Why I Write Fantasy: Inspirations – The Art of Fantasy, Part 1: Masters Old and New

So yes, now I’m dotting around. Last week I talked about a fragment of the music that inspires me, and began with that avatar of fantasy infused metal, Ronnie James Dio. I once wanted to design a tabletop roleplaying game campaign around a number of his songs. Maybe I’ll talk about that another time.

This week I want to talk about art as inspiration to write, and specifically visual art, the traditional image on canvas. I have had the great fortune to be exposed to the art of masters from a relatively young age, free to visit and revist them at will. When I travel, itself a constant source of inspiration, I always find myself drawn to galleries of art, mostly old, sometimes new, and from the creativity and expression of artists I gain great solace, and can feel creatively invigorated myself. I believe that the act of engaging with art that speaks to you, or that you find a way to interact with meaningfully, lights up the creative centres in your brain, or resonates with your artistic soul and calls forth your own impulse to create, however you wish best to imagine it. I can go either way. Art inspires art, seeing the creative expression of others can, and does, inspire the desire in me to produce my own. I just turn to my prefered medium to express my visions.

Now some things you see you just don’t like, or are as bad as can be in your opinion. It happens. Not everything in a gallery is sublime, there’s plenty of chaff to thresh our way through sometimes. The worst thing is for a piece to say nothing to you, for it to be inert. But then, like a book that does nothing for you, you can simply move on. It might speak to someone else.

As a pre-teen I was, for some reason, taken into the Scottish National Gallery, at the bottom of The Mound on Princes Street in Edinburgh. I remember walking into these large vaulted rooms, and being met with vast expanses of paint, detailed pictures of other worlds, some mythological, some of times long lost, but the lives of those people, or fragments of life and emotion captured on that still canvas made a huge impression on me. I always used to say it was a Titian that I was first transfixed by, and the gallery did possess a few, but now I can’t really be sure. I do know that I did return to that gallery as a teenager, as it was free to drop into and I could go there on my way to the train station and home, spend some time sitting and staring up at the works of Titian, Durer, El Greco, Gainsborough, Constable, Cezanne, Monet. I loved the colours of Titian the best. Yes, there were naked ladies, but if I’d gone there to be aroused I’d have blushed furiously and fled the building! No, I went there and my imagination burned with thoughts of who these people were, what those scenes meant (the gallery potted explanations were usefully vague), what had happened off camera, so to speak, or where the stories the paintings told me went next. I was amazed by motion captured in stillness, hands reaching but never moving, the contradiction creating a strange high, a heightened awareness of the visual I had not appreciated before.

Nothing made it directly into my writing, I don’t think, but the sensations of art lingered, became something I wanted to recreate with words after I discovered that I had a hard time with proportion when trying to produce a pen and ink of a stag beetle. The wings, well lets just say I got the detail vividly right, but did not match one wing’s size to the other!

In my 20s I lived in Glasgow, and became acquainted with the Gallery of Modern Art, another institution I could freely wander into at any time. Free access to art is an incredible gift, and one I am eternally grateful for. Here I met art installations, wooden imaginings of Laurasia and Gondwanaland (you sit on them), and massive canvases of single colours, washed out or broken with strong lines, Rabo Karabekian’s Windsor Blue Number Seventeen for real. I loved them, the thought behind washing machine parts and cigarette butts piled together, the visual meditation of standing in front of an abstract wall and letting it wash over and perhaps partly through me. That gallery helped me realized art didn’t end with Picasso, who at the time I didn’t care for that much anyway. It took a trip to Paris many years later for me to appreciate him a little better. (Not that I mentioned him in my Paris blog!) It was also fun to walk down stairs randomly decorated with the busts of Roman Emperors – an interesting contrast to all the modernity – or were they in another gallery? It kind of blurs together sometimes.

The figurative art of my youth fired my imagination, made me wonder about the lives of those strange people in odd clothes (or lack of them), but it also made them real, their experience across centuries as human as my own, making me realize that stories are as universal as the people who inhabit them. Modern art, with its challenge of expectations, and demand for the viewer to participate in making the art work made me realize that you can find wonder in the strangest of places, appreciating modern art helped me appreciate the beauty of the everyday more strongly. Both of these things became deep wells of remembered thoughts and feelings, especially yearning: art in me inspires yearning, to know, to see, to feel what the artist felt, or wants to inspire in us, and that became part of my own yearning to write, and to show others fantastical worlds, enough like our own for the people who live there to become real, but just out of reach, that we can experience, but never quite touch.

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