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Ut pictura poesis: Jon Day assesses an anthology of literary responses to paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art

Janet McLean (ed.)

Thames & Hudson, 19.95 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 9780500517567


The National Gallery of Ireland has always had close links with the literary world. In 1950, George Bernard Shaw bequeathed a third of the royalties from all his works to the gallery, where he said he had received 'much of the only real education I ever got as a boy in Eire'. It was one of his better investments --much of his estate went to the English Spelling Reform Society to fund the 'Shavian Alphabet', an attempt to rationalise English spelling that never really took off.

For the gallery's 150th anniversary, 56 prominent Irish authors, including Colm Toibin, Paul Muldoon and Colum McCann, have contributed to Lines of Vision, an anthology of responses to paintings from its permanent collection. In her preface, Janet McLean, curator of European art 1850-1950 at the NGI, argues that 'there is a silence and stillness implied in looking at art. Writers are perhaps more at ease with the practice of seeing slowly than most'--and the book is the result of this slow seeing. It's a rubric that should prompt interesting questions. What kinds of texts do these encounters generate? Do realist artworks prompt 'realist' literary responses? Much art avoids narrative what of this? Yet, as is the case with many anthologies, the work these writers have produced--poems, essays and short stories --is something of a mixed bag, and you end up wanting to have read much more from some contributors and a lot less from others.

The least effective are those who use the opportunity to engage in a bout of extended ekphrasis, translating colour and pigment into ever more tortuously lyrical descriptions. Noelle Harrison imagines the young girl punting depicted in John Lavery's Return from Market (1884) in a perfumed haze: 'the scent of peaches wafts up from the basket', Harrison writes, 'mixed with the weedy tang of the river, and the ripening valley in late summer.' Set against the composed stillness of Lavery's painting this is all a bit much.

Partly this is a problem of form. Dennis O'Driscoll addresses the tendency of painting to luxuriate in itself in his poem 'Memo to a Painter', written in response to Adoration of the Magi, a mid-i6th century painting in the style of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. 'Why put so opulent a gloss on the picture / when the unvarnished truth stares you in the face?' he asks. Painting can be a deformation, rather than a revelation, the poem's speaker suggests, and this anxiety over what is being represented lends a nice irony to the poem itself. These writers are at their most successful when they write about rather than around their paintings. Gerard Donovan's patient close-viewing of William Mulready's The Sonnet (1839), allows us to see that picture anew--as the record of a certain sensorial untranslatability. 'This remarkable drawing is a physical representation of the sonnet form', he writes, 'the captured moment between reading and reaction, friendship and love, innocence and experience.'

In her introduction, McLean argues that for many in Ireland the National Gallery was for a long time 'one of the few secular spaces where art could be seen in Ireland', and in many of the more autobiographical encounters recorded here the gallery represents those things that art always has: freedom, unboundedness, vitality. Alan Glynn's thoughtful meditation on the colours of Dublin reads Jack Yeats's The Liffey Swim alongside the work of James Joyce and Flann O'Brien, tracing the city from a pre-Joycean monochrome to an O'Brienish phantasmagoria, and showing how the arts shape our sense of space. Yeats's painting and O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds 'both did the same thing', Glynn writes, 'they animated a Dublin I had never known, by infusing the city with oxygen --O'Brien's the oxygen of anarchic humour, and Yeats's the oxygen of riotous colour.' But other attempts to link place with painting, and with language, are less effective. Donal Ryan's reimaging of exile in the voice of a Congolese asylum seeker navigating an unfamiliar Dublin--a city of hostile youths and lecherous employers--strives too hard for significance, unable to match in words the voiceless tragedy of Erskine Nicol's An Ejected Family (1853).

Ultimately it may be the framing conceit that lets down Lines of Vision. Galleries are, for better or worse, curated spaces. Their editorial identities are the result of recognisable, if not always logical, forces and tensions. Writing, on the other hand, is a solitary endeavour. It often can't be marshalled to serve some greater plan. This, then, is not a book to be read cover to cover. Instead it should be dipped into at bedtime, or perhaps while walking around the gallery itself, where the individual reader can sort the wheat from the chaff.

Jon Day is a lecturer in English at King's College, London.
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Title Annotation:Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art
Author:Day, Jon
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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