Few expressions of aesthetic criticism have led to more comment over a period of several centuries than u.p.p., "as is painting so is poetry" (Horace, Ars Poetica). Even with partial explanation, the Horatian comparison of painting and poetry was as tentative as the proper August an wished it to be. The notion that poetry and painting are alike had had some currency even before Horace, who probably knew--even if he may not have assumed that his audience would recall--the more explicit earlier statement of Simonides of Keos (first recorded by Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium, 3.347a, more than a century after Ars Poetica): "Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens" (poetry is a speaking picture, painting a silent [mute] poetry).

The views of Aristotle--especially that poetry and painting as arts of imitation should use the same principal element of composition (struc- ture), namely, plot in tragedy and design (outline) in painting (see his Poetics, 6.19-21) furnished additional authority for Renaissance and later attempts to measure the degree and the nature of the kinship of the arts (the "parallel" of the arts) and to determine the order of precedence among them (the "paragone" of the arts). More- over, as Rensselaer W. Lee observed in his illuminating analysis of the humanistic theory or doctrine of painting for which the Horatian dictum served as a kind of final sanction, "writers on art expected one to read [u.p.p.] 'as is poetry so is painting.'"

The Horatian simile, however interpreted, asserted the likeness, if not the identity, of painting and poetry; and from so small a kernel came an extensive body of aesthetic speculation and, in particular, an impressive theory of art which prevailed in the 16th, 17th, and most of the 18th centuries. While a few poets assented to the proposition that painting surpasses poetry in imitating human nature in action as well as in showing a Neoplatonic Ideal Beauty above nature, more of them raided the province of painting for the greater glory of poetry and announced that the preeminent painters are the poets. Lucian's praise of Homer as painter gave ancient authority for that view, which Petrarch and others reinforced. Among the poets described as master-painters have been Theocritus, Virgil, Tasso, Ariosto, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton, not to mention numerous later landscapists in descriptive poetry, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Parnassians. Painter and critic, Reynolds instanced Michelangelo as the prime witness to "the poetical part of our art" of painting (Discourse 15, 1790). Thus a "poetical" or highly imaginative painter could be compared with the 'painting" poets.

U.p.p. offered a formula--the success of which "one can hardly deny," Rene Wellek remarked-for analyzing the relationship of poetry and painting (and other arts). However successful, the Horatian formula proved useful--at least was used--on many occasions as a precept to guide artistic endeavor, as an incitement to aesthetic argument, and as a basic clement in several theories of poetry and the arts. Alone and with many accretions, modifications, and transformations, u.p.p. inspired a number of meaningful comments about the arts and poetry and even contributed to the [actual] work and theory of several painters, most notably, "learned Poussin." Moreover, like other commonplaces of criticism, the Horatian formula stimulated and attracted to itself a variety of views of poetry and painting that are hard to relate to the original statement.

Another part of the story of the Horatian simile concerns adverse criticism and opposition. In Plastics (1712) Shaftesbury warned, "Comparisons and parallel[s] . . . between painting and poetry ... almost ever absurd and at best constrained, lame and defective." The chief counterattack came in Laokoon (1766), with Lessing contending that the theories of art associated with u.p.p. had been the principal, if not the only, begetter of the confusion of the arts which he deplored in the artistic practice and theory of the time. R. G. Saisselin in 1961 showed that the "relations between the sister arts . . . were more complex than a reading of Lessing might lead one to believe." Since then similar charges have been raised occasionaliy, as in Irving Babbitt's The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910), a stumbling block until very recently.

On the other hand, from late in the 19th century the kinship of poetry and painting appeared in a more favorable light in connection with the arts of the East--in generalizations about the "poetic feeling" of Oriental painting and the pictorial characteristics of Chinese and Japanese poetry and, with the ever-increasing knowledge of Eastern art, in historical and critical studies setting forth the close relationships between Oriental poetry and painting. In China poets were often painters; and critics, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries, stated the parallelism of poetry and painting in language close to that of Simonides and Horace. According to Chou Sun, "Painting and writing are one and the same art." Writing implied calligraphy, which linked painting with poetry. Thus, a poet might "paint poetry," and a painter wrote "soundless poems."

These Eastern views led a number of poets in Europe and America to follow Japanese rules for poems and Chinese canons of painting and even to write-paint "Oriental" poems--"images" directly presented to the eye, "free" impressions in a few strokes of syllables and lines, evocations of mood, Iyrical epigrams, and representations rather than reproductions of nature. Yet the poems reflecting the Eastern tendency to regard poetry and painting as "two sides of the same thing" were experimental and specialized works that included only a few of the resources of the two arts. Moreover, the critical analysis of "the same thing," with its "two sides" of painting and poetry, remains at least as difficult as the explanation of the Horatian observation, "as is painting so is poetry."

Today, painters and poets seldom study the Horatian simile and the expanded "texts" of the Italian, French, and English treatises on the humanistic theory of painting, and few artists care whether painting ever had a superior, an elder, or any sister. Oriental theories of the blending, not to say confusion, of art forms are more likely to arouse interest in the kinship and rivalry of poetry and painting. If painting now seems too varied to allow anyone to define it precisely, the same is true of poetry. The relation between poetry and painting was strikingly reaffirmed in the period between 1910 and 1930 by the poets of Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism (e.g., Marinetti, Tzara, Schwitters, Breton) and by the poets of De Stijl (e.g. Theo van Doesberg). In New York a close affinity developed between painters (e.g. William Marsden, Marcel Duchamp) and such poets as Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. In the work of these poets--and in the later work of "Concrete Poets" the old concept of u.p.p. is revived. Whatever painting is, poetry is the same! Since the Horatian proposition may be useful again, it had best remain unresolved: if poetry and painting are the same and were born at one and the same time, they may together fall.

A note on the source.

  • Alan Filreis's "'Beyond the Rhetorician's Touch': Stevens's Painterly Abstractions" (published in American Literary History), an essay about Stevens, the Cold War, American attitudes toward Europe, and Abstract Expressionism.


    Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/utpict.html
    Last modified: Tuesday, 02-Nov-2010 06:47:58 EDT