Skip to main content

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.

 Subscribe to Praeterita in a reader


Popular posts from this blog

How to etch a linoleum block

Linoleum as a material for printmaking has been used for nearly a hundred years now. Normally, you cut an image out using special gouges similar to woodcut tools, cutting away the lino around the image you want to print. This is called relief printmaking, because if you look at the block from the side, the material that remains stands up in relief from the backing material. You then roll ink with a brayer over the surface of the block, place paper over it, and either print by hand or run it through a press. You can do complex things this way (for example, reduction linocuts), but the beauty of the process is that it is quick, simple, and direct.

A few years ago, I saw some prints that were classified as coming from etched linoleum blocks, and I loved the textures I saw in them. In the last few months, I've been trying to use this technique in my own studio, learning about it as one does these days from websites and YouTube videos. I've also had email exchanges with several pr…

Brancusi in Plastic

Artist Mary Ellen Croteau is showing these columns made from recycled plastic cartons and lids in the window of the Columbia College bookstore on Michigan Avenue. They are a playful homage to Brancusi's "Endless Columns", with a serious environmental message for our times:

Mary Ellen also runs a wonderful experimental art gallery in a window space in west Chicago, called Art on Armitage. I will be exhibiting a mixed media piece there during August 2012.

A List of Every Drink in Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"

I first read Ernest Hemingway's 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises" when I was a teenager, and immediately fell in love with it. For the last couple of years, I have had the incredible privilege of teaching a class based around Hemingway in Paris -- while living and teaching in Paris itself, close to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where most of the action of the novel's first half takes place.

Of the many things that one notices about the book, the colossal amount of drinking is something that stands out. These people didn't just drink like fish: they drank like whales, as if the ocean they swam in was alcohol and they had set themselves the task of drinking the seas of the world dry of it. During my read-through of the book before class started last year, I tried to underline every mention of drink in the book. And now, purely in the interests of science, I am listing the entire menu of booze mentioned directly by name. Some preliminary observations:
Most of this is…