Friday, March 30, 2012

Art and Writing

by Sheila Connolly

Recently my husband, my daughter and I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. My daughter had never been there, nor had my husband or I recently. But before we married my husband lived literally around the corner from the museum, and took advantage of their free evenings regularly. And in that same era I was an art history graduate student, so I was familiar with the collections for a different reason.

In my family we've all visited museums, singly and together, in this country and in other parts of the world, yet for some reason we've been remiss in enjoying our own local collections. Our loss!

It should not have surprised us that the MFA has undergone multiple major renovations in recent decades. I'm not sure anything is where it used to be, and without a map I would have been truly lost. We knew what we wanted to see—visiting old friends—but not how to get there. Needless to say we got lost a few times, and lost each other as well (note: always remind everyone to bring cell phones, set on vibrate!).

In a way for me it was like looking at a new museum, except I would recognize individual pieces along the way. But my memories also included seeing them from a different viewpoint (both physical and conceptual), and certainly over the intervening years, my taste and my perspective have changed.

In addition, I now often find myself looking at something (anything and everything!) in terms of how I could use it in writing, and this trip was no exception. No, I did not start plotting about how to stick a body in a mummy case, although there was a delightful set of four nesting sarcophagi. But there were two pieces that made me consider how to incorporate tension and emotion in writing.

The first was a simple Rembrandt oil portrait. I've always loved Rembrandt for the way his evolution as an artist is laid out in his pictures: early in his career he was producing clean, precise, commercial work, including a lot of "portraits for hire" (why does this sound familiar?), but as he grew older his style grew looser and more fluid. One of his late self-portraits hangs in the National Gallery in London, and one can stand very close to it and look at individual brushstrokes. I did, and was both moved by it and left wondering how when you step back, the clumps of paint come together to create a vivid and poignant image of an ageing, ordinary man. All the technique is right there to see, but the whole is so much greater.

The MFA portrait titled Old Man in Prayer is an early work, and extremely simple—no visible background, and even the man's clothes blend in, throwing all the focus on the face and one single hand laid across the man's chest. But the character in the face, and the immediacy of the hand, are extraordinary. If there is a (writing) lesson to be learned here, it's that simple can be very effective, as long as it's done brilliantly.

The other piece that struck me was a large fragmentary wall sculpture of a lion and bull locked in combat, an Assyrian work that dates from the 4th century BC. I'm not going to go into the details of symbolism, which are many and diverse, nor the details of execution (although I can still speak art-speak in a pinch). What I found most noteworthy was the tension in the piece. Two powerful figures are locked in combat, twisted together, equally matched. The lion, his teeth sunk deep in the haunch of the bull, seems to be staring at you, but the bull is by no means conquered.

For over two thousand years these two stone figures have fought in silence, and the message is as strong as it was in the beginning. We as mystery writers are always told to create and maintain conflict in our books, to keep the reader engaged—and reading. Here conflict is given physical form, the combatants tense as coiled springs, with no clear outcome. We're in the middle of the story, and we want to know what happens. And that's the key to story-telling.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Good post, Sheila. I spent the Saturday afternoons of my high school years at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC (free back then), and my husband spent big chunks of his childhood AND his work life at the Metropolitan. The building in which MoMA is housed has changed TWICE since then, and it's truly bizarre to see the old friends (including the sculpture garden, which they have wisely not messed with) in new places and from new perspectives. Last weekend at the Met, I saw a painting I'd never seen or heard of by the same artist and in the same style as my very favorite at the MoMA. What a treat! BTW, I never think about writing when I'm looking at art. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

I love the National Gallery in DC, which has such a huge collection that a lot is in storage at any given time. I've never liked modern art, so I'm not impressed by the massive Calder mobile in the East Building, but I love portraits from all eras and I'm entranced by the light and textures in interior paintings by the Dutch Masters. What can I say -- I have old-fashioned taste.

One piece of modern art, though, had a direct effect on me: the Picasso painting of a mother and two children fleeing from some unseen pursuer or danger. One child in the mother's arms, the other being pulled along by her hand. I had that image in mind while I wrote The Heat of the Moon, and I mentioned it in the book.

Sheila Connolly said...

Apologies to anyone who tried to leave a comment on Friday--apparently there was a glitch in the system that affected a lot of blogs. But thanks for trying!

Liz, my grandmother lived in New York while I was growing up, and the Met was a standard entertainment on the school holidays I spent with her. What I remember most vividly is the Egyptian collections--I guess paintings came later. I think we saw the MoMA once, ditto the Guggenheim, the Frick and the Cloisters.

I do remember visiting the Met on a school field trip. We were racing through the immense entry hall when I stopped dead in my tracks. They had hung Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer in the entry, having just purchased it for what was then the largest amount for a painting ($3+ million? seems paltry now). But even under that setting, it was a powerful piece, even to a middle-school kid.