When Roald Dahl was a young writer, he would sell his stories to the New Yorker and with his fee, purchase a picture. A lull between publications and the income his stories secured meant that he would soon need to re-sell his pictures (even Dahl had peaks and troughs). But for a period in the late 40s, the likes of Matisse, Cézanne and Renoir – whose works could be purchased cheaply at that time – were pinned to the walls of his writing hut (which is, incidentally, a little masterpiece unto itself).
Philip Pullman, recently described to the Guardian the wonder he felt in viewing Monet’s The Four Trees in real life: ‘I pity anyone who didn’t feel a shock of delight at seeing that grid of dark lavenders over pale blue and gold.’ Pullman’s emphatic response to the detail in Monet’s paintings mirrored my own response to Pullman’s books. The descriptions of his protagonist, Lyra, using her subtle knife and alethiometer (her golden and very covetable truth-telling compass) in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy calcified for me what words could do when handled like a master – just as Pullman seems to bow to the technique of Monet’s brushwork.
I like the idea of not always being academic in response to art; often I only remember small details from books or paintings, insignificant parts like a character making a cup of tea, or the colour palette of a painting, but nothing of the form or subject. It’s these details that stick and influence, despite being, a lot of the time, inconsequential.
A writer I know, now in his seventies and living in Queensland, was visiting Melbourne recently and was looking forward to viewing one of his favourite works of art, ever, at the National Gallery of Victoria. I can’t recall the artist now, but when he couldn’t find the painting he was disappointed – he had last viewed the work decades earlier at a high, and creatively fruitful, point in his writing career. This particular work of art was a muse, of sorts, for his creativity, and I suppose he wanted to be reminded of that.
As part of their Winter Masterpieces series, the NGV is exhibiting a collection of Monet’s paintings inspired by his garden. After seeing five paintings from Monet’s Water Lilies series at the Chichu Art Museum in Japan a couple of years ago (and being struck down with awe), I’m worried I’ll muddy their beauty and creative influence if I see them in a different setting.
Unlike Dahl, I only have two pieces of art on the wall in the room that I do most of my writing: a pair of black and white photo collages, Catch Part 1 and 2, by Melbourne-based photographer Benjamin Lichtenstein. In one, an empty stairwell with a window at the top, blown out by sunlight; and the other a studio space somewhere in Berlin, an empty vase placed on a ledge. The works were created after Lichtenstein found a poem on the ground in a subway station: Let Down Reliable by Agnes Dux. My two photo collages remind me of unfinished stories: they hint at traces of life, I’m never sure if I’m looking at the before or after of a moment. (This is very good for getting you thinking when staring down a blank page.) I suppose ultimately they remind me to keep on working. I wonder how different it would be to work beneath a Mattise or Cézanne?