Ekphrasis

When:   29.11.2014 - 15.02.2015

Where:   The General Staff Building, Hermitage, Saint-Petersburg, Russia
About

On November 28, 2014, the Ekphrasis exhibition was opened in the General Staff building, organized by the State Hermitage Museum as part of its 250th anniversary jointly with the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, with the support of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation.

The word “ekphrasis” is derived from the Ancient Greek verb meaning “proclaim, express.” Ekphrasis in Art Studies is a technique referring to the description of a work of art or architecture in a text. In culture, in broader terms, this means that one medium of art is reproduced in another.

 

Prevalence of ekphrasis in ancient times led to its detachment as a separate genre of ancient literature. One of the earliest examples was the famous treatise of Philostratus the Elder Imagines. The ancient sophist describes works of art seen at his friend’s villa in Naples, and explains their content. The author in the introduction states his desire to “describe examples of paintings in the form of conversations  which we have composed for the young, that by this means they may learn to interpret paintings and to appreciate what is esteemed in them.” Thus, even the first historical example of ekphrasis aims at moral issues and  improving morality.

 

Ekphrasis techniques can be simple or elaborate, practices may be “executed” in a variety of styles and genres. In practice, ekphrasis is not just a rhetorical and compositional exercise, but also the result of understanding the aesthetic experience, invariably leading to the ethics of aesthetics. Analytically, ekphrasis seeks to deepen, supplement and explain the emotional and aesthetic experience, which ensured the popularity of the practice in the literature of subsequent ages, and its extension to other branches of art. Its “borderline” position, on the one hand, allows extending the range of problems that are initiated by a certain word picture, on the other hand – makes it possible to respond to controversial issues that require a “detached view.” Of course, ekphrasis inevitably includes both information about the ideology and socio-cultural identity of an author and his/her times.

 

Dual optics, through which ekphrasis “envisages” the original work, allows its author to treat his/her own text solely as a service medium, step back and avoid any decorativism, and focus on the ethical implications of the described work. However, taking ethics for a basis, ekphrasis as a method allows its author to come to more complex artistic results.

 

Thus,  Heinse’s work “On Several Paintings in the Düsseldorf Gallery” became a kind of forerunner of German Romanticism, and the “Painting” by Pseudo-Cebes describes a non-existent work, showing a pure allegory.

 

Ekphrasis requires a transition from one medium of art to another. The use of this ancient technique is demonstrated in individual scenes of “Caravaggio” directed by Derek Jarman or “Rembrandt fecit 1669” directed by Jos Stelling, where famous paintings are tightly woven into the fabric of the film narrative played by modern actors. In a sense, this approach also includes book illustration, when viewed separately from the text, for example, the graphic series of the Old and New Testaments by Gustave Doré.

 

The Exhibition prepared for the Museum’s anniversary by the State Hermitage Modern Art Department jointly with the National Centre for Contemporary Arts, focuses on the functioning of ekphrasis in modern video. The object of study in this case is the museum itself with its unique origins and social functions. A museum today is a complex organism, which does far more than simply “store and study works of art.” A modern museum is enmeshed in the complex structure of diverse social, cultural, and economic ties. The museum requires special behavioral rituals and prescribes to its visitors the specific, rigidly defined ways of art “consumption.” But the museum, seen by a modern artist is something else: an architectural monument, an educational platform, a research center, a means of amassing a historical memory, and an eternal space of dialogue between visitor, art and artist.

 

How can a museum be described in the fullness of its various functions? In the works on display, an artist’s view becomes an instrument of studying the ways of interaction between the visitor, the museum, art, and its creator. The videos played at the exhibition are an example of ekphrasis: a description of the museum based on the works of art on display in it. It is commonly believed that in the dialogue between a contemporary artist and the museum, the museum always wins out because the artist is mortal and will eventually be bound by the museum’s historic walls. The Ekphrasis Project demonstrates that the artist may well have the last word as the one responsible for carefully building the image of the museum that will be preserved in history.

 

Curator of the Ekphrasis exhibit, organized within the “Hermitage 20/21” project – D.Yu. Ozerkov, Director of the Modern Art Department at the State Hermitage Museum, Candidate of Philosophy.

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