Sylvia Plath’s colorful canvasses from her art school days, William S. Burroughs’ splatter art from his later years, Lewis Carroll’s strange portrait photographs of little girls — these artistic endeavors are often overshadowed by their makers’ well-known literary bodies of work. Alternately, Vonnegut’s doodles seem to be so integrated into his prose, the two mediums are inseparable. In either direction, those toiling with typewriter keys and ink do sometimes pick up the camera, the paint brush or… the shot gun! Let’s take a sampling of the fruits of their doubly-apt efforts and peak at the visual media by some of our favorite authors.
William S. Burroughs
Reluctant godfather of punk, transgressive Beat generation champ and NYC stalwart, William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) always extended his literary practice into avant-garde territories — the cut-up novels and films, the dreammachine, the prose itself. He spent his later years in Kansas, in his backyard, shooting the shit out of spray paint cans with his shot gun onto blank canvases. The bursting, holed pieces were displayed in Chicago and New York in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland conjurer Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) — aka Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson — got his first camera in 1856, the same year he got his pseudonym. He shot as much as he wrote, but rarely has his work been displayed. His posed, curious portraits of children in particular — Alice “The Real Alice” Liddell and her friends dressed up for marriage ceremonies, exotic begging, allegorical play — have been shelved “when the concept of Victorian repression became culturally pervasive” and “Carroll’s work became the object of much unfounded speculation about the photographer’s supposed predilection for little girls.”
Sylvia Plath’s (1932-1963) paintings and drawings made as an art student at Smith College in Massachusetts are decidedly un-Bell Jar, vibrant and almost joyous. Yet, there’s a certain common thread in her descriptive literary style and the self-reflexive complexity and its structured chaos. All of these were made before she turned 20 and decided to concentrate on her writing.
Kurt Vonnegut’s (1922-2007) rough felt tip pen illustrations have always perfectly fit his novels, emerging seamlessly out of the satirical prose, delightful and raw and sad and disgusting and touching and always contextually appropriate. Another notable cultural contribution of Vonnegut’s satirical renderings are the endless series of inside jokes they’ve spawned, not to mention, oh so very many literary tattoos.
Henry Miller (1891-1980) had painted for sixty years, was internationally exhibited, and created an estimated 2,000 watercolors during his lifetime. We don’t want to read into it too much, but his imagery is a little sensual, isn’t it? A bit bosomy, perhaps? At the very least, it’s as colorful and lively, as if whoever painted them definitely has been roaming wild in Paris and having all kinds of trysts with Anais Nin.
Largely unrecognized in his lifetime, English poet, painter, and print maker William Blake (1757-1827) was a visionary and a bit of a rebel. As a student at the Royal Academy, he demonstratively rejected the fashionable oil painting of Rubens, beloved by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds, whom Blake called a “hypocrite,” preferring a precise, Classical style and looking to Michelangelo and Raphael for influence.
NYC punk culture hero Patricia Lee “Patti” Smith (1946) made sure there were plenty of mediums for you to worship her in. Aside from her poetic musicianship and musical poeticism, Patti’s “source material” was, in part, her own visual art. Shown at the Strange Messenger exhibit at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2002, her archived oeuvre included works on paper, photographs and original manuscripts.
e.e. cummings (1953-1962) devoted tremendous time to his painting and to theorizing art, writing extensively on form and color theories and the “intelligence” of painting. He worked in two styles — popular caricatures for The Dial journal and representational oils. We’re particularly fond of this Fantastic Sunset and its almost psychedelic swirls and almost scintillating hues. Fantastic indeed.
Belgium-born, France-dwelling Henri Michaux (1899-1984) was a surrealist poet travelogue writer, and by “travel” we mean international and drug-induced. His most intriguing literary works Miserable Miracle and The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones dissected the mind as it traversed hallucinogenic seas of consciousness. His most pleasing visual works had a non-figurative, suggestive style with Asian-influenced motifs, exhibited in major shows at MoMA Paris and NYC’s Guggenheim Museum in 1978.
Before becoming a celebrated troubadour of our time, Leonard Cohen (1934) was a published writer and poet. He picked up the guitar later to become the famous singer songwriter. In 1994, seeking escape from fame and worldly troubles, he retreated to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California for five years, was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk, and took an oath of silence. He left suddenly, leaving this goodbye letter, as the myth goes. Poignant, sadly humorous illustrations of beautiful women, bits of nature and his own furrowing, aging self still fill his poetry books.