This week I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference, or lack of difference, between the visual and the written arts. Lessing theorizes that poetry or prose exists in time, and the visual arts in space: e.g that you can only experience a poem or piece of prose in one direction- linearly through time, usually from start to finish, but in a painting, the whole and parts coexist simultaneously rather than consecutively. You may ‘read’ a painting, but you still experience it as a whole. People often forget to experience poetry or prose as a ‘whole’, as the whole can only be reflected on afterwards the reader has read the final page. However, although the mediums are so different, the viewer and reader responses to visual and textual art can be the same.
Borges has questioned whether we experience reality successively or simultaneously in his short story ‘the Aleph’, whereas Joyce attempted to convey everything in language in his Ulysses. Borges believed it was only possible to capture the temporality of experience- and therefore any attempt to convey the totality of human experience in language would fail.
We experience paintings spatially. The paint, the brushstrokes, the canvas literally take up space and exist for the viewer as a whole composed of complementary parts. Although we usually experience text temporally rather than spatially, there are ways of creating a spatial experience of a text. Imagine, as an author, visually plotting out character arcs and events in a novel using Post-it notes and string, like detectives in a movie. And what is a graphic novel if not simultaneously spatial and temporal? they exist as both art objects and literature. There are also incredibly visual poems, where the shape reminds the reader of the imagery contained in their words. Some novels are also arranged visually in this way. And while the process of reading may be temporal, the evaluation of said reading is often spatial. Our experience of a work builds up an image in our minds. Zooming out of a book after having read it- making connections, seeing patterns, getting an overview of the totality of the work: these are all spatial experiences of a book or poem. As a translation theorist, Berman places emphasis on the whole, deploring translators who get too caught up in the minute linguistic details of a text.
An interesting example of a spatially-organised text would be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. In a letter to a friend, she drew a diagram of the plot for her text which looks like the capital letter H. There was a part one and a part two, joined by a narrow bridge in between. The bridge is where a time period of 10 years is skipped over in a single page. Woolf didn’t want to explore death as a process, she wanted to explore death as a state of not being, of the effect that death has on those you leave behind. The poet Pizarnik used to draw a picture to capture her mood and feelings before she wrote the poem. The visual and textural are irrevocably linked. Art, whether visual or written, is a way of conceptualizing and expressing the gaps which open between the perceptions and emotions.
The way that literary theory and literary history organises itself is also responsible for our linear understandings of text. Why do we put text in a chronological order, why do we separate them into different eras and epochs? Borges claims that every writer creates his own precursors. We are obsessed with uncovering the influences on individual writers from what came before. Literary theorists are interested in the connections between the ideas of Borges and Benjamin, but there’s no evidence that Borges ever even read Benjamin.
So how does photography fit in with these definitions ? Should we treat photographs in the
same way as we treat paintings? I don’t think so. It’s possible to put things in a painting which do not coexist with each other: think of surrealism. However, it’s much more difficult to fit disparate elements into a photograph. Photographs can be taken in an instant and tend to portray things which are closer to reality. Because photographs can be so quickly and readily taken, yet it takes up to two years to complete a painting, I believe that photographs, or series of photographs, can more easily tell a story. There’s also the issue of space with a single painting compared with a series of photographs or a novel. The amount of scenes in photographs or novels are almost endless, yet it would be difficult to tell a story in as much depth with a single painting.
There’s an interesting parallel here between photographs and translations. Photography captures an exact moment which will never repeat itself, whereas literature is immortal and unreal: it always portrays a fantasy world which never really existed. With photography, there’s the idea of inevitable loss, just like with translation. The moment that a photograph captures is already lost by the time it has been captured. In the same vein, translation documents a text, but many say that something is always lost in the process, that the original can never truly be captured in the words of a new language.
Ekphrasis is the process of translating an object or a visual piece of art into literature. Ideas about ekphrasis are similar to Roman Jakobson’s ideas on translation: he separated translation into three distinct forms- interlingual, intralingual and intersemiotic. According to Jakobson, intersemiotic translation involves the changing of form- for example, from text to picture, or from poetry to play. But for Jakobson, ekphrasis did not count as intersemiotic translation because, for him, intersemiotic translation had to start with a text. Ekphrasis starts with a work of art and ends with the text. An everyday example of this would be audio description for the visually impaired on the television.
I have been using the idea of ekphrasis this week to create poetry and prose inspired by three paintings of my choice. I have chosen ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ by Van Gogh, ‘The Sick Child’ by Edvard Munch, and ‘A View on the River Stour Near Dedham’ by John Constable. I remember writing an assignment on Van Gogh for art at A-Level, and although he has become one of the best known painters in the world since his death, his works still speak to me on an extremely personal level. In some ways he was the archetypal tortured artist, and in other ways he was so much more than that. His free, expressionist style is similar to the style in which I also paint landscapes, no doubt both consciously and unconsciously due to his influence. I have chosen to work from one of his later paintings, one I have copied before, and one which speaks to his worsening mental state in the same year ear as his suicide. The painting, a landscape, is simple enough, yet laden with emotion and the creeping sense of foreboding.
I also chose to work from a painting by Edvard Munch because I regret that his talent has been reduced to a single painting since his death: The Scream. Munch’s works go far beyond that. I wanted to include at least one portrait in my trio of chosen paintings, and this scene is laden with such tender emotion that I could immediately visualise it. And finally, I chose a work from John Constable. I wanted to work from one of his sketches rather than one of his finished paintings because I find his sketches so much more lively and vibrant- his finished paintings often look flat and overworked to me. This became my most personal poem. To me, constable is inextricably linked with my childhood experience growing up in Suffolk. Nobody from Suffolk with an interest in art is unaware of Constable’s great legacy, and my grandfather was no exception. My grandfather is a wildlife artist with a deep appreciation for Constable and Gainsborough. This painting reminded me both of going to view these landscapes at galleries and of experiencing these landscapes first-hand on enforced family day trips out in the countryside, which I only became grateful for much later in life.