Not since the Renaissance has a genius practised two artistic forms with equal brilliance, except Strindberg, whose paintings are as original as the playsby Kevin Jackson / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Clint Eastwood plays a mean jazz piano and has scored several of his own movies; Wittgenstein designed a beautifully clean-limbed house in Vienna for his sister; George Bernard Shaw was a keen photographer, as was Samuel Butler, who also drew, painted and wrote Handelesque oratorios; Anthony Burgess composed symphonies, fugues and a ballet suite; James Joyce once hoped for a career as a tenor; Kafka scribbled haunting figurines; Picasso wrote plays; Gershwin painted portraits; Madonna has written a children’s book and Roger Scruton is said to have composed an opera.
There are, in short, legions of famous creative people who have had more than just one string to their artistic bow, but very, very few of them—since the Renaissance—have won recognition for more than one of their talents. Not even Arnold Schönberg, who, despite an impressive body of work as an expressionist painter, belongs stubbornly to the world of music. Nor Satyajit Ray, whose accomplishments as musician, writer and draughtsman have all remained in the flickering shadow of his intensely moving films. No matter how distinguished an artist’s second body of work may be, conventional wisdom has it that such work must necessarily be second rate.
A French idiom nods quietly in the direction of this strict division of artistic labour: le violin d’Ingres. It means a hobby, and recalls the fact that the painter, like Sherlock Holmes, was keen on playing his fiddle by way of relaxation from more substantial labours. (Man Ray once made a clever, sexy visual pun on the phrase—he photographed a seated, half-naked woman from behind in typical Ingres-esque pose, and then tampered with the print so that she appeared to have a pair of sounding holes let into her bare back.) And in the rare instances when artists have managed to force the public to concede that their talents are genuinely hybrid or multiple, the mere fact of versatility is taken to imply minor standing. Dilettantism. Conceit.
With the possible exception of Wyndham Lewis (himself only nominally British), it is hard to think of a single British writer/artist since William Blake whose drawings and paintings have won as much widespread and respectful attention as their texts. Edward Lear? Max Beerbohm? Mervyn Peake? Michael Ayrton? All have been received as charming or more than charming in their own way, yet none of them, somehow, has quite made it into the premier league of either…