Saturday, 9 March 2013

Word and Image

Charlotte is moved. My friend and esteemed artist Suzanne Bellamy recently posted a link on her Facebook page that gladdened my heart, an article by Sam Sacks published in the New Yorker on February 22, America’s President’s Day. Sacks, who writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal, explores a subject that’s been niggling me ever since I took time out from writing to doodle with visuals on a page.

Actually, it wasn’t a page.  As I was entering my sixties and leaving for a stay in Canada, a very kind friend put Adobe Photoshop on my laptop, and it was on the computer that I started creating images. I started out small, making cards, and gradually my digital works found their way onto the odd café or gallery wall. That made me confident enough to get my hands dirty, picking up a brush and applying proper paint to canvas or paper.Yet joyful as all this was for me, it made me uncomfortable. Was I, too, abandoning text for image? Was I too swept up in the wave causing newspapers to shrink their word content to make room for coloured photos? Was mine some kind of odious surrender? And this was in the late 1990s, when few of us had the foggiest notion just how far this would go. I was uneasy enough to have a stab at an essay about it but found the subject too broad and was never happy with my efforts.Here, though, is a heavily edited sample of where my angst was taking me, five years later, on my return to Australia:

‘The studio is cut from the sandstone cliff supporting the Mosman house. Three of its walls are glass and look out onto Sirius Cove, with views of Port Jackson all the way to the Bridge. This is Margaret Preston country. I have walked the streets nearby looking for the houses Preston painted in the 1920s. With a single exception, the houses are no longer there, but I can still see her colours, or imagine them. This is what I’ve been doing of late, imagining shapes and colours. I have found it both exciting and disturbing.

It was a fluke that led me to the studio. A friend asked if I would like to join her artists’ group and I went along. I was by far the least experienced. I had only been painting for five years and had strenuously avoided tuition. This was a hobby, I told myself. It was important, as well, that the others knew I was a writer; it buffered me from any serious criticism and kept me from becoming too serious myself. For the issue was that I was doing more painting than writing. It had got to the point that my deepest responses to the world seemed ineffable, unable to be translated into words. I was drawn more and more to the speechlessness of images. Yet I felt like an apostate, a traitor. I was betraying my art; betraying Logos, the word.’

But there was more:

‘The irony is that when I return, as I do, to the word, I’ve been making new discoveries. Thanks to Miriam Margoyles, whose enthusiasm for Dickens has been so infectious, I’ve embarked on a Dickens project of my own. Still unfinished, but fruitful in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. For even the cheap paperback reprints of his works are illustrated. Here and there, the black-and-white etchings pop up in the text, correcting, though not entirely, the stubborn images of the characters the author’s words had already planted in my head. And most nineteenth century novels were illustrated, as the custom was to serialise them in newsprint before binding up the pages in books, and newspapers welcomed etchings and engravings as, increasingly, modern print journals privilege photographs. Some of the illustrations were even coloured - what would Lewis Carroll be without Cruikshank’s marvelous drawings? All of which sets me wondering about when and why the practice ceased. Was it the twentieth century’s wars and their paper shortages, which had such a deleterious effect on publishing in general? Or was it merely the cost of reproducing pictures? Or was it because newspapers no longer serialised fiction much, as advertising began to overtake circulation as the principal source of their revenue?’

Well, Sacks has a few answers. But rather than delve into microeconomics, he puts some of the blame on that wordiest of great writers, Henry James. ‘Basically, James was worried about movies. If prose was going to lean on the crutch of pictures, however charming, it was going to quickly find itself surpassed by far more dazzling mediums of visual entertainment. Literature needed to apply itself to doing the things that photography and film could not—it needed to evoke a scene’s inner workings.’ Virginia Woolf expressed her qualms too. ‘So writers somewhat defensively cleaved to this division,’ Sacks tells us. ‘Pictures were about superficial titillation; prose was about essences. And over time the opinion hardened that the old custom of accompanying illustration was a form of aesthetic corruption.’

Apparently not all last century’s writers were convinced. I’m heartened to learn that earlier editions of John Dos Passos’s USA, one of my all-time favourites, were illustrated, and that Scott Fitzgerald actually altered the text of The Great Gatsby when he inserted the novel’s most striking image after seeing Francis Cugat’s illustration of the optometry sign for the cover. (Sacks says this is famous but it’s news to me and exciting to read of it.) A year or so ago I checked out a copy of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy from the Manly library and was delighted with Grant Reynard’s drawing on the cover and the others sprinkled through the text. So much so I began to copy them in a pen-and-ink style I was developing for myself.

It’s hardly original to suggest that the twenty-first century is besotted with the visual. But it’s also true that words and images are uniting again and there’s a case to be made for it and against them divorcing in the first place, at least in literary fiction. Lower down, well, things were always different. Now we take graphic novels seriously but the earliest ones were considered comics for functionally illiterate grown-ups – real readers needn’t have applied. I have in my possession two Mexican Marxist comics – one of the Communist Manifesto – designed to inspire those many of Mexico’s citizens whose formal education never went past the sixth grade. They’re delicious to read, with their genial Karl and Friedrich, hardly the usual grim face of polemic. So, too, were the Classic Comics that introduced me to the Old Testament and Jane Eyre. But I never felt comfortable confessing my admiration for these ingenious artifacts in literary company before. How things have changed. The fact that I’ve even read a Classic Comic singles me out today as daringly avant-garde. So pictures are creeping into everything and multiplying and spreading like never before.  But something else is happening.  Text is popping up everywhere, in what we would once call pictures – take the work of the late Rosalie Gascoigne for one highly esteemed example.  That could be the subject for a whole new blog, but in the meantime check out


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