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Art within art: part 2

In Part One of this blog I looked at how art can be used within art to reveal a character in a compelling way. I used the example of how, in the film The Talented Mr Ripley, we learn what makes the character Tom Ripley really tick by watching his reaction to a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera ‘Eugene Onegin’. Ripley’s character, invented by the novelist Patricia Highsmith, is a particularly complex one. He takes on masks, is a consummate mimic, and seems to be something of a hollow, immoral man. All of which made this glance into his darkest recesses the more interesting.
In this blog I will turn to some literary examples of how some form of art, within another form of art (writing) can reveal our characters in a similarly deep way. Perhaps because art speaks to us on so many levels that it can offer such a fundamental insight to a character, by showing us what type of stimulus this specific character responds to.
In Siri Hustvedt’s bestselling novel What I Loved the book begins with a description of a painting. The narrator describes a work by a New York artist, Bill, which depicted his lover, Violet. It is the painting of the cover of the novel, and as such the description of it offers a deep insight into not only Bill and Violet, but their relationship too.

At this point Violet is quoted, and she relates of the time she hoped remembered Bill painting her. She says;

‘I watched you while you painted me. I looked at your arms and your shoulders and especially at your hands while you worked on the canvas. I wanted you to turn around and walk over to me and rub my skin the way you rubbed the painting.’

The beautiful portrait of a dark haired woman in a red dress, as shown on the cover is revealed in the prose to have been titled ‘Self Portrait.’ By telling us this, it gives Hustvedt a wonderful opportunity to ruminate on the layers of her character as she speculates whether such a title next to a man’s name (Bill Wechsler) suggested a feminine part of himself, or a trio of selves.
Reading this, I was struck by how Hustvedt had opened the novel by taking us right into the deepest layers of her character, using this painting within her story.
Perhaps I subconsciously had What I Loved on my mind when I was developing my third novel, How I Left The National Grid.
The novel concerns the hunt by a journalist, Sam, for a vanished rock star called Robert Wardner. Wardner was the singer in an 80’s rock / synth rock band in the vein of Depeche Mode, who were called ‘The National Grid’. One character I spent a particular amount of time developing was the band’s manager, Bonny Crawford. Inspired by Pete Doherty’s description of The Libertines first manager Banny Poostchi, I created a character coming to terms with the effect of Wardner’s disappearance on her life. Early in the novel, I cite an article about Bonny, in which is written –

‘Next month Crawford is unveiling an exhibition of paintings about Wardner. According to the press release, the pictures offer a loose chronology. Later pictures offer cryptic clues as to how he vanished, and promise to answer the unsolved mystery of why he did.’

These paintings are set up not only as a deep insight into Crawford’s character, but also as a plot device, to place in the reader’s mind some pieces of the puzzle regarding Wardner’s disappearance. I remember seeing parallels between the undefined emotional feelings surrounding a vanished person and the vague, undefined emotional feelings an artist imbues into their work. When Sam goes to visit Crawford, he writes –

“Taking pride of place in the window was a large painting of the band’s album cover. Set against a corporate shade of rich green was a triangle split into six parts. Inside each segment, as on the album cover, was a word from the record’s title, ‘How I Left The National Grid’. Except, where the album had used a glossy style of graphic design, Bonny had used thick brush strokes to achieve that effect. In her new guise she had clearly tapped into some nascent skill. On closer inspection, Sam could see more phrases subtly etched into the colour around the triangle.

‘Is the choice of lyrics particularly meaningful?’ he asked. At the bottom of the painting, he pointed at the phrase ‘The wrong kind of divorce is murder’.

‘Of course,’ she said, following his eyes. ‘Ah, you noticed that one.’

‘So does that tell us something about you and Wardner?’
He struggled to meet the intensity of her gaze.

‘It tells you something about what he did to me,’ she said.”

Perhaps influenced by Hustvedt, I used the painting to not only show the relationship between the characters of Robert and Bonny, but also to reveal Bonny in a way I otherwise could not do through her art.

Having discussed The Talented Mr. Ripley, What I Loved can anyone think of other works in which a piece of art is contained within a piece of art? Specifically to reveal a character?

Posted by author: Guy Mankowski
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2 thoughts on “Art within art: part 2

  • What I Loved is one of my favourite novels, Guy. Siri Hustvedt is such an original writer and uses the devise of the painting so cleverly. As you say above, using art within a novel (or other creative wrting form) is not uncommon. There’s just hundreds of examples. We could make this series run forever!

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