Thursday, January 30, 2014

Paintings that Inspired Writers: Ekphrasis

Here are a few examples... and I will tweet more to the right - scroll down...

Consider this blending images and words for a visual presentation on the blog.

Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Excerpt from Chapter 19: The Cleopatra

One day, at a quiet early hour, I found myself nearly alone in a certain gallery, wherein one particular' picture of portentous size, set up in the best light, having a cordon of protection stretched before it, and a cushioned bench duly set in front for the accommodation of worshipping connoisseurs. who, having gazed themselves off their feet, might be fain to complete the business sitting: this picture, I say, seemed to consider itself the queen of the collection. 
It represented a woman, considerably larger, I thought, than the life. I calculated that this lady, put into a scale of magnitude suitable for the reception of a commodity of bulk, would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone. She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher's meat - to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids - must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh. She lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away the noon on a sofa. She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case: out of abundance of material - seven-and-twenty yards, I should say, of drapery - she managed to make inefficient raiment. Then, for the wretched untidiness surrounding her, there could be no excuse. Pots and pans - perhaps I ought to say vases and goblets - were rolled here and there on the foreground; a perfect rubbish of flowers was mixed amongst them, and an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery smothered the couch and cumbered the floor. On referring to the catalogue, I found that this notable production bore the name 'Cleopatra.' 
Well, I was sitting wondering at it (as the bench was there, I thought I might as well take advantage of its accommodation), and thinking that while some of the details - as roses, gold cups, jewels, etc., were very prettily painted, it was on the whole an enormous piece of claptrap; the room, almost vacant when I entered, began to fill. Scarcely noticing this circumstance (as, indeed, it did not matter to me) I retained my seat; rather to rest myself than with a view to studying this huge, dark-complexioned gipsy-queen; of whom, indeed, I soon tired, and betook myself for refreshment to the contemplation of some exquisite little pictures of still life: wild flowers, wild-fruit, mossy wood-nests, casketing eggs that looked like pearls seen through clear green sea-water; all hung modestly beneath that coarse and preposterous canvass.
Click for more from Art in Fiction

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus

  by William Carlos Williams
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning
- See more at:

Giacomo Balla
Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912
Oil on Canvas

A Futurist Looks at a Dog

Tim Liardet

I do not see godmother’s adoring pet
as you do, nor know him by name; neither can
I keep the present he keeps:
his six little steps to match godmother’s one.

I see instead every stride the dog has made
in the last twenty metres at once,
the sum of strides per second jumbled up
on top of one another - its tail

a cactus of wags, its rapid legs
a sort of tailback of centipedes,
a strobile of stunted steps, a carwash brush,
two bleary propellers rotating.

Above it, the leash in flight is many leashes
whipping and overlapping,
a flung silver net, a soundwave,
each stride a new species of leash;

the dachshund once set in motion
embarks upon another existence,
and godmother’s pet as you know him
vanished twenty, no, thirty strides back.

From - Read the full essay at Poetry Magazine

As a technique, as a tactic and a strategy, as a process, all that I have described above has been put to the test in my new book The Blood Choir, to be published this summer. I taught for most of the year 2001 in the second largest Young Offenders’ prison in Europe. Trying to write about this was fraught with sensibilities, pitfalls, political correctness. I wrote more poems in the course of that year than during any previous twelve month period and struggled to find the most appropriate approach. After much prolonged agonising and soul-searching, I put my trust in the innate powers of description, implicitly leaving the rest to the ellipsis of the whole volume, the unspoken ‘elsewheres’ which, it is to be hoped, are drawn into earshot and imagination via ekphrastic description.

   Take the title poem, for example. This is a sequence of five sections which evokes the terrifying speed with which a classroom of bored and restless prisoners are drawn up into what can only be described as a mob or, as the poem puts it later, an ‘organism’, glued together by shared assumptions, shared deprivation, shared hunger. Of course, the visual antecedent of this is Francisco Goya, whose paintingPilgrimage of St Isidore, painted 1821-3, captures the moment that individuals seem to be drawn up into one being, bound together by the common experience of what might be awe, fear or potential violence. This sort of ‘event’ recurs in many of his paintings, but is perhaps most effectively achieved in this one. This is the poem’s opening section of five:

The Blood Choir
After Goya

Consider how a young man sheds his name
and number, his boot blister and tattoo,

his lisp, his wrist-scar and dental history;
how he sheds, in short, all that could not

be anyone’s but his, the ancient encryption
of his fingerprint, the mole on the ball of his foot.

It is a terrible thing to witness the speed with which
he and twenty other inmates are drawn up,

stumbling backwards, into one another; how they grow
eerily identical webbed feet, webbed fingers,

webbed ears, and melt their bone-marrow down
to the kind of red glue that welds them together

at the pelvis, the abdomen and the chest
as if, well, some slow-moving animal penned

by a single rope, tugging at each wrist; some rhythm
of oars rowed, without a drum; some engine

which drives a sort of spirit replica straight through
the savage razors of the wire without a scratch.

Medusa Leonardo da Vinci*

On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery

  by Percy Bysshe Shelley
It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky, 
  Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;  
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly; 
  Its horror and its beauty are divine. 
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie 
  Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,  
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,  
The agonies of anguish and of death. 
Yet it is less the horror than the grace  
  Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone;
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face  
  Are graven, till the characters be grown  
Into itself, and thought no more can trace; 
  'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown  
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,
Which humanize and harmonize the strain. 
And from its head as from one body grow, 
  As [   ] grass out of a watery rock, 
Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow  
  And their long tangles in each other lock,
And with unending involutions shew  
  Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock  
The torture and the death within, and saw  
The solid air with many a ragged jaw. 
And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft
  Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes; 
Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft  
  Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise  
Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft, 
  And he comes hastening like a moth that hies
After a taper; and the midnight sky  
Flares, a light more dread than obscurity. 
'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;  
  For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare  
Kindled by that inextricable error, 35 
  Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air  
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror  
  Of all the beauty and the terror there— 
A woman's countenance, with serpent locks, 
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks. 

- See more at: 

The Idiot by Dostoyevsky Prince Myshkin is stunned by a painting of the dead Christ in Rogozhin's house. Hippolite describes the painting in detail, also haunted by the image of "a poor mangled body". Based on a real painting that horrified Dostoyevsky – The Body of the Dead Christ by Hans Holbein – it is Christ without divinity, "depicted as though still suffering; as though the body, only just dead, was still almost quivering with agony".

They passed through the same rooms which the prince had traversed on his arrival. In the largest there were pictures on the walls, portraits and landscapes of little interest. Over the door, however, there was one of strange and rather striking shape; it was six or seven feet in length, and not more than a foot in height. It represented the Saviour just taken from the cross. 
The prince glanced at it, but took no further notice. He moved on hastily, as though anxious to get out of the house. But Rogojin suddenly stopped underneath the picture. 
"My father picked up all these pictures very cheap at auctions, and so on," he said; "they are all rubbish, except the one over the door, and that is valuable. A man offered five hundred roubles for it last week."
"Yes--that's a copy of a Holbein," said the prince, looking at it again, "and a good copy, too, so far as I am able to judge. I saw the picture abroad, and could not forget it--what's the matter?" 
Rogojin had dropped the subject of the picture and walked on. Of course his strange frame of mind was sufficient to account for his conduct; but, still, it seemed queer to the prince that he should so abruptly drop a conversation commenced by himself. Rogojin did not take any notice of his question. 
"Lef Nicolaievitch," said Rogojin, after a pause, during which the two walked along a little further, "I have long wished to ask you, do you believe in God?" 
"How strangely you speak, and how odd you look!" said the other, involuntarily. 
"I like looking at that picture," muttered Rogojin, not noticing, apparently, that the prince had not answered his question. 
"That picture! That picture!" cried Muishkin, struck by a sudden idea. "Why, a man's faith might be ruined by looking at that picture!"

Still shocking viewers today: Read this Guardian review 

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