Writing and Painting

‘Yes, sometimes I think that all my writing is nothing more than the compensatory work of a frustrated painter.’ J. G. Ballard

In retrospect, I should have known I was in trouble when someone asked me to list the influences of my novel All The Dogs. I named William Blake, Flannery O’Connor, Michael Reeves, and Graham Sutherland. It doesn’t take F.R. Leavis to work out that only one of them really qualifies as a novelist. (It’s a pretty pretentious answer too, but I was younger, they were heady days, we’d had a lot to drink, I wanted to impress her).

Michael Reeves for the landscapes. Flannery O’Connor for the country gothic. William Blake for the theme of innocence and experience. Even at the time, I’m not sure I could have explained the reference to Graham Sutherland. I wrote that novel with a collage pinned above my desk, and a postcard of one of Sutherland’s landscapes featured in it. I moved house four or five times during the writing of that book, but the collage was always the first thing I would put in place when I unpacked. Its relevance has only come to me once I started painting, and noticed the effect that this has had on my writing routines, and my imagination.

In her essay ‘Writing Short Stories’, Flannery O’Connor observes, ‘I know a good many fiction writers who paint, not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.’ (James Wood has also described both painting and writing as ‘arts of noticing’). William Blake, Bruno Schultz, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beryl Bainbridge, Kurt Vonnegut, David Gascoyne, Wyndham Lewis, Alasdair Gray, Clarice Lispector: the list of writers who have been known to paint is various and all encompassing. Painters, too, fall for the written word. Per Kirkeby has written poetry. Marlene Dumas’s texts have the openness of prose poems. Damon Hirst’s titles might have been conceived in any adolescent bedroom. Gertrude Stein once pinned Pablo Picasso against a café wall and demanded that he stop writing poems (‘my grandmother’s big balls/ are shining midst the thistles’) and concentrated on the bread winner.

Frank O’Hara’s poem, ‘Why I am Not A Painter’ is, ostensibly, a dialogue about working practices with the abstract expressionist painter Mike Goldberg. O’Hara’s poem compares the embrace of the tangential and associative which occurs in both poetry and painting:

‘One day I am thinking of / a color: orange. I write a line / about orange. Pretty soon it is a/ whole page of words, not lines.’

O’Hara really doesn’t need to paint, the poem implies, because, as a poet, his method is the same as that of a painter. Despite O’Connor assertion about fiction writers, it seems that poetry has a closer link to painting than narrative writing. AS Byatt observes as much in her essay on Patrick Heron: ‘I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting.’

Or, you might add, to stop reading a poem.

I remember during my early years of writing fiction, the business of the image, the visual element, had a special, almost magical importance to me. The scene would lie heavily at the front of my mind, like a kind of mental clay which had hardened into a form. Writing became an act to unravel that structure, to transform it into words. I had come to fiction from writing poetry, but at that stage in my life the margins had begun to blur, and I had lost the sense of dynamic space which is essential to all poems. Instead, I turned to the compulsion of writing, which is entirely different from the slow meditative work required for poetry, and discovered a love for losing myself in the lives of my characters. I thought of the writer as being an absence only energized in relationship to his or her subject, a kind of negative space.

Something changed around the birth of my daughter. From the moment I pinned one of her first paintings to the wall of my flat, painting became almost like a language that we might share, a symbolic act. Soon, I bought a cheap set of oil and acrylic paints, and tried the act myself. That block I mentioned earlier, that mental clay, seemed to be dissipated once I began to paint. The tactile sensation of the paint across the canvas, the immediacy of the work: I discovered that there were no deeper structures to translate into forms, only the forms themselves. Those Graham Sutherland paintings had returned shapes I remembered from my rural childhood. Structures which had been buried for over half my life returned to me, structures which I had, however frustratingly, tried to pierce with writing.

In The Map and The Territory, Michel Houellebecq depicts his fictional self at the end of his career. Shortly before he is murdered- in a conversation with the main character, Jed, a successful artist- Houellebecq makes the following statement on the relationship between painting and writing: ‘I think I’m more or less finished with the world as narration- the world of novels and films, the world of music as well. I’m now only interested in the world as juxtaposition- that of poetry and painting.’

Around the time my book was being promoted, my publisher asked me to write some blurb for the promotional materials. Such is the lot of the indie writer. Amongst the creed I cobbled together, I remember describing the book as ‘a poem in red and green’. It’s how I had always imagined it, how I saw the book when I closed my eyes (that, and a ruined painting by Henry Darger, which I had tried to persuade my editor to use for the cover). I think they realized what they were dealing with right there. Let’s just say that it didn’t make it onto the dust jacket.

Over the last few years, I’ve returned to poetry, rediscovering that sense of dynamic space and  juxtaposition that it entails. These days, when I paint, it’s an act of oblivion, unconscious, self-negating, without the whims of ambition or permanence. Sometimes, the mind looks outwards, noticing the sly drama of what passes daily; sometimes, it turns in on itself, fixating on those moments which have passed it by.

I find myself painting more and more.

‘He had gradually, in the eyes of the world and even to some extent his own, turned into a Sunday painter.’ Michel Houellebecq

Words © Daniel Bennett

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