RUSSELL HOBAN ON ART
An appreciation by Ghislaine Kenyon, Head of Learning, Somerset House
I wanted to say something about my experience of Russ as a lecturer on art; firstly because itís rare to come across an author who can speak with the same clear voice in which he also writes, and secondly because itís equally rare to read a novelist who makes such coherent use of the arts (in his case art and music) and has such good and genuinely first-hand knowledge and understanding of them. I worked on an exhibition at the National Gallery called Tell Me a Picture, devised and curated by the illustrator Quentin Blake Ė its thesis was that we are all good at looking at art, even when weíre not art historians. We put on an accompanying series of lectures by creative people including writers and composers who werenít professionally connected with the visual arts, but who had used them as a source of inspiration or enrichment (though of course in Russís case, in an earlier life he was both a teacher of art and an illustrator). Russís novels are always full of incidental but illuminating art references, like this one from Her Name Was Lola:
The evening sky is darkening dove-grey, still luminous with a Caspar David Friedrich long, long blue that is like memory, like prayer, like regret.
The people in his novels often visit galleries and museums (as Russ himself does), and the descriptions of actual works of art are moving in the recognition they give to essential detail; quietly, they steer the reader into recalling an image or imagining one for the first time. The lecture was titled Close-hauled in a Strong Breeze after the title of a National Gallery painting by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist William van de Velde, which features in Angelicaís Grotto. The lectureís framework was a dozen paintings which make appearances in the novels; but what it did most powerfully was, through passages such as the following ones, to remind the rapt audience (which numbered several art historians) about the experience of looking at art. As Russ said, "The pictures here are engaged in a constant give-and-take with those who look at them." The paradox is that though the act of looking at a painting involves no words, we somehow do need words to fix the feelings aroused by the encounter with the work. These might be aesthetic feelings:
At the heart of seventeenth-century Dutch painting is a serene clarity, an austere lucidity that confidently moves out from quiet kitchens and tidy interiors to the sea in all weathers.
Or they might be of the more flippant kind, such as this remark about the mythical monster painted by Ingres in his work called Angelica saved by Ruggiero which has a literary source from Ariosto:
The Ingres hippogriff does not measure up to the one given in Ariostoís words. This one is about the size of a turkey and certainly not up to flying a hero in full armour to where heís needed. Iíd entrust an airmail letter to it but not much more. Hippogriffs matter, and Ingres could have done better.
The point here is that even if you didnít know Ariostoís description youíd feel there was something inadequate about that hippogriff, and Russ has grasped that thing that disturbs us and articulated it in case we couldnít or didnít dare to.
The applause after the lecture was long and warm. I think we all realised that here was a great novelist who, through his knowledge and imagination and use of language, could also tell us more about the objects we work with every day than many in the business.
(c) Ghislaine Kenyon 2005
Please also see www.courtauld.ac.uk
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Close-Hauled in a Strong Breeze
William van de Velde
(c) National Gallery
Angelica Saved by Ruggiero
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres
(c) National Gallery
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