Joined at the Hip

Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures,
Leonard Barkan
(192pp, 15.95, Princeton University Press)

'Two 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 (2012):

          two hearts as one
          become confused
          I rather we figured
          two as two
          confused, enmeshed
          we forge our clime
          a picture is
          a dance in time

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 divine.

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' 33.  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 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