Month: April 2010

You never know who you’ll meet in a gallery…

This morning I downloaded all of my weekly podcasts for this week, and in the afternoon, while in the jacuzzi at the gym (which provides the perfect environment for a soak, a sweat, and a listen-to of all of my ~30 minute New Yorker Fiction podcasts) I heard something that so strikingly paralleled my novella, Degrees of Freedom, I couldn’t help but crank up the iPod. Chang-Rae Lee (author of “Daisy”) read Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” or, in English, “Art and Terror” and discussed it with The New Yorkers fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. (Right-click here to download).

Theme, theme, theme. This is what Degrees of Freedom and “Baader-Meinhof” have in common. They both chronicle the chance meeting of a man and a woman in an art gallery; the woman sitting there staring at an art piece; the man sauntering in; both of them wondering about the other; both sizing up the other; both challenging each other to assess the paintings, and life, and everything else, even death…

But the relationships turn quite different corners.

How they vary is what really fascinated me. First, in DeLillo’s piece, the characters are staring at pieces of photography illustrating the terrors of the Holocaust and the rope burns and anguished faces of death, while in Degrees of Freedom, Pietri and Marguerite stare at the Spanish masters. Beautiful works. Works in Mannerism. Works where the artists mask every blemish. Works where creamy, buttery skin is sacrosanct. Where the subjects you’d swear have had Botox. Jewels drip. Puppies sit on laps.

The two works are also written from different points of view. Degrees of Freedom is written from the perspective of Pietri, a Maltese professor who is visiting his daughter in Seville, Spain, who meets Marguerite, a former art professor who is partially blind.  And in Delillo’s work, the two aimless protagonists have neither a job nor, it seems, much of a direction in life.

While I kept my characters largely within the art museum, in discussions that alternated between children and the merits of a Seville orange versus a Maltese fig, Delillo takes his characters out of the museum. But they take the photography with them, it seems, as they are forever changed by these horrific pieces. They seem less secure, less bounded by their relationship. In fact, once they leave the museum, their hours-old relationship falls apart. Undoubtedly, the photography in the museum changed Delillo’s characters,  shook them into walking zombies as they left the museum, rendered them unaccountable for their actions, unsure, not tethered to anything other than shock at how vile humanity can be. Pietri and Marguerite took the paintings to heart too, but they used the Spanish painters — Zurbaran, Murillo — as a connection, as a charged force that brought them together. Their relationship proved to be boundless.

You never know who you will meet in an art gallery. Regardless, it could be a while ride.

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The Artists that Influenced Hemingway

The Bullfighter, Juan Gris, 1913

What do artists Joan Miro, Goya, Juan Gris, and Cezanne have in common with the writer, Ernest Hemingway? A lot. A lot.

The Met says this:

[Hemingway] remarked in one interview that he learned as much from painters about how to write as from writers. Painters and their works were integral to Hemingway’s learning to see, to hear, and to feel or not feel. They were part of the writer’s renowned ability to present an image hard, clear, and concentrated, using the language of ordinary speech without vague generalities, as true as a painter’s color.

In The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, even the editors bridged art and literature: they chose Winslow Homer ‘s  “Canoe in Rapids” painting for the front cover. It was wisely chosen because Hemingway was a big fan of Homer’s. Hemingway also visited museums quite frequently, including the Louvre, the Prado, and the Art Institute of Chicago. He wrote essays about art as well, and in many of his works he refers to paintings by Cezanne, Goya, Homer, Bruegel, and others. He owned a Joan Miro that now hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and he wrote an article for Cahiers d’Art about his purchase of the painting and the impact of Miró’s composition on him. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon was inspired by The Bullfighter, a painting they bought from their friend Juan Gris (and shown above).

Again from the Met:

In his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), he gives excruciating accounts of the devastation suffered on both sides during the Spanish Civil War, with many of his passages reading very much like the images depicted by Goya in his series of etchings (32.62.17) entitled The Disasters of War (1810–23). In other works, Hemingway comments on Cézanne’s style and way of interpreting the world around him.

It’s easy to see how the subject matter, style, and execution of these master painters played out in Hemingway’s works.

It’s widely believed that he influenced English-language writing more than anyone else, with his spare, tightly written prose and tendency toward understatement.  He was so acutely aware that people have assymetric dialogue. He was infatuated with “place” — his works spanned continents, from Italy, to Spain, to Cuba, to Idaho. He wrote about war, death, bullfighting; life-threatening situations. He focused his microscope on how people deal with those situations. 

He used a photographic “snapshot” style to create a collage of images. Short sentences build one on another; events build to create a sense of the whole. Multiple strands exist in one story; an “embedded text” bridges to a different angle. He also used other cinematic techniques of “cutting” quickly from one scene to the next; or of “splicing” a scene into another. Intentional omissions allow the reader to fill the gap, as though responding to instructions from the author, and create three-dimensional prose. [Wikipedia]

How much that description of his works makes me envision a painting. Perhaps one by Miro or Cezanne!