I once spent half a day in one room of the D’Arcy Museum in Paris. It housed a special exhibit of Van Gogh, displayed in a timeline of his works, from early to late. One thing struck me. During his adult life of painting, some works were clear and detailed (flowers, self-portraits, even a still life of onions in the later years of his short life) while others were far less detail-oriented, meshing trees, flora and such far more abstractly (e.g., the garden at the asylum in Saint-Remy where he spent time for mental illness treatment).
Also at that asylum he painted a lesser-known work, Corridor in Saint-Paul Hospital, which is a bit more realistic with what seems to me, a strong message – confusion as to which “door” to enter, as well as a sense of feeling “trapped” with a long way to go to reach the end of his stay. Many analyze this painting as a plea to his brother Theo to get him out of there.
I am not a student of painting. I am a writer. And yet, after my experience at the D’Arcy Museum, I felt compelled to alter my instructor’s assignment (visit a gallery, spend time observing a single work, and then write about the emotions that the work invoked). Here, in this room, was a man’s short life of joy, misery, love, depression, sanity, and insanity, and all of it reflected in the works he created. And so, I created a piece of writing for that assignment that I believe was also a work of art. And in that creation, I came to understand the strong connection between painting and writing as art forms.
How Do We Define Art?
If we define art as a form of human expression that is also creative in some manner (and we should), then the connection between painting and writing is undeniable.
Let’s unpack how these two art forms are connected:
1. Both Comment on the Human Condition
Whether it is the development of a character in a novel or a portrait of someone attempting to deal with the same “condition,” both creatively portray that condition – it can be joy, grief, anger, love, insanity, and such. The writer depicts these emotions via the character’s behaviors and thoughts; the painter depicts them via a visual medium.
2. Both Can be Therapeutic
Art forms in therapy have long been considered to be effective means for patients to explore their feelings – to vent their emotions, to address events in their lives they may find difficult to verbalize, to reduce anxiety, and to gain greater self-awareness. Therapists often use both art and writing, often in combinations, because they both serve the same purposes.
3. Both Provide a Means to Counter “Blocks”
Experts in both painting (and other forms of art) and writing provide recommendations for those who suffer blocks in either medium. For painter’s block, they recommend that people get out of their homes and studios and write about themselves and their feelings. They also suggest observing people, writing down their impressions and then using a sketch pad to depict those people from those impressions.
For writer’s block, students often go to writing services with the pleas, “Write my paper.” But professional writer’s block cannot be solved so easily. Suggestions for this malady include, interestingly, a visit to an art museum or gallery and spending some quiet time studying a work or two and then writing about them.
4. Both Reveal the Mindset of the Creators
Painters and writers have a wide range of emotions as they produce their creations over a lifetime. And those emotions and mental states are expressed in what they produce.
Here is a quote from a letter Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo:
“This is my ambition, which is founded less on anger than on love, founded more on serenity than on passion. Indeed, I am often in the greatest misery, but still, there is within me a calm, pure harmony and music. In the poorest huts, in the dirtiest corner, I see drawings and pictures. And with irresistible force my mind is drawn towards these things. Believe me that sometimes I laugh heartily because people suspect me of all kinds of malignity and absurdity, of which not a hair of my head is guilty — I, who am really no one but a friend of nature, of study, of work, and especially of people.”
How beautifully he described his mindset at the time of this writing.
Let’s take a look at another artist, Edvard Munch, who, in his own words, bared his soul and all of its darkness in his paintings. Here is his most famous painting, The Scream:
In Munch’s own analysis of this painting, he explains that he was walking on a bridge with friends when he was suddenly frozen and experiencing extreme panic and anxiety. Today, we would call this a panic attack. He attributed this event to a lifetime of traumas – the death of his mother at age 5, the loss of a sister, the commitment of another sister to an asylum, and the pervasive verbal abuse from his father. Shortly after this, he committed himself to an asylum. In his own words, he was depicting his soul through this painting.
Compare this to the Edgar Allen Poe classic, “The Raven.” Poe struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues all of his life. His mental health was further impacted by the death of his wife, Virginia, whom analysts say was the “lost Lenore” of the poem. The poem clearly depicts his mental state at the time – depression and feelings of hopelessness.
Here are the final lines:
“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting; On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door; And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming, And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor; And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor, shall be lifted — nevermore!”
Munch’s soul and Poe’s soul are obviously tormented, and both have an effective method of showing that through their art forms.
The Inevitable Connection
Inevitable? Yes, of course. Writers and painters are both artists. They have the same purposes, and they often cross over amongst themselves. Painters write about what they paint; writers may draw or paint what they want to write about. And we viewers and readers are often more enriched by the outcomes of those activities.