“The Emblematic”

Saturday, 3:30-5pm

300 Wheeler

Moderator: Claude Willan


Brendan Prawdzik (UC Berkeley / University of the Pacific)

Marvell's Fowling Birdtalker: The Ecological Ambivalence of Upon Appleton House

This paper focuses on Stanzas 71-73 of Upon Appleton House, where the poet is represented as an “easy philosopher” who confers with trees and birds rapt in sympathetic attention. It has been suggested that Marvell's self-representation is perhaps too idealistic, even self-consciously naïve: the scene presents an ideal of ecological immersion, even as it implies a subjective colonization of the “Other” that, for ecocritics, may inevitably result from attempting to supply the non-human with a decodable voice. Yet none has recognized that specific bird-hunting techniques, elaborated in seventeenth-century fowling manuals like Gervase Markham's Hungers Prevention (1621) and John Ray's Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1676), are menacingly shadowed beneath this Edenic scene. References to “limetwigs,” the poet's bird “call,” and even the crux of the poet as “inverted tree” find compelling sources in Markham. I trace how the image of the bird as “knit” with “lime twigs” metamorphoses through stanzas 72-77 by means of needlework metaphors, culminating in the image of the poet crucified by briars and bound in a “silken bondage” by vines and leaves that, in st. 74, were described as “embroider[ing]” his body. The “eco-crucifixion” responds to guilt attending this ambivalence as it remakes the poet according to the image of the bird metaphorically limed and “consum'd” (see st. 73). The extraordinary duality here, I suggest, largely accounts for the arc of Upon Appleton House as a whole. This ambivalence is characteristic of early modern ecological attitudes more generally, pulled between a vitalism that recognizes the Spirit as infused through all of God's creatures and a persistent dualism that derogates the natural world as a rotting rind, or as populated by insentient objects/resources incapable of feeling and spiritual agency.

Brendan M. Prawdzik graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009.  He has completed postdocs at UCLA's Clark Library and UC Berkeley.  He is currently a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the Pacific, and looks to complete his first book, Milton on Stage: Theatricality, Religious Politics, and the Scriptural Poet this summer.  His article, “‘Look on Me’: Theater, Gender, and Poetic Identity Formation in Milton's Maske,” is forthcoming in Studies in Philology.  His conference talk comes from a nascent second project on seventeenth-century ecology, material culture, and poetics.


Julia Vazquez (Columbia University)

Holbein, Wedigh, and Flat: “Ekphrastic Failure” and the Art of Hans Holbein

Inherent in the ekphrastic enterprise is the problem of ‘ekphrastic failure’ – the paradox of seeking to make present an object that must remain ultimately absent. In relation to the ekphrastic tradition, material artworks, whose physical solidity and temporal endurance suggest an ontological stability against which words appear feeble, are often cited as successful exemplars of the representational endeavor at which ekphrasis appears to fail.

Hans Holbein’s Portrait of a Member of the Wedigh Family exemplifies the oft-lauded achievement of Renaissance art in rendering objects (re)present across time and space. Holbein’s perfectly mimetic depiction of his figure powerfully evokes the Barthes-ian “effet du réel.” And yet, the bright blue background, until now ignored by scholars, reasserts the materiality of the paint on the panel and dispels the possibility of mimetic illusion.

Working within and against the context of 20th-century deconstruction theory and the historiography of portraiture, my paper critically examines the interaction between naturalistic figure and abstract background, considering the literal and metaphorical edge between ‘painting’ and paint as a site of ekphrastic failure. By closely interrogating the physical borderline between figure and backdrop, the painting will be shown to self-consciously reveal its own objecthood in the collapse of the three-dimensional figure against a forcefully two-dimensional panel, and in the attendant collapse of living presence into static re-presence. Upsetting conventional assumptions elaborated above, my paper argues the ontological frailty of the painting as orchestrated in its own material substance.

Julia Vazquez studies Renaissance and Baroque art with David Freedberg at Columbia University. She received her B.A. in 2009 from Brown University, where she double-concentrated in the history of art and architecture and classics and has interned in the Department of Paintings at the Musée du Louvre and in the Client Services/Business Development department of Sotheby's, Paris.


Alan Yeung (Harvard University)

Melon and Moon: Bada Shanren’s (1626-1705) Painting as a Theory of Meaning

The painter Bada Shanren (1626-1705) has baffled viewers with his riddle-like inscriptions and strange, idiosyncratic imagery—of fish and rocks suspended in mid-air and morphing into each other, of birds staring suspiciously into the sky and self-consciously out of the picture, of towering lotus leaves by turns caressing and monstrously threatening. Never before had the semantics of Chinese painting been subjected to such radical deformation. Long-established symbols turn opaque, and supposedly expressionistic brush traces become instead indexes of repression. Axiomatic coherences—between painting and poetry, artist and work, work and viewer—already under pressure in earlier painting, are here torn asunder.

At once inscrutable and compelling, Bada's art has engendered much scholarship proposing text-based and thus presumably stable understandings. Its bizarreness has been explained with biographical accounts of fits of mad behavior and dumbness. His training in Zen Buddhism and background as a refugee-prince of the vanquished Ming dynasty have both inspired attempts to "decode" his paintings, to find in them veiled but ultimately unambiguous religious and political messages.

Through a focused case study of the 1689 Melon and Moon and related works, I argue for an understanding of Bada's paintings as precisely calibrated structures that solicit intense visual attention as an end in itself while (and by) resisting and frustrating such attention. I suggest that Bada, despite his seeming singularity, culminates more general tendencies of self-consciousness and irony in 17th-century Chinese literati culture, wherein inarticulacy is ambiguously both a sought-after aesthetic effect and a symptom that cannot be overcome.

Alan Yeung is a PhD candidate in History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, specializing in 17th-century Chinese painting. He is interested in irony, aestheticism, and trauma.