11th June 2015
Writing fiction isn’t easy. Just like everyone else, I was full of stories, but I never thought I could do it until I took an online peer reviewed fiction writing course five years ago. Poetry came a little earlier and a little easier, but I’m not sure if it was any good. I’ve kept a journal for decades, but I’m guessing that me whining to ruled page doesn’t really count.
Writing about art is a different game altogether. I was first introduced to the art world two years ago, when I got a job as a staff writer at a leading online publication on contemporary Asian art. From writing, I moved on to editing. I can safely say that this job - this experience - taught me more than all my years at university put together as I lost myself in faraway lands and conflicts, trying to make a difference in my own way.
So when Alison asked me to be a guest judge for the week on ‘Writing about Art’, I jumped at the opportunity. I was curious: how were writers going to interpret the theme? It would certainly be very different from the journalistic writing I was used to. I couldn’t wait to find out.
I wasn’t disappointed. From varying styles of prose and fiction to free verse; from being an artist to being with an artist; from art restoration to art therapy; from green balloons bearing secret messages to Edo-era Japanese masterpieces: the 20 shortlisted entries had it all. The topic seemed innocent and straightforward enough, but with each entry I read, the myriad ways in which “writing about art” was interpreted left me eager to read the next one. And I now have the pleasure of sharing with you the pieces that had the most impact on me.
First, some special mentions. Piece 930: opening with a pleasing comparison between visual art and (the art of) writing, it developed into a story rich with detail about art history and art restoration, well thought-out and researched, with an element of intrigue. I thought the connection between the revelation of a painting and the revelation of a relationship was very clever.
I also liked piece 928, which drew me in immediately with its bitter flavour of adolescent angst, a phase most of us are familiar with, but which didn’t explain the protagonist’s extreme reaction of busting his mother’s favourite gnome. He was angry, but why was he that angry? What could his mother have done? The mood builds up gradually, hooking the curious reader along until the very end.
Piece 920 was charming, though I was slightly confused in the beginning about the characters. With some polishing, this will be a neat little story with an unexpected, well-executed and humorous twist at the end.
I also enjoyed reading about the temperamental and unpredictable experience of living with an artist (as a partner in piece 929, and as a parent in 935) and the emotion and vulnerability in piece 918 where art helps unmuddle the trauma of past experiences and the protagonist finds therapeutic release in using her body as a canvas. The appearance of Monet’s lilies in piece 924 engulfed me in comforting serenity.
However, I chose my three winners based on execution, depth and originality. Writing that leaves you thinking far beyond the story being told, makes you ask questions, makes you uncover a different facet with each reading.
Featured entry 921 employs a cinematic format: its form referencing a camera, and its content referencing various art forms: painting, cinema, biography, journalism, scriptwriting. In an era when we are so exposed to the moving image that we see events in our own life as they would look playing out on a screen, this tactic struck a chord. But it does more: each “zoom out” points to a bigger picture, tracing connections between muse, art, inspiration, ambition, and zooms in on female protagonists creating their own worlds and stories. I liked the feminist undertones brought out in sentences like:
She has faced her own struggles in the male-dominated arena of TV and puts the passion and determination she herself has cultivated into her main character.
Like the reviewers, I thought the paragraph on the goddess was perhaps the weakest link - though it made sense as they are all creators, and the further zooming out suggests there’s more. But losing this won’t affect the story at all; it will still point to how we all become subjects and creators in turn in a circle of inspiration - links in a chain, parts of a whole.
The other featured entry, titled “Peaches” (917), tackles “writing about art” head on. The young art critic tells us about her struggle to put into words the feelings stirred by a still life painting in front of her. The writing in this piece is sensuous, filled with exquisite lines such as “the adjectives run for the dark corners of her feelings” and “she finally has it – a peach within her wired word cage”, evoking not only vision but hearing, smell and touch. Peaches - the subject of the painting - draw us into an experience, a relationship, a conflict, finally becoming a metaphor; a way to read into the life of the artist, and finally, into that of the art writer. The ending is thoughtful:
She’d forgotten that the relationship between an artist and an art lover is always a private viewing. She didn’t need to describe how he made her feel. She just had to feel it.
And finally, the winner is ‘Devine Judgment’ (925), which was easily my favourite (judges can’t be impartial, after all). Filled with vivid, visual writing rich in metaphor with not a word out of place, it moves at a dizzying pace, drawing the reader into a sinful world of emotion and colour.
On the drizzly hillside JP Devine swayed like a drunkard, shaking his head as if to try to dislodge a trapped insect. Through fractured vision and mind he contemplated his hands, red as a butcher’s.
It is essentially a story about the artist as seer, someone who holds a mirror up to society, with an element of magical realism. The characterisation of the artist, JP Devine, is raw, tormented, frenzied, and exciting. His portraits pierce the veneer of the person sitting before him, drawing out their real selves - but only the rotten parts of their soul - the excellent title linking to the theme of the seven deadly sins addressed. But the wonderful thing about this story is, just like in a painting, the different layers that the author weaves into such a short piece. I’m taken back to the opening iceberg simile, suggesting superficial judgments - is the artist not a truth-vehicle after all? Why does everyone accept the things he paints? And then there’s the political element, one that many of us can relate to - in the UK, in my own country (I don’t know where the author is from, but I’m guessing it’s quite familiar) - of god-like politicians who are given second chances, a clean slate despite all the bad they’ve done, and the artists, the dissenters, painting truths that get washed away in the rain.
Kriti Bajaj is a New Delhi-based writer and editor with an interest in photography and visual media as methods of storytelling and research. She was the managing editor of Art Radar, an online publication on contemporary visual culture in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Her academic background is in anthropology (SOAS, University of London, 2012) and literature (Delhi University, 2010). In the past, she has worked with the UNESCO Parsi Zoroastrian Project (2010-2011) and founded and edited the online arts and culture publication Bricolage Magazine (2013-2014). You can see more of her work on her website.