26 Fruits


The art of writing

Writing and painting. Writing and drawing. What are the links between them? What can one creative activity learn from the other?

A week or so ago I was in the house of Henri Matisse in the south of France for an experimental Dark Angels course. Our aim was to explore questions like those above with a group of writers – not through earnest discussion but through a series of joyful writing exercises inspired by Matisse and other visual artists.

It worked wonderfully well. There was the privilege of being in the house of a great artist, imagining his presence. We were just five minutes from the chapel in Vence that Matisse, towards the end of his life, had designed in every detail from the stained-glass windows to the priests’ vestments. That was an extraordinary demonstration of ‘brand identity’ but also a spiritual experience, perhaps especially for the non-believers like me.

Often inspired by artists’ words (starting with ‘drawing is a dot taking a line for a walk’ – Paul Klee) we created portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes using words. Our words were stimulated by our senses; colours intensified in the light of the studio where Matisse had worked.

Perhaps, for me, the crucial quotation was Matisse’s ‘C’est en rentrant dans l’objet qu’on rentre dans sa propre peau’ – ‘It’s by getting into an object that you get into your own skin’. So we observed everything around us, including market day in the old town of Vence, and we saw that details become universal. Most of our writing was a combination of the individual and the collective, so we created and shared pieces that spoke for the whole group. It was Dark Angels in spirit, taken to an even higher level.

Fortunately for me too it was an inspiring input to my own fiction-writing. I am now two-thirds through the writing of what I hope will become my fourth novel. I’m calling it Painting Paris. It’s set in France, a story about painters in the early 20th century. Everything is connected.

I’ll leave you with a final poem I wrote on my return home after the flight from Nice.

Angel dust

Home, unpacking my suitcase

and emotions, I find

everything covered in fine grey dust

like ashes.

Soon I realise that my razor,

under pressure of flight,

has expelled its weeklong shavings

like ashes.

So I bring home a grey

handful of dust, not fear,

from the Cote de Gris.

If we offended Matisse,

in any way, we return his penitents.

But I think he taught us to see,

even in the blanching of grey,

all the bright colours of the world.

4 Responses

  1. John Allert says:

    John, it was a such a pleasure to be a part of this experiment. Vence and Villa le Reve provided such an inspiring place for this remarkably talented but humble choir of Angels to paint, dream and write. Merci

  2. Michelle says:

    Only you could have summed up the essence of this artistic experiment. Thank you for giving us the palette of tools to explore and play with words; to connect inwards and outwards. It was a glorious coming together of people and place.

  3. Faye Sharpe says:

    How wonderful!

  4. Jamie Jauncey says:

    Lovely, John – wish I’d been there. The ‘rentrant dans l’objet…’ quote reminds me very much of a similar thought by John Muir, the naturalist and father of the US National Parks: ‘I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.’

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