Notional Ekphrasis

Window 1The old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words, is of course ambiguous. Its source is usually said to have been an instructional talk given by newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane to the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club in March 1911, as reported in the Syracuse Post-Standard: Use a picture, Brisbane said, it’s worth a thousand words. Later, after the war, when various advertisers (Printer’s Ink; the San Antonio Light) took it up, the adage was alleged to have been adapted from a Chinese proverb: Hearing something a hundred times isn’t as good as seeing it once. Leonardo da Vinci (a poet would be dragged to sleep or dead of hunger before being able to describe in words what a painter can show in an instant), Napoleon Bonaparte (Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours) and Ivan Turgenev (a drawing shows me at a glance what it takes a book ten pages to say) have also been quoted as sources or else just as people who at some point said something similar. The ambiguity lies in the fact that the sentence may also be read to mean it is worth writing a thousand words about a picture; which is the modus operandi I am following here. This is not ekphrasis however; or not exactly; for that would mean claiming that random snaps taken on my Samsung Galaxy 5 are works of art; which they are not. Or are they? Whatever the case may be, I make no such claim: what I am interested in is the image and especially the suggestiveness of the image. Indeed its ambiguity. Take the silver sheen on the glass of the four square sash window frame above: what does that suggest? Something inchoate, possibly generative? It was the late afternoon light pouring into the room which I was trying to capture; but that is not what the picture shows; or not exactly. Yes, there is that bar of light on the table top; and highlights on the collar of my leather jacket, slung over the back of the chair in the immediate foreground; but the subject of the picture is not what it shows but what it does not show. That silver sheen, or screen, becomes a seductive blank upon which any fantasy you like might be projected. Or look at the panel directly to the left of the main one: you would not know, unless you came here and looked (a look is worth a thousand words), that the dark presence at the far left is a wooden carving of unknown provenance which I have affixed with blu tack to the middle frame of the triptych of windows. It is probably from somewhere in New Guinea and shows a highly abstracted human figure—legs, torso, head, headdress—in a pose that suggests worship or perhaps abjection. Again, at the base of the upper right hand panel, there is a shape which resembles a bird with an elongated neck in the act of bending to feed or to drink. This is not what it seems. Some time ago, last year perhaps, the state government passed a law which instructed that all windows in all apartment blocks must be fitted with safety catches so that (when they are in use) the window in question cannot open far enough for a child to fall out of it. That bird’s head is in fact a piece of metal on a wire inclining towards a slot in which it may lock; not that I have ever done so, for no children live here and even when they did, my sons were never going to do something as stupid as falling out a window. The literature on ekphrasis (to proclaim or call an inanimate object by name) is, as you might expect, vast and confusing and goes back to the Ancient Greeks: to Plato’s theory of forms, for instance. Or, even further, to Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles in The Iliad. More interesting to me in the discussions I have read is the concept of notional ekphrasis: mental processes such as dreams, thoughts, flights of fancy. Or the description of a work which is in an embryonic state, still forming in the mind. Or an account of the origin of some other work of art, how it came to be made, the circumstance of its creation. Or even an outline of an imaginary, a non-existent work, represented as though it did actually exist. If you look closely at the picture above, for example, you may see in it, as if in a mirror, the ghost of a traffic sign across the road; the ghost of the white fence of the former early childhood centre, which the Pilipino topiarist has made into a formal garden; the foliage of the trees outside, in this case a tallowood, which has been mentioned before, and a skinny palm whose botanical name, nor even its common name, I do not know. So if, as I said above, the subject of this picture is what it does not show, what is it that it does not show? What notional ekphrasis is depicted here? These are real questions but there are no real answers to them. David Mackenzie wrote to me to say that he was fascinated by the patina on those window panes. I wrote back and said it was probably the result of tree pollen, blown over decades against the glass outside, congealing and hardening to make a kind of membrane; but that does not explain anything either. I look at that silvery patina and see nothing I can put a name to: as if the act of looking, and of seeing, were an end in itself. As perhaps it is. So the pleasures of looking, and of seeing, may be the subject of this picture; that is what it shows and at the same time does not show. I could go on but I will not. I have reached my limit: a thousand words.


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2 responses to “Notional Ekphrasis

  1. me

    Thank you, Margaret!

  2. Margaret Cochran

    Just THANK YOU Martin, once again! i loved it.

    Now back to my reread of the moment Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment — just as good as your good self! Mrgt


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