BOOKS / Writing on the Wall

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The Independent Culture
'HOW DID she know?' Paula Rego asked, when she read the story Elspeth Barker had written after seeing her picture 'The Dance'. 'How did she know there was a funfair? There was, in my mind, but it's not in the picture. And the feral cats?' These details Paula Rego found eerily true to her original vision ('the lobsters, crabs, pincers, all that'). She felt that Elspeth Barker's version was more violent, starker than her own, but profoundly complementary.

Barker and Rego form one of the most powerful pairings in 'Writing on the Wall', the title of an exhibition at the Tate Gallery (from 26 October) and the book that accompanies it. It was the brainchild of Judith Collins, curator in the Tate's Modern Collection, and publisher Elspeth Lindner, who asked 20 women writers to write about a work by a woman artist. Judith Collins is enthusiastic about the result - not just the written pieces ('which show that paintings are giving creative people even more than I ever thought') but the experience of seeing the writers choose, of 'watching a new work start to happen'. Elspeth Barker, she says, 'sat in front of Paula's picture for about half an hour, then drank a lot of black coffee and disappeared. Ages later, from the wilds of Norfolk, came the spectacular heat of Portugal.'

Other writers revel in the sense of place: Margaret Forster and Jane Gardam reacted to the evocation of their Cumberland roots in pictures by Sheila Fell and Winifred Nicholson. Some, like Maggie Gee on Winifred Knights's 'The Deluge', write imaginatively licensed, free-floating art criticism; some use the artist's creation only as a springboard: Michele Roberts's story based on Vanessa Bell's 'The Tub', or poems by Wendy Cope (on Bell again) and Maureen Duffy (on Elizabeth Blackadder). Below, extracts from three other contributors.

Grace Nichols on 'Loveday and Ann - Two Women with a Basket of Flowers' by Frances Hodgkins

One has rolled away -

unwinding in the waves

of her private blue ocean,

knowing how right she is.

The beauty of her smugness -

Not lost on the other who sees

the pleasure of her crabbing-hand

but chooses to stay land-locked,

sulking on the sands of her own

small hurt, while flowers bear witness -

Even in the alcove of friendship

there are distances.

Sue Townsend on 'The Machine Minders' by Ghisha Koenig

The Machine Minders is a sculpture showing two men, half life-size, minding a machine. They have worked together for so many years that they now look like each other. They have a repetitive job and have made the same movements millions of times. They no longer have to think about what they are doing, they are able to inhabit dreamland. They look like brutish gods, wife beaters, saints. They engender our fear, and our pity. They belonged to another generation who believed that work would always be available. These machine minders have hired out their bodies. They are subordinate to the machine they watch. They have few decisions to make during their working day, and whatever fantastical thoughts inhabit their large heads they keep to themselves.

Penelope Lively on 'The Window, Chiswick' by Mary Potter

A successful painting is surely a marriage of accident and contrivance. Indeed I recognise an eerie affinity with the writing of fiction, in which there is of course an infinite amount of artifice and the taking of pains but in which ultimate success depends also on the happy arrival of an unexpected turn of phrase, an unanticipated twist. The arum lilies and the book are the unexpected turns of phrase in this painting. Mary Potter probably did not know herself exactly what they were going to do when she sat down to paint. And there is an interesting omission, too: no overt form of life - unless the little smudge of brown to the left of the lily heads is a duck, which is uncertain. She could have put a figure on the deck of the tug, or dotted a couple of gulls into the sky. She didn't, as though testing herself, and the viewer. Let us see if it is possible to give and receive the signals of a busy, clamorous spring day without a single sign of life. It works, to my mind.

(Photographs omitted)