Let me begin by being forthright; I know almost nothing about art. If you’re thinking this post might offer you insight into what makes for a good painting, you’re in the wrong place. A few years back, I did get a couple books on “art for philistines” (…isms: Understanding Art and 50 Artists You Should Know) Being fascinated by just about everything, I immensely enjoyed both books. However, my objective wasn’t to develop any great expertise, but simply to not be a clod. I wanted to be able to tell Monets from Manets from mayonnaise. And I did learn some nifty lessons, mostly about what art wasn’t. Did you know that Neo-impressionist art is NOT art that makes a new impression on one, as contrasted with paleo-impressionist art that makes one feel their inner-caveman. Secessionism was NOT the art of the Confederate States. Neither sensationalism nor naturalism necessarily involve nudity, darn. One the other hand, Pointillism is exactly what it sounds like, paintings made of little pointills.
As a writer, the story that I see in a painting has a lot to do with its appeal to me. That’s why there aren’t any Jackson Pollack’s or Mark Rothko’s on my list. I’m sure their work is aces in aesthetics, but I don’t get much out of it.
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1510
I usually don’t care for paintings that are as busy as The Garden of Earthly Delights, but I find it fascinating that an early 16th century artist could produce so much wild surrealism. I didn’t even know they had LSD in the Netherlands back then. Today we have decades of monster movies to help us think up weird and bizarre images, but Bosch had only his imagination.
There are an infinite number of stories packed into this tri-sectional painting. A question being the root of a story, a world in which some people have flowers and berries blossoming from their heinies, makes for a lot of fodder. However, the first thing that strikes the eye is that God is the only one wearing clothing. (Lets avoid a tautology. One could say that the only reason I know that that’s God is that he’s wearing clothing. If he were naked too, the viewer would just assume that he was a perv trying to horn into a menage a trois. I would say the world’s first threesome, but if you look in the middle section, you can see that about everyone is getting their freak on.) So why is God wearing robes? We can assume that it’s not that he has shame. He’s God, you can be sure he’s sporting the perfect specimen of masculinity (if he cares about such things.) Is it drafty in heaven? If so, doesn’t his omnipotence extend to the heavenly thermostat, or is it that the Holy Ghost likes to crank the AC? I see tension, and tension is the root of a story. (I realize that I said that a question was the root of a story. Live in the moment.)
The Sea of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich, 1823
Sea of Ice, also called The Wreck of Hope, at first looks like just a landscape. However, if one directs one’s glance to the right hand side, one can see the stern of an old sailing ship. As the alternate title suggests, it’s about a shipwreck. A shipwreck in the sailing age in the Arctic Ocean makes an outstanding setting for a story. Those men are all going to die, but not with the suddenness of drowning. They will freeze to death over the course of hours. If they can start a fire, they may have many hours, but they are not going to be rescued and they cannot walk to home. The tension between wanting to survive and knowing you are just extending your misery is good stuff for story-telling. If this image doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, nothing will.
Olympia by Édouard Manet, 1863
Olympia was a scandalous painting when Manet first revealed it. Nudity has been around for ever in paintings, right? Certainly, but it’s the context that enraged people. Society was used to characters of classical mythology being nude, e.g. Venus. They were also used to Biblical nudity (see Garden of Earthly Delights above.) However, Olympia made them think of the Parisian prostitutes that they didn’t visit, but somehow knew exactly what they looked like. There are several stories to be told here. The one that springs to mind is why the servant is about to try to suffocate Olympia with a pillow. Will she, or won’t she, go through with it? If she does, will she prevail? Olympia looks like a fighter. If she doesn’t, will the cat?
Impression: Sunrise by Claude Monet, 1872
In Impression: Sunrise two boats are out on the water, even though the sun has broken over the horizon. They are rivals. The early bird got the worm, and the other will have to fish with fake lures.
Lighthouse Hill by Edward Hopper, 1927
Lighthouses make good settings for tragedy. They are remote. Ships depend upon them to avoid the rocky shoals. This lighthouse keeper’s family left because they didn’t like living in the middle of nowhere with a drunk. Now it’s just a man living in a big house alone. He runs out of Jack Daniels, and drives off to town at dusk. Being on the other side of the hill, he can’t see the lighthouse when he briefly glances into his rear-view mirror and wonders, “Did I turn the beacon on?”
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dalí, 1931
The Persistence of Memory, a.k.a. Melting Time, is a dream state. It makes no sense. Nature is ordered into square edges. Watches are the only evidence of humanity’s existence. There is one creature living, or once living, that looks like the Thalidomide abortion of a three-way mating between a donkey, a Portuguese man of war, and Dalí himself. The story is about being trapped in a dreamscape where time has become stuck. Our protagonist must seek the wisdom of the Portuguese man-o-Dalí.