The Art of Narrative
Art has almost always told a story, even though, as in the case of the Cave Paintings in Altamira, Puente Viesgo, Lascaux, and elsewhere, we may not know exactly what that story is. On the other hand, many of the great paintings of the Spanish Golden Age (1525-1680) have a hidden narrative that we can often work out. Take, for example, Vulcan’s Forge (1630), painted by Diego Velázquez after his first trip to Italy (1629). On the surface, this is a painting of a typical Spanish Forge of the seventeenth century. Ordinary workmen labour away at their daily tasks, but, and there is always a but, the figure on the left is adorned with a god-like halo. Why? Because he is the bearer of a message. Vulcan’s wife, Venus, has been having an affair with Mars, the god of war. Vulcan has forged a net of fine, golden chains and placed it over the bed where they will loiter. Now, Mars and Venus are trapped in that net, caught in the act, so to speak. No wonder the mouths of Vulcan’s helpers are open in wonderment.
Before the arrival of photography, painting was the only way to record the world, to make a picture of what was happening, to tell a story in paint. That is why a picture is worth a thousand words. I have retold the narrative of the painting of Vulcan’s Forge in 128 words. There is, of course, a great deal more to tell about his and other paintings and how they represent the artist’s narrative reality. The advent of photography changed the artist’s vision of the world. As photography developed and became quicker, faster, and offered what some might consider to be a more accurate version of reality, so artists rethought their role. Was it to capture, in paint, the world as they saw it, with a single visual entry point, and a constant perspective? Or was it to catch the way light fell upon objects (Monet), or to offer multiple entry points (Braque), or to paint the turmoil of the inner mind (Picasso, Miró, Pollock)? Artists could do such things. Until recently, with the advent of the computer, it was much more difficult for the camera to do so. The camera recorded, but artists created and re-created their own narratives of the world around and inside them. Now we can enter photoshop and the equivalent and play around with out own photos of reality, distorting them and twisting them as we please.
Verbal to Visual to Verbal
Which came first, the chicken or the egg, the verbal or the visual? Or was there a sort of spontaneous combustion? In the case of Scarecrow, the artistic collaboration between myself, the author, and Geoff Slater, the artist, the words came first: “In the beginning was the word.” He heard me reading my story, started to sketch the characters, and within six months we had produced an illustrated book.
Words and narrative first, then an artist’s rendition of key moments in the narrative. However, in the case of Twelve Days of Cat, our second artistic collaboration, Geoff sent me 12 drawings of a cat and I looked at them and worked out a narrative that would join them together in a symbiotic relationship. Scarecrow is an illustrated narrative in prose. Twelve Days of Cat is a narrative in poetry based on what was once an independent series of charcoal sketches. Who cares which came first, verbal of visual, when the results are so pleasing to ear and eye.