On Tuesday 10th March 1914, Mary Richardson entered London’s National Gallery with a cleaver hidden up the sleeve of her coat. She circulated the gallery’s rooms for a short while, before coming to rest in front of Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus. After considering the painting a moment, Richardson launched herself, hacking through the protective glass to deface the artist’s only surviving female nude. An article published in TheTimes the following morning described Richardson – ‘a deranged suffragette’ – as having ‘mutilated’ Venus, calling the canvas’s most extensive piece of damage ‘a cruel wound in the neck’. The newspaper attributed the following statement to Richardson:
I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs. Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. […]If there is an outcry against my deed, let every one remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs. Pankhurst and other beautiful living women […]
Richardson’s attack on the Rokeby Venus was an assault on the institution, the ways in which their collections objectified women as beautiful bodies at a time when women’s actual bodies were being destroyed by poverty and disease, or else – as in the case of Emmeline Pankhurst – incarcerated for voicing injustice. It also represents one of a catalogue of challenges made against the patriarchal formulations of art history. Beginning in the mid eighties, seven decades after the suffragettes vandalised multiple artworks across some of England’s most prestigious galleries, anonymous feminist group the Guerrilla Girls sought to highlight the structural inequalities of the art world, which had scarcely changed in intervening decades. 1 Throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Linda Nochlin, Judy Chicago, Griselda Pollock and many other artists and art critics have consistently questioned dominant museum models of art and history in their books and essays. A recent BBC documentary, TheStory of Women and Art, exposed galleries and museums’ historic reluctance to exhibit pieces by female artists, despite these institutions’ storage facilities housing many such works, while projects such as the Gallery Tally keep a public record of the ongoing gender inequity in arts platforms and institutions at all levels.
As writers’ primary access to artworks throughout the twentieth century, museums and galleries, and their coffee table style publications, have operated as regulators for twentieth century ekphrasis – the verbal representation of visual representation – by limiting the available source materials and directing the ways in which they are processed. The result has been largely homogenising, with ekphrastic poetry dealing predominantly in the fine art of white, Western males, and exhibiting a poetic approach that mimics an art critical-historical one, asking readers to view the pieces in question as ‘timeless repositories of human wisdom’. 2 Poets whose ekphrases moved beyond the realms of painting and sculpture to work with altogether new kinds of visual representations, including Adrienne Rich’s ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’ and Edwin Morgan’s Instamatic Poems and From the Video Box, have been disregarded within the retrospectives of ekphrastic poetry.
Rachael Allen’s 4chan Poems series takes as its source material a selection of the categorised boards on the 4chan website, the notorious online forum whose users are responsible for the creation and propagation of countless memes, and the aggressive sexual harassment of women. 3 The site’s boards are listed according to theme – ‘Anime & Manga,’ ‘Video Games’, ‘Sports’, ‘Sexy Beautiful Women’, etc. – and attributed a referential shorthand – ‘/a/’, ‘/v/’, ‘/sp/’, ‘/s/’, etc. – in addition to being grouped into six primary categories: ‘Japanese Culture’, ‘Interests’, ‘Creative’, ‘Adult’, ‘Other’ and ‘Misc.’. Accordingly, the poems in Allen’s series take the names of individual boards and their shorthands as titles. Given the function of the boards, as forums for the exchange of images, games, videos and gifs, the stream of visual material displayed within each is always in a state of flux. But the indefinite and plural nature of the series’ source material has its precedents within ekphrastic poetry; W. H. Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, although often associated uniquely with Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in fact manipulates and merges at least three of Breughels paintings, while Keats’s Grecian urn is said to be a conflation of multiple ancient vases the poet had encountered around the time of writing.
In ‘Wallpapers/General’, the desktop wallpapers and phone backgrounds made available by users on the /wg/ board are planted in a suburban narrative, and the decision regarding which image to download recontextualised in terms of a father-daughter visit to a local junkshop cum wholesale depot. The text hinges on the pervasive threat of disturbance, as announced by the phrase ‘hell-for-leather’ in the poem’s first line, of which the daughter’s final wish for a spiky rubber dog collar is a distorted echo (‘poppy’/’daddy’). The picturesque ‘Arabic mezzanine market scene’, and those featuring a ‘pastoral shepherd walker’, snowdrops and poppies, are all presented as untenable idylls in the hectic ‘store with added atmosphere’, their instability compounded by consistent reference to the images as surfaces, ‘prints’ that are pinned back onto plywood or canvas. The inevitable disruption of the scene occurs about two-thirds of the way through the text, ‘where a dolphin punctures a sunset’ and, simultaneously, the poem. The stanza break that follows acts as a divider between two types of image on the /wg/ board, the one family-friendly, the other illicit, represented by ‘the poster with the Ganja leaf’. It is also the marker of a before and after scenario, where the daughter figure, despite the warnings of the poem’s speaker (who we might take for a representation of the daughter’s future self), finally reveals her (sexual) agency to her father.
Ekphrasis is a mode plagued by sexist designs due to the wholesale reliance of many of its critics on the analogy of the male gaze, and the fact that the broader implications of this concept have gone unacknowledged within the literature until far too recently. 4 Stemming from a notion of the ekphrastic impulse as the desire to speak for or through the ostensibly silent object, gendered conceptions of ekphrasis ascribe a feminine identity to artworks universally, while the verbal, seeing agent of the text is portrayed as uniquely male. This precarious theoretical model, wherein ‘the voice of male speech [strives] to control a female image that is both alluring and threatening’, relies on the continuing acceptance of a male/female dominant/subservient social norm – an outlook that demonstrates at best a baffling ignorance of, and at worst a wilful obliviousness to, important developments in (feminist) criticism over the past fifty years. 5
The fact, then, that Allen is a female looking in ‘Wallpapers/General’ is central to the poem’s subversion of the inherited ekphrastic dynamic, and to the series as a whole, especially given their operating from within 4chan’s overtly misogynistic environment. Here, just as in the gallery or museum (or, indeed, the literature on ekphrasis), ‘women experience primarily absence, except in images that do not necessarily reflect women’s own sense of themselves’. 6 Representations of women on the 4chan boards are branded either SFW (Safe for Work, i.e. featuring fully-clothed women, suitable for viewing by all ages) or NSFW (Not Safe for Work, i.e. featuring nudity and/or pornographic images). On the /wg/ board, NSFW images of women offer a mix of glamour model shots, explicit anime and pornographic stills, while the ‘SFW girls thread’ provides a strain of wallpapers featuring close-up portrait shots of non-threatening, wide-eyed teenagers – often redheads, often sitting or lying down on a single bed, often making direct eye contact with the camera.
In ‘Wallpapers/General’, the move from a desire for SFW to NSFW images is used to signal a young girl’s development, dropping ‘the pretence’ of innocence. Elsewhere in the 4chan Poems series, ‘Animu & Mango’ uses anime storylines to process the speaker’s romance with ‘Declan who lived in Pensilva’, while the distinctly NSFW downloads available on the ‘Sexy Beautiful Women’ board act as a trigger for the memory of discovering ‘a leafy bedroom drawer of unmarked VHS’s’ at a friend’s parent’s house. Again, Allen’s approach to these images exemplifies that of earlier writers such as Marianne Moore who, working within an ekphrastic tradition, consciously addressed pieces that precluded a conventional dynamic:
Moore’s ekphrastic objects most often come from museums; they are emblems of the very possessive urge she sought to rid herself of. But she liked objects that did not settle comfortably into their places [there]; she liked, especially, those that might not be considered ‘art,’ or that come trailing evidence of a previous, domestic life: Chinese plates, a glass bottle, a pair of candlesticks, a patch-box, a carriage from Sweden, a six-foot painted wooden organ in the shape of a tiger devouring a man, tapestries, embroideries. 7
Similarly, Allen decontextualizes the visual materials on the 4chan boards, selecting images that act as ‘evidence of a previous, domestic life’ – both her own and countless others from the born-digital generation – and reappropriates them as unlikely emblems of girlhood.
In Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s protagonist Adam Gordon speculates on the contrived nature of the ‘profound experience of art’:
I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. […] Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity. 8
Allen’s experience of the 4chan boards – an area of the internet generally perceived as a black hole for profundity – is, as it turns out, the site of a genuinely profound encounter. Moreover, the seemingly vacuous nature of the visual material Allen addresses in the 4chan Poems – as both disposable and easily disposed of – relieves the ekphrases of the weight of expectation typically imposed by the elevated status of canonical artworks. Much like Moore, Rich and Morgan, however, Allen’s unconventional choice of source material is also the cause of the 4chan Poems having been overlooked as exercises in ekphrasis, or translations between media.
Within discussions of ekphrasis, the visual and verbal mediums are often treated as mutually antagonistic rival authorities, a connective model that underwrites ideological conceptions of the form and imposes restrictions on all facets of the ekphrastic process. Lerner has suggested elsewhere that the real power of ekphrastic poetry is in ‘how it can describe and stage encounters with works of art that can’t or don’t exist’, or else in its ability to ‘embed real works in imagined conditions in order to track their effects.’ 9 Allen’s ‘Wallpapers/General’ operates somewhere in between these two states, fetching conflations of digital images into a hyperreality. Importantly, the 4chan Poems make it apparent that, far from being an archaic literary mode that is resistant to modern aesthetic and social concerns, ekphrasis is an effective means through which to manage and explore the friction between actuality and virtuality, its contemporary relevance amplified by the ubiquity of the internet.
The group formed in response to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibition ‘An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture’, which featured the work of 169 artists, of whom only 13 were female. ↩
‘Introduction: The Subject of Ekphrasis’, Jane Hedley, In the Frame: Women’s Ekphrastic Poetry from Marianne Moore to Susan Wheeler, ed. by Jane Hedley, Nick Halpern and Willard Spiegelman (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009), 15-40 (p. 21). ↩
The recent spate of leaked nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian and others, and the threats of (sexual) violence made towards Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Emma Watson, can be traced back to 4chan’s boards. ↩
In the Frame, an anthology of essays on women’s ekphrastic poetry, edited by Jane Hedley, Nick Halpern and Willard Spiegelman, acts to dislodge prior formulations and engage with a new set of ideas surrounding a distinctively feminine tradition spanning the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. ↩
James A.W. Heffernan, Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 1. ↩
They would go hell-for-leather arguing for the poppy print or Arabic mezzanine market scene – this was in the store with added atmosphere, backed up water bottles thick with dust, everyone man-handling receipts and staff, and subsiding receipts and staff. The couple can’t decide between the snowdrop pinned-back canvas and the pastoral shepherd walker, backed on to plywood or there’s one where a dolphin punctures a sunset
daughter don’t drop the pretence and accidently slip between your father’s arms the poster with the Ganja leaf on it, say, this would look great by the fluoro fish tank where we keep the chinchilla, say, I would like a spiky dog collar but made of rubber because I like the smell daddy
First published in Poetry London 76, Autumn 2013. Reproduced with permission of the author.
/ n (pl stray dogs)
/ 1. A tight-ribbed canid – its belly a skin drum.
/ In packs, they scrum through railings and wall cracks, in the wild state, slender-muzzled, ears
/ cocked and noses honed to bolt. In alleys and silos, they snuffle for milk and meat. Though
/ they’ ...
Cú Chi, Vietnam
/ Red is only black remembering.
/ Early dark & the baker wakes
/ to press what’s left of the year
/ into flour & water. Or rather,
/ he’s reshaping the curve of her pale calf
/ atmosphered by a landmine left over
/ from the war he can’t recall. A fistful
/ of hay & ...