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Speaking Pictures: A History of Ekphrasis

Sumera Saleem | Sargodha University

Words and pictures, used either individually or mutually, chisel out human experiences on a personal and collective level of understanding and eventually shape the history of the human world. Words, when spoken or written effectively, establish an immediate contact with reality and conjure up images which capture human imagination, underscored by emotions. However, pictures frame the stories that speak to us in a symbolic language of emotion and cut across spatio-temporal limits as well as linguistic and cultural boundaries. Between words and pictures is an unbridgeable difference, which lies in their manner of presentation, verbal and nonverbal. Both, words and pictures, being the preservers of human civilizations and fundamental tenets of human understanding, expand our notions of we and offer to us myriad possibilities of interpreting the reality we all are related to. In this sense, the feeling of having personal power to imagine pictures in the texts, visual and verbal, is something we can all identify with. Such a feeling of imagining pictures, evoked by verbal texts, relates to the form, called ekphrasis. The term ekphrasis etymologically denotes a vivid verbal description of a visual work of art, that includes literary and non-literary writing on art, and more recently, art criticism. The word ‘ekphrasis’ was originally used by classical Greek rhetoricians to qualify a description with great visual content. It has been defined as the description of an object which evokes an image in the mind’s eye of the reader. Ekphrasis, being the part of Greek culture, was considered an essential component of rhetoric. Students preparing to present public performances of complete speeches used manuals or handbooks known as pro-gymnasmata. These manuals presented a series of preparatory exercises, arranged in order of difficulty, that broke down the art of persuasion into manageable units, each of which related to the study of rhetoric as a whole. In this context, ekphrasis serves as an effective technique of communication in public and social life in Greek history. The effectiveness of communication lies in triggering pictures in the minds of the listeners through an appropriate use of words. Cicero, one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists, used to suggest that his students bear in mind how to use words and similes effectively. Cicero believed that an appropriate use of similes was necessary to bring pictures into the mentis oculi. In this discussion, Cicero observed that allusions to Charybdis involved similes that were too far-fetched; and he advised the orator to, instead, just speak of "the rock" and "the gulf" (respectively) — on the grounds that the eyes of the mind are more easily directed to those objects which we have seen, than to those of which we have only heard.

Fig.1. “Choosing between Scylla and Charybdis.” Tecnologia Mediay Nerdos, 8 Jan. 2020, In Greek mythology, Charybdis is a sea monster in Greek mythology was based on a whirlpool in the strait of Messina.
Fig.1. “Choosing between Scylla and Charybdis.” Tecnologia Mediay Nerdos, 8 Jan. 2020, In Greek mythology, Charybdis is a sea monster in Greek mythology was based on a whirlpool in the strait of Messina.

Harking back to the tradition of ekphrasis in the Greek schools we find a dynamic link between ekphrasis, imagination, images, and mind, all of which are wired in the formation of pictures. The idea of imagination is generally interpreted as the inner understanding of the world that the individuals see with their mind. David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher, argues that images are, in all essential respects, simply faded relics of perceptions. However, Colin McGinn, a former professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, argues that to imagine is to exercise the mind's eye—a hypothesized anatomical structure in the brain that provides genuine visual experiences. According to McGinn, images are not faded relics of perception because perceptions, unlike images, are informative while images only contain what we put into them. Whereas the information content of perception depends on what we perceive. In other words, a human mind, according to McGinn, cannot control the way it perceives but can control how it visualizes and understands images. Drawing on the difference, McGinn argues that images are subject to the will, as we frequently can decide what images we form. Since we cannot decide what visual perception consequently arises in consciousness, it depends on the way we observe the things around us. In short, images require our attention in order to persist. Perception, by contrast, may remain in consciousness whether or not we attend to them. McGinn repeats in his elaboration on how images are controlled by our will the word, consciousness that first appears in Latin juridical texts by writers such as Cicero, conscientia therefore becoming an internal testimony.

Testimonies of ekphrasis are crucial to understanding the histories of the ancient world and their civilizations, the proof of which may be found in sources such as hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphs are pictograms that convey their meaning through their resemblance to a physical object. This is similar to modern emojis, emoticons, icons and logos which are commonly used today, serving as pictorial, representational signs, instructions, or statistical diagrams.

Fig.2. Hieroglyphs at the Temple of Hathor, Dendera. Photograph by Jeremy Zero.
Fig.2. Hieroglyphs at the Temple of Hathor, Dendera. Photograph by Jeremy Zero.

Pictorial expression acts as the source for the preservation of history. Artists, historians, writers and journalists, the experts of various fields use words to describe happenings, based on fact or fiction (or both), while supporting their interests and objectives. The association of word and image are like two countries that speak different languages but that have a long history of mutual migration, cultural exchange and other forms of intercourse. Such an association allows us to internalize memory and the history of the world we understand; preserving memory or history evolves into art. In relation to critiques of art, many relate the technique of ekphrasis with evoking picture through words while bringing examples generally from poetry and paintings. Poetry too serves as a combination of emotional self and physical realities shaped within the images of objects. If we focus the description of an object as a seminal feature of poetic expression, ekphrasis can also be defined as a poem, which speaks to or of an art object. A few such ekphrastic examples in poetry refer to the description of Achilles’ shield in Homer’s Iliad and Keats’s ekphrastic poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. Through these literary examples, we can understand the tendency to translate graphic art into narrative persists in ekphrastic literature of every period.

Keeping in line with the technique of ekphrasis, memory corresponds to preserving history and culture through visual artistic expression, a broad field that ranges from printmaking, screen printing, graphic art, calligraphy, photography to painting, computer graphics, typography and many more. Graphic novels combine text and pictures equally in order to convey a narrative. Scott McCloud defines comics as juxtaposed pictures in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response among the viewers. We live in an age in which words and images of all kind form divides or connections among the nations, including the kind of words and images of which the media employs to build a relationship with the consumers in twenty-first century. What words and images have to offer is associated with diversity of meaning, a vibrant connection to the world not the singleness of interpretation or an alienation from the context in which they are used and produced. To this matter, a dynamic link between words and images impresses upon us the need to scale, in a balancing way, our historical perspective ion understanding words and images, and also to identify whether any of them possesses any speck of the unvarnished truth, that shows us our meaningful relation to the world or masks our way of looking into how the world works.

Both words and images are essential to human experience, thus creating the desire for compatible relationships between visual representation, through design and narrative. The association between words and images when formulated in, for instance, painting, poetry, book or graphic narrative opens up an enriching perspective on perceiving the past, the present and the future with multiple angles of understanding. Images with words fortify the narrative, words with images reinforce a testimonial view of experience, both when used individually speak to us on subjective and collective levels of consciousness.


​Further Reading:

  • Barry, Peter, 'Contemporary Poetry and Ekphrasis' The Cambridge Quarterly 31, 2002.

  • Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert P. Warren. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students (New York: Holt, 1950).

  • Cuddon, J. A. The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th ed. (Great Britain: Andre Deutsch, 1977).

  • D'Angelo, Frank J. 'The Rhetoric of Ekphrasis', JAC 18.3 (1998) 439–447.

  • Heffernan, James A. W., Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

  • Krieger, Murrey, Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

  • McCloud, Scott, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994).

  • Mitchell, W. J. T., Picture Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Sumera Saleem is a lover of poetry who believes in the power of words and images. She is a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature, the University of Sargodha, and is a gold medallist in English Literature from the University of the Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan. Her work analyses the discourse on nation in Pakistani Poetry in English.


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