The Eye of the Poet: Studies in the Reciprocity of the Visual and Literary Arts from the Renaissance to the Present.
Ut pictura poesis: that singularly favored topic of aesthetics and cornerstone of Renaissance studies assumes the focus of this admirably diverse and wide-ranging collection of essays. Essentially a series of case studies, the book arose out of a session at the 1991 College Art Association conference and expanded to embrace an impressive list of contributors who consider the relations between poetry and art from a variety of methodological perspectives. Organized according to the chronology of the visual object(s) in each case, the Italian Renaissance serves as the starting point and the usual suspects, Michelangelo and Titian, command two essays apiece: Rebekah Smick considers the reception of Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta and traces the topos of the living stone in the artist's poetry and in later artistic theory; James Saslow focuses on psychological biography and argues for both Michelangelo's poetry and art as interchangeable vehicles of the troubled expression of desire; Giancarlo Maiorino explores the meaning of the pastoral as a Renaissance genre through Titian's paintings, their titles, and Sannazaro's Arcadia; and Luba Freedman finds a partnership between Titian's portraits and Aretino's letters and sonnets working hand in glove to define the rhetorical qualities of portraits and to utilize rhetoric in order to raise the status of portraiture.
The second part of the book opens out from the first in a number of senses, taking the reader beyond the Italian Renaissance, beyond well-studied canonic pairings of poetry and painting, and beyond the paradigm of an harmonious and unified blurring and de-emphasizing of the distinctions between the nature of poetry and painting and the scholarship devoted to them: literary criticism and art history. James Mirollo bracingly considers the many twentieth-century poems addressing Bruegel's Fall of Icarus coming to rest on Auden and Williams as examples of a conflictual paradigm of image envy, a combative relationship between poem and painting where the poem ignores, misreads, and distorts the image. A growing attention to ekphrasis as a multi-layered enterprise of mimicry, response, and interpretation characterizes Amy Golahny's study of paired poems by Vondel and Oudaan on a pendant set of paintings by Pieter Lastman, a cat's cradle, in which poetry responds both to the previous poem and labors to articulate and tighten the thematic links between the paintings. What will become a common goal of scholarly argument is here a task of literature and indeed the contributions of Wilfred Jonckheere and John Hollander reveal the tremendous sophistication and subtlety with which scholar-poets confront the image, the nature of ekphrasis, and an art historical discourse devoted to the same objects and rooted in some of the same concerns. Jonckheere examines an obscure and recent sonnet cycle by the Dutch philosopher and literary theorist J.A.A. Mooij on Rembrandt's Syndics and establishes an extraordinary level of respect for the conclusions of art historical investigation as well as a willingness to propose fresh interpretive gambits. Hollander's essay, a coup for this volume, in which a contemporary author of ekphrastic poetry looks back to chart his engagement with two paintings by Eakins both before and after the composition of his poem, "A Statue of Something," affording a rare and informed glimpse into internal processes of conceptualization that are highly resistant to reconstruction.
If diversity is the virtue, then unevenness in quality and looseness in structure are the drawbacks of this and many other such essay collections. In following the historical chronology as the principle of organization, Golahny attenuates vital links in conceptual vocabulary shared between essays placed far apart in the collection. Her own brief introduction does little in this regard to intellectually position the contributions. Whether essays respect or disregard the formal distinctions between the literary text and the visual object as Mirollo (and Lessing before him) underlined is an assumption of enormous consequence throughout the collection. If specialization in training would seem to be an obstacle to a sophisticated interdisciplinarity in practice - and the weaker contributions here do attest to that - then the strength of the collection as a whole is to suggest that the many-layered relationship between the verbal and the visual in painting, ekphrastic poetry, literary criticism, and art history in whatever configuration, calls for some thing beyond the well-executed case study.
LAURA CAMILLE AGOSTON State University of New York, Geneseo
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|Author:||Agoston, Laura Camille|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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