Reading the brushwork

Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art ed. Janet McLean

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the National Gallery of Ireland, Janet McLean, the curator of European Art in the century after 1850, has asked an eclectic range of Irish writers and poets to respond to a painting of their choice in their own individual ways. The resulting anthology is surprisingly rewarding and insightful.

In her preface, Janet McLean alludes to the possibility that the opening might have been witnessed by little Oscar Wilde. Much more significant, I would have thought, is the fact (which may be unknown to her) that the infant James Joyce was taken by his nanny to the gallery. He was overwhelmed by the vision of the Last Judgment in George Danby’s Opening of the Seventh Seal, which the nurse explained in gory detail.

This early encounter with art affected Joyce’s imagination for the rest of his life. The painting, however, has become darkened due to the black bitumen paint Danby used, and its apocalyptic terror has been quietened.

The essays in this collection share this terror and bewilderment of early experiences of art, yet also pleasure, amazement and inspiration. Some were inspired to write poems and stories that the paintings prompted. Others directly address the paintings themselves, much in the manner of Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts. The paintings chosen even inspire two different reactions, which makes for a very fruitful conjunction, as with Gerard Dillon’s iconographic Little Green Fields (c.1946) and Pierre Bonnard’s Le Déjeuner (1923).

Many are informative in creative ways about the paintings but, as often as not, the pieces are more revealing
of the writers than of the painters.

Mercifully all the pieces, so interesting in their own ways, are free of the leaden academese that these days infect so much writing about art. Here, for once, we can enjoy both the art of painting and the art of writing.