Hearts in One' is a poem by Charles Bernstein written in response to a work
by the contemporary painter Amy Sillman for their collaboration Duplexities
two as two
a dance in
With this short celebratory lyric, Bernstein goes a long way towards
expressing the inter-connectedness of painting and poetry, acknowledging
their genetic similarity while respecting their material difference.
Likewise Leonard Barkan, a critic and historian in comparative literature at
Princeton, is also excited by the potential such a relationship might
offer. Concentrating on the
period from antiquity to the Renaissance, his new book Mute Poetry,
Speaking Pictures is an ambitious yet compact, highly personal survey of creative
practice driven by an enthusiasm for both visual art and literature,
especially the inventive new forms that can emerge when these two disciplines
either blend or collide. In an
analytical yet passionately freewheeling style, he considers a diversity of
artists that includes as Zeuxis, Praxiteles, Alberti, Michelangelo, Titian,
Caravaggio, Poussin and Rembrandt as well as a range of writers such as
Horace, Ovid, Plutarch, Dante, Petrarch, Vasari, Montaigne and Shakespeare.
In his last book, Michelangelo: a life on paper (2010), Barkan gave some
attention to how, as a great example of the artist-poet, his prodigious
subject Michelangelo, draws over his words and writes poems over his
drawings. The interplay of the
visual and the verbal continues to be Barkan's focus in this new study where,
despite the inevitable problems of comparing painting with poetry, he
establishes how they are 'interconnected at the core'. Here he applies his theoretical knowledge
to the foundations of the western poetic tradition to try to gain a new
understanding of why their independence has been compromised.
Barkan therefore sets about unravelling a poetics he sees as always dependent
upon an analogy to visual art.
But his ruminations frequently lead to a position of ambiguity and as
such, this opaqueness does not necessarily produce an uncomfortable
comparison. For example, in
deciding those qualities of the pictorial that are being demanded of poets,
he paraphrases first century biographer Plutarch 'about bringing the past
into the present' with a 'sense of rendering what is absent present', a
statement of intent that could serve both painter and poet equally well, as
it might the historian for whom it was originally intended. Like Barkan, he was well used to
examining activities in parallel, in Plutarch's case it is the juxtaposition
of certain Greek and Roman lives.
While Barkan also takes the book's title from Plutarch ('painting is mute
poetry and poetry a speaking picture') who in turn is quoting the ancient
Greek poet Simonides, the book jacket is adorned with a now 'lost'
Caravaggio. This emotive image
is a central detail of Matthew and the Angel (1602), the version destroyed by the bombing
of Berlin in World War II. It
is about the actual process of inscription that for Barkan provides 'a focal
point where textuality and physicality - letters and hands - coincide'. He sees in this depiction of the
humble Saint who is fumbling to write as the angel determinedly tries to
guide his hand, the materiality of the creative act coming together with
something more mysterious and immaterial. The cover gives us two figures intensely involved with the
effort of composition but in so doing, expresses aspects of the unseen or the
The idea of disappearance dominates the first of the four chapters that make
up the book, then continues as a subtle theme to permeate throughout. In fact the first art objects to come
under Barkan's scrutiny are a re-imagined series of old master prints as
described in the short story 'The Invisible Collection' (1926) by Stefan
Zweig. The story concerns an
elderly, blind art collector who supposedly has every single image from his
portfolio of prints stored in his memory. Even though his wife and daughter have sold off the collection
one at a time behind his back, they persuade an art dealer to comply with the
charade of perusing a series of empty sheets while the blind collector
enthuses about the invisible Rembrandts and Durers.
Referring back to a high school film project from years ago, Barkan describes
how he was seized by a desire to cinematically show this invisible
collection, to capture with recurring shots 'the potent incongruity of the
blank sheets on the screen and the florid voice on the soundtrack'. What appeals to him is the 'blind
faith' of the blind art collector whose 'vast verbal monuments' establish
'either a pathetic self-delusion or a definitive act of inward sight. In other words, the old man is a
writer'. Although Barkan worries
that his film only exposes the vast gap between words and pictures, Zweig's
story clearly illustrates the ekphrastic potential for both speaker and
listener: that through a vivid rendering in words, an image can come to life
inside one's head.
Similarly I can't help but associate Barkan's anxieties about erasure, loss
and silence with three iconic twentieth century artworks that deal with
dematerialisation and use absence principally as a shaping device: the
obliteration of crayon, ink, pencil and charcoal in Robert Rauschenberg's Erased
de Kooning Drawing; the shifting of earth to form Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty as it submerges beneath
Lake Utah; and the removal of orchestrated sound in John Cage's 4' 33Ó. In each case the emptiness, impermanence and vulnerability
of the work becomes the subject.
By bringing what is in the background into the foreground, this
process allows what is hidden behind the surface to assuredly come
through. By way of deliberating
on making his film, Barkan's retelling of Zweig's story is especially
resonant for writers engaging with ekphrasis, indeed with any form of
translation, in having to accept erasure, loss and silence (both their
possibility and impossibility) not just as conditions but as actual qualities
of the process.
In each of the remaining chapters Barkan tends to affirm Aristotle's view
that the essence of ekphrasis is enargeia, a rhetorical requirement
to provide for the receiver some pictorial effect, some vivid imagery
recreated in words, a demand that the poet should put things before his eyes
É as if he were actually present'.
The fly-in-the-ointment is a further ancient Greek term skiagraphia, an illusionistic method
often using light and shadow.
Writers soon learned from the painters that this technique could be
employed as a means of deception, turning mimesis (the imitation of reality)
into a negative means, which was an implicit part of Plato's argument against
poetry, in fact his idea of poetry as a pursuit was as a kind of
madness. But for both writer and
artist some bare clues extracted from nature might inspire unexpected
pictures in the imagination and therefore, countering Plato again, Barkan
paraphrases Aristotle to maximum effect, advocating that 'mimesis produces
the greatest pleasure of all when it inspires the longest arc between the
thing represented and the representation'.
Although Barkan's examples shift from antiquity through towards the
Renaissance, the book's affection for inventive forms of ekphrastic practice
and dialogue continues to grow with each successive chapter as he effectively
sets writers and artists in their appropriate context. No more so than when he recounts the
collaboration between the Sienese painter Simone Martini and his fellow
Italian poet Francesco Petrarch when they are both living in Avignon. Simone's frontispiece (1336) for
Petrarch's own copy of Virgil is for Barkan a perfect placement of the visual
in relation to the textural where 'discursive analysis and pictorial
demonstration are being understood as in profound sympathy'. Even in the ill-defined, black and
white reproduction presented here, we understand how Martini's sinuous linear
style not only compliments but interacts with Petrarch's sonnets which, as
Barkan points out in his analysis of 'Rime 77' and 'Rime 78', make telling
reference to a portrait of Laura de Noves that Martini had already painted
for the poet.
Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures provides an excellent contribution to the growing
body of work over recent years on the history and theory of ekphrasis. It reflects the increasing
fascination among poets, critics and academics with the relationship of
literary texts to the visual arts.
By the end of his book, Barkan has arrived at an ekphrastic equation
that is refreshing: having considered various attempts to promote one medium
at the expense of another, he readily argues that a painting can speak
through a poem, as a poem might speak through a painting (or play, film,
etc). But like each invisible
artwork in Zweig's short story, finding its voice is a collaborative venture
that can only be realized in the audience's imagination.
Peter Gillies 2013