Fra Angelico’s Conversion of Saint Augustine (1430–5); Botticelli’s illustrations to Dante, of which ninety-two ethereal drawings on sheepskin survive; Sir John Tenniel’s plates for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) – all three were moments in literary history where text and illustrator were perfectly matched. Not all literary works become illustration well; Shakespeare, for example – and perhaps remarkably – has found no definitive realisations with the possible exception of Millais’ Ophelia (1852). Maybe a genius up to the task hasn’t arisen yet; maybe it’s because plays, unlike biography, poetry or prose, find their own illustrations on the stage; or maybe Shakespeare’s works have simply grown to surpass the kind of containment concomitant with depiction.
Those first three are remarkable pairings; there are many other candidates for inclusion, some more major than others – Breughel and Titian painting Ovid – some more minor – like Dali’s illustrations of Don Quixote (1605) (his drawings of Alice aren’t bad either) – and some which exist only in the perfection of fantasy – Caravaggio’s King Lear (1606), or possibly Rembrandt’s Anna Karenina (1877). Perhaps it is blasphemously ludic with the objects of veneration to imagine such postmodern pairings; perhaps we might like to think such works beyond illustration at all.
Nevertheless, there is a significant paucity of serious literature tied to serious art, and examples aren’t as easy to come by as one might think; the instinct to illustrate is more religious than fabular, it would seem. Indeed, Augustine is a saint, after all, and the most-illustrated book ever written must be the bible. There are, further, almost no major literary works that were produced hand in hand with visual depictions; Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl doesn’t count. For some reason great draftsmanship both literary and artistic seem rarely united – and even more rarely in one individual.
There have been writers who paint. Edward Lear was a first-rate but not a truly great landscape artist. William Burroughs created ‘splatter paintings’ by firing a shotgun at cans of spray paint in front of canvases (eerie pieces to purchase from a man who had killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, by shooting her in the face instead of the water tumbler balanced on her head). Henry Miller made florid, lurid, cataractically fogged smears on canvas, somehow derivative of Chagall, Miró and Picasso simultaneously. In other media, Lewis Carroll, or the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name), took photographs of nude children. Nude, not naked; they were simpler days, and I find aspersions that cast Dodgson as a pervert tired, simplistic, and negligent of those oddities he did have.
Then there have been painters who write; Dali wrote a novel (Hidden Faces, 1944); Picasso wrote plays. Michelangelo wrote some brilliant sonnets that are still widely read and represent a minor delight in the history of the form; Raphael wrote some poor ones that aren’t. But never has greatness of artistic ability been matched to a greatness with words in one man.
I find that the same is true, unfortunately, of Michel Houellebecq, the French writer now responsible for a modern art exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The exhibition isn’t bad, and has resulted in the brilliant review I’ve written on p.4, but his photography leaves a little to be desired. I don’t agree with him to begin with, though, in his opinion that he is the greatest living writer. He hasn’t heard of me yet (probably) so in some ways we can’t blame him for thinking so, but he may not even make the top five.
On the same note of writers plus art, Dr Jaspreet Singh Boparai has written a spellbinding and rigorous piece perfectly capturing the character of William Empson – erstwhile doyen of a particular kind of literary criticism and a kind of lunatic heir to I A Richards, as well as a brilliant poet – in his review of a long-lost book Empson wrote about Buddhist statues. It is refreshing to have an essayist who shares so many of my own prejudices; I was the only English undergraduate who seemed to recognise, as he does, that Empson is (as Boparai puts it) “clearly spider-eating mad”, and that the seminal work Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) makes only the kind of sense that Alice finds in Jabberwocky:
“It seems very pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “but it’s rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
We hope that the Soho Revue fills your head with ideas – or that, at least, you think it’s very pretty.