As written by Daisy A, a First-Class graduate from the University of Cambridge and MA student at the Courtauld institute of Art, who offers tuition in English and History of Art.
Ekphrasis: the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device.
I remember the first time I came across ‘Ekphrasis’ as an idea. Sitting in a sweltering classroom in the weeks leading up to my AS-Level exams, I watched my teacher enthusiastically scrawling the word across the board in capital letters. The poem we were studying that lesson was W.H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux-Arts and his subject as the verses unravelled was Breughel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus‘
About Suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters’,
She began, and we listened as a painting that we’d never actually seen came to life, sketched out from Auden’s words. From the unperturbed ploughman to Icarus’s animated ‘white legs disappearing into the green’, when I finally googled Breughel’s painting, I felt those characters had already been introduced to me; and were more animated for it. I realise now that I had always been benefitting from this term ‘Ekphrasis’, or perhaps reverse-Ekphrasis, without knowing its rhetorical power. The revision flashcards I had created for my GCSEs and upcoming exams relied on the doodles I’d made in their corners – drawing smiley or angry expressions on red and white blood cell diagrams for Biology helped me remember their functions, and by the time my History GCSE paper came around I’d memorised an entire journey through Soviet Russia from the perspective of a biro-drawn mouse with a Communist badge. This blend of the visual and the textual, mixing drawing and writing, stuck with me throughout my schooldays. At the University of Cambridge, I studied English Literature for two years before deciding to switch to History of Art for a final two. Despite loving my studies in English, I realised how often I would use paintings as a way into many of my essays – to better analyse a character from Shakespeare I’d often look to various artistic depictions, from Millais’s Ophelia to William Blake’s Richard III. Shakespeare was himself a master of Ekphrasis – Hamlet forces his mother to compare a portrait of his murdered father, with ‘An eye like Mars’, to his current stepfather, ‘like a mildew’d ear’. Importantly I realised how much I enjoyed doing this – my first dissertation explored in part how William Blake’s poetry was dictated by a whimsical symbiosis between his paintings and engravings, his figures and landscapes intermingling with the words themselves.
Blake’s organic combination of the visual and textual might suggest that Ekphrasis is a rather grandiose term for the important and natural relationship between these two strains of creativity. The concept might be better understood as a helpful window that opens our minds to different forms of learning. Teachers and pedagogical practitioners seem to think so – papers recording the benefits of an ‘Ekphrastic approach’ to teaching Don Quixote by first asking pupils to look at Velasquez’s Las Meninas, or asking History students to consider the impact of the Spanish Civil War through the initial lens of Picasso’s Guernica and a written exercise which asks ‘What do I see? What does it mean? What is my creative response?’ – sing the praises of this Ekphrastic model at a complex academic level. Renowned pedagogue Paulo Freire recalled in interview how visual aids were the most effective means of ‘a highly critical’ and shared ‘systematic’ understanding of concepts amongst pupils who were textually illiterate. In the 20th century the use of the ‘Magic Lantern’ in schools across the US and UK revolutionised classroom learning. Extensive research has shown the invaluable benefit of visual aids to children learning with SEN, with instructional pictures or scenes providing a beneficial ‘alternative to verbal and written instruction’ (Harrower & Dunlap, 2001). Whilst I have been discussing the term Ekphrasis as a potentially reversible concept – if primarily it is a rhetorical writing tool that describes a painting in-depth, then reversed it is a visual aid that complements or enhances the understanding or creation of writing – it is, significantly, rarely a simplification of the concept it relates to. Whilst visual aids in teaching are often characterised as an easy summary or helpful simplification of an idea, I think that the opposite is true. Whether a sketchy diagram of a difficult process, or a detailed description of an emotive painting, I’d argue that visual aids are a scenic route through a tricky scenario. If a student cannot conceptualise the haggard faces and mischievous intentions of Macbeth’s witches, it would not be an ‘easy way out’ to show them, for instance, Henry Fuseli’s The Three Witches as an aid. Conversely it might encourage further discussion and explanation as they grapple with their characters and incite an engaged comparative analysis if this work is compared to Joshua Reynolds’s very different depiction of the same witches in the early 18th century. I found this to be true in W.H. Auden’s poem – where I didn’t understand the painting’s deep perspective and detailed landscape, the poet offered a written reason where the artist could not provide one.
My experience of this helpful mixture, of painting and writing, visual and verbal, has certainly informed how I choose to learn, teach, and create today. But we only need to think about how we started learning – from primary school charts that show a spider navigating our water cycle in welly-boots, to songs which recall the bright colours and textures of a harvest festival, visual and ekphrastic aids have always underpinned how children learn, with or without the fancy terminology.