Saturday, May 31, 2014

ekphrasis, the literary representation of visual art, vs. applied art tools in fiction

Revealing a Concept, in Painting or Fiction
Several of the past blogs in gaelwriter have discussed concepts of enriching literary fiction by keeping in mind design principles used by visual artists to heighten the aesthetic appeal of their own creations.   For example, Alex Powers, in his book, Painting People in Watercolor--a design approach, states:
The design principles are the organizing aesthetic ideas that guide your use of elements in a painting.  They are
1. dominance (emphasis, focal point)
2. movement (rhythm, direction, gesture, transmission)
3. variety (contrast, conflict, tension)
4. unity (harmony, balance)
 These four principles seem pretty good for enhancing the aesthetics of reading pleasure in a literary fiction work, too, don't they?  A writer may have little difficulty in envisioning the counterpart of each of these principles for a literary work; i.e., referencing to the same item numbers: 1) major conflict, 2) plot or story structure, 3) sub-plots and resolutions, 4) major resolution or denouement.

Next, the nine important design elements described by Powers that comprise tools for a visual artist in executing a successful painting are listed below, followed by typical application modes, in parentheses. Immediately after the visual art application modes, a few equivalent application modes for fiction writers have been suggested (in a brown font) within a second set of parentheses.
1. shape (pattern, form, mass, object, subject matter) (plot, place)
2. value (light and dark, tone, tint) (characters, moral/ethical issues)
3. space (the illusion of three-dimensional depth and two-dimensional flatness) (multi-faceted characters, situational ethics, environmental)
4. edges (blurred and sharp, lost and found) (certainty, ambiguity)
5. color temperature (warm and cold) (emotion, environment)
6. texture (surface variation) (sophistication, coarseness)
7. line (drawing) (language, syntax)
8. color hue (red, yellow, etc., local and arbitrary) (dialect, colloquial)
9. color intensity (brightness) (tonal quality of speech)
  The main objective of our discussion concerns learning what are some key principles, together with examples of their applications, for producing successful works of art.  The idea being that the most universal experience of what the public has considered to be great art may incorporate these same principles, whether the art be visual or written.

Revisiting this topic was prompted after reading a recent article in The Writer's Chronicle (May/Summer, 2014), titled Paintings in Fiction--Ten Lessons from the Masters of Ekphrasis, by Stephanie Coyne DeGhett.  First, ekphrasis is a term referenced by DeGhett as a "literary representation of visual art."  Her article is not, for the most part, about using the principles and tools of the artist to conceive an original piece of fiction as we have been discussing in this blog. De Ghett explores the ways that accomplished writers, including Oscar Wilde, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, and A. S. Byatt, have incorporated actual works of art as focal points in their works of fiction.  A well-known painting influences and motivates the fictional characters in each of those writers' stories.  I've read A. S. Byatt's The Matisse Stories which employ the ekphrasis approach; I liked some of the stories, but the direct allusions sometimes appeared a little forced.

The ekphrasis approach seems too derivative of the original act of creation, the painting itself.  It is a little too much like the creative writing workshop assignment of taking a newspaper story, or some topical subject, and writing a story based on the referenced material. The germ of the idea is not organic to the writer's compulsion for exploring his own deeply intuitive material.  The former may provide good writing experience, but is less likely to produce an original work of literary art. The same for basing the story on the actual painting. 

Although our blog has been exploring the most effective principles and tools of distinguished visual artists that might be brought to bear on writing our own stories, perhaps the enterprise is doomed.  From DeGhett's article we read the following.
In an essay about literary ekphrasis, Paola Spinozzi quotes Leonardo da Vinci from his Treatise on Painting:
 Your pen will be worn out before you can fully describe what the painter can represent forthwith by the aid of his science.  And your tongue will be parched with thirst and your body will be overcome by sleep and hunger before you can show with words what a painter can show you in an instant.

Yes, but...

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