Thursday, April 28, 2011

When Words and Art Meet

I've just been to see the finalists in the 2011 Archibald Prize. This is Australia's most distinguished prize for portraits. There were many wonderful works but something struck me while viewing the Archibald winners as well as the finalists for the 'Wynne Prize' (for an Australian landscape painting or figure sculpture art prize) and the 'Sulman prize' (for the best subject/genre painting and/or murals/mural).  In a number of cases artists used words as part of their art. While we often consider how images support and add to the written word in books, comics and graphic novels, it seems that increasingly modern artists use words in metaphorical ways to support and add to the meaning of their art.

A wonderful example is finalist Sonia Krestchmar’s acrylic on wood portrait of Sydney-born author Cassandra Golds. Cassandra writes books for children and young adults. Some critics have described Gold's writing as part parable, part surrealist fable and part love story.

Artist Sonia Kretschmar
Kretschmar became familiar with Golds’ work when she was commissioned to illustrate the cover of her novel 'Clair-de-Lune' for Penguin Books in 2004. Since then she has illustrated two other novels by Golds, 'The museum of Mary Child' (2009) and 'The three loves of Persimmon' (2010).

The inspiration for the portrait of Cassandra Golds were some lines from 'The three loves of Persimmon':

Persimmon gazed at him. For a moment she had the strangest feeling that there was a bird trapped inside her ribcage, as if her bones were its prison and it was flapping frantically against them, trying to get out. She opened her mouth, but could find no words.

Author Cassandra Golds
In discussing her portrait Kretschmar commented "As birds, and cages, and cats all seem to be recurring themes in her work, those lines were the perfect catalyst for my concept...Dressing her in a voluminous lace skirt seemed an apt reflection of her 'other time, other worlds' sensibility." The background of the painting is also formed completely from words. All are lines of text taken from 'The three loves of Persimmon', which describe the meeting of the main character with a young male artist who offers to paint her portrait “for an Art Prize”.

I hope to interview Sonia soon in relation to Errol Broome's recently released book 'Dove'.


Anonymous said...

Great post Trevor.
I think the words in art have a similar function to the art in books.
Words on an artwork help the viewer to linger longer when looking at the work.
When great artwork is put with words, the reader lingers to look longer than it takes to read the words.
Would you say that sometimes the art or words bridges the gap for the uninitiated?
The pictures help us read (before we know the actual words) and the words help us to interpret the work of art (even if we don't know much about art)
Ally <'v'>

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Ally,

Always nice to hear from you (great question!). I think there is truth in what you say, each reinforces the other and helps to maintain attention. So we agree. But there are even more wonderful ways that image and word can support each other that I think this painting demonstrates. There is a difference between the way we 'read' art and the way we read books. In both cases the words and the images act as 'signifiers' that point to the 'signified' (to use terms from Semiotics), but they do it in different ways. There isn't space here to discuss in detail, but the picture or the illustrated cover of a book (for example), help to prime memories, predict story structures etc before we read the words. In the case of the art it isn't quite as neat because we tend to experience the art more randomly (and less serially than in the book). In the painting in question I didn't look at the words until after I'd looked at the central image. I didn't look that closely at the words until I was almost done, still puzzled by the painting. The words didn't help me much until I read more about the painting which made more connections. In many ways the reading of a poem and the experience of the painting in question are closer (I think).

Thanks for your comment and question, it's got my mind racing!