Leading writers take on a different canvas

Seamus Heaney, John Banville and others are inspired by the National Gallery’s art in a new anthology

John Banville tackles perhaps the gallery’s most famous piece, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602). His meticulous, erudite account somehow makes us see an overly familiar masterpiece anew.

John Banville tackles perhaps the gallery’s most famous piece, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602). His meticulous, erudite account somehow makes us see an overly familiar masterpiece anew.

 

In 1944 George Bernard Shaw wrote from England to Thomas Bodkin, a former director of the National Gallery of Ireland, to ask whether the institution had a special fund for buying pictures. If so, Shaw was considering leaving a bequest, as he owed the gallery “much of the only real education I got as a boy in Eire”.

The National Gallery is 150 years old this year. To mark the anniversary, 56 Irish writers were asked to write a piece inspired by a painting in its collection. Writings and paintings have been gathered into a book, Lines of Vision (Thames & Hudson, €24.95).

It’s a varied, vivid anthology, and the first pleasure is in finding out who chose what. There are poems, stories and essays. Some writers offer personal anecdotes and memories about visits to the gallery. Some are inspired directly by the subject matter of a painting, and some use it as a jumping-off point to create a piece that is separate but related in some way.

Seamus Heaney’s Banks of a Canal is a spare, square poem, filled with the kind of compassion that makes the tears spring. It’s a response to Gustave Caillebotte’s quiet Banks of a Canal Near Naples, painted around 1872. It seems typical of Heaney to have picked a painting so contemplative and resonant.

Kevin Barry went for Ernest Proctor’s fairground painting The Devil’s Disc, and, as usual, his story grabs you in a half-nelson with its daring use of language and idiom, imaginative ability and revelation of the human need behind apparent brashness.

Shaw did leave a third of his royalties to the gallery to buy art. Among those it has bought are Roderic O’Connor’s La Jeune Breton. Carlo Gébler chooses this portrait of a young girl and uses it in a story about a Belfast gang member doing life in a Northern prison. In it he explores art, its consolations and its limitations.

Like Shaw, Christine Dwyer Hickey’s mind was expanded by a visit to the gallery, in her case while on the mitch from school at the age of 13. She was entranced by Stanley Royle’s The Goose Girl, as she explains in her entertaining essay.

John Banville tackles perhaps the gallery’s most famous piece, Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602). His meticulous, erudite account somehow makes us see an overly familiar masterpiece anew.

Reading the book makes you impatient to see the paintings again, each with a new layer of perception – the writer’s – added to your own.

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