I’ve talked a bit about using images for inspiration before, here. Today, I want to say a little about the inspiration specific pieces of art can offer.
I hope you have seen the film ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johannson. But have you read the incredible book on which it is based, by Tracy Chevalier? Chevalier’s work is spare and beautiful, as atmospheric as the eerily beautiful painting which inspired it.
A film I sincerely doubt you have seen unless you are a particularly rabid Martin Freeman fan, or a Peter Greenaway fanatic, is ‘Nightwatching’, which deals with the events behind the making of Rembrandt van Rijn’s most famous work, The Night Watch, above. While it is a stagey and self-aware production, typical of Greenaway’s work, Freeman’s performance as Rembrandt is devastating, for if ever there was a part he was born to play, it is this one. Greenaway takes the making of the painting, and interweaves it with conspiracy, murder and an ironic portrait of seventeenth century Dutch life and commerce. Add to this the tragic downfall of the artist with which the picture is associated, and you can see how a single painting can be the starting point for a many-faceted new artistic endeavour.
‘The Pitmen Painters’ by Lee Hall, is not specifically inspired by an individual work, but by the collective experience of a group of miners from Ashington, near Newcastle upon Tyne, who set up a long-lived and much praised art group. It is as inspiring a piece of theatre as I have seen, and brings proper credit to the work of the pioneering men who took up painting against society’s expectations in the 1930s. The fascinating painting above is Coal Face Drawers, by Oliver Kilbourn, a scene from a miner’s own life.
When I was seventeen, I visited the Tate Gallery for the first time. The Tate Modern had not yet been created, and the fabulous Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko were at the old Tate Gallery, what is now Tate Britain. The Murals now have an area designed to Rothko’s original specifications in the Tate Modern, but then, they were in a much smaller, but still impressive room. I sat there amidst these vast panels of claret and black for nearly two hours, completely mesmerised. Rothko’s huge blocks of colour have been much derided by those who dislike abstract art, but his work is about the effects of colour on the emotions, and I can definitely tell you that those paintings had an intense effect on my teenage brain that day that I will never forget. I have never felt so calm, so peaceful, so at one with myself and the world, and I have spent my life since chasing after that feeling, hoping somehow to replicate it.
As a result I became interested not only in Rothko’s work, but in other abstract artists and their theories. I read Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, and was intrigued by the idea of the painter imbuing a work with some kind of spiritual presence. Eventually I used this idea for a novel, in which a much-coveted and rare painting is imbued with occult properties that devastate the lives of its owners.
It is important to state that I am not encouraging you to steal other people’s art.
Proper credit MUST be given. We must always acknowledge where we come from, and the ideas that have influenced us along the way. That is part of being an artist, in whatever medium.
What I am suggesting here is that the great works of those who have gone before us can inspire original and unique responses of our own. It would not be so far from the truth to say that this is what fanfiction is – and if you are sceptical about fanfiction, I refer you to the literary responses to great art that are much lauded: Jean Rhys’s novel, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, which is a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, or perhaps ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, PD James’s sequel to Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ is inspired by the Bible, so don’t be sniffy about your inspiration!
Visit an art gallery. You would be amazed what fabulous works of art are available to view in your local county town or art sellers. Treat yourself to a big trip, and visit a major city where you can enjoy a large museum. Take time to wander about and figure out what you like and why. Buy postcards of your favourite pieces. Do a bit of research about the artist and their ideas. Salt this inspiration away for future reference in your writing notebook and your image box, or let it fizz away in your brain like a vortex, spitting out new ideas as debris as it spins.
Alternatively, you could check out the suggestions above, watch the DVD of ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ or ‘Nightwatching’, or read Chevalier’s wonderful novel, and see where they take you.