Lines of Vision

Writers respond to paintings in the National Gallery and reveal true value of the arts

To celebrate 150 years of the National Gallery of Ireland, 56 writers from all over Ireland, North and South, were invited to choose a painting from the gallery to respond to. It's an interesting concept, but not a new one.

Paul Durcan’s wonderful books of poetry published in the 1990s, Crazy About Women and Give Me Your Hand, were both based on the same idea of choosing paintings from the National Gallery as the starting point for writing. In the North, poet Adrien Rice co-edited A Conversation Piece: Poetry and Art in 2002, in which poets responded to the paintings of the museums and galleries of Northern Ireland.

This new book, however, has a different feel to any of the above. Edited by Janet McLean, originally from County Down and now curator of European Art in the National Gallery, it is a physically beautiful book with William Leech’s ‘A Convent Garden’ on the cover, the painting which is poet Medbh McGuickian’s choice of subject.

It is also a weightier tome – literally and conceptually – published by Thames and Hudson in hard covers and on beautiful paper, so it isn't a book to carry around with you, which is a pity since such a collection of different voices and forms necessarily requires dipping into rather than a straight read-through.

But it seems too to lack the lightness of touch that Durcan often brought to his readings of paintings – fewer of these pieces are as anarchic or mischievous, so the tone is less varied. There are also no biographical or bibliographical notes on the writers, which seems like an oversight.

Another difference is that this book includes responses in fiction, memoir and essay form, as well as poetry, though for me the fictional responses are more literal and therefore less interesting than those non-fiction or poetic inclusions.

Some paintings are chosen by more than one writer – Bonnard’s ‘Le Déjeuner’, for example, is written about by both Kerry Hardie and Jennifer Johnson, who hail from North of the border – while many of the pictures have inspired poetry already, like Velázquez’s ‘Kitchen Maid and the Supper at Emmaus’, famously the subject of a poem by Denise Levertov, which is interpreted freshly here by Leanne O’Sullivan.

Theo Dorgan speaks of the ‘liberty to refuse’ the painter’s intended meaning, saying of the gallery itself, 'When you go in there, you bring with you who you are, all those scraps of learning, affinities, identifications and inclinations', and out of such peculiar and individual associations come our own readings. The book, then, is saying something about the ability of paintings to bear an infinite number of interpretations.

The book’s first poem, ‘I Remember Those Days’, by Chris Agee, editor of the Belfast-based Irish Pages, is one of the most involved workings from painting to poem. The piece deals with the Hague and the Human Rights Tribunal: the city with its ‘Vermeer-space’ linked to the artist's famous painting ‘Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid’, a work seen so often it is in danger of losing its power and mystery, perhaps forever.

Agee’s poem deepens, moving from the foregrounded public space to the private moment of grief, suggested by the painting that is lost in the background of the Vermeer, ‘Miriam and the Moses basket’, a reference to a loss that is always ‘here-and-now’, the poem’s structure beautifully mirroring the composition of the painting.

Grief is a motif that runs throughout the book. Hardie sees the empty chair of Pierre Bonnard’s’ ‘Le Déjeuner’, painted in 1923, as ‘Absence [that] sits on the blue chair’, and the world in suspension ‘blocking out the dead’ of the Great War.

Dermot Bolger, meanwhile, chooses Jack Yeats’s painting, ‘Grief’, to remind us that, ‘Someday each one of us will stand amid this... A bewildered state which we desperately need / Yet so desperately fail – to make any sense of'.

In another response to a Yeats painting, Martin Malone remembers the day that he brought his sick father to the National Gallery on a day trip to Dublin for a medical appointment. Malone sees his father drawn in by paintings of an earlier Ireland and especially Yeats’s ‘Before the Start’, a painting of a race meeting in Sligo, that reminds his father of his own world of races, horses and riders.

Sebastian Barry’s is one of the most elegant pieces featured, as he remembers his grandfather, a Dublin painter, Matthew Barry, who would bid him be as still as a statue when he would paint the birds in his garden, telling his grandson, ‘You can’t put the birds back in the garden.’

Barry remembers their visits to the gallery to look especially at Passarotti’s ‘St Jerome’, in which the bearded man reminds him of his father and the little bird, which has strayed into the painting above its famous lion, of his grandfather’s dictum. Barry’s essay ends movingly with the line, ‘You cannot put the grandfather back in the world but you can give him life in your heart.’

In a time of debate about the value of the arts to the individual and to society at large, this book stands as a testament to the great wealth of a National Gallery – any National Gallery – being appreciated as part of a shared experience.

It illustrates the ways in which art can enrich lives and relationships, the way, as Gerard Donovan has it, ‘visual art at its best preserves... flashes of humanity from lives long gone', or provides, as Christine Dwyer-Hickey writes, ‘windows through which I could see snippets of other people’s past lives, and in doing so recognize something of my own'.

Lines of Vision: Irish Writers on Art is out now, published by Thames and Hudson. Visit the Arts Council of Northern Ireland website and support the #13pForTheArts campaign.