I have a keen interest in cross-fertilization. This post is about turning to Art through fiction.
This post was sparked by turning to Art programmes on TV during lockdown. At a time of constant real-life drama, fictional crises and any human concerns were too difficult to watch. Art is a way of taking the mind to a calmer place, and it was easier to concentrate on descriptions of paintings, or artists at work.
Consider the rôle of Art in fiction. The dramatic opening of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch introduces the precious little painting that entrances its young visitor to the art gallery, so much so that he rescues it from the calamitous event. Is it all he will have left of the mother who died and who loved that painting? The hero’s journey in this wonderful novel is actually the secret journey of the painting. The plot makes the reader long to see the original Goldfinch work and thus, turn to Art through fiction.
Above is a tiny 1654 oil by Carole Fabritius. This link shows the delicate brushwork, and which of use would have seen it let alone considered it artistic qualities if not from reading the novel?
Similarly, I learned about the Scottish contribution to the development of photography from In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon. This is a fictionalised biography of David Hill, (D.O.Hill) who, with his partner, Robert Adamson, produced the earliest art form of Scottish photographs.
This novel begins with a minister, Scobie, travelling to view the famous Disruption Painting by David Hill. It showed the First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission on 23rd May 1843. Four hundred ministers were represented in it, and many other men and women…only after his really arduous journey, Scobie finds his own face is missing. Imagine the psychological effects of that: being wiped from an event of such historic interest, and one of such significance to him! Rather like being omitted from your parents’ will. Without that painting, Scobie would have continued seeing himself as an essential part of that historic event. Turning to the painting itself, the hundreds of characteristic and life-like portraits, including some bystanders, make it easy to empathise with a minister who must have felt faceless and excluded. This character prompts the reader to discover the painting.
Alison Bacon describes beautifully how entranced Hill is by his subjects. Her description of his capturing some fishergirls in a spontaneous photograph led me to seek that out, and find how amazingly characterful and atmospheric all his work is, despite photography being in its infancy. How different from the stiff poses of most Victorian photographs!
I knew nothing of these Scottish pioneers, but fiction brought me to admire their achievements in the art form of photography.
Lastly, Jennifer Cody Epstein’s novel The Painter from Shangai introduced me to the incredible work of Pan Yuliang who turned to Art after being sold into prostitution. She later married a rich official who supported her talent and she became the first Chinese female artist to paint in Western style, having studied in Paris and later, Italy. The novel’s fictionalised history is fascinating in itself, but Yuliang is not an artist I knew or believe is particularly well known in the U.K. Again, the novel drew me to the Art, Yuliang’s atmospheric style of portraiture.