by Gretchen Shirm

I do not have a particularly visual imagination. I rarely ‘see’ the things that I write. More often than not, I hear the words. I’m never satisfied with anything I’ve written until it ‘sounds right’. This applies as equally to my critical writing as it does to my creative work. It’s almost like a process of tapping on a wall: for me any falseness will always be heard as I repeat the words to myself, rather than seen on the page. Perhaps this is why I find written descriptions of visual art moving. Sometimes more so than any visual encounter I might have had.

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The first time I thought about written representations of art was when I read Siri Hustvedt’s novel What I Loved[i]. In that book, one of the characters, Bill Wechsler, is an artist and his characterisation is provided in large part through his relationship to his art. The novel opens with this arresting description of Wechsler’s Self Portrait:

It was a large picture, about six feet high and eight feet long, that showed a young woman lying on the floor in an empty room. She was propped up on one elbow, and she seemed to be looking at something beyond the edge of the painting. Brilliant light streamed into the room from that side of the canvas and illuminated her face and chest. Her right hand was resting on her pubic bone, and when I moved closer, I saw that she was holding a little taxi in that hand – a miniature version of the ubiquitous yellow cab that moved up and down the streets of New York.

This painting is described from the perspective of Leo Hertzberg, an art historian, who acquires the painting and begins a life long friendship with the artist.

When I read What I Loved, I became fascinated with the idea of what happens when we ‘read’ art. Whether it is a reduced experience because we do not see the artwork itself, or whether it is paradoxically a more intimate encounter, because our focus is drawn in to aspects of the work we might have otherwise overlooked.

This painting (and others described in What I Loved) does not exist outside the novel. The ‘art’ itself resides in the writing, rather than in the painting. We are not ‘shown’ the painting, but we are given the description that Hertzberg gives of it. We see only what Hertzberg sees and our view of the painting is locked into his perspective. The description therefore says more about the character (and perhaps some of the novel’s thematic preoccupations) than it does about the artwork itself.

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Hustvedt’s subsequent novels also deal with questions of art and this is the overwhelming attraction of her novels for me. The way they contemplate art and attempt to capture the effect it has on us. How it shapes the way we live; her characters are disclosed through the way they interact with art. Her novels remind us that looking at art is a dynamic process. And somehow, the role art plays in her novels makes them richer, more experiential.

In some ways, because of the presence of art in Hustvedt’s novels, I find them truer to life. The moments when her characters contemplate art capture key moments of reflection that occur regularly in every day life but are difficult to record in novels, because of the need for narrative momentum.

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GS 4Siri Hustvedt’s books. Photograph Julien Klettenberg ©

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Hustvedt is also an accomplished art critic and essayist. She has written two books of essays on visual art, the first a book of essays on paintings The Mysteries of the Rectangle[ii]. In it, Hustvedt offers us this explanation of why she loves painting:

Hours may pass, but a painting will not gain or lose any part of itself. It has no beginning, no middle and no end. I love painting because in its immutable stillness it seems to exist outside time in a way no other art can… A painting creates an illusion of an eternal present, a place where my eyes can rest as if the clock has magically stopped ticking.

The second is a collection titled Living, Thinking, Looking[iii] and many of these essays document her intimate relationship with visual art, her own interpretations of particular artworks and artists (she has an ongoing fascination with Francisco Goya, for example) and the way art works on us.

Hustvedt writes that art is what happens in the relationship between the viewer and the thing viewed. She writes, ‘Art partakes of the intersubjective because we do not treat it as just a thing, but as an object imbued with the traces of another living consciousness.’

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Photography has also played an important part in Hustvedt’s novels. In The Sorrows of an American[iv], for example, the main character Erik Davidson is pursued by a man who takes surreptitious photos of him and a woman with whom he is involved. The act of photographing a person without their knowledge is, Davidson observes, ‘an overtly aggressive act’. In fact, Davidson is terrorised by the man who takes these photographs and it is not difficult to see why: our image, particularly our face, is bound up with our identity and portrait photography is one of the few times we hand the control of our image over to another person.

A similar event occurs in Hustvedt’s first novel The Blindfold[v], in which the protagonist, Iris, is disturbed by a photograph that’s taken of her (by a man) in which her ‘face lacked clarity, in part because the light was obscured, but also because the expression I had was nonsensical, an inward leer or grimace that signified no definite emotion or even sensation.’ Iris feels violated by the image, because she does not think it accurately represents her.

Again, these photographs do not exist, except as they are written by Hustvedt and the offer key moments of stillness within the text, when we see her characters from the outside.

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In her most recent novel, The Blazing World[vi], the act of artistic creation is brought into focus. Specifically, the book is about female artists and the fact that people feel generally more comfortable labelling a work as ‘great’ if they can locate ‘a cock and a pair of balls’ behind it.

The novel is about the fictional artist Harriet Burden, a sculptor and new-media artist, whose art went largely overlooked early in her career, but who stages an art hoax, in having three men give their names to her work and of observing the (dismaying) reaction to it.

Hustvedt’s novel is riddled with references to philosophical explanations for art, but at its heart, the novel addresses the idea that female creativity is often very different to its male counterpart. When Burden creates art, it is not a mere intellectual exercise; her art is deep and personal, she pours herself into it. In a way, her art cannot be separated from her. Or as Hustvedt puts it, ‘…she pushed her art out of her like wet, bloody newborns.’ What Hustvedt is suggesting in this novel is that a rethinking of how we assess art is required: how we value art must be extended beyond male conceptions of meaning to include female ones.

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Hustvedt’s writing acknowledges the way art affects us. That the moments we interact with art often coincide with key moments of understanding about ourselves and about how we fit into the world. We are rarely as ‘present’ and self-aware at any other moment as when we are observing art.

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Her novels capture the profound moments of stillness and contemplation that occur when we look at art; how the process of looking outwards, inevitably leads us back inwards.

[i] Hustvedt S (2007). What I Loved, Hodder and Stoughton

[ii] Hustvedt S (2005). Mysteries of the Rectangle, Princeton Architectural Press

[iii] Hustvedt S (2012). Living, Thinking, Looking, Picador New York

[iv] Hustvedt S (2008). The Sorrows of an America, Sceptre

[v] Hustvedt S (1992). The Blindfold, Sceptre

[vi] Hustvedt S (2014). The Blazing World, Sceptre

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