Aspects and Uses of Ekphrasis in Relation to Photography, 1816-186O [*]

By Hermange, Emmanuel | Journal of European Studies, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Aspects and Uses of Ekphrasis in Relation to Photography, 1816-186O [*]


Hermange, Emmanuel, Journal of European Studies


EMMANUEL HERMANGE [+]

'La description d'une photographie est [grave{a}] lettre impossible (...) D[acute{e}]crire un dessin est plus facile.' Roland Barthes, 'Le message photographique' (1961)

Alongside photography, I intend to discuss language more than literature. In particular, I shall make some observations on language as it was used in conjunction with photographic images, from Nic[acute{e}]phore Ni[acute{e}]pce's first essays in 1816 to the end of the 1850s. That is to say up until the time when, in France in particular, we notice a change in the institutional attitude towards photography, given its important role on the fringes of the Salon in 1859.

My line of inquiry asks why, how and in which context photography, and individual photographs in particular, encourage us to describe what we see. In a sense it is a pragmatic approach to the relationship between photography and language. Because photography creates an epistemic fracture in the domain of images in the nineteenth century, there is no evidence to suggest that the age-old tradition of describing works of art extends to its productions. This observation is all the more valid since the description of paintings is indissociable from their explanation and interpretation. Michael Baxandall and Louis Mann pointed this out by making this question a pivotal one regarding the history of art. From Philostratus the Elder to the modem criticism initiated by Diderot, we indeed find famous questions directed at the people who are depicted: 'Que signifie ce b[hat{c}]cher sun lequel gisent des victimes [acute{e}]gorge[acute{e}]es' (II, 30), [1] asks Philostratus of one of his paintings. Similarly, in his Salon de 1761, admiring a pastoral painting by Boucher, Diderot asks right away 'Que fait l[acute{a}] cette femme charmante, si bien v[hat{e}]tue, si propre, si voluptueuse? et ces enfants qui jouent et qui dorment sont-ce les siens? et cet homme qui porte du feu (...) est-ce son [acute{e}]poux? que veutil faire de ces charbons allum[acute{e}]s? o[grave{u}] les a-t-il pris?' [2] As well as describing the depiction, such questions are also interrogations about the act of painting -- even if the images thus described are hypothetical, as in the case of Philostratus. [3]

According to Baxandall, 'the interpretation of a painting depends on the point of view taken to describe it', and 'an interpretation always starts with a description.' [4] Vice versa, there is an assumption that beneath every description of a work of art lies a hermeneutic intention. However, hermeneutic thought traditionally analyses hidden intentions, the artist, and especially his creation, his mark. This obviously poses a problem where photography is concerned, since it is precisely by eliminating the making of this mark in the space of representation that photography creates a fracture in the production and status of pictures.

This fracture explains why descriptions of photographs were relatively rare in the nineteenth century. It also has the corollary of ostracism that the French artistic authorities imposed on photography by keeping it away from the Salons, and therefore away from criticism. To describe a picture is to give it the benefit of exposure. It is therefore interesting to observe the reasons behind, and the role of, the photographic ekphraseis which we may encounter here and there in very diverse contexts.

Firstly, a remark is called for concerning the decision to resort to the notion of ekphrasis when presented with a picture whose artistic status itself is controversial for the Institution. I would simply like to point out that, historically, ekphrasis is the arena for tension between two definitions of ekphrasis. On one hand, there is an old conception which defines it as 'un discours descriptif d[acute{e}]taill[acute{e}], vivant et mettant sous les yeux ce qu'il montre', [5] which is applicable to all sorts of objects and events.

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