Tuesday 23 July 2019

Painting with words: Writing inspired by great art

Brian Lynch on stories by 50 writers prompted by paintings from the National Gallery

Poet Seamus Heaney
Poet Seamus Heaney
The Blind Piper, 1841 by Joseph Haverty (1794-1864), the National Gallery of Ireland painting which prompted a story from playwright Bernard Farrell.
Banks of a Canal, near Naples, c.1872, by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), the National Gallery of Ireland painting chosen by Seamus Heaney as the subject for his contribution to the book Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art

Brian Lynch

If you're in a mad rush to buy presents for Christmas and you find Lines of Vision in a bookshop, you'll soon realise you've picked a winner. It's a treat in pictures and words.

More than 50 Irish writers have selected pictures from the National Gallery as setting-off points for stories about art, love, loss, family, dreams, memories and more.

The 50 paintings they selected - plus an etching and a drypoint print - offer a feast for the eye. The responses to the images by the 50 writers - many well known, some fairly obscure - provide food for the brain. Most are quick snacks but some are as nourishing as a Christmas dinner.

First place in this class goes, of course, to Seamus Heaney. It causes quite a pang to realise that, of all the 50 writers, he and his friend Dennis O'Driscoll are the only ones who are not alive. Yet again we are reminded why Seamus was famous: part of the reason he wrote better than anyone else was that his poetic intelligence was always searching for something new and fresh. But the picture his poem describes here is nondescript.

It's a flat landscape with a dull canal crossing it, near Naples, dated 1872, by Gustave Caillebotte, an artist unknown to most people - even regular visitors to the National Gallery pass it by without a second glance. But no longer. The painting is a marvel of modesty. Like, indeed, Seamus himself.

Heaney and Envy are near rhymes, but here the best of the authors write about their chosen pictures with humility. The humblest, perhaps, is the playwright Bernard Farrell. He writes about The Blind Piper painted by Joseph Haverty in 1841. It reminds him of his father, who gave up the violin in his old age when he heard the tapes Bernard made of his playing. It's a genuinely moving piece. The wildest by far of the 50 is Paul Muldoon. Again the subject is father, but in this case Muldoon senior does something I never heard of before. When a chicken on the family farm chokes on a wad of hay, Dad cuts open its gizzard with a razor-blade, removes the blockage, then sews up the slit with a needle and thread. In my experience most farmers would wring the hen's neck and it'd be dinner before you could say the title of the painting: Charles Emile-Jacque's Poultry Among Trees.

Anyway the gruesome event produces a six-page poem so full of obscure references you'd need to spend a few Christmases alone with Google on a desert island to work them out. Amazing.

Next are Colm Tóibín and John Banville, novelists whose critical writing keeps on getting better. Banville writes masterfully about Caravaggio while Tóibín casts a keen but kindly eye on John Butler Yeats. The old man wasn't just the father of two geniuses but a brilliant letter-writer, an extraordinarily weak man who had the strength to give into his weakness, and a remarkable portrait painter. The woman he paints here, Rosa Butt, looks like she's still alive.

John B the father leads me to Jack B the son. Not surprisingly, Jack is the painter most favoured by the writers. Five choose him. The surprise, with four, is the second favourite: Gerard Dillon. Why has this Northern painter, who died aged 55 in 1971, grown so popular? Is it because he paints like a child? Perhaps, but this child grew up into a gay man given to the drink. The surge of interest is a bit of a puzzle. Makes you think.

Actually, this book does a lot of that. Why, for instance, do so many of our best writers of fiction look at pictures and go off and write what seem to be unconnected stories about them?

The two most startling of these are Roddy Doyle and Kevin Barry. No one could ever guess from Doyle's tale of a man who smokes exactly 20 Sweet Afton cigarettes a day and desperately wants to kiss his wife's shoulder that it's inspired by Jack B Yeats's Morning in a City. Though the connection to the Yeats is cloudy, the story is as dense as a cube of Oxo, and it works.

Kevin Barry's piece does relate to his absolutely fabulous choice, The Devil's Disc by the relatively unknown Ernest Procter. But before we understand the relation we get to meet two typical substance-abusing Barry characters at a funfair getting stoned on a bottle of communion wine. The sort-of-sacrilege leads them to the Devil and his Disc, a carnival ride where people are spun around out of control - I sometimes wonder does Barry know how black the future of fun is.

There is one notable absentee from the book: Paul Durcan. That may be because he has already written an entire book of poems, Crazy About Women, about the treasures of the National Gallery. There's some watery pieces in Lines of Vision - I'd rather jump in a river than say who the worst writer is - but on the whole the book deserves to sell like crazy this Christmas.

Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art; Edited by Janet McLean; Thames & Hudson, hdbk, 232 pages, £19.95

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

Brian Lynch is a member of Aosdana, a writer and an art critic. His last novel is The Woman not the Name.


The 50 writers are: Chris Agee, John Banville, Alex Barclay, Kevin Barry, Sebastian Barry, Dermot Bolger, Eva Bourke, John Boyne, Moya Cannon, Eveylyn Conlon, Philip Davison, Gerald Dawe, John F Deane, Gerard Donovan, Theo Dorgan, Roddy Doyle, Bernard Farrell, Carlo Gebler, Alan Glynn, Vona Groarke, Kerry Hardie, Noelle Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Declan Hughes, Jennifer Johnston, Thomas Kilroy, Michael Longley, Martin Malone, Aoife Mannix, Colum McCann, Thomas McCarthy, Medbh McGuckian, Frank McGuinness, Eoin McNamee, Paula Meehan, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Nuala Ní Choncúir, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne, Julie O'Callaghan, Dennis O'Driscoll, Michael Ó Siadhail, Leanne O'Sullivan, Justin Quinn, Billy Roche, Gabriel Rosenstock, Donal Ryan, Patricia Scanlan, Peter Sirr, Colm Tóibín, William Wall, Macdara Woods, Vincent Woods and Enda Wyley.

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