What is art if not another form of storytelling? Every frame surrounding a painting is like the cover of a book, forever holding a story in its embrace. It is not surprising then when we are met with this palpable reverential silence in art museums, as people turn in on themselves and allow their minds to be swept away on a wild journey of their own imagination. Maybe they are wondering what life the people or creatures depicted had before they were forever frozen in time; maybe they are trying to imagine what it feels like to be an angel with wings, to glide over the clouds of heaven. Or it could be the mood and colours of the painting that rekindles memories and thoughts that were thought to be lost forever. There may be silence in a museum, but the minds are bellowing with emotions.
Recently I’ve come to associate paintings with certain books, be it for the memories and the feelings they evoke or by simply transporting me back to a story I have read. Is it because of their subject matter? The colours? Who knows. Whatever the reason, allow me to recommend you some books that my mind simply associates with some of my favorite paintings.
The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893)
-Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment follows the life of Raskolnikov, a destitute law student in Saint Petersburg who commits a murder without any remorse or regret. The story is less about the actual crime (in fact it lacks a definite plot) than the psychological condition of our main character as he slowly falls into a spiral of mental and emotional destruction. Dostoyevsky delves deep into the complex mind of his characters in such a way that their thoughts and feelings become your own and it is very hard to avoid being immersed into the story. I felt Raskolnikov’s emotional turmoil, his crushing sense of ‘guilt’ and the fear of prosecution like they were my own. There are scenes that will forever haunt me, particularly the moments before and during the actual murder. Hence I’ve come to associate The Scream with this book, mostly in the way it seems to depict a feeling of distortion of one’s own self, offering an ugly glimpse into a mind that is falling into an inexorable spiral of turmoil and darkness…exactly how I pictured Raskolnikov’s experience.
-Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
‘What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours – that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grown ups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn’t understand a thing about what they were doing.’
Letter to a Young Poet is also a letter for us all. Rilke’s soothing voice will surely find its way to your heart; he will comfort you, help you see the value in life’s’ difficulties and also the importance of patience and solitude. Rilke emphasises the importance for an artist to dig deep into himself and to seek a life of solitude which can best nourish his gift that allows him to create. Solitude is essential in order for one to be able to create work that is true for one’s self and of lasting value. This wanderer above the sea of fog is how I imagine an artist who is seeking his own solitude, and imaging how through his work he will be able to lift the fog and see the beauty of the world behind it.
-The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
“Here is a small fact: You are going to die”. These are the opening lines to one of my all-time favourite books. The Book Thief is a powerful and vivid narration by Death, and it chronicles the life of Liesel Meminger during WWII, where we see her overcoming challenges, understand the meaning of friendship and learning to love beauty and power of words. Death is very busy during the war, as one can expect, and Gustav Klimt’s painting easily depicts this contrast of life -of people striving to stay alive in a world surrounded by darkness- and death in the periphery having to do his job, whether ‘he’ likes it or not. This omniscient narrator is fascinated by humans, just as Klimt’s Death seems to be drawn towards this bubble of life, a look of intrigue and wonder in the dark hollows of his skull.
-Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver
“Be what you are, of the earth, but a dreamer too”. Upstream is a collection of essays that vividly capture the beauty and wilderness of the natural world. Just as Van Gogh’s painting makes you want to dip your feet into the water, so do Mary Oliver’s words. Her focus is not on how much she travels but on how much she notices the world around her and basks in the beauty of it. She uses this gift of observation to offer us a glimpse into the natural world, things that we have probably seen but never noticed, too busy with our lives to stop and revive that kinship with the earth. Her descriptions range from fish swimming in rivers, a spider raising her young to dwellings constructed from discarded materials. Mary Oliver’s words are like honey, sweet for any wearied souls and they will offer comfort and a chance to look deep into oneself.
-Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton
John William Waterhouse is famous for his depiction of women from Greek mythology. This particular painting portrays a famous myth of Echo and Narcissus and how the latter is still remembered as the narcissus flower. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes is the book I would recommend to anyone seeking an introduction about mythology, more specifically Western mythology. She brings to life the Greek and Roman myths that have shaped the Western culture while also detailing the different sources and the qualities of each one. The stories range from less important myths to the well-known adventures of Odysseus, Jason and the Golden Fleece and the Trojan war. Funnily enough, one thing that I’ve surely learned from this book is that Zeus has *a lot* to own up to!