In trying to impose order on my messy computer folders this morning, I came across this image I had saved months ago from a manuscript digitzed at the excellent Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland. Artist Jean Colombe provided eight full-page illustrations for a manuscript (ca. 1470) of Le Mortifiement de Vaine Plaisance (1455) by King René of Anjou. To be honest, I have not tried to read the manuscript nor find out just what the allegorical meaning of this particular picture is. What I strikes me in this detail are the pollarded trees and the wattle fences, the different roofs (slate and tile), the slope of the hill between parts of a village, and the hint of a setting for a story. Kathleen Jennings recommends loving your tools as a way to jumpstart creativity. Manuscript illuminations are one of mine. What are yours?
Picturing a World
Blog post alert: How's this for Valentine's Day? Instead of romantic daydreams, what about treasuring the objects and tools that enable you to fulfill your creative impulses? At her lively blog Tanaudel, one of my favorite illustrators, Kathleen Jennings, has an stimulating recent post, Loving the tools, on a notebook into which she dabbed colors and then free associated to capture her personal responses to them. It was a way of getting back into painting after an illness. In conclusion, she says: "Anyway, I've been talking with a few friends who have stalled on projects or pursuits recently, and this is for them. Perhaps, with no project in mind, just get out, handle, order, comment on, your tools and materials. Make friends again." And if you don't know Jennings' own work, do visit her website and get to know her!
From the dust jacket: "Tatterdemalion is a collaboration between writer Sylvia V. Linsteadt and painter Rima Staines. Together they have created a vivid post-apocalyptic novel in which the northern California of the future is imagined through images and stories rooted deep in the traditions of European folk tales."
I bought a hardback copy of the Unbound edition of Tatterdemalion because I love Rima Staines' art but can't afford an original painting. If I understand Linsteadt's post, A Needle, An Egg, A Novel Being Born at Folklore Thursday, she, too was responding to the pictures but the two of them created the novel together. Certainly, their contributions combine synergistically to elicit dreams, fears, imaginings of what the future holds for the human and more-than-human world. It's a book that haunts me.
Jackie Morris's superb paintings and Robert MacFarlane's intriguing "spells" combine in The Lost Words to make a book that is greater than the sum of its equally splendid parts. You would treasure a print of any of the pictures; you might memorize one of the clever acrostic verses (spells as MacFarlane punningly calls them) to chant against the evils of our days. Together with the book's size, depth of color printing, and lovely page design (including a set of puzzles that delight once you figure out what they are doing), they combine into a classic.
Throughout December, I treated myself to slowly working through Jackie Morris's Quiet Music of Gently Falling Snow, which was as wonderful as I had hoped. Now with Christmas behind me, I am going through it again, and it's better than ever.
In a post at Folklore Thursday, Some Words about the Quiet Music, Morris tells how the book originated in designs for Christmas cards in support of Help Musicians UK and how the imagery led to stories. And not only hers: "The cards began to gather their own stories, connections made between those who sent them, received, later found cards."
Yesterday, I spotted a plant about to bloom in a neighbor's herbaceous border, knew I knew what it was, and couldn't come up with the name. Well, it was a Crown Imperial. This morning, a post at Gurney Journey sent me to Eugène Grasset's La Plante et ses Applications ornementales (1896). Grasset offers floral studies of plants followed by abstract designs derived from them; and there was my flower.
As it happened, yesterday I also attended a reading of a new play, an historical drama. It fell short of its topic. Looking at Grasset's illustrations today, I'm not sure whether the play failed because it lacked sufficient historical depth or because it did not transmute fact into something different from reportage. (I know it lacked complex characters!)
What's worth remembering in our own work is that the same material can be handled many ways. We need to explore them, impose our own structures and approaches, and then scrutinize the results ruthlessly.
This detail of an advertising poster published in Cleveland, Ohio, appears in The Papered Wall, ed. by Lesley Hoskins, and illustrates the choices offered a buyer at the turn of the last century. I love seeing the woman customer out shopping for her "house beautiful," the expression on the salesman's face, and, of course, the patterns being offered at the time. Another example of not-great art that can be immensely helpful to the historical novelist.
Mostly, I like to highlight lesser known women artists, but sometimes it's worth calling attention to a man. A post at GurneyJourney reminded me of Danish painter, Carl Vilhelm Holsøe. Holsøe's depictions of rooms are atmospheric interiors, a genre at which his generation of Scandinavian artists seems to have excelled. (Think Harriet Backer or Anna Ancher.) I didn't know about him when I was imagining Jeanette's "portraits without people," but his work illustrates the way a room can embody psychological insight.
Pictures of rooms are also a boon to historical-fiction and fantasy writers for the details they provide—in this case, a candle in the darkness. 21st C people have little idea how dark rooms really were before electric lights. Older stories in which characters are hidden in shadow become much more believable when you experience a black-out, or light a room with only a candle or two as an experiment, or, as here, see the effect in art.
To see this still life as part of a larger interior, click here.
For more of Holsøe's work, click here.
My website is hosted by the Author's Guild, which this month revamped its design templates, the better to fit cellphones and other screens. To celebrate the new, I'm posting a glimpse of the past. For a writer of historical fiction, a magazine cover from the year about which she is writing, which itself illustrates an earlier period, seems about right. Besides, I love textiles.
In her introduction to the 2016 edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin says, “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words.”
Imagery, like music, can induce feelings as well as ideas; it conveys complex attitudes, multiple meanings. Through her painting, Nom kinnear king expresses what she explores in the only way she fully can. Trying to put it into words would be pointless.
And yet, for those of us who are inspired by art while we are writing fiction, a picture may suggest a plot line. It may offer a concrete detail for a scene. Or it may just as well go into the unconscious and work magic. Gretta, I think, is going to haunt me into winter. Read More