I first wrote this piece in February 2007 and re-reading it I see no cause to alter it except to comment that since I wrote it the price for paintings by well-known artists has risen to record-high levels in recent times. What this says about us as art lovers is something that may require another essay but perhaps I am not the person to write it.
I’ve been pleased in recent months to discover that comments of various kinds have been left by those who have come across the hecubapublishing blog either by accident or design and I would hope to write more in the future. I apologise for the lack of links – this is due to lack of technical know-how but I would hope to get this sorted eventually. Until then all comments (rude or otherwise) are welcome.
Visual art is hugely influential in the world of literature. We cannot open a book without being confronted by a description of one kind or another. The effect of this is that it immediatey creates a picture in the mind. We read and as we read we visualize, or try to visualize, what the writer is describing; the greater the writer the better the picture. This has an enormous impact on how we come to view the world.
If we look at a painting on the other hand what we see is what we first describe to ourselves. Two people standing in front of a Still Life may appreciate it but do they see the same thing? Obviously, the answer must be yes since there is universal agreement that certain paintings are revered by many millions of people around the world. Yet how can we be certain that a painting is loved for what it represents? Take, for example, Leonardo’s cartoon of The Virgin And The Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist. Its fame, as John Berger points out, seems to rest solely on the fact that an American wanted to buy it some years ago for two and a half million pounds. Now, as Berger says, it hangs in a room by itself surrounded by a bullet-proof perspex box and has become ‘impressive’ and ‘mysterious’ because of its market value.
Of course, we have art critics who will show us how to ‘read’ a painting, but if we come to it fresh, without preconceptions, it is we who must do the work. Quite often we hear people say ‘Oh, I had no idea that was the artist’s intention’ or, ‘Oh, I would never have thought that’ in relation to a poem, a painting or a novel. And again, when you ask someone to describe what it is they see, or what they think they see when they look at a sketch or a painting, the answer they give is often surprising. Similarly, when people read books opinions differ. This is perhaps one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of art. And yet, when we speak of great works of art, what do we mean? What is it that makes a work of art great? Well, one could say that to anyone with eyes in their head great art speaks for itself instantly. But does it? Surely it takes a long time for great art to become established and accepted by the public, or accepted by connoisseurs of art more the point. So what makes a work of art speak to us? Is it the fact of its composition? The fact that the whole in great art seems to come together in perfect harmony. And yet, if we look at some works of art we might be hard put to say why they are great.
If we look at a painting by Van Gogh or Picasso or Bacon, we might be hard put to say what it is about the composition that makes it work. We would perhaps need the vocabulary and the knowledge of an expert to give us an in-depth analysis or an adequate reading of what it is we are looking at or what the artist’s intentions were when s/he first set out to create the work of art. In many cases, they may have been no such an intention. We might say that it was more a case that the composition and the art fused to spectacular effect.
What we look for in literature then is the same thing that we look for in painting, the composition, the pulling together of all the parts that go towards the whole so that the work has the same kind of seamless quality a great work of art possesses. Great art is always influenced by what has gone before it, and all artists are influenced in one way or another by the work of the Old Masters. Some artists however, like Van Gogh, Picasso and Bacon, were innovators insofar as they looked to the artists of the past in order to create works of art in the present.
Many people walking into a gallery today might look at a painting such as Jan Van Eyck’s The Betrothal of the Arnolfini (1434) and might see nothing more than a painting of a medieval couple standing there with the man holding the hand of a rather pregnant looking woman. What they might fail to notice is the convex mirror on the wall at the back of the painting where Van Eyck shows what is happening directly in front of the couple where we are shown the artist and others entering through a door into the room.
The artist Hans Holbein expanded on this idea in his painting of The Ambassadors (1533). Here, however, Holbein includes a great deal more. In this case the mirror is shown as oval and the image contained therein is that of a distorted skull. One theory as to why Holbein included this is that he meant it to be a kind of memento mori, a reminder of the presence of death in life. The symbolism Holbein employed however takes on even more significance when we realise the painting contains images of weavers, embroiderers, carpet makers, goldsmiths, leather workers, mosaic makers, furriers, tailors and jewellers.
Another artist who used the mirror image to great effect was Diego Velazquaz. In Velazquaz’s painting Les Meninas (1656), this time we are shown the artist in front of the canvas painting while the mirror in the background shows us his subjects, the Spanish King and Queen. In the painting the young Infanta is the important figure where she is shown being attended to by Les Meninas (the Maids of Honour) of the painting’s title. Many other figures are included, a dwarf-like woman, a child kicking what looks like a sleeping dog, with other figures seemingly involved in the background.
In 1959, Pablo Picasso took this painting by Velazquez and transformed it to produce his own version of Les Meninas. Picasso’s painting presents us with a double image of Velazquez in that the artist is represented as two-faced surrounded by a gathering of weird and wonderful loyal subjects/objects.
The painter Francis Bacon was another artist whose work engaged with allusive imagery. For instance, if we know that Bacon’s painting of Three Figues at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) represents three versions of the human mouth does this help to further our understanding of the nature of Bacon’s work? In 1935, while living in Paris, Bacon came across a secondhand book that contained illustrations of diseases of the mouth. The fact that Bacon underwent an operation on the roof of his mouth in his early twenties might help to explain why he felt drawn to that particular subject matter. A film that also engaged his attention at the time was Eisensteins’s The Battleship Potemkin. The film has a scene where a nurse stands screaming on the steps of the Odessa. The scream was an image Bacon would apply to great effect in his later work. Bacon also went on to produce a series of images after Velazquez’s paintings, including Velaquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1649-50). Instead of the magnficent scarlet cap and gown worn by Velazquez’s subject however, Bacon’s Head VI (1946) shows us a Pope-like figure with his head in a glass case with the mouth wide open and screaming. In Bacon’s study, the Pope is dressed in purple, not scarlet. Bacon painted a number of these Studies, including one he later described as ‘a head folded in on itself like the folds of a curtain.’
One could say that all of these paintings contain metaphysical images that lead us to ponder the nature of existence or truth and knowledge. Some might consider this mere theory but the fact that these paintings make us think at all is surely the point when it comes to the influence of art in literature – what we see in paintings helps us put thought into words.