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Ekphrasis and bodily performance

Life-likeness is an old aesthetic ideal foregrounded time and again in ancient descriptions of works of art. The pertaining problems were addressed frequently: Perfect life-likeness in a way means perfect deception, while excessive authenticity can sometimes ruin the art work, as the epigram by Lucillius I quoted in my last blog claims…

In descriptions of pantomime – the silent depiction of a myth by a dancer – the attribution of a “voice” to the performer is an important token of praise. It is deeply rooted in the tradition of ekphrasis (understood here in the narrow sense of description of a work of art). The origin of the motif of ‘speaking statues’ is probably connected with inscriptions on all sorts of objects like weights and coins that attribute a voice to the object itself. Examples can be found as early as around 700 BC. In particular, funerary inscriptions make the stone “speak with a silent mouth” (ἀφθόγγωι φθέγγομενα στόματι, GV 1745). The absence of the voice of the dead gives the motif of the speaking stone its poignancy: the stone is mute like the dead, yet it speaks in lieu of the dead. In this context, the silence of written letters is sometimes also mentioned: like the stone itself, they have no voice and cannot be heard, but only seen, yet they are capable of producing speech. Likewise, in the discourse on art, the attribution of voice to a statue or painting is a chief criterion of vividness and life-likeness, since it distinguishes living from dead matter. The reference to specific literary works, as in the example from Posidippus that I quoted in an earlier blog, is a further refinement of this ancient topos, of which writers on pantomime must have been aware.

In this light, I don’t think that Weinreich was necessarily right when he explained the motif of an image that “speaks silently” in a poem attributed to Anacreon as a later interpolation due to the influence of pantomime (Anacreontea 17 West: ὁ κηρὸϲ αὐτὸϲ ἐχέτω λαλῶν σιωπῇ; see O. Weinreich, Epigramm und Pantomimus, 1948, 82 n. 1). Instead, the motif was widely diffused at a much earlier stage already, and those who wrote on pantomime could in turn draw on this background. That the discourse on pantomime exploited the tradition of ekphrasis is all the more natural and obvious as among the very earliest texts on pantomime are in fact ekphrastic epigrams. To be sure, the reverse process, i.e. the influence of pantomime on the description of artworks, can eventually also be witnessed, most clearly perhaps in the fifth century-author Callistratus.

In the past few weeks I have been trying to understand more clearly the impact of the ekphrastic tradition on the perception of performance in antiquity by looking also at three-dimensional and interactive “installations” like the one described in Theocritus’ Adoniazousai (Idyll 15). Just as in contemporary art, the categories of theatre, installation and sculpture were fluid, and although we cannot assume human protagonists in Id. 15.100-144, the description yields some interesting insights into ekphrastic technique, the ideal of life-likeness, and performance. More on this in the new year!

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