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Picturing a World


Eric Ravilious, Submarines in Dry Dock (1940)

Just before Putin attacked Ukraine, I happened to have bought a copy of Ravilious, the catalogue for a 2015 retrospective of work by Eric Ravilious at the Dulwich Gallery, London. What makes this poignant is the fact that Ravilious, who had worked under the auspices of the War Artists Advisory Committee, died on duty when his airplane disappeared over Iceland in 1942. And here we are, witnessing what may be only the start of another war.
Aestheticizing war is a bad idea; yet because the human eye sees differently from the camera lens, the artist's record brings its own witness to both combat and mundane efforts. Moreover, works made during war can have lasting value beyond the historic. Looking at the deceptively quiet Submarines in Dry Dock, for instance, says a lot about tension.

Start with the question of whether the picture drives back toward the blocked horizon or walks forward along the planks toward the viewer. The bulging torpedo-like propeller mounts seem aimed back with menacing force while the propellers themselves face outward like weird blooms below those thrusting brass pipes whatever they are (not gun barrels but reminders of them). The short answer is, the picture moves in both directions—and therein lies the dynamic power of an otherwise static subject. The strokes that achieve volume and texture are dynamic. Curves vs. straight lines. A critic could spend a lot of time exploring the composition on purely technical grounds, but what it adds up to in my mind is a lesson in how tension and dynamism characterize the best art.
For a writer, one tip for dialogue is to give every exchange at least a slight edge. Consider the difference between the following three versions of two characters meeting.
Version 1
"How are you?"
"Fine. And you?"
Version 2
"Oh, hi. Haven't seen you for a while. What's up?"
"Nothing new here. You?"
"Let's just say—no, never mind."
Version 3
"Hi." Pause. "I said, hi."
"I heard you and didn't answer, did I?"
Version 1 may have the most verisimilitude; but unless you are Samuel Beckett, it's probably a waste of ink. Versions 2 and 3 contain seeds for narrative development. If only the current story unfolding were not headed toward maximum violence!

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