Wednesday 6 July 2016

This is Not a Picture

I want to talk about Ekphrasis.

Ekphrasis is when you write a picture. That's it. It's defined as the art of describing a picture in words, but it's more than that, in that the more detailed you are, the more solidly the picture ceases to become a visual thing. You pull it into the space of the imagination, transform it.

I do a lot of it in my fiction, I realised. I have three stories that depend on it, and one appeared here today and you may have read it, and one concerns Tarot cards, and one is about a man haunted by an archival episode of British television, thought lost and then recovered.

All depend upon images, written. What fascinates me about the process of ekphrasis is that, as I said, by transmitting a picture into words, even if you do it right, you make it impossible to reverse engineer.

Ramsey Campbell, for example, wrote "Among the Pictures Are These:" (you can find it in Cold Print) which is supposedly just a description of a sketchbook of his juvenile drawings, with all the obsessions of an adolescent imagination, sex and death all over it. In this piece, and all it is is a list of pictures, described one by one, the pictures move beyond the premise set and enter an imaginary space where they extend beyond simple vision. Even if they were real, and there's no reason to assume they wouldn't be, they're not now.

Virgil, in the Aeneid, a much more subversive work than you think it is, writes of the divinely donated Shield of Aeneas. In the area around the boss the future history of Rome from the shadowy era of myth right down to the Battle of Actium, where the gods of Rome stand behind the ships of Rome and the bestiary gods of Egypt bay and slaver over the opposition.

No one could do the insane detail of the shield justice, although of course there have been attempts, because that's not its point. Ekphrasis of this imaginary object is there to extend a narrative. You almost enter the shield, and travel inside the future of the protagonist and the past for the reader, symbols that mean nothing to the eyes of its recipient, the Aeneid's ambivalent hero, but which recap the story of Rome, ready for the apocalyptic battles that close the poem.

MR James's ghost story "The Mezzotint" is different again. A man buys an antique engraving on a whim; it changes. As it's originally described, the picture is entirely commonplace, and could be easily duplicated, but each subsequent time the protagonist of the story sees it, it changes. Something malevolent and shapeless invades the boundaries of the static image, and again, while you could probably draw that too, the effect of the change isn't visual. The black, hunched figure that steals into the house isn't material. The very mundanity of the story's presentation casts into sharp relief the uncanny nature of the event. The picture doesn't hurt anyone. It is after all, just a picture. But it gives a picture of more than just a house; it is a picture of the supernatural.

Oscar Wilde does the opposite. He never really describes the titular Picture of Dorian Gray in any detail, instead understanding the effect. You can find enough detail scattered through the story to reconstruct it but Wilde is more interested in the effect of the image, its significance.

The one good film version of the story, the 1945 one with Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders and a precipitously young Angela Lansbury, does duplicate the original picture and, less successfully, the obscene final result with the marks of Dorian Gray's sins on it, and attempts to visualise the impact of both iterations of the painting by having the closeups of the painting being the only colour frames in an otherwise black and white film, which is pretty effective as it goes.

Hurd Hatfield.
The film plays other tricks, too, beginning as an otherwise bland and innocuous period melodrama of the sort Hollywood churned out back then, and ending in a world of angular, expressionist shadows, with the bloodsoaked horror of the painting in the centre of it. It still doesn't quite hit the point, but it knows where the point is, at least. It's one of those exceptions to the rule and at any rate it's still better than the more recent, flat out terrible version with the snarling CGI portrait and the fatally miscast Colin Firth, which is a couple of hours of my life I'm never going to be able to recoup, frankly.

In the book, the image of the portrait, as with MR James's engraving, is only partially fluid. It changes when no one sees. The moment someone looks, it becomes a different thing.

In my story today, the Nine Polaroids – they're Polaroids because they're instant and very hard to fake – could again be drawn, I suppose, and don't change, but they have a movement to them, and their contents invade the world of the protagonist and his absent former lover. He recognises that his solution is only to enter the realm of the pictures, because he is already there.

But then, by reading a written picture, so are you.