Art in Historical Fiction - Interview Series
featuring Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland is the author of "Girl in Hyacinth Blue"
Interviewed by: Stephanie Renee dos Santos
SRDS: What compelled you to include or focus on art or artist(s) in your historical novels?
SV: The short answer is love. One reason I devote myself to writing about art is for me; the other is for the reader and the world.
Exploring the world of art teaches me to see, to be more responsive to and appreciative of the appearance, color, shape and texture of things around me. Oh what I would miss otherwise. Art stops me. It makes me rise. It invites me to ponder some subject – a pear (Cezanne) or a violin in the sky (Chagall), a massive cedar tree (Emily Carr) or the marble lovers of Rodin’s “The Kiss” or a cathedral – until its qualities teach us something, balance or stretching or boldness or tenderness. It inspires us to ask ourselves: Do I have balance in my life like that pear? Can I be as jubilant as that fiddler in the sky? Am I growing and stretching like that cedar? Does my thinking soar like a French Gothic cathedral? Am I bold enough in what I claim and do? Am I tender enough to care about a wounded enemy soldier and save his life?
For the viewer and reader, art’s effect on the imagination is crucial to our civilization. Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own, we see it multiplied and can see into other times, other worlds which offer a window to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it’s a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.
When there is no imagination of others’ lives, there is no human connection. When there is no human connection, compassion does not develop. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving kindness, human understanding and peace shrivel. Individuals become isolated, fearful, resentful, marginalized, and these states of mind can develop into cruelty, where the tragic hovers in forms of domestic, civil, international violence. Art, and its concomitant, literature, are antidotes to that.
SRDS: Any further thoughts on art in fiction you’d like to share or expand on?
SV: Yes, why I write novels instead of non-fiction explorations of these artists.
I am not an art historian. I’m a story -teller. While an art history can give us an appreciation of a painter’s work, the view is from the onlooker, while fiction invites us in to the artist’s inner nature, takes us to his bosom, and makes us feel the artist’s strong emotions for ourselves–struggle, ecstasy, physical and mental exhaustion, frustration at limited skills, despair at creeping age, arthritis of the fingers, financial ruin, doubt, ridicule, scorn. Fiction gives us the individual in his own voice. To me, the artist’s ideas don’t dance in an academic review of a painter’s work. His brush does not sing in the act of painting. His soul is not laid bare by the conflicts that can be expressed in an approximation of his voice. We don’t come away from reading an art history wrung dry and panting after a session at the easel.
The person who goes to an art history lecture or reads an art history already has art in his bloodstream. A novel reaches a different audience–an audience or a society that needs art and may not know it. That’s where I want to point my pen.
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