17 June 2014

Pictures and Words

One of my fantasies is to be a painter. Oil on canvas. I have this vision of myself in a New York loft: A large room with a bare wooden floor, sofa, an open window with traffic sounds from the street below, open bottle of red wine, no glasses. No wall clock.

And what would I paint? People. I like a good landscape, I like a good abstract, but what moves me are paintings of people. A picture tells a thousand words, but in every face there are a million.

One of the best places to go and see paintings of people is the National Portrait Gallery in London. The NPG has nearly 200,000 paintings in its collection, and it's a great place to lose yourself in hall after hall of faces (and history).

Alan Bennett (Tom Wood, 1993)
Tom Wood's painting of Alan Bennett hangs in the NPG (Bennett is one of my favorite playwrights), and at first glance this appears to be a conventional portrait of the man. Quickly, its element of casualness becomes apparent. It's a picture of a writer taking a break; a few minutes to collect his thoughts, a cup of tea and a brown bag.

And then you notice the power cable and plug. What has Bennett unplugged? An electric fan? A jukebox? Maybe it's symbolic. The cable extends from the viewer's point of view, so maybe Bennett's taking a break from us (i.e. he's unplugged the world). And then what exactly is concealed inside that tightly tied up brown paper bag? Lunch, or is it also perhaps symbolic of something? Secrets? Privacy?

It's a straightforward painting of a complex man and some props, but collectively they suggest the possibility of a story. If I painted, I'd definitely want to paint a story.

The Betrayal (Jack Vettriano, Circa. 2001)
You won't find anything by Jack Vettriano in the NPG (although you will find him in the National Scottish Portrait Gallery up in his native Scotland). South of the border (i.e. London), Vettriano gets bad press. Too commercial, too crass. Point in fact, I first encountered this painting on a greeting card. But so what?

Without even knowing the title, when you first see this painting you sense conflict. The man at the rear, highlighted in a background of glowing red, stares at the couple kissing in the foreground. The decor and fashions suggest a fancy club, circa. London 1950. Are the couple embracing on a dance floor? And that isn't a mere kiss, it's a full-throttle commitment. Has the man at the rear caught his lover cheating on him? He has a hand reaching inside his jacket. A gun?

When you have two or more people in a painting, you almost automatically invoke a plot. And once there's a plot in play, our mind suggests what might happen next. In this instance, a heated confrontation; it'll probably get messy. The Betrayal is like a two-dimensional piece of flash fiction.

It has to be said, of course, another viewer might glance at this painting and simply see a bored waiter staring at an amorous couple. And therein lies the fundamental difference between a written story and a painted one. A written story lays it out fairly clearly for the reader to follow. A painting only suggests and is largely open to "reader" interpretation.

The Scream (Edvard Munch, 1893)
I first encountered Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream in an art history book when I was in high school. The ghost-like person in the foreground is presented in a frozen moment of absolute terror. Why? Is it from fear of the two shadowy people behind? Are they after him/her for purposes of no good? Is it from fear of the blood sky (the original title for the work was "The Scream of Nature")? It could be any of these, and I could easily think up several more "plots" for this painting -- none of them cozy.

I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition of Munch lithographs a few years ago at the Waikato Museum (a modest building on the left bank of the Waikato River in Hamilton, New Zealand). Munch made several lithographs of The Scream, and even reproduced in black and white, the image chills you to the bone when you stand in front of it. And this is despite the fact the painting's impact today has been lessened, nay flattened, by its continual referencing in popular culture (children's lunchboxes, anyone?). The painting is as ubiquitous today as the Mona Lisa.

The Scream contains what I like to find in a painting (and in a story, too): character and emotion. So along with a plot, I'd definitely want to paint characters and strong emotions.

So, I guess, if I was a painter, I'd be a figurative expressionist. Throw Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo, Munch, the Pre-Raphaelites, and a bucket of paint into a blender and then point me at a canvas.

And why am I not a painter? That's easy: I can't paint and I can't draw. I can't even render a decent stick, let alone a figure.

But wait. There's more...

The Riverboat (Eric Ross, 1997)
Declaiming my artistic abilities was originally going to be the end of this piece, but by happy coincidence, I learnt today that Crime City Central are podcasting The Riverboat this week (a story of mine that was first published last year by Spinetingler Magazine).

I mention this because the story was inspired by a picture of a riverboat painted by my father. He painted it several years ago and it's hung on my wall ever since. My story didn't create a "plot" for his painting, but used its image as the story's centerpiece.

Be seeing you!


  1. I enjoy interpretations of paintings, the incidentals that mean everything, like Alan Bennett unplugged from the world. To me, the Scream is societal, a reaction to a closing-in world.

    It’s sad that once art becomes too exposed or too commercial, be it music or the visual arts, that critics disdain them and turn to the Next Big Thing. In the 1950s, people threw art nouveau in the trash; it had become ‘old art’. If not killed off altogether, an artist or work might find a way back. Maxfield Parrish and Louis Tiffany come to mind. The Leyendecker brothers never quite made a return to the public stage.

    You raise an interesting questions: What kind of artists would we want to be? For me, surreal comes to mind. I definitely like surreal art. Nudes, too, maybe erotics. But definitely not surreal erotic nudes. That would be… outrĂ©. I’d better stick to writing.

    I’m off to read/listen to your story.

  2. Interesting and thought-provoking, but I like pictures drawn in words. That's probably related to my work with visually handicapped, who can appreciate those but not the visual art. I've often wondered exactly how a picture in words is interpreted in the minds of those born blind. Good luck with making that opening dream come true.

  3. Welcome to the ranks, Stephen. Wonderful piece and your story, which I read some time ago, is equally good--just as evocative as the painting.

  4. A nice piece and I'm looking forward to hearing your story. But what about some New Zealand painters? We see far too little of the work from your side of the world here.

  5. Your father was some painter, Stephen--wonderful painting. The National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorite things in London, and what I like best there is seeing in the flesh, as it were, paintings of which I already know the story: Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More, Queen Elizabeth I, Richard III (cf Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time), and the wonderful one of Dorothy L. Sayers in full academicals with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

  6. Love the story. I wrote one, "Dark Hollow", based on Van Gogh's "Wheat field with Crows", a copy of which is in my office. Elizabeth, I too love the National Portrait Gallery - and whoever curates it has a wicked sense of humor...

  7. I'm back to add that I, too, have written a story based on a painting. "Emily's Ghost Story," previously published in Pages of Stories and featured in the SC Screams in the Night anthology to be released in 2015 is based on Andrew Wyeth's painting, "Christina's World."
    Found time since this AM to read your story and really liked it.

  8. Chilling story, Stephen! Well done!

  9. Painting of people are really silent conversations. I loved your blog.

  10. Leigh, of course, art is subject to fashion. What's old news to one generation can suddenly get "discovered" by another.

  11. Fran, insofar as it's a dream, it's more of an unreachable ideal. I'm not a painter, but it's sort of the space where my mind operates at.

  12. Thanks, Janice. NZ isn't renowned for its painters. We do have them, sure. I quite like the landscapes of Colin McCahon, and the coloration of Rita Angus, to name but two.

  13. Thanks, Elizabeth. My father will be pleased to hear that. :-)

    After the Auckland Art Gallery, the NPG is the gallery I've visited the most often. The National Gallery (in Trafalgar Square) is full of "art" history, but the NPG is bursting at the doors with actual history.

  14. I'm glad everyone liked the story! I listened to the podcast for the first time on Monday night (it really was a dark and stormy night here). It was a pleasure to come back to the story after what's been a couple of years and to rediscover it.

  15. Thanks, Melodie! That sounds like something from one of my art history professors: A painting is a private conversation between the artist and the viewer.

  16. Enjoyed this! I loved your Dad's painting! Oh, and as for "The Scream," I always wondered if the figure was a ghost...

  17. Jeff, yet another "plot" for that painting.


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