Ekphrasis in Magritte and Verne: Voyages Extraordinaires to the Center of Art

By Stoltzfus, Ben | The Comparatist, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Ekphrasis in Magritte and Verne: Voyages Extraordinaires to the Center of Art


Stoltzfus, Ben, The Comparatist


Rene Magritte has said that Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864; Voyage au centre de la terre), was one of his favorite novels. Although none of Magritte's paintings bears that title--unlike, for example, Les Fleurs du mal, named after Baudelaire's famous book of poems--Magritte did paint several pictures that he titled Memory of a Journey (Souvenir de voyage) and one entitled The Haunted Castle (La Chateau hante)--paintings that, in different ways, illustrate Verne's novel. Illustrating books, however, except for rare examples such as Les Chants de Maldoror by Lautreamont, was not on Magritte's agenda. When he names a painting, using the title of a novel, it is more often than not, an ironic departure or oblique commentary on the work.

With the above examples in mind, I will examine some of Verne's Voyages extraordinaires, (1) that directly or indirectly inspired Magritte's titles, in order to look at the linguistic and artistic affinities of the two artists. But first, a few words about ekphrasis, the specular concept that highlights the affinities between art and writing. Historically, the desire to see the world in the word was a naive assumption that lead to mistaking the word for the world. Pictures, like words, are also signifiers but, instead of seeing them as language mediating between perception and reality, they were both viewed as transparent signs, even though language, whether motivated by words or images, is never transparent. Words themselves have sound, connotation, and all the encoded values of a particular culture--an opaqueness that, inevitably, leads to ambiguity.

Early on, starting with Plato, words were considered inferior to pictures because pictures seemed like innocent representational signs. Indeed, as Murray Krieger notes, "poetry developed and pursued as ekphrastic ambition, seeking to emulate those arts whose naturalness makes them appear to be reality's surrogate" (Krieger 14). From the very beginning, therefore, mimesis and ekphrasis were linked by the alleged transparency of the natural sign. They depended, for example, on the imagined equivalence between the word "horse" and the animal itself. But this equivalency is a vestige from a time when Plato believed that things were only the appearance of the Idea, and thus inferior. Modern philosophy has come to view things by themselves as having no inherent ideas and before being anything they are, as Jean-Paul Sartre has stated, simply there. More recently, Jacques Derrida and others have deconstructed this logo-centric desire, and we now believe that the arbitrariness of the sign regulates all language, be it poetry, painting, or fiction.

Traditionally, ekphrasis has been viewed as the rhetorical description of a work of art. However, current inter-arts discourses have encouraged a more nuanced exchange that allows for interpenetration between writing and painting, not just rhetorical description. In fact, the simultaneity of aesthetic concerns in the works of Magritte and Verne will, I think, be of greater interest and import than pure rhetorical description. Both artists, as we shall see, are concerned with innovative language, metafiction, meta-art, reflexivity, play, dream, and the surreal. A comparison of Magritte's art with Verne's fiction will thus mediate between the static immediacy of the visual and the temporal flow of words. Fiction is movement whereas painting is stasis. Ekphrasis bridges the gap between the two states. Petrification in Magritte's works, that is, canvasses painted in grisaille, (2) and referred to sometimes as his "stone-age" period, emphasizes stasis, whereas in Verne, scientific lists of names and enumerations of species and places denote flow. Magritte's paintings reflect the static aspect of ekphrasis, Verne's fictions reflect its movement.

Self-reflexivity defines non-mimetic art, and both Magritte and Verne, in their extraordinary voyages, have explored this theme. …

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