exploring art and writing

Writing about Looking.

In Fine Arts on January 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Norman Rockwell's 'Connoisseur,' The Saturday Evening Post, January 13, 1962 (cover). Private collection.

I would like to open this blog entry with a confession:

I have never read any Marcel Proust.

Or is that a disclaimer? I just thought I’d get it out of the way, because what I’ve been mulling over these last few days seems to keep bouncing back to the French author and his À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past).

I’ve been thinking about methods of describing emotional responses to art.

This is intertwined with the physical act of looking at an artwork. I recently discovered the horrors of having to attempt this in a short story – the first of the term (and it shows). My protagonist embarks on a journey to discover a portrait of Rubens’ wife, Helene, and on encountering the object becomes enraptured. Sparks fly, emotions soar, tears are shed. You get the idea.

Except sparks didn’t really fly. Emotions did not soar. It had never occurred to me before: I have no idea how you write about art on an emotional level. I’m not talking about art as an object ripe for description, but instead about the personal, emotive affect that it has on an individual. I fell prey to this struggle more recently with my post about British Art Show 7, for which I intended a follow-up entry regarding the artworks that particularly enamoured me and my friends. Listing them was instinctive enough, but trying to type their significance wasn’t just problematic…it was embarrassing.

And this leads me back to Proust. Edmund de Waal, in his recent and wonderful book The Hare with Amber Eyes, describes Proust’s mega-prose as being “suffused not just with references to Giotto and…Renoir, but, by the act of looking at paintings, by the act of collecting and remembering what it was to see something, with a memory of the moment of apprehension” (p106).

The “moment of apprehension” is an ideal way to describe one aspect of experiencing an artwork. Perhaps, as de Waal goes on to consider, it is also about learning to “stand back and then move forward,” both in front of an artwork and in your subsequent recollections of it. How well this will translate into writing, or to other people, I can’t say, as it doesn’t just depend on the artwork but on the writer, too. And that’s what terrifies me.

  1. I tend to write how I feel about work from what comes up in response to what it brings to mind. Looking at how others respond to the work around me can reveal things too.

  2. Hm. Writing about watching and seeing? Sometimes it is possible, sometimes not worth it, but as we can’t really get into the heads of others we can only try to spark their own imagination with a few prods.

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