Wednesday, March 31, 2010

On artists who write and writers who art: Part 5

Edouard Manet, 'Portrait of Stephane Mallarme'

Since writing on the subject of Manet and Baudelaire, I've been reading an excellent biography of Manet by Beth Archer Brombert, called 'Rebel in a Frock Coat'. I learned that Manet was also friends with two other significant French writers of the second half of the nineteenth century: Emile Zola and Stephane Mallarme (I know that there are supposed to be acute accents on two of those 'e's).

The friendship with Zola was even less of a communing of souls than that with Baudelaire. Zola, too, used the controversy surrounding Manet's methods as a stick to beat his political enemies with, but when it came to responding to Manet's work, he made condescending remarks about it being all colour patches with no thought behind it. Mallarme, on the other hand, wrote sensitively about Manet's painting, and in an essay published in 1876 he also provided direct reporting of Manet's words, gleaned from many visits to Manet's studio:

"Each time he begins a picture, says he, he plunges headlong into it and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to swim safely is, dangerous as it may seem, to throw himself into the water . . . no one should paint a landscape and a figure by the same process, with the same knowledge, or in the same fashion; nor what is more, even two landscapes or figures. Each work should be a new creation of the mind."

The more I discover about these friendships, the more it seems to me that it was the painter who influenced the writers, by providing them with examples of how to portray modern subjects and then brave the rejection of a hypocritical bourgeois public.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On small-town public art around the USA

Patty and I just got back from driving around the Ohio River valley in Southern Illinois, researching a travel article. We went over the river to Paducah, Kentucky, for a few hours, where I saw a series of about 15 large-scale murals painted onto the landward side of the flood walls. A lot of towns around the USA boast about the murals painted on the sides of buildings around town. Some of them are OK, some of them are extremely bad, but rarely do you find paintings of this standard. They were done by someone called Robert Dafford (plus a team of assistants), and I thought that they went beyond the usual brief of showing the history of the region. The design and colour sense, and the level of drawing, was very fine indeed. Here's another one:

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Monday, March 29, 2010

On people who read this blog around the world

Using Google Analytics, I've been able to see from which places around the world people have been reading this blog. So I'd like to say 'Hello' to people from the following countries: Canada, Australia, Turkey, Germany, Norway, India, France, South Africa, Romania, and Slovenia.

So: G'day! Guten tag! Salut! Merhaba! Goddag! Adaab! Goeie dag! Noroc! Dobry den!

If you're from any of those countries, please leave a comment on one of the posts. I would love to start a conversation about art and being an artist with you.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

On Interlochen, Summer 2010, Printmaking Class

From June 28th 2010, I'm scheduled to teach a beginning printmaking class at the Interlochen Arts Academy's summer program for adults. Above is a slideshow of a similar class I taught in rural Illinois in 2009. It shows people working on their linoleum blocks, followed by some of the prints they produced. Note that no-one in the class had ever done this before, and that only a couple had had any prior art experience at all. Do you want to learn how to do this in the stunning surroundings of northern Michigan? Then go to the Interlochen page on this blog, follow the links, and sign up!

Summer classes at Interlochen
On another collagraph method
Contact monoprints

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

On why I make the 'Meditations' on art

'Lovely, lovely!"

There's a funny story behind the weekly videos on art that I'm posting here and on You Tube. The reason why I call them Meditations is because for a brief period, I was contributing 200 word pieces on art to US Catholic magazine, and that was the title of the column, which was printed on the last page of the magazine. The reason I and a few other writers were sending in our Meditations on art was that the regular contributor was no longer available. That regular contributor had been good old Sister Wendy Becket, who had shuffled off this mortal coil and gone to meet her bleedin' maker, to quote the Parrot Sketch. For those who don't know who Sister Wendy was, well, she was a nun who was very popular at one time for talking gushingly about art. She was given her own series by the BBC for a while in the 1980s and 1990s. I seem to remember she would say that things were "lovely" quite a lot. Bonnard's bathroom pictures? Lovely! Rubens acres of naked flesh? Lovely, lovely! Robert Mapplethorpe's photo of himself with a bull whip inserted in his arse? Oh, lovely! (Ok, I made that last one up).

She was all right, really. You can't say bad things about Sister Wendy, can you? But if you're watching or listening to my weekly meditations, try not to picture me in a wimple.

UPDATE: I've been told that Sister Wendy is still alive. If I'd bothered to check the intertubes before I wrote, I would have discovered that she's 80 years old and living in a caravan on the grounds of her nunnery in the UK. Sorry, Sister Wendy fans.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

On Marti Somers at Addington Gallery

"Repertoire", Mixed media on panel, 40" x 40"

The paintings of Marti Somers, currently showing at Addington Gallery, Chicago, are rich compilations of images, words, colors, and textures. Flowers, trees, and leaves share the space in each picture with animals, fragments of patterned paper, layers of thin paint over thick, glazes that partially obscure one layer and provide a new layer to work with. 

She almost always works on square panels, whether small or large. This enables her to use the format as a place to play, to move things around, to erase and redraw, to postpone the resolution of the picture until as late in the game as possible. Most often there is an appearance of small shapes dotted around the panels, brought into harmony by bands of lightly scumbled colour. The beauty of the surface stems in part from her use of encaustic, a wax-and-pigment technique that produces a bright, floating look to the painting. 

"Conversations", Mixed media on panel, 40" x 40"

There is a lot to look at in Somers’ pictures, but there is always a delicate sense of order and balance, which may derive from the fact that she was a designer for many years. But her paintings never seem to settle into prettiness: the dense variety of mark-making shows that she is a painter to her core.

The style of painting is very much a signature of this gallery, which is run by Dan Addington, who is himself a painter. The exhibition of Marti Somers’ work continues at Addington Gallery, Chicago, until April 14th.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On 10 works of art that changed my life

A list of works of art that I saw in a museum or gallery (rather than on the internet or in a book) that drew me towards art or transformed my ideas about art:
‘Pieta’ (1499), by Michelangelo

‘The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian’ (1867-69) by Manet

‘La Romeria de San Isidro’ (1819-23) by Goya

‘Man with a Guitar’ (1911) by Braque

‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) by Picasso

‘Deutschlands Geisteshelden’ (1973), by Anselm Kiefer

‘The Three Crosses’ (1653), etching by Rembrandt

‘Australia’ (1951), by David Smith

‘Limehouse Basin’ (1990), by Jock McFadyen

‘Altar to the Chases High School’ (1987), by Christian Boltanski

What pictures changed your life in some way?

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Monday, March 22, 2010

On 'Altar to the Chajes High School' by Christian Boltanski

This week's Meditation is on an installation series by French artist Christian Boltanski, whose work deals with memory, loss, and death, often arising from references to the Holocaust:

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

On a great day in US history

President Obama and the congressional democrats just passed the greatest progressive victory in 45 years. It stands comparison even with the legislative achievements of my American hero, FDR - who, remember, had gigantic majorities (about 80% of all house and senate seats at one point). With smaller majorities, and facing the most disgusting, hypocritical, and negative political opposition in more than a century, Obama has done what progressives have been fighting for for more than 100 years: established the principle of universal health coverage in the USA. 

I first fell in love with the USA studying American literature at Cambridge, 30 years ago. The tragedy and the greatness of the country was revealed to me through the writing of Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Whitman, Fitzgerald, Baldwin, Bellow. When I moved here 8 years ago, at the start of the worst presidency in the nation's history, I wondered what had become of the country whose image I had fallen in love with as a very young man.

Today brought back to me that first rush of admiration for a country that, despite its flaws, almost always finds a way to remember its better side.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

On another collagraph method

Here is another method of making a collagraph with the inexpensive aluminum flashing tiles I talked about in a previous post. It's very simple and effective. The little movie included in this post illustrates it step by step, but here's a summary:
  1. Draw directly on the plate (aluminum flashing tile) with Elmer's glue, or a brush dipped in the glue.
  2. Shake carborundum grit over the wet glue.
  3. Tip the plate up to shake off excess grit.
  4. When the plate is dry, seal it with a layer of acrylic gloss medium (I realised after I made the movie that I missed out this step!).
You can then ink and print the plate in the regular way:
  1. Use a brush or piece of card to drag ink across the plate. The carborundum grit holds the ink very well.
  2. Wipe away the excess ink using a piece of tarlatan.
  3. Place damp printmaking paper over the plate, then run it through the press.
For the slideshow, I inked the plate "a la poupee", which means to use different colours of ink on the same plate. The phrase has a beautiful origin. It literally means "like a child's doll", and refers to the way nineteenth century doll-makers applied colour to the surface of their life-like china dolls.

If you're thinking of signing up for the Interlochen printmaking classes in the summer, this is one of the techniques that we may cover (if there's time!).

Summer classes at Interlochen
On how to make extremely inexpensive drypoints & collagraphs

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On 10 things I wish I'd known when I was 20

  1. If you want to be an artist (a writer, say, or a painter), the first step is to write or paint as often as you can—no excuses.
  2. Before showing your work to a publisher or gallery owner, make sure that they publish or show your kind of work.
  3. Before showing your work to a publisher or gallery owner, make sure that the work is as good as it can be. In other words, revise, rework, refine.
  4. The old cliché is true: who you know is just as important as what you know. So get out and meet people.
  5. When you approach people sincerely to ask advice (as opposed to thrusting your manuscript/slides on them when you’ve never met them before), most people will be willing to talk  to you.
  6. Having well-made publicity materials—a postcard or a brochure with some images and information on it—makes you stand out from the pack.
  7. Being with people who are more talented than you is helpful, not hurtful. Before I went to art college, I tried to do all of the above things on my own, without help from anyone. When I went to art college, I recognized straight away that there were a couple of people who were far more talented than the rest of us. Instead of feeling bad about it, I tried to learn as much as I could from how they made their work, how they started their work, how they developed their work over the length of the course.
  8. Concentrate on one or two ideas in your work, and keep working at them for as long as you can. If you completely change your style every few months, or even every year, this is a sure sign that you’re not sticking at it for long enough.
  9. Don’t be realistic. People always say ‘be realistic: not everyone makes it big as an artist’. Perhaps that’s true, but I’ve found that it’s better to aim as high as you can in order to put yourself in the right frame of mind to achieve your ambitions.
  10. Always use a bigger brush than you think you need.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

On returning to Paris

Just over a year ago, Patty and I stayed overnight in Paris on the way to Normandy. We were in a ‘boutique hotel’ on the eastern edge of the city, situated yards away from the peripherique, the ring road that surrounds Paris and effectively marks its boundary. From our hotel window we could see, yards away on the other side of the peripherique (in the area called Porte de Montreuil), the apartment buildings of Paris proper, while on our side of the road it was all concrete tower blocks, and tangled little roads lined with scrapyards and casinos. In the morning we got up early in order to cross the city to Porte de Maillot, where we were picking up a rental car. As soon as we had gone across the roundabout above the ring road we passed into Paris proper, a transformation as clear and immediate as stepping through the looking glass. Even the few yards of that part of Paris around the Metro station offered an encapsulated view of what makes Paris Paris: the tabacs near the street corners, which are little huts festooned with newspapers and magazines for sale, plus cigarettes and lottery tickets; the trees spaced at regular intervals at the edges of the sidewalks, each inside their own little hooped guard rail; the condom machine on the wall outside the pharmacy, right there in the open; the automated toilets with their corrugated sides and curved doors that make a space-age swooshing noise when they open and close; the identical facades of the Haussman-style apartment buildings, with the big wooden doorways at ground level, the wrought iron balconies, and the dormer windows peeping out along the roof line.

As we descended into the metro station, there was a smell I recognized from previous visits: a sort of burnt dust smell, which presumably comes from a combination of the recycled air and the burning rubber from the brakes of the trains. I had to summon up some half forgotten French to buy our tickets and to navigate the complicated network of tunnels to arrive at the correct platform. It was less than two weeks after the US election of Barack Obama, and I was wearing a baseball cap bearing the slogan ‘Obama 08’. I had already begun noticing that people were acknowledging my hat with the faintest of smiles, a brightening of the features. But the man at the ticket desk, who was a black guy with a shock of dreads, broke into the absolutely biggest smile when he saw what I was wearing. He didn’t know that I wasn’t American, but he assumed that I was, and I said to Patty that this showed how Obama had already changed the image of the US in France.

Coming out of the Porte Maillot Metro station on the other side of the city, we emerged on the western end of the Champs Elysees to a grand view of the Arc de Triomphe, about half a mile away. It was typical weather for the time of year—overcast sky, but mild and warm. The light turned everything grey or off-white, the colour of old milk, but Paris is a city that looks marvellous in any weather. This is not true of other places I’ve lived, particularly English and American cities. We picked up the keys for our rental car from the Europcar office, situated beside the giant roundabout on Porte Maillot, and before we went to the car, we bought some things in a small supermarket in the below-ground area of the conference centre-mall-car park where the rental company stored its cars. Even here, in an out-of-the-way part of a huge purpose-built edifice, this supermarket was stuffed with the most choice things: slices of fine meats, cheeses and wines from all over the country, juicy fruits, wafers and chocolates, fresh baked croissants and breads, fine coffee. All at a price, of course, but it demonstrated to me once again the difference in attitude towards life that separates most French people from most Americans. In the US, once you go outside the big cities, there is a uniform awfulness to the food available in small towns and at roadside restaurants that would embarrass even party apparatchiks from former Communist countries. The French don't mind paying a little more to obtain better quality food. 

All of this came to me on an early morning journey across Paris that lasted less than two hours.

I have many more memories of Paris that I accumulated from past contact with the city: a school trip of seven days when I was thirteen; working at an ad agency there from 1985 to 1986; return visits after that short residency to see friends; visits with girlfriends, some of them French girls who I met in England. That longer stretch of time there in the mid 1980s, which lasted nearly six months, was what formed my feelings for Paris. I had lived outside England before then—five years in Germany as a child, then a difficult time in Madrid before going to university—but this was my first time in a foreign country with the means and the time to relax and enjoy it properly. There were tensions involved with the job as a copywriter at the ad agency, of course, but really I did the job fairly well, and was able to feel for a short while what it was like to dip more than a toe into a foreign culture and the daily (and nightly) life of a grand old European city. I spent a week there in 1996, and then passed through on a business visit in 2000. That was the last time I was in Paris. On this most recent visit, I was there for too short a time to notice any big changes. But the little things that I noticed on the streets seemed to be the same, or similar to how I remembered them. Spending a few hours there was like having a quick shot of strong espresso: a pick-me-up, a reminder to the self to go back one day for the full café au lait with the pain au chocolat on the side.

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Monday, March 15, 2010

On Story Week 2010

This week is the 2010 Story Week Festival of Writers at Columbia College Chicago (and other venues around the city). My wife Patty is hosting the event at the Harold Washington Library on Tuesday March 16th - that is, she'll be introducing writers Achy Obejas (Ruins), Aleksandar Hemon (Love and Obstacles), and John Dale (Leaving Suzie Pyle) and then leading the Q & A afterwards. The library has a huge auditorium and there are usually several hundred people there. If anyone in Chicago is reading this and hasn't been to Story Week before, it's very simple: if you've ever read a book in your life, then you'll like Story Week.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Velazquez's 'Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress'

This weeks' Meditation on Art considers a late painting by Diego Velazquez in the context of twentieth century abstract art:

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Interlochen printmaking class: Contact Monoprint

A contact monoprint by me from 2007

One of the techniques that we'll start with in the Interlochen printmaking workshop is called contact monoprint. It's a very quick and satisfying way to make a print. What you do is roll out a thin layer of ink on a sheet of glass or plexiglass, place a piece of paper over that, then draw on the paper. This brings the paper into contact with the ink - the heavier you draw, the darker the impression will be. When you lift the paper and turn it over, you see a unique 'fuzzy' style of line that is very much a printmaking mark.

Here are some contact monoprints from a class I taught a few years ago - only one of whom had any prior art experience:

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On artists who write, and writers who art: Part 4

(l-r) Charles Baudelaire, Edouard Manet

One of the most significant friendships between an artist and a writer was that between the painter Edouard Manet and the poet Charles Baudelaire in the 1850s-1860s. It was a friendship that didn’t only influence their respective views on art and its relation to society: some historians say it influenced the development of modernism as it emerged over the next forty years from the artistic movements of the late nineteenth century.

Baudelaire and Manet met in 1858 at a restaurant in Paris which hosted regular lunches attended by artists, journalists, poets, and hangers on. After that, they saw each other almost daily until Baudelaire went to live in Belgium in 1864. Baudelaire was already known as a writer on art, and as the poet who had published ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ in 1857 – vilified at the time, just like many of Manet’s great paintings, but acknowledged by twentieth century poets such as T. S. Eliot as a significant milestone in nineteenth century literature. Baudelaire would accompany Manet on the latter’s sketching trips, and Manet painted both Baudelaire’s mistress, and Baudelaire himself (he appears on the left hand side of Manet’s ‘Music in the Tuileries’). A letter from Manet indicates that it was Baudelaire who encouraged Manet to submit his painting ‘Olympia’ to the Salon. When Baudelaire returned to Paris in 1866 to spend his last months in a nursing home, Manet’s wife would visit him and play music by Wagner to him on the piano.

Despite these connections, Baudelaire rarely wrote about Manet’s paintings. It has always been assumed that Baudelaire’s ideas about art and modern painting changed the course of Manet’s paintings, yet when Baudelaire wrote his seminal essay expressing his ideas about art – ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ - he chose as his example of the great modern painter Constantin Guys, a minor sort of illustrator.  Baudelaire wrote: “The positivist says: ‘I want to represent things as they are, or as they would be, supposing that I did not exist.’ The universe without man. The man of imagination says: ‘I want to illuminate things with my mind and project their reflection to the minds of others.’ “

Baudelaire saw modernity as seeing the life on the streets, but transformed by imagination, by the introduction of personal subjectivity. It sounds like a restatement of Romanticism – the artist must start with ‘modern life’, but transcendence of nature emerges by the personal vision and technique of the artist. Baudelaire’s theory about how a painter should work led him to the statement that, in pursuit of the imagination, the poetic, the intangible, the painter should only draw from memory, in order to arrive at forms that were a pure projection of the mind. But this horrified Manet, who was already going out into the streets and drawing what he saw before he met Baudelaire. In fact Manet had become locally notorious for his sketching on the busy Place de Pigalle. He always drew from life, and when models and sitters weren’t available, he used photographs.

An aspect of Manet’s art that troubled Baudelaire, as it did some of the Impressionist painters, was its relation with art of the past. ‘Olympia’ (1863) is a perfect example:


What distressed Manet about the adverse public reaction to the painting was that they had only seen the unadorned, unidealised nudity, the hint that the woman is a prostitute, her uncomfortably confident and direct gaze – and had ignored the clear reference to paintings by Velazquez, Titian, and other past masters. It’s possible that the bourgeois Parisian public did in fact recognize this and were even more scandalized by this blatant sullying of artistic ideals. Baudelaire too seemed troubled by Manet’s dialogue with art history and past forms of painting. Baudelaire was ‘looking for a painter of modern life who would project on modern subjects that kind of imaginative impulses that had transported him in the work of Delacroix. Those impulses carry us away from reality. The thrust of Manet’s art, however, suggests that imagination underlies our perception of the real.’ (James Rubin).

Is the relationship between Baudelaire and Manet thus an argument about whether writing or painting can best represent reality and imagination? We might more reasonably ask why the poet of ‘Les Fleurs du Mal’ did not fully recognize a kindred soul in Manet. For you only have to read a few of Baudelaire’s poems, even in translation, to be aware of how pictorial they are, how saturated with sights, smells, textures, and references to painting, sculpture, music, and art of the past. The sound of his poetry is also said by French speakers to possess a unique euphony:

Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!

Baudelaire’s narrative persona is also a kind of theatrical creation, that acts in a similar way to Manet’s great paintings: arranging the elements of the poem/painting to create a dramatic narrative for a spectator. Manet was certainly influenced by his conversations with Baudelaire to go further in representing contemporary life in his painting; but Baudelaire, far from changing the course of Manet’s art, probably just gave Manet further reassurance to pursue avenues that he was already exploring. There is realism in Manet, but there is also the staging of the real, a self-conscious awareness of his own act of painting and an awareness of an audience that may have come from rubbing shoulders with a great poet. It certainly became one of Manet’s central bequests to the art of the twentieth century.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On another artist's book: Coalyard

Here is another artist's book that I made at the end of last year. It's called 'Coalyard'. 8" x 15", accordion book, bound in brown bookcloth.

Method: take eight images of industrial buildings and mineworks. Print on tan Hahnemuhle printmaking paper using paper-litho transfer. Write a short remembered instance relating to my miner-grandfather and the local mines where I grew up. Print narrative in continuous line across middle of the images:

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Thursday, March 4, 2010

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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