Samantha Orciel, English Subject Advisor
World Art Day is celebrated on 15 April each year, but have you ever celebrated it in the English classroom? I know I haven’t, despite a minor obsession with the Tate Modern and the print section of any gallery gift shop. So I’m dusting off my A Level in History of Art to think about some of these artworks and the role they’ve had in literary works.
The lower parts of this fresco encompass allegories of April and May, in Palazzo Schifanoia’s ‘Room of Months’. This was the inspiration for Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, which she describes in vibrant detail here. Italian Renaissance murals and frescoes appear in plenty of literary works, including James Wheldon Johnson’s poem ‘The Creation’, Diana Brodie’s ‘Giotto’s Circle’ and, of course, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code…
There have been many artistic representations of the myth of Icarus, but this understated interpretation – where Icarus’ fall from the skies is a small background detail to an otherwise ordinary day – has attracted several writers. These include W.B. Yeats with ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ and both William Carlos Williams and Jim Carruth’s poems titled ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’.
The full-length version of this portrait is ubiquitous in the study of Robert Barrett Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’. It fits the poem’s description well: the appearance of wealth; the slight misdirection of her gaze; an expression that mingles deference and defiance. Yet Maggie O’Farrell took a slightly different version of that portrait as her inspiration for The Marriage Portrait. In this half-length version that hangs in the Uffizi in Florence (which her father Cosimo established), Lucrezia is more intense and challenging – yet still consigned to a background role, as O’Farrell found.
This small but perfectly formed artwork was immortalised in Donna Tartt’s epic novel of the same name – and gained immense popularity when it was coincidentally exhibited in New York in the same week of the novel’s publication. It is also the focus of Morri Creech’s poem ‘Goldfinch’. Both texts play with the fact that Fabritius has used a trompe-l'œil style by challenging their readers’ understanding of what is real and what is illusion.
Instantly recognisable (even if only in emoji format), both the content and context of Munch’s painting have appealed to writers. Joan Aiken wrote an eponymous children’s book about an obsession with the painting; Monica Youn’s poem ‘Stealing The Scream’ is a light-hearted look at one of its infamous thefts; and Munch himself wrote several poetic lines describing the moment the image came to him.
A poem based on a picture or work of art is called an ekphrasis, and this is one of the most unsettling. The abstract trio in the chilling portrait shift between mythological and matriarchal power figures in Sylvia Plath’s eponymous poem, where she reflects on her childhood. Poet John Ashbery claimed de Chirico as a major influence on his poems (particularly ‘The Bungalows’), even lecturing on the artist and translating some of his writings.
The authentication of this Matisse painting is at the heart of David Hare’s play of the same name. It serves as a battleground for each character’s feelings about the power and value of art – concepts dramatically skewered in later years by Yasmina Reza’s play Art. A different period of Matisse’s work is vividly recreated in Michèle Roberts’ recent novel Cut Out.
This arresting image is one of the central images in Ellis Avery’s novel The Last Nude. The novel gives distinct narrative voices to both the subject and the artist, who find themselves battling social and political forces. De Lempicka’s life has also formed the basis of a range of poetry, a one-woman show, and even a musical.
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Prior to joining OCR in September 2022, Sam spent ten years teaching a range of English qualifications in secondary schools, including as a head of department. She did this alongside completing a MSt in Advanced Subject Teaching at the University of Cambridge, specialising in A Level English curricula and pedagogy.
In her spare time, you’ll find her either fussing over her dog, watching tennis, or (predictably!) reading anything and everything.