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.”