WE were fortunate to hear Adjunct Professor Robin Hemley speak on ekphrasis this week (pronounced with emphasis on the first syllable and a hard ‘a’, not the Australian ekphr-aye-sis).
Put simply, ekphrasis is the written representation of a visual representation, or more subtly, a literary engagement with a work of art in a visual medium, in a representational dialogue.
Ekphrasis has a long literary tradition. In his lecture, Robin looked closely at W.H Auden’s poem Musee de Beaux Arts that is an ekphrastic response to Bruegel’s works The Census at Bethlehem (1566), The Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7), and Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1500s disputed). We heard how Auden’s poem is in dialogue with the paintings, never simply describing, nor taking a critical distance, nor departing from the works altogether on a flight of imagination, but rather using them as a lyric touchstone of departure and return. Robin suggested contemporary writers can look to the literary tradition of ekphrasis as a way to engage the lacunae between the word and the image. The lecture put me in mind of many examples but here perhaps most relevant is Ross Gibson’s work Accident Music that he spoke on as part of the nonfcitionLab 2013 symposium, and as appears in rezine01.
At a masterclass the following day participants were invited to write spontaneous ekphrastic responses to postcards and also try ‘notional ekphrasis’ which is a written representation of an imagined work of art. If ekphrasis engages a metaphoric or figurative (in the literary sense) response to a visual representation, notional ekphrasis creates a literary image from a metaphoric one.