Picture Talk

The Greek term ekphrasis refers to a particular practice in rhetoric dating back to antiquity. By it the orator aimed to practice persuasion by testing the emotional effect a well-crafted speech would perform on its listeners. The audience was offered a portrayal in absence of the chosen subject (people, things, landscapes, epochs etc.), but “painted” in such impassioned and vivid a manner that it would constitute itself as a mental image before the auditor’s inner eye—
so that “to listen,” meant, “to see.” And what one “saw” by listening would be a convincing image rendered by a selection of accumulated details of descriptive and psychological nature. The point was to produce mimesis, and via mimesis, emotional participation, empathy.

Aristotle names this technique of vivid textual rendition enargeia, and the effect it conveys energeia—meaning liveness, closeness to real life, visualization. As a side note: one of the German translations of the latter, Vergegenwärtigung, appears more enlightening—meaning literally making (something) present (to oneself), it emphasizes more strongly the process (the prefix ver- suggesting a transformation), as well as the active participation of the subject in this internal process that links mental image making to gaining awareness.

Later on, in De arte poetica, more commonly known as Ars poetica, 1st century BC, Horace coined the phrase ut pictura poesis—as is painting so is poetry—demanding eloquence from any poet, to such a degree that their verses “resemble” painting in its visuality and strive to imitate nature. This dictum shows that despite the inherited Platonic skepticism towards images, a certain degree of importance was attributed to them in classical and late antiquity. But the relation between image and word was to grow in complexity over the centuries to come, as is testified by art, literature and their theory, by philosophical and anthropological studies.

Returning to its history, whilst originally disposed as a subcategory within rhetoric and most often integrated in laudatory speeches, between the 2nd and the 3rd century AD, ekphrasis became autonomous, gradually developing into a genre of its own, specifically deployed to depict fictitious or existing artwork. After a period of neglect and repudiation during early Christian iconoclasm, it became of interest again in the Middle Ages, appearing e.g. as part of minnesongs, or on paintings especially in the form of tituli (titles or captions which succinctly indicated the subject of the paintings). Further, it continued to gain emphasis, either deployed as such or addressed in theoretical writings, throughout the Renaissance (Vasari, Bellori, Alberti, Agucchi, Félibien etc.) and afterwards (Addison, Lessing, Diderot, Goethe, Moritz, Winckelmann, Schlegel, Burckhardt …).

Giorgio Vasari’s compilation of artist biographies, which mark the beginnings of art historical writing, contains ekphrases of individual works devised on the principle of a repetitive formula. His goal was an acclaim of the masters of different generations (retaining the laudatory aspect of the antique ekphrasis) but also an assessment of the evolution of painterly style and technique towards a closer imitation of nature. With the younger Giovanni Battista Agucchi and André Félibien, ekphrases are deployed more independently from biographical data and in a manner offering a more precise and purposefully structured, yet vivid description, so that it could replace a lacking image.

During the Enlightenment, authors like Diderot (despite his own use of a theatricality in his Salons that may be linked to a form of ekphrasis) and Lessing (most famously in Laokoon, 1766) investigate and determine the boundaries between words and images. Consequently, in the field of art history,
ekphrasis is substituted by descriptions with a stronger claim to objectivity, precision and thoroughness of analysis set by the prevailing standards of empirical observation. As reproductions are now available to a larger public, the role of descriptions ceases to be that of placeholders for pictures to the extent they used to be. Eventually, ekphrasis as a transporter of energeia became a rather obsolete notion, as did the accumulating and detailing technique of enargeia, though they still had their supporters (Karl Philipp Moritz, August Wilhelm Schlegel). The scholarly or scientific description established itself, as the ekphrasis now proved to be a tool widely unfit to serve the purposes of the emerging art historian of the 19th century (which is to be understood in the context of private collections becoming public, the spread of the institution of the museum, and growing public interest).

Although, some exceptions (e.g. Carl Einstein) withstanding, declared defunct by art historians (see Otto Pächt’s essay The end of the imagist theory from 1930), the ekphrasis continued its life in the guise of various transgressions by numerous writers and poets. There, in the twilight zone between visual and written arts, it had for centuries had a most fruitful terrain. In modern and contemporary literature, too, there are plentiful examples of quite different shades. From Oscar Wilde and Henry James’s “prose pictures,” to the poetic art criticism of Théophile Gautier (see his descriptions of the Salons, but likewise his ekphrastic poem Watteau) and Charles Baudelaire (e.g. describing Delacroix frescoes), to the metaphorical picture-poems of Mina Loy (Brancusi’s Golden Bird, Joyce’s Ulysses), Sylvia Plath (early poems on Klee, Rousseau and de Chirico), Georg Trakl (Die Nacht, about Kokoschka’s painting Windsbraut), Paul Eluard (Max Ernst), Paul Celan (Unter ein Bild—about van Gogh’s Wheatfield with crows), to the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet (e.g. La Jalousie) where description is completely detached from narration. The list can go on, of course, but there is little room here to dive into the intricacies of all the manifold developments the ekphrasis underwent. Generally, its manifestations have oscillated between two major tendencies: the ekphrasis as the rendition of an impression left by a work of art in the conscience of its author, filtered through his sensibility and reconstituted from his memory (as Vergegenwärtigung), and the analytical “geometric” description (e.g. Alain Robbe-Grillet), which zooms in on its subject to the point where the latter becomes almost unrecognizable, thus breaking the narrative stream and shifting the focus from what is seen to how it’s seen. The latter became a prevalent concern in contemporary visual arts and art history and criticism, which have mutually influenced each other in practice. The former, however, has not ever truly found its way back into practical art criticism (naturally, there are exceptions, and one notable example is Italo Calvino’s text on Arakawa’s paintings in the September 1985 issue of Artforum). In specialized, academic circles though, for the past 50 years or so, revitalized by the iconic turn—with all its implications and links to semiotics, anthropology, philosophy, media studies—the concept of ekphrasis as an intermediating agent between the realm of images and the realm of words has been a recurring topic.

This massive interdisciplinary project opens new ways of reassessing the past. Such is also the case for the exceptional personality the abovementioned Denis Diderot was, now seen as the founder of modern art criticism. His critical writing enacted the different styles of the described works of art by deploying a wide palette of rhetorical figures, including ekphrasis: e.g. when describing Greuze’s sentimental paintings in a theatrical manner as an imagined dialogue, while visualizing Chardin’s in a language more sparse, more temperate and contemplative, as narration disintegrates in his paintings.

In The Trilogy of Knowledge (1943), Romanian poet and philosopher Lucian Blaga came up with a dual system, which he saw as leading to the act of knowledge. One, quantitative, horizontal path he named paradisiac cognition; the other, qualitative, vertical—luciferic cognition—is, in a nutshell, initiated by the realization that the objects of our perception latently bear mysteries, and what we see are merely symptoms of these objects. He aimed for a metaphorical thinking, as was the one that Hans Blumenberg suggested, in different terms, with his metaphorology, in order to activate the visualization of meanings that, otherwise, can hardly be expressed. The syntax of the metaphor, its structure, its synthesis of inherent ambiguities and abstractions, breaks in narrative and temporal succession, leaps in logic, the simultaneous coexistence of difference—this is, perhaps, the closest we may get to visualizing in words what pictures tell us.


Gottfried Boehm, “Die Wiederkehr der Bilder,” in: Boehm (ed.), Was ist ein Bild?, Munich, 1994, p. 11–38.

Gottfried Boehm, “Bildbeschreibung. Über die Grenzen von Bild und Sprache.” In: Gottfried Boehm / Helmut Pfotenhauer (ed.), Beschreibungskunst—Kunstbeschreibung, Munich, 1995, p. 23–40.

Hans Körner, “Der Imaginäre Fremde als Bildbetrachter. Zur Krise der Bildbeschreibung im französischen 19. Jahrhundert.”
In: Boehm / Pfotenhauer (ed.), 1995, p. 398–424.

Karl Pestalozzi, “Das Bildgedicht.” In: Boehm / Pfotenhauer (ed.), 1995, p. 569–591.

Gabriele Rippl, Beschreibungs-Kunst. Zur intermedialen Poetik angloamerikanischer Ikontexte (1880–2000), Munich, 2005.

Raphael Rosenberg, “Von der Ekphrasis zur wissenschaftlichen Bildbeschreibung. Vasari, Agucchi, Félibien, Burckhardt.” In: Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, no. 58, 1995, p. 297–318.

Beate Söntgen, “Why Diderot? A Project Outline,” in: Texte zur Kunst, June 2013, vol. 23, no. 90, p. 60–69.

pink golden dawn piss then gray boatman

Poetical idea: pink, then golden, then grey, then black. Still, true to life also. Day: then the night. All wind and piss like a tanyard cat. The cold of interstellar space, thousands of degrees below freezing point or the absolute zero of Fahrenheit, Centigrade or Reaumur:

the incipient intimations of proximate dawn. A boatman got a pole and fished him out by the slack of the breeches and he was landed up to the father on the quay more dead than alive. 1

the most wonderful product floating

Too many dogs are destroyed because their owners can’t bear to see them suffer. You have introduced the most wonderful product to this world and I can’t thank you enough. Leafs by Snoop’s sweets, for example, are called Dogg Treats. A floating shelf with draw. A glass vase with a stunning floral arrangement (real or fake) will hide the control but make it accessible with a photo or artwork on a bronze art stand. The draw can house your keys and mail. A lovely art piece above the thermostat. 2

athirst a man a livid fountain rising nippy

A livid swelling had spread all up the leg, on which, here and there, were pustules oozing

with dark-coloured matter. “Hold the basin nearer,” cried Charles. “Gosh!” said the man, “you’d think it was a little fountain.

“My blood’s red enough, conscience! You’d say that were a good sign now, wouldn’t ye?” Sweat was running down their faces, and a sort of whitish steam, like the mist that rises from a river of an autumn morning, floated between the hanging lamps. “Nippy, isn’t it?” he said. The priest rose from his knees to take the crucifix; and then she stretched forth her neck like one athirst and, gluing her lips to the body of the God-Man, she fastened thereon, with all her failing strength, the most passionate kiss of love she had ever in her life bestowed. Emma turned the handle of the door, and there, at the far end of the room, lay a man, sleeping. 3

your feet

Of withered leaves about your feet. Or clasped the yellow soles of feet. Or trampled by insistent feet. 4


These four fictitious ekphrases for four existing works by Mark van Yetter were collaged from the www using different text sources and departing from keywords, which sprung up at the sight of the images, and so, prompted the search.

1 All sentences from James Joyce, Ulysses

2 In order, from “The most wonderful product in the world”: , from “The Art of Pot Packaging”: The Atlantic and from “How to create the ‘Wow’ factor in our entrance”.

3 All from Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

4 All from T.S. Eliot, Preludes

Starship 14: A Plastic Island of the Mind - Cover Julian Göthe
  1. Cover Julian Göthe
  2. Contents
  3. Editorial 14 Starship, Nikola Dietrich, Martin Ebner, Ariane Müller, Henrik Olesen
  4. Topless Heike-Karin Föll
  5. I am a Poster Valerie Stahl Stromberg
  6. Reflection Paper No.4 Evelyn Taocheng Wang
  7. Waeshful Thinking Robert Meijer
  8. An amount eats a spot Hans-Christian Dany
  9. Öbel Olfe Karl Holmqvist
  10. Divine Christopher Müller
  11. Politics Chris Kraus
  12. Oh dear! Vera Tollmann, Stephanie Fezer
  13. Entwürfe zum Selbstporträt Judith Hopf
  14. * Jay Chung
  15. Eier legen Tenzing Barshee
  16. Die Treppen der CUJAE Florian Zeyfang
  17. No-90ies Francesca Drechsler
  18. Scrolling Down the Digital Side of Contemporary Art Mercedes Bunz
  19. Über: Hans-Christian Dany Schneller als die Sonne Wolfgang Gantner
  20. Alien Bogs Jakob Kolding
  21. Plastic Island Nikola Dietrich, Daniel Reuter, Cameron Rowland, Michael Pfrommer, Nina Rhode, Ed Steck, Cheyney Thompson, Eileen Quinlan, Heji Shin, Helena Huneke, Thomas Locher, Amelie von Wulffen, Kirsten Pieroth, Mark von Schlegell, Jimmy DeSana, Yuki Kimura, Anders Clausen, Bernadette Corporation
  22. O I 8 something queer Gerry Bibby
  23. Swallow This. On Gays, Pills, and Markets Nicolas Linnert
  24. Acc-ess John Beeson
  25. Plastic Island Revisited Ariane Müller
  26. Apologies Julian Göthe
  27. Excerpts from: The Hanging Garden of Sleep Haytham El Wardany
  28. Still life #6 Juliette Blightman
  29. Picture Talk Mihaela Chiriac, Mark van Yetter
  30. Thalassoma bifasciatum Friederike Clever
  31. Find 8 differences Lou Cantor
  32. N Martin Ebner
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