript (the standard philistine judgement), they are a plenum, including vague marks or inscriptions. This would become more obvious if one were physically present with the painting. Glossy print reproductions are limiting in this regard. While this is more apparent with the Malevich, the same can be said of more figurative artworks (Elkins 1998). Indeed, aside from examples such as relief works, all paintings are flat; it is just that modern art is overt in presenting this fact.

We might then question where figure and ground are located, think we know where the centre is, that this part of the canvas is more worthy of attention than a marginal detail, and so on. Though is it not art history (knowledge of the Quattrocento for instance) that sets up such dichotomies or prejudices the locus of attention? We think we know where to look or what to give priority to. Such taken-for-granted knowledge usually acts as a filter for ekphrasis, including recent examples like those cited above or Julia Deakin’s ‘After Rothko’ (Deakin 2018). The issue is they do not go far enough in terms of how radical the ekphrasis is. They often cannot help but know something already about their image or research it, and by doing so have as an armature the knowledge that conditions how critics see the image. So the approach I outline is not about knowing more about the image, which is rightly the role of the academic, but rather to hover in a state of unknowing or negative capability: the poet sees the artwork while resting in doubts and uncertainties (Keats 1899).     

In the enigmatic and provocative Black Square there is no centre to the canvas as such; the title is misleading: the painting is not black, rather it contains a range of colours; neither is the image a square – this revelation in plain sight, without requiring the verification of a measuring device; and shapes – invisible at first glance – manifest as a result of pareidolia: seeing things in apparent randomness. Seeing in this way, which highlights curious or neglected detail, requires what might be regarded as a non-hierarchical or horizontal approach to looking. Indeed, it is precisely by not knowing what one is looking at, and not recognising pre-established areas of focus, which invites the viewer to be more cognisant of other characteristics of the painting. For instance, the entire ekphrasis might be on an overlooked smudge or damaged part of the upper-left quadrant; or it may delve into the craquelure in Black Square, noticing evidence of what Malevich did not intend the viewer to see, such as preliminary and suppressed images which come to be partially revealed through the pentimento and more fully by modern X-ray techniques (Dunne 2015).

Most obviously, when viewing abstract or monochromatic images, the ekphrastic poet may allow his or her imagination to find form in what at first glance seems formless. This will most likely involve the practice of encouraging hallucination or elaborating around the effects of pareidolia – a technique most famously espoused by Leonardo da Vinci in his advice to the fledgling artist. It may also be the case that the poet takes advantage of free association: starting with a colour such as red, and then moving into exploring the connotations of this colour and what it conjures up in terms of memory or the environment. In addition, the poet may also consider how words are set out on the page – form as well as content – as a means of enabling the ekphrasis of abstract or monochromatic art and showing how another mode of looking has been implemented. For now I suggest three possibilities. The first is mimicry: that the layout of the poem should in some way correspond with the painting (forming a square, for instance, with the Malevich). In one of my own poems, ‘Black Square’, which is appropriate to cite in the context of this argument, mimicry is the principle device (Wright 2017). The second is contrast: to work against or contradict what the image represents. With the Malevich, this may involve using abundant white space between words, phrases, or around lines or stanzas. And the third is – drawing inspiration from Georges Perec and the Oulipo school – making use of a constraint decided upon in advance – such as prohibiting line breaks, commas, or particular words (such as ‘black’ or ‘darkness’) (Perec 1997).

Having formal constraints helps to frame the ekphrasis of such artworks: more accustomed areas of focus are prohibited and the writer has to look elsewhere, to details they do not usually see. Here form and content are not a simple dichotomy; formal rules are generative of content to the extent that this apparent dualism breaks down into what is better conceived of as a system, or what is sometimes understood as procedural verse (Conte 2016). Any constraint would not be arbitrary, but rather bear a relationship with the image (such as barring the perhaps too obvious reference to black in response to the Malevich). The result, most likely, is to force the ekphrastic poet to see, perhaps for the first time, the full spectrum of iridescence embedded within what, at first glance, appears empty.

 

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