Beyond Ekphrasis: Visual Media and Modernist Narrative

Lewis, Cara, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, Department of English, University of Virginia
Feldman, Jessica, Department of English, University of Virginia
Felski, Rita, Department of English, University of Virginia

“Beyond Ekphrasis” argues that literary modernism’s convergence with visual media drives its formal experimentation and integrally structures its narratives. Reading texts by Henry James, Mina Loy, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein in dialogue with sculptures, paintings, and photographs, this dissertation offers a capacious account of the intersection between the verbal and visual arts in the early twentieth century. My study encompasses references to fine-art objects and evocations of painterly genres, as well as visual motifs and modes of viewing visual and plastic art, and in so doing, my account departs from the longstanding critical focus on ekphrasis—the verbal representation of an artwork—which has so often guided discussions of the “sister arts.” Instead, I examine more diffuse forms of inter-mediation, which may escape the strict confines of the term ekphrasis because they are, for example, verbal representations of no real-world art object. These unframed, unhung pictures are scattered throughout literary modernism, and they demonstrate that modernists’ formal experiments do not merely include inter-mediation as one kind of play among others, but are instead centrally determined by it.

Specifically, I contend that modernist narratives are informed and even structured by moments of engagement with the fine arts. In this way, “Beyond Ekphrasis” counters the established understanding of the relationship between the visual and verbal arts, which holds that on those occasions when literature borrows from or evokes the visual and plastic arts, the progress of narrative halts, and the passage of visual-verbal imbrication becomes a static object in its own right. In a related fashion, I question the common theorization of description—perhaps the most common way in which literature seeks to imitate painting—as a narrative stoppage or interruption. As I demonstrate, visual-verbal encounters prompt modernists’ experiments in a variety of narrative genres, including the novel, the long poem, and the autobiography. The works at the heart of my study show how textual passages inter-mediated by the visual arts—and many passages of description more generally—can be fully integrated into the plot, inflect subsequent events in the fabula, and even structure the overall form of the narrative. Re-viewing modernist narratives from the frustrated circularity of James’s late-period novels to the chatty, wandering anecdotes of Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, “Beyond Ekphrasis” thus insists upon the capacity of visual media to shape literary forms.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
literature, narrative, novel, twentieth-century literature, modernism, visual arts, media, art history, form, Henry James, Mina Loy, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, ekphrasis
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