Lines of Vision, Irish Writers on Art – Edited by Janet McLean
Thames and Hudson, £19.95 HB


The National Gallery of Ireland curator Janet McLean set no small task when she asked fifty six Irish writers to pick an artwork from the collection and write. One disappointing truth about writing on art is that it is often more pleasing to produce than to consume it. Good writing brings the artwork to life; poor efforts deaden it, and yet the former can often appear to be the result of an alchemical feat for which there are no reliable rules except to remember the latter.

McLean has chosen her contributors well, devising a publication that is as much a tribute to the depth and range of contemporary Irish writing as it is a wordy love song to the artworks that illustrate its thick, creamy pages.

As poet Thomas McCarthy puts it in his fervent piece on Cork-born painter James Barry, “I’m never too worried about what art means; I’ve always been more conscious of what it does to me”. What art does to these particular writers is the real subject and theme of this inspirational book.

It’s a tome to browse non-sequentially and readers are as likely to seek out their favourite authors as they are to stop at an eye-catching image. Alphabetical arrangement has put the big name pairing of John Banville and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio near the start with the writer describing the seventeenth century Italian master as “a swaggerer and a brawler, a pederast”.

Banville offers an analysis of the gallery’s most valuable image in which he pinpoints the moment in which “the covert erotic intent of the painting finds its sly triumph”. It’s an engaged piece of writing, but unlikely to warrant repeat reading, and it’s a disappointment not to find a piece of fiction by Banville here.

Other big names have also shied away from pure invention. Colm Tóibín offers a pensive musing on John Butler Yeats’s 1900 portrait of Rosa Butt. Jennifer Johnston uses Bonnard’s Le Dejuner (1923) to recall mealtimes at her godmother’s house, noting how there is no posing in the Frenchman’s paintings, “things are rumpled, intimate”. It is with these small gems of phraseology that the book draws you in.

Poet Michael Longley captures Gerard Dillon’s The Little Green Fields (1946-50) in a single unforgettable line: “He painted the island like a seabird’s nest”. Alex Barclay’s take on one of the NGI’s best known works, Francis Danby’s apocalyptic 1828 The Opening of the Sixth Seal, concludes with the devastating words: “For this is the landscape of my heart. And into its chambers, never was a slower needle driven.”

Those, like Barclay, who have taken their chosen artwork off on a fictional tangent, seem to have grasped more ambitiously the potential of the project. Some of the shorter pieces do more to expand on the image than longer, more analytical essays. Colm McCann’s snappy flash fiction inspired by Mary Swanzy’s 1942 Propellers painting and William Wall’s abrupt, intense, single paragraph entanglement with Sean Keating’s An Allegory from 1924 are two great examples of this.

There are several superb short stories: Kevin Barry’s On the Devil’s Disc, based on a 1928 painting by Ernest Proctor, describes a lust-driven encounter at a fun fair. Noëlle Harrison’s brief, brilliant, time-slipping tale is inspired by Lavery’s Return from Market (1884). Nuala Ní Chonchúir spins a quick, gripping yarn about gun running from Jack B Yeats’s 1946 Men of Destiny painting. Roddy Doyle takes a Yeats painting too and produces an urgent account of solitary routine with a sudden, expectant conclusion.

The compositions are as varied in style and tone as the artworks that mark their starting points. Declan Hughes begins bluntly, “This painting is not my kind of thing”, regarding John Lavery’s The Return of the Goats (1884). The late Seamus Heaney wrote a perfect poem about Gustave Caillebotte’s Banks of a Canal (c1872). Christine Dwyer Hickey’s vividly drawn memory of mitching from school finds her standing in front of Stanley Royle’s The Goose Girl (c1921). Aoife Mannix’s poem, Launching the Currach, is deeper and richer than the striking Paul Henry painting that inspired it.

There are too many writers to mention them all and some have produced flimsier, more forgettable pieces, but each does something unique to expand on their chosen artwork. Together, their efforts amount to a paean to the institution itself. Every one of these writers has found escape, solace or inspiration within its open doors, free corridors and rooms of seemingly endless art.

An exhibition to accompany the book goes on show this month at the gallery and a series of talks featuring the contributors will run up to March 2015. Above all, this book is a reminder that great, enduring art is that which gives no fixed meaning or reading, but allows us, like these writers, to passionately impose our own.

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