The painted word

Art byCharles Darwent

The relationship between words and pictures has always been an odd one. Sometimes it has been mutually flattering. Humanist critics in 15th-century Florence exhorted painters to paint like poets; 19th-century English poets penned poems which imitated paintings, in a style known synaesthetically as "the picturesque". Some modern painters fill their canvases with words. The young British artist Fiona Banner paints 20,000-word film scripts, letter by painstaking letter, on hers, and is given monograph shows at the Tate Gallery for doing so. Returning the compliment, poets as disparate as George Herbert and the Concrete Poets of the 1950s squeezed their verse into pictorial shapes. Going (as ever) one step further, postmodern theorists have even suggested that supposed differences between art and literature are mere illusion, both being confections of signs and signifiers produced by a common auteur.

Generally speaking, though, the relationship between pictures and words has been a rather more combative one. For this we have to thank that cursed thing, the critic. It is not really his fault, bless him. Walter Sickert, a painterly fox given to riding to literary hounds, sketched the brutal truth. "If the subject of a picture could be stated in words," wrote a sage Sickert, "there would be no need to paint it." Writing about art is unnatural, like making meringues without sugar or teaching cats to sit up and beg.

By and large people didn't do it much until Diderot came along and, with an encyclopaedist's leaden passion for putting things into words, began to criticise works in the annual Paris salons. It was Diderot, too, who explained why critics persist in doing what they do when all they receive by way of thanks for it are jejune cheques and muffled curses. "I would rather have foolish things said on matters of importance than have them passed over in silence," remarked the scourge of the salons, in a deeply uncharacteristic anticipation of Oscar Wilde.

The only thing worse than being written about, in other words, is not being written about: a view with which most artists would secretly agree, even while publicly wishing all critics dead. This applies even (or maybe particularly) to nasty notices. Diderot's apostle Baudelaire may have maintained that the best criticism was that which entertained, but Sickert took the more pragmatic view that criticism had an active duty to annoy. Ruskin's "girlish petulance", he said, was "not altogether a defect", in that it "served to irritate". By doing so, said Sickert, it "fixed attention" on the subject in hand.

Many of the pearls produced by this irritation can be found in the charming new Penguin Book of Art Writing, edited by Martin Gayford and Karen Wright. This takes a painterly approach to the subject, presenting extracts without comment and leaving the reader to enjoy them or not, according to his or her taste. The pieces are by turns moving (Proust's character, the writer Bergotte, dies while looking at a single patch of yellow in a painting by Vermeer and thinking, "That's how I ought to have written"), bitchy ("Chaim Soutine was unperturbed by his own lack of cleanliness; on the contrary, he seemed rather to enjoy it") and, occasionally, instructively dull (Pietro Aretino's letter describing the Venetian sky to his friend Titian - "In some places the colours were green-blue, and in others they appear blue-green" - offers persuasive proof that certain media are better at specific things than others).

What they collectively portray is the endless battle between things that can be said and those that can only be seen, a war nicely summed up by the fate of one of its later casualties, the painter Patrick Heron. Complaining that "readers cannot be expected to read, week after week, about abstruse questions of space", Heron's editor sacked him from his job as art critic on a British magazine. That magazine was called the New Statesman.

"The Penguin Book of Art Writing", edited by Martin Gayford and Karen Wright, is published by Viking at £25

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers