In a collection of essays on art – Keeping an Eye Open, the novelist Julian Barnes urges us to go to an art gallery and study one painting in detail and perhaps write down our thoughts. I took his advice recently on a visit to the wonderful Scottish National Gallery and studied the painting Santa Maria della Salute, Venice by Francesco Guardi.
So, here’s what I ask you to do. Click on the painting to enlarge it and then, before reading what my interpretation below, think about what you see in the painting.
This is what I wrote down on my viewing of the painting. There is 3/5th sky and 2/5th water, with the sky lighter than the water. The viewer sees a contrast between the hard working and poorer gondoliers and fishermen in the larger boats, and the grandeur and opulence of the large church. The people outside the church appear to be more wealthy and some may be clergy. The gondolas appear to be transporting goods or people, in enclosed cabins, as opposed to the normal view of tourists in gondolas. The gondoliers all have red hats and they all wear trousers which stop below the knee. The building next to the church looks to be in poor condition and there appears to be washing hanging from one window. The bell tower dominates the right of the picture as the mast of the fishing boat dominates the left hand side. This is a busy painting, depicting everyday life, and while the church is magnificent and imposing, it is not (for me) the main focus of the painting, despite the title, as it sits in the background with the other buildings. There are vertical lines on the ship’s mast, on the church front and on the bell tower. There are horizontal lines in the motion of the gondolas. The gondoliers appear to be straining to push their crafts along. There are statues on the church, and some appear to be pointing, as is the woman in one of the gondolas. So, my interpretation is about the content of the painting and not the style.
One of my all time favourite writers, William McIlvanney, died at the weekend, aged 79. He was perhaps best known for his crime novels featuring the enigmatic Glasgow detective Laidlaw but in literary circles, McIlvanney was recognised as one of Britain’s finest novelists. I remember reading his 2nd novel Docherty when it came out in 1975 and it had a profound effect on me as a reader. Here was a novel about a working class man in the west of Scotland and the rigours of his and his family’s life but it was McIlvanney’s style of writing and use of striking metaphors that separated this novel from others of its kind. In fact, it can be argued that Docherty was an innovative novel which challenged existing perceptions of the Scottish novel, although to class it merely as a Scottish novel is to ignore its universal themes and the book was widely admired in many different countries.
He was also an accomplished poet and when I got him to talk to my students at The Robert Gordon University in the mid 1980s, he told me, over lunch, that few people appeared to know that he was a poet. One of my favourite extracts from These Words: Weddings and After (1984) is his reflections on cats. “Indoors they are connoisseurs of sleep/Contortionists of ease…. Poses appear/ To melt into each other. They present/ A show of peace, are sculptors of content”.