The Painterly Eye

by Nicolette Stasko

NS 3 1It would be an understatement to say that almost every poet has written about art. I could use this entire post to list only the Australians. In his preface to Writers on Artists, Daniel Halpern comments, ‘many important writers have spent a significant part of their non-writing time thinking about painting and sculpture’[1]. The American poet, John Ashbery, also an art critic and friend of artists, immediately comes to mind along with his brilliant long poem, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,

‘As Parmigianino did it, the right hand/Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer.

The soul establishes itself. /But how far can it swim out through the eyes/And still return safely to its nest?’[2]

Why is it then that writers feel such an affinity to the work of visual artists?

As a writer and especially as a poet, I have always found myself drawn to the visual arts rather than music for which I have no aptitude. I tend to work in silence and have never written a poem inspired by music. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that my father on Saturdays, to give my mother a break, used to take us to art galleries and museums. They were free in those days and we respected the quiet stillness. So viewing became a habit transformed eventually into ‘seeing’ (more on this in my next post). Halpern asks: ‘Could it be that in some rather intriguing ways the bonds between writers and artists are as strong, and often stronger than those between fiction writers and poets?’[3] I would certainly answer yes.

Throughout my career I have written about artists and paintings: Cezanne, van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Frida Kahlo, the Aboriginal painter, Ian Abdulla and a South American Jorge Damiana, as well as Etruscan tomb sculpture and a silver Roman casket. I can’t write a haiku without ‘seeing’ a Japanese print in front of me.

This from a very early poem ‘Sun upon Sun’ the sequence about van Gogh:

In Japan

People hurry
across a bridge finer
than a spider’s web
their parasols and conical
hats keeping off
the shafts of slanting rain
rice gathers
bend ankle-deep in a mirror
cut clean with a reed pen
such clarity and light!
such colours
blue and green and red
there are no potatoes

The ‘Sun upon Sun’ sequence is not a series of descriptions of van Gogh’s painting but more of an attempt to explore the processes of his art, what he felt and thought about it through reference to his letters to his brother Theo. So they are not, strictly speaking, ekphrasis, although the little poem above does attempt to capture what the artist found in Japanese prints which so profoundly changed his and many others ways of seeing. The one described above was in his collection.

We are all familiar with the concept that poetry is like a painting, as in the Roman poet Horace’s phrase, ut pictura poesis.[4] Perhaps this is where the notion started and perhaps the simile remains in use because it is so accurate. When I think of prose (fiction or non-fiction) in my mind’s eye I see a flat page, whereas a poem always appears to me as three-dimensional. The irony of course is that a picture is two-dimensional as most modernist painters strove to emphasize.

The word ekphrasis comes from the Greek ek, ‘out of,’ and phrasis, ‘speech’ or ‘expression’. It seems that it originally referred to a description of a visual object produced as a rhetorical exercise and later to mean a description of any thing, person or experience both real and imaginary. ‘Ekphrasis has been considered generally to be a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another medium by defining and describing its essence and form, and in doing so, relate more directly to the audience, through its illuminative liveliness’ (Wikipidia). More specifically it sometimes referred to text in which the mute work of visual art is enabled to speak for itself.

In recent decades, the use of the term has been limited, first, to visual description and then even more narrowly to the description of a real or imagined work of visual art. Modern ekphrastic poems have generally eschewed the ancients’ obsession with elaborate detail, and instead have tried ‘to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects’.[5]

Frequently along with definitions and examples of ekphrasis is found the following from a dialogue by Plato, which probably has helped form some of our ideas about what writing is, although those readers familiar with The Republic know that Plato had little time for poets, considering them timewasters and a bad influence on youth. My feeling is that Plato on the whole was a pretty grim character.

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.

The idea here I think is that through ekphrasis the writer/poet can speak for the mute object of art. However if you read the rest of Socrates’ statement, it’s fairly clear he/Plato doesn’t have a lot of faith in words either.

And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power or help itself.’[6]

A bit of a conundrum; I’ll leave you to try to figure out who the ‘father’ is.

I particularly like the idea that modern poets have generally tried interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects. I realize that Italo Calvino[7] is not a poet in the strictest sense but assuredly a most lyrical writer. His short piece ‘The Birds of Paola Uccello’ is worth quoting at some length as it so beautifully illustrates the variety of ekphrasitic writing, in this case what is not in the painting:

We see no birds in the paintings of Paola Uccello. In all his teeming world the skies are empty. …What has become of the birds that according to Vasari once studded his canvases, so much so as to earn him his nickname of Uccello? Who has scared them away? Most certainly the soldiers, who render the highways of the air impassable with their spears, and with the clash of weaponry silence trillings and chirrupings…Fled from the colored surfaces, the birds are hiding or fluttering invisibly outside the borders of the paintings. They are waiting for the right moment to come back and occupy the canvas’.[8]

 NS 3 2The Battle of San Romano 1438-40 (182 x 320cm), National Gallery, London

Halpern suggests that poets have a ‘unique ability to describe the visual’ (a poem is like a painting) or what I described in an earlier post as an ‘acute power of observation’ which tends to ensure that their engagement with and reflection on works of art is almost second nature, ‘that the scene has its meaning inherent in it …that a depiction of the perfectly ordinary [is] deeply interesting because of the medium, painting’[9] or, we might say, poetry.

NS 3 3At the moment, between writing blogs etc, I am working on a poem that attempts to ‘inhabit’ or ‘interpret’ a large installation, Waste Not by the Chinese artist Song Dong shown at the Carriageworks last year. It is a very overwhelming, beautiful, complex and moving work and so far none of the classic forms, dramatic monologue, lyrical response or description has been able to come close to the essence of the work, which is composed of decades of refuse hoarded by the artist’s mother at the time of the Cultural Revolution and continuing until 2002 when the installation was conceived by the son as a way of pulling her out of her grief and isolation. The concept underlying the work is the traditional Chinese virtue of frugality ‘wu jin qi yong’, defined as ‘anything that can somehow be of use, should be used as much as possible. Every resource should be used fully, and nothing should be wasted’[10]. (A lesson the Western world should take more heed of!) According to the artist, this became a kind of ‘fabao’ for his mother—translated as a ‘magic bullet’—to protect one through hard times. The story behind the work is intriguing and poignant, complicating any poem far beyond ‘simple’ ekphrasis. I am trying to shake myself out of habit and complacency by experimenting with forms that may do the work some justice and although I can see it in my mind’s eye, I cannot as yet ‘see’ it in words.

Waste Not, Song Dong

This leads me to question what is the difference between ekphrasis and a lyrical poem with ekphrastic elements—a hair-splitting delineation that has been in the back of my mind during the writing of this post. It seems to be whether the focus of the poem is on a writer’s engagement with the work of art or on the poet observing the work of art through the lenses of her present experience and/or emotions.

I will end with an illustration: the final section of ‘Dwelling in the Shape of Things’, a meditation on Cézanne (from The Weight of Irises), on which one critic generously commented: ‘there is more than one useful and persuasive way of responding verbally to great paintings’.[11]

How little we know about one another
each locked in our own delicate case
surrounded by dark scenery
we contemplate
the apples laid out before us
making deep shadows
on a sail of white cloth
like holes in a field of freshly fallen snow
round reddish gold
we do not understand them
only one woman
with a neck curved and vulnerable as a swan’s
holds warm fruit in her hands
leaning toward the centre
giving   or taking away
and what difference between such gestures
in the end?
brooding parallel of trees a storm threatens

that last strange gleaming light the sides of our faces
a couple walks away into the coming darkness
clouds cloth hem edge repeat their shape[12]


[1] Daniel Halpern (ed.), Writers on Artists, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988.

[2] John Ashberry, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, New York: The Viking Press, 1975, p.68.

[3] Halpern, preface to Writers on Artists.

[4]Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 BC), third letter, Book II of the Epistles, line 361.

[5] See Academy of American Poets, and

[6] Plato’s Phædrus, from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 9, translated by Harold N. Fowler, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925.

[7] The Castle in the Pyrenees illustration is the original cover for the first Italian edition of Invisible Cities, 1972.

[8] Italo Calvino, ‘The Birds of Uccello’, translated by Patrick Creagh, Antæus 54: Spring 1985, in Halpern, Writers on Artists, p.3.

[9] Guy Davenport, ‘Henry Rousseau’, Antæus 54, Spring 1985, in Halpern, p.155.

[10] see Graeme Smith, ‘Difficult World’, in Real Time, Sydney, February-March 2013, p.44.

[11] Geoff Page, ‘Books and Writing’, Radio National (ABC), November 2004. ‘Stasko here is concerned to articulate not only her personal response to the paintings but, more ambitiously perhaps, to create a verbal equivalent to them, akin, in some ways, to a translation. While some traditional art critics might well benefit from reading this sequence, ‘Dwelling in the Shape of Things’ is not a piece of art criticism or scholarship. It does show, however, that there is more than one useful and persuasive way of responding verbally to great paintings.

[12] after Paul Cézanne, Luncheon on the Grass (1869).