Ekphrasis or ecphrasis is the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art. In ancient times it referred to a description of any thing, person, or experience. The word comes from the Greek ek and phrasis, 'out' and 'speak' respectively, verb ekphrazein, to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name.


Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness. A descriptive work of prose or poetry, a film, or even a photograph may thus highlight through its rhetorical vividness what is happening, or what is shown in, say, any of the visual arts, and in doing so, may enhance the original art and so take on a life of its own through its brilliant description. One example is a painting of a sculpture: the painting is "telling the story of" the sculpture, and so becoming a storyteller, as well as a story (work of art) itself. Virtually any type of artistic media may be the actor of, or subject of ekphrasis. One may not always be able, for example, to make an accurate sculpture of a book to retell the story in an authentic way; yet if it's the spirit of the book that we are more concerned about, it certainly can be conveyed by virtually any medium and thereby enhance the artistic impact of the original book through synergy.

In this way, a painting may represent a sculpture, and vice versa; a poem portray a picture; a sculpture depict a heroine of a novel; in fact, given the right circumstances, any art may describe any other art, especially if a rhetorical element, standing for the sentiments of the artist when s/he created her/his work, is present. For instance, the distorted faces in a crowd in a painting depicting an original work of art, a sullen countenance on the face of a sculpture representing a historical figure, or a film showing particularly dark aspects of neo-Gothic architecture, are all examples of ekphrasis.

History of ekphrasisEdit

Plato's Forms, the beginning of ekphrasisEdit

Plato discusses forms in the Republic, Book X, by using real things, such as a bed, for example, and calls each way a bed has been made, a "bedness". He commences with the original form of a bed, one of a variety of ways a bed may have been constructed by a craftsman and compares that form with an ideal form of a bed, of a perfect archetype or image in the form of which beds ought to be made, in short the epitome of bedness.

In his analogy one bedness form shares its own bedness - with all its shortcomings - with that of the ideal form, or template. A third bedness, too, may share the ideal form. He continues with the fourth form also containing elements of the ideal template/archetype which in this way remains an ever-present and invisible ideal version with which the craftsman compares his work. As bedness after bedness shares the ideal form and template of all creation of beds, and each bedness is associated with another ad infinitum, it is called an "infinite regress of forms".

From form to ekphrasisEdit

It was this epitome, this template of the ideal form, that a craftsman or later an artist would try to reconstruct in his attempt to achieve perfection in his work, that was to manifest itself in ekphrasis at a later stage.
Artists began to use their own literary and artistic genre of art to work and reflect on another art to illuminate what the eye might not see in the original, to elevate it and possibly even surpass it.

Plato and AristotleEdit

For Plato (and Aristotle), it is not so much the form of each bed but the mimetic stages or removes at which beds may be viewed, that defines bedness [1]:

  1. a bed as a physical entity is a mere form of bed
  2. any view from whichever perspective, be it a side elevation, a full plan from above, or looking at a bed end-on is at a second remove
  3. a full picture, characterising the whole bed is at a third remove
  4. ekphrasis of a bed in another art form is at a fourth remove

Socrates and PhaedrusEdit

In another instance Socrates talks about ekphrasis to Phaedrus thus:
"You know Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.
The painter's products stand before us as though they were alive,
but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.
It is the same with written words; they seem to talk
to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything
about what they say, from a desire to be instructed,
they go on telling you just the same thing forever".[1]

Ekphrasis in literatureEdit

Ekphrasis may be encountered as early as the days of Aphthonius' Progymnasmata, his textbook of style, in Virgil's Aeneid when he describes what Aeneas sees engraved on the doors of Carthage's temple of Juno, or Homer's going to great lengths in the Iliad, Book 18, describing the Shield of Achilles, exactly how Hephaestus made it as well as its completed shape. The fullest example of ekphrasis in antiquity can be found in Philostratus of Lemnos' Eikones which describes 64 pictures in a Neapolitan villa.

The Renaissance and Baroque periods made much use of ekphrasis. In Renaissance Italy, Canto 33 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso describes a picture gallery created by Merlin. In Spain, Lope de Vega often used allusions and descriptions of Italian art in his plays, and included the painter Titian as one of his characters. Calderón de la Barca also incorporated works of art in dramas such as The Painter of his Dishonor. Cervantes, who spent his youth in Italy, utilized many Renaissance frescoes and paintings in Don Quixote and many of his other works. In England, Shakespeare briefly describes a group of erotic paintings in Cymbeline, but his most extended exercise is a 200-line description of the Greek army before Troy in Venus and Adonis. Ekphrasis seems to have been less common in France during these periods.

Ekphrasis flourished in the Romantic era and again among the pre-Raphaelite poets, but is still commonly practiced. A major poem of the English romantics -- "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats -- also furnishes us with a beautiful example of the artistic potential of ekphrasis.

Instances of ekphrasis in 19th century literature can be found in the works of such influential figures as Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, French poet, painter and novelist Théophile Gautier, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But perhaps the most distinctive use of the device can be found in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In Pérez Galdós's Our Friend Manso (1882), the narrator describes two paintings by Theodore Gericault to point to the shipwreck of ideals; while in La incógnita (1889), there are many allusions and descriptions of Italian art, including references to Botticelli, Mantegna, Masaccio, Raphael, Titian, etc.

In Ibsen's 1888 work The Lady from the Sea, the first act begins with the description of a painting of a mermaid dying on the shore and is followed by a description of a sculpture that depicts a woman having a nightmare of an ex-lover returning to her. Both works of art can be interpreted as having much importance in the overall meaning of the play as protagonist Ellida Wangel both yearns for her lost youth spent on an island out at sea and is later in the play visited by a lover she thought dead. Furthermore as an interesting example of the back-and-forth dynamic that exists between literary ekphrasis and art, in 1896 (eight years after the play was written) Norwegian painter Edvard Munch painted an image similar to the one described by Ibsen in a painting he entitled (unsurprisingly enough) Lady from the Sea. Ibsen's last work When We Dead Awaken also contains examples of ekphrasis as the play's protagonist, Arnold Rubek, is a sculptor who several times throughout the play describes his masterpiece "Resurrection Day" at length and in the many different forms the sculpture took throughout the stages of its creation. Once again the evolution of the sculpture as described in the play can be read as a reflection on the transformation undergone by Rubek himself and even as a statement on the progression Ibsen's own plays took as many scholars have read this final play (stated by Ibsen himself to be an 'epilogue') as the playwright's reflection on his own work as an artist.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky employed ekphrasis most notably in his novel The Idiot. In this novel the protagonist Prince Myshkin sees a painting of a dead Christ in the house of Rogozhin that has a profound effect on him. Later in the novel another character, Hippolite, describes the painting at much length depicting the image of Christ as one of brutal realism that lacks any beauty or sense of the divine. Rogozhin, who is himself the owner of the painting, at one moment says that the painting has the power to take away a man's faith, a comment that Dosotevsky himself made to his wife Anna upon seeing the actual painting that the painting in the novel is based on, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein. The painting was seen shortly before Dostoevsky began the novel. Though this is the major instance of ekphrasis in the novel, and the one which has the most thematic importance to the story as a whole, other instances can be spotted when Prince Myshkin sees a painting of Swiss landscape that reminds him of a view he saw while at a sanatorium in Switzerland, and also when he first sees the face of his love interest, Nastasya, in the form of a painted portrait. Nastasya too at one point in the novel describes a painting of Christ, her own imaginary work that portrays Christ with a child, an image which naturally evokes comparison between the image of the dead Christ.

English aesthete and novelist Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (189/1891) tells how Basil Hallward paints a picture of the young man named Dorian Gray. Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, who espouses a new hedonism, dedicated to the pursuit of beauty and all pleasures of the senses. Under his sway, Dorian bemoans the fact that his youth will soon fade. He would sell his soul so as to have the portrait age rather than himself. The gradual deterioration of the portrait as Dorian engages in a debauched life, becomes a mirror of his soul. The repeated notional ekphrasis of the deteriorating figure in the painting is a unique way to utilize this device.

Notional ekphrasisEdit

Notional ekphrasis may describe mental processes such as dreams, thoughts and whimsies of the imagination. It may also be one art describing or depicting another work of art which as yet is still in an inchoate state of creation, in that the work described may still be resting in the imagination of the artist before he has begun his creative work. The expression may also be applied to an art describing the origin of another art, how it came to be made and the circumstances of its being created. Finally it may describe an entirely imaginary and non-existing work of art, as though it were factual and existed in reality.

See alsoEdit

References Edit

  • Frederick A. de Armas: Ekphrasis in the age of Cervantes. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8387-5624-7
  • Frederick A. de Armas: Quixotic Frescoes: Cervantes and Italian Renaissance Art. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006.
  • Andrew Sprague Becker: The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995. ISBN 0-8476-7998-5
  • Emilie Bergman: Art Inscribed: Essays on Ekphrasis in Spanish Golden Age Poetry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-674-04805-9
  • Gottfried Boehm and Helmut Pfotenhauer: Beschreibungskunst, Kunstbeschreibung: Ekphrasis von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. München: W. Fink, 1995. ISBN 3-7705-2966-9
  • Siglind Bruhn: Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2000. ISBN 1-57647-036-9
  • Siglind Bruhn: Musical Ekphrasis in Rilke’s Marienleben. Amsterdam/Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. ISBN 90-420-0800-8
  • Siglind Bruhn: "A Concert of Paintings: ‘Musical Ekphrasis’ in the Twentieth Century," in Poetics Today 22:3 (Herbst 2001): 551-605. ISSN 0333-5372
  • Siglind Bruhn: Das tönende Museum: Musik interpretiert Werke bildender Kunst. Waldkirch: Gorz, 2004. ISBN 3-938095-00-8
  • Siglind Bruhn: "Vers une méthodologie de l’ekphrasis musical," in Sens et signification en musique, ed. by Márta Grabócz and Danièle Piston. Paris: Hermann, 2007, 155-176. ISBN 978-2-7056-6682-8
  • Siglind Bruhn, ed.: Sonic Transformations of Literary Texts: From Program Music to Musical Ekphrasis [Interplay: Music in Interdisciplinary Dialogue, vol. 6]. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-57647-140-1
  • Hermann Diels: Über die von Prokop beschriebene Kunstuhr von Gaza, mit einem Anhang enthaltend Text und Übersetzung der Ekphrasis horologiou de Prokopius von Gaza. Berlin, G. Reimer, 1917.
  • Barbara K Fischer: Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry. New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 978-0-415-97534-6
  • Claude Gandelman: Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-253-32532-3
  • Jean H. Hagstrum: The Sister Arts: The Tradtition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.
  • James Heffernan: Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. ISBN 0-226-32313-7
  • John Hollander: The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. ISBN 0-226-34949-7
  • Gayana Jurkevich: In pursuit of the natural sign: Azorín and the poetics of Ekphrasis. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8387-5413-9
  • Mario Klarer: Ekphrasis: Bildbeschreibung als Repräsentationstheorie bei Spenser, Sidney, Lyly und Shakespeare. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001. ISBN 3-484-42135-5
  • Gisbert Kranz: Das Bildgedicht: Theorie, Lexikon, Bibliographie, 3 Bände. Köln: Böhlau, 1981-87. ISBN 3-412-04581-0
  • Gisbert Kranz: Meisterwerke in Bildgedichten: Rezeption von Kunst in der Poesie. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1986. ISBN 3-8204-9091-4
  • Gisbert Kranz: Das Architekturgedicht. Köln: Böhlau, 1988. ISBN 3-412-06387-8
  • Gisbert Kranz: Das Bildgedicht in Europa: Zur Theorie und Geschichte einer literarischen Gattung. Paderborn: Schöningh, 1973. ISBN 3-506-74813-0
  • Norman Land: "The Viewer as Poet: The Renaissance Response to Art. College Part Pennsylvania State UP, 1994 ISBN 0-0271010045-10
  • Murray Krieger: Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8018-4266-2
  • Cecilia Lindhé, 'Bildseendet föds i fingertopparna'. Om en ekfras för den digitala tidsålder, Ekfrase. Nordisk tidskrift för visuell kultur, 2010:1, p. 4-16. ISSN Online: 1891-5760

ISSN Print: 1891-5752

  • Hans Lund: Text as Picture: Studies in the Literary Transformation of Pictures. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1992 (originally published in Swedish as Texten som tavla, Lund 1982). ISBN 0-7734-9449-9
  • Michaela J. Marek: Ekphrasis und Herrscherallegorie: Antike Bildbeschreibungen im Werk Tizians und Leonardos. Worms: Werner’sche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1985. ISBN 3-88462-025-5
  • Hugo Méndez-Ramírez: Neruda’s Ekphrastic Experience: Mural Art and Canto general. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8387-5398-1
  • Richard Meek: Narrating the Visual in Shakespeare. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-5775-0
  • W.J.T. Mitchell: Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. ISBN 0-226-53231-3
  • Margaret Helen Persin: Getting the Picture: The Ekphrastic Principle in Twentieth-century Spanish Poetry. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8387-5335-3
  • Michael C J Putnam: Virgil's Epic Designs: Ekphrasis in the Aeneid. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-300-07353-4
  • Christine Ratkowitsch: Die poetische Ekphrasis von Kunstwerken: eine literarische Tradition der Grossdichtung in Antike, Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2006. ISBN 978-3-7001-3480-0
  • Valerie Robillard and Els Jongeneel (eds.): Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Desciptive Approaches to Ekphrasis. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998. ISBN 90-5383-595-4
  • Maria Rubins: Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures: Ekphrasis in Russian and French Poetry. New York: Palgrave, 2000. ISBN 0-312-22951-8
  • Grant F. Scott: The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994. ISBN 0-87451-679-X
  • Grant F. Scott: "Ekphrasis and the Picture Gallery", in Advances in Visual Semiotics. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok and Jean Umiker-Sebeok. New York and Berlin: W. De Gruyter, 1995. 403-421.
  • Grant F. Scott: "Copied with a Difference: Ekphrasis in William Carlos Williams' Pictures from Brueghel". Word & Image 15 (January–March 1999): 63-75.
  • Mack Smith: Literary Realism and the Ekphrastic Tradition. University Park: Pennsylvania State U Press, 1995. ISBN 0-271-01329-X
  • Leo Spitzer: “The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, or Content vs. Metagrammar,” in Comparative Literature 7. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon Press, 1955, 203-225.
  • Peter Wagner: Icons, Texts, Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality. Berlin, New York: W. de Gruyter, 1996. ISBN 3-11-014291-0
  • Haiko Wandhoff: Ekphrasis: Kunstbeschreibungen und virtuelle Räume in der Literatur des Mittelalters. Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2003. ISBN 978-3-11-017938-5
  • Robert Wynne: Imaginary Ekphrasis. Columbus, OH: Pudding House Publications, 2005. ISBN 1-58998-335-1
  • Tamar Yacobi, "The Ekphrastic Figure of Speech," in Martin Heusser et al. (eds.), Text and Visuality. Word and Image Interactions 3, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999, ISBN 90-420-0726-5.
  • Tamar Yacobi, "Verbal Frames and Ekphrastic Figuration," in Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, Hans Lund and Erik Hedling (eds.), Interart Poetics. Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997, ISBN 90-420-0202-6.

Notes Edit

Template:No footnotes
  1. Plato: Phaedrus 275d

External links Edit


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