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Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures

by Leonard Barkan
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2012
216 pp., illus. 40 b/w. Trade,  $22.95 / £15.95
ISBN: 9780691141831.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

This is an impressive, challenging, highly innovative study on a subject that we thought we knew by heart: the relationships, either pacific or antagonistic, between words and images. Since Lessing’s Laocoon (1766), Western culture has undergone a major shift from the “ut pictura poesis” aesthetics, a classic maxim that mainly stresses the similarity of the sister arts, to issues of “medium-specificity”, which tend to highlight the gaps between the verbal and the visual. Recent work, often in the line of thinking opened by WJT Mitchell’s Iconology (1985), has attempted to question as radically as possible the separation of word and image, both by stressing the visual dimension of the text and the linguistic underpinnings of the image. Yet the book by Leonard Barkan, which clearly belongs to this intellectual family, to which it adds a strong psychoanalytical note, is much more than a late example of this return to the “ut picture poesis”. It is, on the contrary, a study that revitalizes in a very clever way many preformed ideas while addressing questions, texts, and images in order to read them afresh.

The biggest surprise is delivered in the coda of the book, and it is the great merit of Barkan that this secret has been hidden so well during the whole work. Despite the dizzying erudition of the author, who seems to have read literally everything that has been said and thought in the world on the comparison of the arts, one will not find in his study a single word on Lessing. The reason for this omission is not the fact that Barkan, a Renaissance scholar, foregrounds in the very first place antique and pre-Renaissance sources as well as domains less usually included in the word and image debate such as theater, but the fact that Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures offers new readings of all basic references that are so rich and inspiring that the need for a more “contemporary”, Lessingian reading is never felt. The close reading of Horace, for instance, whose treatise on poetics quotes the “ut pictura poesis” maxim in a context whose importance is systematically stressed but only rarely taken really taken into account, is a stunning example of Barkan’s capacity of delivering the kind of intertextual reinterpretation that constitutes the backbone of his argumentation. The author puts his hermeneutical powers at the service of a number of classic texts and images, which are read in a twofold historical perspective: that of the work’s own period first, that of the position of these works in the progressive elaboration, from the Greek and Roman era till the Renaissance artists, of the same old question: why do painters like to represent their images as capable of speaking, and why do writers assimilate the result of their work to images?

At first sight, Barkan’s approach combines the best of historical criticism and deconstruction, which is already quite an achievement in itself, but the most admirable quality of his analyses is both the tightening and the broadening of this age-old debate. On the one hand, Mute Poetry, Speaking Pictures brings together a wide range of works, authors, sources, interpretations, debates, and concepts that are most of the times separated or only partially covered in most historical overviews. The erudition of the book seems to be the outcome of team-work, so diverse and gorgeous is the material handled by the author. At the same time, the scholarship remains so elegantly light that one realizes that such knowledge can only be constructed single-handedly, by an author who was a clear idea of the kind of traces and evidences as well as labyrinths and open questions that he is fascinated by. For it should be underlined that Barkan is not the kind of author that is looking for an overall theory or transhistorical essences. The power that drives his book from the first till the last line is the desire to compare apples and oranges, and the skepticism that arises when apples and oranges are put aside in different baskets.

But the author is also broadening the field beyond chronology. The disciplinary scope of this study is exceptionally broad, as is its strategy to comprise artistic domains seldom examined in this regard. The chapter on Shakespeare and Renaissance theater is a marvelous example of this approach. Barkan starts from the simple but often neglected observation that pre-Renaissance theater has more to do with orality than visuality, and then goes on to reread the changes of stage and staging in light of the word and image debate.

Last Updated 3rd May 2013

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