Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Painting and Poetry styles (part 2)

(a rewrite of Painting and Poetry styles)

The analogy of poetry to painting is at least as old as Plato and Simonides. "ut pictura poesis", ("as is painting, so is poetry") wrote Horace, but not everyone agrees. As it says on, G.E. Lessing in Lacoön tried to split the 2 arts - "poetry should appeal to the ear and consider time based actions, he argued, while painting should appeal to the eye and represent spatial configurations ... Lessing's argument was made in order to claim superiority for poetry. ... For Greenberg and other influential art critics writing in the middle of last century, the dominant art of the twentieth century was painting. Unlike literature, it was argued, visual art could retreat into its own materiality and be purely aesthetic. ... The special power of visual art, these modernist critics argued, was in its opposition to language".

Here I'm not going to judge the 2 arts or even discuss Ekphrasis as such. I'm more interested how poetry and art styles can be compared.

The title of Magritte's 1928-9 painting is "La trahison des images". Note that the words "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" are part of the painting. Are they necessary? I guess those words could instead have been the title, but that wouldn't have reduced the importance of the words to the artwork. Is it surrealism? Not really. What's so special about a pipe? Nothing. A conceptual artist might have produced these instructions

For any object X
  • Present a recognisable visual representation of X
  • Beneath the representation, print "This is not a[n]" X

Assuming that "Ceci" refer to the image rather than the sentence, the sentence may initially seem to the viewer to present a contradiction, but then it becomes accepted as true - after all, a picture of a pipe isn't a pipe (though language tempts us to forget the distinction). According to Laurie Edson in "Reading Relationally", Ponge plays similar tricks to Magritte - "Ponge's Soap provides an excellent example of a multilayered text in which the reader's cognitive ability to perceive the relations between the layers is the crucial first step in make sense ofthe slippages from one level to another ... Both Ponge and Magritte have created works of art that provoke and anticipate this sort of shift of emphasis from the object under scutiny to the frame of reference. In this sense, their artistic praxis anticipates poststructuralism, with its project of making visible and demystifying the moves by which discourses and ideological frames of reference shape perception" (p.57, 54), though Magritte piece is more accessible. Compare it with a piece by David Shrigley (Turner 2013 finalist) - a stuffed Jack Russel on its hind legs holds a sign that says "I'm Dead". Again, there's a dependence on language. Using language alone, one can go further. Take this example

This sentence is false

This can't be true. Neither can it be false. It might seem like a harmless paradox, but Gödel's undecidably theorem, which shook the foundations of mathematics, uses essentially the same idea. Perhaps some Escher works exhibit self-contradiction too, but language can deal with this concept much more simply than images can because

  • Language has deictic words, so a sentence can refer to itself.
  • Language can cope with concepts like "false".

In language I can write "a square circle". I can't think of an equivalent in art.

Does language always have the upper hand? Not at all. Compare this sentence with Hopper's 1942 "Nighthawks"

A man is in a bar

They take equally long to process, but this is a situation where a picture is worth a thousand words. Do those extra details matter? In most cases the artist has no choice but to show them anyway. Some painters (e.g. Schiele) leave patches of bare canvas. With text, this mode is the norm - readers invent the detail. As described in Mind, Brain and Narrative (Anthony J. Sanford and Catherine Emmott), when people read descriptive text, they complete the scenes using their prior knowledge and awareness of probabilities. The reader has strategies to cope with situations where subsequent information contradicts their initial assumptions. This contrast of presentation modes means that an artist can't draw a dog, only a dachshund, a collie, or some mongrel or other.

The 2 examples above show how different the 2 arts can be.

  • Poetry is absorbed linearly. Patterns and arguments accumulate with the help of memory. Understanding needs to be deferred.
  • Paintings have immediacy and density of detail/specificity

The terms Linear and Spatial have been used to describe the different processing modes. But the 2 arts also differ radically regarding their association to the real world. Greenberg in "Towards a Newer Laocoon" wrote that all arts in the twentieth century "have been hunted back to their mediums and there have been isolated, concentrated and defined. It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself. To restore the identity of an art the opacity of its medium must be emphasized". Text and Pictures have different substrates

  • Art can be mistaken for the real world (classical mimesis or photorealism, but also Duchamp's "Fountain"). Realist painting reduces to represented objects, then colour and shape, then perhaps paint.
  • Text can be mistaken for the real world too, but only as "found poetry" or quotations. Text reduces to simpler components in 2 different ways - via sound to phonemes, and visually to letters and ink/light.

But there is some overlap regarding the effects the 2 arts can achieve. Romanticism and Impressionism are movements that span music, art and to a lesser extent literature, but mostly regarding content not method. Film and novels perhaps correspond more closely than poems and paintings do, but let's start with painting then try to identify analogues.

A selective history of Western Painting

The notes below indicate how some trends evolved

  • Narrative
    • Scenes from a life or narrative are combined in one picture (a hunt on a cave-wall; a renaissance Life of Christ frieze)
    • A significant moment is taken from a Bible/Mythical narrative (there's still a feeling that if painting isn't about god, it's not meaningful)
    • Portraits - first of Patrons, as if the painting couldn't stand up for itself; the subject matter needs to be important
  • Stills
    • Landscape (first as a background for Myths or portraits, then for its own sake)
    • Still-life - (first symbol-laden - a meal table represents Gluttony - then 16th century Dutch still lifes and interiors (maps on walls)).
    • Impressionism - Snapshots - ordinary people doing ordinary things. No hidden meanings! (eye as a camera)
    • Photorealism
  • Imagination (a reaction to photography? Actually it predates photography, and besides, there was the camera obscura)
    • Expressionism - From within. Still using representationalism initially.
    • Surrealism. Dada (letting the irrational in. Expressing oneself making free use of 'reality')
  • Conceptual/Abstract
    • Cubism (cross-cutting, multiple overlapping viewpoints)
    • Non-representational - (doesn't need to 'be' anything, or even 'be about' anything - the work's an object in its own right). Abstract expressionism, Op-Art, attention to surface.
    • 'Gallery-effect' art (upside down painting; a mirror entitled 'Self Portrait'; found art, incorporation of objects)
    • Procedural art
    • Pop-Art (ironic use of low culture)

Seeking parallels

Can all of these effects be replicated in poetry? Some can

  • Mainstream poetry has many types of still-lifes and scenes from narratives. It can't do landscape.
  • I suspect some Dada/Surrealism painting might easily be rendered in words, if it's the idea that matters. It's no surprise that painters of this type often expressed themselves in words too.
  • Various candidates have been offered for a literary equivalent to cubism - "The Wasteland"? To me, it is more of a short-video with occasional voice-over.
  • Poetry tries to appropriate and transform real-life objects (i.e. words). L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry sometimes claimed to try to cleanse words of their capitalist residue acquired when they were used in the real world.
  • Abstract artists can talk about the subtle contrasts of color, how the weight of a purple square offsets the subtlety of the yellow circle, but if you scrunch your eyes up, a Rembrandt has those effects too - the abstract artist has abstracted away the detail. Can words do that too? I think literature lacks a match for abstract expressionism. It's tried to be abstract sometimes.
  • It's not only procedural art where the final object may add little to the description. If you have some visual imagination, Tracey Emin's "Everyone I have ever slept with" adds little to the description.

Mixed Media

Even if a work is representational, there may be extra things to see - the shadow that becomes a skull in the ambassadors; Dali's trompe l'oeuil. Paintings can be a mix of abstract and representational. In some paintings you don't know whether a blob represents an apple or whether it's a red blob (with Cezanne it could be both). Sometimes you're meant to see the brushwork (in a Hals painting 3 flicks of a brush are enough to express a rakish wink). Artists use collage, incorporating parts of the real world.

I look upon poetry as a mixed media (or at least mixed aesthetic) venture. When Hopkins wrote about the "dapple dawn-drawn falcon" he was letting the medium show through. Quotes are like stuck-on additions. Puns and acrostics are ways to conceal extra words. In a sonnet, representation can be warped for the sake of the form, not dissimilar to the way Cezanne's tables weren't always rectangular.

It's in 20th century art that 20th century poetry finds its parallels. At the moment I think my poems resemble Rauschenberg's anagram pieces (I could find any copyright-free images, but try this link). His 'combines' fused different techniques, scales, appropriations and associations. He combined some roughly rectangular images - some reproduced, some his own. I combine public facts and private impressions. Rauschenberg's neighbouring images were sometimes stained the same colour. Sometimes there were thematic connections. I too mix continuity and juxtaposition, linear and spatial.


Here are some examples of more pure aesthetics

  • Abstract? (Bernstein)
    Casts across otherwise unavailable fields.
    Makes plain. Ruffled. Is trying to
    alleviate his false: invalidate. Yet all is
    "to live out" by shut belief, the
    various, simply succeeds which.
  • Surreal? (Gasgoyne)
    A cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
    Green as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
    And a wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
    The afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
    The afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows
    And the owners of rubber pitchforks bake all their illusions
  • Concrete? (Brian Pastoor)
     pa  i n
         i n
       s i n
        s o 
  • According to Laurie Edson in "Reading Relationally" (Univ of Michigan Press, 2000), "In combining different styles, vocabulary, and aesthetics in the same poem and in letting the various segments conflict and contrast with each other, Apollinaire created [Les Fiancailles,] a poem as transparently fragmented as Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon"


  • Pick a Picture. Rather than write a poem about it (some editors are biased against the results - it's an all too common workshop exercise), try to emulate the style; its stance towards the World and Representation. If it has rough brushstrokes, bare canvas, artificial colours or other non-representational effects, try to emulate them in words.
  • Compare Braque's cubism (multiple merging perspectives) with Stevens' "13 ways of looking at a blackbird".
  • Compare de Chirico's "Dreams of a Poet" with Wendy Cope's poem of the same name.


  • "With a Poet's Eye", Pat Adams, Tate Gallery Publications, 1986?
  • "Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature", Wylie Sypher, (New York: Random House, 1960).
  • "The Colors of Rhetoric: Problems in the Relation between Modern Literature and Painting", Wendy Steiner, (Univ of Chicago Press, 1982).
  • "Wallace Stevens and Modern Art", Glen MacLeod, (Yale U.P., 1993).
  • "Painterly abstraction in Modernist American poetry", C. Altieri, CUP, 1989.
  • The Long Conversation between Painting and Poetry
  • The Poet Speaks of Art
  • Illustrated Poetry
  • Image - Text - Image

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