In more recent years, art history and art theory have been obsessively investigating the intricate relationship between image and ideology, the ways we see and interpret pictures, narration and theatricality in painting, literary pictorialism and the iconology and semiotics of art. (The connoisseurship of Bernard Berenson and the civilized appreciations of Kenneth Clark are extremely old hat these days.) One favorite area of investigation — by literary and art theorists alike — is that embodied in the Greek rhetorical term “ekphrasis,” meaning, in Barkan’s definition, “the verbal presentation of a visual object inside a literary work.” Think of Homer’s description of the elaborately tooled shield of Achilles in “The Iliad” or Auden’s description of Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus in his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
Obviously, this connection — this interpenetration or counterpoint — between two different arts can be fascinating. Early on, for instance, Barkan raises the question “What happens when a work of visual art comes with a verbal caption?” He doesn’t elaborate on this just then, but some readers will immediately call to mind the Rene Magritte painting of a pipe below which is the paradoxical phrase “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “This is not a pipe.” Okay, what is it then? One answer is that it’s a picture.
Consider, too, what seems to be a constant time lag between verbal and visual innovation. Why did the avant-garde Baudelaire focus on a rather academic artist such as Constantin Guys as “the painter of modern life” rather than a truly revolutionary contemporarysuch as Manet? When, back in the 1960s and ’70s, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany were publishing innovative and subtle works of science fiction, why were the movies still fixated on simple-minded action films such as “Star Wars,” little different from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, aside from the improved special effects? For the most part, modernist painting and music appeared years before modernist literature. Why?
Let’s assume, then, that you would like to learn more about the tangled interlacing of words and images, and you happen upon this new book. You turn to the inside back flap, look below the biographical notice that identifies Leonard Barkan as the Class of 1943 University Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University and notice that the handsome volume in your hands is part of a series called “Essays in the Arts.” This sounds promising, suggesting that the titles will resemble those concise, useful books about cod or longitude or the importance of Lionel Trilling. You read the description of the series:
“Fresh, original and provocative, Essays in the Arts are short, illustrated books by leading critics and historians of art, architecture, literature and culture. These books feature strong arguments, intriguing subjects, and stylish writing that will appeal to general readers as much as to specialists.”
This sounds good, too. Who doesn’t enjoy strong arguments and stylish writing?
So, after supper one night, you open the book eagerly and slowly, sadly grind to a halt. On Page 12, Barkan discusses an anecdote by the Renaissance biographer Vasari about Donatello, who was overheard urging one of his lifelike statues to talk:
“In itself, this is the oldest of all articles of praise for art objects: they are so real that they almost seem to speak. But we must understand it as more than an offhand trope; not only does it testify to the language nexus in the visual representation of the human form, but it also introduces a central competitive/comparative element in this nexus. Every occasion when a (necessarily mute) human representation is celebrated for its speaking potential amounts to a reminder not only of the triumph achieved by the particular work under discussion but also of the devastating limitation under which all visual arts operate.”
Before such language, most readers will probably remain, if not mute, then open-mouthed with wonder. Barkan’s meaning can be parsed: Urging a statue to speak reveals how lifelike the artist has made it, while also underscoring the limitations of the sculptor’s art: Stone will never talk. In fact, “Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures” is erudite and wide-ranging (although chiefly focused on antiquity and the Renaissance), but by no stretch of the imagination can it be viewed as stylishly written or appealing to the general reader. This is academic stuff, and there’s an end to it. Its intended audience can only be other professors of literature or art historians or some of those former students to whom Barkan dedicates the book.
In itself this isn’t a problem: Scholars, like scientists, often operate on a level of thought and expression beyond human ken. Nonetheless, ordinary people do hunger to learn things and don’t like to feel like dolts when they try to do so. Yet there is little effort here to address the common reader, the reader who visits museums and enjoys serious books but hasn’t studied critical theory. As it is, anyone who would like to explore the relationship between the visual and verbal should probably start with Mario Praz’s flawed but entertaining Bollingen lectures, “Mnemosyne: The Parallel Between Literature and the Visual Arts.”
A postscript: I am happy to report that Michael Ann Holly’s “The Melancholy Art” — another volume in this ongoing Princeton series — is much more approachable, although still demanding. In her book, Holly examines the psychology of art historians and the sadness, the poetic longing, inherent in their work: While we can see and study paintings in our museums, they are nonetheless remnants of things past, witnesses to vanished worlds we can never fully inhabit or apprehend. We may reach out to embrace them, but they always, finally, elude our grasp.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.