Painting with Words – The Illusive Art of Representation Appearance and Reality From the Perspective of Visual and Literary Art in Zbigniew Herbert’s Still Life with a Bridle

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Mia Gregg

(UBC Arts One, Prof. Robert Crawford Seminar)


Still life with a Bridle navigates the stories conveyed by art and other artifacts from the Dutch Golden Age. Herbert records his “artistic journey”, with the keen eye of a historian, weaving in poetic “descriptions of places and artefacts of interest to him” (Slodczyk 127). The text ties many accurate facts loosely to reality, forming a collage of fact and fiction, both imaginative and informative. Playing with the binary of appearance and reality in many ways; the work explores visual and literary art as both illusive and accurate, the text itself as a manner of representation, and evaluating ekphrasis as a form of description. This exploration blurs boundaries between appearance and reality in representation, and yet sheds light on topics of perspective and the individual experience. The relationship between visual and literary forms of art and how they inform appearance and reality in Zbigniew Herbert’s Still Life with a Bridle demonstrate the ways in which representations can be both illusive and illuminating. Herbert’s exploration of art through literature is essentially an exploration of perspective, the “deceptiveness of seeing” (Slodczyk 122) and the gap between “seeing and description” (Slodczyk 123).

This paper will examine contrasting arguments for art as both illusive and accurate in the visual art described by Herbert and the literature itself. The paper will then examine ekphrasis as a tool to combine visual and literary arts to create an integrated representation of reality. Ekphrasis can be defined as a poetic description often of visual art or a “reproduction through the medium of words of sensuously perceptible objects d’art” (qtd. in Slodczyk 124). References to secondary sources, including Slodcyk’s work on “Modes of Ekphrasis”, which discusses the nuances of a specific ekphrastic poem by Herbert and Andrew Miller’s work on lyrical representations of art, “The Shadow of the Former Self” provide additional insight into the art of ekphrasis. This exploration finds the combined effort of both literary and visual art forms augment reality. Although both forms of representation have limitations, together they strengthen truth and speak to the reader on an emotional level.


1. The Illusion of Art

From early in the novel, Herbert introduces art as both an illusion and reality. On one hand, paintings themselves are not “faithful representations of reality” (Slodczyk 127). While on the other hand, Still Life with a Bridle designates art as an accurate representation of reality, able to reach “the heart of things” (Herbert, 5). Herbert explores the “disharmony” between “the faithful rendering of appearance” and “a suggested allusion or symbolic statement” (Slodczyk, 127). The discussion of illusive art elicits many questions; What is the purpose of art? Is it to please the eye? Is it to affirm reality? How does art establish truths? In what ways does art limit understanding?

At many points in the text, Herbert indicates that art is a deceptive form of representation, often pointing to historical inaccuracies. Paintings are representations of reality that can be true artifacts while at the same time only “[shadows] of existing things” (Herbert 39). One example is a painting of tulips, which is viewed as a beautiful image and celebration of the flower. Herbert informs the context surrounding the painting to find it was only commissioned because the owner couldn’t afford real tulips during Tulipomania. Herberts argues that the painting stands in for the real flowers, but cannot accomplish the same effect. A still life painting or a landscape, although seeming to have captured a moment in time, has been created over many hours. Trees move and light shifts, giving the artist power to transcend time and space by curating the image from their minds eye. Portraits are one example Herbert provides to explore appearance and reality in art as “Everyone wants to look better and more dignified than in reality.” (Herbert 31). This brings to question art as a tool to record history in which flaws may be softened with the paintbrush in order to please the viewer. Art is a “deadly abstraction” that feeds on “the blood of reality” (Herbert 97). In this way, visual art can be a deceptive representation of appearances and cannot possibly capture reality with accuracy.

Although art is an illusive form of representation in many cases, Herbert also contradicts this perspective, often reflecting on the admirable accuracy of art. The authenticity of art is championed, along with its ability to express the “heart of things” (Herbert 5). The painters of the Dutch Golden Age “Augment the visible world of their small country and to multiply reality by the thousands” (Herbert 21). Art offers reflection on the real world by augmenting perspective, as if through a microscope. Herbert praises “the painter’s precision” (Herbert 116), presenting paintings as able to “immortalize” people, events, objects and landscapes at a certain point in time, preserving reality in an artifact and immortalizing the perspective of the artist (Herbert 31). Herbert praises art’s ability to render an image that “seems alive” to evoke a sensual and emotional reaction in the viewer (Herbert 99). Herbert says of painting, “From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean, and views of paradise truer than the real ones” (Herbert 80). Here, art is elevated above reality, possessing more truth than reality.

The contradiction between art as illusive and informative is well expressed in the role of the artist. Herbert argues that Dutch painters “[worked] to please the public” (Herbert 37), suggesting they altered reality for the sake of appearances. At the same time “They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness” (Herbert 37). Artists worked at once to preserve reality and to alter it forever. A painting lives by “its own light, the clear, penetrating light of clarity” (Herbert 105). Artists depict light while altering reality to display precision, true detail and though it sounds contradictory, preserve reality. This results in a paradox of preservation; in attempting to reproduce reality, a painting remains a representation of reality. The talented artist Torrentius is described as a “Master of illusory realism” implying that artists are deceptive in their ability to reproduce reality (Herbert 99). Herbert further discusses the authenticity of artists in apocrypha 9. “Letter” :

“We artists record appearances, the life of shadows and the deceptive surface of the world; we do not have the courage or ability to reach the essence of things. We are craftsmen, so to speak, who work in the matter of illusion” (Herbert 148)

Here, art is an illusion tied to appearances and cannot be seen to accurately depict reality. Vermeer concludes that although art cannot completely uncover reality, it may “reconcile man with surrounding reality” and “speak of joy from recovered harmony, of the eternal desire for reciprocated love” (Herbert 150). Art, even if illusive, proves also capable of capturing truth.

The ability of art to express truth is further explored in “The Nonheroic Subject” which explores the value of art. Herbert investigates why paintings of average, everyday objects were highly valued over paintings depicting glorious historical events during the Dutch “Golden Age”. Herbert questions the value of art, “Is it dignity and truth? Is it greatness? Is it beauty?” (Herbert 108). He concludes, “There is no division in their art between what is great and what is small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary” (Herbert 118). Herbert’s exploration of Art from the golden age finds value in the truth of the ordinary. “The Nonheroic Subject” demonstrates how the art of the everyday can furnish a more accurate depiction of life, though still influenced by the painter. What remains of these artifacts in museums of historical events may not represent the whole truth because the paintings were greatly influenced by their context. Art can represent both illusion and reality. Thus, Herbert warns that one painting cannot represent the whole picture. “Many works of art have been condemned to a secret life, and what we see in the museums and art galleries, accessible to everyone, is only a part of the existing heritage of the past.” (Herbert 94). Herbert gives the example of the cauldron in the Leids museum and the painting “History from the perspective of God” as the remaining artefacts from the attack of the Dutch flotilla against the Spanish entrenchments (Herbert 113). These remnants do not capture in entirety the epic battle, however they do hold some portion of the truth. Although art is not always an accurate representation of reality, it remains meaningful. Herbert presents art as a part of a whole, one idea of reality possessing the power to influence history by either excluding some details or glorifying others.


2. The Illusion of Literature

Herbert’s literary art form and the very structure of his novel attest to the indistinct boundary between appearance and reality. Herbert explores the accuracy of literary art and poetry throughout the text with the use of unreliable narration, genre mixing and ekphrasis. The use of ekphrasis, essays and apocrypha that both beguile and inform cause the reader to question appearance and reality within the book itself. The coalescing genres of essays, poetry and apocrypha present literature as another illusive art form, though still able to provide valuable insights and perspective.

The confusion of genre and varied writing style found in Still Life with a Bridle are used to question the authenticity of the literary arts. Essays are considered fact-based argumentative literature which weigh arguments and come to a conclusion. Herbert’s use of the genre combines factual analysis with intimate reverie. “Herbert’s style is flexible and has an unusually wide range: it can be factual, concise, and stringent, but it can also be poetic and sensual.” (qtd. in Slodczyk 130). The apocrypha are another illusion within art, hiding truth within fictional tales, to provoke questionable accuracy and reliability. Poetic, descriptive language along with the apocrypha contrast the factual and the fictional throughout the novel. Literature is an illusive and often inaccurate form of representation. Miller recognizes the limitations of language in depicting appearance and reality, “language will always form a net or a chasm between us and any sense of union or reunion with our origins” (Miller 27).

Herbert’s all too reliable narration also points to the constraints of language. Herbert’s honest narration goes so far as to question the authenticity of the work itself. “I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language – as voluminous, as receptive as hell- in which court verdicts and love novels are written.” (Herbert 97) Herbert is minutely aware of distinguishing speculative language from objective language. He also makes the reader aware of this distinction and in doing so leads them to trust his authenticity. Herbert even comments on the authenticity of his own sources in the apocrypha “Letter”. Herbert discusses the letter and the flimsy evidence that it is authentic, supposedly between Vermeer and Van Lewenhoek. Language is seen by some as only a “cacophony of echoes, none of which draw one any closer to feelings, but instead render one isolated in a seemingly disingenuous house of chatter” (Miller 28).

Although the narration and defiance of genre paint language as a poor informant of reality, Herbert’s poetry also demonstrates the value in literature’s ability to promote understanding. Ekphrasis allows Herbert to write his essays from a unique perspective with accurate yet vivid descriptions, while also demonstrating how they may be biased in some ways. Through the use of ekphrasis, the reader learns to question the role of art (both visual and literary) in history and society. The reader is led to question the objectivity of the viewer and their own subjective interpretation. Ekphrasis, used to describe the painting “Bouquet against a vaulted Window” not only describes the painting, but also details the effect it has on the viewer. Herbert depicts the bouquet under a “clear and objective” light, painted with the “impartiality of a botanist and anatomist” (Herbert 41). The limited quality of these descriptions is not hidden from the reader. “I have invented all this unnecessary anecdote to motivate these two heads against the heavy, dark background” (Herbert 67). Herbert explains that he relies only on the painting and “the museum of [his] imagination” (Herbert 14) to conjure an image for the reader. Everything has been touched in some way by the past, the painter is not a clear lens through which to see the past but has also, in some way, given shape to the past. “Language is a cheap and unreliable harlot”, while visual representations are “alive with the loveliest feelings” (Miller 26). At the same time art is capable of reuniting the past with the future, evoking “lovely feelings and satisfying longing” (Miller 28). “We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting. I was always aware of committing a tactless act” (Herbert 97). The ability of visual art to evoke the senses and provoke thought and emotion is valuable, perhaps more valuable than any attempt at accuracy in descriptive representation. Herbert’s recognition of both the constraints and strengths of representation allows for a better understanding of truth and the value of accuracy.

Herbert’s process of describing art using artful language helps to impart the view that literary and visual arts may be at once illusions and contain essential truths. “One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.” (Herbert 101). Herbert describes his own artistic method: “The gray abstractions of philosophers are replaced by graceful symbols and images; everything connects with everything else and moves towards the desired Unity.” (Herbert 102). Herbert views academic analysis as “blind to the essence of a work and concentrated solely on its dry analysis” (Slodczyk 129). “Scholarly, scrupulous treatments seemed to Herbert bare, boring; which does not mean, however, that he did not make use of them” (qtd. in Slodczyk 129). Therefore the essays do not attempt a complete description but rather “an inquiry into the mystery that is hidden in art and into individual experience.” (qtd. in Slodczyk 129). Throughout the novel, Herbert accomplishes this task with the use of both fact and fiction, art and history.

Herbert’s writing recognizes its own inaccuracy, but still attributes meaning to literary art. Herbert’s historical inquiry does not claim to be objective, istead it actively preserves the myths found within history. Literature may be incomplete but also legitimate. Herbert reclaims the boring desert of factual analysis with speculation. “I did not manage to break the code. The enigmatic painter, the incomprehensible man, begins to pass from the plane of investigation based on flimsy sources to an indistinct sphere of fantasy, the domain of tellers of tales” (Herbert 106). Although Herbert’s “investigation” into the life of Torrentius is not complete with historical accuracy, there is still value in literary exploration of the past. Herbert concludes that although he cannot relay a perfectly accurate history of Torrentius, the confounding of fantasy and history in literature is able to reach “the heart of things” more authentically than either method on its own. Still Life with a Bridle is “suspended between fantasy and reality”, constructed with pieces of scrupulous research held together by fantasy to prove that literature can be a limited, yet valuable representation of reality (Slodczyk 126).


3. Ekphrasis : The Illumination of Art and Literature Combined

Herbert’s ekphrasis is the culmination of truth, bringing the overlapping stories and perspectives together, “both forms of artistic expression into confrontation with one another.” (Slodczyk 122). Slodzyk offers a helpful analysis of Herbert’s ekphrasis alongside a piece of art. Slodczyk also points to the inaccuracies of ekphrasis as a form of description.

“The images beneath our eyelids create our own private museum of imagination. The remembered look of a work of art can, however, differ from works in real museums, churches and palaces. This, in turn, has consequences in the case of attempts to recreate encounters with artefacts” (Slodczyk 122).

Ekphrasis provides “evidence of the deceptiveness of seeing, of the mixing and superimposition of images” (qtd. in Slodczyk 123). Slodzcyk comments on supplementing descriptions with commentary to provide the reader with a specific perspective. Presenting both a reproduction of the image’s “faithful description” as well as the subjective interpretation and the emotional and sensory reaction elucidated by the viewer (Slodczyk 123). Herbert’s combined analysis and emotional response transport the reader to a specific perspective which allows exploration of the individual experience. Ekphrasis enables the reader to perceive art through the eyes of the describer, questioning appearance and reality in art and literature. Herbert’s ekphrasis provides the reader with “the perspective of a concrete viewer” (Slodczyk 131). This description is not neutral, but “filtered through the personality and language of the poet.” (Slodczyk 131). Herbert’s accurate descriptions contain “traces of emotion” along with “speculative interpretations” (Slodczyk 132). These “assertions may be read both as a private judgement and as an objective affirmation.” (Slodczyk 129). Both the art and the description of the artwork provoke thought and reflection on perspective and subjectivity.

The “Mutual illumination of verbal and visual works” furnishes a deeper truth which art and literature alone cannot access (Slodczyk 124). Although Herbert is aware of the challenges to the accuracy of ekphrasis, he uses it to provide insight, that perhaps neither art form alone can. Herbert does not believe in one clear truth, but believes there is a way to access the “heart of things” (Herbert 5). The authentic heart of things is found in a mixture of fact, fiction and embellishments of history, combinations of art and literature. Herbert believes not in one singular truth, but in a full picture of many overlapping perspectives. Ekphrastic description is able to bridge some of these overlapping perspectives to create a more integrated view. There is truth in everything for Herbert and also truth in nothing. It is all just a matter of perspective.

In his work On poetry and Photography Miller posits that Herbert values poetry’s ability to “evaluate photographic evidence”, relegating it to a “secondary status under language” which is the true “agency of meaning” (Miller 26). Throughout history, many poets have hailed the power of art and celebrated its accuracy (Miller 27). Miller argues that “the rivalry between the image and the text” manifests in ekphrasis (Miller 3). This “rivalry” is a problem of accuracy and “power to express the past”. Miller views poetry as the victor in the work of Herbert (Miller 4). Miller’s argument assumes that Herbert views visual art as a “threat” to literary art and wishes for a “return” to the art of language (Miller 27). I however would argue that Herbert celebrates both and his poetic descriptions express the value of both arts in establishing appearance and reality. As previously argued, Herbert recognizes the deficiencies of both literary and visual art forms and yet still celebrates both. Instead of a “return to language” I would postulate Herbert emphasizes a return to art, both literary and visual. Herbert recognizes both the inaccuracies and the powers of visual art and literature. This is apparent in the celebration of their combined ability to “reunite the past with the future, bringing “lovely” feelings and satisfying longing” The struggle to evaluate which is more powerful becomes meaningless when both are equal. Rather than “relegate art to secondary status behind language”, Herbert celebrates the illuminating power of the two.



The exploration of visual and literary arts ability to express truth has led to the conclusion that both forms of representation, although limited, possess invaluable and genuine perspectives both on their own, and when combined in ekphrasis. Although both literary and visual arts can be seen to both inform and detract from reality in a number of ways, when fused in ekphrasis, they provide a unique perspective. Life is not still, it cannot be captured in a single frame. Herbert’s exploration of art and how it informs appearance and reality gives the reader a greater sense of the role of art in establishing truth. This truth may not be entirely accurate or factual in an empirical sense but rather a sensual and emotional experience able to capture a specific perspective. What makes art both beautiful and valuable is its ability to represent a singular perspective and resonate with another individual in some way to connect people with their surroundings, thus creating a sense of community and belonging in the shared experience. Although meaning, truth, appearance and reality may all be foggy, art (both literary and visual) embodies the presence of another human being and their perspective. Art can be meaningful though not necessarily true. Herbert’s truth is elusive but can be meaningful even if not entirely accurate. The carefully crafted essays, apocrypha and ekphrastic descriptions of paintings found in Herbert’s writing collide to establish art as a powerful and important informant of reality, past, present and future. Although art at times may appear to capture reality, it cannot fully represent the truth. Individual interpretations of art can lead one closer to reconcile with reality by representing the essence of perspective.