Writers and Writing

Writing and drawing, the action of using a pencil or pen to make marks on paper, are visually similar processes. The poetic mind in any medium is also similar as well. Yet when confronted with, say, Courbet’s Portrait of Baudelaire we observers of art will think: “This is a poet. The title identifies him as Baudelaire; he looks like Baudelaire. He must be writing.” This form of conventional perception has little in common with the poetic instincts of the writers themselves or even of our own ideas about literature. In the nineteenth century, for instance, novelists like Balzac, Proust and Oscar Wilde were using stories about artists to illustrate their own creative processes and no sensitive reader has any trouble in recognizing this. Basil Hallward, the painter in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, is a prime example. Yet the illusion of reality is so persistent that we cannot imagine the reverse so easily: that a visual image of Baudelaire is Courbet. It is worth remembering too that, in French at least, the same word is used for the action of both writing and drawing: écrivant.

My own theory, that all figures in a poetic painting are in one way or another an aspect of the artist’s own mind, illustrates this paradox well. It is, after all, a novel idea in the visual arts. No-one, it appears, has ever suggested it before. Few accept it now. Yet Wilde’s own analysis of his book not only fits the theory precisely but is relatively tame and surprises no-one: "Basil Hallward [the painter] is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be....”1 All three figures are Wilde.

The paintings and graphic works discussed under this theme reveal, almost all of them for the first time, that figures in art who write, from the Evangelists to modern poets, are the artists themselves drawing.

1. Oscar Wilde, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Rupert Hart-Davis) 1962, Letter 352

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