for writers and readers….
Today it’s time for an ekphrastic exercise – writing about or inspired by a painting.
In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, characters see a painting of Christ that is supposed to be so brutal and unspiritual that it has the power to destroy faith. Apparently it was based on Hans Holbein’s 16th century painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb.
Here it is.
I hadn’t seen it before I started researching this article. I knew Hans Holbein as the man who painted Henry VIIII and the picture of Anne of Cleves which caused so much trouble, I wasn’t expecting this. This is something very different.
Five hundred years after it was painted it can still swing a blow. We come from three generations of television and film watchers; a century and a half of photography. We have witnessed the horrors of war and famine and human suffering almost as they happen. We have artists like Picasso and Bacon to reinterpret what it is to be human and are bombarded by vivid images daily, hourly and yet we can still be shocked.
I get why Dostoyevsky was inspired to include this painting in his novel soon after he first viewed it. And reading about other examples of ekphrastic exercises it is often the jumble of ideas and emotions of that first viewing that acts as a springboard for writing. So, I’m thinking rather than present you with an image I’ve chosen to write about you find your own.
Use what what you have in front of you – the power of Google – to locate within seconds an artist’s work that you have never encountered before. Look at it for as long as you need to but resist the temptation to find out more about it (do that afterwards) and just write.
I suggest you Google something like X (name of a country you have never visited) with a century or a date or a subject, followed by painting or some other type of art that appeals to you.
This is what I got by googling Finnish painting 20th century. All I know about it is that is a self-portrait of Elga Sesemann, and was painted in 1945. And straight away I wonder what the eyes I can’t see have seen…
Find your own.
This is an only an exercise. It will probably not produce a Hans Holbein moment, but I think there’s a very good chance you will come across something interesting, something you will want to write about. And it will prepare for when you suddenly come across an image that takes your breath away.
Or perhaps that’s already happened…