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On artists who write and writers who art: Part 3

William Blake, Title page to 'Songs of Innocence' (1789)

I talked in the previous post about writers who drew, or painted, and I suggested some reasons about why writers would deviate into visual art. What about artists who write?

For some reason, there are comparatively few artists who turned to writing in the same way that writers turned to art. Maybe if you go back to Renaissance Italy, you find painters and sculptors who wrote poetry as part of their cultivation of a rounded personality. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo wrote sonnets that are still anthologized: 

Michelangelo: Sonnet with marginal drawing

Vasari, who wrote the unreliable but entertaining ‘Lives of the Artists’ was himself a painter. William Blake is perhaps the greatest example of an artist turned writer. He was apprenticed to a printer and ground out a living making reproduction prints for years, while writing poems in his notebooks. The version of ‘Songs of Innocence & Experience’ with his own hand-coloured etchings (shown above) provide evidence that he was perhaps the only person writing in English to make an equal contribution to literature and to art.

But Blake was the exception. Artists from the last couple of hundred years tended to write only for a specific purpose – a manifesto, a short piece about a specific painting – rather than because they needed to express themselves in a different medium. There are a few exceptions: Delacroix’s journals; Gauguin’s Noa-Noa; Kokoschka and Picasso writing plays; Matisse’s ‘Jazz’. Of these, the least interesting are the works by Picasso and Kokoschka: embarrassingly bad surrealism in one case, unreadably turgid sub-Strindbergian expressionism in the other. The most literary is Delacroix, and with its combination of party gossip, intellectual digressions, and descriptions of his studio activities, I bet his Journals would make a fascinating artist’s blog. Gauguin wrote in a fragmentary way about his life in the Pacific, and the myths and legends of the Tahitian people (or at least his half-understood version of same). Matisse wrote a series of notes and remembered instances, some of which appear to have been prompted by cut-outs that he had already created.

If I had to make a one-sentence generalization about the difference between the artists and the writers, it would be this: writers are attracted to art as a way of exploring an artistic problem in a different medium; artists are attracted to a more confessional form of writing, or as a way of making the meaning of a visual piece more explicit.

Page from Noa-Noa, 1893-94, Paul Gauguin 

I’ve tried giving works by all of the modern artists listed above to students in our Journal + Sketchbook class. The least response was prompted (to my surprise) by Blake and Delacroix. The best responses have come from reading Gauguin, and the Diary of Frida Kahlo. About three years ago, a student gave a presentation on Noa-Noa that just blew me away. She got right to the heart of Gauguin’s contradictions - the great artist who worshipped ‘primitive’ art and yet didn’t bother to visit a great Tahitian sculptor who lived up the hill from him – while giving me some insights into the relation between the prints and the journals in Noa-Noa that I hadn’t seen before.

So even though artists who write are thinner on the ground, we’ve still been able to use some of their work to produce interesting results in a classroom.

Page from student's journal/sketchbook

In my next post, I’ll consider a different angle on the relation between writing and visual art: creative friendships or partnerships between writers and artists.


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