Exploring the Visual Qualities of Literature
In his treatise on poetry, Horace famously declared “Ut pictura poesis,” or “As is painting so is poetry,” and in so doing provocatively and deliberately aligned the visual and verbal as sister arts (Ars Poetica, 18 BCE). This attempt at elevating the status of poetry to that of painting, as it was then perceived, was not an entirely new idea as Plutarch tells us that Simonides had previously considered that “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks” (De Gloria Atheniensium).
Throughout the intervening periods this concept has left its mark with artists, poets and, later, novelists recognising the power of their own art’s correspondent. Thus, the Italian Renaissance bore witness to the emergence of the Poesia, or visual poetry, as exemplified in the paintings of Giorgione (1477/8-1510) and Titian (1488/90-1576); while later, William Blake (1757-1827) would, for instance, notably combine the visual and verbal arts in his works, most notably in “The Tyger” (Songs of Experience). Numerous other artists, including Daniel Maclise (1806-70), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) and Harry Clarke (1889-1931), found direct inspiration for their art in literature and often directly illustrated moments from the work of Shakespeare, Wilde and Poe. The reverse, however, can be said to be true of the likes of John Keats (1795-1821), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), John Banville (b.1945) and Tracy Chevalier (b.1962) in whose work the art object becomes something which can be imaginatively interrogated. While the practice of such writers can, at times, tend towards ekphrasis (a literary description of a work of visual art) other writers explore the visual in more experimental terms.
In her experimental works Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) can be seen to engage with the Cubist aesthetic which she witnessed and promoted. Her experimental prose style transposes rather than mimics this aesthetic and renders the visual elements, albeit incoherently, of Cubism in text. Another innovator in this field is F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944) who, in his visual poems, entirely breaks the boundaries between the verbal and visual altogether. Such works as “Après la Marne, Joffre visita le front en auto” (After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front by Car) from 1915 demonstrate the pioneering, yet somewhat incoherent efforts of Marinetti to marry the visual and verbal arts. In 1946 Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) declared the best of her writing to be works of “verbal painting” and ambitiously set out to transpose the techniques of visual art production into that of literary expression. The result of her efforts is an oeuvre which is at once keenly aware of its visual roots, experimental in its desire to unite these within literature, and yet close enough to traditional literature as to make it eminently intelligible.
From the perspective of literature, then, the visual can and has been seen to impact on the writing of many authors in deeply meaningful ways. Sometimes ekphrastic such writing is expressive of a keen sense of visuality, the quality or state of being visual. Thus, the concept (and this blog) of Literary Visuality explores the points at which literature and the visual arts intersect and how these seemingly disparate modes can be seen to form a composite or hybrid of artistic expression.
Watch this space for my forthcoming series of spotlights on the best examples of literary visuality in traditional and contemporary literature.