Writers’ Drawings

February 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

My good ol’ (I’m avoiding using the word “trusty” here) nouveau roman-centred set of Google Alerts threw up this interesting nugget, which is the display and sale of Pierre and Franca Belfond’s collection of writers’ artworks by ArtCurial. The set of images are an absolute gift. It came up for me because one of the “star” items is a drawing by Nathalie Sarraute, but I think my favourites/the biggest surprises are: Eugène Ionesco’s bold colours and his seemingly robot-centred approach to representation, Jules Laforgue’s incredibly characterful doodles, Robert Pinget’s heroic attempt at abstraction, the clearly ridiculously talented Raymond Queneau’s strident stabs at just about any modernist style you could ask for, and Claude Simon’s touching, fluid lines in a drawing of his desk. The Eluard and Prévert collages are in their very different ways fantastic, too.

Dear French readers: go and see it for three days before it is dispersed! Or, Dear curatorial readers with budgets to make up: go and save the collection all together for a single museum!

[More-strictly-speaking writers (I’m not talking your Hergés or Alfred Jarrys here: we’ll leave them in their wonderful ways to blur the lines) doing art have a minor, marginal history: either very literally (I remember J.M. Coetzee’s wonderful essay on how he became fixated with the marginal drawings in Beckett’s manuscript of Watt), or in the sense that the paintings of major writers are either considered a hobby, a sideline (Elizabeth Bishop), or embarrassedly shrugged off as bad (D.H. Lawrence, although his at least caused a bit of a legal stir in their time). Crawling along the spectrum of things called “creative”, I also remember reading about Arnold Schoenberg’s efforts, which were similarly dismissed.

Leaping back to Beckett via Schoenberg, I often wondered why, the one-man-vanguard of international literature and inheritor of modernism that he was, Beckett didn’t always overlap much with movements in other arts that were contemporary to him. Especially in music, where there seemed a set of circumstances that could be usefully mapped onto each other: for example, in some sense music history has its own Joyce/Beckett stories in its Schoenberg/Cages or Messiaen/Boulezs. Similarly, Beckett’s interest in control and limit (not only in his plays that limit movement and the parts of the actors on show, and in the reports of his directing plays with a metronome and a stopwatch; but also in his fascination with limited dimensions and spaces (thinking of How It Is) and self-sufficient systems (thinking of Mr Knott’s house in Watt)) always seemed to me to cut a striking parallel with the moves towards “total serialism” enacted variously by folk like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt who were working in the modernist enclave in music after the Second War.

I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that there is an interesting thought to be thought about so-called “movements” in so-called “culture as a whole”. Brought down to a smaller level, should Robert Pinget’s art “look like” his writing does? Should it evoke the same concepts/milieux?

We have many movements – classical, romantic, modernist, postmodernist etc. – across the boundaries of artistic practice, despite their varying lags and disparities in time, place, and intensity. Many lines can be drawn between them, both in terms of cause and effect. But in other ways, the arts, the different forms of “creativity”, so often seem like different countries, speaking different languages, living different cultures, and using different currencies. Parallels, mappings-on, translations so often seem entirely to fall short.

I guess though that if Picasso had written Ulysses, we might as well have all packed up and gone home…]

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