The "Telling" Image: Ecphrasis in Russian Acmeist Verse

Article excerpt

Focusing on a group of early 20th-century Russian poets known as the Acmeists, this essay examines the cultural implications of the portrayal of the visual arts in verse. The poets' treatment of such issues as national identity, East and West, gender, and mass culture, reveal their ability to transcend the ostensibly aestheticist nature of their art.

As the verbal rendering of a real or imagined work of the plastic arts, ecphrasis seems to engage in a purely metapoetic discourse. Contemporary critical debate, however, has argued that such practice extends far beyond mere aesthetics. Andrew Becker suggests, for example, that the "translation of visible phenomena into language" represents a universal human experience, an inborn faculty for making sense out of the observable external world (39). According to Kenneth Gross, literature's preoccupation with sculpture can be viewed on the one hand as an attempt to identify with insensitive material in order to alleviate the anxiety arising out of physical limitations of the body, and on the other as an attempt to play out the human hope of eternal corporal preservation (17-22). Similarly, Paul Oscar Kristeller has demonstrated how transformations in the hierarchy of the arts can be traced to changes in the system of cultural values and aesthetic tastes, while James Heffernan has negotiated the perpetual antagonism between word and image in ecphrasis as a projection of binary structures found in traditional society, which reflects the conflict between "male authority and the female power to enchant, subvert, or threaten it" (108). Identifying the rivalry between the two modes of representation with "struggles in cultural politics and political culture," W. J. T. Mitchell contends that the silent and static artifact manipulated by the speaking subject epitomizes the ultimate other, and ecphrasis thus becomes analogous to the social practice of domination on the basis of gender, race, nation, etc (3, 151-65).

Verse by the Russian Acmeists, a Modernist group which flourished in the second decade of the 20th century, provides a provocative context for discussing these and other implications of ecphrasis. Acmeism, which derives its name from the Greek word acme (the highest degree of something, the time of flowering), was a literary movement which sought to re-establish the "art for art's sake" conception of poetry, rejecting both the metaphysical aspirations of the Symbolists and the social-utilitarian approach proclaimed by a number of leading 19th-century Russian writers (Tolstoy, Uspensky, Ostrovsky, Garshin, and others). The seemingly apolitical stance of the Acmeists, however, could in itself be seen as a form of deliberate self-alienation from the ideological turmoil that characterized life in Russia between the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, while their shunning of mysticism may well have been a reaction against the prophetic visions, Rasputinesque magical practices, and superstitions that held sway over contemporary society. The Acmeists themselves referred to their association as a "Guild of Poets," highlighting their emphasis on craftsmanship rather than divine inspiration or ecstatic revelations. Their primary forum was the journal Apollon (1909-17), an heir to the Russian Art Nouveau magazine World of Art and similar European prototypes (like L'Art Moderne in Belgium, The Studio in England, and Die lugend in Germany). Its title, evoking the Greek god of the arts, conveyed the Acmeists' love for classical clarity, harmony, and precision in meaning.

Adopting a broad cultural perspective, in this essay I wish to explore how ecphrastic technique was employed by a wide variety of Acmeist poets and the extent to which the literary output of this ostensibly aestheticist literary movement was in fact rooted in contemporary reality. The Russian cultural climate of the early 20th century was characterized by Europeanization, in sharp contrast to the mood of the preceding period, where centripetal tendencies had prevailed, as evidenced by the Panslavist ideal espoused by the major Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, by the anti-Western rhetoric of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and by the Slavophilic ideology that was pervasive among intellectuals. …