Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night


In the second slide show of the module, you learned about art made in response to art of another medium. The blanket term for this is ekphrasis, and it is especially common in the modern world in the form of movies made from books, or – assuming the artistic merit of the medium – video games made from comic books, to name but a few examples. Traditionally, ekphrasis was an ancient Greek writing exercise in which a person would write a poem or prose piece as a kind of “translation” of a painting.

Poetry1.png Assignment

This assignment has two parts. First, you will write an ekphrasis of your own. Find some visual work from our textbook, something that seems to speak to you, and write a poem or prose piece derived from the work. It’s important to stress that an ekphrasis isn’t merely a description of a piece; instead it tries to capture the spirit of the original piece, so it is mindful not only of what is being said but also how it’s being said. Take this as an invitation to do something playful, and experiment with your writing. If you’ve never written poetry, try it out. If you’re more interested in prose, you can play with that form, perhaps writing a short passage from the perspective of someone in a photograph, or imagining yourself inside a painting, participating in its scene. Allow yourself to have fun and be creative, or you can keep it simple with a direct intensive description as if you’re seeing the piece in a museum. However you approach the ekphrasis, try to be mindful in the decisions you make (i.e. the language you use and the way you capture the original in your words). Below you’ll find some links to famous examples of ekphrasis to use as models, if you wish.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a “creative” person, worry not. This assignment is actually geared toward analysis. After you’ve given your ekphrasis, write a short justification explaining why you made the choices you did. What visual piece did you choose? What are its essential details as you see the work? How does your “translation” preserve the original. How does your work attempt to capture the mood and feeling of the image? How did you replicate the original visual details in your words and style? What new understanding or interpretation does your ekphrasis bring to the original piece? No matter how your ekphrasis turns out, you’ll actually be graded on the latter part, in which you offer a rationale for the interpretive moves you make in trying to capture the piece in words.

Again, choose any form for your ekphrasis – and try to have fun with the process.

Post your ekphrasis and analysis on your blog along with the original image. The posting should be at least 250 words, total. This assignment will be assessed on its formal clarity, the quality of the writing and editing, its degree of engagement with its topic, its creativity/inventiveness/originality of ideas, and the sophistication of thought it expresses.

Ekphrasis Examples

Anne Sexton’s “Starry Night”: note how Sexton translates the images of the painting into a sequence of jarring, eerie phrases.

Pieter Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus/William Carlos Williams, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”/W.H. Auden’s “In the Musee de Beaux Arts”: Look at Breugel’s fantastic painting in the link below. It is almost a visual joke (it helps if you know the mythic story of Icarus; if not, look it up). This painting has been the subject of two Ekphrases, one by W.H. Auden, and another by William Carlos Williams. Note how Auden’s poem is almost a philosophy essay on human indifference to suffering, while Williams seems to capture the mood and feeling of the painting with his quick matter-of-fact account, and lack of emotion.

Percy Bysshe Shelley “On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery”: though we now know the painting is not an actual da Vinci, Shelley believed it to be for good reason. This poem gets inside Shelley’s reaction to the image, one that he thought unexpectedly combined horror and beauty together in an unlikely mix.

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