Connecting words and images at the National Gallery

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After a break for midterm & a reading week, we were back and as arranged met in the foyer of the National Gallery.

Usually when I bring a group to the Gallery, it’s for a creative writing exercise whereby I get them to choose a portrait from the collection and imagine it’s of a patient. I ask them to write a response of some sort to that particular patient’s situation. However, this module is about (creative!) reading, so I had a different plan in mind.

First, though, I had to do the weekly ‘Paudeen’ reading. I guided them through the various sections of the gallery to Yeats’ ‘The Singing Horseman’ and sparing them the embarrassment of having to recite aloud in public, I read the poem once through for them. Possibly just as embarrassing, actually. (Will have to get them to read it on their own next week.) I mentioned that I associated the ‘Singing Horseman’ painting with ‘Paudeen’ – hinting at what was to come.

Next, I brought them to the Zurich Portrait Prize exhibition, mentioning for later reference that here they’d find the only really contemporary work that’s in the Gallery at the moment. Specifically, in order to connect with our previous module and with medicine, I showed them Fionn McCann’s ‘Cézanne’s Apple’, a photograph of artist Brian O’Doherty. (Fionn’s medic mother, Brenda, did her art history doctorate on Brian’s work. Fionn’s medic dad, Seán, was our coordinator for the medical humanities module up until a few years ago. Fionn’s portraits of general practitioners at work hang in the halls of the TCD Biosciences building where these students spend most of their days these days.)

Next we convened in the amazing courtyard between by Joseph Walsh’s ‘Magnus Modus’ and ‘Finding Power’ by Joe Caslin (Wow!) for a briefing. I explained we were in the Gallery to explore the relationship between word & image. By way of example, I showed them Paul Durcan’s ‘Crazy About Women’ book, and read his poetic response to Jack Yeats’ ‘In the Tram’ painting.

I explained that I had reservations about the concept of the ‘Crazy’ project when it happened (so long ago … before they were born?) and it prompted me to organise a very different exploration of the relationship between word & image.

The Bridges & Crossroads project involved getting a group of four living Irish poets – Katie Donovan, Brendan Kennelly, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Micheal O’Siadhail  – to make a selection of poems from the Irish canon (that is, by dead poets) and read the selection to a group of living Irish artists who were then asked to respond to one of the poems in a visual work. (I wanted to deconstruct Durcan’s divilment! In the end, my divilment was further deconstructed by Alice Maher’s contribution to the exhibtion, wherein she refused to respond to someone else’s words as if art was only capable of illustrating the great literary works, and instead chose to, well, paint a poem.)

I explained that I didn’t expect them to either write a poem or make an image, but instead to take a poem each from the batch I had with me and go find an image that they felt resonated with the poem in some way. I gave them a poem each – with medical connections – by among others, Katie Donovan (‘Marked’), Brendan Kennelly (from ‘The Man Made of Rain’), Angela T. Carr (‘CAT Scan’), Karen J. McDonnell (‘A Bad Dose’), Philip Brady (‘Diagnosis’ & ‘Respiratory Failure’), Leanne O’Sullivan (‘Tracheotomy’) and some fella called Micheal D. Higgins (‘The Crossing’).

I suggested they read and reflect a little on the poem they got, and then just wander about the Gallery checking out the art and seeing if anything jumped out at them as connecting with their poem, and to come back when they were ready, to tell us all how they got on, read their poem, talk about their choice, and show us a snap of the painting they had chosen. (No one chose a three dimensional piece.)

They did just that.

As anticipated, we discussed – arising from the connections – different aspects and themes of the poems than we might otherwise have done – especially visual elements; but we also ended up discussing how different aesthetic styles are picked up in both art and writing (the more abstract the poem, the more abstract the art chosen in some cases).

We heard how some people found very obvious and quite literal representations of their poems, while others struggled to find anything, and still others were too spoiled for choice and changed a few times.

One students’s initial reading of Katie Donovan’s ‘Marked’ brought her to one painting (the portrait of Maeve Binchy and her husband in the Zurich exhibition?), but as she walked on she saw another painting (involving an infant) that completely changed her reading of the poem and so she opted for that painting and reading instead.

For two of the more dense poems, I actually gave them to two different people each, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the choices made for the same poem by different readers. One student thought of a song first as they read the ‘CAT scan’ poem by Angela T Carr, Massive Attack’s ‘Voodoo in My Blood’, and that influenced their choice of painting.

With the Brendan Kennelly poem I had the excuse to play them a clip from Ailís Ní Ríain’s musical setting of extracts of the poem. (And mention impressionism & abstraction in music briefly.)

 

https://player.vimeo.com/api/player.js The Man Made of Rain (extract) – Ailís Ní Ríain from Ailís Ní Ríain on Vimeo.

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