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Douglas Fetherling - Visual Writers
by Douglas Fetherling

That there was a recent exhibition of works-on-paper by Victor Hugo, at the Drawing Center in New York, is surprising but not astounding, for the great nineteenth-century French poet and novelist is remembered as an all-round genius. As Jean Cocteau, himself a master of everything, once said, "Victor Hugo was a madman who believed himself to be Victor Hugo." Still, we don't usually remember the author of Les Misérables as being a visual artist as well. But he was. And an interesting one at that, whose washes and drawings are distinguished by a strange mix of symbolism and what might be called proto-SF. They are full of castles and monsters and darkness and sometimes pure abstract shapes as well. As an artist, Hugo will remind you of both Turner and Doré, if you can imagine that. He was into heavy metal years before Edison invented the phonograph. You can confirm all the above with the book-of-the-show, Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo (University of Washington Press, $60), edited by a handful of French art historians led by Pierre Georgel. I was intrigued by it because I've always been puzzled and curious about poets who are also visual artists.

Perhaps the only safe general statement on the whole subject is that there's a special relationship between poetry and painting but nobody knows exactly what it is, though many have tried to isolate certain elements of it. Some cite the fact that in both cases the process is more important than individual acts of creation. Others point to an underlying geometry in both disciplines. Still others try to explain the connection by comparing it to the one that links poetry to music or music to art. (It's no coincidence that so many of the key rock musicians of the past two generations were once art students.) Maybe the closest a person can come in the search for the common element is to look for a certain telltale quality of visual imagination combined with an understanding of the function of craft. Regardless how it comes about, however, the meeting of forms can be seen in a number of Canadian poets who are also painters or equivalent.

Prose writers as different as Isak Dinesen and Günter Grass (or Noel Coward, for that matter) have been competent visual artists as well. Some are surprising only in what their art work confirms about their writing. James A. Michener's pictures were just like his novels: all information with no style or depth. Closer to home, both Pierre Berton and Patrick Watson list art as their hobby in the Canadian Who's Who. Poets, however, would seem less likely than non-fiction writers to be mere Sunday painters. Instead they're prone to occupy some middle ground between illustrator and book designer. Just as many Canadian artists, as far apart in time as J.E.H. MacDonald and Vera Frenkel, have illustrated books of poetry they also happen to have written, so also many poets, James Reaney for example, have written ones they've illustrated. To control all physical aspects of a book, to be in effect its writer-producer-director, is an ideal many writers dream about but few ever achieve.

In a 1957 article in the original Canadian Art magazine, Earle Birney thought the future depended on visual artists and poets working together. "Personally, until such collaboration exists," he wrote, "I do not think that either poetry or painting in this country will reach full maturity." What happened instead was that a small bunch of poets took the visual more seriously. The result is often interesting in and of itself as well as being an oblique comment on their writing.

In certain periods, places, and cultures, the cross-over from poetry to painting is seen as natural and perhaps even necessary, as in imperial China. A more recent example would be the German expressionists. Historically, however, poet-painters have been mocked by the art world because their art is too literary or at least insufficiently non-literary. Who can deny that some contemporary writers, when they take up the brush, seem genuinely unaware that modernism ever found the antidote to anecdote? It's likewise true that with rare exceptions, such as P. K. Page, a mastery of coloration is not what you expect to find in writer-art. (Max Beerbohm, on seeing nudes painted by D. H. Lawrence, cracked that Lawrence "must have had a lot of pink friends.") What you do see in poets' art, however, is a sense of wholeness, with the art, whatever direction it takes, forming part of an integrated response to the question of how to lead a good and useful creative life.

Who are the Canadian poet-painters? The above-mentioned P. K. Page paints under her married name, P. K. Irwin, and is represented in the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Vancouver Art Gallery. She began painting in the 1950s, when her husband was at various times Canadian ambassador to Brazil and Mexico and high commissioner to Australia. The frustration and delights of mastering her materials and finding her own style come through clearly in Brazilian Journal; this book, which is about to be reprinted by Key Porter, also features a number of black-and-white and colour plates of her gouaches. They give the not altogether inaccurate impression that much of her work at the time reflected the ecological complexity of the tropics. By contrast, her painting from Australia recalls Sir Sidney Nolan's ochreous palette and his use of Aboriginal imagery.

A number of Canadian poets of her generation (such as Eldon Grier) and the one immediately before it (such as Robert Finch) painted seriously, but Page has done the most to investigate the correlation between the two forms, as in a pair of essays appended to her selected poems, The Glass Air (which also includes samples of her painting). "If I could `write' a drawing, I probably would," she explained in a letter once. "But I can't quite. I like a hard point-as if I were writing-perhaps for that reason. And I get pleasure from the sound of that point as it encounters the surface of the paper. A different sound from that of the nib as one writes (if one ever writes) for writing paper seldom has a tooth; and totally different from the clicking of typewriter keys. It is probably closer to playing a stringed instrument."

Other poet-painters at work in Canadian literature now would have to include Anne Carson (who depicts volcanoes) and Heather Spears (whose drawings call to mind early anatomical studies). Collage has always been a favourite form for writers (perhaps the late Robin Skelton is the easiest example to name), but few have achieved the original results of the Toronto novelist, short-story writer, and poet Patricia Seaman, who uses innovative combinations of text and collage.

Perhaps the Canadian poet-artist whose work is most thoroughly integrated is Joe Rosenblatt. With one part of his brain, he's supplied drawings for several of his own collections of verse, such as Virgins & Vampires. With the other, he's had many solo exhibitions, beginning in the early 1970s, and has published one book of drawings exclusively (Doctor Anaconda's Solar Club) as well as a portfolio (Snake Oil). In both word and line, he's created his own imaginative world, in which strange humanoid creatures and critter-like humans emphasize the basic oneness of living things. His Rapidograph sketches are neither whimsical nor fantastical but something exclusive to Rosenblatt. He has quite a following both critically and commercially.

Another example, a very different one, is bill bissett. When the late critic Eli Mandel called bissett "a one-man civilization", he meant that bissett paints, draws, make collages, and cuts recordings as well as writing literally scores of 1960s-ish poetry books, many or most of which he has published himself and sometimes even printed (rather poorly). bissett's rejection of orthography has put a distinctive stamp on his writing but has also limited his impact on the general literary reader (though he has always been an in-house favourite of the writing community itself). His painting is similar to his poetry in that it too is rooted in the alternative culture of 1965-1975, though more accessibly so.

You would expect an underground visionary like bissett to be influenced by the mythological and tribal significance of First Nations art, and he is. But the debt isn't to the cultural traditions of the contemporary Native painters; it's to their planal approach and their large modules of earth colours. bissett had a retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1984, complete with a full-dress catalogue. What it revealed, to me at least, is that his visual art and his writing come from a common impulse. The shamanistic quality of his paintings and the chant-like rhythms of his poetry have one source. In that sense, his painting is a shadow criticism of his writing.

By contrast, Patrick Lane hasn't borrowed anything from the First Peoples, but he sometimes writes about them and their world with what seems to a fellow outsider to be fierce understanding, something bissett doesn't try to do. Lane's poetry is famous for dealing with humankind's inhumanity to itself and the environment and for using brutally direct and simple language that makes the message all the more horrifying. At first glance, his drawings, sometimes allegorical, sometimes nightmarish, have little in common with his poetry. Yet the fact that he's used them as illustration in a number of his books makes perfect sense, because the intensity of the emotion is the same in both cases. In this example, too, the work in the one area can be taken as a clue to work in the other.

Margaret Atwood is a third instance. She's been producing fine art for years, for her own pleasure mostly. "A lot of what I do is landscape, and these I do in the summer," she explained once. She went on to say that she has no general rule except that she tends to paint and draw in spurts and bursts of activity, some of them lasting months. Generally speaking, she avoids oils and acrylics in favour of illustratorly media such as India ink and colour pencils as well as watercolour. More recently, she has been combining marking pen with water for special bleeding effects that heighten the sense of the Gothic so obvious in many of her pictures (and of course in some of her prose too).

She has never exhibited. Indeed, most of her prolific output is housed with her papers in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. Until comparatively recent years, the public has had only the slightest hint of her visual side, as in a comic strip that she used to draw for This Magazine, or an occasional watercolour used on a book cover, or a quick sketch of herself in an American anthology of self-portraits by literary people. But ten years ago two American academics, Kathryn Van Spanckern and Jan Garden Castro, brought out a critical anthology entitled Margaret Atwood: Vision & Forms, which reproduces eight of her watercolours and discusses her development as a visual artist.

The precise cause and effect of what she accomplishes in this field "remains a mystery to me," she has said. But the relationship between her work in these sister forms is strikingly obvious to readers. One Atwood watercolour reproduced from time to time depicts a human skeleton wearing a bridal gown with veil. A more quintessentially Atwoodian image it would be difficult to conceive of, in whatever discipline, in whatever medium. 


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