The first book to mention is Sarah Winman’s new novel “Still Life” which is published by HarperCollins next week, 10th June and looks fascinating. Anyone who had read her glorious “Tin Man” [Tinder Press] will know her extraordinarily succinct use of language to conjure atmosphere, a strong sense of place and time and always a dramatic, unexpected and often emotional plot. Throughout that novel the presence of Vincent Van Gogh – both his paintings (the Sunflower series) and his biography – haunted, sometimes even drove, the narrative, in surprising ways.
Reading “Tin Man” then took me back to re-reading A. S. Byatt’s novel (also called) “Still Life” [Vintage] which is similarly infused with the spirit of Van Gogh as well as other painters. The Prologue is set at an exhibition at the Royal Academy, and one of the main characters, a writer, looking at Van Gogh paintings reflects how difficult he had found it to find “an appropriate language for the painter’s obsession with the illuminated material world.” Perhaps Byatt, too, found it difficult, but her success throughout the novel – as Sarah Winman achieved in “Tin Man” also – is the creation of story, characters, fictional events that enable one to look again at the paintings and their effect/s upon the viewer.
In Winman’s novel the propelling catalyst is a reproduction of “Sunflowers” won at a raffle – Dora hangs it on the wall of her otherwise drab and depressing back room, and against her husband’s wishes.
“She stood back. The painting was as conspicuous as a newly installed window, but one that looked out on to a life of colour and imagination, far away from the grey factory dawn and in stark contrast to the brown curtains and brown carpet, both chosen by a man to hide the dirt. It would be as if the sun rose every morning on that wall, showering the silence of their mealtimes with the shifting emotion of light.”
The painting now on the wall leads immediately to a near murder Dora’s her husband returns and goes to pull it down: “Do it and I’ll kill you. If not now then when you sleep. This painting is me. You don’t touch it, you respect it.”
Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” changes lives throughout the story in, as I say, surprising and powerfully emotional ways.
The publisher’s copy for Sarah Winman’s “Still Life” reads:
Still Life is a big-hearted story of people brought together by love, war, art and the ghost of E.M. Forster. 1944, in the ruined wine cellar of a Tuscan villa, as bombs fall around them, two strangers meet and share an extraordinary evening. Ulysses Temper is a young British soldier, Evelyn Skinner is a sexagenarian art historian and possible spy. She has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage and relive memories of the time she encountered EM Forster and had her heart stolen by an Italian maid in a particular Florentine room with a view. Evelyn’s talk of truth and beauty plants a seed in Ulysses’ mind that will shape the trajectory of his life – and of those who love him – for the next four decades. Moving from the Tuscan Hills and piazzas of Florence, to the smog of London’s East End, Still Life is a sweeping, joyful novel about beauty, love, family and fate.
In other words: it will be amazing!
A book more directly linked to an artist is Franny Moyle’s The King’s Painter [Head of Zeus] which, I have to say, is one of the most beautifully illustrated and produced art/biographies that I’ve seen in a long time. What is particularly interesting is that each chapter is dedicated to a particular portrait that then illuminates the context of the working artist. Moyle notes in the Introduction that there is very little by way of written records from the artist’s life, which means that the the paintings themselves, their subjects and their cultural-political receptions, are superbly foregrounded. And of course the paintings have been so historically affective: we could not ‘see’ or perhaps even understand Henry VIII and his court except through the eyes of Holbein.
The King’s Painter: The Art and Times of Hans Holbein is published now, and four episodes of it from Radio 4’s Book of the Week are still available (as of today): BBC Radio 4 – The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein by Franny Moyle – Available now and – fascinatingly – as she was going about her research, Franny Moyle also discovered a portrait of the artist as a child: The child hidden in plain sight: how one painting has upended the Holbein world (telegraph.co.uk)!
My third ‘recommended’ book is Frances Wilson’s “Burning Man” [Bloomsbury] which is absolutely brilliant. Wilson not only portrays D.H. Lawrence in a uniquely new light – especially by way of his usually-forgotten-about writing – she has also transformed the art of biography by mapping Lawrence’s life by way of Dante’s travels from the Inferno of Hell through Purgatory to Paradise. It is truly extraordinary and, when the ‘blurb’ says “a landmark biography” for once this rings true.
You might be thinking – why is he talking about this when it’s not about an artist or art? Well, the third part is especially interesting as, when Lawrence and his wife Frieda move to New Mexico, an artist who travels with them is Brett (1883-1977), the Hon. Dorothy Eugenie Brett to give her formal name. Brett had been a student at the Slade, a friend of Carrington and one of the Bloomsbury artists who, during World War I, stayed at Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor – thesae were the circles through which she met Lawrence. At a dinner party, Lawrence – drunk – suggested the guests should all move with him to create a writers/artists colony. One way or another they demurred, except Brett.
The artuk.org website has only four of her paintings, including one of Ottoline and her Garsington guests and a portrait of Lawrence himself:
The other two are later paintings (both in the Tate) from New Mexico where, from 1924, Brett would live for the rest of her life.
The Tate website tells a little more about these astonishing pictures.
And, one other book to mention is Ian Collins biography of the artist John Craxton [Yale University Press]:
which I will be reading over the next few days before discussing it with the author himself (via @HatchardsPiccadilly on InstagramLive next Wednesday 9th, 6pm), when I’ll have much more to tell!
So, for now, happy book-reading and picture-viewing!