Art and Literature

This is an essay I wrote for a competition run by the English department of my sixth form college. It came in 2nd place.

Literature and art are arguably two sides of the same cultural coin. Both seek to express emotion, articulate ideas or evoke a specific time and place, and their differing tools of eloquence can be interpreted in terms of both conflict and complementation.

Literature and art have come into conflict frequently in European history. During the Renaissance, artists began to assert their status by claiming that their work reaches the same intellectual heights as poetry. Leonardo da Vinci went one step further, arguing that painting was superior to poetry. He wrote that “the description [of God] will not be held in the same veneration as the picture”. The idea that images are more powerful than language induced a vicious outbreak of iconoclasm in northern Europe during the Reformation. This fear of art overpowering the literature of the Bible suggests that, religiously at least, art is more direct and affecting than the written word. Clearly, there was a very potent conflict between the two. However, we have to take into consideration the fact that at the same time, fresh translations of the Bible (most notably Martin Luther’s) were leading to an increase in the power of language to communicate religious sentiments. It is possible that this conflict emerged because the potency of the written word was increasing.

Contrastingly, it is possible to consider art and literature as two versions of the same concept and say that there need not be any distinction made between them. This is very much the case in Chinese culture, due to the tremendous importance which is attached to calligraphy. A still-honoured tradition known as the ‘elegant gathering’, which began in the late 13th century, involves painters and calligraphers coming together to produce unified creations. The very nature of Chinese writing facilitates this unification: it is a pictorial script and, to calligraphers, the forms of the words are just as significant as their meanings. This strongly implies that the distinctions made between art and literature are culturally dependent, and that the very meaning of the terms can easily overlap and integrate.

These two areas of cultural history represent the extremes of the relationship between art and literature: total conflict, and total unity. It is clear that a well-trodden middle ground exists, and it is here that the real answer lies. Art and literature rely on different types of engagement, so are undoubtedly divided, but their aptitude to enhance and complement each other betrays a relationship that is close and largely affectionate.

A well-known example of this is John Everett Millais’ painting Ophelia, which depicts the heroine of Hamlet just before she drowns. Interestingly, this moment is not actually performed in the play. Instead, it is told by Gertrude, who says how before Ophelia dies “her clothes spread wide/ And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up”. Whereas Shakespeare relies on sequential detail to describe Ophelia’s progression to death, Millais has used art’s capacity to preserve a moment in order to memorialise this single feature of the text. Considering the play alongside the painting adds a richness to our perception of this event.

Equally, literature can enhance the experience of looking at an artwork. Anna Wigley’s Dürer’s Hare, a poem about a watercolour by Albrecht Dürer, provokes us to take note of specifics in the painting which we may not notice when faced with the image itself. However, Wigley goes beyond just the appearance of the hare by also describing how it smells of “summer rain” and was still for long enough for the artist to feel “the ribs beneath the mink”. Although Leonardo wrote that painting presents in an instant something which poetry can only achieve laboriously, this implies that literature is able to evoke non-visual sensations more vividly than art can. On the other hand, Wigley’s impressions come from looking at the artwork, so she is using language to bring out what she feels are the multi-sensory evocations of painting. There is a balance here between art and language, as with Ophelia.

Another way to consider this concept is through the lens of ‘movements’, as art and literature are often placed within the same cultural bracket. Romanticism, for example, began as a literary movement, but branched out into painting. New ways of writing emerged, using archaic language and placing an emphasis on the power of nature to express intense emotion. This was reflected in the visual, as artists began to paint emotional extremity, medieval-style scenes and dramatic landscapes. This is useful in provoking us to think of literature as akin to art, as it is clear that here they were united by ideas and principles- brought together by a shared desire to think about the world in a certain way.

Intriguingly, modern conceptual artist Robert Montgomery has described himself as “a traditional British Romantic”. He is an artist who is acutely aware of the power of poetry, and it is hard to differentiate between art and literature when it comes to his works. He creates large, bold displays of short poems, which are placed in public spaces as if they were adverts. He sees using language in art as an antidote to living in “an age of accelerated image” and being “bombarded with hundreds of images a day.” Using language in his art forces people to slow down. It’s the same concept which Wigley uses in her poem: using language to gain a specific focus. Moreover, some people may differentiate between his use of words and the definition of ‘literature’ or ‘art’. This vagueness of categorisation is very much in line with the Chinese tradition.

It is clear that art and literature go side by side, or merge together, when it comes to cultural expression. Experiencing art is often enriched by literature, and vice versa. The fact that they have sometimes had a divisive relationship actually suggests that they are more similar than different and by no means undermines the fact that they have an enormous propensity to unify and correspond.

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